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The Pathfinders

by Lt.Col. Steven James Finsterle USMC (Ret)

In the January 1990 issue of the VMD-154 Newletter, it was announced that squadron member J. Reid Clark had presented VMD-154 with a thesis prepared by his son-in-law,
Major S. J. Finsterle USMC. It is now reprinted here with permission of the author. We offer sincere thanks for this invaluable history of USMC Squadron VMD-154.

Author's Forward

The purpose of this work is to highlight the history of the first United States Marine Corps aerial photographic squadron deployed to the South Pacific during World War II.

The complete lack of an official unit history with respect to this squadron and its activities posed a significant problem in developing a solid starting point for the paper. Although the absence of an official unit history is unusual in itself, this circumstance is partly attributable to the fact that upon the squadron's return from the Pacific in January 1944, virtually all of the squadron's original personnel were transferred to new organizations. This fact alone resulted in the loss of first-hand knowledge of VMD-154's activities up to January 1944. Occasional references made with respect to VMD-154 in official U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation publications are uniformly vague and inaccurate. The information which has been assembled in this paper was the result of an investigative process which drew on numerous resources. Official Naval Archives, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation publications, and personal interviews with former members of the squadron. All contributed elements to the building of a composite picture of VMD-154. For clarity's sake, selected annexes have been appended to the paper to more thoroughly elaborate on technical points and operational activities which may be of interest to the individual reader.

The paper begins by examining the question of "Why were Marine photographic squadrons established?" Within the context of this question, the paper seeks to describe the circumstances which led to this question arising and initial Marine Corps efforts to provide a suitable answer. Next, the paper will chart the birth of VMD-154 from its inception as VMD-2 together with its activities in the United States preparatory to combat in the South Pacific. The paper will then trace VMD-154 's deployment to the South Pacific and its support of amphibious operations in this theatre. Finally, the paper will outline the squadron's return to the United States, subsequent reorganization, and ultimate deactivation at the end of World War II.

This paper is dedicated to all veterans of VMD-154, and in particular, to the Marines of PB4Y-1, Bureau Number 31958, lost February 7, 1943, at Espiritu Island.

"The Pathfinders": Marine Photographic Squadron 154

As war loomed over the Pacific in 1941, the government of the United States belatedly recognized that if war came to the Pacific, Japanese secrecy with respect to its territorial possessions could deny the United States vital intelligence concerning Japanese activities and plans. Recognizing the threat which this situation posed to the successful conduct of Naval operations, the Department of the Navy determined that every U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and Marine amphibious force would have an organic aerial photographic capability. However, during the days prior to the outbreak of war, neither the equipment nor an organizational structure capable of achieving this goal existed within the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Marine Corps. As a result, on December 7, 1941 United States Marine Corps aviation was unprepared to accomplish the type of long range photographic missions foreseen as essential to planning and conducting amphibious operations in the Pacific.

The outbreak of war found the naval and land forces of the Japanese Empire establishing supremacy throughout the Pacific, virtually destroying the capability of the United States to readily acquire photographic evidence of Japanese activities and future intentions. As the United States Marine Corps prepared to contest Japanese control of the islands of the South Pacific, the vast distances inherent in amphibious operations in this region clearly demanded the presence of an organization responsive to the Marine Corps' need for long range photographic reconnaissance. Unfortunately, the only long range aircraft capabilities then existent in Naval aviation resided with the U.S. Navy's amphibious "Flying Boat" squadrons and not within the organization of Marine Corps aviation.

The Department of the Navy's exclusive reliance on the use of "Flying Boats" for long range reconnaissance was rooted in a national policy which clearly defined the broad responsibilities of U.S. Navy and U.S. Army aviation. Specifically, Navy aviation was responsible for coastal defense and cooperation with land forces. Land based aircraft were to be employed by the U.S. Army while the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would be limited to ship or water based aircraft. The unfortunate result of this policy was that land based aircraft capable of accomplishing long range photographic missions existed but were unavailable at the outbreak of the war.

