4 November 1941: Lockheed test pilot Ralph B. Virden was conducting high speed dive tests in the first Lockheed YP-38 Lightning, Air Corps serial number 39-689 (Lockheed’s serial number 122-2202).
As the airplane’s speed increased, it approached what is now known as its Critical Mach Number. Air flowing across the wings accelerated to transonic speeds and began to form shock waves. This interrupted lift and caused a portion of the wing to stall. Air no longer flowed smoothly along the airplane and the tail surfaces became ineffective. The YP-38 pitched down into a steeper dive and its speed increased even more.
Designed by famed aeronautical engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the YP-38 had servo tabs on the elevator that were intended to help the pilot maintain or regain control under these conditions. But they increased the elevator’s effectiveness too well. As Virden pulled out of the dive, the YP-38’s tail came off.
The YP-38 crashed into the kitchen of Jack Jensen’s home at 1147 Elm Street, Glendale, California. Fire erupted. Ralph Virden was killed. The airplane’s tail section was located several blocks away.
39-689 was the first of thirteen YP-38 service test aircraft that had been ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps shortly after the XP-38 prototype, 37-457, had crashed on a transcontinental speed record attempt, 11 February 1939. 39-689 made its first flight 16 September 1940 with test pilot Marshall Headle at the controls. With hundreds of production P-38s being built, Lockheed continued to use the YP-38 for testing.
The YP-38s were service test prototypes of a single-place, twin engine long range fighter with a unique configuration. There was not a fuselage in the normal sense. The cockpit, nose landing gear, and armament were contained in a central nacelle mounted to the wing. Two engines and their turbochargers, cooling systems and main landing gear were in two parallel booms. The booms end with vertical fins and rudders, with the horizontal stabilizer and elevator between them. The P-38 was 37 feet, 9 inches (11.506 meters) long, with a wingspan of 52 feet (15.850 meters) and height of 12 feet, 10 inches (3.952 meters). The YP-38 had an empty weight 11,171 pounds (5,067 kilograms). The gross weight was 13,500 pounds (6,123 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight 14,348 pounds (6,508 kilograms).
The YP-38 was powered by two counter-rotating, liquid-cooled, turbosupercharged 1,710.60-cubic-inch displacement (28.032 liter) Allison V-1710-27 right-hand tractor and V-1710-29 left-hand tractor, single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engines (Allison Engineering Co. Models F2R and F2L) with a Normal Power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., and 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. for takeoff. They drove three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propellers with a diameter of 11 feet, 6 inches (3.505 meters) through a 2.00:1 gear reduction. In a change from the XP-38, the propellers rotated outboard at the top of their arc. The V-1710-27/-29 engines were 7 feet, 1-5/8 inches (2.175 meters) long, 2 feet, 5-9/32 inches (0.744 meters) wide and 3 feet, 0-17/32 inches (0.928 meters) high. The V-1710-27/-29 weighed 1,305 pounds (592 kilograms)
The YP-38 had a maximum speed of 405 miles per hour (651.8 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and it could climb from the surface to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in six minutes. Normal range 650 miles (1,046 kilometers).
Lockheed built one XP-38, thirteen YP-38s, and more than 10,000 production fighter and reconnaissance airplanes. At the end of World War II, orders for nearly 2,000 more P-38 Lightnings were cancelled.
Ralph B. Virden was born 11 June 1898, the son of Hiram and Carrie Virden of Audobon Township, Illinois. He was four years younger than his sister, Ruth. He attended Bradley Polytechnic Institute at Peoria, Illinois. At the age of 17, 15 October 1918, Ralph Virden enlisted in the U.S. Army. With the end of World War I less than one month later, he was quickly discharged, 7 December 1918.
During the mid-1920s, Virden flew as a contract mail pilot. He held Airline Transport Pilot Certificate No. 628, and was employed by Gilmore Aviation and Pacific Air Transport. For thirteen years, Virden was a pilot for United Air Lines. He joined Lockheed Aircraft Company as a test pilot in 1939. He had flown more than 15,000 hours.
