James A. Etheridge and the Night Hawks

VMF-543Marine Attack Squadron (Night) (VMFN-543) was an aviation squadron of the United States Marine Corps during World War II. The squadron, also known as the Night Hawks, participated in the Battle of Okinawa and flying the F6F Hellcat, downed 15 Japanese aircraft during this period. Following the surrender of Japan, the squadron deactivated and became part of the United States Marine Corps Reserve until 1974, when the squadron was decommissioned.

The Night Hawk Squadron was commissioned on 15 April 1944 at the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. A few months later, the squadron commander, Major Claude Carlson, was killed in a flying accident involving his F6F Hellcat. Carlson developed hypothermia due to a defective regulator, noting that the aircraft’s service ceiling was 37,000 feet. The squadron continued to train at Cherry Point under its new skipper, Major Claire Chamberlain and the steady guiding hand of the Squadron Executive Officer, Captain James A. Etheridge, through the summer of 1944; in September, the squadron reported to the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centro, California for additional training. In January 1945, the squadron was transferred to the MCAS Ewa, Hawaii, and from there separated into three combat echelons. The assault echelon departed Hawaii in February aboard the USS Achernar (AKA 53) and USS Meriwether (APA-203). They came ashore on Okinawa on 7 April 1945. The flight echelon arrived on Okinawa on 9 April 1945. The rear echelon arrived on Okinawa on 1 May 1945. The squadron took its first casualties when a Kamikaze aircraft hit the Achernar; 20 members of the squadron were commended for their fire fighting support in the aftermath of the attack.

During the Battle for Okinawa [1], VMFN 543 was attached to Marine Aircraft Group 33 based at Kadena Field. They began flying tactical missions on 9 April 1945 and continued through 7 August 1945. At first, the Nigh Hawks were marginally effective against nightly Japanese bombing raids, and by 17 April 1945 the squadron had lost 3 aircraft. The network of Air Warning Squadrons, which would eventually provide ground-controlled intercept, was still being assembled and was beset with frustrating technical problems. By mid-May, most of these issues had been resolved and the squadron became highly effective in its combat air patrols.

During the battle VMFN-543 flew night-heckling missions, which tasked them to strafe enemy positions at night. These missions had limited success, but they did increase pressure on the defending Japanese. First blood came on 15 April 1945 when Captain Jim Etheridge shortstopped a Nakajima Ki-84 (Frank) fighter directly overhead as it descended to attack Kadena Field. Etheridge ignored heavy “friendly fire” to down the intruder, but took six hits in the process. His was the first kill of the Tactical Air Force on Okinawa. American anti-aircraft gunners shot up another Night Hawk bird so badly that it had to be discarded.

While on Okinawa, the Night Hawks accumulated 15 air victories and one probable. The top shooters in the squadron were Captain James A. Etheridge and Second Lieutenant T. H. Danaher.

It was my honor and privilege to work for Colonel James A. Etheridge in 1967 while assigned to 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. Every once in a while, the colonel would relate to me an experience from his World War II service. In one of these [2], he told me that early in the war, dysentery rendered his squadron unfit for further combat service, and so the entire unit was flown to Australia for medical treatment and recovery. He said most of the pilots had been defecating themselves for so long, their flight suits had become rotten with filth and that the Marines stank so bad no one could stand to be around them. Additionally, several Marines had severe cases of malaria.

When the Marines arrived in Australia (I think it was Sydney, but not sure now), they were ordered to completely strip and throw their clothing into a pile, which they did. As the Marines discarded all of their clothing onto a pile, an Australian man doused their rags in gasoline and set the heap on fire. Colonel Etheridge said there was never a more putrid odor.

With a squadron of Marines standing completely naked on the airfield, a fire truck arrived, providing the Marines with an opportunity to bathe themselves. When this was done, everyone was issued new clothing —from skivvies and socks to khaki trousers and white shirts. After a period of medical treatment, Australian families volunteered to “adopt” our ambulatory Marines. They took them home, fed them, provided them with suitable quarters for the entire time these Marines remained in Australia. I remember Colonel Etheridge’s eyes tearing-up as he told me this story —his love for these kind people readily apparent.

I do not know this to be a fact, but I believe that when the Marines were well enough to travel, they were shipped back to the states. I believe this is how Jim Etheridge found himself assigned to VMFN-543 as its XO in 1944.

I have not seen Colonel Etheridge for 48 years, but I still remember him as a fine Marine Corps officer and a true gentleman.



[1] Sincere appreciation to Major P. Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired) for his kind assistance in tracking down part of Jim Etheridge’s combat history through Ohio University e-History program. Additional information about VMFN-543 came from a book titled Marine Night Fighters Association, Herbert C. Banks, Editor

[2] I am recalling a personal conversations that took place 48 years ago. Responsibility for any errors, mistakes, or omissions in the retelling of this event belongs entirely to me.

