Tomorrow in Aviation History: the birth of a WWII Fighter Ace

Good morning fellow ECAHF’ers. “Time,” it is said, “cures all ills.” Time, also, unless we take care to ensure it doesn’t, erases history. New history is created over time, burying the older history. Generations come and go and the experiences—the history—that meant so much to past generations, means increasingly less to succeeding generations. Why? One reason is because later generations did not actually live through and experience the history of past generations.

Take WWII for instance. None of us lived through WWII. So, we might be forgiven for, other than Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, not being able to name a Marine Corps fighter ace who didn’t have a TV show (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” starring Robert Conrad) based loosely on their life. If asked, people with even a little knowledge of Maine Corps aviation and of WWII history could probably name “Pappy” Boyington”.

But most of us—including me when I was recently asked by a group of fellow aviators to name a WWII USMC fighter ace who was presented the Medal of Honor who wasn’t Pappy Boyington—couldn’t name another Medal of Honor-presented Marine Corps ace. So, let’s resurrect, learn a little about his life, and honor the memory of another WWII Marine Corps ace who, due to being a little less flamboyant and, shall we say, less “unorthodox” than Pappy Boyington, may have been buried in the dustbin of history: Colonel James E. Swett, USMC born 97 years ago tomorrow, June 15, 1920.

From Wikipedia: “James Elms Swett (June 15, 1920 – January 18, 2009) was a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot and flying ace during World War II. He was awarded the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for actions while a division flight leader in VMF-221 over Guadalcanal on April 7, 1943. He downed a total of 15.5 enemy aircraft during the war, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals.

Born on June 15, 1920 in Seattle, Washington, James E. Swett graduated from San Mateo High School, San Mateo, California, and enrolled at the College of San Mateo in 1939. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a seaman second class on August 26, 1941, and started flight training in September.

Swett completed flight training in early 1942, placing in the top ten percent of his class. He was given the option to choose between a commission in the Marine Corps or the Navy, and he chose the Marine Corps. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 1, 1942. He continued his advanced flight training, first at Quantico, Virginia, then at Lake Michigan, became carrier qualified aboard the USS Wolverine, and finally received his wings at San Diego, California. In December 1942, he shipped out to the Southwest Pacific, and when he arrived at Guadalcanal, he was assigned to VMF-221, which was part of Marine Air Group 12.

On April 7, 1943, on his first combat mission, Swett both became an ace and acted with such “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” that he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

His first mission was as a division leader on a combat air patrol over the Russell Islands early on the morning of April 7 in expectation of a large Japanese air attack. Landing to refuel, the four-plane division of Grumman F4F Wildcats he was leading was scrambled after other aircraft reported 150 planes approaching Ironbottom Sound, and intercepted a large formation of Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers (Allied code name: “Val”) attacking Tulagi harbor.

F4F Wildcats in Guadalcanal. Source: Wikimedia.

When the fight became a general melee, Swett pursued three Aichi D3A Vals diving on the harbor. After he had downed two, and while he was evading fire from the rear gunner of the third, the left wing of his F4F Wildcat was shot by U.S. antiaircraft fire. Despite this, he downed the third Val and turned toward a second formation of six Vals leaving the area.

Swett repeatedly attacked the line of dive bombers, downing each in turn with short bursts. He brought down four and was attacking a fifth when his ammunition was depleted and his cockpit was shot up by return fire. Wounded, he decided to ditch his damaged fighter off the coast of Florida Island, after it became clear that his oil cooler had been hit and he would not make it back to base. After a few seconds his engine seized, and despite initially being trapped in his cockpit underwater, Swett extricated himself and was rescued in Tulagi harbor after ditching his plane. This feat made the 22-year-old Marine aviator an ace on his first combat mission.

Swett returned to Guadalcanal after a short stay in a Naval hospital and learned that Admiral Marc Mitscher had nominated him for the Medal of Honor. After a short rest in Australia, Swett checked out in the Vought F4U Corsair to which VMF-221 was converting and moved to a new base in the Russells. Promoted to captain, Swett covered the Rendova landings on June 30, 1943, adding two Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" medium bombers to his score and sharing the downing of a Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

USMC F4U Corsairs in formation. Source: Wikimedia.

