I was in the first squadron to go into Guadalcanal, Marine Fighting Squadron 223, under Captain John L. Smith. Together with Dick Mangrum's squadron, we were aboard the Long Island. We went into Guadalcanal on 20 August 1942: one fighter squadron and one dive-bomber squadron.
When we arrived, we found the place pretty primitive. We slept under tents. I think it was the second night I was there, we were lying right there in the sack, and you could see the tracers going back and forth. It looked like they were only out there about 200 yards. It's what they called the Battle of the Tenaru, where they knocked off some 700 or 800 Japs.
We didn't have much of a field there then. Henderson Field was pretty much pitted. We lost some planes on landings and takeoffs, particularly if we tried to take off at night, as we did a couple of times. We also seemed to be right on the borderline for fuel and ammunition most of the time. Sometimes we had supplies for only 24 hours ahead. Particularly at the time of the Battle of Savo Island, the Navy was skittish about bringing anything in there at all. So we had to get it by air, and some days we would have only six airplanes in commission.
I was number three in the squadron, and Captain Rivers Morrell was number two. Rivers got shot up on one of his first flights and was evacuated, so that made me number two. So John L. and I usually split taking turns leading a flight.
One day [3 October] Lieutenant Colonel Joe Bauer came up from Roses, which was the codename for Efate, the base down below Espiritu Santo. He had a squadron down there—VMF-212—and he was just jumping up and down to get into the battle. But for some reason he couldn't persuade anybody to send his outfit up to Guadalcanal, and why, I don't know, because we sure could have used them.
Joe was the type of guy that when there was anything interesting going on, he wanted to be in the middle of it. He was real aggressive and a real personable guy. Anyhow,he came up there one day, and he wanted to fly. He went to see John Smith.
"John, how about letting me go on a flight?"
"Well, you're going to have to talk to Marion. He's flight leader today," Smith replied.
So Joe came over to me and asked if he could fly. I said, "Hell, yes! How about taking the second section?" We only had six airplanes in commission. Pretty soon we got word from the coast-watchers that the Japanese were coming, to expect them in about 40 minutes. We scrambled and we climbed, and we climbed and we climbed. It took about that long for that damned F4F to climb to 30,000 feet. No sooner did we get up there, expecting them momentarily, when we got word that the Japanese had turned around and gone back. Well, I was just about ready to let down when I looked down, and there were nine Zeros at about 10,000 feet!
The bombers had turned back, but some of the Zeros bad taken it on themselves to come on in. Normally, I wouldn’t have said anything. I'd just have peeled off and away we'd have gone and bounced them. But since I had a lieutenant colonel back there in the third section, I called on the radio and said, "Colonel, we've got nine Zeros down there." I didn't get any answer, so I called again, and still no answer. I figured his mike was fouled up—which it was—so I said, "We're going after them," and down we went.
Well, I guess we got them all; if we didn't, eight out of the nine. I got two, myself, and then my guns jammed for some reason. Ken Fraser got a couple, got shot down, bailed out, and got recovered. Joe Bauer got four. We were coming in to land and, oh boy, Joe was so excited, he could hardly stand it. He was bouncing up and down.
I said, "How did it go? How'd your airplane go?"
"Well," he said, "that darn airplane doesn't seem to be performing too well. It feels awfully sluggish."
Joe had been flying F4F-3As. I called the crew chief over and I said, "Go out and check the airplane. The colonel says it’s pretty sluggish."
Soon the crew chief came back and said, "Well, I think the reason is, it's in high blower."
Joe had never shifted to low blower! He had a two-stage supercharger, which he needed to get the altitude, but once you leave altitude, you shift that thing down to low blower. In the first place, only that kind of engine would have held together at all, because you were over-boosting it considerably. But it didn't seem to make a whole lot of difference, and I didn't say anything to Joe.
I got my fifth kill someplace around the 24th or 26th of August. As far as I know, I was the first ace in the Marine Corps. YMF-223 was pulled out somewhere around the 12th of October; I was declared an ace on the 27th. There was no ceremony or official designation. I just knocked down five and I was an ace. Of course, I had a running start. I had one, and then, you see I was shot down. I was leading the pack until I got shot down, and I was gone five days. During that time John L. caught up with me and passed me.
I was shot down on the 9th on September. As usual, the bombers came in, but this time they overflew Henderson. Where they were going, or whether somebody made a mistake or what, we don’t know. But they overflew Henderson, and by this time we were up in position and started attacking them. While I was attacking, I was shot down; I never did see the guy that did it.
I was around 20,000 or 22,000 feet and my plane caught fire, so I bailed out. Clayton Canfield, who had been my wingman at Midway, was again my wingman. He got shot down too. The only difference was that he got picked up by a destroyer and I didn’t. We were in the water; we had life jackets. I was out there treading water for four hours. Finally, a native came out in a canoe, a dugout canoe, and picked me up.
He couldn’t speak any English, but he took me to somebody who could. It turned out to be a native doctor, a fellow by the name of Eroni—a Fiji boy, not a native—who had the equivalent of a high school education, could speak English very well, and was trained to administer medicine to the natives.
