The Marines' Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422

The Marines' Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422

by Mark Carlson
The Marines' Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422

The Marines' Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422

by Mark Carlson


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Finally, there is a book that reveals the truth about the worst air disaster to strike a Marine Corps fighter squadron during the Second World War. Marine Fighter Squadron 422 was a group of twenty-four typical young Americans trained to fly the famous F4U Corsair into combat with the legendary Japanese Zero. When they arrived in the Pacific, they suddenly found that not all their enemies carried guns in savage Banzai charges. Their two most dangerous and merciless adversaries were the fury of a tropical typhoon and the cold heartless whims of a Marine Corps general. Together, these two foes seal the fate of VMF-422 and cause the greatest disaster ever to strike a Marine squadron.

Aviation historian Mark Carlson has written the first full account of a group of ordinary young men who were suddenly challenged beyond their experience and which forever changed the lives of the survivors. The Marines' Lost Squadron is the dramatic true story of a desperate and courageous fight for survival against the forces of nature and a conspiracy of silence. The Marines' Lost Squadron is a saga of courage and conspiracy, patriotism and pride, fate and futility in a struggle to survive the ferocity of a huge typhoon in the midst of the Second World War.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620067475
Publisher: Sunbury Press, Inc.
Publication date: 11/18/2017
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

MARK CARLSON, legally blind, is an aviation historian and the author of two other award-winning books: Confessions of a Guide Dog - The Blonde Leading the Blind and Flying on Film -- A Century of Aviation in the Movies 1912 - 2012. A member of several aviation, maritime, historical, and veteran organizations, Carlson has been a contributing writer for over a dozen national magazines on topics such as aviation, military history, classic film and television, humor, and essays. An award-winning club president in Toastmasters International, he is a respected public speaker on historical topics. Carlson freely gives much credit to his network of family, friends and associates, all of whom have been ardent supporters of his work. Although blind, he makes extensive use of advanced computer software to work and write. He travels and works with his second Guide Dog, Saffron, a female Yellow Labrador retriever. He lives in San Marcos, California with his wife, Jane.

Read an Excerpt



In order to understand why those twenty-three young marine pilots were flying their Corsairs over the ocean, it will help to relate their role in the Pacific War. To accomplish this, we will follow the history of Marine Corps aviation. Along the way the reader will meet some of the key figures in the odyssey of VMF-422.

The United States Marine Corps is part of the Navy Department and has many of the same traditions and vocabulary. Marines say "overhead, deck, rack, and head" for ceiling, floor, bunk, and latrines. They respond to orders with "Aye-aye sir." Their emblem is of a globe and eagle surmising an anchor. Marine detachments serve on US warships and guard United States embassies overseas. A common bond links the United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy and this is nowhere more apparent than in aviation. Marine aviators receive the exact same flight training as navy flyers. Their squadron organization is the same, as are the gold wings they wear. Only their uniforms, insignia, and rank structure are different. They fly from land bases and aircraft carrier flight decks. Because of this, they have a pride second to none. To be a navy or marine aviator is to be one of the best, one of the few.

During the Second World War, more than ten thousand marine aviators and 125,000 ground crew served in 145 squadrons. Marine fighter pilots claimed 2,344 enemy planes, while losing 2,500 of their own. From Wake to Midway, from Guadalcanal to Kwajalein, from Iwo Jima to VJ Day, the marines were there.

It began on a warm, late May morning in 1912 when a fresh-faced Marine Second Lieutenant named Alfred Cunningham began his training as a marine aviator at Annapolis, Maryland. Cunningham, who'd been fascinated by flying since witnessing a hot-air balloon ascent in 1903, had joined the marines during the Spanish-American War. While on duty in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, he joined with other aeronautical enthusiasts to promote aviation for the armed forces. With the help of the Aero Club of Philadelphia, Cunningham gained the support of influential businessmen and insiders who convinced Major General William Biddle, Commandant of the Marine Corps, to seriously consider an aeronautical branch of the marines. Cunningham was ordered to the Naval Academy at Annapolis for his flight training, despite the fact that the Navy's own aviation branch was less than a year old and consisted of three officers, three mechanics, and three airplanes.

