WW2 Medal of Honor Pilots In The Pacific


Medal of Honor

The Congressional medal of honor is the highest award given to U.S. servicemen for valor and bravery in combat. The award is presented to servicemen by the President of the United States on behalf of the United States Congress, and a grateful nation. The award was first established during the American civil war in 1863. The first award was designated for the Navy, an award for the Army soon followed. Since its inception 3,525 servicemen have received the award, many of them posthumously. The medals are awarded after a rigorous review of the battle circumstances.

But in some cases it can take decades for servicemen to receive the award they so richly deserve. As was the case with African American servicemen in World War II, when the services were segregated, and valor of black servicemen were overlooked for systematic racial discrimination that was prevalent during this time. In 1992 a study conducted by Shaw University, a Historically Black University, was commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Defense to examine black soldiers awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to see if they should be upgraded to the medal of honor, in an age of enlightenment. As a result of the findings, in 1993 President Bill Clinton awarded 7 black soldiers the honor long denied them. Of the 7 Vernon Baker was the only living veteran.

World War II

With the world engulfed war in 1941, one sector of this deadly conflict stood out for the United States, the war in the Pacific. For the U.S. the period from late December 1941 to March 1943 was a very critical period as the U.S. attempted to gain it’s footing after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Several battles and missions stood out – Wake Island, Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway and the vicious fighting on and around Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands chain. Seven Marine Corps and one Navy pilot were notable WW2 medal of honor pilots. This was noteworthy because these servicemen, who had virtually no battle experience, faced off against Japanese pilots who were battle tested and considered some of the best pilots in the world, flying one of the best fighter planes at that time the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. This was remarkable considering that the best Navy fighter available at this time was the venerable Grumman F4F Wildcat. Although the aircraft production in WW2 was good, especially in the hands of a capable pilot, it was clearly outclassed by the Zero. Through their efforts they were able begin the process of defeating the Japanese.

Edward “Butch” O’Hare

Lt. Cdr. Edward “Butch” O’Hare was born on March 13, 1914, in St Louis, Missouri the gateway city to the west. The son of a wealthy businessman and attorney, O’Hare entered the Naval academy in 1933. After graduating the academy O’Hare suffered a personal tragedy when his father was murdered by Chicago mobster Al Capone’s gunmen. Despite this tragedy, O’Hare pushed on with his naval career. After completing his two years on surface ships O’Hare entered flight training. After completing training, O’Hare was assigned to VF-3, the USS Saratoga's Fighting Squadron. It was here that he would serve under the legendary John L Thach, who during the war developed the technique known as the “Thach Weave” that would save the lives of countless pilots. It was during this time that O’Hare began flying the last of the biplanes, the F3F, before transferring to single-wing fighters. O’Hare’s group later transferred to the USS Enterprise when the Saratoga was docked for extensive refitting.

After the outbreak of war, on March 20, 1942, while stationed aboard the USS Lexington, O’Hare performed a remarkable feat that would lead him being awarded the medal of honor. While on maneuvers the Lexington was discovered by a Japanese scout bomber. The scout was shot down but not before radioing the position of the Lexington. O’Hare and five fellow pilots rose from the Lexington to confront the Japanese bombers. O’Hare and his wingman were the first to spot the nine bombers. O’Hare signaled for an attack, only to find out that his wingman’s guns had jammed. Alone, O’Hare pressed his attack by maneuvering in and around the bombers, watching three bombers go down in flames simultaneously at the same time. By the of the engagement, O’Hare had single handedly shot down five bombers, likely saving his carriers. Leading to him becoming one of the pilots who received the medal of honor in WW2. After a trip state side for his meal ceremony, bond drives and other engagements, O’Hare returned to duty in October 1943. By now, the Navy fighter squadrons were transitioning to the outstanding Grumman F6F Hellcat. Because of the F6F the Japanese began attacking carriers at night. In response, the Navy implement night fighter groups based around radar fitted planes. This was a new tactic that was developed and quite dangerous. On a mission on the night of November 26, 1943, near the Gilbert Islands, O’Hare’s plane disappeared under mysterious circumstances. O’Hare and his WW2 planes were never recovered.


Edward "Butch" O'Hare

Henry T Elrod

Captain Henry T Elrod was born February 27, 1905, in Rebecca, Georgia. After graduating high school Henry attended the University of Georgia and Yale University. Henry joined the Marine Corp in 1927 and was commissioned as an officer in 1931. He would later earn his wings in February 1935. Henry was stationed to San Diego in 1938, then posted to Hawaii in January 1941 where he served as the executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 211. On December 4, 1941, 3 days shy of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, Henry and eleven other pilots were transferred to Wake Island to bolster its defense. It should be noted that the two-wave attack on Pearl Harbor lasted several hours, the attack on Wake Island lasted fifteen days, and the survivors of the battle would endure years of brutal captivity and murder.

