An unsung hero and a forgotten plane.
On December 10, 1941, the US Far East Air Force in the Philippines was still reeling from the disastrous Japanese attacks on Dec. 8 and 9. Two thirds of its heavy bombers had been destroyed on the ground and its remaining fighter force had been nearly halved.
What remained of the battered fighter and bomber squadrons had been dispersed to emergency fields, some of them lacking even the most basic items such as food, water and toilet facilities. As was the case with the pilots of the 34th Pursuit Squadron; they spent a foodless and nearly sleepless night at the primitive San Marcelino field. They took off before dawn and flew their 16 remaining Seversky P-35’s back to Del Carmen airfield, only to find orders to attack a Japanese invasion fleet off Vigan in north Luzon with all possible speed. And speed was not their P-35’s best thing.
The hump-backed looking plane had won the fighter fly-off completion in 1936. But production and deliveries had been so slow that the USAAC decided to order 210 Curtiss P-36’s, the runner up in the 1935 /36 competition. On receiving this news, Alexander P. de Seversky became afraid of his production pipeline ‘drying up’ and started to look for lucrative foreign contracts. He was so ill-advised as to secretly close a contract in 1937 with the Imperial Japanese Navy for a two-seat version of the P-35 (designated 2PA-L and A8V1 by the Japanese). Because of the strained relations with Japan, this sale was extremely unpopular. The State department put him in their ‘black book’ and pressured the Army not to place any further orders with his firm.
De Seversky must have been rather slow on the uptake because he also sold 2 of the 2LP-A’s plus a production license to Soviet Russia. Just before he was ousted as chairman of his company, he negotiated an order with the Swedish Flygvapnet for 120 single seat EP-1’s (the export version of the P-35) with two wing-mounted .50 cal. guns. Half of this order had been delivered in 1940 when an irate US Government placed an embargo on all combat aircraft sales, except to the United Kingdom. They confiscated the remainder of the 60 EP-1’s coming off the production line, redesignated them P-35A and sent them off to the Philippines. There, they were intensively used for training and by the time war broke out, most of them were in bad shape, with worn out engines and wobbly guns.
But it was all the 34th Pursuit Squadron had that fateful day. After refueling at Del Carmen the two fights of P-35A’s took off and pressed north. It was more than most engines could stand and fighter after fighter had to return. When the squadron arrived over Vigan, Squadron Commander Lt/1 ‘Sam’ Marett’s flight was down to five planes and his wingman Lt. ‘Bill’ Brown’s flight consisted of two. There was no sign of enemy fighter planes so they all swooped down to attack the Japanese fleet. They riddled many of the small landing barges with their .303 and .50 cal. guns and so badly damaged the transport Oigawa Maru that it had to be beached to save it.
Marett had singled out a warship and pressed home attack after attack. His final attack, carried out at masthead level and through a storm of anti-aircraft fire, proved to be fatal. His target, the “7-GO” class minesweeper “W-10” blew up under him with an enormous explosion that tore off one wing of his P-35, sending it crashing into the sea.
Sadly enough, his exploit has been eclipsed by the publicity around Captain Colin P. Kelly’s supposed bombing and sinking on that same day of the battleship Haruna. Post-war records revealed however that his attack only slightly damaged the cruiser Natori…
I therefore decided to bring one more unsung hero to a wider attention. May he rest in peace.
Lt/1 Samuel Marett was posthumously awarded the DSC. The citation reads:
First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Samuel H. Marett (ASN: 0-22854), United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-35 Fighter Airplane in the 34th Pursuit Squadron, 24th Pursuit Group, FAR EAST Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 10 December 1941, during an air mission against Japanese surface vessels at Vigan, Philippine Islands.
On that date, First Lieutenant Marett was Pilot of a P-35 fighter in an attack on Japanese shipping and landing parties at Vigan, Philippine Islands. Following bombing by heavy bombers, Lieutenant Marett lead his squadron through a hail of anti-aircraft fire to strafe the enemy vessels and landing parties. In the performance of this mission, one of the enemy vessels exploded, destroying Lieutenant Marett’s aircraft and killing him instantly. First Lieutenant Marett’s unquestionable valor in aerial combat, at the cost of his life, is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the Far East Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 48 (1941)