Swede Vejtasa Bags Seven at Santa Cruz Islands

The VF-10 Grim Reapers are shown in 1942. Vejtasa is in the front row, fifth from right. The squadron was formed in June 1942 and was disestablished in November 1945. (Photo courtesy of Swede Vejtasa collection)


Lt. Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa seethed as he sat in his F4F Wildcat aboard USS Enterprise (CV 6). He and his VF-10 “Reaper 7” division mates—Lt. Leroy “Tex” Harris, Ens. Willis “Chip” Reding, and Ens. William “Hank” Leder—had been assigned combat air patrol (CAP) duties over the fleet and sat in their planes, incredulous at the seemingly endless delay getting aloft. The Japanese were on their way, and everyone knew it. The only way to neutralize an incoming attack was to intercept it with the advantage of altitude and the sun at your back. But they had waited too long. The in-bound strike would be overhead in moments. And still they waited.

“We just sat there and sat there,” Swede recalled. “We couldn’t get off. We knew they were coming. Nobody seemed to be in control. What the hell? What’s the delay? I was ready to get out of the plane, head up to flag plot to see what was going on.” Having been considered expendable just 12 hours earlier, Swede could only wonder what fresh madness Rear Adm. Thomas Kinkaid was up to this morning.

The day before, 25 October 1942, had been a day from hell. Shortly past noon, Kinkaid got word that the Japanese mobile strike force (or Kido Butai), some 350-plus miles away, was headed his way. A little more than an hour later a malfunctioning propeller pitch motor presaged events to follow. Lt. j.g. Bill Blair’s Wildcat engine was stuck in high pitch, seriously compromising his ability to control the airplane. He bounced over the barrier, slammed one SBD Dauntless overboard, ruined three others, and totaled his own Wildcat. Having efficiently destroyed five planes, Blair was quickly dubbed a “Japanese ace” by his Air Group 10 buddies.

In accordance with Enterprise’s status as duty carrier, Kinkaid sent out SBD scouts in a search pattern. In a deviation from that duty responsibility, however, the admiral decided to send out a cobbled together and untested Enterprise strike force—despite having an experienced strike force currently spotted on the flight deck of his other carrier, USS Hornet (CV 8). When this plan was revealed in the ready room, Vejtasa did his own calculations and quickly realized they couldn’t possibly reach the Japanese fleet—and he loudly objected to this “mission impossible.”

USS Enterprise (CV 6) is attacked by Japanese aircraft on 26 October 1942. Vejtasa and his VF-10 squadron mates had to land and takeoff several times while Enterprise was under fire during the battle. (Photo by PHC Lauren Frazer Smith)

Who was this brash lieutenant calling the mission into question? By this point in the war, Swede had seen a lot of combat. He had bombed enemy transports, contributed to the sinking of the carrier Shoho, and shot down several Zeros with an SBD, exploits for which he’d been awarded two Navy Crosses. His was the voice of experience, and there in the ready room in the presence of the admiral’s staff he boldly declared this mission insane.

A miffed admiral’s staff member overruled Swede’s mutinous objections, and sent the pilots on their way. An hour after their departure, Kinkaid learned that the Japanese fleet had turned away from any possible contact. Refusing to break radio silence, Kinkaid declined to recall his strike group.

Returning from their initial search leg of 175 miles and two subsequent legs of 70 miles, one VF pilot, Lt. Don Miller, bailed out for reasons unknown and was never seen again. Even worse, the group returned to an empty “Point Option” with still no word from Enterprise. The ship’s YE-ZB homing signal normally available to guide them in was silent. Trading ordnance weight for flight time, the dive-bombers dropped their bombs.

One detonated on the ocean surface and took down two of the low-flying SBDs. In the dark, with his lights on, and flying close to the water with Ens. Edward “Whitey” Feightner on his right wing, Swede found the oil slick he’d noticed seeping from Enterprise flying CAP that morning. Tracking the thankfully narrowing slick for another 50 miles brought them in sight of the Big E.

