Chapter 3: The Jagstaffel

Except for lone, cruising B-17's, the Marines saw few friendly aircraft for almost two weeks after the withdrawal of the Navy carriers on the night of 8 August. Meanwhile, back-breaking labor was completing the unfinished Japanese air strip, and on the afternoon of the 20 August, the stubby little carrier Long Island, from some 200 miles southeast of Guadalcanal, catapulted two Marine squadrons, VMF-223 with 19 F4F-4s (Grumman Wildcat fighters) under Maj. John L. Smith and VMSB-232 with 12 SBD-3's (Douglas Dauntless dive bombers) under Lt. Col. Richard C. Mangrum.1 These were followed in 2 days by five long-nosed Army fighters, P-400's of the 67th Fighter Squadron, under Capt. Dale Brannon.

The P-400's which flew into Henderson Field on 22 August inaugurated a route over which many an Army fighter was destined to pass before the Japanese were driven from the Lower Solomons. In none too short hops they had flown all the way from New Caledonia, employing the Atlantic technique--fighters, equipped with belly tanks, shepherded by bombers or transports.


Leaving Planes des Gaiacs on 21 August, Captain Brannon's flight of five hopped 325 miles to Efate, 180 miles to Espiritu Santo. The following day, with gas tanks topped off after the warm-up, the P-400's tackled the 640 miles to Henderson Field. Gas consumption had been predicated upon low engine speed, a lean mixture, a 15-mph tail wind, and, in Captain Brannon's opinion, a landing powered by the proverbial fumes. Imperfect navigation and enemy fighters were written off.

The P-400's flew on the deck, at 200 feet, through mist and lowhanging clouds. In clear spaces, they spread out; when weather loomed ahead, they snuggled under the navigating B-17's wing. A second Fort followed with rubber boats, to be tossed to the pilots if they balled out. After 33/4 hours of flying, all five planes were set down on the Lunga air strip. The following day, Lt. Robert E. Chilson with 30 enlisted men of the 67th's ground echelon arrived off Lunga in the transport Fomalhaute; and when Capt. John A. Thompson brought in nine more P-400's on 27 Aug, the 67th was ready for action.

The 67th Fighter Squadron

If hardships prepare men for hardships, the 67th was prepared for Guadalcanal. Its personnel had sailed from New York in January 1942 in a crowded transport with inadequate water tanks--the men had received a daily ration of one canteen for washing, drinking, and shaving. After 38 days at sea they were rested for a week at a camp near Melbourne, Australia, and on 15 March disembarked on New Caledonia, where the inhabitants, military and civilian, momentarily expected the Japanese.

The 67th's airplanes were not only in crates but of a type only two of its pilots had ever flown. The 67th's new home was a half-completed airfield up at Tontouta, 35 miles from Noumea. Its one combination truck and trailer took one of the crated planes to Tontouta every 8 hours, alternately groaning and highballing over the mountainous road. When the crates were pried open instructions for P-39D's, F's, and K's were found, but none for P-400's; neither were the mechanics familiar with the plane. Still the work of assembly went forward. The men slept under shelter halves, the officers in a farmhouse--44 of them in parlor, bedroom, and earth-floored


basement. All united in cursing the sudden, unpredictable rains and in fighting the mosquitoes.

Tools for assembly consisted of 10 kits of simple first-echelon maintenance tools. Lines were found plugged with Scotch tape; one P-400's electrical circuit had evidently had the attention of a factory maniac: when the flap switch was pressed wheels would retract; when the wheel switch was pressed the guns would fire. Nevertheless, in less than a month 41 planes were assembled with the aid of the 65th Matériel Squadron, and the pilots were checked out with only a single accident. The squadron, finding that the P-400's instruments were inferior, learned how to fly without them. Spare parts all came from salvage; and one plane, "The Resurrection," eventually evolved as a 100-percent mongrel.

First Action

When Captain Brannon and his pilots landed at Henderson Field, action was not long in coming. The Marine pilots had pointed out on a little knoll near the runway the Japanese pagoda which served as Allied air operations headquarters. Near it was a flagpole up which a black flag was run when an air raid threatened. There was no real warning system-- the first radar did not function until September--but from other sources reports of approaching enemy formations were received.

On the hot, sunny afternoon of the 24th, pilots and ground crews were working around the P-400's when the black flag was hoisted. Already the drone of engines could be heard. Two of the 67th's pilots made a run for their planes, Captain Brannon and Lieutenant D. H. Fincher taking off with the Grummans in a cloud of dust. Thirty seconds later the bombs hit. The P-400's staggered off over the palm trees and evaded the Zeros sweeping down to strafe. The Grummans climbed to 8,000 feet, knocked down all but one of the nine enemy bombers, which may have come from the doomed Ryujo off to the north. The Army pilots happened on a wandering Zero, pumped lead until it exploded.

