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S6 Ep1: Dogfight Over Guadalcanal

Barrett Tillman

Barrett Tillman, an author and historian who appears in the film "Dogfight Over Guadalcanal," discusses the art of the dogfight and the Guadalcanal campaign.
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In the following interview, Barrett Tillman, an author and historian who appears in the film “Dogfight Over Guadalcanal,” discusses the art of the dogfight and the Guadalcanal campaign.

What was your reaction when you first heard about the discovery of James Southerland’s Wildcat, which was shot down by Saburo Sakai?

I was astonished and excited, knowing the potential significance. For a change, we had empirical evidence of what happened in one of the classic dogfights. It’s almost as if von Richthofen’s [a.k.a. The Red Baron] Fokker Triplane had been found in the 1950s.

Please describe a day in the life of a World War II fighter pilot. How did a U.S. fighter pilot differ from a Japanese fighter pilot? How was their training different? How were their fighting styles different?

The daily lives of Southerland and Sakai were much different; the Americans were living a fairly easy life aboard their carrier while Sakai and his comrades were based at Rabaul with few amenities, mediocre food and threat of disease. At the time of the Guadalcanal operation, both sides were well-trained with the Japanese having the advantage of significant combat experience. I don’t think that any of the Wildcat pilots on August 7 had ever been in a dogfight. Fighting styles were totally different. Americans stressed teamwork and mutual support to offset their technical deficiencies against the Zero. The Japanese were basically individualists steeped in the World War I traditions.

What kind of person or personality does it take to become an ace fighter like Southerland or Sakai? Are there specific character traits involved?

Regardless of the paint on the airframe, all successful fighter pilots are brothers beneath the flight suit. Their primary trait is aggressiveness, coupled with extreme self confidence. “Egotist” is not too harsh a term. However, of the couple hundred aces I’ve known, only a few carry their egos on their shoulders — right beside the chip — on the ground. The large majority are quiet and friendly, some are even shy, but they change personalities when they strap into the machine. In that respect, most fighter aces are professional schizophrenics. Many — not all — are accomplished versus competent aviators but the large majority are good to excellent marksmen. The survivors also share a keen sense of risk assessment. Those who get greedy usually don’t last very long. Among Americans, Frank Luke in World War I is the classic example. A movie screaming to be made.

Did Sakai’s reluctance to shoot and kill Southerland when he had the opportunity have something to do with his samurai background and values?

Probably yes, though he didn’t say so in that many words. Also, it may have been the first time that he saw an opponent up close, almost face to face. It’s important to recall that while Imperial Japan’s military behavior could be atrocious, it also incorporated a code of conduct and ethics that was rooted in the the samurai tradition, which contained an element of chivalry.

Are there any unwritten rules of engagement regarding dogfights?

In combat there is one rule: Win. A late friend of mine, a World War I ace, was fond of saying, “If you find yourself in a fair fight, it means you ‘fouled’ up.” He didn’t say “fouled.” Today we have rules of engagement governing military behavior and ethics in almost every conceivable situation. There was nothing similar for aviation in World War II other than international rules about bombing cities. Each pilot was largely on his own; some would gladly kill a defeated opponent hanging in a parachute or running on the ground. Others would wave or salute. Luck of the draw.

Is aerial combat as practiced by Southerland and Sakai really a lost art?

It’s not so much a lost art as a changed game. Pilots still train for dogfights, but with the advent of the air-to-air missile, modern combat bears little resemblance to that of Sakai and Southerland. With much higher speeds and far greater engagement distances, today’s fighter pilots just don’t see the enemy as before. Also, recall that air combat is extremely rare; the United States Air Force and the United States Navy have only shot down about 55 enemy aircraft since 1973, with no aces. It is unlikely there will be any more American aces, certainly not in such numbers as were in Korea.

Do you have any additional thoughts or perspectives on the Guadalcanal campaign you’d like to share?

Guadalcanal remains a subject of fascination for at least two reasons. It was the critical campaign of the Pacific War. Midway set the stage, making possible an American offensive, but Japan sustained vastly more losses in the six months between August ’42 and February ’43. Nearly a generation of Japanese aviators was chewed up there, largely irreplaceable in kind. American losses were replaced not only in kind but in greater quantity. Same applies to equipment; ships, aircraft, weapons.

Guadalcanal, and by extension the Solomons campaign, had something for everybody — land, sea and air combat on a larger scale than had ever occurred previously in any war. Later campaigns such as the Marianas and Philippines also had all three but the odds were lopsided in America’s favor and the results never in doubt. Not so for Guadalcanal, where a U.S. loss would have affected the progress if not the outcome of the war. Additionally, the Cactus [Allied code name for Guadalcanal] campaign required a symbiotic relationship between rifleman, airman and sailor. In the later campaigns, land and naval operations were largely independent once the troops were ashore. I never knew Pug Southerland but did talk with Sakai two or three times — a complete gentleman. The same applies to the Cactus Air Force vets I was proud to call friends — Joe Foss, Marion Carl, Bob Galer, and many more.

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