A Guadalcanal Fighter Pilot: Lieutenant (jg) Melvin C. Roach
Pictured in flight, the Grumman F4F was the primary Navy and Marine Corps fighter during the first year and a half of World War II.
Photo #: NH 97493
VF-5 provided much needed air cover for the 1st Marines on Guadalcanal. In the late afternoon of 9 October 1942, eleven of their F4F fighters lifted off from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and headed west. They were acting as escorts for Navy and Marine SBD dive bombers and TBF torpedo planes sent out against an incoming Japanese “Tokyo Express” force, composed of the seaplane carrier Nisshin and five destroyers, which was bringing in troops, supplies, and heavy weapons to Guadalcanal. It was 1800 and the sun was almost touching the water when the fighting began. While the SBDs and TBFs let down to begin their runs on the Japanese ships, the first F4Fs started attacking several Japanese floatplane fighters that were flying overhead as combat air patrol.
Lieutenant (jg) Melvin C. Roach was flying one of the first pair of fighters following behind the leader. Roach, a Reservist who had gotten his wings the year before, had earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from Oklahoma A&M College before entering the service. He and his wingman having split up following an unsuccessful run on a floatplane fighter, Roach spotted another and finally managed to get on its tail. He fired on the Mitsubishi Type 0 floatplane, hitting it multiple times before it suddenly slowed, and he sped past it. The Japanese aircraft returned the favor, however, and Roach found his cockpit suddenly filling with smoke and spraying oil. Knowing his plane was badly damaged, he headed southwest for Buraku Island, even as the Japanese floatplane he had crippled ditched in the water below.
Some minutes later, after ditching successfully at sea in the dark, Mel Roach began paddling his rubber raft in the direction of Buraku. He finally reached the small, apparently uninhabited island—not much more than scrub brush, mangroves and a few coconut trees—in the early afternoon of 10 October. Having indicated his presence to two F4Fs flying overhead by firing off a flare, he finally was rescued after dawn the next day by a J2F “Duck,” but not before he had had been forced to spend a sleepless night hiding in a hole in a coral ledge from several Japanese soldiers who earlier had been marooned on the island.
Roach, who was eventually awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits in the skies over Guadalcanal, received a regular Navy commission in early 1944. He was unfortunately killed in the Pacific in an aircraft accident on 12 June 1944.
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