During the initial phase of the Japanese attack, the ship bombardment successfully destroyed eight of the U.S. fighters, leaving only four left to defend the island. For several days of fierce fighting, Marine Corps Capt. Elrod in his fighter plane prevented several Japanese planes from landing on the island. Henry also single-handedly shot down two enemy fighters in a flight of 22. After that, he bombed and strafed the Japanese destroyer ship Kisaragi so many times that it sank. This remarkable feat made Elrod the first U.S. pilot to sink a warship from a fighter plane. Eventually Henry’s fighter so much damage that it was no longer flyable. It was then that Henry returned to his Marine Corp roots to help lead the ground defense. Unable to send a relief column, Wake was doomed. Henry was killed on December 23, 1941. The U.S. did not regain control of the island until 1945, where they learned of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. On Nov. 8, 1946, Marine Corps Gen. A.A. Vandegrift presented the Medal of Honor to Elrod's widow during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.


Henry T Elrod

1st Lt. Jefferson DeBlanc

Jefferson Joseph DeBlanc was born on 15 February 1921 in Lockport, Louisiana. Jefferson enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in July 1941. After completing flight training at New Orleans, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas, he was appointed as an Aviation Cadet. In May 1942, Jefferson was discharged from the Naval Reserve and commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Relocating that Summer to Headquarters Squadron, Second Marine Aircraft Wing located at San Diego, California. In October 1942, he was assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-112 and left for the Pacific to participate at the Battle of Guadalcanal. In December, he was promoted to First Lieutenant.

On January 31, 1943 Jefferson and squadron were tasked with flying cover for dive-bombers attacking Japanese naval forces near Kolombanara Island, Solomon Islands. Jefferson and his section first engaged Japanese Zeros protecting their shipping. During the engagement, Jefferson shot down three float planes and two Zeros. After they disengaged Jefferson set course for home. Then he was confronted by two more Zero which he summarily shot down. During the battle his aircraft suffered significant damage, forcing him to bail out. Island natives rescued him and later traded him to U.S. forces for a bag of rice. Jefferson would later say he knew exactly what he was worth. In his citation President Franklin Roosevelt said, “…A gallant officer, a superb airman and an indomitable fighter, First Lieutenant DeBlanc had rendered decisive assistance during a critical stage of operations, and his unwavering fortitude in the face of overwhelming opposition reflects the highest credit upon himself and adds new luster to the traditions of the United States Naval Service.”


Jefferson DeBlanc

Captain John L. Smith

John Lucian Smith was born on 26 December 1914 in Lexington, Oklahoma. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma and was appointed a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps July 1936. John Completed Basic School at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania, then was posted to several east coast area assignments before entering flight training at Naval Air Station, Pensacola. In July 1939 John earned his wings and was designated a Naval Aviator and promoted to First Lieutenant. He was promoted to Captain in March 1941 and to Major in August 1942.

Captain Smith and his VMF-223 arrived on Guadalcanal in the early, dark days of August 1942 after the Japanese Navy drove U.S. Naval Ships away from the Island. The U.S. forces worked feverishly to complete the airfield on Guadalcanal. While in command of his squadron, during the first two months of the Guadalcanal campaign, Smith aggressively operated against Japanese forces in the area. Between 21 August and 15 September, he was personally credited with shooting down 16 enemy planes and his squadron was credited with a total of 83, contributing significantly to Japan's inability to drive U.S. forces from Guadalcanal. For his "conspicuous gallantry and heroic achievement " during much of this period, Major Smith was awarded the WW2 Medal of Honor.


John L Smith

Robert Galer

In January 1941, Robert was ordered to Hawaii and was promoted to captain in March 1941. He was serving at the Marine Corps Air Station, Ewa, Oahu, the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In May 1942, Galer was given command of VMF-224 and on 30 August 1942 led the squadron to Guadalcanal, where they became part of the Cactus Air Force on Henderson field, named in honor of Major Lofton Henderson killed during the battle of Midway. It was while in command of VMF-224 that Galer would be credited with 11 confirmed victories, even shooting down three aircraft in one minute, and be awarded a rare British Distinguished Flying Cross Cross for the acts of heroism and a medal of honor, presented President Franklin Roosevelt on March 24, 1943.

Robert Galer was born in Seattle, Washington, October 23, 1913, and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in commercial engineering in 1935. While attending the University of Washington, Galer was an All-American basketball player and was later inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame, the State of Washington Hall of Fame, and the NCAA Hall of Fame. In June 1936, he began his Aviation Cadet flight training at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, July 1, 1936. After receiving his wings in 1937, Galer served several duty assignments around the country.

