SCAT

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By T J O'Mara - Originally Published September 1943

SCAT is the Marine way of saying the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command, a somewhat unorthodox method of military transportation horn of the emergency following our crippling disaster at Pearl Harbor. Following that treacherous but none the less brilliantly executed and devastating Jap attack, a swift survey of our dangerous situation showed one thing and clearly, at least in so far as the South Pacific crisis was concerned-our well-stretched-out Merchant Marine was neither enough, nor fast enough. This was particularly true when, with the Jap temporarily paralyzed with sheer astonishment at how much he'd grabbed with such ease and such speed, we embarked upon the grim business of persuading him to go on home.

Aerial transportation seemed the only answer to the urgent need for speed, not only for the South Pacific holding-prior-to-advancing strategy, but also to supplement and insure the continued operation of the vital Australian-American life line-a definite must if Tojo was to be kept from the Australian mainland and his White House dream. But where was this aerial transportation to come from? Aviation companies, already frantically committed to the building of vitally-needed combat planes, couldn't start making transport planes, at least not in the considerable numbers needed by all branches of the fighting forces in the South Pacific. And it was precisely here that the old Douglas transport, hundreds of which had been used by commercial airlines, came into its own-not because of its adaptability for this purpose but because it was the only plane available at that time and in anything like a sizeable quantity.

Few of our military minds at that time gave the big commercial planes even an outside chance of adequately filling the bill as cargo carriers over the long open sea routes. However, there was no alternative. Fancy fittings came out, and extra gas tanks to enable them to triple their cruising range went on. Big double doors for cargo inlet replaced the little passenger entrances. The interior was stripped bare. All the big craft needed now were pilots as short on caution as they were long on courage. And they certainly got these the moment they were handed over to Marine Aviation.

Colonel P. K. Smith, USMC, born ironically enough on December 7th, was the commander of SCAT'S fearless South Pacific island to island base-to-battlefield jumpers. "Damn the Zeros-full speed ahead!" might be a good paraphrase to describe him and his doughty crew. And full speed ahead SCAT went, to the Guadalcanal battlefield-on the trip in to Guadalcanal, loaded to the danger-point with such a restful cargo as gasoline, incendiary ammunition, bombs, torpedoes and other high explosives-flying unarmed and unprotected through skies filled with speedy Zeros and to whose slant-eyes SCAT'S bulging conformation presented very little identity difficulty. On the run out from Guadalcanal, the ever-present fear had a poignant touch to it, for the cargo then was made up in the main of seriously wounded, many of them stretcher cases in need of emergency treatment not available on the island. A chance Zero, and the ride was over.

"It was a job," Colonel Smith has related somewhere, "with very little future to it."

There are hundreds of marines, sailors, and soldiers alive and fighting today because of the skill and daring of those SCAT pilots who successfully eluded that chance Zero. The record of that battlefield-to-base hospitalization is a fabulous one-in seven months of continuous operation only one that didn't get home!

September 3, 1942, was the date that SCAT etched its name indelibly alongside Wake and Midway. In the grey dawn of August 9th, the Jap fleet had blasted and sunk off Savo Island the heavy Australian cruiser Canberra and our new heavy cruisers Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes. This disaster gave the Nips undisputed rule over the waters in and around Guadalcanal and seemed at the time to seal the fate of General Vandegrift's gallant marines at the moment fighting so desperately to hold what they had so dearly won. Rudyard Kipling notwithstanding, even marines can't fight very long without ammunition and bombs. Fighter planes without ammunition can't tackle Mitsibishis or Zeros-only SCAT it seems has the priority on that brand of lunacy-any more than dive bombers or torpedo planes without bombs or "fish" or ammunition can tackle enemy surface vessels. And with control of the waters around Guadalcanal gone, albeit temporarily, the only entrance and egress from that beleaguered island was by air, which was another way of saying by SCAT.

On the night of September 3rd, Colonel P. K. Smith, with Major General Geiger, the Commanding General of the First Marine Aircraft Wing, and members of his staff aboard-Brigadier General Woods, Lieutenant Colonel John C. Munn, Lieutenant Colonel Perry O. Parmalee, Major Kenneth H. Black-landed the first SCAT plane on Guadalcanal. This was the start and many more were to follow.

I don't know what were the feelings of our gallant marines, both on land and in the air, when they realized how much depended upon those big lumbering unarmed transports coming through skies filled with Zeros. Certainly there must have been many there who had visions of another Wake Island with another story of valiant expendables. Fighter pilots like John Smith and Bob Galer and dive-bombing pilots like Dick Mangrum-first aviation occupants of dearly-won Henderson field-must have been acutely pessimistic and alarmed. They knew only too well the realities of the situation. They knew it was one thing to have the feel of a good fast plane beneath you and plenty of fire power at your thumb tips-that way you could do business with the speedy Zero-but it was something quite different with SCAT'S big lumbering unarmed transports, loaded to the danger point with their explosive inflammable cargoes. They knew that, despite the Nip gunner's poor marksmanship, so tempting and huge a target as one of SCAT'S couriers could hardly be missed, and that usually only one stray slug was needed to send transport and contents exploding into nothing.

What our anxious marines and marine fliers evidently didn't reckon on however was the skill and resourcefulness of SCAT'S pilots. Or to put it another way, let's say fabulous John Smith of Fighting 223 didn't quite realize what P. K. Smith of SCAT had to offer. SCAT's pilots it would seem had everything. The only protection they had were foul weather, clouds, and a skill in practically skimming the ocean during flights. Contrary to all orthodox flying doctrine, Colonel P. K. Smith's doughty pilots liked nothing so much as "soupy" weather, and this despite the fact that any deviation from their "instrument" course might send them, together with their bombs, gasoline, and incendiary ammunition-or with a load of stretcher cases-crashing into one of the many mountainous islands. Or to dive into a hostile sea. Or to just sit there and explode if anything with a gun on it caught up with them.

No doubt most of their amazing skill and courage was born in the knowledge that so much depended upon them. They knew only too well that if their missions failed, the gallant marines on Guadalcanal were doomed and our first offensive thrust toward Tokyo would end in tragic failure. It was perhaps as dark an hour as the Marine Corps in its great familiarity with dark hours has ever faced: it was bitterly ironic by virtue of coming just about the time when consolidation of the heroic early accomplishments of our gallant marines-on the land and in the air-seemed in sight.

It was indeed a great responsibility. But SCAT measured up. What Mr. Churchill said about the R. A. F. could equally apply to SCAT-never indeed in Marine Corps history had so much depended upon so few, so ill-equipped. From that grey dawn of August 9th until the night of October 15th, when fighting Admiral Halsey's men, aided superbly by intrepid marine and navy fliers, blasted the Jap fleet, SCAT brought in the vitally needed and brought out the equally vitally needed-skimming the ocean and dodging from cloud to cloud to do it, literally coming through on a wing and a prayer.

They're still at it, a great team and a truly great leader.