From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall

James Southerland, II '36

Date of birth: October 28, 1911

Date of death: October 12, 1949

Age: 37

Lucky Bag

From the 1936 Lucky Bag:


Part of a picture of Fighting Squadron (VF) 5 on July 15, 1942 aboard USS Yorktown (CV 5). Photo courtesy Tom Harmer.

From Find A Grave:

WWII Naval Ace credited with scoring 5 victories (some accounts say 7), flying Grumman F4F Wildcats. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart. Southerland graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in 1936. Southerland gained the nickname "Pug" because he was such pugnacious boxer at the academy.

At the beginning of the Battle of Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942, United States forces shelled Guadalcanal and neighboring Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. Soon after the attack began, 27 Japanese bombers and an escort of 17 fighters took off from Rabaul, Japan's stronghold and strategic base in the South Pacific. Their mission was to bomb the ships that were supporting the American attack. Southerland shot down the first Japanese aircraft of the Guadalcanal campaign, a G4M1 "Betty" bomber of the 4th Kokutai, under the command of Shizuo Yamada. After shooting down a second bomber, Southerland was engaged in a dogfight with an A6M2 "Zero" of the Tainan Kokutai. He lined up the Zero in his sights only to find his guns would not fire, probably due to damage from fire by the tailgunner from the second bomber he had downed. Although he was now defenseless, Southerland had to stay in the fight. Two more Zeros engaged him, but he successfully outmaneuvered all three of them. The dogfight was spotted by Saburo Sakai who felt the deftly handled Wildcat was winning the engagement. Sakai described the duel in his autobiography.

Southerland and Sakai were soon engaged in one of the most legendary dogfights in aviation history. After an extended battle in which both pilots gained and lost the upper hand, Sakai finally shot down Southerland's Wildcat, striking it below the left wing root with his 20mm cannon. As Southerland bailed out of his doomed Wildcat his .45 caliber automatic pistol caught in the cockpit. He managed to free himself but lost his pistol, leaving him weaponless, wounded, and alone behind enemy lines.

Suffering from eleven wounds, shock and exhaustion, Southerland struggled through the brush, carefully evading Japanese soldiers. He finally reached the coast, where he was found by some natives, who at the risk of their own lives fed him and treated his wounds. With their assistance, he eluded the Japanese ground forces and returned to American lines. Southerland was evacuated from Guadalcanal on the first patrol boat to land at Henderson Field, on August 20.

Both pilots survived the war to write their accounts, making it one of the best documented dogfights of WWII. On February 14, 1998 the wreckage of Southerland's Wildcat was found. Investigation of the remains has confirmed both Southerland's and Sakai's accounts of the dogfight.

Southerland later fought in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. By then a commander and leading VF-83 aboard the USS Essex, he shot down two Ki-61 "Tonys". He became a confirmed ace in April of that year when he downed a A6M "Zeke" while serving aboard the USS Langley.

Following the war, Southerland became a flight instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was killed in a jet training accident in 1949 during takeoff from a carrier off the Florida coast.

Dogfight of August 7, 1942

From John Kelly Night Fighter Pilot:

On August 7, 1942, the opening day of the Guadalcanal campaign, American forces began shelling Guadalcanal and neighboring Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. It was the beginning of a U.S. push to capture the Japanese-controlled islands in the Pacific. Success was critical because the Japanese were rushing to complete a landing strip that would be a major threat to Allied shipping lanes between Australia and America.

Soon after the attack began, 27 Japanese bombers and an escort of 17 Zero fighters took off from Rabaul — Japan’s major stronghold and strategic base in the South Pacific. Their mission was to bomb the ships that were supporting the American attack. Among the fighter pilots was Japanese air ace Saburo Sakai.

As the Japanese squadron approached Guadalcanal, a group of eight American Wildcats took off from the U.S.S. Saratoga. Led by James “Pug” Southerland, they were aiming to shoot down the Japanese bombers before they could target the American ships.

At 1300 hours, the squadrons met. The Americans engaged the Japanese planes, and Southerland shot down the lead bomber — the first American air victory at Guadalcanal. The remaining Japanese bombers were forced to drop their payloads from almost four miles up, and not a single bomb found its target.

