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For some fighter aces, fame rests primarily or even exclusively on their score. For others, being credited with five or more aerial victories is just icing on a satisfying cake. Jack Maas is minor among U.S. Marine aces in terms of the number of planes he shot down, but highly esteemed for the tours of duty he served, from the pivotal battles for Guadalcanal through Okinawa and the Korean War.

John Bernard Maas Jr. was born in Lansing, Mich., on May 19, 1920. “We grew up in the east side of Detroit, in Grosse Pointe,” he said, “also near a U.S. Army Air Corps field called Selfridge. I remember seeing the biplane fighters taking off—I thought that was great. I was in the class of ’42 at Notre Dame, but at the end of my junior year I learned that the Army was drafting people. I did not want to walk, so I talked my folks into letting me drop out of college to join the Navy V-5 Program.

“At Pensacola Naval Air Station, we were all naval aviation cadets,” he continued. “But during training a Marine major on the base announced, ‘Now I’ve got 10 slots for any of you boys who want to be commissioned in the Marine Corps.’ I learned that if I became a Marine pilot I probably would not fly silly flying boats or transports—the Marines flew fighter or dive bomber aircraft. They also wouldn’t have to fly off aircraft carriers. When I heard that, I raised my hand.

“I had done some training in the Great Lakes aboard USS Wolverine, an old excursion boat that had been converted into a training carrier. One of the things they taught us was that when the LSO [landing signal officer] gave you a ‘cut’ sign, it meant cut the throttle. One of the pilots who trained with me aboard Wolverine was James Elmer Johnson, and when he was coming in he got the ‘cut’ sign, but he didn’t think he was coming down right, so he added power to go around again. Well, his tail hook caught a wire and his plane went over the side. He and the plane ended up hanging upside down. It took 45 minutes to get him out of the plane. The LSO chewed him out, telling him, ‘When I say “cut”, I mean “cut!”’ Johnson later qualified as a Marine fighter pilot and went out with us on October 1942, retired in 1968 and stayed out in Hawaii.”

Upon earning his commission and his wings, Maas was assigned to fighter squadron VMF-112. “We left San Diego on October 15, 1942, aboard the liner Lurline. We had no escort—the ship just went straight as an arrow to New Caledonia. From there we were ferried to Espiritu Santo and then to Guadalcanal. We arrived at Guadalcanal on November 2.”

The landings at Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, represented the first American offensive of the war. Although the Marines secured the Japanese airfield there, which they christened Henderson Field, the ensuing months saw a series of ferocious battles on land, sea and in the air over possession of the island, the outcome of which would determine who would hold the initiative in the rapidly expanding war in the Pacific.

“We left with four squadrons,” Maas recalled, “two with Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters and two with Douglas SBD dive bombers. The only planes we had to fly were those that were there. We did not operate from Henderson Field—that was for SBDs and Grumman TBFs, and occasionally a Boeing B-17 came in or some Douglas R4Ds—Navy versions of the Army’s C-47— with troops or supplies. We were about half a mile inland, on a grass strip. We had no control tower, just a radio and an operations tent. We had no runway boundary lights and no revetments. If someone came in late, jeeps would set up a couple of lights down the field, so we could see it at night. Later they built a strip with Marsden matting. The grass strip was for all the fighters—Marines were on the north end of the strip and Army Air Force[s] and Australians at the other end. It made for a sort of a screwed-up traffic pattern, but that’s the way it was.”

Veteran Marine pilots, several of them aces, helped the new arrivals prepare for the difficult times to come. “Marion Carl and Bob Galer had gone home,” Maas said, “but John L. Smith was still there, and so was Harold Bauer—what a fine guy he was, a real nice guy. A couple of us new boys would go up with them for a few initial patrols. We’d fly a couple of hops with them to learn where the islands were, which were good and where the bad guys were.”

The most noteworthy event in Maas’ first 10 days was a forced landing after his fuel ran out on November 7. Then, on November 11, the Japanese opened the first round of a series of air and sea engagements that would ultimately decide Guadalcanal’s fate. That morning, Vice Adm. Jinichi Kusaka, the Japanese naval commander at Rabaul, launched air attacks on American troop and supply ships off Lunga Point. Wildcats of VMF-112 and VMF-121 rose to intercept them, resulting in Marine claims for six Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters, five Aichi D3A1 dive bombers (code-named “Val” by the Allies) and seven Mitsubishi G4M1 twin-engine bombers (code-named “Betty”) with the loss of seven F4Fs, including William H. Cochran Jr. of VMF-112.

