'Joe's Jokers': Meet Some of the Best Marine Aces of World War II

Warfare History Network

Key Point: For the first two years of the war, Marine air spent most of its time protecting the fleet and land-based installations from attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. This began to change after the Battle of Tarawa in late November 1943, as air support for ground troops as flown by Navy pilots was found wanting.

“As a returning flight of Marine SBDs, dive bombers, were setting down on the airstrip, one of the planes lost a bomb which had failed to release during the mission. The bomb skidded down the runway and came to a stop in the middle of the field. No one knew if the bomb was armed. Everyone was ducking for cover. Where it lay it was preventing other planes from landing. So, Al Tierny, from St. Paul, Minnesota, and I volunteered to go out and get the bomb off the runway. We jumped in a small truck with a hoist and went out and hooked the bomb up, lifted it off the ground, and got it off to the end of the airstrip, permitting the waiting aircraft to land.” So reported Lance Corporal Robert Vannoy, who was not only an aircraft armorer, but also held a marksman’s badge.

According to my father, Lance Corporal Robert Vannoy, this was part of “life” on a Marine airstrip in the South Pacific.

VMF-115 of the Budding Marine Corps Air Arm

The entry of the United States into World War II saw a rapid expansion of the Marine Corps’ air arm, reaching a peak by 1945 of five air wings, 31 groups, and 145 squadrons, with just over 100,000 personnel.

For the first two years of the war, Marine air spent most of its time protecting the fleet and land-based installations from attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. This began to change after the Battle of Tarawa in late November 1943, as air support for ground troops as flown by Navy pilots was found wanting. After the battle, Marine General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith recommended that “Marine aviators, thoroughly schooled in the principles of direct air support,” take over the job.

One of the squadrons, Marine Fighter Squadron 115 (VMF-115), officially became part of Marine Fleet Air on July 1, 1943, at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Santa Barbara, California. Its commanding officer, Major Joseph J. Foss, took charge of the unit on July 17. Foss was already a legend as the Marine Corps’ leading ace and a recipient in May 1943 of the Medal of Honor (in late 1942 and early 1943, he shot down 26 Japanese planes in 44 days).

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