But as the Wildcats engaged the Japanese bombers, Southerland found himself in a fierce dogfight with a number of Zeros flown by young pilots. With his skill and instinct, he managed to out-fly the less experienced Japanese pilots even though he was outnumbered. Saburo Sakai, the Japanese ace, watched from above for a while, then finally dropped in to join the fray. One of the most dramatic and well-documented one-on-one dogfights in history had begun…

Although they were flying very different planes, the two men were evenly matched. Each pilot knew the specific capabilities and liabilities of his own machine, and tried to sway the battle to his own advantage. The Zero was faster and more maneuverable, but the Wildcat had better armor, and could dive faster than the lighter Zero. Southerland quickly found that he couldn’t out-maneuver an expert Zero pilot like Sakai, but he was able to push the Wildcat to its performance limits and hold off Sakai’s furious assault. Sakai, meanwhile, was amazed at how much punishment that Wildcat could absorb. He peppered Pug’s plane with machine gun fire, but the bullets had no effect.

Turn for turn, climb for climb and dive for dive, the two pilots matched each other’s every move. Finally, with Sakai approaching from the rear, Southerland managed to “slam on the brakes” — cutting the throttle just as Sakai accelerated in pursuit. The Zero overshot, and Southerland prepared to fire. Sakai braced for the deadly impact of the Wildcat’s bullets into his flimsy fuselage… but the bullets never came.

Not waiting around to find out why, the surprised Sakai pulled up alongside the Wildcat. He noticed that Pug was injured, fell in behind him, and after a moment of indecision, opened fire with his big 20 mm cannons. In his memoirs, Sakai wrote that he decided not to kill the pilot, but rather, to aim for the Wildcat’s engine to give Pug a chance to bail out.

Southerland did just that, pitching himself out of the cockpit as the Wildcat went down. He parachuted into the jungle, deep in the heart of enemy territory. Bleeding and exhausted, he struggled through the brush, finally finding some local boys who were willing to risk their own lives to help him escape. With their assistance, he managed to elude the Japanese ground forces and meet up with his American Navy rescuers.

Sakai, meanwhile, watched Pug’s plane crash into the jungle, then headed off to find other American planes to attack. He soon found some, but was gravely wounded by an American tail gunner whose bullet went through the Zero’s windshield and into his head. Barely conscious, Sakai somehow managed to make the harrowing, five-hour flight back to his base in Rabaul, keeping himself lucid along the way by irritating his own wounds.

The Guadalcanal campaign, which began August 7, 1942 and didn’t end until February 9, 1943, was the first major Allied offensive against Japanese forces in the Pacific. Prior to that point, the U.S had been reacting to Japanese aggressiveness, and the battles tended to be short, stop-and-start affairs created by the offense-minded Japanese. But the battles of the Coral Sea proved that the U.S. and its Allies could not just defend themselves, they could go on the offensive and successfully take the fight to the Japanese.

At the battle of Midway in June of 1942, the Allied victory put a stop to Japan’s expansion, and Guadalcanal finally turned the conflict on its head. Short battles turned into a sustained war of attrition in which the Japanese single-minded attention to offense became a fatal liability. The U.S. forces in Guadalcanal had significant losses — almost 1,600 were killed — but the Japanese army and navy suffered staggering casualties: almost 15,000 men killed in battle and another 9,000 lost to disease. Adding to the losses, American troops took around 1,000 Japanese prisoners. Japan also lost 24 ships and more than 600 aircraft over the course of the campaign. This massive loss of men and resources put the Japanese forces on the defensive in the Pacific for the remainder of the war, and laid the stage for their ultimate defeat.

Although it was just one tiny skirmish in a much greater war, the dogfight between Pug Southerland and Saburo Sakai illustrated many of the strategic and technological factors that eventually determined the outcome of the war. But important questions about that encounter have remained unanswered until now. Why had Southerland failed to fire when he gained a brief advantage over Sakai? And had Sakai, an ace who finished the war with 64 kills to his credit, really aimed at Southerland’s engine to give him a chance to bail out? An expedition to the wreck site of Southerland’s plane, and a forensic investigation into the details of the famous air battle answer these questions and more in “Dogfight Over Guadalcanal.”

From an excerpt from Saburo Sakai's book "Samurai! Saburo Sakai" pages 160-162 and via Pacific Wrecks:

"...The Wildcat was clinging grimly to the tail of a Zero, its tracers chewing up the wings and tail. In desperation, I snapped out a burst. At once the Grumman snapped away in a roll to the right, clawed around in a tight turn, and ended up in a climb straight at my own plane. Never before had I seen an enemy plane move so quickly or gracefully before, and every second his guns were moving closer to the belly of my fighter. I snap-rolled in an effort to throw him off. He would not be shaken. He was using my favorite tactics, coming up from under.

