The Marines’ Lost Squadron
The Odyssey and Tragic Drama of VMF-422
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.
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.”
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)