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  • Writer's pictureWill Armstrong

"P.K." Smith, MAG-25/SCAT's First Commanding Officer

Perry Kenneth “P.K.” Smith was born on December 7, 1902, and grew up in Elmira, New York. He enlisted in the Navy on May 2, 1919, having not yet turned 17.[1] The next year he passed the U.S. Naval Academy entrance examination, and entered the academy on July 6, 1920.[2] After graduating with the Class of 1924 and accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Smith was briefly assigned to the Marine Barracks at the Philadelphia Navy Yard before attending The Basic School (TBS) at Quantico.[3]

The Lucky Bag, 1924

Smith’s first assignment out of TBS in July 1925 was the 10th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit that still serves in 2019.[4] Smith served with the 13th Battery, 1st Battalion, equipped with the French-designed 75mm field gun M1897. During February 1926, Smith was temporarily attached to Group Headquarters, First Aviation Group at Quantico for instruction as an aerial observer.[5]


In October 1926, at the request of the Postmaster General, the Secretary of the Navy dispatched 2,500 Marines for mail guard duty in response to a rash of mail thefts.[6] The 10th Marines performed guard duty in the Midwest, with the 13th Battery posted to Kansas City, Missouri. Smith served at several locations, and at times his duties permitted him to travel frequently between cities. He was detached to the 11th Battery in Cleveland in October, where he served as executive officer, and placed in command of the regiment’s Indianapolis Detail in January 1927.[7]


Mail guard duty proved uneventful, but Smith’s service career soon took a more exciting turn. Chiang Kai-Shek’s ongoing military campaign to reunify China, stripping power from various warlords, was causing concern for the safety of foreign interests. As the republican government exerted control over Shanghai, the U.S. and other Western governments were especially concerned for the Anglo-American administered Shanghai International Settlement, which many Chinese Nationalists resented as a symbol of foreign interference. Throughout 1927 the United States sent several groups of Marines to bolster security in China, drawing strength from the same units that had comprised the Mail Guard Detachments.[8]


Smith rejoined the 13th Battery, which returned to Quantico in February 1927.[9] On April 1, he was reassigned to the 6th Battery, now part of the China Composite Expeditionary Force, which moved by rail from Quantico to San Diego beginning on April 6. Due to a shortage of naval transports, Smith and his unit crossed the Pacific in relative comfort aboard the Dollar Line’s SS President Grant, arriving in Olongapo in the Philippines on May 5.[10] The transport USS Chaumont (AP-5) took over for the last leg of the voyage, arriving in Shanghai on May 20.

RAdm Mark Bristol and Brig.Gen. Smedley Butler (left of center) inspect a polished field piece of the 10th Marines at Tientsin. (USMC)

Encamped at the port city of Tientsin (Tianjin), southeast of Peking/Beijing, the 10th Marines put on a polished display of force but saw no fighting. Smith remained in Tientsin until December 16, 1927, when he boarded the fleet oiler USS Pecos (AO-6) bound for Shanghai.[11] In Shanghai he again boarded the Chaumont, departing China on January 7, 1928, and arriving in San Francisco on February 28.[12]


Smith returned to Quantico, where he soon began training as a naval aviator. He was assigned to Marine Utility Squadron 6 (VJ-6M) from May 15 to June 26, 1928, and then sent to Naval Air Station Pensacola to continue his training.[13] Records indicate that he received his “Wings of Gold” in May 1929.


Smith’s first assignment as a naval aviator was Marine Observation Squadron 6 (VO-6M) at Quantico, from July 23 to August 4, 1929.[14] VO-6M operated a variety of aircraft types, including Curtiss OC Falcons and N2C Fledglings and Vought O2U Corsairs.[15] From August 5 to September 15, 1929, Smith served with VF-4M, primarily a Curtiss F6C Hawk unit, also based at Quantico. He returned to VO-6M on September 16, remaining with that squadron until December 4.[16]

Loening OL of VP-3M on Guam. (U.S. Navy)

In December 1929, Smith was assigned to Marine Patrol Squadron 3 (VP-3M), flying Loening OL amphibians out of Samay, Guam. He and his family sailed to San Francisco from Brooklyn aboard the USAT Chateau Thierry (AP-31), then boarded the USS Chaumont for the voyage across the Pacific. They arrived at Guam on February 1, 1930. Smith flew with VP-3M for nearly 13 months. While on Guam, he received his commission as a first lieutenant, with rank from July 23, 1929.[17]


Vought Corsairs of VS-14M fly near USS Saratoga. (National Archives)