The Marines, living largely on the Japanese quartermaster, introduced the pilots to life on Guadalcanal. In the green, canopied Marine tents were straw sleeping mats and enamelware eating bowls--both Japanese. Also Japanese were the chow, largely fish and rice,


the cigarettes, and even the caramels. Socks, always too short, and loincloths were also available by courtesy of the Japanese QM. And across the river, a bare 200 yards away, was the enemy, with his snipers always alert for U.S. officers' insignia.

Until the arrival of VMF-223 and VMSB-232, the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area had been without air resources. Moreover, few supplies had come through to the beachhead. General Vandegrift had thrown a perimeter defense around the airfield upon its capture and was able to set up one battery of 90 mm guns and 58 automatic weapon positions against enemy air raids. The F4F-4's were immediately assigned the air defense of the area and the SBD's began to conduct long single-plane searches over enemy positions at Guadalcanal and northward up to New Georgia and Santa Isabel. Operating under Marine command, the P-400's soon took up part of the burden. On the 25th, they were up on dawn-to-dusk patrols over Henderson Field and on the 26th two pilots flew reconnaissance around the entire Guadalcanal coastline.

By the last week in August, Japanese tactics in the Solomon Islands had begun to take form. In the Buin-Faisi area of Bougainville, at Vella Lavella on Kula Gulf and at Rekata Bay on Santa Isabel, the Japanese had bases easily supplied from Truk and Rabaul. By September, enemy men and supplies were being loaded on fast vessels--destroyers or cruisers. These marauders, hiding from the Henderson Field-based aircraft during daylight, by night came fast down "The Slot" between the parallel lines of islands, landed men and supplies, stood off Henderson Field, shelled it, and were generally safe in the central Solomons by daylight. Thus the enemy in the Guadalcanal bush would be reinforced to the point of mounting a final attack on the beachhead, at which time other Japanese, supported by a sizeable portion of the Imperial Navy, would be brought down from the Mandates as an occupation force. Such actions were feasible so long as the enemy controlled the sea approaches to the Lower Solomons. Once these were lost, as they were in the mid-November engagements, the enemy was obliged to rely for reinforcements solely on the Tokyo Express.

Meanwhile, air attacks on Henderson were carried out almost daily from Rabaul via Kahili Field in southern Bougainville and various harassments maintained against the American garrison. These latter were ingenious sleep-destroyers. "Oscar," a submarine, surfaced nightly in


the dark off Lunga, reconnoitered, threw a few shells at either Tulagi or Guadalcanal. After midnight, an asthmatic two-engine bomber, variously named "Louie the Louse," "Washing Machine Charlie," or "Maytag Mike," would lay a stick of bombs across the field.

The 67th performed its daily patrols at the dangerous medium altitude of 14,000 feet. The planes could struggle a little higher, but the pilots, without oxygen, could not make long-sustained flights at this altitude. The P-400's days as an interceptor were numbered.

Fail to Reach Bombers

On 29 August came the first test. The P-400's were scrambled at 1200 to meet 18 enemy bombers with the usual Zero escort. Twelve went up in flights of four, climbed to 14,000 feet, and, to quote the squadron's historian, "staggered around, looking closely at all spots within their vision to make sure they were just spots and not enemy formations." The bombers rode safely above, at 17,000 feet until the Grummans hit them, knocking down four bombers and four escorts. The discouraged P-400's returned to a runway swarming with men. The strip seemed to have sprouted bushes; as it turned out the ground crews were using them to mark bomb craters. Ammunition was exploding; grass, hangars, and aircraft were afire; and scores of enemy snipers in the trees across the river.

30 August was a busy day. It began for the 67th at midnight; the SBD's had been sent on a hunt for enemy destroyers and the Army pilots were continuously on the alert until dawn, when their regular duties began. That day these consisted of maintaining combat air patrol over four friendly destroyers at Tulagi. The enemy raid was due at about noon--"Tojo Time"--as it was known from the regularity with which the enemy appeared at that hour. The coast watchers reported 22 single-engine planes coming in from Buka Passage and at 1130 all aircraft came in for reservicing.

It was reasoned that the Japanese would not send Zeros down alone, so the single-engine aircraft must be dive bombers and their target the ships at Tulagi. Eight Grummans and 11 P-400's were in commission and were disposed to meet the expected attack. Four P-400's were to patrol over Tulagi and hop the dive bombers as they pulled


out; seven cruised the towering cumulus at 14,000 feet to engage the enemy as he started down. The Grumman were somewhat above the latter group.

