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Liveblogging World War II: August 30, 1942

John L. Smith:

[On] August 20… the Long Island catapulted Smith and the other F4F pilots toward Guadalcanal. About 1600 the Marines on Guadalcanal heard airplane engines, and were delighted to look up see the American Dauntlesses and Grummans coming in. At this time Henderson Field was a raw, muddy strip about 3500 feet long and 150 feet wide with crude revetments bulldozed around it. The Marine fliers landed without incident. Working through the night, a Navy maintenance unit, CUB-1, serviced and refueled the planes, as the Marines' own ground crews were still on ship. Without proper facilities, the enlisted men of CUB-1 had to hand-pump the fuel directly from 55-gallon drums.

About noon the next day, Smith and his division of four planes had their first aerial combat….

In virtually all of the air defense missions at Guadalcanal, the Wildcats stayed close to base. Barrett Tillman's Wildcat Aces of World War 2 describes the range and payload limitations of the F4F which made this the best tactic….

Smith's most memorable mission took place on August 30, 1942. At 5AM, the Marine pilots ate breakfast, and waited in the Ready Room for word from the coastwatchers that Japanese planes were on their way. No word for four hours. Finally, word came that flights of Bettys and Zeros were on their way. Both the Marine and Army pilots scrambled. The Army pilots flew P-400s (export versions of the Bell P-39 Airacobra, without oxygen equipment) and had to stay below 12,000 feet. The Marine Wildcats climbed to 15,000 feet as rapidly as possible. Smith was rubbernecking all around, trying to keep an eye on the Army pilots below, while scanning up above for Zeros.

Suddenly the radio crackled, "Zeros over us! Jumping us!" He saw twenty plus Zeros shooting up the P-400s. He and the other Marines roared down the 3,000 feet to join the fight. Smith picked a Zero and closed on it, until within 700 feet. The enemy plane filled the gunsight, and Smith opened up. The gunnery pattern converged on the Zero, which flashed into a yellow ball of fire. Victory number 6! The Zeros downed several P-400s and the Wildcats downed several Zeros; the remaining ones scattered. Smith and his division scanned for Bettys. He spotted a Zero emerging from a cloud. He followed and closed in from behind. In seconds, he fired and pieces of the Zero flew backward. It flamed and blew up. Victory number 7!

Smith had 2 kills in less than five minutes, but his mission was to stop the bombers. As he continued to scan, another Zero appeared at 12 o'clock, heading right at him. The Jap's wings flickered first; Smith replied, as the two planes close at 500 knots. Both kept on firing and neither gave way. Finally, the Zero began to smoke and pieces flew off. The plane exploded! Smith rammed his stick forward and dove just underneath the burning fighter, which plunged down toward Henderson Field. Number 8 for Smith!

He looked around. Both he and Lt. Kendrick were hit by many pieces of the last aircraft. Smith descended, trying to meet up with Kendrick, so they can go into the field together. He got down to 800 feet, along the north shoreline, but still couldn't find his wingman. Instead there were two Zeros which apparently had been strafing the field. Attacking two maneuverable Zeros at low altitude with a single Wildcat was very risky, but Smith lined one up and fired. He stayed with his twisting victim, which soon began to stream smoke and flame; it went right into the ground. The other Zero was nowhere in sight.  Number 9! Smith located Henderson Field, cut his speed to 75 knots, and landed, finding Kendrick had come in safely ahead of him. The Japs received a bloody repulse this day; 14 of 22 Zeros shot down, the bombers turning back because of weather.

But the best news of the day was the arrival of more Marine fliers: Major Galer VMF-224 and another dive-bombing squadron, VMSB-231. The nineteen newly arrived F4Fs critically supplemented Smith's 5 planes that were left operational by this date. While the brass considered how to get more planes into Guadalcanal, the Japanese took a hand, when sub I-26 torpedoed the Saratoga, putting her into drydock and leaving her planes nowhere to go but Henderson Field.