The date that Cunningham reported for duty, 22 May 1912, is considered the birthday of Marine Corps aviation. The US Navy's first aviators, First Lieutenants Theodore G. Ellyson, John H. Towers and John Rodgers, had learned the art of flying from Glenn Curtiss on Coronado Island in San Diego. A Connecticut-born former motorcycle racer, Curtiss was one of the most ambitious pioneers of early flight. He had started training Navy aviators in 1911. At that time, he was in the midst of a bitter patent war with the Wright Brothers, an expensive legal feud that would only end with the American entry into the Great War. In fact, the first plane ever purchased by the United States Navy was a Curtiss A-1 Triad, an amphibian pusher biplane with controls for two pilots. Rodgers, whose family and naval lineage went back to the War of 1812, was also the cousin of Calbraith Perry "Cal" Rodgers, the audacious pilot who attempted the first coast-to-coast flight in a Wright EX called the "Vin Fiz" that same year. These men were in every sense the pioneers and architects of the future of naval aviation. Until the development of the aircraft carrier in the early 1920s, the only role seen for navy aviation was in coastal reconnaissance and defense. Even this was hotly contested by the army, whose own fledgling air arm was seeking to dominate the skies. At the new aviation camp at Annapolis, Ellyson and the others accepted Cunningham into their rarefied ranks and passed their own newly-acquired skills on to the marine officer. He received his actual flight training at the Burgess Airplane Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts and logged a total of two hours and forty minutes. He was then considered ready to solo. On 20 August, Cunningham lifted his tiny Curtiss B-1 open-cockpit seaplane into the balmy summer air over Marblehead.

According to A History of Marine Corps Aviation by the Naval Heritage and History Command, Cunningham's first safe landing was due as much to luck as skill. Cunningham stated that just as the gasoline gage stick was indicating about empty, "I got up my nerve and made a good landing. How, I don't know."

Cunningham earned the coveted Wings of Gold and became Naval Aviator Number 5. He was quickly followed by Lieutenants Bernard L. Smith and William Mcllvain.

Over the next several months Cunningham logged more than four hundred flights and was a tireless promoter of marine aviation. He evaluated several aircraft for military use, and most importantly, how they could best be used. His work soon put him in the front lines of the struggle to define Marine Corps aviation's role in future warfare. Besides their traditional job as the advance infantry, marines on the ground and in the air would also be responsible for the occupation and defense of advanced bases for the fleet, as defined by the Navy Department in 1911. Cunningham and Smith disagreed on the primary role of the airplane for the marines. Cunningham was in favor of using planes in total support of any and all marine operations while Smith felt the Marine Corps, as part of the navy, should use its aircraft to support combined operations. As things turned out, both views proved to be correct.

The airplanes of the 1910s were not taken seriously as a weapon of war. They were slow, woefully underpowered, and fragile. They had very short range, could carry only small payloads, and for the most part were considered useless by "old guard" navy and army officers. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the battleship reigned supreme. Their huge guns were the ultimate projector of power in the same way that the nuclear bomb would be in a later generation. In January 1915, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels made the important decision that all navy and marine aviation cadets would receive the same training in the use of land planes rather than amphibians exclusively. This, to the army's outrage, was a critical move towards giving the Marine Corps the ability to hold and defend land bases and project power.

That same year, Mr. and Mrs. John S. MacLaughlin of 23 Merrick Villa, Collingswood, New Jersey, became the proud parents of a baby boy, John S. MacLaughlin, Jr. A bright and ambitious boy, young John did well in school and had his sights on attending the Naval Academy.

The United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, exactly one day before a new class of cadets graduated from The Citadel in Charleston. One of them was Lewie Griffith Merritt. Born in Ridge Spring, South Carolina in June 1897, Merritt was from an old and fiercely proud southern family. He was eager to join the action in France, but as a new marine second lieutenant he was assigned to counter-guerilla operations in the Dominican Republic from June 1917 to August 1918. It was not until November, just as the war was drawing to a close, that Captain Merritt served as a company commander in France. He saw brief combat with the "Devil Dogs" at Belleau Wood.

The fledgling Marine Aeronautics Company consisted of 34 officers and 330 enlisted men. They were to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting support using Curtiss HS flying boats. In October 1917, Captain William McIlvain commanded the First Marine Aviation Force which was to use land planes. Ironically, they were trained by the army's Aviation School at Hazelhurst Field at Mineola, Long Island. They were trained by civilian instructors in the venerable and trusty Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny."