Swede was tied for first aboard, as VF pilot Ens. Ed Coalson narrowly avoided chewing up Vejtasa’s plane during their simultaneous landing. Minutes later an SBD crashed on landing, ruining another in the process, and three fuel-starved TBF Avengers were forced to ditch. Swede had gotten them back, however. That was about the only thing that hadn’t gone wrong. That morning’s accident had resulted in the loss of five aircraft, and the day’s goose chase had cost eight airplanes and (so far as anyone knew) one pilot’s life—a total of 13 for the day without a shot being fired and through no effort of the Japanese. Kinkaid’s absence of communication had signaled that the air group was expendable. With blunders like this on every level, who needed an enemy?

By mid-October, following two bloody months of bitter, inconclusive fighting, both sides understood the strategic necessity of controlling Guadalcanal. This moment seemed propitious for the Imperial Japanese Navy: U.S. carrier forces in the Pacific were close to nonexistent. USS Lexington (CV 2), USS Yorktown (CV 5), and USS Wasp (CV 7) had all been lost, Enterprise had suffered major damage, and USS Saratoga (CV 3) had been put out of commission for months after a torpedo attack. By all appearances, this was late autumn for U.S. aircraft carriers. Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo sought a decisive encounter, hoping to shatter whatever American carrier forces still existed. With that accomplished, Japanese landing forces could finally evict those determined Marine and Navy pilots from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The Kido Butai might then reassert itself, roaming at will in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Apprised that the Japanese fleet was within reach, Vice Adm. William Halsey famously ordered his outnumbered TF-61, composed of Enterprise (TF-16) and Hornet (TF-17), to “STRIKE-REPEAT-STRIKE.” It was an imperative that likely instigated Kinkaid’s rush to judgment.

For Kinkaid, Swede, and Whitey, 26 October was to be a day of serious firsts. Kinkaid had commanded Enterprise during the landings at Guadalcanal at the beginning of August and during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24-25 August, but he’d been subordinate. This was to be his first opportunity to shoulder overall combat command of a two-carrier task force. Swede would fly his first combat sortie in a F4F Wildcat. For Whitey the 26th would be his first day of combat, period.

Upstaging Halsey’s sense of urgency, the Japanese got the jump on the Americans. Just before 0800, carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a combined 67-plane raid. The attack was soon augmented with a subsequent 48-plane strike. Having anticipated an 0800 takeoff, it was nearly an hour later before a furious Swede and Reaper 7 finally lifted off. This insanely late launch badly disadvantaged them against the high-flying bombers already overhead blindly bombing Enterprise through the clouds.

“We took off on instruments in heavy cloud, could hardly see the end of the deck,” said Vejtasa. “When we got off, we were given no instruction. I took off full-throttle in a right turn up through the fog. Tex Harris was ahead of me and Stan Ruehlow was behind. The attackers were coming in. We climbed and climbed, flying on instruments, and at 12,000 feet I broke out of the fog, wing-and-wing with a Val dive-bomber.”

USS Hornet heels sharply to starboard as a Japanese bomb scores a near miss. Despite the best efforts of American combat air patrols, Hornet was heavily damaged by Japanese bomb and torpedo hits before finally sinking on 27 October.

The Val was part of the Zuikaku attack force of seven Japanese Type 99 Val dive-bombers. Swede quickly set up a short high-side run, and torched the last in line. The surviving six pressed on toward TF-17 and Hornet.

At 0910, in the clear and miles away from Enterprise (which was hidden by murky squalls), Hornet’s anti-aircraft fire opened up on the coordinated attack above her. At 0912, the first bomb hit Hornet, closely followed by two more.

Swede stumbled upon another Val breaking out of the mist just sitting there. “He was probably looking for our carriers way down below, or looking for his group. He was confused. I cut in and shot that guy down.”

Another of the Val pilots, WO Sato Shigeyuki, was either wounded or killed by anti-aircraft hits on his plane while over Hornet. At 1014 Swede watched him make a wide circle and then make the plunge, his bomb still attached, into the stack of the carrier.

There came a lull in the action as the Japanese dive-bombers departed.

Most of Vejtasa's kills on 26 October were Nakjima B5N2 Kate torpedo bombers. Widely considered to be the finest torpedo attack aircraft at the time, it was, like most Japanese aircraft of the time, unarmored with only light defensive armament. (Photo courtesy of Swede Vejtasa collection)

Around 1145, Hank Leder of Reaper 7 called, “Enemy aircraft nine o’clock low,” referring to a formation of Type 97 Kate torpedo bombers. Launched from Zuikaku, they were at 11,000 feet lining up for an attack on Enterprise. From his vantage point at 14,000 feet, Swede quickly recognized the scenario as the ideal fighter attack situation.