Virden lived at 4511 Ben Ave., North Hollywood, California, with his wife, Florence, and 19-year-old son, Ralph, Jr., who was also employed at Lockheed.
After Virden’s death, Lockheed, the Air Corps and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) undertook an extensive test program of the P-38.
9 September 1940: North American Aviation completed assembly of the NA-73X, the first prototype of the new Mustang Mk.I fighter for the Royal Air Force. This was just 117 days after the British Purchasing Commission had authorized the construction of the prototype. The airplane was designed by a team led by Edgar Schmued. The 1,150-horsepower Allison V-12 engine had not yet arrived, so the NA-73X was photographed with dummy exhaust stacks. The prototype’s company serial number was 73-3097. It had been assigned a civil experimental registration number, NX19998.
The NA-73X was a single-seat, single-engine, low wing monoplane with retractable landing gear. It was primarily of metal construction, though the flight control surfaces were fabric covered. The airplane was designed for the maximum reduction in aerodynamic drag. The Mustang was the first airplane to use a laminar-flow wing. The fuselage panels were precisely designed and very smooth. Flush riveting was used. The coolant radiator with its intake and exhaust ducts was located behind and below the cockpit. As cooling air passed through the radiator it was heated and expanded, so that as it exited, it actually produced some thrust.
The prototype was 32 feet, 2⅝ inches (9.820 meters) long, with a wing span of 37 feet, 5/16 inch (11.286 meters). Empty weight of the NA-73X was 6,278 pounds (2,848 kilograms) and normal takeoff weight was 7,965 pounds (3,613 kilograms).
The NA-73X was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.60-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710-F3R (V-1710-39) single overhead cam 60° V-12 engine, with four valves per cylinder and a compression ratio of 6.65:1. It used a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. This was a right-hand tractor engine (the V-1710 was built in both right-hand and left-hand configurations) which drove a 10 foot, 6 inch (3.200 meter) diameter, three-bladed, Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2.00:1 gear reduction.
The V-1710-39 had a Normal Power rating of 880 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level; Take Off Power rating of 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level, with 44.5 inches of manifold pressure (1.51 Bar), 5 minute limit; and a War Emergency Power rating of 1,490 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., with 56 inches of manifold pressure (1.90 Bar). The V-1710-F3R was 7 feet, 4.38 inches (2.245 meters) long, 3 feet, 0.64 inches (0.931 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.29 inches (0.744 meters) wide. It had a dry weight of 1,310 pounds (594 kilograms).
U.S. Army Air Corps flight tests of the fully-armed production Mustang Mk.I (XP-51 41-038), equipped with the V-1710-39 and a 10 foot, 9-inch (3.277 meters) diameter Curtiss Electric propeller, resulted in a maximum speed of 382.0 miles per hour (614.8 kilometers per hour) at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters). The service ceiling was 30,800 feet (9,388 meters) and the absolute ceiling was 31,900 feet (9,723 meters).
The Curtiss P-40D Warhawk used the same Allison V-1710-39 engine as the XP-51, as well as a three-bladed Curtiss Electric propeller. During performance testing at Wright Field, a P-40D, Air Corps serial number 40-362, weighing 7,740 pounds (3,511 kilograms), reached a maximum speed of 354 miles per hour (570 kilometers per hour) at 15,175 feet (4,625 meters). Although the Mustang’s test weight was 194 pounds (88 kilograms) heavier, at 7,934 pounds (3,599 kilograms), the Mustang was 28 miles per hour (45 kilometers per hour) faster than the Warhawk. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the Mustang’s exceptionally clean design.
Only one NA-73X was built. It made its first flight 26 October 1940 with test pilot Vance Breese. The prototype suffered significant damage when it overturned during a forced landing, 20 November 1941. NX19998 was repaired and flight testing resumed. The prototype’s final disposition is not known.
Originally ordered by Great Britain, the Mustang became the legendary U.S. Army Air Corps P-51 Mustang. A total of 15,486 Mustangs were built by North American Aviation at Inglewood, California and Dallas, Texas. Another 200 were built in Australia by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation.
