During this week in 1943, a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot participates in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. The action would also make Lt. James Swett an Ace! He shot down 7—or maybe 8—Japanese planes in just 15 minutes.
The Marines and Swett would have a friendly dispute about that number for the rest of his life.
Swett’s heroic action occurred on April 7, during his first-ever combat. The Japanese were then attempting an all-out attack against an American base in the Solomon Islands. Roughly 100 American planes were sent to intercept the force of about 150 Japanese aircraft.
For Swett, the conflict lasted only about 15 minutes. He had been called in to lead his division of four planes. His citation notes that he “unhesitatingly hurled his 4-plane division into action against a formation of 15 enemy bombers.” He singlehandedly took down three of those enemy planes before being hit with friendly anti-aircraft fire. His wing was damaged, and the heavy fire forced Swett apart from his division. He quickly assessed his plane, however, and decided that it was still functional. He spotted several Japanese bombers and swung into action.
“I found a whole bunch of dive bombers,” he later reported, “trying to get together and they were scattered all over the sky. So I just take one and get down below him so the rear gunner couldn’t get me. And just stick my nose up in short bursts and then he would catch on fire and I’d go to the next one and do the same thing.”
Swett shot down four of them before taking on a fifth. This final clash with a Japanese bomber left Swett’s engine partially disabled and his windshield shattered. He was also running out of ammo. Nevertheless, Swett believed that he took down this last Japanese plane before being forced into his own emergency landing.
The Marines have not confirmed this last achievement.
Either way, Swett managed to get his plane away from the conflict and over the ocean before he was forced to land on the water. As he came down, he immediately had to fight for his life. “I was cut up around the face by flying glass,” he later said. “I made a good water landing, but my shoulder straps were too loose and I hit my head on the instrument panel and broke my nose. I struggled to get out of the cockpit as the plane sank, but my parachute straps got caught and dragged me under. I don’t know how deep I was before my life raft inflated and popped me to the surface.”
Fortunately, Swett was rescued. He would recover and return to action, eventually earning 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 4 Air Medals in addition to his Medal of Honor. He made and survived another emergency water landing, returning home after the war to his family. He was nearly 90 years old when he died.
“Freedom is not free,” Swett once said. “You’ve gotta fight for it in order to keep it. We wear this medal basically for the veterans of all wars, for all services . . . particularly those who haven’t returned.”
Medal of Honor citation (James Elms Swett)
Medal of Honor oral histories (James Swett; WWII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)
Richard Goldstein, James Swett, who downed 7 planes in attack, dies at 88 (NY Times; Jan. 25, 2009)