“There were more than a dozen, flying in Vs of three in close formation,” Swede said. “It was easy to see them; they had just broken out of some cloud and were ready to enter a big cloud over the Enterprise. That’s when we followed them, closed on them.”

Swede and Leder dove into the attack. A shower of brass casings indicated someone was doing a lot of firing. “I didn’t see what Leder was firing at.” Suddenly the targeted Kate exploded. Swede then closed and pursued a tight, wingtip-to-wingtip V of three Kates with a fourth on their left into a cloudbank.

“Dogfights are exacting as hell,” Swede observed. “We had practiced with [VF-10 commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. James H.] Flatley about just how to manage a situation like this one. We had to control our dive speed, join their formation at close range and shoot them down. There was no room to maneuver. In the fog, I’m supposed to shoot down four Kates. I was scared as hell sometimes. But I got right under them—what we learned to do.”

There are many discrepancies between the written record and what Swede says transpired. Accounts by the likes of Cdr. Edward P. Stafford (The Big E), John Lundstrom (The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign), James and William Belote (Titans of the Seas), Eric Hammel (Guadalcanal: The Carrier Battles), and Peter Mersky (The Grim Reapers: Fighting Squadron Ten In WW II) all mention three, rather than four Kates in the fog, and include the detail of Swede blowing the rudder off the leader’s plane. Swede tells it differently:

“I’m 50 feet behind four of them in heavy fog. I got under their tails to avoid the rear-seat gunners. After cutting out my outboard guns, I went after the single Kate on the left. I blew him apart and he pitched forward. I expected the V to break, but they didn’t. Then I went after the number-two man; he pitched forward and blew up. I shifted to the leader, again careful to keep below him in order to stay out of the gunner’s field of fire. When I hit him he pitched up and back, and I thought his wing was going to hit me. The last slowed down, and I flamed him. I never wrote about shooting a rudder off.”

That made six Japanese bombers downed on this sortie.

Following the in-cloud destruction of those four Kates, Swede broke into the clear, concerned about his ammunition and fuel. Off to his right, he could see Enterprise twisting and turning and fighting off a new attack. He headed over, hoping he might get aboard.

Just out of the clouds to Swede’s left came another Kate that nearly collided with him. “I could see the pilot, the second pilot, and the third guy. I had no time to react,” Swede said. “I followed him toward the Enterprise and turned in behind him, again under the tail. I fired a burst and set him on fire. . . . I kept figuring he’d release his torpedo as he got lower over the water, but he never did. Finally, he caught a wingtip in the water and cart wheeled.”

Anxious to replenish, Swede turned to the left to avoid the intense anti-aircraft fire. That’s when another Kate flew over the top of him. “I almost had heart failure. All he had to do was drop down and fire his forward machine guns and I was a goner. Instead, I’m on his tail, and he’s climbing. . . . I switched on all my guns, and I had a few rounds. I set him on fire.” Swede was worried that the Kate might dive on the battleship USS South Dakota (BB 57).

“I missed [the Kate] badly. I tore some pieces off him, and he caught fire but didn’t explode,” Swede said. “He never faltered, didn’t go down. He was losing altitude but he had to be alive as he corrected his dive very noticeably. At this point, with my ammo gone, I gave serious consideration to cutting off his tail with my prop as we had discussed in our training. As I closed, I flew into the fire stream. My plane is full of smoke. Jesus, you talk about a blast, a plane like that with a whole stream of fire blowing back. I was within 50 feet and I got knocked to the right. Turned away, hell, it just knocked me away from the plane. I figured, ‘Swede, that was a foolish move—you’ve just put yourself down.’” This violent action convinced observers and the board evaluating victories that Swede had peeled away to avoid the antiaircraft fire from cruisers, destroyers, and South Dakota. He was credited with a probable.

The doomed Kate pilot, SN1 Kiyomi Takei, understood that he was flying too fast to drop his torpedo. He seemed to aim for South Dakota, but then deliberately steepened his dive and crashed into the destroyer USS Smith (DD 378).