The U.S. Navy sought to provide a solution to the problem by employing amphibious type aircraft (Consolidated Catalina PB4Y-1s), none of which were assigned to or operationally controlled by Marine Corps aviation. The early use of "Flying Boats" as photographic aircraft resulted in grievous losses while completely failing to meet Marine Corps needs for a long range aerial photographic capability. Nevertheless, at the beginning of World War II, neither the U.S. Navy nor the U.S. Marine Corps were able to acquire the type of modern aircraft suited to this mission. Before proceeding with an explanation of the measures taken to solve this problem it's necessary to briefly focus on the capabilities of Marine Corps aviation to conduct aerial photography circa January 1942.

On January 1, 1942 Marine Corps aviation was composed of two aircraft wings each comprised of a single aircraft group. Each group contained an observation squadron (VMO), charged with providing aerial photographic support to its respective headquarters. Although each of the two Marine Aircraft Wings, (First MAW, headquartered at Quantico, Virginia and Second MAW, headquartered at San Diego, California) rated a VMO by table of organization, only the First MAW actually had the equipment and personnel to form a complete VMO squadron. The fact was that at the outbreak of World War II, the entire organic aerial photographic capability of the Marine Corps resided in twelve antiquated Curtiss SBC-4s stationed at Quantico, Virginia. An inauspicious start at best!

By February 1942, the Department of the Navy was urgently requesting a reallocation of long range bomber aircraft production, and was specifically requesting a share of Consolidated B-24 "Liberator" bomber output (this type of aircraft then seeing particularly successful service as a patrol aircraft with the British Royal Navy Air Arm). Inter-service rivalry between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy had resulted in lengthy negotiations which ultimately led the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General George C . Marshall, to agree to provide the U.S. Navy with a share of B-24 production (6:146) U.S. Marine Corps aviation was now on its way to acquiring the tools needed to accomplish the long range photographic mission vital to amphibious operations in the Pacific.

During the period from December 1941 to March 1942, Marine Corps aviation rapidly grew; with existing aerial photography capabilities remaining in the organizations of VMOs and selectively modified aircraft in fighter squadrons (VMAs). Nevertheless, planning continued to create an aerial squadron whose sole mission would be the provision of photographic support to Marine amphibious forces. In April 1942, the Commandant of the Marine Corps ordered the establishment of Marine Photographic Squadrons on the ratio of one squadron per Marine Aircraft Wing. VMD-154 began its operational life designated as VMD-2 and was a component squadron of the Second Marine Aircraft Wing. Initially, the entire aircraft complement of VMD-2 was composed of three F2A-3 Brewster "Buffalo" Fighters (fitted with automatic wing cameras) and two SNJ-3 North American "Texan" Trainer/Scout planes. Developing the squadron's missions, training requirements, and organizational structure best suited to achieving effective aerial photographic support was only partially accomplished. Before VMD-2 could progress very far in answering these questions, the lessons of war would require study, analysis, and application.

The need for aerial photographic support for the amphibious operations planned for early 1942 compelled the Marine Corps to deploy the only aviation organization with an aerial photographic capability. This organization, VMO-251, First Marine Aircraft Wing, hurriedly exchanged its SBC-4s for Grumman F4F-3 "Wildcat" Fighters (equipped as photographic aircraft) and deployed to the South Pacific. At this point in the development of VMD-2, the use of high speed attack aircraft (like the F4F-3), flying at low level, was an appealing concept to senior Marine aviation officers. Not only would these aircraft remain relatively immune from anti-aircraft fire, but pilots would succeed in surprising the enemy before he could conceal his activities. (2:92)

The initial operations of VMO-251 in the Pacific immediately crystalized the necessity for Marine VMDs to be equipped with long range aircraft. In an attempt to provide photographic support for planning preparatory to the invasion of Guadalcanal Island, VMO-251 was compelled to operate its aircraft from Espiritu Santo Island, approximately 550 miles from Guadalcanal. Due to the limitations of its organic aircraft (F4F-3 "Wildcats"), and the absence of intermediate airfields, VMO-251 was unable to provide the Marine Headquarters planning the invasion with photographs of proposed landing beaches on Guadalcanal. The Marine Corps found itself incapable of acquiring the very information critical to effectively planning amphibious operations in the Pacific.

