Pontifications: The Odyssey of VMF-422

By Scott Hamilton

July 9, 2018, © Leeham News: With the Farnborough Air Show just around the corner, and the inevitable tsunami of news that will be forthcoming, I’m taking a break this week to do one of my periodic book reviews.

The Marines’ Lost Squadron, The Odyssey of VMF-422 by aviation writer Mark Carlson (Sunbury Press, US$19.95) investigates the loss of 22 Vought Corsairs on a repositioning flight in the South Pacific in World War II.

Dubbed the Flintlock Disaster—the incident occurred in the runup to Operation Flintlock, the invasion of the Marshall Islands—six Marines perished when the squadron flew into a typhoon. Fifteen pilots ditched and were rescued after four days adrift in rafts. Only one pilot flew through the storm to his destination.

Snafu

The squadron was new to the Pacific theatre, having been transferred from training in the US. The longest overwater flight was about 90 minutes off the US shores.

Carlson writes that the leader of the squadron wanted an escort aircraft for the long, overwater ferry flight between bases, but the commanding Marine general refused to give one, despite such escorts being routine.

Weather forecasting in 1944 in the vast regions of the South Pacific was spotty at best and in 422’s case, what the pilots received was already 24 hours old. Unwittingly, the squadron flew into what would become Typhoon Cobra, a monster storm that severely damaged Adm. William Halsey’s Task Force 38, including the loss of three destroyers that capsized. More than 700 men were lost in TF38 and Halsey was criticized for sailing into the typhoon (he had ample warning).

To make matters worse for 422, radio frequencies were not monitored on shore so their calls for help went unheard. One key ground command didn’t even know the squadron was airborne.

A chance overflight of a PBY on anti-submarine patrol spotted the rafts and rescued the surviving fliers who ditched. Another pilot ditched along the shoreline of an island and spent his time avoiding being forced to marry a native woman by the locals that took him in.

Coverup

The loss of six lives and an entire squad of new airplanes led to the required board of inquiry. The hearings took place on a seaplane tender, the USS Curtis, in the Pacific theatre where all the parties were based.

Carlson writes that although the board was pressed for time in the runup to Flintlock and other battles, they approached their job earnestly. Still, Carlson details how the board members missed key testimony that would have revealed the obfuscation and (in Carlson’s words) lies told by the commanding general and his top aide intended to mask their own culpability—notably refusal to provide an escort airplane.

The board recommended the general receive a reprimand. An Admiral reviewing the findings recommended the general be court martialed. Adm. Chester Nimitz, however, accepted the board’s recommendation.

The matter wound its way to Washington, where nothing more was done.

Carlson writes that in researching this book, sections of the service record of the general were missing or he was denied access to them, even 70 years later.

Meticulous detail

The book is meticulously detailed. This is its strength—and its weakness.

The first one third of the book is steeped in minutiae. Carlson dives into the history of Marine aviation and includes the breakfast and lunch menus of the squadron before they take off, more than 100 pages into the 322-page story.

He includes a passage later in the book detailing what the late John Glenn wrote about serving in the Marines. Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the earth in the USA’s fledgling space program, had nothing whatsoever to do with the story of 422. Including his comments strikes of name-dropping or filler material.

Likewise, Carlson details history of the USS Curtis and its presence at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Curtis’ only role in the saga is that it happened to be the site of the board of inquiry. As with Glenn, the Curtis’ history seems a gratuitous inclusion in the book.

For some, such meticulous detail may be welcome. I found myself skipping pages to get to the relevant stuff.

Carlson reports what happened to the surviving pilots. Some went on to successful careers, some stayed in the Marines, one unfortunately suffered from alcoholism and Carlson was unable to learn what happened to a few.

The book is at its best when the story of the flight into the typhoon, the survival lows and highs and the board of inquiry is recounted.

15 Comments on “Pontifications: The Odyssey of VMF-422

  1. “To make matters worse for 422, radio frequencies were monitored on shore so their calls for help went unheard.”

    Shouldn’t that be unmonitored?

    Interesting change of pace article!

  2. That is a whole new one on me, been reading about the Pacific War in WWII since I was a young kid. Pretty shocked I had not come across this one.

    Doing more damage to ourselves than the enemy seems to be a recurring theme sadly.

    While it does not apply here, one of the recurring themes of WWII was how incapable peacetime commanders were of shifting gears quickly and many not at all.

    Kimmell and Short come to mind.

    Halsey has gone down many notches in my view over the years.

    The debacle in the Philippines invasion and sucking all the battleships to his carrier force vs leaving them where they belonged.

    Followed by the Typhoon debacle.

    Loss of the Indianapolis and the same confusion and incompetence involved come to mind.

    • Yes the US was darned lucky that Halsey had to sit out Midway for medical reasons. I always wondered whether his authority and reputation had more to do with his bulldog looks and gruff demeanor than ability or intelligence.

      • You’re much too negative on Halsey. Ghormley was almost singlehandedly on track to lose the war in the Southwest Pacific. Guadalcanal was teetering on another Bataan-like fall. Nimitz made the right decision pulling him, and bringing in Halsey. He, Halsey, hugely turned around the USN in the South Pacific and US morale. He, the Navy, and the Marines “sealed the deal” on Guadalcanal. Who on the U.S. Navy side could have mouthed at the time: “Kill japs, kill japs, kill more japs!”, and been as appropriately bloodthirsty as the Marines? The later stuff tarnished his rep, but he carried the day—under Nimitz, of course—all the way to Tokyo Bay!

        • Agreed on the Guadalcanal South Pacific as noted below and before the post.

          Also the need to not let it go to your head.

          Leyte was close to a major disaster.

          As it was, it was a local disaster for Taffy 3 and the two carriers lost as well as the Destroyers sunk (3). 1500 Lives lost.

          How do you let 23 Japaneses battleships and cruisers get close to your invasion beach?

          Mitchner was criticized at the Marrianes but he always kept in mind it was not his job to sink the Japanese fleet, let alone carriers, it was to protect the invasion.

          If he did that and didn’t sink a single Japanese ship it was a victory.

      • The Midway battle and Halsey was one that always crossed my mind.

        The early going he was aggressive when that was needed.

        His work around Guadlecannal vastly improved that situation.

        How that would have worked out at Midway makes you glad they had the men they did there.

        I think the early success went to Halsey’s head and the arrogance began. He got obsessed with Carriers when the Marrianes proved that they were nothing but a hollow threat.

        Gross gross failure to keep track of the Japananes main gun fleet at Leyte and then pulling all the fast battledress off with him was gross mismanagement.

        He got a lot of men killed with that stunt (as well as the Typhoon).

        He deprived the Fast Battleships the opportunity to take on the Japanese. They could have held that Japanese fleet by the throat while the Escort carries did Coup De Gras.

  3. VMF-422 was lost in January 1944.

    Typhoon Cobra was in December 1944.

        • Look it up. Halsey almost was relieved of command, but the Brass figured the hit to national morale would be too great.

          • Yep, but as usual it never comes home to roost.

            Never have gotten that mind set that no matter how horribly a manager screws up, he is supported (unless it threatens the jobs of others even higher up, then its under the bus)

            Monty should have been sacked as well but it never happened.

            Its not that he did not have to deal with ever reduced numbers of people, it was the grandiose and arrogant approach.

            Failure to secure the Antwerp Delta was amazing incompetence for someone whose claim to fame was organization if not brilliance. .

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