“After a fiery crash onto the Smith’s forecastle,” Swede recalled, “the wrecked plane rolled off the side into the sea, but the torpedo remained, rolling around in the flaming aftermath. The torpedo cooked off and blew the hell out of everything.” Despite an explosion that devastated both forward gun turrets, and killed 57 members of her crew, the destroyer’s engineers kept the ship going. Smith’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Hunter Wood Jr., left an untenable bridge to con the ship from aft. From there, he steered her into the massive, foaming wake of South Dakota, which washed much of the gas and fire into the sea. Smith resumed station to continue her antiaircraft fire mission.

Around 1130, Enterprise struggled to repel and survive yet another Val attack, which had resulted in two hits and several damaging near misses. With a powerless, drifting Hornet no longer a worthy target, newly arrived Japanese Val and Kate pilots focused entirely on Enterprise. Scattered clouds that had earlier concealed the latter carrier now provided attack cover for the bombers.

Whitey, meanwhile, orbited above a ditched Gordon Barnes hoping to connect his buddy with one of the screening ships, when he was ordered to return to ship immediately. He reluctantly joined the line of sweaty pilots preparing to land as Enterprise combed numerous torpedo tracks. A dynamically pitching deck provided a high-stakes challenge for both pilots and the LSO. Once aboard, bomb holes, a downed barrier, the huge square cavity near the island formed by elevator no. 2 stuck in the down position, and a mere 300 feet of landing deck severely tested the LSO, pilots, and plane handlers.

Whitey recalled LSO Lt. Robin Lindsey’s finesse. “When it was time to return to the carrier, Robin waved me off as the Enterprise dodged a spray of torpedoes. Minutes later as I was setting up in a left-hand pattern, the Enterprise leaned away in a hard right turn. Robin was the best. There were no barricades, and he brought me in easy.”

However well intentioned, Whitey’s lingering over Barnes had delayed an Enterprise course change out of the prevailing winds. Back aboard, Whitey’s Good Samaritan efforts earned him a personal tongue lashing from Kincaid. Grateful for his dismissal, he now confronted the shocking destruction in the hangar deck. “Water defiled with blood, oil, and bodies floating around sloshed halfway up to my knees. It was a terrible mess. There was confusion aboard the ship. More attacks were coming, and I could hear shooting. I couldn’t wait to get aloft; I didn’t want to be aboard ship when it blew up.”

Still in the air, Swede could hear Flatley on the CAP frequency, anxious to get his shot-up strike group aboard Enterprise. Their needs notwithstanding, the air battle continued around them. Finally, shortly after noon, it was time to return to a compromised Reaper base. Once again, getting back aboard Enterprise required focus, skill, and patience. Still under attack, Capt. Osborne Hardison masterfully conned the ship, dodging an aggressive torpedo attack. The twisting and turning carrier meant gas-exhausted planes had to be waved off, forcing many to ditch close to the carrier or nearby destroyers whose lookouts kept their eyes peeled for bobbing air crews.

It was just before noon when Lindsey took over for a spent Jim Daniels, who had, since 0930, supervised the landing of more than 60 planes, some badly damaged. Lindsey was not new to the platform, having served as LSO for Enterprise during and since Midway, and as assistant LSO in all the previous operations. By every account, Lindsey performed like a master conductor, and brought every aircraft safely aboard. But a flight deck beneath Swede’s wheels didn’t translate into comfort and civilized pleasures. Severe bomb damage made even water scarce, a serious issue in the tropics. After quickly refueling and rearming their planes, Swede and a relieved Whitey were sent back aloft for a second CAP.

“We knew there’d be more attacks,” Swede said. “About 45 minutes into the flight, less than an hour, but after 1400, we saw another attack come in. It was a large group, 12 or more Kates coming as horizontal bombers. I begged the fighter director for permission to attack. ‘Negative, hold your position.’ We could see them—we could have overtaken them. ‘Can I detach three CAP F4Fs for an interception?’ ‘Negative.’ The whole Japanese group swept over the Hornet, doglegged left and disappeared. I was furious at the control people.”