In typical "make do" fashion, VMO-251 overcame the limitations of its equipment in the following manner. Seventeen Marine aerial photographers were assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force's Eleventh Bombardment Group, based on Efate Island. Using U.S. Navy cameras, the Marine photographers flew aboard U.S. Army B-17 "Flying Fortress" bombers, and succeeded in photographing the proposed Guadalcanal landing sites. Although ultimately providing Marine planners with the photographic support necessary to complete planning the Guadalcanal invasion, by July 1942, the capabilities required of the forming VMDs were clear.

During VMO-251s service in the South Pacific, VMD-2 continued to train and organize. An initial squadron table of organization was developed and consisted (on paper) of sixteen aircraft. These aircraft were comprised of two divisions of eight planes, and were designed to provide VMD-2 with both a long and short range photographic capability. This structure centralized all aerial photographic capabilities within a single squadron (VMD) located in each Marine Aircraft Wing. Notwithstanding the normal organizational problems inherent in building any new organization, the lack of modern, capable aircraft was the major obstacle in developing the new squadrons.

On July 7, 1942, the Department of the Navy was awarded a share of long range bomber production; and on July 11, 1942, Consolidated B-24D "Liberators" were scheduled for issue to the U.S. Navy. A portion of these aircraft, redesignated PB4Y-1s were allocated by the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Marine Corps, and were subsequently provided to each forming VMD in August 1942. Concurrent with the acquisition of the B-24, tables of equipment for the VMDs were reduced to eight aircraft, all of the long range type. This reorganization was in keeping with a recognition of the limited quantities of aircraft available to the Marine Corps and the complexity of operating a single squadron composed of radically different types of aircraft.

While the B-24 "Liberator" would have its share of problems, perhaps its worth is best summarized in the words of one experienced Japanese fighter commander who fought in the Solomon Islands Campaign and termed the B-17 and B-24 as "the most difficult aircraft for Japanese fighters to shoot down." (5:464)

Following the acquisition of modern aircraft and a reorganized table of equipment, VMD-2 under the able leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Elliott E. Bard and Majors John T. L. D. Gabbert and Andrew B. Galatian began the process of building a truly combat ready squadron. These three veteran officers (drawn from the ranks of VMO-251) and a small core of enlisted pilots and aircrewmen were veterans of hundreds of hours of flying in all types of Marine Corps aircraft. Intensive flight training in the newly acquired B-24Ds was conducted, and under the guidance of this veteran cadre, the new officers and aircrewmen joining VMD-2 were rapidly welded into a cohesive, combat-ready unit.

Notwithstanding their lack of combat experience, the officers and enlisted Marines joining VMD-2 during this period were the products of a rigorous aviation training program. Officers and enlisted men selected for training as pilots or navigators all underwent six months initial and advanced training at Naval Air Training Station, Pensacola, Florida. Following this period of training, successful graduates reported to advanced operating bases which provided additional instruction in aircraft falling into one of three broad categories: patrol bomber, seaplane/catapult launched-aircraft, or carrier/land based. During this period the Marines destined for service with VMD-2 were introduced to the aircraft they would ultimately fly in combat (PB4Y-1s). Only after successfully completing advanced training at an operational base would these Marines be assigned to a squadron for active service. Aircrewmen were generally selected during initial "Boot Camp" screening and underwent the same training cycle at Naval Air Station, Jacksonville and operational bases before assignment to an active service squadron. Lieutenant Colonel Bard trained his Marines rigorously upon their arrival in VMD-2. Celestial navigation, aerial photography, tactics, and aerial gunnery were only some of the skills honed over the California desert. It is worthy of mention that each VMD-2 B-24 "Liberator" was a fully equipped bomber, a role for which Lieutenant Colonel Bard also trained his squadron.