I chopped the throttle back and the Zero shuddered as its speed fell. It worked; his timing off the enemy pilot pulled back in a turn. I slammed the throttle forward again, rolling to the left. Three times I rolled the Zero, then dropped in a spin, and came out in a left vertical spiral. The Wildcat matched me turn for turn. Our left wings pointed at a right angle to the sea below us, the right wing at the sky.

Neither of us could gain the advantage. We held to the spiral, tremendous G pressures pushing us down in our seats with every passing second. My heart pounded wildly, and my head felt as if it weighed a ton. A gray film seemed to be clouding my eyes. I gritted my teeth; if the enemy pilot could take it, so could I. The man who failed first and turned in any other direction to ease the pressure would be finished.

On the fifth spiral, the Wildcat skidded slightly, I had him, I though. But the Grumman dropped his nose, gained speed, and the pilot again had his plane in full control. There was a terrific man behind that stick.

He made his error, however, in the next moment. Instead of swing back to go into a sixth spiral, he fed power to his engine, broke away at an angle, and looped. That was the decisive split second. I went right after him, cutting inside the Grumman's arc, and came out on his tail. I had him. He kept flying loops, trying to narrow the distance of each arc. Every time he went up and around I cut inside his arc and lessened the distance between our two planes. The Zero could out fly any fighter in the world in this kind of maneuver.

When I was only fifty yards away, the Wildcat broke out of his loop and astonished me by flying straight and level. At this distance I would not need the cannon; I pumped 200 rounds into the Grumman's cockpit, watching the bullets chewing up the thin metal skin and shattering the glass.

I could not believe what I saw; the Wildcat continued flying almost as if nothing had happened. A Zero which had taken that many bullets into its vital cockpit would have been a ball of fire by now. I could not understand it. I slammed the throttle forward and closed in to the American plane, just as the enemy fighter lost speed. In a moment I was ten yards ahead of the Wildcat, trying to slow down. I hunched my shoulders, prepared for the onslaught of his guns, I was trapped.

No bullets came. The Wildcat's guns remained silent. The entire situation was unbelievable. I dropped my speed until our planes were flying wing-to-wing formation. I opened my cockpit window and stared out. The Wildcat's cockpit canopy was already back, and I could see the pilot clearly. He was a big man, with a round face. He wore a light khaki uniform. He appeared to be middle-aged, not as young as I had expected.

For several seconds, we flew along in our bizarre formation, our eyes meting across the narrow space between the two planes. The Wildcat was a shambles. Bullet holes had cut the fuselage and wings up from one end to the other. The skin of the rudder was gone, and the metal ribs stuck out like a skeleton. Now I understood his horizontal flight, and also why the pilot had not fired. Blood stained his right shoulder, and I saw the dark patch moving downwards over his chest. It was incredible that his plane was still in the air.

But this was no way to kill a man! Not with him flying helplessly, wounded, his plane a wreck. I raised my left hand and shook my fist at him shouting uselessly, I knew, for him to fight instead of flying along like a clay pigeon. The American looked startled; he raised his right hand weakly and waved.

I had never felt so strange before. I had killed many Americans in the air, but this was the first time a man had weakened in such a fashion directly before my eyes, and from the wounds I had inflicted upon him. I honestly, didn't know whether or not I should try and finish him off. Such thoughts were stupid, of course. Wounded or not, he was the enemy, and he had almost taken three of my own men a few minutes before. However, there was no reason to aim for the pilot again. I wanted the plane, not the man.

I dropped back and came again in on his tail. Somehow the American called upon a reserve of strength and the Wildcat jerked into a loop. That was it. His nose started up. I aimed carefully at the engine, and barely touched the cannon trigger. A burst of flame and smoke explode outward from the engine. The Wildcat rolled and the pilot bailed out. Far below me, almost directly over the Guadalcanal coast, his parachute opened. The pilot did not grasp the shroud lines, but hung limply in his chute. The last I saw of him he was drifting in towards the beach..."

