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Lore of the Corps - James Neefus

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  • Lore of the Corps - James Neefus

    The Lore of the Corps

    Pilot earned valor award flying outmatched plane
    By Robert F. Dorr - Special to the Times
    Posted : September 22, 2008

    During World War II, James L. Neefus fought the Japanese at Midway in an outdated, poorly operating aircraft and earned the Navy Cross.
    For Neefus, that was an early stage of his impressive career doing the only two things he ever wanted — being a Marine and piloting airplanes.
    “He started out in biplanes in the 1930s and ended flying jets,” his son Robert Neefus said. The older Neefus also pioneered helicopter operations.
    But early in World War II, when the outcome was in doubt and the enemy was formidable, Neefus piloted a fat, barrel-shaped fighter that nobody liked.
    The Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo was no match for the Japanese warplanes it faced in the Pacific. Still, he seems to have believed it was his job to coax the best possible performance out of an aircraft that had little to offer.
    Born in 1911 and raised in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., Neefus was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant in 1936 and, based on competitive test scores, was assigned to pilot training.
    During the Battle of Midway on March 10, 1942, then-Capt. Neefus led four Buffalos that intercepted a Japanese Kawanishi H8K6 flying boat as it attempted a reconnaissance of U.S. defenses. When the Marine fighters pounced, the “Emily,” as the flying boat was known, did some smart maneuvering and appeared likely to escape in low cloud cover.
    After several unsuccessful attempts to hit the big plane with gunfire, Neefus chased the Emily into a cloud bank. He then paralleled the plane’s flight path just above the clouds, hoping it would emerge where he expected. It did, and Neefus shot it down.
    It was one of the few bright moments for the universally disliked Brewster Buffalo. The 25 Buffalos that teamed up with F4F Wildcats to defend Midway were massacred.
    It was a joy to Neefus and other Buffalo veterans who survived Midway when the Vought F4U-1 Corsair fighter became available.
    Neefus formed Fighter Squadron 215 at Santa Barbara, Calif., and took the squadron with its new F4U-1s to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands. As a captain, and later as a major, he commanded the squadron from July 1942 to November 1943 at several locations during some of the fiercest fighting in the Solomons. VMF-215 was credited with shooting down 137 Japanese aircraft.
    The Corps also acquired F6F Hellcat fighters. With their Corsairs and Hellcats, Marines finally could take on the vaunted Japanese Zero in a dogfight and win almost every time. Neefus helped shape strategy and tactics in his next assignment as chief of staff to the head of air operations in the Solomons.
    Neefus became a colonel in 1950. When the Korean War began that year, he served with Carrier Division 15. In later duties, he commanded Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Va., and Iwakuni, Japan.
    Neefus retired from the Corps in July 1962. In addition to the Navy Cross, Neefus earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous other awards. He died in 1991.
    Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is co-author of “Hell Hawks,” a history of an American fighter group. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Fred L. Borch, an Army veteran, is the author of “The Silver Star,” a history of America’s third-highest award for combat heroism. His e-mail address is [email protected].

    ...And shephards we shall be. For thee my lord, for thee. Power hath descended forth from thy hand. That our feet may swiftly carry out thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to thee. And teeming with souls shall it ever be. E Nomini Patri, E Fili, E Spiritu Sancti.

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