CalVet’s Medal of Honor Wall includes 177 names of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, either from California or with California ties, who received the nation’s highest honor for heroism and valor.
Each recipient and the circumstances that led to awarding the honor is a story in its own right. This time, we tell the story of Marine and 1st Lt. James E. Swett who wrote his chapter in U.S. military history during World War II.
On April 7, 1943, the 22-year-old fighter pilot from San Mateo flew his very first combat mission. During that flight alone, Swett shot down seven Japanese dive bombers that were targeting the U.S. fleet near Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Possibly an eighth downing went unconfirmed.
Indeed, he became an ace in his initial and most memorable air battle, and also his first as division leader of the Marine Fighting Squadron 221 with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
Swett’s remarkable day began with a pair of routine and uneventful sorties in his Grumman F4F Wildcat—neither time encountering enemy aircraft.
“Then we heard there were 150 Japanese dive bombers headed for our fleet, which was over in Tulagi (in the Florida Islands),” Swett said in a 2006 video interview that aired on The History Channel. “We had no idea how many Zeroes (Japanese fighter planes) were in support.”
Suddenly, the sky was black with the dive bombers.
“I caught the first one just as he was pushing over, getting ready to dive,” Swett said. “I caught another halfway down (heading toward the U.S. fleet). And, I got another one down at the bottom (closer to the water).”
Around that time, his plane took a hit on the starboard (right) wing.
“I’m thinking, ‘I got hit, now I have to go home,’” he said. “I was headed to getting away from those damned anti-aircraft (rounds) when I found a whole other bunch of dive bombers that were trying to get together.”
He attacked from below to prevent the bomber’s tail gunner from getting clear shots at him.
“I’d just stick my nose up to the bird (and shoot), and it would catch on fire, and then I’d go on to the next one,” Swett said.
Going for his seventh, he admittedly got a bit overconfident.
“The rear gunner stuck his gun practically in my face and let me have it,” Swett said. “I was fighting glass and plastic was flying all over the damned place.”
He managed to take out that dive bomber before ditching his plane in the ocean. His plane sank about 20 feet before he could escape. He inflated his life preserver and made it to the surface where a Coast Guard picket boat found him.
“They all had rifles pointed at me,” Swett said. “He (the captain) said, ‘Are you an American?’”
Swett assured them he was, and soon found himself in a hospital on Guadalcanal before getting some R&R in Australia. By June 30, 1943, he was promoted to captain and after being nominated for the Medal of Honor by Adm. Marc Mitscher, Swett was back in the air again. He shot down two more dive bombers and tag-teamed with another fighter plane to take out a Zero.
By the time the war ended, Swett had downed over 15 Japanese planes. He later commanded Marine Fighting Squadron 141 at Naval Air Station, Alameda.
Swett retired from the Marines as a colonel in 1970, and later moved to Redding. He died on January 24, 2009, and is buried in CalVet’s Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo.