N. W. Emmott

The Aviation Branch of the United States Marine Corps has a proud history, and has always given as good as it got. During the Second World War, for instance, it lost 2,513 men killed, but shot down 2,344 enemy aircraft . There were times, however, when it sustained grievous losses. On one of these occasions, almost a complete squadron was lost in one day. When this happened, it was not to a human enemy that the kills were credited, but to the intangible enemies of the airborne environment.

The squadron was lost because its pilots were lost. Literally, they had lost their way. Their navigation had completely broken down, leaving them without any idea of where they were or how they could reach safety, which at times was only a few miles away.

As 1943 turned into 1944, the Japanese were pushed back along their chain of islands closer and closer to Japan itself. The Gilbert Islands had been captured by November 30, 1943, and Brigadier-General L.G. Merritt’s Marine Base Defense Air Wing was preparing for the assault on the Marshall Islands. As a reinforcement for the Wing, Marine Air Group 22 (Colonel James M. Daly) was brought into the active theatre of operations from Midway where it had been training and serving as a fighter-defense force. One of MAG-22’s squadrons, VMF-422, was detached from its group at Midway on 15 December 1943, and flown by transport planes to Ewa (pronounced “Evva”) ten miles west of Pearl Harbor.

VMF-422 had been organized on New Year’s Day, 1943, at San Diego . Before it was a month old, however, it was moved a hundred and fifty miles north to Santa Barbara. There it received the normal training given a newly outfitted squadron, in airmanship, gunnery, bombing, and navigation. Singly, and in company, the pilots learned their trade and passed their tests until finally they were all qualified and marked ready for action overseas. Planes, pilots, and the men who supported them embarked in USS Bunker Hill for Pearl Harbor, arriving there 12 October 1943.

As soon as it reached Pearl Harbor, the squadron was transferred to Midway, where it underwent further training as well as serving as a fighter-defense unit, until 15 December 1943. It was then detached and flown back to Ewa in Hawaii by transport plane. There the squadron received 24 new Corsairs (F4U’s) from Marine Aircraft, Hawaiian Area. The planes were lifted aboard the escort carrier Kalinin Way 17 January 1944, and the little carrier carried them and twenty-seven of the squadron’s 40 pilots to Tarawa, arriving a week later on 24 January. The planes were catapulted that morning and landed at Hawkins Field, Tarawa, between 0900 and 1100.

Rear Admiral J.H. Hoover, Commanding Defense Forces and Shore-Based Air for Task Force 57, ordered his newly operational squadron to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands, to await disposition for the Flintlock Operation, against the Japanese in the Marshall Islands. Funafuti was 700 miles south and slightly east of Tarawa. It was a long way over water for single-engined planes, but the two island chains, the Gilbert Islands and the more southerly Ellice Islands, stretched in a long ragged line south-eastward paralleling their course, which meant that they would never be very far from land.

Had the squadron commander requested one, an escort plane, a P2V fast enough to keep up with the F4U’s and complete with multiple engines and a navigator, would have been supplied to keep the fighters company on their trip south. The request was not made, however, and when the squadron left it had no big brother to escort it.

The Corsairs - F4U1D was the official designation - flown by the pilots of 422 Squadron were big, gull-winged, thoroughly rugged aircraft, which chalked up a long and honorable record in the South Pacific, and then went on to fight in many other wars, including Korea. Still later, they were used by the French in Southeast Asia, and were still flying in combat as late as 1969. Their big three-bladed propellers, which had led to the decision to crank the wings to allow the great propeller blades to clear the ground without making the undercarriage absurdly high, were driven by Pratt and Whitney R2800 engines, developing 2400 horsepower, the first power-plants to develop more than one horsepower per cubic inch. With 245 gallons of gasoline in the main tanks and another 50 in each wing, they were built for endurance. Although they did a lot of bombing, they were primarily fighters, carrying 2400 rounds of 50 caliber ammunition when they were combat loaded, for their six guns.

