The Marines’ Lost Squadron

The Odyssey and Tragic Drama of VMF-422

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Mark Carlson

The Odyssey and Tragic Drama of VMF-422

By early 1944, the once-un­stop­pable Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Navy and Army were on the de­fen­sive. Whole is­land groups and na­tions con­quered by Tokyo were lib­er­ated and used as step­ping-stones from which to take the fight ever closer to the en­emy home­land. The Gil­bert Is­lands and Tarawa had fallen to the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Army in late 1943. The next tar­gets were two of the most im­por­tant Ja­panese bases in the western Pa­cific: Kwa­jalein and Eni­we­tok in the Mar­shall Is­lands. The cam­paign was code-named “Op­er­a­tion Flint­lock.”

VMF-422, the Fly­ing Buc­ca­neers, to the Front

Ma­rine Fighter Squadron 422 had just been de­clared op­er­a­tional and sent from Cal­i­for­nia to the war zone. The com­man­der was Maj. John S. MacLaugh­lin, a 1937 An­napo­lis grad­u­ate from Collingswood, New Jer­sey. VMF-422 was his first com­mand. He had a wife and in­fant son back in Cal­i­for­nia.

Among the 24 Fly­ing Buc­ca­neers was Lt. Mark “Breeze” Syrkin, a New York–born grad­u­ate of Ohio State at Colum­bus. An­other was Lt. Robert “Curly” Lehn­ert, a Long Is­land na­tive who had ma­jored in chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. Lt. Ken Gun­der­son of Wis­con­sin was a tall, ath­letic bas­ket­ball player, while Lt. John Hansen was a 21-year-old Iowan who had been an Ea­gle Scout.

Af­ter fur­ther train­ing in Hawaii and Mid­way, they ar­rived off Tarawa aboard the es­cort car­rier USS Kalinin Bay. They were fly­ing new F4U-1D Corsairs, the finest fighter-bomber in the U.S. Marines. The Ma­rine air-wing com­man­der, Brig. Gen. Lewie Mer­ritt, or­dered them to fly to Fu­na­futi, about 800 miles to the south-south­east. The first stop, Nanu­mea, was more than 450 nau­ti­cal miles away.

MacLaugh­lin asked if a PV-1 Ven­tura could nav­i­gate the squadron to Nanu­mea. His re­quest was flatly re­fused. He was told the weather fore­cast over their route was a few scat­tered clouds and oc­ca­sional rain­squalls. That weather re­port, how­ever, was al­ready 26 hours old.

The Corsairs were ser­viced, armed, and fu­eled with 349 gal­lons, which gave them three hours’ re­serve. At 0950 on the morn­ing of Jan­uary 25, MacLaugh­lin led his men off the run­way. One pi­lot had starter trou­ble and was un­able to take off. But the other 23 Corsairs formed up and headed south-south­east. “The weather was per­fect,” re­calls Syrkin, “with vis­i­bil­ity un­lim­ited.”

“I was leader of the last di­vi­sion,” says Lehn­ert. “Capt. Rex Jeans was lead­ing the di­vi­sion ahead of us.”

Un­known to the Marines, they were headed into the fu­ri­ous maw of a fully de­vel­oped Pa­cific cy­clone. No one had told them it was there. In­side was a hellish black mael­strom of ham­mer­ing rain, 150mph winds, and lit­tle vis­i­bil­ity.

A Fatal De­ci­sion Is Made

For the first two hours, all went well. The Marines passed dozens of small, lush is­lands ringed by pure white beaches, gar­landed with turquoise and pearl neck­laces of coral reefs. The Corsairs’ Dou­ble Wasp en­gines pounded out the ca­dence as the miles passed below. Then, at 1215, they saw a wall of dark clouds ex­tend­ing north­east to south­west, di­rectly astride their course. The heavy gray storm front reached well over 50,000 feet. Un­known to the Marines, they were headed into the fu­ri­ous maw of a fully de­vel­oped Pa­cific cy­clone. No one had told them it was there. In­side was a hellish black mael­strom of ham­mer­ing rain, 150mph winds, and lit­tle vis­i­bil­ity. The leaden clouds hung less than 250 feet above churn­ing, heav­ing waves that charged like green moun­tains cov­ered in gray beards of spray and foam.

With lit­tle choice, MacLaugh­lin de­cided to fly through what he as­sumed was a large rain­squall. The cy­clone wel­comed the squadron into its malev­o­lent em­brace. One by one, the planes dis­ap­peared like tiny in­sects into the storm. The sun be­gan to fade and then, as if some­one had turned off a switch, winked out. The clear blue world of sky and sun turned into a black hell.