The seven P-400's had been cruising for about 30 minutes and already were feeling lack of oxygen when they were attacked, not by dive bombers but by Zeros. The agile Japanese dived down around a cloud, climbed up to take the P-400's from behind and below. They numbered about 20. The P-400's had started turning into a Lufbery in which there were more Zeros than P-400's when the Grummans dived and the melee became general. The astonishing Zeros were making almost square turns and the Army pilots found the only way to shake them was to head down for a cloud, make a turn on instruments, and come out on top, ready for a pass.

Below, the weather over the sea had closed down to 1,000 feet and quarter-mile visibility, and consequently the four-plane patrol started back. Coming out of a rain squall, the P-400's were attacked by a half-dozen Zeros and their formation torn apart. Two of the pilots, Lts. R.E. Wythes and R.E. Chilson, did not return.

Altogether four P-400's were lost, two pilots later making their way to Henderson Field on foot, after balling out. Five of the seven returning planes were out of commission by reason of bullet holes. Against these losses, the 67th was credited with four kills. The Marines got 14.

That did not end the day's activities. At 1500 hours, 17 F4F's and a dozen SBD's, with two escorting B-17's, arrived at Guadalcanal. Thirty minutes later, with 18 planes on Henderson Field, the Japanese dive bombers arrived. Ignoring the tempting array on the air strip, they caught the destroyer Blue a half mile off shore and sank her. Across at Tulagi, the transport Burrows ran aground and, to add to the commotion, nature intervened around 1615 with two earthquakes. That evening the Tokyo Express ran again, giving Henderson Field a shelling. Through all this, after but 4 days of operations at full strength, only three of the original 14 P-400's survived in commission on 1 September.

The air battle of 30 August proved that the P-400's on Guadalcanal could not be used as interceptors. In addition to the planes shot down, six returned to Henderson Field that afternoon riddled beyond repair. The 67th had early been aware of the limitations of its planes and the reports of the action of the 30th convinced General Harmon.


Map 2: Henderson Field Area


No Army or Marine aircraft then extant was entirely satisfactory against the Zero, but the P-400's possessed a peculiar disadvantage in that they were unable to reach the altitude customarily employed by enemy bombers. Rate of climb was low, wing load excessive, and the engine extremely vulnerable to hits in the glycol cooling system. The P-400 had been flown under far from optimum conditions, but its pilots were skilled and courageous, as Major Smith, commanding VMF-223, later testified. General Harmon immediately asked Washington for P-38 and P-47 squadrons, or the P-40 with the Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Meanwhile, since the P-39 type was his mainstay in the theater, the General cast about for ways of improving its performance. He considered that since .50-caliber bullets nearly disintegrated the Zeros, the 37-mm cannon in the P-39 could be replaced by either a .50-caliber machine gun or a 20-mm cannon. This would have the effect of lightening the plane.

Washington showed equal concern over the record of the 67th and the specific dictum of General Vandegrift that the P-400 was "entirely unsuitable" for operations on Guadalcanal. But the war had to be fought with weapons presently available and considerable numbers of P-39's were on their way to Pacific theaters. The recommended solution was stripping the fighter to lighten it. By the end, of September, the P-39K minus 650 pounds of its original equipment had achieved a service ceiling of 27,000 feet, and the Bell aircraft's performance against the Japanese eventually reached heights far above that of the old P-400's--the "klunkers," as the 67th dubbed them.

The P-400 as an Attack Plane

Meantime General Vandegrift at Guadalcanal faced the immediate problem--he had the undesirable aircraft on hand and had to find a use for it. The planes possessed good defensive armor plate and armament consisting of a 20-mm cannon, two .50-caliber and four .30-caliber machine guns; they could each carry one bomb and their engines operated reasonably well at low altitudes. The Japanese, moreover, had shown no extraordinary talent with flak. As an attack plane, then, the P-400 could use its bomb on shipping and shore installations, its 20-mm cannon on landing barges, and its machine guns on enemy personnel.


About 20 mileseast of Henderson Field, the Japanese held the native village of Tasimboko in some strength. The Marines planned to bring fresh troops from Tulagi, effect a landing east of Tasimboko, strike the position from the rear, and retire the same day. In preparation for this operation, the P-400's tried their wings in a new employment.