They were good, solid planes, in the air, easy to fly but treacherous to land. With raised seats, they had good visibility despite their bulky profiles. There were a few things to object to, one of them being the fact that gasoline had a habit of dripping from the wing tanks into the wheel wells, which could on occasion be disastrous. Able to fly faster than any plane the Japanese possessed, and with a rate of climb of nearly 3,000 feet per minute, they racked up a solid combat record. The pilots bore for them that affection which has kept pictures of Corsairs hanging on den and office walls for a half of a century.

They were not, however, well equipped from a navigation standpoint, and their pilots could not therefore be well-trained in navigation . The aircraft themselves carried Magnesyn compasses and “whisky” or “fish-bowl” compasses. Magnesyn compasses have a sensitive element remote from the indicator, which require electrical transmission of the magnetic heading sensed by it. However, tests made after the war showed that its accuracy was disappointing, that it was sensitive to turning errors, and that its transmission lines picked up additional errors. Furthermore, if one phase of the electrical power failed, the compass would immediately register a 120-degree error. Periodic compass-swinging was a problem. As a result, flying pre-calculated courses in the formalized fashion beloved of navigators was neither popular nor likely to be accurate.

The main task of the fighter pilots was keeping formation, which kept them busy. The squadron flew as one man, with every pilot but the division or squadron commander concentrating on maintaining the formation. Each cockpit contained a plotting board which slid out toward the pilot, but the cockpit was narrow and the device was rather difficult to use. Navigation itself could only be by dead reckoning, with courses and speeds calculated on the ground beforehand from meteorological forecasts, correcting them if possible by observing the sea state. Compass and airspeed indicator errors added to the forecast inaccuracies. Radio navigation was valuable wherever the correct ground-based aids existed, provided that the compatible airborne equipment was installed in the aircraft and the pilots knew how to use it.

Within the continental United States, of course, navigation had been largely dependent on the four-course low-frequency radio ranges, in which pilots listened to a Morse code “A” (a dot followed by a dash ) or an “N” (a dash followed by a dot), and altered course until they heard the two letters blend into one continuous tone. Needless to say, there were no low-frequency radio ranges installed on islands which a few months before had been in Japanese hands. There were, however, “YG” stations, similar to those installed aboard carriers, whereby a radio transmitter broadcast a series of letters; the one which the pilot received loudest told him in which a number of sectors, centered at the broadcast station, he was located. The aircraft were fitted with IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) which consisted of a transponder aboard the aircraft which broadcast a signal on radar frequencies which made a bright splash of light on the radar tube on the ground, but it was not to be used except by specific instruction.

The squadron commander was a promising officer. By the standards of 1943, he was mature, being in his late twenties. As a graduate of Annapolis who had opted for Marine aviation, he had begun his flight training at a later age then most wartime-trained pilots, gaining his wings at Pensacola just before the war broke out. Flying in the last days of peace had by no means reached the hectic pace it attained after the guns began to fire, and aviators logged much less time in a year; furthermore, after Pearl Harbor, regular officers who were familiar with Naval and Marine administration, knew how to handle large bodies of men and how to take responsibility, were in desperately short supply. As a result, he bypassed much of the advanced training given aviators who had joined the service years after he did, and the opportunity to make up for formal training by keeping in flying practice was denied him also by the demands of his job as a staff officer.

According to the staff aerologist on board USS Curtiss, the weather was good from Tarawa to a few miles north of Nanomes. From there to Funafuti conditions were expected to be somewhat worse, with scattered showers and squalls; flying conditions in the showers would not be good. Specialist briefing officers at Tarawa provided the squadron commander with charts and any cockpit navigational equipment needed, and discussed the flight with him. He passed the information and material along to his pilots. The flight was fairly long, but it was considered routine; islands were strung along the whole route, and visibility, except in clouds, was good. To fly from one island to another, only rarely out of sight of land of some sort, and with fair weather cumulus clouds parked over the islands where they made a hot spot surrounded by a cooler sea, seemed scarcely a severe test for men accustomed to flying over the empty sea near Midway, and coming back to it every time. Furthermore, as close to the equator as they were, the compass is steady, since the earth’s magnetic field is free from the magnetic anomalies which plague it in higher latitudes.

