At one of the symposiums held at the National Naval Aviation Museum some years back, retired Commander Alex Vraciu, one of Navy’s storied fighter aces of World War II, relayed a story about a postwar flight from Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, during which he spotted another Navy aircraft and initiated a mock dogfight. Justifiably feeling confident in his abilities given his wartime combat record, Vraciu was shocked when the other airplane quickly maneuvered into a position on his tail. Only upon returning to the air station and inquiring about the identity of the pilot flying the other airplane was he informed that it was Marine Lieutenant Colonel Marion Carl, one of the war’s acclaimed fighter aces in his own right with 18½ kills to his credit.
The first of these came on June 4, 1942, when Captain Carl was assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221 on Midway Atoll. He had arrived there on Christmas Day in 1941, flying an F2A-3 Buffalo from the carrier Saratoga (CV 3). Over the course of the ensuing months, he logged many training flights in the in the skies around the island, ranging from division tactics and gunnery to dropping water-filled practice bombs. An interruption to the routine for those on Midway came on March 10th, when air raid sirens blared, prompting four VMF-221 fighters to scramble and intercept what turned out to b a large Kawanishi H8K1 Type 2 flying boat, which was shot down.
On May 27th Carl logged his first flight in one of the newly arrived F4F-3 Wildcats, the Grumman-built fighter destined to play a central role in Carl’s future combat against the Japanese. Carl made eight flights in Wildcats before the morning of June 4th, when he and the remainder of VMF-221 scrambled from Midway to intercept a Japanese aircraft launched from the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. That morning, he was one of only 4 of the twenty-four squadron pilots to fly a Wildcat, the remainder of the men climbing into cockpits of the F2A-3 Buffaloes, inferior aircraft that one of the pilots described in the following way. “It is my belief that any commander who orders pilots out for combat in a F2A-3 should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground.”
According to his official report of his actions that day, Carl took off at 6:00 am and climbed to an altitude of 14,000 ft., where he spotted a group of Japanese Zero fighters escorting Aichi D3A1 Type 99 bombers. Carl made a high side against one of the enemy fighters, which was flying 2,000 ft. below him, and then immediately headed straight down at full throttle to avoid a pair of Zeros pursuing him. After evading them, he climbed to an altitude of 20,000 ft. and after observing no enemy aircraft, descended to 12,000 ft.
I saw three Zero fighters at a low altitude that were making a wide circle so I came down in a 45°dive almost full throttle and had barely enough speed to drop in astern and to the inside of the circle made by one of the Zero fighters. I gave him a long burst, until he fell off on one wing and when last seen was out of control headed almost straight down with smoke streaming from the plane. The other two fighters had cut across and were closing on me so I headed for a cloud. One fighter gave up the pursuit, but the other came on and started firing. He fired steadily for several seconds, but was shooting low, for I could see the tracers going by on both sides and slightly below me. Finally, I felt the impact of bullets striking the plane. He was gaining fast and had followed me through one cloud, so I cut the throttle, threw the plane into a skid, and he over ran me. I raked him with gun fire as he went by. He slid across in front and below me, and I shoved over sharply and pressed the trigger at the same time, but evidently the pushover was too sharp because none of my guns would fire. I dropped down astern the fighter and through a cloud. I saw no enemy plane thereafter.
Carl landed after being the in the air for 1.5 hours, estimating that he had used over 300 rounds. Returning VMF-221 pilots claimed 11 enemy aircraft shot down, with one probably shot down, and four others damaged. Japanese records confirm that 11 aircraft were shot down by Marine aircraft and antiaircraft gunners, with fourteen others heavily damaged. Fourteen of Carl’s squadronmates, including squadron skipper Major Floyd “Red” Parks, were killed in action. Five VMF-221 enlisted men died on the ground in the bombing of Midway by enemy aircraft.
After recording this first kill, Carl returned to Hawaii and soon joined VMF-223. As a pilot in that squadron, and later squadron skipper, more combat awaited him in the skies over two other embattled islands in the Pacific, flying the F4F-4 Wildcat at Guadalcanal and the F4U-1 Corsair in strikes against Rabaul.