Captain John L. Smith
C.O. Marine Fighting Squadron 223 at Guadalcanal
By Stephen Sherman, July, 1999. Updated December 14, 2016.
Medal of Honor recipient, leader of "Cactus" Air Force, and Wildcat fighter pilot, he shot down 19 Japanese airplanes in 1942
Captain Smith and his VMF-223 arrived on Guadalcanal in the early, dark days of August 1942.
The night after the Marines had landed, on August 8, Admiral Mikawa's cruiser came in and sank five American cruisers, and essentially scared off the US Navy's carriers that were covering the landing. The partially unloaded transports also pulled out. The Marines were uncovered for the next two weeks, as their engineers worked furiously to complete Henderson Field. By the 20th, it was ready to accept planes, VMF-223 and VMSB-232, a dive bombing squadron.
Captain John Lucien Smith became a Marine artillery officer after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, later transferring to aviation. And after only a few months in a fighting squadron, he found himself commanding one at age 27. In just one month he had to transform a bunch of new student aviators into combat pilots. Smith's planes embarked from Hawaii on the small carrier Long Island and his men on the transport William Ward Burroughs. After the disaster of Savo Island, VMF-223 made for Fiji and the high command juggled plans. While the future Henderson Field was being scraped out, VMF-223 headed for Efate for a little more precious training and swapped some of their greener pilots for some more experienced fliers from VMF-212.
At last August 20 arrived, and the Long Island catapulted Smith and the other F4F pilots toward Guadalcanal. About 1600 the Marines on Guadalcanal heard airplane engines, and were delighted to look up see the American Dauntlesses and Grummans coming in. At this time Henderson Field was a raw, muddy strip about 3500 feet long and 150 feet wide with crude revetments bulldozed around it. The Marine fliers landed without incident. Working through the night, a Navy maintenance unit, CUB-1, serviced and refueled the planes, as the Marines' own ground crews were still on ship. Without proper facilities, the enlisted men of CUB-1 had to hand-pump the fuel directly from 55-gallon drums.
About noon the next day, Smith and his division of four planes had their first aerial combat, a brush with six Zeros between Lunga Point and Savo Island. In Smith's recollection, the two groups sighted and then turned toward each other, and made one firing pass. Smith shot one up fairly well, and headed home while the Japanese headed back to Rabaul. (They later determined that Smith's target had indeed gone down. He had a confirmed victory on his first combat sortie.) While enlisted pilot John Lindley's plane was written off after a dead-stick landing, that was the only loss, and the Wildcat's toughness boosted pilots' confidence. They had met the dreaded Zeros, taken some hits, but come back all right.
On August 23, during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, VMF-223 flew escort for Major Mangrum's VMSB-232 and also intercepted a torpedo plane strike force from the carrier Ryujo. By the close of the 25th, after just five days, Smith's squadron was shrinking fast. They had arrived with nineteen planes; three had been shot down, two more crashed, and another three under repair. Clearly an unacceptable attrition rate.
On the morning of the 26th, the coastwatchers advised them of the usual mid-day bombing attack, and Smith's Grummans scrambled to intercept them. While Smith, Carl, and others managed three kills and two damaged, the Bettys completed their mission, dropping over fifty bombs on Henderson Field. The next was similar, and each day used up a few more Wildcats. Smith ran up a tally of five kills, becoming an ace, in this first eight days. By the 30th, Marine General Vandegrift reported only eight operational Wildcats. The good news was the arrival of the Marines' regular, experienced ground crews who could better service the aircraft.
In virtually all of the air defense missions at Guadalcanal, the Wildcats stayed close to base. Barrett Tillman's Wildcat Aces of World War 2 describes the range and payload limitations of the F4F which made this the best tactic. The book provides a lot of fascinating text and photos about the Guadalcanal air campaign, including a lengthy article on Joe Foss.
Smith's most memorable mission took place on August 30, 1942. At 5AM, the Marine pilots ate breakfast, and waited in the Ready Room for word from the coastwatchers that Japanese planes were on their way. No word for four hours. Finally, word came that flights of Bettys and Zeros were on their way. Both the Marine and Army pilots scrambled. The Army pilots flew P-400s (export versions of the Bell P-39 Airacobra, without oxygen equipment) and had to stay below 12,000 feet. The Marine Wildcats climbed to 15,000 feet as rapidly as possible. Smith was rubbernecking all around, trying to keep an eye on the Army pilots below, while scanning up above for Zeros.
Suddenly the radio crackled, "Zeros over us! Jumping us!" He saw twenty plus Zeros shooting up the P-400s. He and the other Marines roared down the 3,000 feet to join the fight. Smith picked a Zero and closed on it, until within 700 feet. The enemy plane filled the gunsight, and Smith opened up. The gunnery pattern converged on the Zero, which flashed into a yellow ball of fire. Victory number 6! The Zeros downed several P-400s and the Wildcats downed several Zeros; the remaining ones scattered. Smith and his division scanned for Bettys. He spotted a Zero emerging from a cloud. He followed and closed in from behind. In seconds, he fired and pieces of the Zero flew backward. It flamed and blew up. Victory number 7!
Smith had 2 kills in less than five minutes, but his mission was to stop the bombers. As he continued to scan, another Zero appeared at 12 o'clock, heading right at him. The Jap's wings flickered first; Smith replied, as the two planes close at 500 knots. Both kept on firing and neither gave way. Finally, the Zero began to smoke and pieces flew off. The plane exploded! Smith rammed his stick forward and dove just underneath the burning fighter, which plunged down toward Henderson Field. Number 8 for Smith!