From Wikipedia's entry on Pug:

My plane was in bad shape but still performing nicely in low blower, full throttle, and full low pitch. Flaps and radio had been put out of commission...The after part of my fuselage was like a sieve. She was still smoking from incendiary but not on fire. All of the ammunition box cover on my left wing were gone and 20mm explosives had torn some gaping holes in its upper surface...My instrument panel was badly shot up, goggles on my forehead had been shattered, my rear view mirror was broken, my plexiglass windshield was riddled. The leak proof tanks had apparently been punctured many times as some fuel had leaked down into the bottom of the cockpit even though there was no steady leakage. My oil tank had been punctured and oil was pouring down my right leg.At this time a zero making a run from the port quarter put a burst in just under the left wing root and good old 5-F-12 finally exploded. I think the explosion occurred from gasoline vapor. The flash was below and forward of my left foot. I was ready for it...Consequently I dove over the right side just aft immediately, though I don't remember how.

A reenactment of the dogfight:

And a full documentary is available here: https://vimeo.com/169687740

Rescue From Guadalcanal

From First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: By John Lundstrom

As of nightfall, four fighter pilots known to have survived the day's fierce battles still had not reached safety. On western Guadalcanal, Pug Southerland of VF-5 walked down from the hills toward the beach. In a deserted enemy encampment, he found a handy signaling device, the reflector of an old flashlight. Later, he waded into the water to tend his wounds. Only the right foot still troubled him badly. Soon, with his reflector and by waving his yellow Mae West, he attracted the attention of several SBDs and sent by semaphore an "SOS," followed by "Send Cruiser Scout." One pilot dropped a smoke bomb before departing. Southerland spent a "very cold and windy" night on the beach awaiting rescue

At dawn on 8 August, Pug Southerland of VF-5 limped eastward along the coast toward Lunga Point. After passing through several unoccupied villages, he discovered a seemingly more practical mode of transportation, a large canoe. The leaky old vessel swiftly filled with water and forced his return to the beach. Around noon, while scouting the abandoned village of Ruijo and its small Catholic chapel, Southerland encountered two Guadalcanalese. Pidgin English revealed their names as Jonas and Joseph. A native of Malaita, Jonas was a servant of Australian coastwatcher SubLt. F. Ashton ("Snowy") Rhoades, RANVR. While parleying, the three witnessed the Japanese air attack against the X-RAY Squadron, a marvelous spectacle, but not to the natives. They retraced their steps west to Mamara village, where Southerland ate and relaxed while his hosts took good care of him. After midnight on the 9th, Southerland and the villagers heard the rolling thunder of distant naval gunfire, and dawn revealed that the cruisers and destroyers had pulled out. The two natives now hesitated to risk a trip to Kukum. Southerland spent the day resting while the inhabitants dropped in to meet him. All were quite friendly, with one exception: an ancient, white-haired man who upon leaving muttered something like, "Used to eat white man, now don't [know] what to do."

At dawn on 10 August Southerland, Jonas, and two others paddled east in a large canoe past a Japanese camp near the mouth of the Mantanikau River and soon reached their goal. A party of soldiers in green fatigues accosted them, leading Southerland for the moment to fear they were the enemy, but he soon recognized Marines. Col Leroy Hunt of the 5th Marines was happy to meet Jonas and his friends. Off Point Santa Cruz Japanese machine-gun bullets holed the canoe carrying Jonas and his party, and they were captured. Jonas quickly managed to escape. On 12 August Southerland went out in a Catalina PBY-5A amphibian, the first plane to land at Lunga airfield.

Silver Star

From Hall of Valor:

SYNOPSIS: Commander James Julian Southerland, II, United States Navy, was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as a Fighter Pilot in a Navy Fighting Squadron, in operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific Ocean Area, during World War II. His gallant actions and dedicated devotion to duty, without regard for his own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.

Action Date: World War II
Service: Navy
Battalion: Fighting Squadron

Distinguished Flying Cross

From Hall of Valor:

Commander James Julian Southerland, II, United States Navy, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while serving as a Fighter Pilot in a Navy Fighting Squadron, in operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific Ocean Area, during World War II.

Action Date: World War II
Service: Navy
Rank: Commander
Battalion: Fighting Squadron

From Hall of Valor:

Commander James Julian Southerland, II, United States Navy, was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while serving as a Fighter Pilot in a Navy Fighting Squadron, in operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific Ocean Area, during World War II.

Action Date: World War II
Service: Navy
Rank: Commander
Battalion: Fighting Squadron

Class of 1936

James is one of 39 members of the Class of 1936 on Virtual Memorial Hall.