|Pilot Major John L. Smith, C. O. VMF-223 (survived) Lexington, OK
Force Landed October 2, 1942
Built by Grumman Corporation in Bethpage, New York as a model G-36 with manually operated folding wings. Delivered to the United States Navy (USN) as F4F-4 Wildcat bureau number 03502.
During late July or early August 1942 loaded aboard USS Long Island CVE-1 departed August 2, 1942 bound for the South Pacific. On August 20, 1942 took off from USS Long Island CVE-1 roughly 200 miles southeast of Guadalcanal and landed at Henderson Field to join the "Cactus Air Force".
Assigned to the U. S. Marine Corps (USMC) to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW), Marine Aircraft Group 23 (MAG-23) to squadron VMF-223 "Bulldogs". No known nickname or nose art.
On October 2, 1942 after radar detected an formation of roughly twenty to thirty incoming enemy fighters. On the ground, a red alert was sounded and all available aircraft were scrambled. Major John L. Smith took off from Fighter 1 on Guadalcanal at 12:20pm. In total, thirty-six Wildcats were scrambled including fourteen Wildcats from VF-5, eleven Wildcats from VMF-223, eleven Wildcats from VMF-224 and seven SBD Dauntless dive bombers.
Meanwhile, thirty-six A6M2 Zeros from the 6th Kokutai and Tainan Kokutai led by Lt. Kofukuda escorting nine G4M1 Bettys from Misawa Kokutai acting as decoys took off from Rabaul at 9:10am. By 10:00am. all the Bettys plus eight Zeros from the Tainan Kokutai and one Zero from 6th Kokutai aborted the mission due to engine trouble. By 12:10pm the remaining twenty-seven Zeros were over Guadalcanal at 27,880' to perform a fighter sweep.
After take off, the Wildcats from VMF-224, 1st Division led by Major John L. Smith climbed to 25,000' ascending through several layers of clouds before emerging only 2,000' below seventeen Zeros that peeled off to attack. The Wildcats attempted to dive back into the clouds but were intercepted. A6M2 Zero piloted by Lt(jg) Katsutoshi Kawamata targeted F4F Wildcat 02098 piloted by 2nd Lt. Willis S. Lees. Although he bailed out, he was never seen again.
Smith's Wildcat was damaged by gun fire that hit his wings and damaged his oil cooler. After diving through the clouds, he encountered three Zeros from the Tainan Kokutai, 3rd Shotai including PO1c Kozaburo Yasui, PO3c Yoshio Mogi and Sea1c Tadashi Yoneda, claiming one as shot down before diving away. In fact, none were hit and Yoneda fired at the Wildcat and claimed it as shot down. From the additional damage, Smith's engine began to overheat and run rough, so he circled Fighter 1 to land but when his engine died he successfully force landed in kunai grass roughly four miles east of Henderson Field and landed unhurt.
In total, six Wildcats were lost on this mission including this aircraft. Also lost was F4F 02098 (Lees MIA), F4F 5195 (Morgan, MIA), F4F 02110 (Kendrick, KIA), F4F 02118 (Galer, rescued) and F4F 02112 (Treptow, MIA). Several other Wildcats were damaged or suffered mechanical problems.
Fate of the Pilot
After exiting his Wildcat, Smith was
observed by other circling Wildcats led by Captain Marion Carl who protected him until he reached the cover of trees to prevent him from being strafed on the ground. While on the ground, he witnessed another Wildcat crash into a ridge to the east of where he landed. Likely, this was F4F 02110 piloted by 2nd Lt. Charles W. Kendrick killed in the crash.
Walking westward in dense jungle and crossing the Tenaru River he encountered the wreckage of an F4F Wildcat that he believed might be F4F Wildcat 04071 piloted by Noyes McLennan Missing In Action (MIA) September 13, 1942. That evening, Smith reached the American perimeter and met a Marine patrol sent to look for him led by Col. Clifton B. Cates, C.O. 1st Marines who escorted him back to his squadron.
Afterwards, a Marine patrol reached his Wildcat to recover Smith's baseball cap and to destroy the aircraft.
Smith passed away June 9, 1972. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery at section 3, lot 2503-H-2.
Fold3 NARA "United States Marine Corps Headquarters, Marine Aircraft Group Twenty-Three, First Marine Aircraft Wing, Fleet Marine Force page 62
"1230 Air Raid.... Radar reported flight of small fast planes approaching Henderson Field. 14 planes of VF-5, 11 of VMF-224, 11 of VMF-223 and 7 SBD's scrambled to attack. At 1300 about 30 Zeros and some bombers were engaged over field... Four Zeros were shot down and 6 of our fighters were shot down of which 2 pilots were recovered uninjured. VMF-223 Major J. L. Smith shot down SE of fighter field but recovered. Shot down one Zero."
Fold3 NARA "War Diary Marine Fighting Squadron 224 Marine Aircraft Group 23 First Marine Aircraft Wing, FMF From October 1, 1942 to October 31, 1942 page 3
"October 1, 1942 - At 0630 today, the decorations indicated were presented to the following squadron officers... Major Smith and Captain Carl receiving the Navy Cross."
October 2, 1942 - At 1200, the air raid alarm was sounded and the following pilots of this squadron took off.... 2dLt Kendrick of VMF-223 took off in one of the planes of this squadron [VMF-224]. The enemy's force, which consisted of twenty or thirty Zero fighters, was encountered over the field...
Major Smith of VMF-223 made a force landing south of the field but was uninjured and safely returned."
A History of Marine Attack Squadron 223 page 5 [PDF page 15]
History of the Marine Corps Aviation in World War II pages 96, 425 (medal of honor) 431 (aces), 493 (index)
(Page 96) "During early October ... Six of John Smith's VMF-223 pilots had been killed."
432) Marine Corps aces in World War II no. 6 Smith, John L - number of planes shot down: 19
AAIR USN Overseas Aircraft Loss List October 1942 F4F Wildcat 03502 piloted by Smith
First Team and The Guadalcanal Campaign Ambush [October 2, 1942 mission] lists Smith's aircraft as F4F-4 Wildcat Bureau Number 02127 with squadron code 16.
Guadalcanal Tome I pages 305-310 (U.S. pilots page 306, Japanese pilots 309)
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February 4, 2018