James E. Swett shot down 7 Japanese dive-bombers on his first combat mission! He was born in Seattle, Washington in 1920 and grew up in San Mateo, California. Swett entered the College of San Mateo in 1939, and soon earned his private pilot’s license. Deciding he wanted to be a navy pilot, he joined that branch and started flight training in September 1941. Finishing in the top 10 percent of his flight training class at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, he got to choose between a commission in the Navy or the Marine Corps. He chose the Marines! After advanced training in California, he was posted to Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221 and, in December 1942, shipped out to the Southwest Pacific. After tactics training in Hawaii, VMF 221 made its way to Guadalcanal, arriving in February 1943. Flying one of the squadrons new Grumman F4F Wildcats, Swett finally got into combat on 7 April 1943.
First, at 4:30 a.m., he launched to provide combat air patrol (CAP) for the island, but there were no enemy planes. After twice returning to base for fuel, a Japanese force showed up. More than 150 enemy dive-bombers and fighters were headed down “the slot.” Leading a 4-ship of Wildcats, Swett climbed to combat altitude (15-20,000 feet), and then he dove on the enemy dive-bombers concentrating on the Allied ships below. In the next few minutes, Swett downed 7! On his eighth attack of the day, he was hit by the enemy’s gunner and ended up in the water himself. Initially pinned in the wreckage of his aircraft, he finally freed himself and was rescued by a Coast Guard boat. After a short stay in a Naval hospital, Swett returned to Guadalcanal and learned that Admiral Mitschner had put him in for the Medal of Honor (MOH).
For Swett the war continued, and after a short rest in Australia, he checked out in the hot new bent-wing Vought F4U Corsair and moved to a new base in the Russell Islands. Now a captain, Swett covered the Rendova landings on 30 June 1943, adding 2 Mitsubishi G4M Betty medium bombers to his score and sharing the downing of a Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Not one Japanese plane from a force of 24 bombers and their 30-35 escort fighters escaped! Eleven days later, near the island of New Georgia, Swett knocked down two more Bettys. Seeing his wingman’s Corsair under attack, he also shot down a Zero. However, he failed to see a second Zero. He quickly joined his wingman in the water, where two natives in a canoe picked him up. The next day, Swett traveled by 10-man canoe for several hours to an Australian coast watcher’s headquarters.
The natives received $14 worth of calico cloth and canned beef for their efforts. A flying boat came and returned Swett to the Russells. In October 1943, over the major Japanese base at Kahili, Bougainville, Swett added one confirmed Zero and one probable, but lost his wingman. In November, he added to his list of kills 2 more Vals and a possible Kamasali KI-61 Tony, a new enemy fighter. On 11 December, Swett headed to the States on a Dutch motor ship. He arrived in San Francisco on New Years Eve. After less than 24 hours, he shipped out to San Diego, where he was granted 30 days leave. He used this opportunity to marry Lois Anderson, his long time sweetheart. Swett was then transferred to NAS Santa Barbara, California, where he worked up a newly manned VMF 221 in the Corsair. Now carrier qualified and assigned to the USS Bunker Hill, Swett flew 2 strikes over Japan and then supported the landings at Iwo Jima and the operations on Okinawa.
On 11 May 1945, he shot down a “sitting duck” kamikaze pilot in a Yokosuka D4Y Judy. Swett watched from the air as the Bunker Hill was hit by two kamikazes, causing such carnage that he was forced to land on another carrier. Swett later returned to the States and was assigned to MCAS El Toro, California, where he began to train for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan. At war’s end, VMF 221 was Number Two in the Marines with 185 enemy planes downed. Swett had flown 103 combat missions, had 16 1/3 confirmed victories and 9 probables. He had earned 2 Purple Hearts, 8 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, Swett commanded VMF 141 flying Corsairs at NAS Alameda, California.
When the Korean War started, his squadron shipped out, but he was left behind because the Navy thought putting a Medal of Honor recipient in combat was too risky. He left active duty in 1950 and joined the Reserves. He worked in his father’s company in San Francisco, making marine pumps and turbines. In 1960, after his father’s death, Swett took over the company and ran it for 23 years, before passing it on to his son. Semi-retired, he is a frequent speaker at schools, where he shares his strong feelings about the values of respect and responsibility.