SAN DIEGO – In 2013, a man approached San Diego-based author Mark Carlson during a routine book signing and told Carlson about a World War II story he’d never heard before.
Considered the greatest non-combat military disaster in U.S. military history, the story involves 23 pilots – two of whom were Orange Park residents later in their lives – flew directly into a Pacific Ocean typhoon. Their tale ended with 22 planes at the bottom of the ocean, six pilots dead and 16 pilots stranded in the Pacific. This story, largely unheard of, is the story of Marine Fighting Squadron 422, or VMF-422.
“At the time, there were articles but nothing major,” Carlson said. “It was an unknown story.”
Carlson learned of a documentary titled “The Flintlock Disaster” from the man that first informed him of this story. Immediately fascinated with the disaster, Carlson started asking questions and putting things together. When he had a story pulled together, he pitched it to his editor at Aviation Magazine who, according to Carlson, really liked it. Carlson’s first article was published in January 2015.
Having seen this story published, Carlson still desired to do more.
“There was more to this story,” Carlson said. “So, I began writing a book.”
“The Marines’ Lost Squadron: The Odyssey of VMF-422” would be published more than two years later, in November 2017, after five years of research and writing.
“Humbly, I think I can say I know more about the subject than any other person alive,” Carlson said, reminiscing about Col. Robert Leonard’s – who went through this disaster – first read and how much he learned from the book. “It was the most intense, detailed and hardest work I’ve ever done but I was determined to do it right, make it as comprehensive and as accurate as possible, and I wanted it to be readable by the average person.”
The odyssey of VMF-422 begins in Tarawa, an atoll – a ring-shaped coral reef usually encircling a lagoon of sorts – in the Pacific Ocean. At 9:50 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1944, the 23 pilots were briefed on their mission. Standard during this time of war, the pilots were set to complete a “milk run” mission with the goal of relocating fighter planes out of harm’s way. Little did they know, they would soon be heading straight into harm’s way themselves.
At 10 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1944, the pilots took off in their state-of-the-art F4U Corsairs – brand new fighter planes at the time – headed towards Funafuti, roughly 800 miles away, on a weather report that was 26 hours old with no escort. Often, single-engine planes were accompanied by an escort, or a twin-engine aircraft, whose job was to ensure a flight went safely. Despite multiple requests for one, Gen. Lewie Merritt denied the pilots an escort.
Around noon, the pilots saw a typhoon, spanning across the horizon, and too late to divert course, flew directly into it. Fifteen minutes later, they would break out under the typhoon, scattered apart, without any navigational beacon and far off course. Only one pilot would make it through this storm and to the destination of Funafuti pilot John Hansen, who would later call Orange Park home.
Hansen’s daughter, Heidi Hansen, didn’t learn of this story until the 1990s.
“I didn’t know about this disaster for many decades of my life,” Hansen said. “My dad didn’t talk about the military so until I, myself, read the articles, I didn’t know much about this at all.”
When Hansen finally learned of this terrible event and how her father was one of the 23 that survived, she, like most would, asked how he felt about it.
“He felt the way everybody felt. It didn’t have to happen,” Hansen said. “It should not have happened. They were unprepared, flying over 800 miles of open ocean, with only the beginnings of radar. They didn’t even have lunches packed.”
When Hansen learned that Carlson was writing a book about the event, she helped out in any way she could, sharing details, photos, thoughts and more. When the book finally released, Hansen was left paralyzed by how real the book made this event feel.
“It was and is very hard for me to read this book because all of a sudden, it’s a live event, you’re right there with them and it is so scary,” Hansen said. “Carlson is quite an author and we are really blessed he wrote this book.”
When pilot Hansen made it to Funafuti, he explained what had happened, although the staff of that military base were well aware that something was off.
“In our eyes, yeah, he is one of the saviors,” Hansen said of her father. “So many people were involved in the eventual rescue but my dad certainly did his part.”
By 3:30 p.m., the pilots still flying had to ditch their planes for rafts that would keep them afloat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Experienced in basic survival training, the stranded men endured the salty wind battering their eyes and skin. Sharks encircled their raft waiting for an easy meal as the men grew tired from the lack of nutrition that made it difficult for them to keep their wits.
“This was a really tough time for those men, if not the toughest,” Carlson said. “They were marines, though, and they hung in there and did what they had to do to survive.”
Eventually, an amphibious Patrol Bomber plane piloted by U.S. Navy Lt. George Davidson would arrive to rescue the stranded men. Having to land in high seas and dangerous weather conditions, Davidson’s plane would see one of its two engines ripped off after three attempted landing passes. Because of that, Davidson and his plane would not be able to take off.
“He knew he couldn’t take off but he still wanted to get these men out of the water,” said the late Davidson’s wife, Barbara Davidson, of Orange Park.
Davidson and his aircraft crew attempted to pull eight men into the plane by roping all of the rafts together but the rope snapped under the weight, releasing five men back into the water. For over three hours, Davidson maneuvered the plan around until he was able to bring those five men onto the plane.
Similar to Hansen’s experience with her father, Davidson didn’t learn much of the story until much later in her life.
“He explained to me that he had rescued some marines in the Pacific during the war but that was about it,” Davidson said. “He was like most pilots and soldiers that went through that war. They didn’t talk about what they went through or what they did. Nobody was overly-anxious to talk about what happened during the war, even with a disaster like this.”
After rescuing the men from the water, a Navy Destroyer ship rescued them and returned them to land, according to Hansen.
Four months later, almost all of the pilots that survived that day would found themselves in the cockpit of another plane, continuing the fight in the Pacific.
“That’s what you did back then,” Carlson said. “They hadn’t had their chance to fight yet. They put it behind them and got back out there.”
Merritt would go on to be investigated by the military with a case that would end with what Carlson called a slap on the wrist.
The men who survived, and the families of the men who didn’t, would never truly learn of why what happened that day happened. According to Carlson, in their close circle, they knew it was Merritt’s fault but to what degree, they would never learn. From that point forward, though, escorts became mandatory.
“That was their legacy,” Carlson said. “They changed the military in an impactful and important way forever.”
Seventy-four years after the event, Davidson said she misses the men, including her husband who passed away in October 2014. She said she will never forget their humor, bravery and camaraderie.
“These men were one big family and they had such a great sense of humor and they maintained that even through all they went through,” Davidson said through tears. “They faced death together and subsequently, loved life together.”