As the pi­lots strug­gled with their con­trols in the churn­ing winds, they de­scended, de­ter­mined to find clear air below the storm. When they fi­nally emerged, they found them­selves in a nar­row in­ter­stice be­tween the boil­ing mass of black clouds over­head and the heav­ing waves below. Rain bat­tered the Corsairs. “It was as though a fire hose was aimed at my wind­shield,” says Syrkin. “There was re­ally no for­ward vis­i­bil­ity, and we were only able to keep some sem­blance of for­ma­tion by look­ing out the sides of the canopy.” They man­aged to keep one an­other in sight but al­ways kept a wary eye on the clutch­ing waves pass­ing below. Sud­denly, MacLaugh­lin made sev­eral rad­i­cal turns to try to lo­cate the Nanu­mea ra­dio range. “My di­vi­sion leader John Rogers was un­able to keep for­ma­tion,” Syrkin re­calls. “John Hansen and Jake Wil­son went off with him.” Rogers was never heard from again.

Des­per­a­tion Reigned

Also miss­ing were Lts. Bob “Tiger” Moran and Earl Thomp­son. Hansen, fear­ing a midair col­li­sion, had de­cided to go it alone. He ra­dioed that he had lost con­tact. Don Walker gave him the Fu­na­futi range fre­quency. “I tuned it in, and it worked,” Hansen says. “I fol­lowed it in. Twenty min­utes later, I saw the is­land.” He landed safely on Fu­na­futi. “They were sur­prised to see me. They weren’t even ex­pect­ing us.” Hansen im­me­di­ately in­formed the sta­tion of the squadron’s trou­ble. It was the first of­fi­cial no­tice that VMF-422 was miss­ing.

As for Wil­son, he found him­self alone, and spot­ted the is­land of Ni­u­tao ahead. Al­most out of fuel, he de­cided to ditch, and headed for the surf line far below. His Cor­sair came to a shud­der­ing stop in the waves. Wil­son looked to see na­tives rush­ing out to him.

Back in the main group, Chris Laue­sen re­ported en­gine trou­ble and said he had to ditch. Gun­der­son and Lehn­ert stayed with him as his Cor­sair slid to­ward the heav­ing green swells, while the

rest of the squadron or­bited above. “The Cor­sair came down and smacked into a wave and sank,” re­calls Lehn­ert. “Then he came up but didn’t have his raft. He had only his Mae West life pre­server to keep him afloat. Even though I was or­dered to re­join the squadron, I couldn’t just leave him.”

MacLaugh­lin lost the Fu­na­futi bea­con and grew des­per­ate. He gave the lead to Jeans, who be­gan a for­ma­tion turn back to the north­east to­ward the tiny is­land of Nui. Then MacLaugh­lin stopped com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and no one was able to con­tact him.

John “Abe” Lin­coln saw MacLaugh­lin veer­ing away. “I flew very close and tried to get him to look at me,” he says. “I called him sev­eral times. I went so far as to fire my guns. Noth­ing.” Fi­nally Lin­coln re­joined the squadron, and MacLaugh­lin dis­ap­peared into the storm, never to be seen again.

In­di­vid­ual Sur­vival Is Ques­tion­able

Lehn­ert was still cir­cling over Laue­sen. “Chris was all alone with no raft,” he says. “I de­cided to bail out.” Af­ter open­ing his canopy, Lehn­ert low­ered his flaps. “I was at 2,000 feet as slow as pos­si­ble. I jumped clear, right over Chris’s dye marker. Af­ter I hit the wa­ter, I in­flated the raft. I had to get rid of my chute, which was pulling me away. Then I said to my­self, ‘OK, Bob, get into the god­damn raft now!’” The mas­sive swells ham­pered his ef­forts to reach Laue­sen. “I used the hand pad­dles. But ev­ery time I reached a crest, he was nowhere to be seen. I never saw Chris again. He per­ished at sea.”

At about 1500, Moran ra­dioed Jeans that he was ap­proach­ing Nui and was in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Nanu­mea. Moran told Jeans he was low on fuel and was go­ing to bail out over the is­land. He jumped from his Cor­sair and landed in the heavy surf, but drowned while try­ing to es­cape from his parachute har­ness. “Tiger wasn’t a strong swim­mer,” re­calls Lehn­ert.