The Wages of Sin

Bien Thuy Air Base is located a few miles northwest of Cần Thơ —the largest city in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Cần Thơ is best known for its floating markets, its numerous canals, and the manufacture of rice paper. Constructed by the United States during the Vietnam War, the Bien Thuy air facility provide a base of operations for South Vietnamese and American Air Force units, and one extraordinary Navy squadron. The Navy Squadron was VAL-4, a light attack squadron flying OV-10 Broncos in support of American and Vietnamese riverine and ground forces in the low-lying region of the Mekong Delta.

The Navy squadron consisted of about 520 officers and enlisted men: pilots, non-flying officers, mechanics, avionics technicians, and ordnance personnel. The operational tempo was among the highest of any combat squadron in the Vietnam War —which means that the enlisted men were busting their tail to maintain these aircraft in peak condition. It should not surprise anyone that tool control is one important aspect of an efficient aviation maintenance effort because any unaccounted for tool offers the possibility of foreign-object damage to aircraft and personnel.

Bien Thuy is also home to a certain classification of primate known as the Crab-eating Macaque. The animal is has a dark brown color with light golden brown tips on its upper torso, with a grayish color dominating the underside. Its hands and feet are black, sports cheek whiskers, and a brushy mustache. As with all primates, the Crab-eating Macaque is territorial and stingy. Whatever a monkey takes, it keeps and will protect by exhibiting aggressive and physically threatening behavior.

Cigar Chomping Chief 001Few Chief Petty Officers in the Navy are happy, carefree, relaxed, and cheerful people. Quite the opposite is the case with most of these seasoned professionals; after all, they essentially run the United States Navy. They are demanding task masters, refuse to accept “no” as a final answer to something they really want to do, and when a job needs doing, they’re usually the people responsible for seeing it done properly and on time. The maintenance chief was not a happy camper when he realized he was missing tools, and when the tools were unaccounted for, when a thorough search of the area failed to locate these missing implements, he began to suspect that someone was stealing his US government property.

The Chief was right about that —only the thieves weren’t human. A few days of clandestine surveillance revealed that a Crab-eating Macaque was taking these tools. In fact, the monkey made off with whatever he could get his hands on —whatever he could carry into his lair, an abandoned CONEX box one hundred yards from the maintenance shack. The way I heard this story, the chief made every effort to reason with the monkey, to come to some accommodation; an equitable trade perhaps —but the critter was adamant about keeping his new-found toys and would not respond in a positive way to the chief’s coaxing.

Apparently, this denizen of the jungle did not realize that he was dealing with a United States Navy Chief Petty Officer —a veteran of more than 18 years service and one who took his job extremely seriously —a man who was every bit as stingy with his possessions as the monkey was with his.

Yet, the question remained: how could the Chief get his tools back from that damn monkey? There was no doubt that this monkey was a dangerous foe; he had already bared his teeth at anyone approaching his lair and everyone in the maintenance section was convinced this animal would attack them if they tried to reclaim the missing tools. After a few days of deep thought, several nights of serious contemplation at the Chief’s club, the Chief decided that there was only one way to retrieve the misappropriated government property: over the dead body of one belligerent Crab-eating Macaque.

Monkey 002Still, terminating a monkey with extreme prejudice aboard a very busy military aerodrome would not be a piece of cake —even if he was, as the Chief suspected, working undercover for local Viet Cong. It was not as if the Chief could simply shoot the little bastard. A base reaction force tended to exhibit an immediate and violent response to the sound of gunfire. The Chief considered building a cage trap, but discarded that idea —monkeys are not stupid. No, there was only one way to get that rascal.

One afternoon, the chief noted that the monkey was perched in a nearby tree, keeping a close eye on the long table set up inside the maintenance shack; the greedy little shit was looking for more toys. So the Chief left him a new toy: a brand new, never used, M26A1 fragmentation grenade. The Chief saw the monkey approach the table, snatch the grenade, and scamper off to his lair. As soon as the monkey entered the CONEX box, sailors rushed to close and seal the doors. Now it was only a matter of time before curiosity ended this battle of wits.

Of course, the Chief denied rumors that he executed the monkey. As far as he was concerned, the monkey’s demise was suicide —and an important reminder to monkeys everywhere that the wages of sin is death.

The Banana Wars Part II

Reasons for War

The reasons for the so-called Banana Wars varied, but they were largely economic in nature. The term Banana Wars came from the connection between these conflicts and the preservation of commercial interests in the region —specifically, the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit. I think, however, that in order to understand this better, one has to look at the United Fruit Company in the same way as one would regard the British East India Company.

United Fruit 001United Fruit Company owned vast tracts of land in the Caribbean lowlands. It dominated regional transportation networks (Railways, steamships). It expanded into Radio and Telegraph interests. The company controlled primary and reserve plantations, maintained land rights, and it controlled the distribution and marketing of its products.

The ability of the company to manipulate land rights and maintain its market dominance meant that the company had to have considerable sway over local politics. A good case can be made that United Fruit Company used a heavy hand in local governments, created the corruption, which helped to defeat citizen’s rights, and became a de facto dictatorship in and of it self.

