Aerial view of the runway of Henderson Airfield on August 22, 1942, two days after VMF-223 arrived on the island. The buildings to the south of the runway were intended as workshops and the roofs were made of 7/8-inch-thick steel. Photo: National Archives via NAAS
VMF-223 at Guadalcanal
TEXT: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
We left the pilots and mechanics of VMF-223 in the first part of this article as they began to familiarize themselves with Henderson Airfield and the situation on Guadalcanal. The latter certainly did not make them so happy, but it did compromise their combat determination.
It was fortunate the Japanese were initially as nearly hamstrung as the Americans.
The Imperial Navy’s 25th Air Flotilla (5th Air Attack Force), based at Rabaul, had been reinforced only days before the Allied incursion into the Solomons as part of a general build-up preparatory to occupying Guadalcanal and supporting a further Japanese drive into the New Hebrides. On August 9, Vice Admiral Nishizō Tsukahara activated the Eleventh Air Fleet at Rabaul and assumed control of regional air operations. The one-armed senior aviator, who had lost his arm to a spinning propeller, advocated a policy of strong reprisals against the Americans. However, since his bomber force had taken severe losses during the first two days of aerial combat, the admiral was restricted to planning harassment and reconnaissance missions to the island.
The Americans were fortunate that Guadalcanal and the Japanese airfields at Rabaul were separated by more than 600 miles of the Solomon and Coral Seas. Though the Zero was the longest-legged operational fighter in the world, the 1,300-mile round trip between Rabaul and Guadalcanal taxed even its capabilities to the limit, while the twin-engine Betty had fuel for only 15 minutes over the target. The range limitations of the Zero and the Betty meant missions had to be flown by the most direct route, with no margin for feints or for speeding up the throttled-back engines of the fuel-conserving fighters and bombers. Additionally, the weather in the South Pacific meant they flew from their bases after the morning cloud buildups had dissipated, which meant adherence to a predictable timetable The route took them from Rabaul to Buka, off northwestern Bougainville, down to Buin, overlooking the Shortland Islands, then straight through New Georgia Sound, soon to be known as “The Slot.”
The commanding officer of VMF-223, Maj. John Smith after returning from Guadalcanal at NAS Anacostia. Photo: NHHC
Before the war, the Australian Navy had recruited Australians living in the Solomons to remain behind if the Japanese appeared and operate a radio warning system when they spotted Japanese naval or air forces. Coastwatcher Jack Read, whose station in the hills of Bougainville overlooked Buka, was generally first to send t word of an impending air strike. Paul Mason, near Buin, was next. There was invariably two hours between Mason's warning and the arrival of the bombers over Guadalcanal. This schedule allowed the Marines to count upon several quiet hours after dawn and before dusk for getting work done, with at least two hours during mid-day in which to find cover and take aim. The Japanese arrived punctually between 1200-1300 hours, depending on the weather enroute. Weather in this equatorial region was marginally predictable and subject to rapid change without prior notice.
A combat schedule developed since the Japanese could only fly a large formation of bombers from Rabaul in daylight. Weather allowing, the bombers and their escorting fighters would take off from their air bases at Rabaul by 0800 hours, though delays were caused by early morning build-ups of weather over the Solomon Sea that could delay departure until as late as 1000 hours. As the Japanese formation flew down The Slot, the aircraft were spotted by the Australian coastwatchers on the various islands, who radioed their sightings to Cactus Control at Henderson Field. By the time they passed Munda, the defenders on Guadalcanal would man their fighters and take off. The Wildcats needed every minute of warning they could get, since it took around 45 minutes for the airplanes to get to 20,000 feet. The enemy formation would finally arrive between 1100-1300 hours. Given the variability of weather, there were a few times where the clouds over The Slot prevented the coastwatchers from spotting the oncoming Japanese in time to give sufficient warning.
The Japanese Are Intent on Taking Guadalcanal Back
Much of the battle noise that had kept Lieutenant Trowbridge awake that first night on the island came from the fight along what the Marines thought was the Tenaru River but was actually a lagoon. The Ichiki Battalion - the first Japanese troops to arrive on the island as part of Yamamoto’s plans to drive the Americans into the sea - were engaged by well-dug-in defenses as they advanced on Henderson Field. Dawn on August 21 found the surviving Japanese holding their position. First Battalion, First Marines, moved inland around the lagoon and enveloped the enemy.