By the end of August 1942, VMD-2 was organized as an eight plane squadron comprised of the following departments:
(1) Squadron Headquarters
(2) Squadron Transportation
(3) Squadron Engineering
(4) Squadron Aerial Photographic
(5) Squadron Intelligence
(6) Squadron Mapping/Terrain Mapping
(7) Squadron Communications
(8) Squadron Material (Supply)
(9) Squadron Parachute Loft
(10) Squadron Ordnance
(11) Squadron Medical
(12) Squadron Quartermaster
(13) Squadron Recreation

An additional department (Guard Company) was established upon the squadron's deployment overseas and was manned from within the squadron's organic personnel. The mission of this department was to provide local security/defense for the squadron's facilities, personnel, and aircraft. Throughout the summer months of 1942, both VMD-1 and VMD-2 trained intensively. In keeping with the policy of assigning one photographic squadron to each Marine Aircraft Wing, VMD-1 and VMD-2 were redesignated to reflect the Marine Air Wings to which they were permanently assigned. (VMD-1 became VMD-154 and VMD-2 became VMD-254.) Because VMD-154 was a component of the First Marine Aircraft Wing and this wing was responsible for the conduct of all Marine air activities in the Pacific, it was anticipated that VMD-154 would be the first photographic squadron deployed to the combat zone. On the other hand, VMD-254 (formerly VMD-2), was assigned to the second Marine Aircraft Wing (which was not involved in combat operations at this time) and had no immediate plans to send its organic photographic squadron into combat.

Nevertheless by September 1942, it had become readily apparent that of the two squadrons then in training, VMD-254, Second Marine Aircraft Wing, was by far the better trained and prepared for combat. Simultaneously, the need for long range photographic support in the Pacific was reaching crisis proportions. As a result of this situation, During September 1942, VMD-254 was redesignated as VMD-154 and alerted for immediate deployment overseas and duty with the First Marine Aircraft Wing.

On October 13, 1942, an advance ground support echelon from VMD-154 deployed for the South Pacific from San Diego, California aboard the S.S. Lurline. This echelon arrived at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides Islands at the end of October. On October 19, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Bard departed from California, leading a two plane section of VMD-154 to Hawaii. During the period between October 20 and November 6, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Bard and his two-plane, advance-flight echelon conducted aerial photography training, aerial gunnery drills, and supervised the installation of radar units aboard their aircraft. On November 6, 1942, the advance flight echelon completed its training in Hawaii and departed for Espiritu Santo Island. Lieutenant Colonel Bard and the advance flight echelon of VMD-154 began immediate operations in support of Marine activities in the South Pacific.

The activities of the advance flight echelon of VMD-154 revolved around taking photographs of Japanese activity in the Solomon and Russell Islands. Aircraft were rotated from Espiritu Santo Island and deployed to Guadalcanal for two week periods of duty during which numerous missions were flown north of Guadalcanal Island. Although the main body of VMD-154 (and its related support elements) was not at Guadalcanal, the processing of photographic products generated by VMD-154's aircraft was accomplished by the Photography Department of the USS Curtiss (AV-4), a large seaplane tender then anchored at Guadalcanal. The absolute necessity for VMD-154's immediate employment is best summarized by the remarks made by Lieutenant Colonel Bard concerning this particular phase of operations in the Pacific: "Most of the maps (of the Solomon Islands) preceding our occupation (of Guadalcanal) were charts made around 1850. Consequently, they were very much out of date, as the rivers had changed courses, beaches had built up or receded, and about their only use (maps) was to show the general contour of the islands." (3:36) When Lieutenant Colonel Bard's planes weren't conducting photographic missions, they were busily hauling gasoline and supplies from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal, or (as only Marines would do), amusing themselves by conducting a bombing campaign against suspected Japanese positions using any available supply of empty Coca-Cola and beer bottles. (7:112)

By the beginning of November 1942, the Japanese had conceded Guadalcanal to the Marines and began busying themselves with building new airfields throughout the Northern Solomons from which to attack Guadalcanal. On November 24, 1942, a particularly large Japanese convoy arrived in the vicinity of Munda Point, New Georgia, and aroused intense speculation as to its purpose. Construction of a new airfield in this area would provide Japanese aircraft with an ideal location from which to strike Guadalcanal while also enabling easy reinforcement from the large Japanese airfields north of New Georgia. Although, construction of a new airfield was suspected, photographic evidence was essential in determining exactly what the enemy was attempting at Munda Point.