The P-51 remained in service with the U.S. Air Force until 27 January 1957 when the last one, F-51D-30-NA 44-74936, was retired from the 167th Fighter Squadron, West Virginia Air National Guard. It was then transferred to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where it is on display.
24 August 1942: Flying a Grumman F4F Wildcat, Lieutenant Marion Eugene Carl, United States Marine Corps, a 27-year-old fighter pilot assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 223 (VMF-223) based at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal Island, shot down four enemy airplanes in one day. They were a Mitsubishi A6M “Zeke” fighter, a Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” medium bomber and two Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bombers. Carl had previously shot down an A6M during the Battle of Midway, less than three months earlier. He now had five aerial combat victories, making him the Marine Corps’ first ace.
Captain Carl was awarded the Navy Cross (his second) for his actions in the Solomon Islands from 24 August to 9 September 1942.
Marion Carl’s fighter was a Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat, designed by Robert Leicester Hall as a carrier-based fighter for the United States Navy. The F4F-4 was a single-place, single-engine, mid-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear.
The F4F-4 was 29 feet, 9-3/8 inches (9.077 meters) long, with a wingspan of 38 feet, 0 inches (11.582 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 1-3/8 inches (3.693 meters). Unlike the preceding F4F-3, the F4F-4 had folding wings for storage aboard aircraft carriers. With the wings folded, the airplane was 14 feet, 4 inches (4.369 meters) wide. Its empty weight was 5,895 pounds (2,674 kilograms), and the gross weight was 7,975 pounds (3,617 kilograms).
The F4F-4 was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,829.39-cubic-inch-displacement (29.978 liter) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp SSC7-G (R-1830-86) two-row, 14-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.7:1. The R-1830-86 had a normal power rating of 1,100 at 2,550 r.p.m., from Sea Level to 3,300 feet (1,006 meters), and 1,000 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. at 19,000 feet (5,791 meters). It was rated at 1,200 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. for takeoff. The engine turned a three-bladed Curtiss Electric propeller with a diameter of 9 feet, 9 inches (2.972 meters) through a 3:2 gear reduction. The R-1830-86 was 4 feet, 0.19 inches (1.224 meters) in diameter, 5 feet, 7.44 inches (1.713 meters) long, and weighed 1,560 pounds (708 kilograms).
The F4F-4 had a maximum speed of 284 miles per hour (457 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 320 miles per hour (515 kilometers per hour) at 18,800 feet (5,730 meters). Its service ceiling was 34,000 feet (10,363 meters).
While the F4F-3 Wildcat was armed with four air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, the F4F-4 had six. It carried 1,400 rounds of ammunition.
The prototype XF4F-1 made its first flight in 1935. It was substantially improved as the XF4F-2. The first production F4F-3 Wildcat was built in February 1940. The airplane remained in production through World War II, with 7,860 built by Grumman and General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division (FM-1 Wildcat).
According to the National Naval Aviation Museum, F4F Wildcats held a 9:1 ratio of victories over Japanese aircraft, with 1,006 enemy airplanes destroyed in combat.
Marion Eugene Carl was born at Hubbard, Oregon, 1 November 1915. He was the second of four children of Herman Lee Carl, a dairy farmer, and Ellen Lavine Ellingsen Carl.
Carl graduated from Oregon State College at Corvallis, Oregon, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve, 31 May 1938. Lieutenant Carl soon resigned this commission to accept an appointment as an Aviation Cadet, United States Navy. He enlisted as a private, first class, Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve, 17 July 1938, and was designated a student Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot assigned to the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Squantum, Massachusetts. He entered flight school as an Aviation Cadet at Naval Air Station Pensacola near Pensacola, Florida, 26 July 1938.
After completing flight training, Carl was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps Reserve, 20 October 1939. He was then assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron One (VMF-1) at Brown Field, Quantico, Virginia.
In 1940, Lieutenant Carl returned to NAS Pensacola as a flight instructor. On 25 February 1941, Second Lieutenant Carl, U.S.M.C.R., was appointed a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps.
