Originally Published December 1974
Born in Trenton, N. J., on December 23, 1897, William J. Fox enlisted in the Army as a private in 1918.
Promoted to corporal and sergeant, he switched services and accepted a commission in the aviation branch of the Marine Corps.
He was released from active duty following World War I.
Holding degrees in civil engineering, he was appointed City Engineer and Chief Engineer of the Municipal Water Department of the City of South Pasadena, Calif. He was later appointed Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.
Recalled to active duty in October 1940, he brought with him a reputation as an airport planner. He was assigned to the staff of MajGen Ross E. Rowell, Commanding General, Second Marine Aircraft Wing, at North Island, San Diego.
It was William J. Fox who selected the sites and the design of layouts for the five Marine Corps Air Stations on the Pacific Coast.
On October 15, 1942, he was promoted to colonel and was transferred to Guadalcanal as Commanding Officer of Marine Air Base (Henderson Field). He remained in command until evacuated as the result of wounds.
After recovering, he was placed in command of the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro. Under his leadership, the air station grew to be the largest tactical operating airdrome in the West. More than 10,000 men and 850 aircraft were based there.
Again ordered to the Pacific in 1945, he was Chief of Staff for the Commanding General, Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing, in the Gilbert Islands. He participated in air attacks on Wotje, Mille, Maloelap and Jaluit.
On December 1, 1946, William J. Fox retired from the Marine Corps. He was promoted to brigadier general on October 27, 1948.
He resumed his official duties in Los Angeles as Chief Engineer of the Department of Building and Safety and the Regional Planning Commission.
In 1959, the county airport at Lancaster was named Fox Field in his honor.
Now fully "retired," he has become the only "Charro" in all of Mexico. (A "Charro" is considered to be the most perfectly coordinated horseman in the world, with the possible exception of the California Vaquero. A wild bull exits a chute, the Charro rides alongside on his perfectly-trained horse, slaps the bull, then runs his hand along the bull's back, seizes the bull's tail and wraps it around his own leg above the ankle. The Charro then speeds up his horse and flips the bull to the ground. . . .)
General Fox presently raises horses at the "Ranchito El Cardo," San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, where he rides, throws bulls and the "reata" which is whirled around the head in any direction for any purpose . . . similar, in a sense, to the American lasso.
Recently the general took time to recall his experiences on Guadalcanal. The actions und words of General Fox and those of the men of the "Cactus Air Force" mark them among an early breed of "A Few Good Men," and qualify them all as "Giants of the Corps. . . ."
The general recently wrote the following letter to us:
I want to congratulate Leatherneck Magazine for the story, "The Cactus Air Force" that appeared recently. You did an amazing job of compressing a story into six pages of unequaled drama backed up by indisputable facts of some deeds and performances of dedicated men; daring deeds rarely exceeded or equaled by any event in the history of military aviation.
Every one of those men were Marines to the core. I say "men," because the enlisted personnel who made up the plane crews of that outfit played an important role too.
Many times, under the grim and trying circumstances under which we flew and fought, they made the difference between success and failure of a mission. And there wasn't a pilot who didn't feel that fact very deeply.
Those guys pumped gasoline from drums by hand in heat that would make your bloomin' eyebrows crawl. But that wasn't half of it. . .
Those damned drums (many of them Japanese) contained lots of water; an item, if overlooked, too often resulted in engine failure and loss of life. All planes were heavily loaded with what it takes to fight and took off on an all too short runway that was hastily repaired after the latest bombing or shelling.
During a "Red Alert," those plane crews didn't have to rely on "Tokyo Rose" to tell them what it meant for their pilot to succeed on that mission. Because, on Guadalcanal, you couldn't stop a task force of destroyers or cruisers coming down the "Slot" with what the poor infantry and artillery grunts had on hand to sock them with. There was only one answer; saddle up, rev up, and go out and get them before they could drop their bombs.
What did that mean for the plane crews? I'll tell you!
Stay up all night and "shammy" every drop of that lousy gas before it was poured into the plane's gas tanks. Yes, that was SOP at "Cactus" in '42, so help me God! And that wasn't all, either, not for the plane crews. Did aerial machine guns jam? Yes, of course they did. Any worse than those in a muddy foxhole or trench? Yes. Why?
Because they were mounted on a much different platform that girated in all directions, including upside down, at terrific speeds, at times through rain, ice and even snow-all within minutes at 30,000 feet altitude, and, in the tropics, no less.
And pulling out of terminal dives at up to 9.5 G's doesn't make for stability for that shooting iron slung inside the guts of that type of platform. So what did those boys have to do to lend assurance to their pilot so he wouldn't get "arrows" in his tail because of malfunctioning of his shooting irons when he got a "Zero" or a "Betty" or a "Zeke" in his sights and he pressed that little red button on the stick? Answer: While the "gas boys" were wringing the water out of the 100 octane, the armament crew was wet-nursing those guns and tuning them up and weighing each round of ammo on an egg scale before it went into the belt, so that ALL .50 caliber bullets in that gun weighed the same, thus avoiding split casings and jams.
And the riggers and engine mechanics -well, you have a good idea, I am sure. Their job of checking plugs, mags and radios in the rain, heat or dust wasn't easy. What a team! And all of them worrying like hell until their pilot came back (if he did) to know: How did he do? How did the guns work? The engine? The oxygen? Etc., etc. And when the plane and engines got old from the grilling that combat gives a plane, they worried some.