The re­main­ing planes fi­nally broke out of the sec­ond storm around 1530. Lts. Ted Thur­nau and Bill Ay­crigg both re­ported they were al­most out of fuel. Jeans knew there were high storm fronts be­tween them and Fu­na­futi, and their odds of mak­ing the is­land were slim. He de­cided to or­der the pi­lots to ditch as close to­gether as pos­si­ble so that they would have a bet­ter chance of be­ing res­cued. Ay­crigg ditched first, fol­lowed by Thur­nau, but Thur­nau over­shot Ay­crigg by five miles. The other 13 pi­lots man­aged to ditch close to­gether in be­tween the first two but were un­able to link up with them. Soon the heav­ing sea was dot­ted with yel­low rafts and swim­ming men.

Syrkin says, “I jet­ti­soned my hood and used full flaps, and came in tail low, hold­ing off as long as pos­si­ble. I felt the fuse­lage skip­ping the wa­ter un­til the prop and en­gine dug into a heavy swell and it stopped dead.” The pi­lots fre­quently lost sight of one an­other in the huge swells. Us­ing whis­tles and calls, small knots of men as­sem­bled. Syrkin fi­nally saw a group of rafts tied to­gether,

Hour af­ter hour, rain­squalls hit and passed, adding to their fa­tigue. ... The salt­wa­ter caused red sores and open blis­ters. The sharks were be­com­ing more ag­gres­sive.

and as he ap­proached, pad­dling with his hands, Wat­son greeted him with “Hey, Breeze, how about an au­to­graph?”

Thir­teen Men, 12 Rafts

Lt. Chick Whalen, who had not got­ten his raft out, had to dou­ble up with each of the pi­lots in turn. To make mat­ters worse, the stranded Marines weren’t alone. Three large sharks be­gan to prowl around the rafts. Night fell and an­other rain­squall hit the small band of avi­a­tors. They ea­gerly col­lected wa­ter with their rub­ber­ized tarps. Jeans or­dered them to tie the rafts into a cir­cle so that they would have more than one con­nec­tion with each other. The hours passed slowly. At dawn on the 26th, the wind, blow­ing out of the north, brought what they all had feared. The same storm they’d flown through the day be­fore caught up with them and struck with a cold, mer­ci­less vengeance. The des­per­ate pi­lots held onto each other’s rafts, bail­ing out with their one free hand. The storm passed within a few hours.

As dark­ness again fell, an­other storm lashed the 13 Marines. Hour af­ter hour, rain­squalls hit and passed, adding to their fa­tigue. But the men never lost their sense of hu­mor. Dur­ing one rain­storm on the sec­ond night, Walker sang “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” at the top of his lungs. At one point, Lt. Caleb Smick, try­ing to get com­fort­able in his raft, over­bal­anced and fell into the wa­ter. When he saw the sharks mov­ing in, he kicked and swam so vig­or­ously he seemed to “walk” on the wa­ter, and fell back into his raft. Once he was safe, the pi­lots all started laugh­ing up­roar­i­ously.

The strain was be­gin­ning to tell, how­ever. Mus­cles were sore, and skin was rubbed raw. Nearly con­stant rain soaked their thin flight suits, while the heat of the day burned their skin. The salt­wa­ter caused red sores and open blis­ters. The sharks were be­com­ing more ag­gres­sive, so the Marines de­cided Charley Hughes should shoot them with his .38-cal­iber re­volver. “Our .45 Colt au­to­mat­ics had rusted shut,” says Gun­der­son. Hughes man­aged to put a bul­let into one shark, which quickly swam off, pur­sued by the oth­ers.

Res­cue May Be Pos­si­ble

Far to the north, Lehn­ert saw a PBY on the hori­zon. “He was fly­ing a square search. I watched him like a hawk. He came right to­ward me. I held my Very pis­tol up and pulled the trig­ger. The flare ex­ploded into bright red balls. He saw me and rocked his wings.” The PBY crew picked up Lehn­ert and flew him to Fu­na­futi. There, he learned that the rest of VMF-422 was still miss­ing.

Then­for­tune­fi­nallyshon­eon­theMarines.En­sign Ge­orge David­son of Pa­trol Squadron 53 was fly­ing his PBY-5A, look­ing for Ja­panese sub­marines,

when he and his crew spot­ted a tiny group of yel­low rafts about 100 miles south­west of Fu­na­futi. The des­per­ate pi­lots were ready. They fired flares and re­leased their yel­low dye mark­ers.