On the night of 1 September, two enemy transports and two destroyers lay off Tasimboko discharging troops. Foul weather having prevented the SBD's from interfering during darkness, Captain Brannon with five P-400's took off at 0600 to attack landing parties in the area. None were found, but five beached landing craft were sighted. At 0800 four more P-400's took off; they dropped 500-pound bombs on the village and strafed both the landing craft and the village. Back on Henderson Field, Tojo Time was imminent and rather than sit out the attack, the P-400's returned to Tasimboko. In their absence 18 bombers, escorted by 21 Zeros, came over Henderson Field. The F4F-4's reduced their number by three bombers and four fighters, but the P-400's returned to a cratered runway, a burned-out hangar, three fired SBD's, burning gas and ammunition dumps, and a good many delayed-action bombs.

Such expeditions became routine with the 67th, which began to be known as the "Jagdstaffel." The mechanics could always produce a pair of "klunkers" to go out and work over the Japanese. At first, the pilots chose their own targets--landing barges or supply dumps. Later they were sent out to bomb and strafe in the inlets and coves of Santa Isabel, where the enemy maintained jumping-off points for reinforcing Guadalcanal, and their bombing eventually became so accurate they could be assigned targets quite close to the Marine lines.

Day by day the P-400's went up to Tasimboko while the Japanese bombed or shelled Henderson Field. On 4 September, with only three P-400's in commission and 13 pilots to fly them, word was received that the enemy was putting men ashore in landing barges up on Santa Isabel, 75 miles northwest of Henderson Field. Led by Major Robert E. Galer in his F4F-4, the three P-400's were on their way by 1440; the target was easily located in a small cove. Six loaded landing craft were destroyed by two direct hits with 500-pounders and the boats and men still landing were thoroughly strafed. Altogether


a total of 25 landing craft out of 30 seen in the area were claimed destroyed. That night, however, the Japanese retaliated with the Express, a light cruiser and two destroyers sinking the American destroyer-transports Little and Gregory off Savo.

On the 5th, after all personnel on Henderson Field had undergone a dismal night of enemy shelling, the Jagdstaffel and the Grummans uncovered a prime target--15 fully loaded landing barges about 500 yards off the northwest coast of Guadalcanal. Six Grummans and two P-400's strafed until ammunition was exhausted. An Army pilot may have had this mission in mind when he came back to report that he and his wingman had literally cut a bloody X on the water through which Japanese troops were wading towards land. Two hours later, two P-400's returned to destroy most of the supplies in the landing craft which had grounded on a reef close inshore.

The Tasimboko operation--or, rather, raid--occurred on 8 September. Beginning at 0700, four P-400's and three SBD's bombed the area for 10 minutes, with the object of pinning down the defenders while the assault party went ashore. At 0900 the mission was repeated. At 1200 help was again requested, the Marines having tackled a rather larger force than had been anticipated, and the P-400's responded at once. Nevertheless, at 1530 hours the Marines asked that the P-400's cover their withdrawal.

Meanwhile, intermittent thundershowers had made 6-inch mud of Henderson Field's runway. Three of the P-400's were in commission and the pilots taxied them out. Captain Brannon lowered half flaps, held the brakes, and gave his engine full throttle. The plane crept forward. He wrestled it down the runway and staggered off. Less fortunate, Lieutenant V.L. Head lurched and skidded trying to pick up speed, muddy spray drenching the plane as it plowed through pools of water. Torque almost pulled it off the strip. Realizing he was running out of runway, the pilot tried to "hang it on the prop." The old P-400 stalled and hit, broke in three, and caught fire. Lieutenant Head was able to get out, though badly burned.

The third pilot took off through the flame and smoke. For 2 hours this lone pair of Army flyers covered the Marine withdrawal, doing lazy eights over the beach while the boats were loaded and launched. When the last had got away, the P-400's came in on reserve gas and somehow in the twilight got down on the strip.


By the time the Tasimboko raiders had returned, the Japanese were ready for a major attempt on the Marine positions. Their Express had been running regularly; their strength had been built to a peak. The Marine air establishment at Henderson Field was being whittled by operational losses and the necessity of daily interception. On 9 September, the F4F-4's were down to 11.

Lunga Ridge

In anticipation of enemy thrusts, Marine air strength was substantially augmented on 11 September and additional planes came in on the 13th. By the 12th the Japanese had prepared a formidable push against the perimeter defense of the airfield. Bombers hit at Henderson Field by day and cruisers and destroyers from the Express shelled it by night. A particularly heavy shelling occurred during the night of 13 September, supporting a three-pronged assault on the Marines. Two of the attacks were held, but the most vicious struck at the Lunga Ridge just south of the airfield, a position held by Colonel Merritt A. Edson's 1st Raider Battalion. All night the Japanese drove against the ridge. Colonel Edson's men were forced off the crest and down on the other side. Only the inner perimeter defense stood between the air strip and the enemy. Snipers broke through and the field was brought under mortar and artillery fire. Radio Tokyo announced that Guadalcanal was retaken.