He had sulfas, and could even perform a simple operation if he had to. He was good at setting bones and things like that. So I stayed with Eroni, his wife, and his child on Guadalcanal. They lived about 20 miles from base, south and east. So I said, “Well, Eroni, I guess the only way to get back to base is to walk back.”
He said, “Okay, I’ll take you back.” He was a well-built, rugged little fellow. He started walking, and I thought that I was in good shape, but I sure had trouble keeping up with him.
Before we left I had looked at a boat he had, a 16 or 18 footer with one of these little single lungers, about a five-horse cylinder job. I tried to get it running, but couldn’t. We got part way back toward the base on foot when we started running into a lot of natives coming toward us. Eroni stopped to talk to them. We’d heard the shelling the night before, but didn’t think anything about it. That was the night that the battleships came down and plastered that place. Eroni reported that the Japanese landed something better than 2,000 Japs between where we were and the base. “All the natives are getting out of the area and I don’t recommend that we try to find our way through them,” Eroni said.
I agreed. So we went back and tried to work on that boat some more. There wasn’t anything wrong with the boat, and I did get it to run. I guess we waited until 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning, figuring we wanted to hit the beach up there about dawn. We didn’t want to be going up the straits and run into any of the Japanese, yet we wanted to get there about daylight. We had to time it just right so that when we passed the part of the beach where the Japanese were, it would still be dark. Yet we didn’t want to get up there too early because the Jap fleet might be coming down and doing some more shelling and trip us up.
Well, it was uneventful. We did it just right in that respect, and so we hit the beach. I went over to my tent, and what a mess. Everything was gone, see. Everything had been appropriated by somebody. I got nearly everything back, just about everything. Poor Marion’s bought it; let’s divvy up his gear! That was standard practice in those days, because everybody was scratching even for clothing and food, sometimes.
Incidentally 15 years later I met General David Shoup at a cocktail party in El Toro while I was G-3. He was introduced to me and said, “I always wanted to meet you. I’ve got a pair of shoes that are yours. They’re the luckiest damn shoes I’ve ever had, and you’re not going to get them back either!”
“What kind of shoes are they,” I asked.
“They’re shower shoes.”
“How do you know they’re mine?” I queried.
“Your name’s on them: Marion E. Carl, Captain, USMC.”
I’d forgotten all about them.
On Guadalcanal, the situation as far as creature comforts—food, and so on—were concerned was that they were pretty nonexistent at times. For instance, I think that for two weeks straight we ate nothing but Japanese food, captured food—canned fruit and canned meat—and it wasn’t too bad. It didn’t bother me. It bothered a lot of my squadron. Some of them were getting diarrhea and so on and so forth by not being too careful regarding the water they were drinking. But I don’t remember ever being sick. I never got malaria, and some people figure I had a cast-iron stomach, but I’m just not a heavy eater, for one thing.
General Louis Woods said that one of the problems he found down there—and one that wasn’t understood by the ground people—was the requirement for the aviators to have a special diet, especially since they were going up to high altitudes. They’d have to eat the kind of foods that wouldn’t give them gas, and also, they needed the kind of food that would sustain them for their type of operations. But I never heard of it. Of course, Louie Woods might have had a valid point there from the standpoint of being a commander and trying to get the best food he could for his aviators. You can’t blame him for that. I’ve worked for Louie and I know; he was a pretty good officer.
As far as I’m concerned, one cigarette can do an aviator a hell of a lot more damage than what you eat when you go to altitude. Your tolerance to oxygen deprivation is reduced. You smoke three cigarettes, I think it is, and your tolerance to altitude is reduced about 8,000 feet. I never smoked, and I had particularly good altitude tolerance. I went to 27,000 feet, I guess it was, in the decompression chamber without oxygen. They didn’t want to take me any further, and I still hadn’t passed out.
The Japanese pilots and the Japanese aircraft that we came up against on the “Canal” were real good, some of them. And some of them were dummies. It’s just that some guys are not natural fighter pilots. If there’s a wrong way to turn, they’ll pick it every time. I was surprised at the quality of some of the Japanese pilots.
We had heard the story for so many years, that unless you were blue-eyed and blond and didn’t wear glasses, you weren’t good. All you had to do was see one of those Zeros maneuver once and you got converted real quick. I was just amazed, for instance, that the first one I jumped went by me. He got by me so fast that I didn’t have a prayer of following him. He turned so quick—the airplanes were so light and so maneuverable—that they could make an F4F look real stupid. Right then and there I said, “Never will I ever try to maneuver with a Zero, not for more than one or two turns. If I can’t get him in the first turn or two, I’m going to get the hell out of there and come back and try again the next day, otherwise he’s going to be on my tail. I won’t be able to get away from him. I’m going to get shot down.” The guys who stayed in there and tried to maneuver with them usually ended up getting shot down.
Excerpted from the oral history of Major General Marion E. Carl, which is in the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center’s collection.