Lieutenant Carl was transferred to VMF-221 at San Diego, California, as a fighter pilot. The unit was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) for transportation to Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. On 25 December 1941, VMF-221 was deployed to Midway Atoll.
Marion Carl and his squadron fought during the Battle of Midway. Flying a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, Bu. No. 1864,¹ on 4 June 1942, he shot down his first enemy airplane, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, and damaged two others. Lieutenant Carl was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in that decisive battle.
Marion Carl was next assigned to VMF-223 under the command of Captain John L. Smith. The Marine fighter squadron was the first air unit to arrive at Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons, 20 August 1942. This was a critical airfield, originally built by the Japanese military but occupied by Allied forces. On 24 August, Lieutenant Carl became the Marine Corps’ first “ace.”
Carl was shot down in 9 September 1942 and was missing for five days. He was helped by islanders who eventually returned him to his base.
The squadron departed Guadalcanal 16 October 1942, and sailed to San Francisco, California. VMF-223 was credited with destroying 110½ enemy aircraft. Carl was credited with 16.
Lieutenant Carl married Miss Edna T. Kirvin at New York City, New York, 7 January 1943.
On 26 January, he took command of VMF-223. On 8 May 1943, Lieutenant Carl was promoted to the temporary rank of captain. The squadron was re-equipped with the new Vought-Sikorsky F4U-1 Corsair. Training in the new fighter took place at MCAS El Toro, in southern California.
In August, the squadron returned to combat in the Solomons. By the end of 1943, Major Carl’s total of enemy aircraft destroyed was 18½ with 3 damaged, making him the seventh highest-scoring Marine fighter pilot of World War II.
After the War Marion Carl was assigned as a test pilot at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, testing jet aircraft on aircraft carriers. He was also the first Marine Corps pilot to fly a helicopter. Carl commanded the Marine’s first jet squadron, VMF-122, which flew the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel 7 August 1947.
In May 1955, Colonel Carl commanded Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMJ-1). The squadron flew the McDonnell FH-2 Banshee from air bases on the island of Formosa (Taiwan) on secret missions over the People’s Republic of China.
At Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) Marion Carl tested the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, setting world records for speed and altitude. He was promoted to colonel, 1 October 1956.
By 1962 Colonel Carl was Director of Marine Corps Aviation. He was promoted to brigadier general, 1 June 1964. He commanded the First Marine Brigade during the Vietnam War and flew combat missions in jet fighters and helicopter gun ships.
Carl was promoted to major general in August 1967, with his date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1964. Carl commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, then served as Inspector General of the Marine Corps from 1970 until 1973. When he retired in 1973, General Carl had accumulated more that 13,000 flight hours.
During his military career, Major General Carl was awarded the Navy Cross with two gold stars (three awards); The Legion of Merit with valor device and three gold stars (four awards); The Distinguished Flying Cross with four gold stars (five awards); and the Air Medal with two gold and two silver stars (twelve awards).
Tragically, General Carl was murdered in Roseburg, Oregon, 28 June 1998, as he defended his wife, Edna, during a home-invasion robbery. Mrs. Carl was wounded, but survived.
Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
¹ The fighter flown by Marion Carl to shoot down his first enemy airplane is often cited as Grumman F4F-3 Bu. No. 4000 (second bureau number series, 1935–1940). However, the entry in Carl’s certified pilot logbook for 4 June 1942 states the airplane he flew was F4F-3 Bu. No. 1864.
6 August 1945: At 0245 hours, a four-engine, long range heavy bomber of the 509th Composite Group, United States Army Air Forces, took off from North Field on the island of Tinian in the Marshall Group, on the most secret combat mission of World War II.
The Martin-Omaha B-29-45-MO Superfortress, 44-86292, under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., was carrying Bomb Unit L-11, the first nuclear weapon to be used during war. This was a 9,700-pound (4,400 kilogram) “gun type” fission bomb, the Mark I, code-named Little Boy. It contained 64 kilograms (141.1 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium. The bomb was 120 inches (3.048 meters) long with a diameter of 28 inches (0.711 meter). Although it was a very inefficient weapon, it was considered to be such reliable design that it had not been tested.
