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  • Writer's pictureWill Armstrong

Lt. Richard M. Nixon and SCAT


Lt. Richard M. Nixon (standing, second from left) and the SCAT Detachment on Bougainville, ca. February 1944. (National Archives)

Without a doubt, the most famous veteran of both MAG-25 and SCAT is the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon. This past Presidents Day weekend, several organizations featured Nixon in their coverage of presidents who served in wartime. The most prominent of these was a History Channel documentary titled "Presidents at War." Unfortunately, inaccuracies about Nixon's service abound. Even his most thorough biographers have contributed to the misinformation. Richard Nixon is a controversial figure, and for good reason, but his wartime service was, by all accounts, exemplary. To me, it seems impossible to fully comprehend the tragedy of Nixon without understanding this early chapter in his life. At the same time, his story is also important within the history of MAG-25 and SCAT. I began addressing the misinformation issue on social media, but over the past week the feedback I received from people interested in learning more led me to the conclusion that a more thorough summary of Nixon's service with SCAT was necessary. This inaugural blog entry is the result.


After joining the Navy in August 1942 and being disappointed with a Stateside posting in Ottumwa, Iowa, Nixon volunteered for overseas service. As biographers (and Nixon himself) have pointed out, this appeared to be at odds with his Quaker roots, but Nixon was eager to serve in a combat unit. On July 2, 1943, then-Lt.(j.g.) Nixon arrived at Headquarters Squadron, Marine Aircraft Group 25 (MAG-25) (Nixon had been assigned to Fleet Air Command, South Pacific, while in-transit). Just two days before he arrived, on June 30, Allied forces had invaded New Georgia in the Central Solomons, site of a forward Japanese air base, and the tempo of MAG-25's operations had noticeably increased due to its key role providing logistics for the operation.


MAG-25 was the nucleus of the SOPAC Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT), which was a joint Marine Corps-Navy-Army Air Forces logistics unit. "SOPAC" was the South Pacific Area, under the overall command of Admiral William Halsey, Jr. Most of SCAT's headquarters personnel, including Nixon, were drawn from Headquarters Squadron, MAG-25, to which they remained attached throughout their service with SCAT. Notably, while no Marine Corps veteran has yet served as president of the United States, Nixon is the only president to have served in a Marine Corps unit.


In July 1943, MAG-25 and SCAT still had their headquarters at Tontouta, New Caledonia, but SCAT operated detachments as far north as the Russell Islands. Nixon reported that his first assignment was at the satellite base of Noumea, New Caledonia, but that "[l]ike many assigned 'down the line', I wanted to get where the action was, and I spent a lot of my time trying to get a battle-station assignment." It would take time. Various biographies indicate that Guadalcanal, scene of fierce fighting just six months before but now firmly in American hands and a major logistics hub, was Nixon's next duty assignment.

Medical personnel place wounded men aboard a SCAT transport. (National Archives)

From July 2 to July 8, Nixon served as an Assistant SCAT Passenger Officer, responsible for helping to oversee passenger terminal operations. At the end of this brief assignment, Nixon became an Assistant SCAT Operations Officer. As the name suggests, operations officers were responsible for the general oversight of aircraft operations, which in SCAT involved the famous twin-engine Douglas R4D/C-47 transport (R4D in Marine Corps service, C-47 in Army Air Forces service). Their job included making cargo and passenger manifests for each aircraft, and overseeing the aircraft loading and unloading process. While the task may seem mundane, it was the heart of SCAT's operations.


With a limited supply of aircraft to cover the vast South Pacific Area, from Sydney to Auckland north to New Caledonia and Guadalcanal, the task of making sure that the highest priority cargo got to the front lines was a constant concern–and if it was aboard a SCAT plane, it was indeed priority cargo. Added to the challenge were the long flights over open ocean and the unpredictable weather, which meant that aircraft often carried extra fuel in large tanks within the cargo area. While often necessary, this decreased the amount of cargo and passengers that each plane could carry. It is not surprising that aircraft were frequently overloaded to meet mission requirements. Another concern, with increasing frequency as the battle for New Georgia intensified, was the ability of each aircraft arriving at forward airfields to evacuate wounded men. SCAT received many of the most seriously wounded, many of whom would likely have died if evacuated aboard slower watercraft. SCAT's ability to manage this system of aeromedical, cargo, mail, and passenger services across the entire theater was one of its signature accomplishments.


Continuing in his role as an operations officer, in October 1943 Nixon was promoted to lieutenant and placed in command as officer-in-charge of the SCAT detachment at Efate in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), a location south of the Solomons that by that point was generally considered far to the rear but played an important role in intratheater logistics. This was to be the first of four postings as officer-in-charge of a SCAT detachment, each of which generally included a Mail Division, Passenger Division, and Medical Division, each overseen by an officer, as well as clerks, cargo handlers, a teletype operator, and other support personnel. A detachment had no more than two dozen people assigned to it, a mix of Navy and Marine Corps officers and enlisted men, and there was one at each major airfield that SCAT flew into.


On December 9, 1943, Nixon departed Efate, and the next day took command of the SCAT detachment on Vella Lavella. By that time Vella Lavella, invaded toward the end of the New Georgia Campaign on August 15, was generally a rear area, but still within range of Japanese bombers. Japanese planes were still bombing the Allies' bases in the Central Solomons as late as February 1944. As home to the Marine Corps 1st Corps Medical Battalion, Vella Lavella was crucial to hospital operations in support of the Bougainville invasion.


