The first U.S. Marine fighter pilots to arrive at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field 75 years ago faced hard facts. For one, the Japanese flew the aerial equivalent of a hot rod—the Zero. For another, the Marines’ counterparts were seasoned veterans. Based at Rabaul, New Britain, the Tainan Naval Air Group had seen heavy action in the Japanese advances through the Philippines and Dutch East Indies, and numerous members earlier had fought in the skies over China. The Marines, on the other hand, were new to combat, a notable exception being Midway veteran Captain Marion Carl.
As retired Marine Colonel Richard Camp recounts in “Flying in the Eye of the Guadalcanal Storm,” in early July 1942 Captain John L. Smith had received orders to prepare his command, Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 223, for a mysterious special mission. The squadron ballooned from 8 or 10 aviators to 21, with the additions being newly minted pilots. During the subsequent hectic weeks of training, “We concentrated on gunnery more than anything else,” Smith recalled, “which was a good thing after we found out where we were going.”