Sunday, April 07, 2013

TFH 4/7: First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMCR

James Elms Swett was born in Seattle, Washington on June 15, 1920. He grew up in San Mateo, California. Before his enlistment in the United States Naval Reserve on August 26, 1941, Swett had already obtained a civilian pilot's license and was placed into training as a Naval Aviator.

When he completed primary flight instruction in early 1942, his Nation was at war and he was given the option to stay with the Navy or instead accept a commission with the Marine Corps. Swett chose the latter, and became a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. After completing his full training as a Grumman F4F Wildcat pilot and earning his Wings of Gold as a Naval Aviator, he joined Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) in the Solomon Islands.

Seventy years ago today - April 7, 1943 - then-First Lieutenant Swett flew his very first combat mission. He led a section of Marine fighters against a large Japanese bomber force. The Marine flyers were outnumbered, but following Swett's leadership they pressed their attacks. Swett's Wildcat was severely damaged by both enemy and friendly fire during the battle, and he personally destroyed at least five, possibly seven, enemy aircraft. His incredible heroism was recognized with the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (M-S):


Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine Fighter Squadron 221, with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Place and date: Solomon Islands area, 7 April 1943. Entered service at: California. Born: 15 June 1920, Seattle, Wash. Other Navy award: Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 Gold Star. Citation: For extraordinary heroism and personal valor above and beyond the call of duty, as division leader of Marine Fighting Squadron 221 with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, in action against enemy Japanese aerial forces in the Solomons Islands area, 7 April 1943. In a daring flight to intercept a wave of 150 Japanese planes, 1st Lt. Swett unhesitatingly hurled his 4-plane division into action against a formation of 15 enemy bombers and personally exploded 3 hostile planes in midair with accurate and deadly fire during his dive. Although separated from his division while clearing the heavy concentration of antiaircraft fire, he boldly attacked 6 enemy bombers, engaged the first 4 in turn and, unaided, shot down all in flames. Exhausting his ammunition as he closed the fifth Japanese bomber, he relentlessly drove his attack against terrific opposition which partially disabled his engine, shattered the windscreen and slashed his face. In spite of this, he brought his battered plane down with skillful precision in the water off Tulagi without further injury. The superb airmanship and tenacious fighting spirit which enabled 1st Lt. Swett to destroy 7 enemy bombers in a single flight were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Swett fought in several other Pacific campaigns, including combat flying over both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he was an eight-time recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. By war's end, he was credited with shooting down 15 enemy aircraft, making him a triple ace.

He continued serving in the active Marine Corps up until the Korean War. Even though he was a squadron commander, he was not allowed to fly in combat over Korea as a previous Medal of Honor winner. Swett left active service and eventually joined his father's machinery company in California, which he later ran himself before patching the torch of leadership to his own son.

Swett retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1970 with the rank of Colonel. He passed away at age 88 on January 18, 2009. He rests in peace at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo, CA.

VMF-221 was inactivated after World War II, and has not served as a Marine Corps unit since.

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