WWII Marine Aviator Decorated With The Medal of Honor on Massive First Mission Shoot Down

WWII Marine Aviator Decorated With The Medal of Honor on Massive First Mission Shoot Down

Robert Ranstadler - June 20, 2017

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.

WWII Marine Aviator Decorated With The Medal of Honor on Massive First Mission Shoot Down
James E. Swett. Marine Corps University. USMC History Division

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.

WWII Marine Aviator Decorated With The Medal of Honor on Massive First Mission Shoot Down
American Plane on Fire. Wallpaperup.

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.

Cut from a Different Cloth

Born in 1920, Swett was a Seattle native but graduated from both high school and junior college in San Mateo, California. He earned his private pilot’s license before entering the war, which was a considerable investment of both time and effort. Swett enlisted in the Navy Reserves, attended flight training in Corpus Christie, Texas and Quantico, Virginia, where he excelled in his studies. He was appointed as a cadet and later earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve on April 1, 1942. It was only a year later when Swett would find himself battling Japanese pilots in the skies over Guadalcanal as an active duty combat aviator.

WWII Marine Aviator Decorated With The Medal of Honor on Massive First Mission Shoot Down
Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. WWII. The Cactus Air Force, Quazoo.com

In addition to the incredible engagement at Tulagi, Swett went on to distinguish himself as one of the greatest aces in Marine Corps History. According to official records, Swett fought in the South Pacific until January 1945, where he flew over 100 combat missions in support of major offensive operations at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

By the war’s end, the 22-year-old aviator was credited with shooting down 15 ½ enemy aircraft, which earned him the Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals. Swett remained on active duty until November 1945, transferred to the Marine Corps Reserve, and ultimately retired as a full-bird colonel in 1970. He would go on to run a family owned business for the next twenty years.

Only weeks after the fighting at Guadalcanal, and finding out that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor, Swett returned to VMF-221 as a captain, where he splashed six more Japanese bandits from the cockpit of a Vought F4U Corsair. Swett got shot down a second time, over the skies of New Georgia Island. On this occasion, the Coast Guard did not come to his rescue.

Swett was instead fished out of the sea by a pair of natives in a canoe, who paddled almost half a day to return him to friendly territory. Swett took a short break, briefly returning home to the United States, but quickly got back into the fight. In 1945, he was assigned to an aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill, which played a pivotal role in several subsequent campaigns.

After the War

Following the end of WWII, Swett went on to command Marine Attack Squadron 141, based at Naval Air Station Alameda, California. The Marines of VMA-141 were part of Guadalcanal’s “Cactus Air Force,” and previously saw action alongside Swett at Henderson Field during the war. Originally designated as Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 141 (VMSB-141), the unit underwent a series of organizational changes and moved locations several times before finally setting near San Francisco Bay, in Alameda.

VMA-141 later deployed to Korea, although without Swett at the helm; the U.S. Navy apparently thought better of placing a Medal of Honor recipient back in harm’s way. The squadron was finally decommissioned in 1969. Swett transferred from active duty, back to the Marine Corps Reserve, and retired during the following year.

WWII Marine Aviator Decorated With The Medal of Honor on Massive First Mission Shoot Down
Swett discussing the battle during a Portraits of Valor interview. Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

With his military career at an end, Swett fully took over the family business, which he got involved in when his father passed away ten years earlier, in 1960. He spent the next twenty-three years manufacturing marine pumps and boat motors, until retiring from this second career in the early 1980s. Swett frequently spoke about his war experiences, during the remaining decades of his life, sharing the importance of honor, courage, and commitment with young adults and students in his community.

Swett relocated to Redding, California in 2007, where he resided until his death in 2009 at the age of 88. Swett was survived by his second wife, Verna, who passed away earlier this year, and his two sons, James Jr. and John.

James E. Swett was a Marine icon and incredibly proud of his service. For all his vast accomplishments, however, he remained bitter about one thing. During a 1991 interview, he revealed to a reporter that he hadn’t received full credit for his heroic performance on that fateful April day back in 1943. “Actually, I shot down eight of those Japanese dive bombers,” Swett asserted, “I’m still mad at the Marine Corps for confirming only seven.”