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Posted on Apr 24, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Semper Fi in the Sky – Book Review

By Ed Brown

sf.JPGBook Review: Semper Fi In The Sky: The Marine Air Battles of World War II, by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, 2005, Random House, Inc., New York, NY

When you think of Marine air in World War II, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of John Wayne in Flying Leathernecks? Do you think of shiny, large, dark blue Vought Corsairs dogfighting with silver and quick Mitsubishi Zeroes? Do you envision those monster machines shooting down the enemy in droves? What of the men who flew those machines? Do you see them gathering in the officers clubs after their missions to celebrate and regale in their victories? Many probably have this view, based on the 1970’s television program known as Baa Baa Black Sheep, also known as Black Sheep Squadron. During the entire run of this program I was a Marine aircraft electrician. We never missed an episode.

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What does this have to do with a book about Marine air in World War II? Perception. For many years I had the perception that Marine pilots led the way to victory in the Pacific. From the dark days of late 1941 to the unstoppable island-hopping advance through to Okinawa in 1945, I always envisioned Marine air in the forefront. A full decade after leaving the service, I met an old Marine airwinger who served on Guadalcanal. It was quite an eye-opener. In our many but brief discussions, I received a bit of an education. Forever lost was the vision of the undefeatable Marine aviator single handedly vanquishing his opponents.

When I picked up Semper Fi In The Sky, I was expecting to read a strategic accounting of the role of Marine air in the Pacific, during World War II. I found not a historical accounting of a list of battles and accomplishments, but a story, an easy reading, robust accounting of the men, machines and islands that appear in the annals of Marine aviation, for the period. Gerald Astor takes the reader from a survey of the early days of naval aviation, and the first Marine aviator, Lt. Alfred Cunningham, an army Spanish-American War veteran, up through Marine legends Joe Foss and “Pappy” Boyington, and the generals and admirals who pointed the way.

Astor does not just tell a story, he weaves a tapestry. He lays out the warp of the fabric through the general linear progress of the story, from Wake to Okinawa. The weft is the men who are shuttled in and out of the story, as they come and go from battle to battle, mission to mission. These men are more than just names. Astor provides background on most of the characters in the story. Providing the reader with some context to the hows and whys they became Marine aviators. There are many instances when a pilot is mentioned briefly during a description of flight training in 1942, then appear later in the book, reuniting with us as we proceed across the Pacific. And you think, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember you’. As the story unfolds you will find yourself attached to these men and their machines. You live through the depredations, the disease, the midnight banzai attacks, and the bailouts. Many times I wanted to flip ahead to find out how some downed pilot made out. Reading about some of their experiences, you can’t help but think they are the stuff that would make a great Hollywood war film. However, as you read through, and put it all into context, you realize Hollywood could never do justice to these men.

Everyone knows that the Marine air-ground team is arguably the deadliest weapon in the modern arsenal. The average amateur historian would assume this paring began in the crucible of the Pacific. They would be partly correct. Astor, in his opening chapter, describes the beginnings of Naval and Marine air, touching on Marine expeditions in Central America and the Caribbean. It was here that Marine pilots first provided air support to ground troops, from aerial evacuations, to supply drops, to bomb drops. They weren’t closely coordinated, but they proved effective. The lessons were mostly forgotten, until the Marines landed on Guadalcanal.

The real story begins with the defense of Hawaii and Wake. The US may have been caught flatfooted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, but they were not unprepared. Marine air units were staged at Midway and Wake during the summer and fall of 1941 in preparation for the expected hostilities. Astor begins with the defense of Wake, including the first sinking of an enemy naval vessel in WWII by US airpower. He tells of the pilots and ground crews. How they performed near-miracles maintaining an air presence without proper facilities. We read about how these Marine airmen, once their aircraft are beyond repair, become what all Marines are, riflemen. We join them as they defended the beaches of Wake, and their surrender, and subsequent incarceration. Not just the facts, but also the truths, both first and second hand.

Our next stop is Midway Island, where many contend the turning point of the War in the Pacific occurred. Astor relates how Marine air officers built up existing and formed new squadrons to defend Midway in the coming battle. The opening blows of that battle took out much of the Marine aircraft, resulting in a minimal though telling appearance by Marine air units stationed at Midway. Though Marines were not there at the coup de grace, they did provide the foundation that allowed Naval air to deliver it. Though decimated by the losses incurred by the Japanese in the opening attacks, and subsequent losses when the Marines first attacked the Japanese fleet, a second Marine attack was mounted. As a result of the second attack, Japanese admiral Nagumo decided to make a second attack on Midway to finish destroying any air units there. The ensuing recovery and rearmament after that second attack provided a window for the US Navy to attack, and sink 4 of the Japanese aircraft carriers. A blow from which the Japanese Navy never fully recovered. Popular history has always depicted the US Navy as the prime, if not only, combatant against the Japanese navy at Midway. Rarely or ever does one hear about the Marine Corps contribution at this pivotal battle. A situation that would repeat itself in the coming years.

