The ‘Saint Valentine's Day Massacre' debacle: The first Corsair combat proved a fiasco with nine American aircraft being lost for a single Zero-sen shot down

The ‘Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre’ debacle: The first Corsair combat proved a fiasco with nine American aircraft being lost for a single Zero-sen shot down

By Dario Leone
Feb 15 2022
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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Whilst the F4U Corsair eventually proved to be a superior fighter in Pacific operations, its introduction into combat in this theatre initially demonstrated its weaknesses.

Whilst the F4U Corsair eventually proved to be a superior fighter in Pacific operations, its introduction into combat in this theatre initially demonstrated its weaknesses.

Indeed, the ‘Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre’ debacle showcased exemplary Zero-sen fighter tactics.

As explained by Michael John Claringbould in the book F4U Corsair versus A6M Zero-sen Rabaul and the Solomons 1943-44, on the afternoon of Feb. 12, 1943 the first F4U 1s to arrive at Guadalcanal flew into Fighter 2 airfield. The initial batch of 17 Corsairs were followed by seven more later that day. Just a few hours after landing, two Corsairs from this second group provided an escort for a PBY sent to rescue downed US Marine Corps Wildcat pilots Lt Jefferson DeBlanc and SSgt James Feliton. With the first Corsair combat patrol completed, the following day 11 aircraft from VMF-124 escorted nine US Navy PB4Y-1 Liberators tasked with bombing Japanese shipping off southern Bougainville in the Buin–Shortland area. A handful of Zero sens in the Buin airfield circuit looked them over from a distance but did not approach.

The Feb. 14 mission was essentially a repeat of the previous day’s operation, although this time it marked the first Corsair versus Zero-sen combat. The F4Us were again escorting PB4Y Liberators on a shipping strike off southern Bougainville. The mission duly became known as the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” due to the high number of American aircraft that were lost.

A 252nd Kokutai Zero sen patrol led by FPO2c Tamotsu Okabayashi that was already airborne over southern Bougainville was the first to spot the incoming American formation, and soon additional A6Ms were scrambling from Ballale airfield. The approaching American pilots watched the dust rise from Buin airfield as 13 more Zero sens from the 204th Kokutai scrambled, with Lt Zenjiro Miyano leading the fighters aloft. Finally, 11 A6M2-N “Rufe” floatplane fighters from the 802nd Kokutai were also scrambled from their Shortland Islands base, thus bringing the strength of the IJNAF force to 41.

A furious dogfight developed around noon after the Liberators dropped their bombs and withdrew southeast with their escorts. A PB4Y and three P-38 Lightnings were lost in the resultant melee, as were two Corsairs flown by 1Lts Gordon Lyon Jr and Harold Stewart of VMF-124.

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When Stewart re joined his element leader, 1Lt Lloyd Pearson, after combat at about 20,000ft, gasoline vapor was spraying from several bullet holes in Stewart’s wing. The streaming fuel ran the Corsair dry about ten minutes later, whereupon Stewart nosed down to ditch. Following Zero sens were quick to spot the downed fighter, and they descended to strafe Stewart in his yellow dinghy minutes after the clean ditching. He was never seen again.

From this seminal engagement it is difficult to match belligerents as both Zero sen units claimed Corsairs. In turn, VMF 124 was credited with three Zero sens and a “Pete” floatplane shot down, while the PB4Y gunners claimed nine A6Ms and Lightning pilot Capt Bill Griffith one Zero sen. However, against 14 American claims, the only IJNAF loss was 252nd Kokutai pilot FPO2c Yoshio Yoshida, who collided with Lyon’s Corsair during the dogfight. The remaining Zero sen pilots from the 252nd Kokutai fired a combined total of 5,126 7.7mm and 1,369 20mm rounds, thus reflecting the intense nature of the combat. Although generous shipping claims were made by the Liberator crews, only the 6,500 ton merchantman Hitachi Maru was sunk.

This first Corsair versus Zero sen combat had seen the Americans fare badly, with the loss of nine US aircraft showcasing the effectiveness of Japanese fighter tactics and underlining the potency of both the Zero sen and the “Rufe” floatplane fighter. American losses were of sufficient magnitude that further daylight bombing missions against Bougainville were paused until fighter escort tactics could be reassessed.

A post mortem of the mission concluded that ideally five fighters should cover each bomber, although at this stage of the war such a generous ratio was unavailable to the Cactus Air Force (the name by which Allied air power on Guadalcanal was known from August 1942). Instead, long range missions to Bougainville with fighter escort were briefly put on hold. This in turn meant that March and April saw only sporadic aerial combat for Corsair pilots, who had limited involvement in opposing the IJNAF’s Operation I Go strike on Guadalcanal on Apr. 7.

F4U Corsair versus A6M Zero-sen Rabaul and the Solomons 1943-44 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Kogo Own Work via Wikipedia

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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