The 67th mustered three of its P-400's to aid the Marine counterattack on 14 September. At 0730 hours Captain Thompson and Lieutenants B.W. Brown and B.E. Davis were dispatched to "Bloody Ridge." They did not have to fly to an objective; they simply circled the field, visible at all times to their ground crews except when they dipped behind the low hill. Then the murderous chatter of their armament could be heard. They made repeated passes until enemy rifle and machine-gun fire forced two of them down in dead-stick landings; the last simply ran out of ammunition. The Marines retook the hill and buried the enemy dead with a bulldozer.

It was clear that the Japanese had shot their bolt in the night attack of 13 September. The American lodgment on Guadalcanal had survived another push.

By now, the maligned P-400 had proved itself. General Vandegrift consistently used the plane against any position blocking his Marines--


in fact, he even asked for more P-400's. COMAIRSOPAC's chief of staff, Captain Matt Gardner, testified to its effectiveness in strafing troops and landing barges. The Marines preferred to use their SBD's against the reinforcing vessels. The P-400 had found in ground-air cooperation its niche on Guadalcanal.

In defiance of technical orders, the 67th Fdeveloped its own technique of dive bombing. On the plane's instrument panel was the warning: "Do not release bomb when nose angle 30 degrees up or down or when airspeed exceeds 280 m.p.h." The Jagdstaffel discovered that the bomb would release at 70º and clear the propeller arc if a quick pressure on the stick was employed to pull the airplane away from the falling bomb. Dives averaged 300 and sometimes reached 500 mph. Unlike the SBD's, which pushed over at 15,000 to 17,000 feet, the P-400's started their dives at 5,000 feet, released and pulled out right over the jungle, zig-zagging over the palms to avoid ground fire and returning to strafe where the latter revealed troop positions.

The cover offered by the jungle and coconut groves effectively concealed the Japanese and distressed the Jagdstaffel, which often could not find the target or believe it had caused damage. Marine outposts reported enemy concentrations, which were shown the pilots on a map and indicated by panels in American-held territory. The P-400's dive-bombed the spot and came back to strafe blindly among the trees. Only occasionally did they catch a fleeting glimpse of the Japanese. However, the infantry, moving in, found bodies in abundance and sometimes silenced mortars, and captured diaries testified to the Japanese trooper's great fear of the "long-nosed American planes." The Marine and Navy intelligence officers who briefed and interrogated the 67th employed this evidence to encourage the Army pilots, and the Jagdstaffel took heart.

Henderson Field's Combat Routine

The routine of combat at Henderson Field began around 1200. Enemy bombers would arrive, 18 to 24 strong, high in the sun in a perfect V of V's, escorted by 20 or more Zeros in flights of three. Coming down from Kahili field or Buka fields, the formation would bend its course around the islands to avoid being spotted. Some 150 miles out of Henderson Field it would reach altitude, then come in fast--perhaps as fast as 250 mph.


As the warning came through, a captured Rising Sun flag, the signal to scramble, would shoot up at the pagoda. Every flyable aircraft would head through the craters for the runway. If the crews noticed a wind drop amid the dust, they knew the plane had run afoul of a dud hole or a small crater hidden in the tall grass. First planes on the runway took off first, two at a time-SBD's or P-400's. Once aloft, the Grummans, test-firing, would climb for altitude while the SBD's and P-400's flew off to work over Japanese territory. The ground crews worked until the black flag went up; then they'd hit the foxholes.

The 67th's ground crews shared the Marines' hardships on Guadalcanal, even voluntarily manning the forward foxholes on nights when a break-through seemed imminent. There were not enough of them for the job; they had few tools, no hoist equipment, no new parts. Only seven armorers had accompanied the original 14 planes. Refueling in particular was a back-breaking job. Crew chiefs regularly slept under the P-400's-in case individual Japanese were able to slip through the Marine lines. Nothing but combat materiel had accompanied the first flights to Guadalcanal.

After their repulse on Lunga Ridge, the Japanese evidently retired to give the Guadalcanal problem some thought. The elements of their solution, however, did not at once differ importantly from the familiar pattern. The Tokyo Express still ran and air raids on Henderson Field continued, as did the knife work in the bush and the activities of "Maytag Mike." It was clear that decisive naval actions and the landing of heavy reinforcements were necessary to secure the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. These were in the offing, but not immediately. The Marines, reinforced by a large convoy on 18 September, made their preparations. The 11th Group on Espiritu and the 67th at Henderson Field carried on.


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[1] TBF's, Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers, later appeared on Guadalcanal.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation