James A. Etheridge and the Night Hawks

VMF-543Marine Attack Squadron (Night) (VMFN-543) was an aviation squadron of the United States Marine Corps during World War II. The squadron, also known as the Night Hawks, participated in the Battle of Okinawa and flying the F6F Hellcat, downed 15 Japanese aircraft during this period. Following the surrender of Japan, the squadron deactivated and became part of the United States Marine Corps Reserve until 1974, when the squadron was decommissioned.

The Night Hawk Squadron was commissioned on 15 April 1944 at the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. A few months later, the squadron commander, Major Claude Carlson, was killed in a flying accident involving his F6F Hellcat. Carlson developed hypothermia due to a defective regulator, noting that the aircraft’s service ceiling was 37,000 feet. The squadron continued to train at Cherry Point under its new skipper, Major Claire Chamberlain and the steady guiding hand of the Squadron Executive Officer, Captain James A. Etheridge, through the summer of 1944; in September, the squadron reported to the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centro, California for additional training. In January 1945, the squadron was transferred to the MCAS Ewa, Hawaii, and from there separated into three combat echelons. The assault echelon departed Hawaii in February aboard the USS Achernar (AKA 53) and USS Meriwether (APA-203). They came ashore on Okinawa on 7 April 1945. The flight echelon arrived on Okinawa on 9 April 1945. The rear echelon arrived on Okinawa on 1 May 1945. The squadron took its first casualties when a Kamikaze aircraft hit the Achernar; 20 members of the squadron were commended for their fire fighting support in the aftermath of the attack.

During the Battle for Okinawa [1], VMFN 543 was attached to Marine Aircraft Group 33 based at Kadena Field. They began flying tactical missions on 9 April 1945 and continued through 7 August 1945. At first, the Nigh Hawks were marginally effective against nightly Japanese bombing raids, and by 17 April 1945 the squadron had lost 3 aircraft. The network of Air Warning Squadrons, which would eventually provide ground-controlled intercept, was still being assembled and was beset with frustrating technical problems. By mid-May, most of these issues had been resolved and the squadron became highly effective in its combat air patrols.

During the battle VMFN-543 flew night-heckling missions, which tasked them to strafe enemy positions at night. These missions had limited success, but they did increase pressure on the defending Japanese. First blood came on 15 April 1945 when Captain Jim Etheridge shortstopped a Nakajima Ki-84 (Frank) fighter directly overhead as it descended to attack Kadena Field. Etheridge ignored heavy “friendly fire” to down the intruder, but took six hits in the process. His was the first kill of the Tactical Air Force on Okinawa. American anti-aircraft gunners shot up another Night Hawk bird so badly that it had to be discarded.

While on Okinawa, the Night Hawks accumulated 15 air victories and one probable. The top shooters in the squadron were Captain James A. Etheridge and Second Lieutenant T. H. Danaher.

It was my honor and privilege to work for Colonel James A. Etheridge in 1967 while assigned to 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. Every once in a while, the colonel would relate to me an experience from his World War II service. In one of these [2], he told me that early in the war, dysentery rendered his squadron unfit for further combat service, and so the entire unit was flown to Australia for medical treatment and recovery. He said most of the pilots had been defecating themselves for so long, their flight suits had become rotten with filth and that the Marines stank so bad no one could stand to be around them. Additionally, several Marines had severe cases of malaria.

When the Marines arrived in Australia (I think it was Sydney, but not sure now), they were ordered to completely strip and throw their clothing into a pile, which they did. As the Marines discarded all of their clothing onto a pile, an Australian man doused their rags in gasoline and set the heap on fire. Colonel Etheridge said there was never a more putrid odor.

With a squadron of Marines standing completely naked on the airfield, a fire truck arrived, providing the Marines with an opportunity to bathe themselves. When this was done, everyone was issued new clothing —from skivvies and socks to khaki trousers and white shirts. After a period of medical treatment, Australian families volunteered to “adopt” our ambulatory Marines. They took them home, fed them, provided them with suitable quarters for the entire time these Marines remained in Australia. I remember Colonel Etheridge’s eyes tearing-up as he told me this story —his love for these kind people readily apparent.

I do not know this to be a fact, but I believe that when the Marines were well enough to travel, they were shipped back to the states. I believe this is how Jim Etheridge found himself assigned to VMFN-543 as its XO in 1944.

I have not seen Colonel Etheridge for 48 years, but I still remember him as a fine Marine Corps officer and a true gentleman.

 

Notes:

[1] Sincere appreciation to Major P. Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired) for his kind assistance in tracking down part of Jim Etheridge’s combat history through Ohio University e-History program. Additional information about VMFN-543 came from a book titled Marine Night Fighters Association, Herbert C. Banks, Editor

[2] I am recalling a personal conversations that took place 48 years ago. Responsibility for any errors, mistakes, or omissions in the retelling of this event belongs entirely to me.

2 thoughts on “James A. Etheridge and the Night Hawks”

  1. “Dysentery rendered his squadron unfit for further combat service.” As civilians we sweep by the macro-view of war, especially when it has a positive outcome, and don’t see the micro-indignities and trials these men face. Interesting post, as usual, on many levels.

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  2. I do recall this story about the Marines having their “unusable” clothing burned – perhaps it was from you? But the VMFN-543 story was very interesting. Surely, it could NOT have been the US Marines who nearly shot down their own kin, yes? If they were shooting, they surely would have destroyed the extremely well armored Hellcat. It must have been the Army…or the Navy? 🙂

    Your memories of Col. Etheridge are your treasures, sir. I can sense the tears in his eyes when he talked about the Australian citizens who offered them their homes. Thank you for sharing your fond memories of this great man.

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