A Damn Fine Pilot

EGA 1868Here is the story of an exceptional Marine who enlisted when he was still very young —17-years of age.  I find it interesting that no matter what part of the country these young men and women come from, they all have similar reasons for “joining up.” If you asked these young people why they decided to enlist, I believe their answers would be remarkably consistent. The number one response, I believe, would be “opportunity.”  Most enlistees come from modest environments.  They probably did well enough in school but are not ready to continue with higher education.  Perhaps they can’t afford to attend college; military service will help with that. Maybe they have a sense of adventure; military service will help with that, too.  Possibly, they sense a need for some discipline in their lives; the military will definitely help with that.  Other reasons might include dismal job prospects after high school, to obtain top-notch training, gain a sense of accomplishment, a desire to travel or more simply, to get out of the house.

No matter what their reasons, they come to us by the thousands.  I do not intend to in any way degrade any of the other services, but the fact is that very few applicants have what it takes to become a United States Marine. Getting into the Marines is difficult —getting through basic training is even more difficult— and intentionally so.

Here we have a young man by the name of Kenneth Walsh. He was born on 24 November 1916. He came from Brooklyn, New York graduating from Dickinson High School, Jersey City, New Jersey in 1933.  He was probably a smart kid, graduating at the age of 17 years —about a year ahead of his peers.  Within a few months of his graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He attended recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina.  Afterwards, he trained to become an aircraft mechanic and a radioman.  He served at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Then, in 1936, he entered naval flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida.  His rank upon entering flight school was private.  Upon obtaining his gold wings as a naval aviator, he was promoted to corporal.

He was assigned to fly scout-observation aircraft and over the next four years, he served on three aircraft carriers.  He was subsequently assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 121 in North Carolina.  At the time of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Walsh was serving as a master technical sergeant.  He was appointed as a Warrant Officer (designated a Marine Gunner) on 11 May 1942. A year later he was commissioned a First Lieutenant.

What made Walsh unique at this point was that he was among only a handful of Marine Corps officers who were qualified to serve as landing signal officer aboard U. S. Navy aircraft carriers.  He was also one of the most experienced Marine Corps pilots at the time.  Remaining assigned to VMF-124, Walsh flew the Vought F4U Corsair.  This aircraft was distributed to VMF-124 beginning in October 1942.  Marines found that these aircraft needed a few important refinements.  It was also a difficult aircraft to fly, but the refinement/learning curve was short.  The F4U aircraft had the range that the Pacific theater Grumman F4F Wildcats didn’t have.  Only the P-38s and F4U’s had the required combat range.  The fact was that these men and their flying machines were needed in the Pacific theater yesterday.

VMF-124’s Corsairs were sent to Espiritu Santo in the jeep carrier USS Kitty Hawkin January 1943. Upon arrival, VMF-124 was sent immediately to Guadalcanal, arriving on 12 February 1943.  The aircraft landed and while they were being refueled, their pilots were getting their first combat brief.  The mission: to escort a PBY Catalina which was assigned a search and air rescue mission for downed Wildcat pilots in hiding on Vella Lavella. On their first day in combat, the pilots logged 9 flight hours.

What Ken Walsh and his squadron mates wanted most was to familiarize themselves with the air combat area: islands, enemy locations, weather patterns.  They wouldn’t get the time for this.  The next day, Lieutenant Walsh led a four-plane element escorting B-24s to Bougainville —300 miles up the slot.

Another day, another mission.  Walsh had his first exposure to actual combat on 14 February. Again, his section was assigned to escort B-24’s to Bougainville … but this time, Japanese Zeros were waiting for them.  The Japanese had their own coast watchers.  The Americans lost eight aircraft that day; the Japanese lost three.  The incident was dubbed “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

As one of the first Corsair squadrons, VMF-124 was anxious to establish a tactical doctrine that later arriving squadrons could build upon. This is how things are done in Marine aviation.  VMF-124 pilots turned to an experienced Wildcat pilot for his advice.  “What is the best way to approach combat with the Japanese?”  His answer was simple:  “You gotta go after them.”  The Corsair had an advantage over the Zero; it was something Walsh learned early on: altitude.  He also learned to avoid slow speed engagements because the Zero had superior maneuverability at speeds below 260 knots.

