Three prominent pilots of the first phase of aerial combat over Guadalcanal: Maj. John L. Smith, commander of VMF-223, Lt. Col. Richard Mangrum, commander of VMSB-232 and Capt. Marion E. Carl, XO of VMF-223.
VMF-223 at Guadalcanal
Text: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
The Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat was the most significant fighter aircraft deployed in the fightings for Guadalcanal. VMF-223 pilots were the first to land these aircraft at Henderson Field.
The sky over the Coral Sea was a deep blue with a few clouds on the morning of August 20, 1942, when a 14th Air Group H6K Mavis operating from the advance patrol base in the Shortland Islands began tracking a cruiser and two destroyers at 1020 hours, transmitting news of the sighting. At 1130, the Mavis reported the three warships were escorting an aircraft carrier when it sighted the auxiliary aircraft carrier USS Long Island (ACV-1), her deck loaded with aircraft. When the message from the Mavis revealing the presence of Long Island was received by Combined Fleet headquarters at Truk, Japanese commanders were elated, but they missed the significance of the carrier the Mavis had sighted, since they knew nothing of the existence of U.S. “auxiliary carriers.” To Admiral Yamamoto’s staff, it appeared Long Island was stalking Admiral Tanaka’s slow Reinforcement Group, which was steaming steadily toward Guadalcanal since departing Truk in two forces on August 16 and 17. Long Island was beyond the range of any Japanese strike aircraft, but Tanaka’s fleet was in range of the unidentified American carrier. Vice Admiral Nishizō Tsukahara ordered Tanaka to turn away from Guadalcanal and turn directly toward Rabaul. If the Americans knew where he was, they might chase him and in so doing come within range of the 5th Air Attack Force’s Bettys.
At 1340 hours, Yamamoto’s headquarters received a message from the Mavis in the next search sector over from first, reporting the presence of a second aircraft carrier and several surface escorts; in fact, this was Long Island and her escorts. The big flying boat was unnoticed by any American radars and eased within 40 miles of the carrier as it continued tracking her course.
Captain USS Long Island, Commander Donald B. Duncan, on the deck of his ship while at anchor in Norfolk, Virginia, October 26, 1941. Note the installation of a makeshift mast.
At 1400 hours Long Island reached her launch point off the tip of San Cristobal Island, 200 miles south of Guadalcanal. The strange-looking ship had begun life on January 11, 1940, as the C-3 cargo liner Mormacmail. Taken over by the Navy March 6, 1941, she had emerged from the yards with her superstructure removed and replaced by a 362-foot flight deck, becoming the first of a new class of aircraft carrier – Auxiliary Escort Carriers – which would over the next few years become the most numerous class of aircraft carriers in the world, by then known as CVEs, which their crews would claim stood for “combustible, vulnerable and expendable.” Long Island’s captain, Commander Donald Duncan, ordered full speed ahead. Black smoke poured from the horizontal funnels on her starboard side as Long Island’s single diesel engine strained to bring the ship to her maximum speed of 16.5 knots – half that of a fleet carrier.
For Long Island and her precious cargo of F4F-4 Wildcats of VMF-223 and SBD-3s of VMSB-232, this was their second attempt to get to Guadalcanal. After less than a month in preparation following notification on July 5 that they were deploying to the South Pacific, the pilots and gunners had packed themselves aboard the little carrier in Pearl Harbor on August 2 and Long Island set sail unescorted into the great unknown of the war-torn Pacific. Their ground crews and other key personnel from MAG-23, and all the necessary ordnance, fuel, and supplies needed to begin air operations departed separately aboard the transport William Ward Burroughs.
On August 9, 1942, completely unaware of conditions on Guadalcanal, Long Island had neared her launch point when Captain Duncan learned of disaster suffered in the Battle of Savo Island the night before. Duncan turned around and headed for the American base at Suva, Fiji, to await clearance to launch his cargo of precious aircraft and pilots. Upon arrival, he informed Admiral Robert Ghormley that most of the pilots were too green to be committed to combat. Ghormley bucked the matter to Admiral McCain, who ordered eight more experienced pilots transferred to VMF-223 from the well-trained but unbloodied Vila-based VMF-212, which would take 223's least-experienced pilots in trade and train them further. On August 14, Long Island departed Suva for Efate to make the swap, but the VMF-212 pilots did not come aboard until the day before the ship departed for Guadalcanal on August 18.
The hangar of the USS Long Island with the Wildcats and Seagulls on June 17, 1942. All aircraft are from VGS-1. A month later, this ship was carrying VMF-223 towards Guadalcanal.
Before taking off from the deck of the USS Long Island ...
The Henderson Field area as it looked shortly after the Marines captured it.
Marines building a defensive line on the perimeter around Henderson Field.