Pilots got old in combat, too, and the men worried about them.
That brings me to Marine pilots like "Red Goatee" Joe Foss; "Scarface" John Smith; "Basketball Star" Bob Galer; "Gentleman" Marion Carl; Kenneth Walsh; "Smiling" Jack Cram; Greg "Pappy" Boyington; "Zeke" Jim Swett; "Precision" Dick Mangrum; "Indian" Joe Bauer; Alvin Jensen; Bob Richards; "Cut Lip" Johnny Conger; "Porky" Blaine and Paul Fontana. One could just about call the roll of all the pilots who served and fought at Guadalcanal in 1942 and 1943 and you could fill a lot of chapters in a serial of the "Cactus Air Force" at the 'Canal.
The life story of each one would have thrills enough to shake up a wooden Indian.
I don't need to tell you that Medals of Honor don't come with "box tops" and neither do Navy Crosses; but you can take that list above, and a lot more Marine pilots whom I have not mentioned (who were gutty guys that made up the CAF) and you'll find more citations per pilot than any other group in any other service.
It should be noted, too, that not only did Dick Mangrum and John Smith lead their respective squadrons on their first take-off from a carrier when they got the "go" from the "Jeep" USS Long Island and to which there was no return, they also knew they were going up against an enemy who had never in modern history been defeated.
In this war, too, this enemy as yet had never been stopped or turned back. And, furthermore, the "Zero" airplane was superior in maneuverability, speed, rate of climb and ceiling; and the guys who had it strapped to their pants were not dummies; they were skilled and well-trained pilots, and they were packing 20-mm. cannons in both wings that hit hard and cut deep.
Dick and John weren't kidding themselves when they saw the enemy coming down the "Slot" day after day in striking power of 50 and 100 planes. They knew they were outnumbered by a ratio that made the stomach feathery.
The romance and adventure of flying eked out somewhere after that first meeting of such vast numbers in combat -and there was more to come tomorrow and the next day. The enemy seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of planes and pilots to slug and slug with no letup.
And even now, on paper, it seems clear that they could have and should have cut those arrogant Americans out of the sky and driven those Marines holding Henderson Field and Guadalcanal into the sea!
We were $22 short of 15 cents of everything; men, food, gas, ammo, doctors, planes and plane parts. Those Marines were short of everything but the will to fight.
We had to patch up and "Gypsy Rose Lee" (strip) other aircraft in order to fly again.
When I say the "Zero" was a formiable airplane to fight, I mean just that. I had the job of flight testing the first one we captured and I could make contact and break contact at will against any aircraft we had in the Pacific at that time. After this "Zero" test flight, in my enthusiasm for its flight characteristics, I remarked that I would rather fight with a plane like that than fight against it.
This got to the press and I soon received an official letter. . . . "You will explain in writing why . . . etc., etc." The only answer I could give was, "Because it is true."
Dick, John, Bob and Marion all were well aware of these superior flight characteristics as soon as they had their first dogfight with the enemy in the air. The Japanese pilot knew his airplane and he knew how to use it; but we knew ours, too. The Japanese was a skillful pilot with great courage and daring; but our thorough training in "flexible formations," (Vees, Vee of Vees, Echelons, Lines, Sandwich, Diamond and Units of Two) that lent itself to any desired formation to meet any situation-this form of teamwork permitted a game plan the Japanese just could not cope with. He was good, there was no doubt about that, and he knew it; he was cocky and arrogant, and he had a good fighter airplane. He just wasn't quite good enough. . . .
When we got the F4U Corsair fighter in December 1942 (which we also used with excellent results as a dive bomber), that changed things right fast. Zeros, Zekes or Betties didn't mean too much then, nor did that super "maneuverability" of the Zeros' awe the pilots of the Cactus Air Force. We were now sitting in a rugged airplane with 2,000 horses up in the nose and eight 50-caliber "talkie-talkies"-real personal like-three in each wing and two through the prop.
These and what we had sitting in the cockpit made up for the difference in numbers. This was the Marine Corps' own airplane.
The Navy didn't fancy the aircraft, and right from the Chance Vought factory, they turned them over to the Marines.
We suspect the Navy thought they were giving us a lemon and we were thinking that the F6F-1 (just coming off the production line for the Fleet) was to be THE fighter airplane. Well, the Marines loved the Corsair. It was a sweetheart. It exceeded everything the Chance Vought designers hoped for.
It proved, with the Marines' use of it in combat, to be one of the best fighters in the world. The Navy then caught on and took some Corsairs on the carriers along with the F6F-1's and the former became the pilots' favorite in all theaters.
There is just so much of this subject that scratching the surface doesn't do it justice. But Leatherneck did a master's job in compressing what you did into six pages and coming out with a great story which was meaningful and served to inspire a demand for an even greater story.
It is doubtful if anyone will ever see air wars fought "eyeball to eyeball" like Guadalcanal again. The Marines did so much with so little at "Cactus."
Upon being interrogated after the war, Admiral of the Japanese Fleet, Nagano (Supreme Naval Advisor to the Emperor) said, "Guadalcanal was the turning point in the war in the Pacific; I knew then we could not win."
Lieutenant General Kawabe (Deputy Chief of the Japanese General Staff) said, "As for the turning point of the war, it was, I feel, at Guadalcanal."
It was reported in the press that Washington had given up Guadalcanal. Newsmen wrote that the island was "lost."
That proves how poor communications were at that time.
No one told the Marines!