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First Name: James

Last Name: Swett

Birthplace: Seattle, WA, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Marines (present)

Middle Name: Elms

Date of Birth: 15 June 1920

Date of Death: 18 January 2009

Rank: Colonel

Years Served: 1941-42 (USN), 1942-70 (USMC)
James Elms Swett

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


James Elms Swett

Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps

Medal of Honor Recipient

World War II

Colonel James Elms Swett (15 June 1920 - 18 January 2009) was a U.S. Marine Corps officer and fighter pilot who received the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his actions as a division flight leader over Guadalcanal during World War II. An ace, Swett downed a total of 15.5 enemy aircraft during the war.

James Elms Swett was born on 15 June 1920 in Seattle, WA. He graduated from San Mateo High School in San Mateo, CA, and enrolled at the College of San Mateo in 1939. He earned a private pilot's license, which amounted to 450 more hours of flying than he received during his Navy flight training. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Seaman Second Class on 26 August 1941, and started flight training in September.

In early 1942, he completed flight training and finished in the top ten percent of his class. He was given the option to choose between a commission in the Marine Corps or the Navy, and he chose the Marine Corps. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant at NAS Corpus Christi, TX, on 1 April 1942. He continued his advanced flight training, first at Quantico, VA, then at Lake MI, where he became carrier qualified aboard the USSĀ Wolverine, and finally received his wings at San Diego, CA. In December 1942, he shipped out to the Southwest Pacific and when he arrived at Guadalcanal, he was assigned to VMF-221, which was part of Marine Air Group 12.

On his first combat mission on 7 April 1943, Swett both became an ace and acted with such "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" that he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

His first mission was as a division leader on a combat air patrol over the Russell Islands early on the morning of 7 April in expectation of a large Japanese air attack. Landing to refuel, the four plane division of F4F Wildcats he was leading was scrambled after other aircraft reported 150 planes approaching Ironbottom Sound, and intercepted a large formation of Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers (Allied code name: "Val") attacking Tulagi harbor.

When the fight became a general melee, Swett pursued three Vals diving on the harbor. After shooting down two, and while taken under fire from the rear gunner of the third, the left wing of his F4F was holed by U.S. anti-aircraft fire directed at the Japanese. Despite this he shot down the third Val and turned toward a second formation of six Vals leaving the area.

Swett repeatedly attacked the line of dive bombers, downing each in turn with short bursts. He brought down four and was attacking a fifth when his ammunition was depleted and he had his cockpit shot up by return fire. Wounded, he decided to ditch his damaged fighter off the coast of Florida Island, after it became clear that his oil cooler had been hit and he would not make it back to base. After a few more seconds of flight his engine seized and, despite initially being trapped in his cockpit, Swett extricated himself and was rescued in Tulagi harbor after crash-landing his Wildcat. This feat made the 22-year old Marine aviator an ace on his first combat mission.

Medal of Honor

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine Fighter Squadron 221, with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

Place and date: Solomon Islands area, 7 April 1943.

Citation: For extraordinary heroism and personal valor above and beyond the call of duty, as division leader of Marine Fighting Squadron 221 with Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, in action against enemy Japanese aerial forces in the Solomons Islands area, 7 April 1943. In a daring flight to intercept a wave of 150 Japanese planes, 1st Lt. Swett unhesitatingly hurled his 4-plane division into action against a formation of 15 enemy bombers and personally exploded 3 hostile planes in midair with accurate and deadly fire during his dive. Although separated from his division while clearing the heavy concentration of antiaircraft fire, he boldly attacked 6 enemy bombers, engaged the first 4 in turn and, unaided, shot down all in flames. Exhausting his ammunition as he closed the fifth Japanese bomber, he relentlessly drove his attack against terrific opposition which partially disabled his engine, shattered the windscreen and slashed his face. In spite of this, he brought his battered plane down with skillful precision in the water off Tulagi without further injury. The superb airmanship and tenacious fighting spirit which enabled 1st Lt. Swett to destroy 7 enemy bombers in a single flight were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

After a short stay in a Naval hospital, Swett returned to Guadalcanal and learned that Admiral Marc Mitscher had nominated him for the Medal of Honor. After a short rest in Australia, Swett checked out in the Vought F4U Corsair to which VMF-221 was converting and moved to a new base in the Russells. Promoted to Captain, Swett covered the Rendova landings on 30 June 1943, adding 2 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" medium bombers to his score and sharing the downing of a Mitsubishi A6M "Zero."

Eleven days later near the island of New Georgia, Swett knocked down two more Bettys. Seeing his wingman's Corsair under attack, he also shot down a Zero. However, he failed to see a second Zero and was himself shot down. He was rescued by indigenous tribal members in a canoe and traveled by 10-man canoe for several hours to an Australian coast watcher's location. A PBY flying boat returned Swett to the Russells. In October 1943, over the major Japanese airbase at Kahili, Bougainville, Swett added one confirmed Zero and one probable, but lost his wingman. In November he added to his list of kills 2 more Vals and a possible Kawasaki Ki-61 Tony, a new Japanese fighter.

On 11 December, Swett returned to the U.S. on a Dutch motor ship, arriving in San Francisco on New Year's Eve. After less than 24 hours, he shipped out to San Diego, where he was granted 30 days leave and married Lois Anderson, his long-time sweetheart. Swett was then transferred to NAS Santa Barbara, CA, where he worked up a newly manned VMF 221 in the Corsair.

Now carrier-qualified and assigned to the USSĀ Bunker Hill, Swett flew 2 strikes over Japan and then supported the landings at Iwo Jima and the operations on Okinawa. On 11 May 1945, he shot down a Yokosuka D4Y Judy kamikaze he described as a "sitting duck." Swett watched from the air as the Bunker Hill was struck by two kamikazes, causing such damage that he was forced to land on another carrier.

Swett later returned to the U.S. and was assigned to MCAS El Toro, CA, where he began to train for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan. At war's end, VMF 221 was second in aerial victories among Marines Corps squadrons with 185 enemy planes downed. Swett's combat record includes 103 combat missions, 15.5 confirmed victories, and 4 probables.

Swett commanded VMF-141 flying Corsairs at NAS Alameda, CA, following the end of World War II. After the onset of the Korean War his squadron was deployed to Korea, but he was left behind because the Navy thought putting a Medal of Honor recipient in combat was too risky. Swett left active duty and continued service in the Marine Corps Reserve, retiring in 1970 at the rank of Colonel.

Civilian Life

Swett worked in his father's company in San Francisco, making marine pumps and turbines. After his father's death in 1960, Swett took over the company and ran it for 23 years, before passing it on to his son.

In retirement, he became a frequent speaker at schools, where he shared his strong feelings about the values of respect and responsibility. He moved to Redding, CA, in 2007.

Medals and Awards

Medal of Honor
Distinguished Flying Cross (8)
Purple Heart (2)


In 2006, Swett's Medal of Honor action was recreated using computer graphics for The History Channel series Dogfights and Swett himself provided commentary. The episode first aired on 24 November 2006.

Death and Burial

Colonel James Elms Swett died on 18 January 2009 in a Redding hospital. The cause was heart failure after a lengthy illness. He is buried at Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo, Shasta County, CA, in Section 4, Site 329.

Honoree ID: 1663   Created by: MHOH




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