On the way out from Pearl, the Marines had worried about getting off the carrier while in the Pacific “doldrums” where there was no wind over the deck. Dick Mangrum recalled “we had no idea how far south this equatorial condition would be found, and considered ourselves fortunate to discover our destination was far enough south to be well away from this situation.” With the southeast tradewind adding another 10 knots to the breeze over the flight deck, the crews in the 12 new SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers checked the gear and equipment – spark plugs, starter cartridges, tool kits, even spare tires – they had stuffed in their cockpits the night before to support themselves for the two weeks they would be on their own before their ground crews arrived. The squadron was six airplanes short of its authorized strength because these 12 had been the only Dauntlesses available in the Ford Island fleet pool when Mangrum learned of their coming deployment. Each Dauntless carried a 500-pound bomb to supplement the small supply on Guadalcanal. According to Mangrum, “receiving orders to bomb-up our airplanes was an eye-opener to just how difficult things were where we were going.” Second Lieutenant Eugene Trowbridge noted in his offically-illegal diary (that he kept regardless): “A lot of excitement today as there are enemy subs all around, and today we get the new experience of being catapulted from the ship as the flight deck is too short to fly off. We are all set to leave. Engines warm and tested, baggage all secured, everything all set. Finally, we’re off.”
The flight deck crew pushed the first bomber into position. Bombing-232’s skipper, Major Richard. H. Mangrum’s 12 years as a fighter and bomber pilot and 3,000 flying hours, made him the most experienced of all 31 pilots in the two squadrons. Mangrum later recalled that “Our launch was delayed to the afternoon since the Japanese visited Guadalcanal at mid-day, and thus, arriving later, we were less likely to get an unfriendly reception from our fellow Marines.”
Two minutes later, 2nd Lieutenant Lawrence Baldinus, a Polish expatriate and former Marine enlisted pilot who had been commissioned after Pearl Harbor and was the most experienced pilot in the squadron after Mangrum, stood on his brakes and ran up his engine, then soared up to join his leader. Second Lieutenant Henry “Hank” Hise, a 22-year-old Texan who had graduated from flight school the previous May with a shade over 200 hours in his logbook, maneuvered his scout bomber on the deck as the crew hooked the airplane to the catapult. He and the other nine “nuggets” had never seen a Dauntless before they reported to the squadron in late June. A minute later, the force of the catapult caused Lieutenant Hise to forcibly pull back on his joystick, pulling the Dauntless’s nose high enough to nearly stall. He quickly jammed the stick forward and fought to keep the bomber out of the water. Regaining control, he joined up on Mangrum and Baldinus.
The first of the 19 blue-grey F4F-4 Wildcat fighters was pushed into position on the catapult. Squadron commander Major John L. Smith made a last-minute check of his engine and controls. Extremely intelligent and able, he had a demonstrated ability to adapt quickly to changed conditions; most who knew him said he often appeared to be in a bad mood. He had only flown fighters since a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor and had worked his young replacements hard since the squadron had been informed, they were headed for the South Pacific. He had never trained other aviators and never been in combat. Fortunately, he was a superb natural fighter tactician, a confident innovator who had painstakingly trained his men to survive against the otherwise unbeatable Zero. He later recalled those weeks spent working to prepare his novices for the unknown rigors of combat: “We all had to qualify on an aircraft carrier, which we did. We spent as much time as we could flying on Saturdays and Sundays and every other day, doing gunnery and dummy runs and anything that would help to give people quick experience or quick training. It was the first experience that I’d ever had trying to train anybody, but it seemed to me that gunnery was the most important thing, so we concentrated on gunnery more than anything else, which was a good thing after we found out where we were going.”
The F4F-4 Smith flew was unlike its predecessor, the F4F-3; this Wildcat sported folding wings, allowing more of them to operate from an aircraft carrier. Armament was increased from four to six .50-caliber machine guns, increasing the weight of fire, though the ammunition load remained the same which reduced total firing time by 14 seconds, an eternity in air combat. Most Wildcat pilots did not see this as an improvement. The weight of the additional guns and the folding wings reduced the already-sluggish performance of the fighter even more. At Guadalcanal, the pilots would need every bit of warning time the coastwatchers could provide to struggle up to 20,000 feet in time to be in position for an attack on the incoming Japanese.
Smith was followed in quick succession by Captain Marion Carl, newly-promoted to Executive Officer, and fellow Midway veteran Division Leaders Captains Clayton Canfield and Roy Corry and their young charges, who had an average of 250 flying hours in their logbooks and were eight weeks out of flight school.
At 1455 hours, Yamamoto’s staff received a report from the second Mavis that the carrier and its escorts were retiring south. Neither of the big flying boats had seen the launch of Marine Air Group 23 to Guadalcanal.
With the Marine aircraft launched, the vulnerable carrier reversed course and headed out of range at full speed. The 31 blue-grey airplanes headed north into the cloudy unknown.
Two hours later, Guadalcanal hove into view. While Smith’s Wildcats flew cover, the SBDs landed. Mangrum followed a ground-control jeep to the dispersal area and jumped to the ground as soon as his plane's engine stopped. He had his hand wrung profusely by General Vandegrift, while thousands of thankful Marines shouted themselves hoarse and pounded one another black and blue in a thundering release of emotion. The cavalry had arrived.