No history of the Marines in the Pacific, or any Marine history at all, would be complete without including the epic battle for Guadalcanal. The very name conjures up visions and feelings of horror and hardship. Operation Shoestring (officially Operation Watchtower) is probably the most accurately named operation ever mounted by any military, ever. Conceived and executed in a matter of weeks, the 1st Marine Division made an unopposed landing. What was then expected to be a mopping up exercise became a six-month slog. Unable or unwilling, the US Navy did not fully unload all of the Marines’ supplies, before pulling up stakes, and heading east, out of harm’s way. Through Guadalcanal Diary, and many other histories, we all know of Bloody Ridge, or Edson’s Ridge, and Washing Machine Charlie. We first learned about Japanese banzai attacks, and the relentless shelling of the Marine defenders by the seemingly unstoppable Japanese navy. We hear mention of something called the Cactus Air Force. As much as it was the Marine on the ground, the Marine in the air was a key component in the slowing, and turning of the Japanese Imperial tide, in the Pacific.

The Cactus Air Force, named after Cactus airfield, the codename for the airstrip on the ‘Canal, was in truth composed of air units from the US Marines, US Navy, US Army, and New Zealand. Astor relates to us the exploits and experiences of these pilots, and aircrew. In the many histories of the Marine Corps and of World War II, I was always left with the impression that the Cactus Air Force was set down on Guadalcanal in August/September of 1942, and fought continuously, unrelieved for 6 months. What Semper Fi In The Sky revealed was a fairly efficient but crude system of pilot rotation in and out of Cactus, with many pilots doing 2 or more tours there. A true testament to not only the care taken for the pilots, but the harsh realities of the need to have seasoned pilots at the front, while the US was still arming itself.

A very surprising realization, based on a contrary pre-conception, was how the role of Marine aviation diminished during the course of the war. From the end of 1942 through to August of 1945, Marine air was very active in the Solomons, all the way up to emasculation of Rabaul. However, they played a diminishing role deep into 1944 in the island hopping strategy. I had always assumed Marine air accompanied Marine ground all the way from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. The reality is that the nature of the strategy, and results of politics, Marine air units were not placed on front line carriers during most of the war. As a result, Marine air seldom was able to provide direct ground support to the grunts. Yet, as we are to learn from the recounts of the battles such as Peleliu, Tinian, and Guam, Marine air would be present, but not to the extent needed or expected. Marine observation planes would work from roads behind the lines, or from captured airfields to provide spotting for Naval gunfire. Officers and enlisted from Marine air would finally be sent up to the line to act as liaisons between the groundpounders and the pilots, to help direct air attacks as close as a 100 yards, and sometimes less. Lessons, good and bad were learned, rethought, reworked, and reapplied. These lessons evolved into a doctrine that would find itself transplanted to North Africa, and finally on the drive to the Rhine in 1944 and ’45, by the US Army. Marine lessons. These roles of the observers and ground liaisons were not glorious, but they were rewarding and appreciated by those they served.

Prior to these battles, Marine air was placed in forward airfields on New Georgia and Bougainville to not only support the ground units in those battles, but as stepping stones toward the isolation and wearing down of Rabaul. These fields were so close to the front lines, the pilots had barely retracted their landing gear when they were dropping ordnance on or strafing enemy troops and positions.

By the time the author completed his coverage of the Solomons Campaign, and began to cover the Gilberts, Marshals, Marianas and points in between, fully half the book, and then some, covered only this corner of the Pacific. Though large in physical scope, the Solomons area is diminutive compared to the full breadth of ocean covered by the Pacific Theater.

The balance of the book is contructed like the beginning. Astor intriduces us to the flyers, places, and events that rounded out the conflict in the Pacific. He covers how Marine aviation began to use night fighters and medium bombers late in the war. He covers how a number of Marine air units supported the US Army in the Philippines campaign, particularly in the area of close air support. And finally, how Marine squadrons finally got included as air units on carriers. The Navy’s final decision to succumb to that pressure was in response to the increased resistance as the Allied forces neared the Japanese homeland. Additional squadrons were needed to support the carrier groups against Kamikazes, as well as to support the Marine ground units, releasing Naval sqaudrons to fly other missiosn, as well as support the fleet against attack.

Astor has done an admirable job in presenting to us the men who defended our contry by facing our enemies. Not just as names in a roll, but as people with pasts and futures, beyond the scope of the conflict.

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