The Rescue of the Chincoteague, p. 128-130

Two days later and two hundred miles away, a scenario developed that would give some of the pilots a different type of unexpected action. Near Vanikoro Island, in the Santa Cruz group, the seaplane tender Chincoteague was mauled by Japanese bombers. Dead in the water, adrift, and pleading for assistance, she endured intermittent attacks until finally taken under tow by the destroyer Thornton.

On the afternoon of July 17, the squadron was tagged to provide air coverage for the stricken tender for the following day, and Bill Pace called a meeting to discuss the situation. Pete Folger and Henry Miller worked late that night with maps and plotting boards to plan strategy, including a path finding PV-1 Ventura, then grabbed a few hours' sleep, awoke to shave by moonlight, and started again before three in the morning.

Miller's division was scheduled for takeoff at 0415, but a heavy overcast rolled in, delaying their departure until well past seven. Miller and Ledge Hazelwood took off alone with the Ventura and flew on instruments until they broke out of the overcast. Their uneventful mission began a long day in which twenty-one other pilots, all veterans of the first tour except Tony Eisele, maintained a series of overlapping patrols above the stricken vessel. Were it not for a quirk of nature, the day might have ended just as uneventfully-at least for VMF-214, if not Chincoteague.

The final division to depart Buttons late Sunday afternoon was Pace's, with Jack Petit, Dick Sigel, and Mac McCall rounding out the flight. They arrived over Chincoteague at 1730, still dead in the water with Thornton alongside, and commenced an orbit at nine thousand feet as daylight began to fade. Seen from above, the darkness appeared to rise up, so that in a few minutes the two ships on the surface were shrouded by the evening while the four Corsairs remained in the golden light of sunset. Likewise anything higher than the Marines was relatively easy to see, enabling Jack Petit to call a tallyho on three aircraft approaching from the north at twelve thousand feet. Pace, thinking they were Venturas, decided to lead his flight up for visual confirmation.

To the intruders, actually Mitsubishi G3M Nells, it must have appeared that four Corsairs suddenly burst upward from the darkness. The twin engine Nells dumped their bombs early, to the delight of Chincoteague and Thornton, and the surprised Japanese gunners opened fire at the Marines from extreme range-more than a thousand yards. Ignoring their machine-gun fire, Pace continued to climb while Dick Sigel and Mac McCall split away and maneuvered to catch the bombers between them. The Nells turned to the right and dived, but they were no match for the Corsairs' speed as they plunged into the rising darkness. The Nell on the outside of the turn fell behind, and from fifteen thousand feet Pace selected it as his target for an overhead run. It was just like gunnery practice. He came down on the bomber with a full deflection shot, with just the very tip of its tail in the outside ring of his gunsight, and triggered his guns. Incendiaries found the Nell's fuel tanks and the bomber promptly blew, a spectacular sight in the fading dusk.

Jack Petit rolled in next, selecting the leader of what had once been the vee of three planes, but this target proved more hardy. Petit raked it with a steady stream and was rewarded with a trail of smoke. He reversed, came back for a firing pass from the front quarter, and reversed again for "a round house to the left." With each successive pass, he achieved more hits, though not to the extent he had hammered it the first time. Much to his frustration, the badly wounded Nell reached the haven of a cloud.

At the same time, Sigel and McCall ganged up on the last Japanese bomber, which was losing altitude fast and was barely visible as it dived into the gloom. Sigel poured solid hits into the NeIl and drew smoke, but when McCall's turn came there was a problem. It was April 7 all over again, his Irish luck deserting him in the form of his guns this time; only one was working. The whole division had tested guns after taking off, flipping individual gun switches, squeezing the trigger, then turning off the master switch, and his had been working. Now only one gun was popping away and his pass was ineffective. He was chagrined to think that "the guy in the top turret has more guns than I have!"

The other fighters came back around to finish the Nell. Dick Sigel swung in for a beam run, observing no hits but noting that his quarry's guns were silent. No doubt he had hit it hard on his first run, perhaps aided by McCall's lone gun. Finally Bill Pace made a low-side run using the last moments of twilight. He could see that the NeIl was smoking, although he was unable to confirm hits in the darkness. By now it was pitch dark. None of the four Marines had received night fighter training, making further pursuit hazardous. Pace turned on his landing lights for a visual aid and ordered the men to join up. The newly baptized Corsair pilots formed without incident and headed for home, leaving hundreds of jubilant witnesses on two vulnerable warships below.

When they returned to Turtle Bay, Pace and his three grinning lieutenants gave their full account to Pete Folger in the ready tent. The exploded Nell was witnessed by the whole division, simplifying confirmation of Pace's claim. The other two Japanese bombers were smoking when last seen headed into the clouds, so Petit and Sigel were given credit for a probable apiece. After the debriefing they walked to the evening movie to share their tale, satisfied that they had foiled the attack. Ten minutes later the movie was halted for an exciting announcement: Thornton had radioed that all three Nells had splashed. It would take about two weeks for official confirmation, but Sigel and Petit had their victories and an even better ending to their story.

The brief, deadly clash over Chincoteague and Thornton was a fitting conclusion to the squadron's transition into Corsairs. Major Louis B. Robertshaw, ops officer for the air group, informed them that they would return to combat in two days, even though the pilots averaged less than twenty-five hours in Corsairs. They were needed to support the New Georgia campaign now that the ground battle was taking longer than expected. ComAirSols had maintained constant bombing raids and roving air patrols, but strong resistance from the Japanese was slowly taking its toll. VMF-214 's sister squadron was an example of the severe attrition. VMF-213 had started its combat tour on Banika weeks earlier with twenty-one pilots, but it now had only eleven active pilots left.