As the enemy troops tried to escape down the beach, they were strafed by newly-arrived VMF-223 Wildcats. All resistance ended by 1700 hours. When some wounded Japanese opened fire on the Marines, they went through the battlefield and shot every enemy soldier they came across whether dead or alive, except for 15 taken prisoner. Thirty Japanese survivors escaped to tell the tale to their comrades at Taivu Point. Food, equipment, weapons, and ammunition were taken from the 871 dead. That evening, Colonel Ichiki buried his unit's colors, drew a ceremonial dagger, and disemboweled himself in the soft sand beside Lengo Channel.
Aces from Guadalcanal. From left: Maj. John L. Smith, Lt. Kenneth Fraizer, Maj. John Dobbin and Maj. Robert Galer. The first two from VMF-223 the second from VMF-224, the unit which reinforced the fighters at Guadalcanal on August 30. Photo: via author
The Marines Meet the Enemy
At mid-day, Admiral Fletcher’s carriers gave cover so that two transports could slip into Sealark Channel and unload supplies. MAG-23’s senior mechanics were a welcome addition when they came ashore from the destroyer that had brought them up from Efate.
Coastwatcher Jack Read radioed a warning that a strike force was on the way down the Slot. Lieutenant Hugh MacKenzie, the coastwatch liaison officer at Lunga, patched into the Marine communications net, known as Texas Switch, and for the first time was able to pass the news to American aviators who could rise to the challenge. Captain Smith’s four-plane division responded to the call.
They were over Savo Island at 1207 hours, climbing through 14,000 feet, when they spotted six Zeros five hundred feet higher and on a reciprocal heading. Smith opened fire head-on at the leading Zero as the two aircraft roared toward one other. The Japanese pilot flinched first. He pulled up, exposing his belly to Smith's six .50-caliber machine guns, and then fell away smoking as Smith was engaged by a pair of Zeros that had latched onto his tail. Smith quickly discovered the Wildcat was heavy enough to disengage by diving away if there was sufficient altitude. His wingman, Sergeant John Lindsey, was hit in the fight but managed to make a dead-stick wheels-up landing at Henderson Field, with his Wildcat becoming the squadron’s first loss, while Smith became the first pilot claim a Zero shot down. In a second fight later that afternoon, Lieutenant Trowbridge claimed two more, though the Japanese recorded all planes returned. Over the next two days, the Marines claimed two more Zeros and proved they could stay in the same air with their more-experienced opponents.
The wreckage of a Wildcat after one of the Japanese raids on Henderson Field. Photo: Cpl. L. M. Ashman, USMC via NHHC
The First Big Battle
Over the next four days, what would become the Battle of the Eastern Solomons began to shape up as the two navies sought to find each other.
Despite the loss of the heart of the Imperial Navy’s carrier strike force with the sinking of Akagi, Kaga, Soryū and Hiryū at Midway, their remaining carrier fleet was still formidable when compared with the carriers the U.S. Navy could bring to action. The First Carrier Division now formed the heart of Japanese naval aviation, composed of the fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Zuihō. The light carriers Jun´yō, Hiyō and Ryūjō of the Second Carrier Division were a worthy second line.
At 0600 hours on August 24, Admiral Nagumo’s Kidō Butai turned southeast, into the wind, and Shōkaku and Zuikaku launched the first search patrols of the day. Admiral Kondo’s Advance Force, 120 miles southeast, also turned to remain in position to guard Nagumo’s eastern flank. Starting at 0615 hours, the two carriers launched 19 Kates on searches out to a distance of 250 miles. No one really expected to locate the Americans, since the Japanese carriers had sailed out of range during the night.
The Reinforcement Force transports were scheduled to arrive off Guadalcanal the night of August 24. If the 5th Air Attack Force’s Bettys could not knock out Henderson, carrier aircraft would have to be committed. Since Admiral Yamamoto had stipulated that the Shōkaku and Zuikaku air groups were not to attack land targets so long as Task Force 61 remained a threat, the only force available for an attack on the airfield was the small Ryūjō Air Group, with its nine B5N Kates and 24 Zeros. Since the scheduled 5th Air Attack Force mission against Henderson was scrubbed because of bad weather, use of Ryūjō’s small force on August 24 became became inevitable. The strike would be launched as soon as she and her escorts were within range.
Capt. Joe Foss (left) became the most successful ace of the Southern Solomons campaign and the first American aviator to match Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I score of 26 victories.