On the morning before the mission, Colonel Tibbets had his mother’s name painted on the nose of the airplane: Enola Gay. He had personally selected this bomber, serial number 44-86292, while it was still on the assembly line at the Glenn L. Martin Company plant at Bellevue, Nebraska, 9 May 1945. The B-29 was accepted by the Army Air Corps on 15 May and flown to the 509th’s base at Wendover, Utah, by Captain Robert A. Lewis, a B-29 aircraft commander who would act as Tibbets’ co-pilot on the atomic bombing mission.
The B-29 Superfortress was designed by the Boeing Airplane Company as its Model 345. Produced in three major version, the B-29, B-29A and B-29B, it was built by Boeing at Wichita, Kansas and Redmond, Washington; by the Bell Aircraft Corporation at Marietta, Georgia; and the Glenn L. Martin Company at Fort Crook (now Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska. A total of 3,943 Superfortresses were built.
The B-29 was the most technologically advanced airplane built up to that time, and required an immense effort by American industry to produce.
The B-29 Superfortress was 99 feet, 0 inches (30.175 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.053 meters) and an overall height of 27 feet, 9 inches (8.458 meters). The standard B-29 had an empty weight of 74,500 pounds (33,793 kilograms) and gross weight of 120,000 pounds (54.431 kilograms).
The Silverplate B-29s differed from the standard production bombers in many ways. They were approximately 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms) lighter. The bomber carried no armor. Additional fuel tanks were installed in the rear bomb bay. The bomb bay doors were operated by quick-acting pneumatic systems. The bomb release mechanism in the forward bomb bay was replaced by a single-point release as was used in special British Lancaster bombers. A weaponeer’s control station was added to the cockpit to monitor the special bomb systems.
Enola Gay had four air-cooled, supercharged, 3,347.662-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division R-3350-41 (Cyclone 18 787C18BA3) two-row 18-cylinder radial engines with direct fuel injection. The R-3350-41 had a compression ratio of 6.85:1 and required 100/130 aviation gasoline. It was rated at 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m, for take-off. The engines drove four-bladed Curtiss Electric reversible-pitch propellers with a diameter of 16 feet, 8 inches (5.080 meters), through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-41 was 6 feet, 2.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,725 pounds (1,236 kilograms).
With the exception of the tail gunner’s position, all defensive armament—four powered remotely operated gun turrets with ten .50-caliber machine guns—were deleted. Their remote sighting positions were also removed. Enola Gay carried 1,000 rounds of ammunition for each of the two remaining Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns in the tail.
With these changes, the Silverplate B-29s could fly higher and faster than a standard B-29, and the new engines were more reliable. Enola Gay had a cruising speed of 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 365 miles per hour (587 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 31,850 feet (9,708 meters) and its combat radius was 2,900 miles (4,667 kilometers).
At 09:15:17 a.m., (mission time, 8:15 a.m., local), Enola Gay was at 31,000 feet (9,450 meters) over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on the island of Honshu, an industrial center with a population of about 340,000 people. The bombardier initiated the automatic release sequence and the the atomic bomb was dropped. It fell for 44.4 seconds and detonated at an altitude of 1,968 feet (600 meters), about 800 feet (244 meters) from the aiming point, the Aioi Bridge over the Ota River.
Ground Zero, the point on the surface directly below the explosion, was the Shima Hospital. The overpressure is estimated to have been 4.5–6.7 tons per square meter. The two-story brick building was completely obliterated. Of the patients, technicians, nurses and doctors inside, nothing remained.
The resulting explosion was approximately equivalent in explosive force to the detonation of 16,000 tons (14,515 metric tons) of TNT (16 “kilotons”). An estimated 70,000 people were killed immediately, and another 70,000 were wounded. As many as 160,000 people may have died as a result of the atomic bombing by the end of 1945. More would follow over the next few years.
An area of the city with a radius of 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from the point of detonation (“hypocenter”) was totally destroyed, and combined with the fires that followed, 4.7 square miles (12.17 kilometers²) of the city were destroyed. 69% of all buildings in Hiroshima were completely destroyed and another 6% damaged.