That attack from equally exhausted Japanese pilots resulted in a further bomb hit and a lot of resentment from Hornet fighter pilots, who felt that Swede’s CAP had simply abandoned the sinking carrier to her fate. Part of the problem was that Enterprise had to steer into the wind and away from the drifting hulk of Hornet, giving every indication of hightailing it out of there and dragging her CAP further from Hornet.

Swede again launched for what turned out to be a blessedly short and thankfully uneventful third CAP over Enterprise. By 1730, it was time to come home. Trapped and spotted airplanes now littered the deck. Observers upstairs on the island were hard pressed to spot any deck peeking through the fighters and bombers—including aircraft from the doomed Hornet—parked everywhere. Anyone overseeing the proceedings below quickly grasped their enormous vulnerability. Just one plane overshooting a cable could easily set off fires and explosions fatal to the ship.

Lindsey’s talents notwithstanding, orders from the bridge reflected larger tactical concerns. With the flight deck now impossibly crowded with aircraft, Lindsey was ordered to “put planes in the water.” Scuttlebutt had it that to continue landing planes was the stuff of court-martial. “Admiral, I can bring ‘em aboard,” Lindsey appealed. Wisely, Kinkaid chose not to interfere. Energized by the intense dramas all around him, Lindsey grabbed his paddles and strode back to his platform. The demanding yet delicate task of landing a battered, weary, and fuel-deprived array of desperate fighters and bomber pilots belonged to him.

By the time Swede finally made the groove, he was the last of 10 who had had only the no. 1 wire available to them. “I was the last to land. We had a lot of inexperienced new guys, and I figured it was best to let them in first. I gave the lead to my wingman. I saw how crowded the deck had become, and realized I might have to land on the water. I had complete confidence in Robin and in my ability to control my plane. I didn’t realize how little room there was until I came around. But Lindsey brought me in slow and low; how I missed the round down I don’t know.” Around 1750, Swede hooked that solitary lifeline. As there was absolutely no more room on the flight deck, his plane was chocked on the spot.

Swede recalled the moment. “At that point, the place went crazy. Everyone, pilots, crew, the whole ship waved and hollered at what Lindsey had just pulled off. They probably would have done the same if I’d crashed.”

The night before, following the terror-filled goose chase, air officer John Crommelin exhorted his shaken pilots, “Tomorrow if you get back to the ship and into the groove, we’ll get you aboard.” Lindsey, his magic on full display, made good on Crommelin’s promise.

 

Swede Vejtasa shot down seven confirmed and one probable Japanese aircraft during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942. He’s shown here after the battle.

Swede’s deck-edge trap signaled the end of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands for Air Group 10, and initiated a petty and vindictive command discussion about how to recognize Swede’s astounding performance. Swede’s unprecedented sortie had made him an ace and more in a day. Flatley had not flown with the expendable strike group, nor had he witnessed any of Swede’s victories the next day, but he rightly understood the significance of Swede’s mission. Flatley noted on the margin of Swede’s flight log, “Greatest single combat Fight Record in the history of Air Warfare. Congratulations. J H Flatley.” Under remarks for the mission, Swede noted, “‘The Battle of Stewart Islands’ shot down (5) Mitsubishi VT planes, (2) Aichi Dive bombers, (1) probable VT jap (sic). Total: 7 confirmed, 1 probable.”

So impressed was Flatley that he wrote Swede up for a Medal of Honor. It was an unrequited gesture. Perhaps angered by Swede’s outburst on the 25th, which subsequent events vindicated, an ungrateful Kinkaid responded by downgrading Flatley’s recommendation to a Distinguished Flying Cross. Somewhere up the line, wiser heads prevailed. Swede was awarded a third Navy Cross.

Nearly 70 years later retired Rear Adm. Whitey Feightner still firmly believes Swede earned the Medal of Honor that day. During our interviews this past year, I asked Swede about these events and whether he thought he was a hero. He was quick to defer. “No way. That honor belongs to Robin Lindsey.”

Ted Edwards is a freelance historian. His most recent book, Leonard “Robbie” Robinson: Waxahachie Warrior, was published by FastPencil Press in 2010. He is currently working on a biography of Swede Vejtasa, tentatively entitled, In His Own Words: Swede Vejtasa, the Battle of Santa Cruz and Beyond.