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.
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.
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.
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.