BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. A native of Seattle, Washington, James Elms Swett was born on June 15, 1920. Swett’s family moved to San Mateo California where he graduated from San Mateo High School.
After graduating from high school, Swett enrolled at the College of San Mateo in 1939. During his time at college, he earned a private pilot’s license, which ironically amounted to 450 more hours of flying than he received during his Navy flight training.
In August of 1941, Swett joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as a seaman second class. In September of that year he began his flight training.
Early in 1942, Swett completed his flight training, finishing in the top ten percent of his class. Given the choice between a commission in the Navy or the Marine Corps, he chose the Marine Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant on April 1, 1942 at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.
He went on to advanced training at Quantico, Virginia and Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. He became carrier-qualified on the USS Wolverine. In December, 1942 he received his wings at San Diego California.
He shipped out to the Southwest Pacific soon after receiving his wings. Guadalcanal was his first active duty station where he was assigned to VMF-221, a part of the 12th Marine Air Group.
On April 7, 1943, on his first combat mission, Swett both became an 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 a combat air patrol over the Russell Islands. The mission began soon after first light early on the morning of April 7. Intelligence had reported the possibility of a large Japanese air attack.
He had landed his four-plane division of F4F Wildcats when he received word that 150 Japanese planes were approaching. Swett scrambled his planes and intercepted a large formation of Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers attacking Tulagi harbor.
Swett pursued three of the Japanese dive bombers, shooting down two whilst taking heavy fire from the rear gunner in the third aircraft. Swett’s left wing was holed by friendly antiaircraft fire that was being directed at the Japanese. In spite of this, Swett managed to shoot down the third Japanese dive bomber.
He went on to attack several of the Japanese bombers that were trying to leave the area. He managed to shoot down four of them and was attacking the fifth one when he ran out of ammunition.
Swett’s cockpit was riddled with Japanese gunfire. Having been wounded and knowing that he would not be able to return to his home base, he decided to ditch his aircraft off the coast of Florida Island. Swett was trapped for a short time in his cockpit but managed to get free and was rescued a short time later in Tulagi harbor. Swetts actions on his first combat mission as a Marine aviator made him an Ace and lead to his receiving the Medal of Honor. Swett retired in 1970 with the rank of Colonel.
Medal of Honor citation
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to
FIRST LIEUTENANT JAMES E. SWETT
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, as a division leader in Marine Fighting Squadron TWO TWENTY-ONE in action against enemy Japanese aerial forces in the Solomon Islands Area, April 7, 1943. In a daring flight to intercept a wave of 150 Japanese planes, First Lieutenant Swett unhesitatingly hurled his four-plane division into action against a formation of fifteen enemy bombers and during his dive personally exploded three hostile planes in mid-air with accurate and deadly fire. Although separated from his division while clearing the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire, he boldly attacked six enemy bombers, engaged the first four in turn, and unaided, shot them down in flames. Exhausting his ammunition as he closed the fifth Japanese bomber, he relentlessly drove his attack against terrific opposition which partially disabled his engine, shattered the windscreen and slashed his face. In spite of this, he brought his battered plane down with skillful precision in the water off Tulagi without further injury. The superb airmanship and tenacious fighting spirit which enabled First Lieutenant Swett to destroy seven enemy bombers in a single flight were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Col. James E. Swett is buried at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery at Igo California. His grave is in section 4, site 329.
This is the final article on Medal of Honor recipients from the state of Washington. Next week we will look at some of Oregon’s heroes.