JAMES ELMS SWETT
Colonel, USMCR (Ret)
WWII :: Confirmed Kills- 15 1/2, 4 Probables, & 1/4 Damaged
“I don’t consider myself to be a hero or invincible. But I do know that the Lord was in my cockpit each time I took off, and when I was shot down.”
- JAMES E SWETT, Colonel, USMC (Ret),
Medal of Honor Recipient and American Fighter Ace
Colonel (USMC, Ret) James Elms Swett, (June 15, 1920 – January 18, 2009) was a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot and American Fighter Ace during World War II. He was awarded the United States Medal of Honor, for actions while a division flight leader in VMF-221 over Guadalcanal on April 7, 1943. Subsequently he downed a total of 15.5 enemy aircraft during the war, earning eight Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals.
Born on June 15, 1920 in Seattle, Washington, Colonel Swett graduated from San Mateo High School, San Mateo, California, and enrolled at the College of San Mateo in 1939. He earned his private pilot’s license prior to enlisting in the Naval Reserves and attending Navy Flight Training in September 1941.
Service in World War II – Colonel Swett completed flight training in early 1942, graduating in the top ten per cent of his class. Given the option of a commission in the Marine Corps or the Navy, he chose the Marine Corps, and was commissioned a second lieutenant at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, on April 1, 1942. After advanced flight training at Quantico, Virginia and Lake Michigan, and carrier qualification onboard the USS Wolverine, he received his wings at San Diego, California. In December 1942, he shipped out to the Southwest Pacific, and when he arrived at Guadalcanal he was assigned to VMF-221, which was part of Marine Air Group 12.
Medal of Honor action – On April 7, 1943, on his first combat mission, 22 year-old Swett became an American Fighter Ace – and acted with such “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
His first mission was as a division leader on a combat air patrol over the Russell Islands early on the morning of April 7 in expectation of a large Japanese air attack. Landing to refuel, the four-plane division of F4F Wildcats he was leading was scrambled after other aircraft reported 150 planes approaching Ironbottom Sound. Swett’s Division intercepted a large formation of Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers (Allied code name: “Val”) attacking Tulagi harbor.
When the fight became a general melee, Swett pursued three Vals diving on the harbor. After downing two, and while evading fire from the rear gunner of the third Val, the left wing of his F4F was holed by U.S. antiaircraft fire directed at the Japanese. Despite this, he shot down the third Val and turned toward a second formation of six Vals leaving the area.
Swett repeatedly attacked the line of dive bombers, downing each in turn with short bursts. He brought down four and was attacking a fifth when his ammunition was depleted and he had his cockpit shot up by return fire. Wounded, he decided to ditch his damaged fighter off the coast of Florida Island, after it became clear that his oil cooler had been hit and he would not make it back to base. After a few seconds his engine seized, and despite initially being trapped in his cockpit underwater, Swett extricated himself and was rescued in Tulagi harbor. This feat made the 22-year-old Marine aviator an American Fighter Ace on his first combat mission.
Decorations: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Flying Cross with 5 Gold Stars, Purple Heart with one Gold Star, Air Medal with 21 Gold Stars, Presidential Unit Citations and a Navy Unit Citation
Source: American Fighter Aces Album ©1996