In the afternoon, Kusaka dispatched 19 torpedo-carrying G4M1s of the 703rd, 705th and 707th Kokutais (naval air groups) to Guadalcanal, escorted by 30 Zeros of the 252nd and 582nd Kokutais. Again, their target was American shipping, in the largest such raid since the Marine landings on August 7. However, they were intercepted by F4F-4s of VMF-112 and VMF-121, as well as Bell P-39 Airacobras of the 67th and 70th Fighter squadrons.

“We’d just taken off when we heard there were bombers coming on, after supply ships in the harbor,” Maas recalled. “We were just off over the field when I looked down and there they were, scooting under us, almost at water level. I went after the nearest one and shot it down. The right engine caught fire and it went in shortly thereafter.”

Maas’ victim had been from the 705th Kokutai, which lost three of the seven G4Ms it committed to the raid, while another three damaged bombers had to force-land at Buin Island rather than return to their home base at Rabaul’s Vunakanau Airfield—a reasonable match for the six Bettys claimed by VMF-112 in that engagement, including one by squadron commander Major Paul J. Fontana and two by 2nd Lt. Jefferson J. DeBlanc. The squadron also claimed four Zeros, while VMF-121 claimed eight bombers and three Zeros, the 70th Fighter Squadron claimed a dive bomber and a Zero, and the 67th Fighter Squadron claimed a Zero. The Americans lost three Wildcats, whose pilots all survived, and a P-39 when condensation in the canopy caused by the change in temperature during its dive so impaired visibility that Lieutenant Frank Clark fatally crashed into the sea.

Actual Japanese fighter losses were limited to the death of Petty Officer 2nd Class Isao Ito of the 582nd Kokutai. In addition to the 705th Kokutai’s losses, however, the 703rd lost six of its nine participating G4Ms, while two others force-landed on Guadalcanal, where Japanese ground troops rescued their crews. Of the three 707th Kokutai bombers, one was shot down and two damaged machines were ditched on their way home, with nine of their crewmen dead. Aside from minor damage to some troop ships and a destroyer, the most significant fruit of the bombers’ sacrifice occurred when one doomed G4M’s pilot deliberately crashed into the after-control station of the heavy cruiser San Francisco, killing 30 of its crew but failing to cause enough damage to prevent its participation in the sea battle that night. After the loss of so many trained air crews, Admiral Kusaka refrained from any more daylight bombing attacks on Guadalcanal. On December 1, the 707th Kokutai was disbanded and its surviving personnel transferred to the 705th, while the 703rd Kokutai was dissolved on March 15, 1943.

The night of November 12-13—Friday the 13th—saw a point-blank confrontation between U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers and a Japanese strike force of battleships, light cruisers and destroyers that resulted in the loss of American light cruisers Atlanta and Juneau and destroyers Laffey, Monssen, Barton and Cushing, while Japanese destroyers Akatsuki and Yudachi were sunk and the battleship Hiei was left dead in the water. On November 13, Henderson-based U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft, joined by planes from the carrier Enterprise, finished off Hiei, the first Japanese battleship to be sunk in action since the war began.

On the night of the 13th, Japanese cruisers Suzuya, Maya and Tenryu and four destroyers lobbed 1,400 shells at Henderson Field, destroying 18 American planes and damaging 32 others. The next morning Japanese Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2, better known to his American adversaries as the “Tokyo Express,” escorted 11 transport ships carrying reinforcements and materiel to Guadalcanal. The Americans struck back with every aircraft that could still fly, joined by planes from Enterprise. They damaged the retiring Maya, sank six of the troop transports and drowned some 3,000 enemy soldiers, although the Japanese commander, living up to his nickname of “Tenacious Tanaka,” ran four of his remaining ships aground to land 2,000 troops and supplies, while his destroyers rescued some 5,000 survivors. Enterprise’s planes also sank the heavy cruiser Kinugasa that day.

At 1045 hours an eight-plane patrol from VMF-112, led by 2nd Lt. James G. Percy, was northwest of the Russell Islands when the Marines spotted six Zeros of the 253rd Kokutai coming down to cover Tanaka’s convoy. The Marines fired at the Zeros, resulting in a total of five being credited to 2nd Lts. Percy, Archie G. Donahue, Joseph F. Wagner Jr., John R. Stack and Maas. In actuality, all six Japanese fighters dove through the gantlet to engage the Americans attacking the Japanese troop ships. If Percy’s flight did not shoot any Zeros down, however, it undoubtedly shot them up, to be finished off by other U.S. fighters or bombers, because three members of that flight— Chief Petty Officer Tsumoru Okura and Petty Officers 1st Class Minoru Tanaka and Meiji Hikuma—were killed sometime in the course of the melee. Among the subsequent claims on them were two by SBD-3 crews of VMSB-142 and VMSB-132, and one by VMF-112’s Captain Robert B. Fraser, who fired at a Zero that was attacking a TBF-1 of VT-10 at 1200 hours and reported that the enemy fighter “virtually disintegrated.” Of the three surviving Japanese pilots who finally disengaged at 1310 hours, Petty Officer 2nd Class Katsuhiko Kawasaki was forced to put down on the airstrip at Buka, while the flight leader, Lieutenant Masao Iizuka, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenichi Abe made it back to Vunakanau at 1700. The Japanese claimed “two Grummans destroyed” and two Grumman two-seaters probably downed; in fact, all the American planes returned from that air-sea battle. In another fighter duel elsewhere, however, the commander of VMF-212, Lt. Col. Harold W. Bauer, was shot down after claiming a Zero for his 11th victory. Captain Joseph J. Foss of VMF-121 had last seen “Indian Joe” Bauer in his life raft, but a search for him the next day found no trace. “Sharks probably got Joe Bauer,” Maas concluded in regard to his former mentor, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