As soon as the bomb was released, Colonel Tibbets turned his B-29 away to avoid the blast. It was just over 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) from the detonation point when the shock waves hit, but no damage resulted. The bomber was then flown back to Tinian, landing after an elapsed time of 12 hours, 13 minutes.
Enola Gay was placed in storage at Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, Tucson, Arizona, 26 July 1946, and was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution just over one month later, 30 August 1946. For decades it sat in storage at different locations around the country, but finally a total restoration was performed. Today, the B-29 is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to
FIRST LIEUTENANT JAMES E. SWETT
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.
/S/ FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
James Elms Swett was born at Seattle, Washington, 15 June 1920, the first of three children of George Elms Swett, an electrical engineer and U.S. Marine Corps reservist, and Nellie Emily Burns Swett. He gew up in San Mateo, California, where he attended San Mateo High School and the College of San Mateo. While in college, Swett learned to fly through the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
Swett enlisted in the United States Navy as a Seaman 2nd Class, 26 August 1941. He was assigned to flight training as an Aviation Cadet at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. While in training, Sweet elected to serve as a U.S. Marine Corps officer. On completion of flight training, he was awarded the gold wings of a Naval Aviator and commissioned a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps Reserve, 1 April 1942. He was then sent to MCAS Quantico for advanced training.
In July 1942, 2nd Lieutenant Swett was placed under arrest for a period of ten days for “diving and zooming over traffic” below 500 feet (152 meters), along U.S. Route 1. He was then transferred to an air station in Florida. Swett was next assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221), Marine Air Group 21 (MAG-21), 1st Marine Air Wing, Fleet Marine Force. In March 1943, the squadron deployed from Hawaii to the South Pacific aboard the Bogue-class escort carrier USS Nassau (CVE-16), arriving at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, in late March. VMF-221 then flew on to Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands.
On the morning of 7 April 1943, Lieutenant Swett led a four-plane flight of Wildcats on a patrol, then returned to refuel at Henderson Field. While his fighter, Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat, Bu. No. 12084, was being serviced, word came of a large group of enemy aircraft approaching from the north. Swett and his flight joined a number of other fighters to intercept the attacking enemy aircraft.
Near the Russell Islands, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Guadalcanal, the American fighters came in contact with an estimated 150 enemy aircraft. Swett, in combat for the first time, quickly engaged three Aichi D3A Type 99 (American reporting name, “Val”) dive bombers. He shot them down. Becoming separated from his flight, he continued to engage the enemy, shooting down several more. His right wing was damaged by American anti-aircraft guns, but he continued. Having shot down seven Vals, he engaged an eighth. The Val’s gunner fired his two 7.7 mm machine guns in defense. By this time, Swett was running out of ammunition, but his final bullets killed the enemy gunner and set the Aichi on fire. But machine gun bullets from the Val damaged his windshield, punctured an engine oil cooler and set the Wildcat on fire.
Unable to make it back to Henderson, Swett ditched in the ocean near Tulagi. The airplane quickly sank. It was about 25 feet (7 meters) down before Swett was able to escape from the Wildcat’s cockpit. He was picked up by a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat. He had been slightly injured.
During only fifteen minutes, 2nd Lieutenant Swett destroyed seven enemy aircraft and damaged an eighth.¹ He had become an “Ace in One Day.”
Swett was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and transitioned to the Chance Vought F4U-1 Corsair. He shot down four Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” twin-engine medium bombers and an A6M Zero, before being shot down again near New Georgia, 10 July 1943. He returned to combat in October, shot down two more Val dive bombers and a Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien Type 3 fighter, known to Allied forces as “Tony.”
During a ceremony held at Espiritu Santo, 10 October 1943, Major General Ralph Johnson Mitchell, commanding the 1st Marine Air Wing, presented First Lieutenant James Elms Swett, United States Marine Corps Reserve, the Medal of Honor.
In 1944, Captain Swett was returned to the United States, and was training with VMF-221 at MCAS Santa Barbara, California. He would meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House during the Spring.