The squadron’s pilots spent the night of 24 January aboard the converted yacht Southern Seas, and then went ashore again the next morning, to be briefed by their commanding officer. Whether he saw a new weather report, posted on the bulleting board at 0830, is not known, but he probably did. It showed the weather to be slightly worse than it had been the day before. The report was 14 hours old when it was posted, but it is doubtful whether even an up-to-the-minute report would have shown weather bad enough to deter the squadron from proceeding.

At about 0930 hours, 23 of the squadron’s pilots took off for Nanomea, leaving one man, with starter trouble, behind. Their destination was about two and a half hours’ flying time from Tarawa, and they should have reached there with 211 gallons in their tanks, good for another three hours and fifty minutes. Air Traffic Control was by Operations Movement messages, sent operational priority, but nobody specifically cleared the flight to depart. After the 23 Corsairs had roared into the air, an enlisted man on watch in the control tower called the Air Command Post, telling of the squadron’s departure, and saying that he understood that its destination was Funafuti. The Air Command Post sent a departure report to Funafuti, but nothing was sent to Nanomea, the point of intended landing, until Nanomea requested the information. The Island Commander was never officially notified of the proposed flight, although the Island Operations Officer and his assistant at Hawkins Field knew that it was to be made and the approximate time of take off. Undoubtedly the whole matter was considered routine, and in any case, the aircraft were on a ferry flight and not being sent into battle, while the Island Operations officer knew that the “no escort” aircraft had not been requested. Had it been, it would have been provided.

The Corsairs flew some 400 miles through good weather without trouble, using the long row of the southern Gilberts, off to their left, as check points. Everything went well until about 1210, when they were about 100 miles or so from Nanomea. The squadron then ran into bad weather, and the pilots dropped down to 200 feet as they entered heavy clouds. At about 1225 the C.O. made a sharp turn to the left, while the squadron fought to maintain formation. A series of sharp turns followed the first one, and in a few minutes the squadron formation had become thoroughly confused. Three of the pilots lost contact with the other twenty.

For more than two hours, until most of them ran out of fuel, the remaining twenty aircraft flew random patterns. During this entire period they were plotted by Nanomea on radar, at distances of between 10 and 70 miles. However, since Nanomea had not been informed who the flight was or where it was going, it was assumed that the aircraft were bombers headed toward the Solomons, and one of the pilots who managed to contact Nanomea was advised to fly on a heading on 260 degrees magnetic - out westward over the open ocean.

The twenty pilots entered a clear area after about an hour, passed over a Higgins boat and another small craft, and then circled over Nui Island, about halfway between Nanomea and Funafuti. Then the squadron began to break up.

Lt. Christian F. Lausesen reported engine trouble and made a water landing. Lt. Robert C. Lehnert bailed out to help him, and saw Lausesen in the water; but although Lehnert was rescued 48 hours later, Lausesen was never seen again.

The 18 planes that were left orbited, and then flew, probably south-easterly, in the general direction of Funafuti, until they ran into another squall. The C.O. turned over the lead, and command of the flight, to Captain Cloyd R. Jeans, and then disappeared. Neither he nor his plane was ever heard of again. Lt. Earl C. Thompson also lost contact, and disappeared forever. Lt. Robert P. Moran became separated, but managed to contact Nanomea by radio. This was the occasion on which Nanomea advised him to fly 260 degrees magnetic; he did, to bail out as soon as he sighted Nui. Unfortunately he became entangled in his shroud lines and was unable to free himself before he drowned in the heavy surf. The natives buried his body.

The remaining fifteen kept flying until two pilots told Captain Jeans that they were almost out of fuel. Realizing that inevitably they soon would all be in the same predicament, Captain Jeans decided they would all ditch their aircraft and stay together. Thirteen of the planes made a formation crash-landing in the water, while the other two hit the surface seven miles away. The thirteen pilots climbed into twelve one-man rubber life rafts, where they were to stay for two days. A destroyer picked up one of the other two pilots, but Lt. William A. Aycrigg II was lost.

After two days in the water the group of 13 pilots was sighted by a patrolling PBY-5A of VP-53 about 100 miles west-southwest of Funafuti, but even then their luck remained bad. The plane was damaged in attempting to make a landing, and the destroyer Hobby had to rescue everyone - the fighter pilots and their would be rescuers.