Af­ter sev­eral at­tempts, David­son man­aged to set down on the rough wa­ter. A huge wave tore the right en­gine off the wing. The wind then pushed the fly­ing boat away from the rafts, and only on the third pass was a crew­man able to throw a line to the men in the wa­ter. Eight men climbed aboard, then five rafts broke away and were sud­denly lost in the tur­bu­lent night. With rain, waves, and wind beat­ing at his plane, David­son tax­ied the big Catalina around time and again, look­ing for the lost rafts.

To make mat­ters worse, the PBY’s hull had been breached dur­ing the rough land­ing and was tak­ing on wa­ter. Af­ter more than two hours, David­son’s crew lo­cated the five other men and hauled them aboard the Catalina. Know­ing there was no hope of lift­ing the dam­aged, heav­ily loaded PBY into the air, David­son kept its nose into the wind. He was in con­tact with res­cue forces, and ships were con­verg­ing on the area.

The de­stroyer USS Hobby ar­rived a few hours later and took on not only the Buc­ca­neers but also the crew of the sink­ing PBY. When the ex­hausted Marines set­tled into Hobby’s sick­bay, they found Wil­son on­board. Wil­son had come close to hav­ing to marry one of the tribal chief’s daugh­ters be­fore a boat from Hobby picked him up on the 26th. His squadron mates nee­dled Wil­son about his “close call.”

The For­tu­nate Few Point Fin­gers

The Navy con­ducted an ex­ten­sive search, but MacLaugh­lin, Rogers, Ay­crigg, and Thomp­son were never found. Thur­nau was picked up by the de­stroyer USS Welles on the 28th, the last sur­vivor of VMF-422 to be res­cued.

The fi­nal toll was six Marines and 22 Corsairs lost, mak­ing it the worst non­com­bat loss of a Ma­rine squadron in the war. The catas­tro­phe that struck VMF-422 that Jan­uary day was to­tally avoid­able. Like most tragedies, it was the re­sult of a chain of fac­tors that con­trib­uted to the fi­nal out­come. They were caused by hu­man er­ror and hubris, by ap­a­thy and ar­ro­gance, by in­ex­pe­ri­ence and ig­no­rance. The U.S. Navy was faced with no choice but to con­vene an of­fi­cial in­quiry into the dis­as­ter. The bliz­zard of memos and of­fi­cial doc­u­ments stretched from the war zone all the way back to the Sec­re­tary of the Navy in the Pen­tagon.

To their dy­ing day, ev­ery sur­vivor of VMF-422 con­sid­ered one man to have been the cause of the near de­struc­tion of their squadron and the deaths of their com­rades. “We knew whose fault it was,” Syrkin says many years later. “It wasn’t Ma­jor MacLaugh­lin’s fault. It wasn’t even the brief­ing of­fi­cer at Tarawa who’d told us the weather all the way to Fu­na­futi was clear with scat­tered rain squalls. We were thrown into that storm by the or­ders of one man. We knew ex­actly who to blame for the dis­as­ter: Gen­eral Lewie Mer­ritt.”

(Photo by Brian Sil­cox)

The Goodyear FG-1D Cor­sair’s cock­pit fea­tures mul­ti­ple rear-view mir­rors for the pi­lot to mon­i­tor his “six.” The Mk 8–type sight has a fixed, non­com­put­ing ret­i­cle.

“Ma­rine Spe­cial,” flown by Chris Laue­sen, is launched from the USS Kalinin Bay on the morn­ing of Jan­uary 24, 1944. Laue­sen was lost in the dis­as­ter. (Photo cour­tesy of the U.S. Navy, via Mark Carlson)

Hawkins Field on Be­tio Is­land, Tarawa in mid-1944. The ill-fated flight to Fu­na­futi be­gan and ended here. (Photo cour­tesy of Mark Carlson)

The early-1944 ap­pear­ance of the F4U-1D in­tro­duced the Cor­sair as a true fight­er­bomber with pro­vi­sions for wing rock­ets, and sev­eral py­lons for bombs or belly tanks. The ad­di­tion of a raised blown canopy helped with pre­vi­ous land­ing de­fi­cien­cies as the...

This is one of the most iden­ti­fi­able pro­files in avi­a­tion. The “bent” wing was needed to make the wings meet the fuse­lage at 90 de­grees for min­i­mal drag and still keep the land­ing gear to a man­age­able length to clear the huge pro­pel­ler. (Photo by John...

The sur­viv­ing pi­lots of VMF422 as­sem­bled af­ter the USS Hobby de­liv­ered them to Fu­na­futi. Six of the orig­i­nal flight of 23 pi­lots had died. (Photo cour­tesy of An­drew Syrkin, via Mark Carlson)

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