After further advanced training in Louisiana, they went to Florida where the new unit was fully consolidated, but they were unable to muster the numbers needed for four full squadrons. The United States Navy came to the rescue. Of the 135 pilots that deployed to France in the summer of 1918, more than half had been reserve aviators who transferred to the marines. Four squadrons, designated A, B, C, and D were ready by July when they sailed for France. But when they arrived and set up headquarters at Ardres near the Belgian border, they had no planes to fly. The British-built de Havilland DH-9s ordered by the Navy Department were nowhere to be seen. The resourceful Captain Cunningham managed to work out a deal with the British that provided some DH-4s for their use. In the meantime, he arranged for his pilots to fly missions with Royal Flying Corps squadrons to give them some combat experience.

In October, the marines were ready to begin their own operations. On the fourteenth, they bombed German positions in Belgium and were engaged in a battle with German fighters. Lieutenant Ralph Talbot, one of the navy reserve officers who had transferred to the marines and his gunner, Corporal Robert G. Robinson, fought off several determined attacks by twelve German planes. Robertson was three times wounded but he shot down one adversary and Talbert brought down another. Both men would receive the Medal of Honor.

During their time in France, the marines flew more than fifty-seven bombing missions without fighter escort, shot down four Germans, claimed eight more, and earned thirty decorations.

After contributing to victory in the "War to End All Wars," the marines returned home to great acclaim and glory, but this was to be short-lived as a parsimonious Congress slashed military budgets. The public was convinced there was no longer a need to spend prodigious amounts of money on ships, planes, tanks, and soldiers. Major Cunningham, still devoted to the cause for which he and the others had struggled, gathered up the remnants of the First Aviation Force, which had been disbanded in February 1919, to form two squadrons to support the two Marine Provisional Brigades then garrisoned in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Only after determined effort by Cunningham and other dedicated supporters did Congress acquiesce to the need for an expanded marine air branch. The Marine Corps would have a permanent strength of more than 26,000 officers and men, while the aviation branch was set at 1,020 men. The bases at Quantico, Virginia; Parris Island, South Carolina; and San Diego, California incorporated permanent aviation facilities. On 30 October 1920, Marine Commandant Major General John Lejeune approved the aviation table of organization as Expeditionary Force East and Expeditionary Force West. This led to the formation of four squadrons, each of two flights, designated A through H.

The postwar years saw the first baby boom, in which the millions of young men and women who would serve in the Second World War were born and raised. Among them were Bobby Lehnert of Long Island, Mark Syrkin of New York, Royce Watson of Texas, Sterling Price of Missouri, John Hansen of Iowa, Johnny Lincoln of Boston, Ken Gunderson of Milwaukee, Bobby Moran of Illinois, Tommy Thompson of California, Walter Wilson of Mississippi, Rex Jeans of Joplin, and many others.

The period from 1919 to 1928 was one of the most dynamic in aviation history, seeing a surge in aeronautical technology and flying feats. Some of the most famous airplanes of the era flew for the first time, such as the Ford Trimotor, Armstrong-Whitworth Atlas, Boeing Model 40, Curtiss P-1 Hawk, Keystone Pathfinder, and Ryan M-2. The navy quickly got into the act in May 1919 when four Curtiss-built flying boats called NC (Navy Curtiss) attempted to fly from New York to Lisbon, Portugal. The NC-1 piloted by future admiral Marc Mitscher was forced down in the ocean by lack of visibility, but he and his crew were picked up by a destroyer. The NC-4 took nineteen days with stops in Massachusetts, Newfoundland, and the Azores. Yet it was the first time a heavier-than-air aircraft had crossed the Atlantic.

Two weeks later, two Royal Flying Corps officers, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, flew a Vickers Vimy bomber from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland to Ireland, completing the first non-stop flight of an airplane across the Atlantic. In 1921, Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, in a spectacular demonstration in Chesapeake Bay, proved that bombers could sink armored battleships. This was a watershed moment in military thought. It indirectly led to the commissioning of the US Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, four years later. The 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor also had its roots in Mitchell's feat.

In 1925, former Curtiss engineer Chance Vought had purchased full control of the Lewis and Vought Corporation to form Chance Vought Aircraft in Long Island City, New York. Vought would soon be building many planes for the US Navy including the successful VE-7 "Bluebird," which became the first airplane to launch from the USS Langley. This was the early genesis of the finest navy fighter ever built, the F4U Corsair.

By this time, Captain Lewie Merritt had served on the staffs of two Marine Corps commandants and had been in command of the marine detachment on the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40). After undergoing aviation training at Pensacola in 1923, he received his wings in January of the following year.