He looked around. Both he and Lt. Kendrick were hit by many pieces of the last aircraft. Smith descended, trying to meet up with Kendrick, so they can go into the field together. He got down to 800 feet, along the north shoreline, but still couldn't find his wingman. Instead there were two Zeros which apparently had been strafing the field. Attacking two maneuverable Zeros at low altitude with a single Wildcat was very risky, but Smith lined one up and fired. He stayed with his twisting victim, which soon began to stream smoke and flame; it went right into the ground. The other Zero was nowhere in sight. Number 9! Smith located Henderson Field, cut his speed to 75 knots, and landed, finding Kendrick had come in safely ahead of him. The Japs received a bloody repulse this day; 14 of 22 Zeros shot down, the bombers turning back because of weather.
But the best news of the day was the arrival of more Marine fliers: Major Galer VMF-224 and another dive-bombing squadron, VMSB-231. The nineteen newly arrived F4Fs critically supplemented Smith's 5 planes that were left operational by this date. While the brass considered how to get more planes into Guadalcanal, the Japanese took a hand, when sub I-26 torpedoed the Saratoga, putting her into drydock and leaving her planes nowhere to go but Henderson Field.
During these days, Smith perfected his interception tactics, which focused on the Jap bombers, not the Zeros. When warned by the coastwatchers, his Grummans would gain the needed altitude, given their minimal speed advantage over the Bettys. They would execute a tricky, diving firing pass, thus avoiding the Bettys' defensive fire, especially the tail-mounted 20mm cannon. If no Zeros were around, they would do it again, but if the Japanese fighters appeared, they would just head for the safety of a cloud or Henderson. Not too glorious, but very practical, as VMF-223's mission was not to make aces, but to prevent the bombers from unloading, and surviving to do so again the next day.
The first week of September was rainy, and VMF-223 saw little air-to-air combat. On the 8th, the Cactus Air Force launched a disastrous evening mission, losing 6 Wildcats on take-off and landing - none through enemy action. Combat fatigue was starting to take its toll. The next day "Fighter One" or the "Cow Pasture" opened. It was just mown Kunai grass, as there was not enough Marston mat for an extra airstrip, but it provided the Marines with valuable dispersal and an alternative field. On the 9th and 10th, Smith led successful missions against the usual Bettys and Zeros. Over the two days, the Americans claimed 13 enemy aircraft downed, while losing 5 Wildcats.
By the 11th, the steady grind of combat attrition had whittled Smith's squadron down to just five operational planes. These five, plus the seven still operating with VMF-224, scrambled at 1210 to meet the midday raid, and they gave the Bettys a good shellacking. Smith personally scored twice, his 12th and 13th victories. At this low point in the Marine fliers resources and morale, the homeless fliers of Saratoga's VF-5 came in, a huge boost of both aspects. September 12, 1942 - Smith led up his five Wildcats, sighting the Bettys at 1142, from their altitude of 28,000 feet. In their first pass they shot six bombers out of the sky, with two credited to Smith.
In the battle of attrition, this was a good day, VMF-223, VMF-224, and VF-5 combining for 16 victories, while only losing one, a newcomer from VF-5 who had been hit and crashed while trying to make a dead-stick landing. The following day fighter pilots from the Hornet ferried in eighteen more F4Fs, permitting Smith to bring up eight Wildcats. In a wild dogfight, rarely seen over Guadalcanal, the Grummans and Zeros darted in and out of clouds; Smith scored his 16th kill.
Late September saw more rain and worsening morale, relieved a bit on the 30th when Admiral Nimitz himself arrived and presented Navy Crosses to Smith, Galer, and Carl. The Japanese Eleventh Air Fleet surprised Cactus on October 2, when they weren't picked up until they were only 30 minutes away. The Wildcats couldn't gain altitude, and the Zeros took advantage. While Smith scored once, two Zeros riddled his plane with 20mm cannon shells and machine gun fire, hitting the vulnerable oil cooler. Major Smith let down slowly over Guadalcanal, while Marion Carl circled protectively above. He landed dead-stick in a clearing about six miles from Henderson Field. On his two and a half hour hike back, he came across the wreckage of an F4F, probably Scotty McLennan's, shot down in September. When Smith got back, the first thing he did was take a bath in the Lunga River, and then he took out a party to find Rod Kendrick's plane, which they did. They buried Kendrick next to his plane. By this date, only nine of the original 18 VMF-223 pilots were left.
On October 9, 1942, VMF-121 flew into Henderson Field, with 20 fresh pilots and planes to take over from the exhausted, worn-out, and depleted VMF-223. Two days later, Major John L. Smith and Marine Fighting Squadron 224 left Guadalcanal for the last time.
PostwarSmith stayed with the Marine Corps until 1960, after which he worked for Grumman Aerospace and Rocketdyne. He passed away on in Encino, California.
- Thomas G. Miller, Cactus Air Force, Harper and Row, 1969
- Cactus Air Force web site - includes a wealth of valuable information and many photos about the 1942 battle for the skies over Guadalcanal.
- Edward Sims, Greatest Fighter Missions, Harper and Brothers, 1962 - esp. for details of Aug. 30, 1942 mission
- Barrett Tillman, Wildcat Aces of World War 2, Osprey Publishing, 1995