James Swett’s battered face smashed into the cracked altimeter he had been glancing at only seconds before the crash. The young Lieutenant just shot down seven Japanese planes, and had been turning to engage an eighth, when an enemy tail gunner suddenly riddled his F4F Grumman Wildcat with hot lead. Rivulets of pain racked his body as he hit the water, which quickly filled the smoldering cockpit.
Swett threw open the shattered canopy and struggled hard against his entangled parachute straps. Realizing that he was going under, the pilot frantically drew one final gulp of acrid air, looked upward to the darkened sky, and said a silent prayer. Bolts of antiaircraft fire flashed across the horizon, explosions boomed in the distance, and then there was nothing. The sea took him.
Hell of a First Mission
Fortunately, Swett would live to fight another day. Almost fifty years later, the WWII veteran, Marine combat ace, and Medal of Honor winner recalled that his very first engagement was a relatively short-lived affair. “It was all over in about 15 minutes,” Swett nonchalantly told a local newspaper. Whether divine providence or just plain luck, Swett’s emergency life raft inflated shortly after he went under, quickly propelling him back to the surface of the sea. A Coast Guard cutter eventually zeroed-in his location. Catching sight of the downed-pilot, a rescuer called out and asked if he was American. Face cut, ribs bruised, and nose broken, the defiant Swett proclaimed, “Damn right I am.”
It was the early spring of 1943 and the United States was turning the tide of battle in the Pacific War. Imperial Japanese forces initially put the Americans back on their heels with a devastating sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, but the U.S. Navy, along with their Australian allies, led a series of devastating counteroffensives in the Coral Sea and across the Solomon Islands. Months earlier, Admiral Chester A. Nimitz crippled the Japanese Navy at Midway, while amphibious troops scored bloody victories at Buna-Gona and Guadalcanal. With the fate of the war yet to be decided, Naval and Marine aviators were charged with maintaining security over this newly acquired and vital territory in the South Pacific.
On the morning of April 7, Swett’s division had flown an uneventful and routine combat patrol within the vicinity of Guadalcanal. A short time later, however, news of an impending Japanese airstrike put the Marines of VMF-221 back on high alert. Launching into the skies over Tulagi Harbor, Swett courageously engaged an approaching force of 150 Japanese fighter-bombers, that was set on destroying the vulnerable Naval and Marine forces stationed on and around the island below.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, that would later be signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “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.” Years later, Swett recalled that it was akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
Lining-up the Japanese Aichi D3A (Val) dive bombers in his sights was “simply” a matter of positioning himself beneath and behind each aircraft, briefly nosing-up his fighter, and letting his Wildcat’s Browning machineguns do the rest of the work.