Eleven days later, near the island of New Georgia, Swett downed two more Bettys. Seeing his wingman’s Corsair under attack, he also shot down a Zero. However, he failed to see a second Zero and was himself shot down. He was rescued by indigenous tribal members in a canoe and traveled by ten-man canoe for several hours to an Australian coast watcher's location. A PBY flying boat returned Swett to the Russells. In October 1943, over the major Japanese airbase at Kahili, Bougainville, Swett added one confirmed Zero and one probable, but lost his wingman. In November, he added to his list of kills two more Vals and a possible Kawasaki Ki-61 Tony, a new Japanese fighter.

On December 11, Swett returned to the United States on a Dutch motor ship, arriving in San Francisco on New Year's Eve. After less than 24 hours, he shipped out to San Diego, where he was granted 30-days leave and married Lois Anderson, his longtime sweetheart. Swett was then transferred to NAS Santa Barbara, California, where he worked up a newly manned VMF-221 in the Corsair.

After carrier-qualification and assigned to the USS Bunker Hill, Swett flew two strikes over Japan and then supported the landings at Iwo Jima and the operations on Okinawa. On May 11, 1945, he shot down a Yokosuka D4Y Judy kamikaze, which he described as a “sitting duck”. Swett watched from the air as the Bunker Hill was struck by two kamikazes, causing such damage that he was forced to land on another carrier.

Major James Swett, USMC. Source: Wikimedia.

Swett later returned to the States and was assigned to MCAS El Toro, California, where he began to train for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan. At war’s end, VMF-221 was second in aerial victories among Marine Corps squadrons with 185 enemy planes downed. Swett's combat record included 103 combat missions, 15.5 confirmed victories and four probables. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and five Air Medals.

After returning to the U.S., he served with VMF-221 at MCAS El Toro, California.

Following the end of World War II, Swett commanded VMF-141 flying Corsairs at NAS Alameda, California. After the onset of the Korean War his squadron was deployed to Korea, but he was left behind because the Navy thought putting a Medal of Honor recipient in combat was too risky. Swett left active duty and continued service in the Marine Corps Reserve, retiring in 1970 at the rank of colonel.

Swett was married to Lois Anderson from January 20, 1944 till her death on December 5, 1999. They had two sons, James Jr. and John, both of whom went on to become Marine Corps officers. Swett later was married to Verna Gale McPherson Miller in 2007.

Swett worked in his father's company in San Francisco, making marine pumps and turbines. In 1960, after his father's death, Swett took over the company and ran it for 23 years, before passing it on to his son. Swett moved to Trinity Center, California in his retirement and became a frequent speaker at schools, where he shared his strong feelings about the values of respect and responsibility. He owned 13 Porsche cars during his lifetime.

Swett moved to Redding, California in 2007 where he died on January 18, 2009 in a Redding hospital from heart failure after a lengthy illness. He was buried with full military honors at Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo, California.

The airport in Trinity Center, California was named in his honor.”

James Swett Medal of Honor citation

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to


UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, as a division leader in Marine Fighting Squadron TWO TWENTY-ONE in action against enemy Japanese aerial forces in the Solomon Islands Area, April 7, 1943. In a daring flight to intercept a wave of 150 Japanese planes, First Lieutenant Swett unhesitatingly hurled his four-plane division into action against a formation of fifteen enemy bombers and during his dive personally exploded three hostile planes in mid-air with accurate and deadly fire. Although separated from his division while clearing the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire, he boldly attacked six enemy bombers, engaged the first four in turn, and unaided, shot them down in flames. Exhausting his ammunition as he closed the fifth Japanese bomber, he relentlessly drove his attack against terrific opposition which partially disabled his engine, shattered the windscreen and slashed his face. In spite of this, he brought his battered plane down with skillful precision in the water off Tulagi without further injury. The superb airmanship and tenacious fighting spirit which enabled First Lieutenant Swett to destroy eight enemy bombers in a single flight were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.