While at Santa Barbara, Captain Swett met Miss Lois Aileen Anderson and they soon married. They would later have two sons, both of whom would go on to become Marine Corps officers.
After retraining in Southern California, VMF-221 returned to the War, assigned to the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) in the western Pacific.
On the morning of 11 May 1945, Captain Swett was flying a combat air patrol in an F4U-1D Corsair, when the fleet was attacked by kamikaze suicide aircraft. Swett shot down a Yokosuka D4Y Suisei (“Judy”) dive bomber.
During this attack, Bunker Hill was hit by two successive kamikazes and suffered catastrophic damage. 346 men were killed in action, 43 missing in action and 264 wounded. The carrier would survive, but was out of action for the remainder of the war.
Unable to land aboard their carrier, Captain Swett organized the airplanes still airborne and led them to USS Enterprise (CV-6).
During World War II, Major Swett flew 103 combat missions. He is officially credited with 15.5 aerial victories.
Following World War II, Major Swett remained in the Marine Corps Reserve. In 1949, he took command of Marine Fighting Squadron 141 (VMF-141) at NAS Oakland. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, but was not sent to the war zone.
James Swett rose to the rank of Colonel. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1970.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, during his career in the Marine Corps, Colonel Swett was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with gold star (2 awards); Purple Heart with gold star (2 awards); Air Medal with 4 gold stars (5 awards); Navy Combat Action Ribbon; Presidential Unit Citation with 2 bronze stars (3 awards); Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 1 gold star and 1 silver star (6 campaigns); World War II Victory medal; and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with silver hourglass device (20 years of service).
Colonel James Elms Swett, United States Marine Corps Reserve (Retired) died at Redding California, 18 January 2009, at the age of 88 years. He was buried at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery, Igo, California.
The Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat was a single-engine, single place mid-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear, designed for operations from United States Navy aircraft carriers. The wings could be fold alongside the fuselage for storage.
The F4F-4 was 28 feet, 10-5/8 inches (8.804 meters) long with a wingspan of 38 feet, 0 inches (11.582 meters) and height of 12 feet, 1-3/8 inches (3.693 meters). The Wildcat’s wing had 0° angle of incidence. The fixed, inner wing has 0° dihedral, while the outer wing panels have 5° dihedral. There is no sweep. The width of the airplane with its wings folded was 14 feet, 6 inches (4.420 meters). The fighter’s empty weight was 5,895 pounds (2,674 kilograms), and the gross weight, 7,975 pounds (3,618 kilograms).
The F4F-4 was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,829.39-cubic-inch-displacement (29.98 liter) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86 (Twin Wasp SSC7-G) two-row, fourteen cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.7:1. The R-1830-86 was rated at 1,100 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. at 3,500 feet (1,067 meters), 1,000 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. at 19,000 feet (5,791 meters), and 1,200 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. for takeoff, burning 100-octane gasoline. The engine drove a three-bladed Curtiss Electric propeller with a diameter of 9 feet, 9 inches (2.972 meters) through a 3:2 gear reduction. The R-1830-86 was 5 feet, 7.44 inches (1.713 meters) long, 44 feet, 0.19 inches (1.224 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,560 pounds (708 kilograms).
Maximum speed 275.0 at SL, 318.0 @ 19,400′ Service ceiling 34,800 feet ( meters). Maximum range 765 miles ( kilometers)
The F4F-4 was armed with six air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the wings with 1,440 rounds of ammunition.
Between February 1940 and August 1945, 7,898 Wildcats were produced by the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, Bethpage, New York, and General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division at Linden, New Jersey.
¹ Various reliable sources give different values for the number of enemy aircraft shot down by 2nd Lieutenant Swett on 7 May 1943, with the most common being five. Swett claimed eight destroyed, and this is reflected in his Medal of Honor citation. The intelligence officer who investigated determined that his claims were valid. The USMC History Division credits seven enemy aircraft destroyed: “Colonel James Elms Swett, of San Mateo, California, earned the Medal of Honor in World War II for shooting down seven Japanese bombers within 15 minutes.”