So far, the toll was 22 planes and six pilots. There was, however, a macabre postscript to the incident . The aircraft with starter trouble at Tarawa had the unserviceability repaired and took off to follow its mates. As it became airborne its wings folded in flight and it went in, killing its pilot.

There was an investigation. A host of weaknesses were exposed. The first of them was in communications. It had been planned to use 6970 kilocycles to communicate with the operations towers on the various fields in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. According to the communications plan, all these control towers guarded that frequency. However, the flight never managed to gain effective control with anybody at all; the one man who got an answer from Nanomea could not make his predicament clear to his listeners, and received a heading to steer which succeeded only in getting him into more trouble. The radar crews at Nanomea, who had the disoriented flight in view on their screens for two hours, never managed to contact any of them, or to give them any advice.

There were normal, conventional low-frequency radio ranges on Nanomea and Funafuti, but all the pilots but one were unable or unwilling to use them. They had not been told which quadrants of the Nanomea range were N and which were A quadrants, and it is quite possible that some of them settled down on headings ninety degrees different from those that would have taken them to safety. Voice calls for the bases were not listed on the radio-aid folders given the men, and none of the pilots knew what they were. The YG (or ZB) beacons available had not been calibrated. Worst of all, the fact that nobody had informed Nanomea of the flight kept the operations there from looking for the aircraft and trying to help them.

Despite these difficulties, a squadron with basic navigational ability should still have had little trouble in reaching Nanomea, or for that matter Funafuti. The first mystery is why the C.O. made the initial left turn after he hit the bad weather just out from Nanomea. A number of guesses have been hazarded. The suggestion has been made that the C.O. suffered an attack of vertigo, from which he did not recover before he was completely disoriented. He may have thought he had passed his Estimated Time of Arrival for Nanomea and turned to start a search pattern. The Corsair required the pilot to bend down to change tanks; while he was doing this he might have inadvertently changed course. Perhaps his compass developed a fault, common to devices depending on synchro transmitters, which led to a compass indication in error by 120 or 240 degrees.

A second question is why the C.O. handed over command of the squadron to Captain Jeans when he did. If he recognized that he was in difficulty, it would have made sense to turn over the lead to another officer to give himself the chance to “fly loose,” collect his wits, analyze the situation and come up with a solution; but if this were his idea the question arises as to why he did not do it sooner. In any case he disappeared soon after he did turn over command, and what happened to him will never be known, except that he probably crashed into the sea.

The third mystery is why the flight did not sort itself out when it broke into the clear over Nui Island, which other pilots had consistently used as a check-point, find out where they were, and then carry on to Funafuti, or return to Nanomea. They might have understandably been reluctant of returning through the tropical storm to Nanomea, but reaching Funafuti was quite practicable. Lt. John E. Hansen, who managed to get the frequency of the Funafuti radio range from one of the other pilots, tuned in the Funafuti range and flew there, landing with 80 gallons of fuel - enough for another hour of flight. Why the pilot who gave Hansen the frequency to tune his set never followed is not know either.

Yet another mystery lies in the fact that the flight was within hailing distance of Nanomea for about two hours. A normal search pattern would have brought them right over the island, had they flown an organized sweep. The planes were in radio contact with one another, so that planning the pattern and maintaining the spacings would have been quite easy. It is, of course, quite possible that they had never practiced any such maneuvers and did not know how to get started.

There were some changes made when the story came out. “Thou shalt not navigate without an escort” became holy writ in the South Pacific . Briefings became much more complete, and more intensive, all the way down to the individual. Instructions went out to ensure that commanders saw that their pilots knew how to operate their radio gear and practiced using it.

The war continued, leaving the Ellice and Gilbert Islands in the background, with the incident creating hardly a ripple. Squadron 422 was refitted, re-staffed and put back into service flying 24 Corsairs. It went on to occupy Kwajalein, and then Eniwetok, and finished the war in Okinawa, chasing down Kamikazi planes bent on destroying radar picket ships and any other U.S. naval craft they could reach. Navigation from Okinawa proved to be no problem.