Bougainville, the largest and one of the northernmost of the Solomon Islands, was key to the encirclement of the major Japanese naval and air bases at Rabaul and Kavieng. Japanese aircraft based at Bougainville continued to pose a threat to Allied operations in the Solomons, while bases on Bougainville would put Allied land-based fighters within striking distance of Rabaul itself. The 3rd Marine Division landed on November 1, carving out a beachhead upon which American forces would build three airfields: Torokina Point, the first to be completed, and the Piva Bomber and Piva Fighter fields slightly farther inland. On December 10, the day that Nixon took command of the Vella Lavella detachment, SCAT made its first landings at Torokina and began evacuating casualties.


On January 1, 1944, Nixon became officer-in-charge of the advance detachment on Bougainville. The detachment was initially located at the Torokina airfield, but later moved to the Piva complex. Nixon had wanted a "battle-station assignment," and Bougainville was the most dangerous assignment that he received. The island was still under Japanese control beyond the American perimeter, with the airfields within range of Japanese artillery and subjected to periodic air attacks:


Shortly after I arrived, the Japanese staged an assault. When it was over, we counted thirty-five shell holes within a hundred feet of the air raid bunker six of us had shared. Our tent had been completely destroyed.

Despite some close calls, no SCAT personnel were ever killed in action on the ground in the Solomons (at least one was killed in a motor vehicle accident, but the vast majority of SCAT's losses were aboard aircraft). Other units at the airfields did take casualties during the Japanese attacks, so the danger was very real.


Bougainville was a busy place, launching strikes against Rabaul as well as enemy forces on Bougainville itself, and soon also supporting new operations to the north in the Green Islands. Nixon's claim to fame was apparently not his administrative acumen, however, but his "Nick's Hamburger Stand," which he opened periodically "and served a free hamburger and a bottle of Australian beer to flight crews who probably had not tasted anything to remind them of home in many weeks." By his own account, he also gained some infamy as a poker player.


Nixon was still eager to see more eventful duty. He requested command of the pending SCAT advance detachment to be established at Green (Nissan) Island. Although some biographies suggest that Nixon participated in the invasion of the island in February 1944, that is not reflected in unit records, and Nixon's own account suggests that he arrived after the battle, likely on March 5 as recorded in the group rolls:


We landed in the bay in a PBY seaplane. The Japanese had already retreated, however, and the only danger came from a few straggling snipers and the ever- present giant centipedes.


Lt. Richard Nixon (right). (National Archives)

The invasion was indeed largely uneventful, with a small but determined Japanese detachment being overwhelmed by soldiers of the 3rd New Zealand Division. Nixon served as officer-in-charge of the SCAT advance detachment on Green Island beginning on March 5, 1944. Ironically, his posting at Green Island took him farther from the combat zone. On March 8, the Japanese launched their long-anticipated counterattack against the American perimeter on Bougainville, with shelling of the Piva airfields becoming so frequent that aircraft relied upon the older but more distant Torokina airfield instead, and many aircraft based at Piva were evacuated to Green Island. Still, Nixon experienced some of the war's horrors on Green:


The Seabees immediately went to work constructing an airstrip. A few days before it was completed, an Army B-29 [sic.; B-24] bomber that had been seriously damaged flying over Rabaul had to use it for a crash landing even though some of the Seabees' equipment was still standing on it. It was dusk, almost dark, and we all cheered as the plane came in on its belly. Then we watched in horror as it crashed head-on into a bulldozer and exploded. The carnage was terrible. I can still see the wedding ring on the charred hand of one of the crewmen when I carried his body from the twisted wreckage.


The aircraft crash that Nixon was probably writing of in his memoir: B-24J Liberator 42-73459, likely of the 307th Bombardment Group, damaged over Truk on March 29, 1944. This was the first day that the bomber strip on Green was in operation. Four killed, five wounded. (MAG-14 War History/National Archives)

On March 17, Nixon was detached from MAG-25 for temporary aviation duty with SCAT, at

which point he and his detachment strangely disappear from the group rolls (typically, SCAT personnel were kept on the rolls of either MAG-25 or the 403rd Troop Carrier Group). He recalled returning to the United States that July. Of SCAT's role in the Green Islands campaign, MAG-14, which oversaw operations on Green, reported that "too much cannot be said in praise of the excellent cooperation rendered in the face of all adversity, by SCAT - - South Pacific Combat Air Transport; for this unit arose to all emergencies with prompt and decisive action."


As a naval officer, Nixon was highly respected by many of his fellow MAG-25 veterans, regardless of their opinions of his later actions. Several sources, including the U.S. Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command, state that Nixon received a Navy Letter of Commendation for his service. He also shared the Navy Unit Commendation that SCAT received for "outstanding heroism in support of military operations in the forward areas of the South Pacific from December 10, 1942, to July 15, 1944." You can view a copy of that award in the "Documents" section of this web site.


Vice President Nixon at one of the first MAG-25 reunions. (MAG-25/SCAT Archives)

***


This information has been compiled from official unit records, particularly the muster rolls and war diaries of Headquarters Squadron 25, Marine Aircraft Group 25, from July 1943 through July 1944; the CINCPAC War Diary for March 1944; and the War History of Marine Aircraft Group 14. Nixon's account comes from RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).




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annajdreiling
03 במרץ 2019

Thank you so much for this great summary of Nixon's time with MAG-25. It's a fascinating part of his history, and it's certainly worth getting right! Also, as a side note, thank you for uploading the videos, too! They have been fascinating to watch!

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