On 1 April 1943, Walsh was on patrol over the Russell Islands.  The Corsairs circled their assigned area quietly for two hours and then were relieved by a section of P-38 Lightening’s.  No sooner had the Corsairs departed the pattern, Zeros jumped the P-38’s. Walsh alerted his flight to return to assist the P-38s.  A wild melee was taking place and at first, the Zeros didn’t notice the Corsairs. Walsh lined up one Zero for a deflection shot but missed.  His wingman scored the kill.  They approached a second Zero; Walsh splashed him.

Walsh scored three more kills on 13 May 1943.

On 10 August, Walsh’s aircraft had been badly shot up. The plane was on fire, and Walsh had limited ability to control flight.  A Zero lined up to finish him off, but Walsh’s wingman splashed him, saving Walsh’s life.  Walsh managed to reach an emergency strip at New Georgia, but his landing was shoddy. He crashed into another Corsair on the line, but he survived.

By mid-August, VMF-124 had been moved to Munda, a recently captured Japanese airstrip.  Walsh was flying CAP over the invasion beaches at Vella Lavella when the flight director warned him of inbound bogeys.  Some Zeros and Vals (Aichi D3A Type 99 Carrier Bombers) soon arrived. Walsh shot down two before a Zero clobbered him, hitting his starboard wing tank.  The plane could still fly, and Walsh headed for home and ended up landing safely.  Battered, yes, but the Corsairs had prevented the Vals from reaching their airfield. By this time, Walsh had increased the number of his victories to 10.

WALSH - FDR 001On 30 August, Walsh fought an incredible battled against fifty Japanese aircraft, destroying four enemy fighters before he had to ditch his damaged Corsair.  Next, assigned to escort bombers headed toward Bougainville, Walsh’s plane developed engine problems.  He made an emergency landing at Munda and secured a replacement Corsair and soon went off to rejoin his section —flying alone.  From his vantage point, he saw Zeros attacking the B-24s.  Walsh shot down two of these.  On his return to base, he picked up a message from other B-24’s in trouble over Gizo.  He flew off to help, again downing two Zeros—but not before he was hit himself. He was forced to ditch off Vella Lavella.  It was his third water landing in six months.

Ultimately, Ken Walsh score 21 kills, 17 of which were Zeros —second only to Colonel Greg Boyington in air combat victories.  He lost five aircraft.  He was shot down on three occasions.  He ended his first combat tour in September 1943.  On 8 February 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Captain Walsh with the Medal of Honor.

Citation:

USN MOH 001For extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron 124 in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area.  Determined to thwart the enemy’s attempt to bomb Allied ground forces and shipping at Vella Lavella on 15 August 1943, First Lieutenant Walsh repeatedly dived his plane into an enemy formation outnumbering his own division 6 to 1 and, although his plane was hit numerous times, shot down 2 Japanese dive bombers and 1 fighter.  After developing engine trouble on 30 August during a vital escort mission, First Lieutenant Walsh landed his mechanically disabled plane at Munda, quickly replaced it with another, and proceeded to rejoin his flight over Kahili.  Separated from his escort group when he encountered approximately 50 Japanese Zeros, he unhesitatingly attacked, striking with relentless fury in his lone battle against a powerful force.  He destroyed 4 hostile fighters before cannon shellfire forced him to make a dead-stick landing off Vella Lavella where he was later picked up.  His valiant leadership and his daring skill as a flier served as a source of confidence and inspiration to his fellow pilots and reflect the highest credit upon him and the United States Naval Service.

Walsh K A 001Walsh returned for a second combat tour with VMF-222 flying the advanced F4U.  Between 28 April and 12 May 1945, Walsh was awarded seven (7) Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism during service in the Philippine Islands.  He scored his last victory on 22 June 1945 downing a Kamikaze over northern Okinawa.  Following the US victory over Imperial Japanese forces, Walsh was assigned to duty as the MAG-14 Assistant Operations Officer on Okinawa.  He returned to the United States in March 1946.

During the Korean War, Walsh served as a C-54 (transport) pilot with VMR-152 (15 July 1950 to November 1951).  He was promoted to Major in 1955, and to Lieutenant Colonel in 1958.  Having completed thirty years of honorable and faithful service, Colonel Walsh retired from the United States Marine Corps on 1 February 1962.

Colonel Walsh passed away on 30 July 1998, aged 81 years.  He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.