“An ace in one day.”
If Swett had a taste for trouble, he was born at the right time. And he would rise to meet it both promptly and bravely, for his first day of action would lead to the downing of 8 enemy planes and the award of a Medal of Honor for his actions. He would go on to shoot down a further 7.5 planes and receive further decoration for his bravery and actions: two Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals.
James Elms Swett trained as a pilot and gained his flying wings in several states. However, his period of training was not without incident, for he was once placed under arrest for ten days for “diving and zooming over traffic” below 500 feet (152 meters), along U.S. Route 1.”
(This Day in Aviation: https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/james-elms-swett/)
In December that same year, 1942, he shipped out to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where he was assigned to VMF-221, part of Marine Air Group 12. His very first day of action would see the events that would make his name.
“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. Machine gun bullets fired 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. Lieutenant Swett was listed as wounded in action.
During only fifteen minutes, 2nd Lieutenant Swett destroyed seven enemy aircraft and damaged an eighth.¹ He had become an “Ace in One Day.”
The citation for his Medal of Honor, signed by President Roosevelt, read:
“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.”
He was shot down once again near the island of New Georgia. Fortunately, he was spotted and rescued by some indigenous tribal members in a canoe. They took him in their ten-man canoe to an Australian coast watcher’s location, a journey of several hours.
Late in the war, he supported operations at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
After the war, he stayed on in the military, but was not allowed to join his squadron in Korea because the Navy did not wish to put a Medal of Honor recipient at such risk.
After leaving the military, he worked and then ran his father’s engineering company. He collected Porsches and would own 13 of them at various times.
He married Lois Anderson during the war, while on shore leave, and they would have two sons, both of whom would become Marine Corps officers.
302 Colonel James Elms SWETT Congressional Medal of Honor of USMC Reserve was born in 1920 in Seattle. As a 22 year old First Lieutenant and flight leader in MARINE VMF-221 FIGHTER SQUADRON, part of 1st Marine Air Wing in Marine Air Group 12 over GUADALCANAL, on one single sortie shot down eight Jap Judy aircraft which were attacking US carriers & was shot down.
The Citation of his Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration, read: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, as a Division Leader in Marine Fighter Squadron 221 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 skilful precision in the water off Tulagi without further injury. The superb airmanship and tenacious fighting spirit which enabled First Lieutenant Swett to destroy seven enemy bombers in a single flight were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Lt. Swett went on to score 8.5 more victories while flying F-4U CORSAIRS, for a total of 15.5. He was shot down for a second time in July, 1943. He spent most of 1944 training and filling up a new Corsair squadron, VMF-221. This squadron was assigned to Bunker Hill for kamikaze protection. “As Jim Swett noted, the Navy Captain didn’t want the Marine fliers on board, but when they landed their Corsairs twenty seconds apart, he was impressed. Bunker Hill and the Fifth Fleet sortied from Ulithi in February, 1945, for strikes against OKINAWA and the Home Islands. Operating as an anti-kamikaze barrier, the squadron suffered heavy losses, mainly from ground fire over Japanese airbases.
On May 11, 1945, NE of Okinawa, Jim Swett was flying his Corsair on Combat Air Patrol, leading his section. They had shot down a Frances scout plane and a Betty bomber, when they got word to go after a Jill kamikaze. Swett caught up with the low-flying suicide plane, and “tore it up with all four 20mm cannon.” The plane dived into the ocean. He headed back toward Bunker Hill, and as he got into landing formation, two kamikazes hit the carrier. The first landed in the middle of the crowded flight deck, and its bomb killed half the anti-aircraft gunners on the port side of the ship. The second one, a Zero, crashed right into the VF-84’s ready room, killing about 30 pilots. The ship caught fire, which caused more explosions; in all, almost 400 men were killed. Swett collected about 24 of the circling airplanes, mostly Corsairs, and they dropped dye markers and Mae Wests for the crewmen swimming in the oily water around the stricken carrier. Then they flew over to Enterprise, the LSO of which skilfully landed all of the 24 homeless airplanes. As soon as the pilots left their planes, Enterprise crew pushed most of them over the side; there was no room for the extra aircraft. After several days, he caught up with Bunker Hill, smelling of burnt flesh and smoke, for an awful trip back to Pearl Harbor.”
He had joined VMF-221 at Guadalcanal in March, 1943 with 433 hours of flying and flew three tours with VMF-221 in the Pacific Air War, being awarded eight DFCs and four Air Medals. Col Swett knew of ‘Manila John’ BASILONE from a fellow CMOH winner, Mitchell PAGE and also in GUADALCANAL and was most happy to agree to also commemorate the tremendous service and courage of Gunnery Sgt John Basilone CMOH and his posthumous Navy Cross USMC. Manila John, so called from his earlier service in the pre-war Philippines, despite being able not to after his award, wished to return to combat duty to be with his “Marine friends” and would be awarded his Navy Cross when killed on 19 February, 1945 with the 5th Marine Division, “Shrewdly gauging the tactical situation shortly after landing when his company’s advance was held up by the concentrated fire of a heavily fortified Japanese blockhouse, Gunnery Sergeant Basilone boldly defied the smashing bombardment of heavy caliber fire to work his way around the flank and up to a position directly on top of the blockhouse and then, attacking with grenades and demolitions, single handedly destroyed the entire hostile strong point and its defending garrison.
Consistently daring and aggressive as he fought his way over the battle-torn beach and up the sloping, gun-studded terraces toward Airfield Number 1, he repeatedly exposed himself to the blasting fury of exploding shells and later in the day coolly proceeded to the aid of a friendly tank which had been trapped in an enemy mine field under intense mortar and artillery barrages, skilfully guiding the heavy vehicle over the hazardous terrain to safety, despite the overwhelming volume of hostile fire. In the forefront of the assault at all times, he pushed forward with dauntless courage and iron determination until, moving upon the edge of the airfield, he fell, instantly killed by a bursting mortar shell. Stouthearted and indomitable, Gunnery Sergeant Basilone, by his intrepid initiative, outstanding skill, and valiant spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of the fanatic opposition, contributed materially to the advance of his company during the early critical period of the assault, and his unwavering devotion to duty throughout the bitter conflict was an inspiration to his comrades and reflects the highest credit upon Gunnery Sergeant Basilone and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country”.
His earlier actions at GUADALCANAL had been a most important contributor to success there and his CITATION read: “For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in the Lunga Area. Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on 24 and 25 October 1942. While the enemy was hammering at the Marines’ defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of 2 sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault. In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its guncrews, was put out of action, leaving only 2 men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived. A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment. His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”