Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa. By Ted Edwards. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018
Reviewed by Tim Coyle
The recent discovery of the wreck of the aircraft carrier USS ‘Lexington’, sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, revealed the physical remains of this gallant ship and crew and reminds us of its importance in the battle which was pivotal in the Pacific War and its significance to Australia. The battle, fought 4 to 8 May 1942, is commemorated annually in Australia, together with our US allies. Among the ghostly images in the ship was a Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter showing, in brilliant colour illuminated by the remotely operated vehicle’s powerful lights, four rising sun flags indicative of aerial victories against Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft by that plane and pilot.
One such pilot, the subject of this book, was Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa flying from the USS ‘Yorktown’, who shot down three Japanese Zero fighters and helped sink the Japanese aircraft carrier ‘Shoho’ in the battle. Of note was that these victories were accomplished in a Douglas SDB Dauntless dive bomber, considerably less manoeuvrable than the Zero.
The title ‘Seven at Santa Cruz’ refers to the seven Japanese aircraft dive and torpedo bombers which Vejtasa destroyed at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 26 October 1942. Flying a F4F Wildcat in Combat Air Patrol from the USS Enterprise he become an ‘ace in a day’ and, according to the author and other contemporary commentators, saved the ‘Enterprise’ – the last US carrier following the loss of ‘Lexington’, ‘Yorktown’ and ‘Hornet’. It was through ‘Enterprises’ survival that US forces on Guadalcanal were able to hold their tenuous occupation of the strategic island. For his actions on that day his squadron commander recommended Vejtasa for the Medal of Honor.
We follow Vejtasa from his early life in a working-class family, his flying training in 1939, his active service in World War II, as ‘air boss’ on the USS ‘Essex’ in the Korean War, staff and command posts in naval aircraft and weapons development through to his retirement as a captain. However, the book’s focal point is the two climactic days of 25 and 26 October 1942 which marked him as an exceptional naval aviator.
On 25 October Vejtasa and his squadron launched from Enterprise on what was a ‘wild goose chase’ to attack the Japanese four carrier group approaching Guadalcanal to strike Henderson Field. Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid was Commander Task Force 61 (CTF 61) which included ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Hornet’. When a PBY patrol aircraft reported the Japanese carriers 360 miles to the northwest Vice Admiral Halsey, Commander South Pacific, ordered TF61 to strike. The experienced ‘Hornet’ air group was designated the attacking force with ‘Enterprise’ as duty carrier to cover the rear. Despite the ordered duty carrier status, Kinkaid launched 12 SBD Dauntless dive bombers to search for the enemy force. Thirty minutes after the SDB launch, he further ordered the remainder of the ‘Enterprise’ air group away on the search and attack mission. The ‘Enterprise’ pilots were aghast at this apparently pointless decision and Vejtasa vehemently remonstrated with the flag staff, an action which was to follow him in his subsequent career.
One hour later another PBY reported the Japanese carrier group turning away however, Kincaid did not recall the air group as he would not break radio silence. In fact, he withdrew from the rendezvous point without advising his air group leaving the confused pilots, with the onset of evening and low fuel states, at a loss at what to do. They couldn’t raise the ship’s homing beacon and panic started to spread among the pilots. At this point Vejtasa had an inspiration when he recalled that, while he was flying a combat air patrol earlier that day, he had noted ‘Enterprise’ leaking oil from around the propeller shafts. Leading his colleagues at very low altitude, he switched on landing lights to search for the slick. In this he was successful and, finding the ship, the air group attempted to land on in darkness; most of the pilots were not night landing qualified. Eight aircraft were lost in the confusion.
Kincaid’s actions were never adequately explained according to Edwards; his after-action report to Halsey stating: ‘The ‘Enterprise’ attack group returned and was landed after dark with considerable difficulty as pilots were not qualified for night landings’.
This incident is just one of Vejtasa’s combat experiences detailed in the book which vividly describes the desperate battles both at Coral Sea and the Solomon Islands. The next day, 26 October, saw Vejtasa adding additional laurels to his previous day’s saving of the ‘Enterprise’ flyers by shooting down seven Japanese aircraft.
Australians are rightly grateful for the magnificent fighting record of the US Navy in blunting and then repulsing Japanese advances in the South Pacific then, with the exponential reinforcement of combat ships of all types, carrying the ‘island-hopping’ campaign to Japan and its eventual defeat. However, the book also discusses the questionable leadership of some officers, from Admiral Kinkaid down to squadron commanders. Although Vejtasa was recommended for the Medal of Honor at Santa Cruz, naval politics ‘down-graded’ this to the Navy Cross (he was to win four). The worthiness of combat awards are frequently emotive and Edwards makes a strong case for the disallowed award with the debate lasting late into Vejtasa’s life.
Vejtasa’s two-year deployment as the USS ‘Essex’ air boss in the Korean War reprised to some extent his Pacific War experience. Though not flying operationally he oversaw strike operations which were arguably as dangerous as those in the Pacific with heavy losses in personnel and aircraft. His subsequent developmental flying and command appointments profile US naval aviation in the 1950s and 60s culminating in his command of the aircraft carrier USS ‘Constellation’ in 1962-63.
Vejtasa retired in 1970 without making flag rank. Edwards opines that one of the reasons was his outspoken views, which probably began on 25 October 1942 when he angrily denounced the ‘wild goose chase’ he and his comrades endured.
‘Seven at Santa Cruz’ is an exciting tale told well. While some readers may question whether Vejtasa alone saved ‘Enterprise’ and, by extension, Guadalcanal through his magnificent defence of the ship his record is exceptional and valorous. We owe a great debt to him and his comrades.