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James Elms Swett

Col. James Swett
Pilot / Triple Ace VMF-221
VMF-141 Congressional Medal of Honor

Colonel James Swett was born on June 15, 1920, in Seattle, Washington, and grew up in San Mateo, California. In 1939, he enrolled at the College of San Mateo, and earned his private pilot's license, which amounted to 450 more hours of flying than he received during his Navy flight training.

He joined the Navy and started flight training in September, 1941. In early 1942, he completed flight training and finished in the top ten percent of his class. He was given the option to choose between a commission in the Marine Corps or the Navy, and he chose the Marine Corps. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. He continued his advanced flight training, first at Quantico, Virginia, then Lake Michigan, he became carrier qualified aboard the USS Wolverine, and finally in San Diego, California.

In December, 1942, he shipped out to the Southwest Pacific, and when he arrived at Guadalcanal, he was assigned to VMF-221, which was part of Marine Air Group 12, 1st Marine Air Wing. During the war, he flew 104 combat missions, shot down 15.5 enemy fighters in air-to-air combat, and had four more probables. He flew both the F4F Wildcat (specifications) and the F4U-1, -1A, -1C and -1D Corsair.

After the war, he became the Commanding Officer of VMF-141, which was stationed at NAS Alameda, California, flying the F-4U Corsair. When the Korean War started, VMF-141 was deployed to the conflict, but he was held behind, as the USMC did not want to risk putting a Medal of Honor recipient in combat. He joined the reserves in 1950, and retired as a Colonel in 1970.

Medals
Congressional Medal of Honor
Distinguished Flying Cross with 5 Gold Stars
Purple Heart with 1 Gold Star
Air medal with 21 Gold Stars
Presidential Unit Citation with 2 Bronze Stars

Air-to-air Victories
April 7, 1943 – 7 Aichi D3A Val Dive Bombers – Solomon Islands
June 30, 1943 – 2 Mitsubishi G4M Betty Bombers, _ Mitsubishi A6M Zero – Rendova
July 11, 1943 – 2 Mitsubishi G4M Betty Bombers, 1 Mitsubishi A6M Zero – New Georgia
October, 1943 – 2 Mitsubishi A6M Zero – Kahili, Bouganville
November 2, 1943 – 1 Aichi D3A Val Dive Bomber, 1 Tony Fighter
May 11, 1945 – 1 Yokosuka D4Y Judy Kamikaze – Okinawa



Medal of Honor Citation

"For extraordinary heroism and personal valor above and beyond the call of duty, as division leader of Marine Fighting Squadron 221 with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, in action against enemy Japanese aerial forces in the Solomons Islands area, 7 April 1943. In a daring flight to intercept a wave of 150 Japanese planes, 1st Lt. Swett unhesitatingly hurled his 4-plane division into action against a formation of 15 enemy bombers and personally exploded 3 hostile planes in midair with accurate and deadly fire during his dive. Although separated from his division while clearing the heavy concentration of antiaircraft fire, he boldly attacked 6 enemy bombers, engaged the first 4 in turn and, unaided, shot down all 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 1st Lt. Swett to destroy 7 enemy bombers in a single flight were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. "

When 1st Lieutenant James Swett arrived at Guadalcanal, he was assigned to VMF-221, which was flying the Grumman F4F Wildcat, and attacking Japanese position in the Solomon Islands. Admiral Yamamoto sent orders for a major Japanese attack against the American forces based at Guadalcanal, with the date of the attack set for April 7, 1943. This attack involved almost 200 Japanese planes, more planes than the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On April 7, 1943, James Swett flew his first combat mission. Taking off early in the morning, he flew combat air patrol over Guadalcanal, but no enemy aircraft were spotted. He returned two times for fuel, and soon thereafter, 150 Japanese dive-bombers and fighters headed for Guadalcanal.

Leading a four-ship of F4F Wildcats, 1st Lieutenant Swett climbed to an altitude between 15,000 to 20,000 feet, and then dove on the enemy dive-bombers, which were making a run on the Allied ships below. As he closed in on the Val dive-bombers, A6M Zeroes appeared, and the race was on to see if Lieutenant Swett could reach the Vals before the Zeroes reached him. He quickly dispatched the first Val in his gunsights, and then shot at another Val, which exploded and disintegrated. He closed in on a third Val, and was down to an altitude of 2,000 feet. He shot at the third Val, and suddenly felt his F4F Wildcat shutter.

His right wing had been hit, and he lost the inboard gun. He continued the attack, and finally shot down the third Val. Down to 500 feet off the deck, he began to climb and headed for more Val dive-bombers that were returning from dives on Tulagi Harbor. He closed in and fired and shot down the fourth Val. Soon after that, he shot down his fifth Val, making him an Ace on his first combat mission in only a matter of minutes. He shot down two more Vals, wondering all the while where the Japanese A6M Zeroes were, and as he began to hunt for the eighth Val, his windshield suddenly shattered. The rear gunner on the Val had fired first, hitting his Wildcat. He fired back and the Val began to smoke, but his guns cut out and his Wildcat was damaged.

Without waiting to confirm his eighth kill, he headed for Henderson Field. His engine began to run poorly, and his oil pressure was down to zero. His engine was burning oil and finally quit. He was too far from his home base and had to ditch his plane off Florida Island. He descended to 500 feet, slowed to 150 knots, and prepared to ditch when anti-aircraft fire opened up on him. He jettisoned the canopy, and upon impact with the water, his head was banged around and he broke his nose. His F4F Wildcat went down quickly, and Lieutenant Swett was dragged down underwater with it. He finally was able to get free and floated to the surface with his Mae West life preserver and life raft.

He was rescued by a picket boat, and spent six days in the hospital. When he returned to VMF-221 on Guadalcanal, he learned that Admiral Mitschner had nominated him for the Medal of Honor.

Lt. Swett went on to score 8.5 more victories while flying F4U Corsairs, for a total of 15.5. He spent most of 1944 training and filling up a new Corsair squadron, VMF-221. This squadron was assigned to Bunker Hill, in direct response to the kamikaze threat. As Jim Swett noted in Aces Against Japan: Vol II, 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, Swett was flying his Corsair on CAP, 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 antiaircraft 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, whose LSO skillfully 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.

After the war, Jim Swett worked in the family business as a manufacturers' rep, and stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1970, when he retired as a Colonel.

Jim died on January 18, 2009 in Redding, California.

Sources:

Edward Sims, Greatest Fighter Missions , Harper and Brothers, 1962 - This sequel includes U.S. Navy and Marine Corps pilots, especially for details of Swett's Apr. 7, 1943 mission.