The following segment was written by the late Dale Leslie, former Clerk of the Court and a Madison County native. He offers fascinating descriptions of the events that occurred during a recovery mission off the waters of Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands during World War II. His bravery and heroic actions saved the lives of numerous soldiers. This is the first of six installments of his memoir that will serve to commemorate both the anniversary of his plane being shot down and the 40 days he spent surviving in the jungles of Guadalcanal.
A memoir of the late
I was supporting ground troops in a sweep through the hills and mopping up operations on and around Guadalcanal. Having radio contact with the Marines, they could direct me where to drop the bombs and where to strafe. I had regularly scheduled hops in which to go up and contact them. It was on one of these hops that I discovered that they were in distress. I saw them waving signals but could not understand what they were saying. Their radio was out, so mine was of no use to me.
As a last resort in trying to put across their message, they took off their undershirts and spelled out the word H-E-L-P on the ground. I went back to the airfield and reported to operations, and they arranged for a destroyer and Higgins boats to go down and pick them up, providing that the Marines could get to the beach.
I went back to the Marines and sent them a blinker message telling them to get to the beach if possible so that the destroyer could pick them up. They were surrounded on three sides --- the fourth being about a quarter of a mile from the beach. They fought their way down to the beach while Reid Ramsey and I strafed and bombed to cover their retreat. We were flying low over them-- from 500 to 50 feet.
When the destroyer arrived, the Higgins boats were sent in to the beach to pick them up. Three attempts were made before they were successful.
As they left and headed back to the base, I discovered that some of the men had been overlooked. They were getting excited and were trying to swim out to the destroyer, not realizing that they would be left to drown. I was not successful in getting a message to the Higgins boats with my blinker, so I had to do a make shift signal by diving down toward them in order that I might convey to them that all the Marines had not been rescued. They did not seem to understand what I was trying to tell them, but finally one of them turned back to see that I was trying to direct them to a Marine in the water. With the aid of smoke bombs and parachute flares, I led them to each boy who was left behind, and all were taken safely taken to the destroyer.
By this time, I was out of gas and ammunition, so I headed back to the base and landed on the airfield with just enough gas to taxi out. When I cut off the motor, the Captain came up and asked me how the plane was working. I said "4. 0" (100%). He replied, "4.0 except for the big hole behind your head. " I turned to look and saw for the first time a hole in my plane big enough to throw a football through. That was the first I knew of it – but I suppose it got there by Jap anti-aircraft.
After this experience, the Colonel thought that Reid and I deserved a reward so he told us to go bathe and shave and take the next day off. This is the first bath we had had since we had been on the island, which was about a month.
The next day, we were in our tents messing around when all the pilots were called to the ready tent, where a volunteer was asked for to go on a bombing mission and a reconnaissance flight (secret mission). Reid and I volunteered.
We had completed our mission when I heard over the radio that there was an air raid coming, so I headed to rendezvous with the other dive bombers. En route, I saw a plane crash in the water and went to investigate to see if it was one of our boys. Concentrating on the crashed plane, my gunner and I were both caught "flat footed" by a Jap Zero. The first thing I knew about the plane being on us, Reid had his guns blazing away at it. It was so near to us that I could see our tracer bullets eating into the Zero. We were successful in bringing down the Jap, but about the same time, my oil caught fire.
I told Reid that we were afire and to bail out and that I would fly the plane until it got so hot I could not stand it. He did not answer me, nor make any attempt to get out of the plane. His guns were silent also. Then, I realized that he was gone.
When the flames reached my cockpit, I bailed out. The smoke had gotten so thick that I could not see my instruments . As soon as my parachute opened, my feet struck the water, so I estimated that I must have left the plane at about 500 to 700 feet.
The wind was blowing very strong and carried me toward shore, which was exactly where I did not want to go for I knew that the Japs were there. In my haste to get out of my parachute after landing in the sea, I unloosed my gun belt and lost my gun, canteen, first-aid kit and hunting knife .
I landed in the Coral Sea about 300 yards from shore. The wind was blowing me in toward and down the coast. My life jacket served to keep me up, but I had to keep swimming all the time to keep from going in to the shore. I had to kick my shoes off so that I could swim better. I gave up three times, for I was so tired I could not swim any longer. Then I would find myself drifting in towards shore and would get close enough to see the Japs who were following me as I drifted down the shore, and l would get strong again and swim back out. The Japs didn't come for me for the wind was blowing about 25 miles an hour and the waves were about 15 feet high and they thought that I would either drown or the sharks would get me. I saw several sharks around me, but they did not attempt to bother me.
While I was in the water, two of our scouting planes passed over my head not more than 200 feet away but I was in their blind spot and they did not see me. I did not have anything white with which to signal, so I had to let them go back without me .