Came ashore about 1400 today. The work on our new planes is going ahead O.K. I had a short talk with Col. Montgomery who passed through here on the way south. He is the head night fighter man in the marine corps. Played a few games of horseshoes outside the hut. The luck of this man Chris is phenomenal. His shoes (horseshoes) go sailing end over end and hit anywhere but they always roll right over the pin. I couldn’t beat him. I am here at the Acorn 20 library writing this evening. Chris, Holden and Brunson are at the movie.
About Lieutenant Colonel Edward A. Montgomery
At the end of 1942, Schwable formed a small task force to be sent to England to learn the night fighting trade at the working level. This probably grew out of an urgent message from the Commander South Pacific, Admiral William F. Halsey, who made a plea for a minimum of six radar-equipped night fighters to be sent [at the] earliest [possible] time. Hardly possible, since they did not exist then. The team was led to England by Lieutenant Colonel Edward A. Montgomery and consisted of pilots, radar operators (ROs), and GCI controllers—18 officers and men in all. When they returned in the late spring of 1943, they formed the backbone of the operational training effort for VMF(N)-531 and night fighter squadrons yet to come. On New Year’s Eve of 1943, Schwable noted in his diary that the squadron now had 11 officers, 1 warrant officer, and 78 enlisted men on board, and that its pilots had logged 250.7 hours.
The genesis of VMFA-531 began as the Royal Air Force was thrust head-on into the field of night fighting to counter the Nazi night bombing raids. During the 1930s the British had been developing airborne and ground radars with which to counter the imminent threat and were far more advance in these fields than US Navy or Marine aviation. Two Marine aviators who had served with the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, Captain E. Colston Dyers and Major Frank H. Schwable, were sent on around-the-world tours in 1941 to get a first hand look at British night fighter combat operations against the Germans, squadron training, gunnery and tactical doctrine and the types of aircraft suited for the night fighter missions. The formation of the Marine night fighter program as a countermeasure to the Japanese threat evolved as a direct result of the foresight and determination of these (among other) aviation pioneers.
In 1942, the Navy Department had scheduled a massive procurement of some 27,500 airplanes over the next five years. As a part of the program the Marine Corps received authorizations for eight 12 plane night fighter squadrons to be commissioned between 1 January and 30 June 1945. Ultimately, combat requirements dictated a change of priorities. Thus, the first Marine night fighter squadron VMF(N)-531 was activated on 16 November 1942 at MCAS Cherry Point, NC. It was the first squadron commissioned under the CG, MCAS Cherry Point, with LtCol Schwable commanding.
By 9 January 1943, the squadron came under the Fleet Marine Force and on 1 April, upon commissioning of Marine Aircraft Group 53, the squadron was absorbed into MAG 53.
The first aircraft possessed by VMF(N)-531 were two North American SNJ-4 Texans, assigned when the squadron was activated. They were later augmented by SB2A-4 Brewster Buccaneers. These aircraft were reclaimed Dutch dive bombers initially ordered for defense of the Netherlands East Indies, which were flown until the twin-engine Lockheed Ventura PV-l became operational as a night fighter. The Ventura, an older aircraft, was essentially the only twin-engine available during these austere times, for the first night fighter squadron. Major modifications were required before the first Ventura was delivered on 15 February 1943.
MAG-53 reported to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, FMF, on 16 April 1943. In response to Japanese night air attacks on Guadalcanal, the first Marine night fighter squadron, VMF(N)-531, deployed to the South Pacific, via the West Coast in the summer of 1943. In August, the first contingent of squadron aircraft launched from the Hawaiian Islands for Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands arriving on 25 August 1943 and then on to the Russell Islands, arriving in Banika on 11 September 1943. Air patrols began on 16 September 1943, as a member of MAG-21, 1st MAW. Thus VMF(N)-531 became the first Naval Aviation night fighter squadron in the South Pacific and the first of any of the US services to participate in combat as a radar equipped night fighter squadron.
Of note, the night fighters were never popularized as were the day fighters or the employment of close air support which at the time was unique to the Marine Corps. Aside from the obvious security restrictions, Marines in the Pacific simply did not know that the night fighters existed.
By 18 October 1943, the squadron was working together with its own Ground Control Intercept (GCI) personnel, a unit responsible for a large portion of the fighter direction at night in the Central Solomon Islands, located at Liapari Point on Vela Lavella. The squadron operated from fields in the Russell Islands, Vela Lavella, and Bougainvillea, participating in the New Georgia, Bougainvillea, Bismarck Archipelago, and Northern Solomon’s Campaigns, while pioneering Marine GCI and night fighter tactics. The squadron also covered the landings at Treasury Island and Choisseul.
The first enemy plane ever destroyed by a night fighter in the Naval service, a “Betty” bomber was shot down on 31 October 1943, by a VF(N)-75 F4U Corsair under the direction of a VMF(N)-531 Fighter Direction Officer located at Pakoi on Vela Lavella.
On 13 November 1943, Captain D. H. Jenkins with a crew of SSgt T. J. Glennon and SSgt A. H. Stout got the first VMF(N)-531 night kill, a “Betty”, while under the control of ‘Horse Base’, a task force about 50 miles southwest of Torokina Point in the Northern Solomon’s.
The first kill by a Marine GCI/night fighter team was scored by VMF(N)-531 on 6 December 1943, when LtCol John D. “Iron John” Harshberger, downed a single-engine, twin float plane off Motupina Point on Bougainville.
The squadron went on to compile an enviable record of twelve enemy planes shot down by five different pilots and crews, all at night. VMF(N)-531 GCI controllers accounted for a total of ten enemy aircraft losses. The Japanese quickly became wary of risking their planes in areas protected by the GCI/night fighter teams.
PV-1 Ventura, VMF(N)-531, Bougainville, 1944
The squadron completed its South Pacific tour based on Green Island, northwest of Bougainville, working with patrols of naval surface craft. Despite some communications problems, it was proved that properly controlled night fighter cover can substantially aid surface craft in successfully carrying out their mission of destroying enemy surface craft and shore installations with the assurance that the enemy aircraft will not interfere.
Probably the most important contribution VMF(N)-531 made to the developments that led to later successful operations against the Japanese was to prove the desirability of landing GCI equipment on D-day in order to provide efficient ground control for night fighters during the troops first few critical nights ashore.
By 1 September 1944, the squadron had returned to MCAS Cherry Point and was deactivated on 3 September only to be reactivated on 13 October 1944 at MCAAF Kinston, NC, and reassigned to MAG-53, 9th MAW.
On 29 November 1944, MAG-53 including VMF(N)-531 moved to MCAS Eagle Lake, TX, near Ft. Worth, where the squadron operated as a training unit.
When the war with Japan ended, VMF(N)-531 was in full operation, training replacement pilots and airborne intercept operators for overseas assignment. In February 1946, the squadron, along with MAG-53, was relocated to MCAS Cherry Point and 531 became a paper shell without aircraft and only cadre personnel. In March the “Grey Ghosts” were assigned to the 2nd MAW.
Feel free to add comments or to suggest corrections on errors that I made transcribing.
Tomorrow, May 25 1944…
Spent most of the day working on the planes…