In another sea battle the night of the 14th, the U.S. Navy lost three destroyers, but the Japanese lost one destroyer and the battleship Kirishima. That defeat marked a turning point in the campaign. From then on the American occupation of Guadalcanal became less a question of “if” and more of “when.” Subsequently the Allied advance up the Solomons developed a slowly increasing momentum, while Japan was thrown into a defensive stance from which it never recovered.

Maas’ next victory came on January 31, 1943. “We just got up there to escort TBFs and SBDs going to bomb something at Vella Lavella,” he recalled. “We got in a fight to boot.” As the bombers went after Japanese shipping, the escorts met a swarm of enemy fighters. Some were Nakajima A6M2-Ns, floatplane variants on the Zero fighter called “Rufe” by the Allies, as well as Mitsubishi F1M2 two-seater float biplanes code-named “Pete.” Also out in force were land-based fighters identified as Zeros or “Zekes,” by the Marines, but actually Nakajima Ki.43s (Allied code name “Oscar”) of the Japanese army’s 11th Sentai (regiment), operating from Buka while the navy’s battered Zero units replaced their losses of the past several months. Maas’ division leader, newly promoted 1st Lt. Jefferson DeBlanc, and Tech. Sgt. James Feliton became separated from the formation, leaving 1st Lt. Joseph P. Lynch and Maas to fight their own war. “Joe Lynch from Boston claimed one,” Maas said, “while I got another. DeBlanc was in a different area, I guess. When I got there I was behind him.”

Getting a call for help from the retiring bombers, DeBlanc descended to 1,000 feet, where he claimed three Rufes and two Zekes before he was shot down over Kolombangara Island. There he found Feliton, who had also been shot down, but both were found by an Allied coastwatcher, who arranged for their rescue two weeks later. Four pilots of the 11th Sentai were killed during the dogfight over Vella Lavella that day: Sgt. Maj. Taisaku Miyamoto and Sergeants Kazuo Kondo, Saburo Yabuchi and Koji Aoyama.

“DeBlanc was given the Navy Cross,” Maas remarked. “Then he was asked to come to Washington, where they took away his Navy Cross and gave him the Medal of Honor. DeBlanc was the only one I ever heard of that was upgraded. Greg Boyington, Joe Foss and Bob Hansen all got the Medal of Honor for their exploits over the Solomons, but Marion Carl got 18 victories and all he ever got was the Navy Cross—one for Midway and one for Guadalcanal.

“Soon after that action, VMF-112 was pulled back to the New Hebrides, then to Sydney for a week—then back to the New Hebrides to train a little. We flew off a little coral strip called Turtle Bay. There we transitioned into the Vought F4U-1 Corsair. I thought it was a good plane, except when you had to take off or land. You had to look out the side, because the nose stuck up. That was one reason the Navy rejected it as a carrier fighter—that and the fact that the big prop tore up the flight deck. The strut on the tail wheel was short, so they put in a new, taller tail wheel strut to lower the nose. Due to the increase in horsepower, you had to pull a lot more right rudder to keep it straight down the runway. Also, the left wing dropped on landing until we put a piece of metal on the leading edge of the right wing, 8 to 10 inches long, which corrected that. But it was a good flying machine—a much nicer plane to fly than the Wildcat. It had a nice cockpit arrangement…armor behind the pilot, armor under the seat and self-sealing fuel tanks. And you didn’t have to crank the wheels up and down like you did with the Wildcat. I think every Marine who flew it would agree that one of the nicest things the Navy did for us during the war was to give us the Corsair.”

On May 13 Maas was credited with a Zero and probably downing a second west of Florida Island. The Japanese recorded three losses near Russell Island—Petty Officer Shogo Sasaki of the 582nd Kokutai, and Warrant Officer Hayato Noda and Petty Officer 2nd Class Yuhi Kariya of the 204th Kokutai.