Because there was as yet no operational radar as yet at Henderson, and since coastwatcher sightings had proven to be less than completely reliable due to the vagaries of weather in the region, Air Group 23 Executive Officer Lt. Colonel Charlie Fike had begun launching one or two divisions of Wildcats at “Tōjō Time,” 1100-1500 hours, when it was most likely that an incoming strike might appear. Thus, when the small Ryūjō attack force arrived at 1415 hours, a division of Wildcats led by Marion Carl was waiting at 20,000 feet, with another 12 Wildcats and P-400s from the newly-arrived 67th Fighter Squadron on alert at the field. Carl’s wingman was Tech Sergeant Johnny Lindley, with 2nd Lieutenant Fred Gutt flying section leader with VMF-212’s Marine Gunner Tex Hamilton on his wing.
The Ryūjō force approached Guadalcanal from the direction of Florida and Malaita islands at 10,000 feet. Lieutenant Murakami led the six Kates along with the six escorts led by Warrant Officer Shigemi in one formation, while the formation of nine “attack” Zeros led by Ryūjō’s Hikōtaichō (air group commander) Lieutenant Nōtomi, flew about 1,600 feet to the right of the bombers.
Carl spotted the force over Tulagi. As he wheeled his four Wildcats into position, he radioed a warning to Henderson Field. When the “Condition One” flag went up in response, the r pilots scrambled to man all the available Wildcats, followed by a further scramble down the main runway. While they were supposed to take off in order of divisions and sections behind the flight leader, in practice everyone rushed to get airborne to gain the altitude advantage over the incoming bombers. Because of performance differences between the individual planes, the system of elements and divisions broke down, and everyone joined up on whomever was closest. Leading the dash was Captain Rivers Morrell, VMF-223's executive officer.
At 1423 hours, Carl peeled off and led the way as the four Wildcats dived on the Ryūjō force. Carl lined up on six airplanes in the larger formation that turned out to be Shigemi’s six escort Zeros. Firing from overhead and diving through the formation with Technical Sergeant Lindley glued to his wing, Carl was certain he had set one of the “bombers” on fire for his first victory over Guadalcanal and second of the war. Close behind, Hamilton and Gutt fired at the same formation. While Hamilton was drawn into a protracted dogfight with three of the “escort” Zeros, Gutt was able to shoot one of the Kates and dive through the formation behind Carl and Lindley, who became separated as they zoomed to regain altitude for a second attack.
Capt. Jimmy Flatley led VF-10 to Guadalcanal after the USS Enterprise was severely damaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz.
The Kates came directly over the beach and lined up on the four 90mm antiaircraft guns of Battery E, 3d Defense Battalion. At 1428 hours the guns opened fire while the Kates released their 36 60-kilogram bombs in a group drop at 1430 hours. A “Betty” was claimed by the overexcited gunners, who actually hit nothing. The Kate’s drop was equally ineffective, with no damage inflicted even though the bombs detonated on either side of the guns.
Nōtomi’s attack formation had more success. The three shotai formations attacked from three directions just as the bombs were dropped, strafing the runway with impunity. Nōtomi’s threesome caught up with a Wildcat that had just lifted off and shot it up. Wounded in the head and shoulder, the pilot managed to keep the airplane airborne long enough to ditch reasonably well off Florida, where he was rescued by islanders and returned to Tulagi the next day.
67th Fighter Squadron skipper Captain Dale Brannon and his wingman, 2nd Lieutenant Deltis Fincher, dashed for their Airacobras when they saw the Condition One flag go up. Both remembered they could hear the drone of the enemy overhead by the time they were in their cockpits and starting up. As they raced in echelon along the runway, they could hear the explosions of the bombs over the roar of their engines. Just as they lifted off and retracted their gear, a Zero swooped in front of them. They turned into one another and let fly with everything: eight .30-caliber machine guns, four .50-caliber machine guns, and two 20mm cannon, disintegrating the Zero. They flew through the debris as they clawed for altitude but were attacked in turn by the shotai leader and wingman of the fighter they had just destroyed. The enemy fighters made one pass and disappeared. Both P-400s were hit by 7.7mm bullets, but Brannon and Fincher were undeterred. Unfortunately, as Brannon later recalled, “When we got up to Guadalcanal, one of the first things that we found out was that the British had put a high-pressure oxygen system in our airplanes. The Marines had oxygen, but it was low pressure. I remember we managed to get all the way up to 16,000 feet on our first fight. We were really woozy. And of course, the Zeros were way up above us.”