In owning and controlling railroads and shipping ports, the company provided employment and transportation services in nations where roads were barely adequate for horse drawn carts. The company also constructed schools for people who worked for United Fruit Company. But by manipulating land distribution, the company kept land out of the hands of peasants. In order to preserve its profits, the company discouraged the government from constructing roads.

Under the above circumstances, we should consider that it would be understandable that some people would resist foreign influences, as colonized people have done on every continent. One may recall that American colonists resisted, too.

In Latin America, we find that some individuals were motivated to resist foreigners for their own purposes: achieving wealth and power in their own right. Some of these were petty warlords, while others were part of the aristocracy … and in most cases, in every country involved, the country was struggling to find its way under the unhappiest circumstances. The underlying lesson we should learn from observing the machinations and effects of the Banana Wars is this: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Marines HaitiThe Troops

There is a good explanation why most of these interventions were handed to the Marines: their employment as naval infantry to safeguard American lives and property at sea and on foreign shore did not require an act of war by the Congress of the United States. As it turned out, the utilization of United States Marines was so frequent that Marine Corps headquarters developed an instruction manual as a guide to commanders of deployed troops. The Marines titled it The Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars, 1921. Marines today continue to consult the Small Wars Manual as it contains a wealth of useful information.

American Marines did not themselves decide whether to go to these Latin-American countries —they deployed to these countries at the direction of the President of the United States. If one were to make the argument that Marines pushed people around in their own country, then they would be setting forth a rather simplistic argument. It is true that two-time Medal of Honor recipient Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC (Retired) made that argument when he claimed, “War is a Racket.” It is also true that Butler made money from a nation-wide tour giving that same ad nauseam speech, and did so only after he qualified for a somewhat hefty retirement income from his years of military service. Rather than resigning his commission in protest of US policy in Latin America, Butler chose to fight in those wars for more than 30 years.

Life was not so complex for the individual Marines serving in these wars.  They were Marines who, with an assigned mission, completed that mission every single time. The lesson to be learned among individuals calling themselves Sandinistas, Cacos, or Dominicans was simply this: do not fire on the Marines; it will only piss them off.


The Banana Wars Part I

The Banana Wars were a series of occupations, police actions, and interventions in Central America and the Caribbean between the Spanish American War (1898) and the inception of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy (1934). However, to understand how the Banana Wars transpired, we have to return to an earlier time. We will have to begin with the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe Doctrine

President Monroe 002Some scholars believe that the catalyst for the Monroe Doctrine was the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, a newly emerging United States government feared the re-imposition of European monarchies —and with good reason. France had already agreed to restore the Spanish monarchy, and Prussia, Austria, and Russia had already formed the Holy Alliance, defending monarchism, which authorized military incursions to re-establish Bourbon rule over Spain and its colonies—which at that time, were in the process of establishing their independence.

The 1823 doctrine stated that the United States would view as an act of aggression any effort by European nations to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America. The United Kingdom generally supported this objective for two reasons: first, the British had designs on Central American and Caribbean nations in pursuit of its own interests and did not wish to have any interference from other European powers. Second, the British knew as well as anyone that the United States did not have the military wherewithal to impose its will on anyone.

Roosevelt Corollary

Through two revolutions and a number of shifts in political power in Venezuela, European powers agreed to demand reparations for the destruction of property and persons of European origin; in some instances, the losses sustained were considerable. When President Cipriano Castro refused to pay his foreign debts, Britain, Germany, and Italy imposed a naval blockade. Castro’s stubbornness was as a result of his belief that the United States would evoke the Monroe Doctrine to protect Venezuela from these Europeans.

Roosevelt Big Stick 001At this time, Washington officials did not see the Monroe Doctrine in the same way as did Castro. The Americans regarded the Monroe Doctrine as preventing the seizure of territory, not a prohibition of military intervention. When the Europeans gave assurances that no seizure of territory would occur, Washington allowed the blockade to proceed.

The Venezuelan navy was quickly disabled, but even then, Castro refused to give in. In time, Castro did agree in principle to submit claims to a court of arbitration with Germany insisting that Venezuela pay its just debts. The Germans bristled, Theodore Roosevelt sent his large fleet to Venezuela and threatened Germany with war if it attempted to land troops in Venezuela.

In his state of the union address to congress in 1904, President Roosevelt issued his now-famous corollary: The United States of America will intervene in conflicts between European and Latin American nations to enforce legitimate claims of European powers, rather than allowing Europeans to impose their own terms directly.

The Corollary asserted Roosevelt’s contention that the United States of America has the right to exercise military force or police powers within Latin American countries in order to keep European powers out of the Western Hemisphere.

Since then, American presidents have asserted the Roosevelt Corollary as justification for American intervention in Cuba (1906-1909), Nicaragua (1909-1910, 1912-1925, and 1926-1933), Haiti (1915-1934), Honduras[1] (1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). The US additionally involved itself in Cuba (1898), Puerto Rico (now a territory of the United States), Mexico (1910-1919), and in the creation of the state of Panama and, subsequently, construction of the Panama Canal.

To be continued



[1] William S. Porter who wrote under the pen name O. Henry first used the term “Banana Republic” to describe Honduras in 1903.