“We did our last tour in May-June ’43 and then we went home,” Maas said. “We took a damn old ship home—took us a month. I didn’t get home till August ’43. I went to San Diego to get my orders, and then went home and got married. I was thinking about getting married before I went to Guadalcanal, but decided that would be a bad deal if I got killed out there, so I figured I’d wait.

“From September to January 1944, I was at El Toro, as an instructor in a fighter training unit. Fontana talked me into taking a regular commission, and I was promoted to the rank of major in the summer of ’44. Then I transferred to the Marine squadron at Mojave, Calif., to join VMF-451. There were four majors in the squadron and the skipper, old Hank Ellis, needed only three majors for the squadron’s assignment aboard the carrier Bunker Hill. Since one had to go, I told him, ‘I’d just as soon go land-based.’ I’m glad I did, because Bunker Hill really took a beating on May 11, 1945.

“I was shipped out to the New Hebrides to join VMF-322,” he continued. “There they told us we were going to Okinawa before Easter Sunday of ’45. The squadron moved to Kadena when the airfield was secured. There were three Corsair squadrons there, VMF-322, 323 and 312, and a torpedo bomber squadron. Another field was Yontan, north of Kadena. It had Grumman F6F night fighters, North American PBJs that the Marines were operating and Army Air Forces squadrons.”

VMF-322 was commanded by Major Frederick M. Rauschenbach, but Maas was more impressed with his executive officer, Major Jake Mathis: “A super guy, he really liked to fly. Unfortunately, he was killed out there, during a night landing at Kadena.”

Maas finally scored his fifth, ace-making, victory during his time at Kadena. Flying an FG-1D, the Eastern Aircraft–built version of the Vought Corsair, he was credited with a Tojo and a half share in another in a running fight that raged from 10 miles north of Izena Shima to Ie Shima on May 25, 1945. “We were right there off the beach at Okinawa when they came in,” Maas recalled. “The main fight took place between Yontan and Kadena. I just tailed in behind them. One was going toward the beach and one was going away from the beach when we got him. My wingman, 2nd Lt. Jay C.L. Allen and I were shooting at the second one—we couldn’t tell if his bullets or mine were hitting him or not, so we both got half credit. I didn’t care, as long as we got him.”

Japanese records make no mention of Nakajima Ki.44 interceptors, known to the Allies as “Tojos,” around Kadena, but they do note the loss of 10 more advanced fighters that bore a family resemblance to the Ki.44—Nakajima Ki.84s, known to the Allies as “Frank.” On May 25, Lieutenant Tokojiro Ogata led 10 Ki.84s of the 103rd Sentai on a mission to strafe Yontan airfield. Ogata was the only one to return.

On May 30, Major W.E. Lischeid took over command of VMF-322 from Rauschenbach. “At the end of June 1945, when the island was secured, I was sent to Kwajalein,” Maas said. “There was a PBJ and a Corsair squadron there. I was given command of the Corsair squadron, VMF-155. There was also one SBD on the flight line and one F6F, both left by a carrier group that came through. They were out of commission, but we fixed them up. I never flew ’em before, so I’d go and fly ’em. There was nothing doing there at all. We used to bomb the bypassed island of Wotje. It had a few antiaircraft guns that weren’t very accurate. When Japan surrendered on September 2, they put out the word for all reserve pilots to go home after the war, but regular commissions had to stay awhile. I finally came home in October 1945.”

Maas remained in Marine service after the war, flying Corsairs until 1949, when his squadron got Grumman F9F-2 Panther jets. After the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, he instructed at Quantico, Va., then did a tour of duty in Korea, where he flew 77 missions in VMF-115 and befriended such notables as Boston Red Sox slugger and Marine fighter pilot Ted Williams.

“When the chance came to go home or do another tour,” Maas said, “I decided, ‘To hell with that.’ I went to Squantum, Mass., with the Reserves, where word came down we’d get the Grumman F9F-6 Cougar, a sweptwing version of the Panther. I enjoyed my time at Squantum—I loved to hunt and fish. Later, I was reassigned to Cherry Point and ended up in Buford Air Force Station from 1960 to 1963. After that I served at Glen View Headquarters, in charge of Marine Air Reserve Training, then Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, in Norfolk, Va. I did 27 years in total—I got out at the end of June 1968 and came to Fredericksburg, Va., to manage the airport and fly antique planes. I quit while I was ahead.”

Colonel John B. Maas Jr. died on August 7, 2005. For further reading, World War II senior editor Jon Guttman recommends: The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign, by John Lundstrom; and Corsair Aces of World War 2, by Mark Styling.

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.