Mystery on Guadalcanal

In the wreckage of a Wildcat lay clues to what happened in a famous World War II dogfight.

Wildcats were dispatched in divisions of four to protect their aircraft carriers and other ships from Japan's medium bombers. Southerland led a division from the USS Saratoga on August 7, 1942, and was joined by another. Of the eight pilots, five returned. (NASM (SI NEG. #9A00199))
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The Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine is an air-cooled radial with two rows, or banks, of seven cylinders each. One cylinder on the rear of a bank had been heavily damaged, though the cylinder forward and to the right (they are offset so that one does not block the air from reaching another) showed no apparent distress other than from exposure to the elements. Damage to the rear cylinder almost had to be from heavy weapons fire striking it from behind. The top of the cylinder, including the cooling vanes, was missing. A Zero’s 20-mm round could have blown the top off that cylinder, and as I examined the pushrod that had been attached to a valve that was now gone, I realized that Sakai had, as he’d said, spared Southerland. After arming his 20-mm, he aimed for—and struck—the engine. He could have easily aimed for the cockpit.

Moments prior to his bailout, Southerland had an opportunity to shoot Sakai down: The Japanese pilot overshot after a firing pass. Why did Southerland, who had already shot down two Japanese aircraft and out-maneuvered several others, not take advantage of Sakai’s error? He reported that he had tried to fire but had been unsuccessful. Was he out of ammunition, as he himself surmised, or had his guns jammed, as author Sakaida believed? Southerland said he had tried to clear the guns with the recharge mechanism mounted in the cockpit and still had been unable to shoot.

Taylan had seen a wing section on his first visit. A look at the machine guns mounted in the Wildcat’s wing might hold the answer to what had prevented Southerland from firing.
We moved west, up the stream, past thick concentrations of uprooted tree trunks, brush, and debris that presented clear evidence of flash flooding. Rain continued to pour. I wondered how much time we might have to scramble up the slope once we heard the rush of floodwater. My thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the top half of a main landing wheel protruding from the stream bed. Taylan remembered the wing was located uphill from that point. The climb was so strenuous that at one point I turned around, deciding that the route was too hazardous to continue, but Canadian photographer Larry Quesnel, with a 27-pound camera balanced on one shoulder and 30 more pounds strapped to his back, slipped past me and took on the ascent like a mountain goat. In another 200 feet, we came upon a wingtip. Gii, ahead on the slope, called down that a landslide had covered the rest of the wing with dirt. There was no hope of digging down to the wing and no hope of studying the wing-mounted guns. We decided to search the area for ammunition.
It was Gii who found the shell casing. When he held it up, my heart sank. The bullet tip was gone. A spent round was not what I was hoping for. Gii handed it down anyway, and I peeled away the muck. It was a .50-caliber, but what really interested me was that a section of linkage belt was attached. Linkage is stripped away and jettisoned as each round enters the gun barrel chamber. The fact that linkage was still attached to this round meant that it hadn’t been fired.

I cleaned away grime from the end of the shell. The primer showed no evidence of a firing pin’s impact: more evidence the round had not been expended. Then I turned it over and let out a whoop. The shell case had been dented—pierced—at the midpoint. Whatever struck the case had hit with high energy. Southerland reported taking fire both from the gunners on the Betty bombers he was chasing and from the Zeros defending the bombers. One bullet, he said, had cracked his bullet-proof windscreen. Other hits blew open the panels on the top of his wings through which armorers loaded the guns.

Gii’s find had been significant: It proved that at least one of Southerland’s guns still had ammunition.
At that point, we were about halfway up the western slope of the ravine. To return, we decided to continue upward, then make our way back across the ridge top. As I sucked in great breaths of air, any lingering questions I’d had about how the wreck had remained undiscovered for so many decades were erased.
Back at the King Solomon Hotel in Honiara, Guadalcanal’s capital, I placed a 7.7-mm round against the indentation and puncture hole in the .50-caliber shell Gii had found. It fit nicely. Because of the angle at which the tip of the round fit best, the round appeared to have arrived from ahead of the Wildcat. The casing most likely had been damaged during Southerland’s attack on the Betty bombers, but why was the bullet missing? I noticed that the casing was flared at its end. The flare shape of the neck indicated that this round had detonated outside the gun barrel. In piercing the casing, the 7.7-mm round had ignited the gunpowder; that’s why the bullet was gone.
Above the impact point on the casing, the linkage belt had been cracked by the same projectile that had continued on to pierce the casing. The combination of a round that had “cooked off” and a damaged belt had almost surely caused a jam within the ammo box or at the point where the round was to enter the feed channel. Sakai probably owed his life to the Betty crewman who had shot that 7.7-mm round. Taylan gave the casing to the National Museum in Honiara.

The following day, Gii went back alone to the site, this time in search of the cockpit. I was certain it was somewhere near the impact point. It may seem like a minor task to search for a cockpit in a two-acre area, but in that terrain the task is daunting. Gii didn’t find the cockpit, but he did discover Southerland’s .45-caliber pistol. Southerland reported leaving it behind in the aircraft when he bailed out.
Coming upon a crash site is an eerie experience. Maybe it’s the contrast between the stillness of the ruin and the obvious chaos of those final moments. Knowing the story of the dogfight made this encounter even more sobering. When I studied the Wildcat’s damaged cylinder, I could feel, across the span of 60 years, Saburo Sakai’s dilemma: whether to kill an enemy or to spare a fellow pilot amid the appalling violence of World War II.

Author Ralph Wetterhahn discussed the dogfight over Guadalcanal in an episode of the PBS program “Secrets of the Dead,” first broadcast in November 2006. See the program’s website for more information, including video.

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