On December 5, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Bard, flying a PB4Y-1, from Guadalcanal successfully took aerial photographs confirming the construction of a 2,000 foot, camouflaged airfield at Munda Point. Armed with this evidence, American air power destroyed the Japanese installations ending their threat to Guadalcanal.

The successes achieved by VMD-154 during this period were not without cost. The potential for sudden, deadly combat always lurked in the skies over the Solomons, and on December 29th, 1942, a VMD-154 "Liberator" returning to Guadalcanal "drew first blood" in combat against the enemy. On that date, twelve Japanese fighters attacked a lone B-24 as it returned from a mission over Munda Point, New Georgia. Because the B-24 had no belly turret to fend off attacking fighters, the aircraft's pilot, Lieutenant Gordon E. Gray, headed for the surface of the ocean. Flying at wavetop height, he enabled his gunners to fight off the attacking swarm of fighters. Sergeant Earl Anderson and Private First Class Jack Tarver destroyed two Japanese fighters and succeeded in driving off two others badly damaged and smoking. Continuing the fight to escape, Lieutenant Gray flew his "Liberator" directly at the remaining Japanese aircraft increasing their turning circle so rapidly that the enemy aircraft fell out and enabled his aircraft to escape. When Lieutenant Gray was wounded by three enemy rounds, the aircraft's flight mechanic, Technical Sergeant James Caudle, took over the controls of the aircraft and, together with the co-pilot, Lieutenant Earl Miles, flew the badly damaged aircraft back to Guadalcanal (the crewmen of this desperate battle all survived an emergency crash landing at Henderson Field.) (11:11)

On December 2, 1942, the main body of VMD-154 sailed for Espiritu Santo from San Diego, California aboard the S.S. Japora and the S.S. Bloemfontein. By New Year's Day 1943, VMD-154 had been reconstituted on Espiritu Santo Island and was comprised of 29 officers and 405 enlisted men. Total aircraft strength at this time was four PB4Y-1s. Additional aircraft and crews continued to join the squadron during January until by the end of February 1943, VMD-154 had reached its full wartime strength of personnel and aircraft (eight PB4Y-1s). VMD-154 actually had grown to a strength of nine aircraft owing to its inheritence of a lone SNJ-4 "Texan" courtesy of VMF-214.

Standard operating procedure was to stage two plane sections to Guadalcanal for two week periods followed by rotation back to Espiritu Santo Island. Planes and crews aboard Guadalcanal were required to be ready for takeoff at a moment’s notice in order to take advantage of the fickle weather patterns common to the South Pacific. Night photographic missions were not undertaken, although this particular type of mission was possible and was in fact, being executed in Europe at this time. VMD-154's missions were timed to occur during morning or afternoon hours; and whenever a single aircraft was launched, the remaining aircraft remained on alert to take advantage of sudden breaks in the weather or unexpected tactical opportunities.

A “typical” VMD-154 mission might entail a flight of 10-12 hours duration over open water and Japanese controlled islands. At this point in the war, organized rescue services weren’t available to recover downed air crews and the extreme ranges at which the squadron operated frequently resulted in the loss of communications between the aircraft and their base. Marines flying in VMD-154's “Liberators” relied on one another and the ruggedness of their aircraft to accomplish their mission and return home safely.

