Fighter Squadron at Guadalcanal, by Max Brand, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., $26.
Max Brand, a well-known 1930s novelist and author of Destry Rides Again, Dr. Kildare and many other stories, wrote his only nonfiction book in early 1943. The unpublished manuscript was recently discovered by his daughter and has been published as Fighter Squadron at Guadalcanal. Brand wrote this history of U.S. Marine fighter squadron VMF-212, which had then just returned from Guadalcanal, as he was preparing to leave for Europe as a foreign correspondent. He was killed in action in Italy on May 12, 1944.
In March 1942 the advance echelon of Marine Group 24 landed on Etafe in the New Hebrides, a French possession southeast of Guadalcanal. The mission of the small, 154-man unit was to build an airfield. Etafe looked like a tropical paradise, but combat there was a tropical hell of mud, malaria and madness. Three months after the advance echelon landed on Etafe, the first American airplane touched down on the new runway.
VMF-212 was a new unit, commanded by Lt. Col. Harold William Bauer, a skilled pilot and a great teacher. Within a couple of months he had melded a group of young Grumman F4F Wildcat pilots into a fighting unit that established an enviable record in the early days of the southwest Pacific War.
The Marines landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, their mission to capture a nearly completed Japanese airfield, soon to be named Henderson Field. Guadalcanal was the first major attack against the Japanese, who counterattacked with massive air, naval and ground forces.
Poorly equipped but superbly trained, the U.S. Navy, Marine and Army Air Forces fought the Japanese in the air, on the sea and on the beaches. Marines defended the perimeter of Henderson Field, which was bombed during the day and shelled at night from the surrounding hills and from the ocean. Each morning the weary mechanics crawled from their foxholes, fixed the planes that could be repaired and then watched their pilots take off to fight the more numerous Japanese fliers.
Three Marine fighter squadrons bore the brunt of the attack, producing many early aces. From their first action August 20, 1942, until their relief in November 1942, VMF-212 shot down 94 Japanese aircraft, losing four of their own pilots. Colonel Bauer flew only four combat missions, destroying 11 Japanese aircraft before he was killed. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Fighter Squadron at Guadalcanal is probably the last new contemporary account we will have of the air war in the Pacific. Published more than 50 years after the author’s death, this account deserves a place alongside other classics of the early war years.
Calvin G. Bass