The marines had not been idle during this period and commanded headlines and support by conducting flights that demonstrated the utility of aircraft to support ground operations as well as maintain peak proficiency. In 1922, a column of four thousand marines had marched from Quantico to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while three Marine Martin MBT bombers (a torpedo-capable variant of the MB-2 used by Mitchell) flew simulated attack missions in support of the advancing troops. They flew more than five hundred hours and carried cargo and personnel.

Marine Corps aviators competed in several air races around the country. Lieutenant Christian Schilt took second place in the prestigious Schneider Cup seaplane race in 1926, and Major Charles Lutz won first place in the Marine Trophy Race at Anacostia in 1928, flying a Curtiss Hawk.

The most famous aviation event of the roaring twenties was Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris in May of 1927. This single event stimulated public interest in aviation and had no small effect on many young men and women who were inspired to become pilots. Among the huge throngs that lined the sidewalks of New York City as Lindbergh was showered in ticker tape was a six-year-old boy seated on his father's shoulders. His name was Mark Syrkin, who would join the marines and fly in VMF-422. Many years later, while stationed at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, Mark Syrkin would meet and fly with his idol, Lindbergh.

A civil war in Nicaragua again brought the marines into the fray as ground troops struggled to fight the jungle guerillas. Observation Squadrons One and Four were sent to support ground operations. This was a milestone in that it was the first time the tactics that would later be known as "close air support" were employed. For the first time, marine ground and air units worked as a team.

By the time of the Wall Street crash in October 1929, the marines had squadrons based on both US coasts, the Pacific, Nicaragua, and China. They flew the Curtiss F6C-4 biplane fighter, a carrier-capable variant of the trusty P-1 Hawk. Introduced in 1925 the F6C-4 served for the next five years.

Some cutbacks were made to the Table of Organization and Equipment, yet this actually had a beneficial effect. Like the British in 1940, the marines learned to do with what they had, and as a result, were more efficient and imaginative. The reorganization built the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). FMF Aircraft One was based at Quantico and FMF Aircraft Two at San Diego. The Marine VMF (fighter) squadrons were flying the new Grumman F3F-2, the biplane precursor to the tough little Wildcat. They were followed by the Brewster F2A Buffalo, which outperformed the first F4F-1s to emerge from Grumman. The dive bombers flown in the VMSB (Scout-Dive Bomber) squadrons were the Vultee SB2U Vindicator. While these planes would prove woefully obsolete in the first months of the Second World War, they were nearly state-of-the-art in the early 1930s.

By this time, the Navy Department had established the system of squadron and aircraft designations for the navy and marines. (See Appendix A).

A 1934 study of amphibious tactics at Quantico finally established the Landing Force Manual. This was the bible for all subsequent marine amphibious operations. Further refinements in fleet exercises throughout the 1930s finalized the overall concept. When the marines stormed ashore at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, they followed the doctrine laid down at Quantico in 1934. This was no small matter. As stated in the Naval Heritage and History Command essay A History of Marine Corps Aviation, "The manual, as a whole, gave recognition to Marine Aviation as an integral and vital element in the execution of the primary mission of the Marine Corps."


Excerpted from "The Marines' Lost Squadron"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mark Carlson, CL, ACS.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Foreword by Major General Robert Butcher, USMC

Prologue: 25 January 1944

PART ONE: Odyssey: A Long Voyage with Many Changes of Fortune

Chapter 1: Marine Wings of Gold

Chapter 2: Reaching for the Sky

Chapter 3: The Flying Buccaneers

Chapter 4: Corsair!

Chapter 5: Hawaii and Midway

Chapter 6: The USS Kalinin Bay

Chapter 7: Tarawa

PART TWO: Ex Communi Periculo Fraternitas—From Common Peril, Brotherhood

Chapter 8: Takeoff

Chapter 9: In the Belly of the Beast

Chapter 10: The First to Fall

Chapter 11: Lost

Chapter 12: Fate and Fatality

Chapter 13: And Then There Were Thirteen

Chapter 14: The Natives of Niutao

Chapter 15: Ordeals

Chapter 16: Shark Bait

Chapter 17: Eyes in the Sky

Chapter 18: Rescue and Reunion

PART THREE: Semper Fidelis—Always Faithful, Marine Corps Motto

Chapter 19: Testimony vs. Truth

Chapter 20: Causes and Effects

Chapter 21: In the War at Last

Chapter 22: Whistling Death

Chapter 23: Home are the Hunters

Afterword: The Mysteries of the Flintlock Disaster

Appendix A: Aircraft and Squadron Designations

Appendix B: Glossary


Selected Bibliography and Sources


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