Lieutenant Gene Trowbridge later wrote in his diary: “[We] sight the [air]field at 1600. We are really welcomed by the troops as the Japs have been taking their time bombing them and they figure we will help them quite a lot. We are all bedded down for the night and get ready for a nice sleep when, bang, the whole world seems to explode. The Japs are coming and some of their cruisers and destroyers are shelling us and the troops. It was a trying first night. We are nervous and jumpy as there are snipers all around us, just waiting for someone to stick [his] nose out.”
Invasion on a Shoestring
Once the Allied fleet had retreated from the Guadalcanal area following the defeat at Savo Island, the primary objective for the abandoned Marines was getting the captured Japanese airfield on the Lunga plain operational as quickly as possible. Without air support, they were completely at the mercy of Japanese aerial and naval attacks, and highly vulnerable to ground assault.
Almost as soon as the runway had fallen into the hands of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines on August 8, the division air and engineering officers sized things up. They reported they could put down 2,600 feet of usable runway by August 10, and that another 1,200-by-160-foot section could be completed in the week after that. Rear Admiral Turner promised on August 8 that aircraft would arrive on August 11. Unfortunately, when the fleet was forced to retire following Savo Island, they left with nearly all the 1st Engineer Battalion’s equipment that had yet to be unloaded. Construction of the airfield commenced August 9 when the 1st Engineer and 1st Pioneer battalions managed to gather sufficient gear to get started. A miserable 15 percent of their equipment and supplies had been landed, with none of the heavy equipment making it ashore. Thus, they were forced to manhandle 100,000 cubic feet of earth fill to cover the depression in the center of the field that had been left by the Japanese, who had begun their construction at both ends and built toward the center.
The engineers used a huge steel girder as a drag, while a captured Japanese road roller was used to pack the fill. Japanese gear contributed heavily to the small store of engineering equipment available to the Americans, though in general, the captured equipment was in poor condition; ingenious American mechanics kept it working hour after brutal hour in their race against time. The only earth-moving equipment was one angle-dozer the pioneers had managed to land. Dump trucks were nonexistent. The engineers performed incredible feats of improvisation as they overcame monumental difficulties.
On August 18, eight Betty bombers arrived over Henderson in the largest air strike since August 9 as the 25th Air Flotilla began the aerial assault leading up to the first Japanese effort to land troops and retake the island. Forced to remain above 25,000 feet by antiaircraft fire, the bombers did little harm. But it was clear to all that the enemy was resuming work and would be back. As yet nothing stood in their path. A three-ship convoy from Noumea arrived after the Japanese dparted. The ships brought five days of food, which, along with captured Japanese provisions, gave the Marines a two-week food supply. To stretch the supplies as far as possible, the Marines were limited to two meals per day.
Henderson is Ready
On August 19, CUB-1 and the 1st Engineer Battalion reported Henderson was fit to support air operations. The airfield was now 3,800-foot strip 150 feet wide, covered with gravel, with a dirt taxiway and parking area destined to become fields of mud in the many rainstorms. The airfield was surrounded by a tenuously held defensive line extending from Point Cruz on the west to the Ilu River on the east, leaving the field only a quarter mile from a mile-long piece of high ground that would come to be known in Marine history as “Bloody Ridge.” There were no protective revetments and aircraft maintenance would test American ingenuity throughout their time on the island. The only structure on the field was a wooden tower the Japanese had constructed which became known as “The Pagoda.” Time Magazine reporter Robert Sherrod, who landed with the Marines, described living conditions at the field as “appalling” with sleeping choices limited to mud-floor tents or dugouts, with slit trenches close by. Malarial mosquitos were numerous. The fliers would be issued Japanese mosquito netting, something the “mud marines” could only hope for. The facilities were crude, but Henderson Field was ready. It was just in time.
Despite all the effort, Henderson Field could barely be described as an airfield. It was an irregularly shaped blob cut out of the island growth, half in and half out of a coconut grove, with a runway that was too short and too few revetments to protect the aircraft from shrapnel. In mid-September, several weeks after their arrival on the island, MAG-23 group executive officer Lt. Colonel Charles Fike finally wrote the August 20, 1942, entry in the group’s War Diary: “Upon arrival it was found that a servicing detachment of approximately 140 men, commanded by Ensign Polk, of CUB-1, were available for fueling, rearming, and servicing of aircraft. All fueling was done by means of hand pumps directly from drums. Rearming was done without the aid of bomb-handling trucks, bomb carts, or bomb hoists. The enlisted men of CUB-l, although willing and intelligent, had, for the most part, less than four months’ service, as a result of which they required the closest supervision. Considering the attending difficulties, Ensign Polk handled this situation remarkably well. His attitude was at all times cooperative.”
To be continued
A major innovation in the F4F-4 version was the "So-Wing" folding system, designed by Leroy Grumman himself. Here, mechanics demonstrate the system’s space-saving capabilities on an aircraft belonging to VF-3 at NAS Kaneohe, Oahu, May 29, 1942.
Wildcats on Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. A group of B-17s is overflying Henderson Field.