To the dangers of distance, weather, and enemy opposition were added the discomforts of life in a tropical environment. Malaria and dysentery initially took their toll on the men of VMD-154, and nocturnal raids by Japanese aircraft ensured that nerves strained on long flights never fully relaxed. Minor colds were endemic among the flight crews who left the tropical earth of Guadalcanal to fly in the cold of unpressurized aircraft thousands of feet above the ocean. Takeoffs and landings from Henderson Field were always an adventure for the B-24s of VMD-154 as runways were neither wide enough nor long enough to accommodate aircraft of the B-24 type. As a result, the structural mechanics of VMD-154 became particularly adept at replacing damaged wing tips which had brushed against the coconut trees bordering Henderson Field’s runways.

Despite these challenges, VMD-154 successfully flew over 300 missions between February and December 1943, providing vital photographic support for amphibious operations against the enemy at Bouganville, New Georgia, Guadalcanal, Truk, and islands throughout the Solomons. While none of VMD-154's aircraft were lost to enemy action during this period, one aircraft (PB4Y-1), number 31958 crashed and was lost with all hands on February 7th, 1943 as it took off from Espiritu Santo Island.

In November 1943, some fourteen months after its advance echelon had entered combat, VMD-154 began rotation back to the United States; aircraft and flight crews completing their rotation to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station, San Diego, California, by December 21, 1943. Simultaneously, the main body of VMD-154 departed from the South Pacific aboard the S.S. Matsonia and arrived in San Francisco, California, on January 19, 1944. Immediately following the reconstitution of VMD-154 at Naval Air Station, San Diego, the officers and enlisted Marines of the original squadron found themselves transferred to newly forming Marine Squadrons throughout the United States. Concurrent with this dramatic personnel turnover was an equally dramatic reorganization of the squadron’s organizational structure.

The success of Marine amphibious operations in the Pacific had resulted in the acquisition of island bases from which to launch aircraft against Japanese installations. The need for long range photographic squadrons grew less critical as distances in the war zone shortened and airfields multiplied. As a result, in June of 1944, VMD-154 was reequipped with six F6F “Hellcat” fighters modified for photographic missions. The intention of this reorganization was to end the use of B-24s in low level photographic missions. This reorganization returned VMD-154's structure to the original organization proposed in 1941. Intensive training was immediately begun within the squadron in the employment of both the B-24 and the F6F.

By October 1944, VMD-154 was again reorganized and had transitioned entirely from the PB4Y-1 “Liberator” to the single engine F6F “Hellcat” and F4U “Corsair” Fighters modified for photographic missions. At this time, the original squadron complement of eight PB4Y-1s had been replaced by a mixture of aircraft including one PB4Y-1, five F6Fs, five F4Us, and a single SNJ-5 “Texan”. Training continued in each of these aircraft as VMD-154 prepared for a return to combat in the Pacific.

In February 1945, VMD-154 received orders transferring it to the Ninth Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. Turning over its organic aircraft to Marine and Navy aviation squadrons on the West Coast, VMD-154 transferred to the East Coast and was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station, Kinston, North Carolina. In March, VMD-154 was reequipped with nine aircraft (five SNJ-5 “Texans” and four F6F-3P “Hellcats”) and began training in night photography and operations from aircraft carriers. In a short period of time, VMD-154 had evolved into a fully reorganized squadron comprised of fourteen carrier capable F6F-3P “Hellcats” and two SNJ-5 “Texans”. In addition to flight training, VMD-154 organized and administered an aerial photography school which provided pilots instruction in all facets of the photographic systems employed in their aircraft.

By July 1945, war in the Pacific was drawing to an end, and it had become apparent that additional photographic squadrons would not be required. In August, VMD-154 began transferring aircraft and personnel to the Ninth Marine Aircraft Wing for reassignment, and rapidly became a squadron in name only. At the end of the war, VMD-154 completed its final transfer of personnel and was officially decommissioned as a squadron at Marine Corps Air Station, Kinston, North Carolina on September 10, 1945. A gallant organization had passed into the annals of Marine Corps aviation history.

It is this writer’s hope that his paper, in some measure recognizes the service and sacrifices of all those who served in VMD-154, in particular those who served so well as they flew in harm’s way over the South Pacific. Semper Fidelis. VMD-154!