World War II Marine Pilot Was Awarded Medal of Honor

James E. Swett downed seven dive bombers early in his first operation.
James E. Swett downed seven dive bombers early in his first operation. (Family Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

James E. Swett, 88, a Marine Corps ace pilot during World War II who received the Medal of Honor for knocking seven Japanese dive bombers out of the air in 15 minutes during his first combat operation, died Jan. 18 at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, Calif. He had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Swett was a first lieutenant and division leader in the Solomon Islands area of the South Pacific when he earned the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor.

As part of the Guadalcanal campaign, Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto had ordered a massive daylight offensive involving at least 150 Japanese bombers and fighter escorts. The Allies had about half that number of planes, one of which carried Mr. Swett.

He was leading his division of four Wildcat planes April 7, 1943, when another pilot spotted the enemy and radioed, "There's millions of 'em!"

Over Tulagi island, Mr. Swett saw about 20 lightly armored Japanese Val dive bombers trying to target Allied ships.

Mr. Swett made his first attack within 300 yards of a dive bomber, marking his first kill, and followed quickly with bursts of fire on two more Vals -- sending both spiraling down in flames.

He became separated from his division during the incident but managed under intense enemy gunfire to down four more Japanese bombers. While engaging yet another, he ran out of ammunition and was hit by that Val's rear gunner. Parts of his shattered windscreen scraped against his face, and his engine caught on fire. One wing was already damaged by antiaircraft flak.

He lowered his plane before bracing for a strong impact against the sea. He broke his nose and was dragged down 25 feet into the water before wiggling free from the cockpit and surfacing in an inflated life jacket. He feared his bleeding nose might attract sharks.

A cautious sailor spotted Mr. Swett and asked, "Are you an American?" The Marine replied yes, adding an epithet, and was treated to Scotch and morphine, according to an account by military historian Edward Sims.

The heavy Japanese losses that day played a significant role in stopping the Japanese advance in the Pacific. Mr. Swett refused to return to the United States after receiving the Medal of Honor because he thought his training expertise was of greater use in combat.

In early 1945, Mr. Swett was assigned to piloting Corsairs off the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill and racked up 8.5 more victories in a squadron designed as an anti-kamikaze force.

After one mission against a Japanese suicide operation, he was about to land on the Bunker Hill when it was struck by two Japanese planes and nearly 400 men were killed.

He dropped dye markers in the water to help spot crewmen who had jumped from the ship and, with his fuel level very low, made a harrowing landing aboard the carrier Enterprise. His plane was shoved overboard to make way for more airplanes.

James Elms Swett was born June 15, 1920, in Seattle and raised in San Mateo, Calif. He learned to fly while attending a junior college in San Mateo and entered military service in 1941. He retired decades later from the Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel.

His first wife, Lois Anderson, whom he married in 1944, died in the late 1990s. Survivors include his second wife, Verna Miller of Redding; and two sons from his first marriage.

After the war, Mr. Swett became a manufacturer's representative for a fire pump maker. He also was a devotee of Porsches. He owned 13 during his lifetime.

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