In January 1941, Robert was ordered to Hawaii and was promoted to captain in March 1941. He was serving at the Marine Corps Air Station, Ewa, Oahu, the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In May 1942, Galer was given command of VMF-224 and on 30 August 1942 led the squadron to Guadalcanal, where they became part of the Cactus Air Force on Henderson field, named in honor of Major Lofton Henderson killed during the battle of Midway. It was while in command of VMF-224 that Galer would be credited with 11 confirmed victories, even shooting down three aircraft in one minute, and be awarded a rare British Distinguished Flying Cross Cross for the acts of heroism and a medal of honor, presented President Franklin Roosevelt on March 24, 1943.


Robert Galer

Harold W. Bauer

Harold William Bauer was born Nov. 20, 1908, the third child in a family of five, in Woodruff, Kansas. Harold and his two brothers graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Ensign Harold W. Bauer graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis on June 5, 1930. He selected the Marine Corps over the Navy in the hope of continuing his football career. Following his commissioning, Bauer attended the Officers Basic School at Quantico, Virginia. He was then assigned as a company officer with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines at Quantico. He was promoted to first lieutenant on 29 May 1934. He was then assigned to the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, in December 1934 where he earned his wings as a naval aviator in February 1936. He was promoted to captain on June 30, 1937 and served with several squadrons. The 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor found Bauer and VMF-221 preparing to embark aboard the Saratoga for transport to Hawaii.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bauer and VMF-221 were sent to Hawaii and were scheduled to reinforce Wake Island but were diverted to Midway once Wake had fallen. Transferred to Hawaii in February 1942, Bauer took command of VMF-211, stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, and on 1 March 1942 commissioned and took command of VMF-212. Promoted to major on 29 April 1942. After brief stints on New Caledonia and Vanatu, Bauer moved to Guadalcanal. It was the fighting here that would lead to Bauer receiving the medal of honor. On September 28, 1942 Bauer shot down a enemy bomber, and several days later shot four other planes. Then on October 16, 1942, he shot down another four planes. On November 14, 1942 Bauer was shot down, no trace of him was ever found.


Harold Bauer

Captain Joe Foss

Joseph Jacob Foss was born in 1915 and grew up in Sioux City, South Dakota, one of his biggest inspirations as a child was famed aviator Charles Lindberg. Joe Foss graduated from the University of South Dakota, Vermillion in 1940 with a degree in Business administration. Foss served in the South Dakota National Guard from October 1939 to March 1940, then enlisted in the in the Marine Corps Reserve. Of the 28 men applying, only he and another were accepted on 14 June 1940 and assigned to inactive duty. Honorably discharged from the Reserve on 8 August 1940, he accepted an appointment as an aviation cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve the following day. Foss was called to active-duty August 23, and sent to Pensacola, Florida, for training. Foss received his Marine wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve on 31 March 1941. He was advanced to first lieutenant 10 April 1942 while serving as an instructor at Pensacola and was promoted to captain August 11, 1942 at Camp Kearney, California.

Joe Foss arrived at Guadalcanal in September 1942 to meet the challenge at hand. Foss was several years older than his fellow pilots. The average age was twenty-three, Foss was twenty-seven. Foss was in the air nearly every day for a month. Suring this he would shoot down an astounding twenty-three Japanese aircraft – twenty of them Zeros, in his F4F Wildcat. Foss added an additional three kills bringing his total to twenty-six, tying him with legendary WWI ace, Eddie Rickenbacher. Foss received an award from Adm William F. Halsey for his heroism and extraordinary achievement for his action. Captain Foss was awarded the medal of honor in April 1943.


Joe Foss

Lt. James Elms Swett

The last of the WW2 medal of honor pilots in the pacific, James E. Swett was born June, 1920 in Seattle, Washington. Swett enrolled in the College of San Mateo in 1939, while there he earned his pilot’s license. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a seaman second class on August 26, 1941 and started flight training in September. Swett completed flight training in early 1942, placing in the top ten percent of his class. Swett selected the Marine Corp and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on April 1, 1942. Swett received further training at Quantico, carrier qualifications at Lake Michigan and San Diego where he received his wings.

Swett was posted to Guadalcanal in the pacific in April 1942. On his very first mission Swett showed his metal. Swett and his group engaged Japanese aircraft near Iron Bottom Sound bent on attacking ships in Tu;agi harbo. Swett attacked and shot down three Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers. During the action his aircraft was struck by U.S. anti-aircraft fire. Ignoring the damage Swett attacked another group of bombers and shot down four more. The damage to his planes was beginning to show and he was forced to ditch. Swett had become an ace on his first mission. Swett's combat record includes 103 combat missions, 15.5 confirmed victories and four probables. In addition to the medal of honor Swett also earned He earned the Purple Heart, two Distinguished Flying Cross. He was one of the greatest WW2 fighters


James Swett

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