James Elms Swett was a fighter pilot and ace in the US Marines in World War II. He earned the Medal of Honor for heroism on his very first combat mission, and finished the war with fifteen and a half aerial victories.
Swett was born on June 15, 1920, in Seattle, Washington, and attended college in San Mateo, California, before enlisting in the Naval Reserves in August 1941. He became an aviation cadet and earned his wings as a Marine Corps aviator in April 1942, being assigned soon after to VMF-221, the “Fighting Falcons”. The unit, equipped with F4F Wildcat fighters, arrived at Guadalcanal on March 16, 1943. By this time in the war, Guadalcanal and some surrounding islands had been secured, but most of the rest of the Solomon Islands chain was still occupied by the Japanese. Swett had his baptism of fire three weeks later. Having finished a morning patrol on April 7, he was sent up again in the afternoon after coastwatchers spotted a large group of Japanese planes headed straight for the Marine base. The group turned out to be 67 Val dive bombers escorted by 110 Zero fighters. When they came into visual range, Swett’s fellow flyer, John “Smiley” Burnett from VMF-214, was heard to say, “Holy Christ! There’s millions of ‘em.” Meeting the Japanese were 76 Marine, Navy, and Army fighters.
The 22-year old Swett was over Tulagi Harbor (on Tulagi Island across the sound from Guadalcanal) when he spied a group of bombers, and attacked. He shot down three before they could start their bombing runs, then came under friendly anti-aircraft fire which put a hole in his port wing. Pulling up at eight hundred feet, he spotted seven Vals that had just finished their drop. He flew after them, and was able to splash four in short order. When he lined up on the fifth, however, the rear gunner sent out a stream of murderous fire, shattering Svett’s canopy and damaging the engine. Swett was still game, and poured the last of his ammunition into the bomber, causing it to smoke. He turned back toward Henderson Field, trying to coax his crippled plane as far as he could. It was losing oil, though, and the engine seized, forcing Svett to ditch in the waters off nearby Florida Island. Swett suffered a broken nose in the crash, and was dragged twenty feet below the surface by his sinking plane before he could extricate himself. Swett managed to get aboard his life raft, and was rescued by a picket boat. He was taken to Tulugi, where his wounds were treated. Unfortunately, the pain-killing combination of a shot of Scotch and a shot of morphine proved more dangerous for the young Marine than Japanese bullets, and he spent six days in the hospital.
His claim of seven victories and a possible eighth was greeted with a certain amount of skepticism at first, but an intelligence officer interviewed witnesses to the battle and was able to confirm his story. Lt. Swett was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in an amazing first combat mission.
Overall results of the battle were mixed. Thanks to effective escorting by the Zeros, most of the Vals were able to complete their bombing runs unmolested, sinking a tanker, an American destroyer, and a New Zealand corvette. At least three Wildcats, including Swett’s, and one F4U Corsair had been shot down, but all pilots were recovered safely, and American intelligence determined that between the fighters and anti-aircraft fire, the enemy had lost twelve Vals and twenty-seven Zeroes (although Japanese records showed only 21 aircraft lost in total), one of the Vals being downed by Swett’s excitable friend, “Smiley” Burnett.
Soon after this battle, Swett’s squadron traded in their Wildcats for Corsairs. Swett would score eight and a half further victories in that plane, for a total score of fifteen and a half. This included two dive bombers shot down on November 1, 1943, during the Marine landing on the island of Bougainville, one of the last objectives of the Solomons campaign. Swett was sent back to the States in January 1944, but returned the next year onboard the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill. His squadron’s most important duty was to protect the fleet against kamikaze attacks, Corsairs being particularly suited for this task. Swett scored his last victory, a kamikaze, on May 11, 1945. Unfortunately, the Bunker Hill herself was hit by two others on that very day, which set fires, killed close to 400 men, and forced Swett and his mates to land on the nearby Enterprise. Bunker Hill was able to make it to Pearl Harbor for repairs, but was out of action for the rest of the war.
After the war, James Swett left active duty with the rank of major, although he stayed in the Marine Corps Reserves until 1970, retiring with the rank of colonel. He enjoyed a successful post-war career in manufacturing.
Jim Swett's first mission was portrayed on an episode of the History Channel series, Dogfights (see link, below), for which Swett also provided commentary.
References and Notes
- Who’s Who in the Marine Corps
- Semper Fi in the Sky: The Marine Air Battles of World War II, by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, 2005
- USMC Aces: James Svett
- James Swett at MedalofHonor.com
- Considering the number of Vals that attacked, this wasn’t a particularly impressive result for an aircraft that had boasted an 80% hit rate in the first six months of the war. Clearly, a year of pilot losses in combat had had an effect.