In his opening message in a recent issue of the quarterly Bulletin for the American Fighter Aces Association, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland noted that “time marches on, but it has been especially cruel lately. We have lost seven Aces since the last Bulletin.” But even as members were receiving their magazines in the mail, the general’s count was already wrong. One more shooter had left the fold. On 23 January, World War II ace Capt. Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa passed away at the age of 98.
Born on 27 July 1914, the Montana native had joined the Navy in 1938 and earned his gold wings and ensign bars on 13 July 1939. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, he was part of Scouting Squadron (VS) 5, flying SBD-3s aboard USS Yorktown (CV 5). A fine, aggressive aviator, Swede saw action in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, using his tough little dive-bomber as a fighter against a swarm of seven Zeros, shooting down three of the dangerous fighters just before noon on 8 May. The previous day, he had participated in the attack on the Japanese light carrier Shoho, helping to sink it in less than seven minutes. He received two Navy Crosses for these actions.
Back in the states, Swede wangled a transfer to a new fighter squadron being formed by experienced fighter pilot and fellow Coral Sea veteran Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Flatley. Flying the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat as part of Air Group 10 aboard USS Enterprise (CV 6), Flatley’s Fighting Squadron (VF) 10 left Hawaii and headed for the Pacific battleground in the Solomon Islands. Fighting was hot and heavy around the previously little-known island of Guadalcanal. Task forces helped reinforce U.S. Marines after they landed on 7 August 1942, in the first Allied offensive in the Pacific.
By October the tables were turning, but there was still a lot of fighting to be done. On 26 October, Swede shot down two dive-bombers and five torpedo bombers headed for Enterprise during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (see Ted Edwards, “Swede Vejtasa Bags Seven at Santa Cruz Islands,” Summer 2012 Naval Aviation News, for the full story). It was a fantastic performance by the young lieutenant from Montana, and his commanding officer, not usually moved to nominate his pilots for such high medals, wrote up Swede for the Medal of Honor. The citation, however, was “reduced” to the Navy Cross, Swede’s third in five months. There is speculation the reduction might have come because Swede had angered senior officers by an outburst during a ready room briefing several weeks earlier. Until the time of his death, there were people who tried unsuccessfully to get the Navy Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Vejtasa had another escapade on 15 November 1942. The squadron had been flying from Guadalcanal after Enterprise had been badly damaged by Japanese bombs three weeks before at Santa Cruz. Swede and his wingman, Ens. W. B. Reding, took off to deliver a message to Adm. William Halsey, now on the island of New Caledonia. Navigating was difficult, and, running low on fuel, the two Wildcat pilots landed on a lonely beach. Locals found and fed them as they waited for a PBY from New Caledonia to rescue them and their vital message. The PBY took them to Halsey and then back to the island, where after refueling their fighters with help from the locals, they took off and flew back to Guadalcanal.
Swede returned to the states after trying out a new fighter, Vought’s F4U Corsair, from Enterprise. In fact, the aircraft had been sent out expressly for Vejtasa to sample. He didn’t care for the gull-winged, long-nosed brute with its 2,000-hp engine and its massive prop. He wrote up a list of some 18 concerns, some of which were addressed, albeit with some reluctance by Vought, after being pushed by the Navy. The Corsair’s tail wheel was too low and gave the aircraft an unhealthy stance on the ground or flight deck, resulting in the propwash “blanking out” the rudder, and greatly diminishing the Corsair’s controllability on the ground. Several young aviators groundlooped their big, blue fighters. The wings were too wide, and in the very early models about three feet of each wing tip was hinged to fold upward. This modification was soon dispensed with in the main production run.
Swede was then sent to instructor duty and did not return to combat before the war ended. His final score was 10.25 kills, the quarter credit resulting from a share of a Japanese “Mavis” flying boat on 13 November 1942, split between the four pilots in his division.
His instructor stint came with a command, VF-97, at Alameda, then as CAG-44 from June to October 1945. The latter assignment would have put him in the van of the planned invasion of Japan, leading a veteran air group. Swede then briefly led VF-17, one of the Navy’s most experienced fighter squadrons, followed by a tour as the navigator aboard the escort carrier USS Sicily (CVE 118).
In the late 1940s, Swede flew many other aircraft, entering the jet age with the P-80 at Edwards AFB. He flew the FJ Fury, as well as the Douglas XA2D Skyshark, a big attack plane powered by twin turbines driving contra-rotating propellers. It was to be the successor of the AD Skyraider, but was too troublesome and never entered service.
During the Korean War, Swede served as the air officer aboard USS Essex (CV 9). It was a fairly long tour, from January 1951 to April 1953, and the pace of operations probably precluded his doing much if any flying, so he probably did not see any combat.
Swede then returned to test flying, this time at China Lake where he got to know such new types as the F4H Phantom II, as well as new systems and weapons such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. It had been quite a run: in just 20 years, he saw a lifetime of combat (enough to become a double ace), and witnessed the development of jet aircraft.
In November 1962, Swede took command of one of the Navy’s newest carriers, USS Constellation (CVA 64), for a year, after which he became commanding officer of NAS Miramar, “Fighter Town,” just north of San Diego. Command of the home of many of the Navy’s most famous squadrons was a fitting end to an illustrious career. Swede kept his experienced hand in as Commander, Fleet Air Miramar, snatching F-4 time when he could, the better to observe the latest training techniques. When he finally retired in 1970, his log books showed 9,000 hours and 700 traps.
Swede Vejtasa was a prime example of what the United States desperately needed in those dark days following Pearl Harbor. He and his compatriots held the line while America caught its breath and gathered itself together for the long, exhausting fight ahead. Swede was very much his own man. After retirement, he remained available to talk to researchers and people he knew and fought with in the Pacific. A highly capable and resourceful individual, he was a favorite with junior officers but occasionally ran afoul of more senior officers, mainly because he spoke his mind and did not suffer fools no matter how senior they might have been to him. In today’s fleet parlance, Swede Vejtasa was no “hinge,” and he sometimes paid for his outspoken manner. Still, he was first and foremost an experienced naval aviator with the record—again in today’s language, the “chops”—to prove it.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Barrett Tillman and Dr. Frank Olynyk for their help with this story. A special note of acknowledgement to retired Rear Adm. E. L. “Whitey” Feightner for his memories of flying with Swede, and to Nancy Reeves Casey for her work with Capt. Vejtasa.