Three Wildcats took on the retiring attack Zeros at low altitude over Lengo Channel. VMF-212’s 2nd Lieutenant Bob McLeod got good hits on one that he claimed destroyed. In fact, the pilot – Lieutenant Nōtomi’s wingman – was able to nurse his stricken fighter back over Guadalcanal, where he crash-landed, was found by Japanese troops, and was eventually evacuated off the island. In return, VMF-223’s 2nd Lieutenant Elwood Bailey was shot down. Last seen in his parachute, descending toward the water near Tulagi, he never made it home.
Lieutenant Murakami’s Kates executed a wide formation turn to the north after they dropped their bombs, in an attempt to retire from the area. At 1433 hours, Marion Carl executed what observers called “the most beautiful overhead pass,” downing a Kate on the formation’s left side. Lindley and Gutt also fired on the Kates. As they did so, reinforcement began arriving. Captain Morrell, flying what was probably the best Wildcat on the island, was in the lead followed by five second lieutenants. All six attacked the five surviving Kates and five escort Zeros from below. As they did so, two attack Zeros arrived to help ward off the attackers. 2nd Lieutenantt Ken Frazier destroyed a Kate on the right side of the formation on his first pass while Carl shot a Zero off Lindley’s tail; however, he did not destroy it, as credited. Gutt was shot up and wounded in the left arm and left leg by another Zero, but made it back to Henderson Field. Lieutenants Rex Jeans and Red Taylor teamed up to disable a Kate, but Taylor - one of the six VMF-212 reinforcements - was immediately shot down and killed by a Zero. Last of all, VMF-212’s 2nd Lieutenant John King fired on a Kate that blew up. After King’s victory, the Wildcats withdrew.
Altogether, the Marines claimed 20 confirmed victories: 12 Kates, a non-existent “Betty,” and seven Zeros. However, the Japanese lost only four Kates, including the one that crash-landed, and three Zeros, including the one Brannon and Fincher had blown up. Marion Carl was credited with four victories, including the phantom Betty, and was immediately recognized as the first Marine Corps ace. In fact, he was actually two kills shy, but would make up the difference two days later. The Marines had won the first big air battle. There would be many more.
Many Wildcats were destroyed not only in combat but also on the ground. Either as a result of enemy attacks or in crashes during take-off and landing. These aircraft then became a source of spare parts. Photo: via author
The End For VMF-223
By October 2, the surviving fliers of VMF-223 were exhausted from near-daily battles and the terrible living conditions on Guadalcanal. That day, the enemy returned with another fighter sweep; the skies were clearer and the coastwatchers radioed their warning in time for the Wildcats to get off the field and grab sufficient altitude.to meet the 27 Zeros in a hard-fought fighter-versus-fighter battle. Leading six VMF-223 F4Fs, Marion Carl scored what would turn out to be his last victory, bringing his score to 16.5 before his guns jammed. His wingman Ken Frazier was able to shoot down two before the others turned on him and shot up his Wildcat badly enough that he was forced to bail out. His score of 12 put him in third-place in VMF-223's “ace race,” behind Smith and Carl. Newly arrived VMF-121 pilot 1st Lieutenant Floyd Lynch dropped one enemy fighter, but the top score of the day went to “Coach” Bauer, whose four victories made him an ace in only two sorties. This time, Japanese records confirmed the nine Zeros claimed by the Marines was accurate.
VMF-223's exhausted fliers took off for what turned out to be their last mission from Henderson Field on October 10. Squadron leader John Smith led seven Wildcats to escort SBDs and TBFs to New Georgia where more enemy ships had been spotted. Halfway there Smith happened to look back and saw 15 Rufe and Pete floatplanes closing on his formation. He called a warning and reversed course; the other six followed. Spotting the oncoming Americans, the enemy formation turned to flee, but the Wildcats caught up and shot down six Petes and three Rufes. Smith’s Rufe was his final victory, giving him a total of 19 to make him the leading Marine ace to that point in the war.
October 12, 1942, saw the survivors of VMF-223 climb aboard an R4D headed for Espiritu Santo. Over their nine-week tour, the squadron claimed 110 victories, including 47 Zeros and 47 Bettys. John L. Smith was credited with ten Bettys while Marion Carl claimed eight, to give both pilots more Japanese bombers in their scores than any other Marine pilots during the war. Nineteen pilots had landed at Henderson Field on August 20; ten paid the ultimate price.
Adapted from “The Cactus Air Force: Air War Over Guadalcanal,” by Eric Hammel and Thomas McKelvey Cleaver; Osprey Publishing (2022).