In May 1931, Smith returned to NAS Pensacola as an instructor, leaving Guam aboard the Chaumont in February.[18] He remained at Pensacola until June 1933, when he reported for duty with VS-14M in San Diego, assigned to the USS Saratoga (CV-3).[19] VS-14M was equipped with Vought SU Corsair biplanes. Smith flew with the squadron until November 1934. For most of his time there, the squadron was based ashore at San Diego. In April 1934, however, the Saratoga departed for the Caribbean to participate in Fleet Problem XV. After accompanying the Saratoga to New York, VS-14M was based ashore at Norfolk while administratively attached to the USS Langley (CV-1) from June to October 1934. In October, the Langley with VS-14M embarked sailed for San Diego.[20]


On November 15, 1934, Smith was assigned to Marine Observation Squadron 8 (VO-8M), but fifteen days later was reassigned to Marine Utility Squadron 7 (VJ-7M), both units being based at San Diego.[21] He was moved back and forth between these squadrons several times. VJ-7M, like other Marine utility units, operated a mix of aircraft types. This was his first experience with a utility unit as a naval aviator, and he served several stints as executive officer.[22]


From April 21 to June 11, Smith was again briefly reassigned to VO-8M, then returned to VJ-7M for several weeks.[23] He then served with VO-8M from July 8, 1935 to June 6, 1936. In VO-8M he again served time as executive officer. He received an interim commission as captain on September 4, 1935, and received a regular commission on February 14, 1936, with rank from July 27, 1935. His last six months with VO-8M were spent aboard the Saratoga, participating in Fleet Problem XVII in the Panama Canal Zone. Scouting and observation aircraft were key elements of the exercise. Unfortunately, Saratoga was “sunk” by the opposing force, to the chagrin of one Capt. William Halsey.[24]


In June 1936, Capt. Smith was detached for further aviation instruction at Quantico, joining Headquarters Squadron 1M, Aircraft One, Fleet Marine Force.[25] At times during this instruction he was attached to Service Squadron 1M, also based at Quantico.[26] On May 29, 1937, Smith was assigned to Marine Corps Headquarters at the Navy Department in Washington, DC, for duty with the Material Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics.[27]


Smith’s desk job at BuAer was interrupted with relative frequency for temporary aviation duty, ferrying aircraft across the country. On one of those flights, Smith had an experience that would foreshadow SCAT missions in the South Pacific. On June 28, 1938, Smith was ferrying a Northrop BT-1 dive bomber from San Diego to Norfolk when a series of summer storms forced him off course. He landed at Bacadéhuachi, Sonora, some 100 miles south of the Mexico border, missing a scheduled stop in Tucson. With the weather clear, the next day he continued on to Douglas, Arizona, arriving the afternoon of June 29. In the interim, however, Smith and his passenger had been reported missing, and a massive search by 42 aircraft was launched from Naval Air Station North Island.[28] The story was picked up by the Associated Press and made national news: “’It was an interesting experience’, Smith said. ‘Everyone was nice to us. We had no trouble at all. The town had no hotel but we found a room in a private home’.”[29] All was well in the end, but the mix of unpredictable weather and a limited communications network would have more dire consequences elsewhere.


Smith received a promotion to major on May 14, 1940, with rank from August 14, 1939. On June 27, 1940, he joined Base Air Detachment One (BAD-1) at Quantico, where he was enrolled in further advanced coursework. On January 31, 1941, he was assigned executive officer of VMJ-2 at Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, Oahu. He took command of the squadron on April 15, with Capt. William A. Willis as his executive officer. Willis would eventually be one of Smith’s successors in command of MAG-25. On July 1, 1941, VMJ-2 was redesignated VMJ-252. Smith was in command of VMJ-252 when the Japanese attacked Oahu on December 7, 1941, killing Sgt. Carlo Micheletto, wounding two others, and destroying several of the squadron's aircraft on the ground.[30]

Lt.Col. P.K. Smith, 1942. (National Archives)

In March 1942, during the rapid buildup of U.S. naval aviation, Smith was assigned to newly established VMJ-253. He received command of the squadron on April 27. Although a new unit, VMJ-253 was built around an experienced group of flyers, many of whom were reservists with high hours logged flying for major airlines. Smith received the rank of lieutenant colonel on May 18, with rank from May 8.[31] On June 1, he received command of VMJ-253’s newly established parent unit, Marine Air Group 25 (MAG-25).[32]


The rapidly deteriorating situation on Guadalcanal made MAG-25’s deployment urgent. The situation was considered sensitive enough that the forward echelon’s departure from San Diego on August 23 was deemed a classified mission, its details initially concealed from unit records.[33] The group established its headquarters at Tontouta in New Caledonia, and Smith personally led the group’s first mission to Guadalcanal on September 3. Aboard Smith’s aircraft was Maj. Gen. Roy S. Geiger, commander of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, who would lead the “Cactus Air Force” on Guadalcanal.

MAG-25 R4D landing on Guadalcanal (National Archives)

The role of MAG-25 and SCAT at Guadalcanal cemented the groups’ reputation, among combatants at least. While SCAT never made headlines back home, it was famous in-theater. The wartime book Flying Leathernecks (full of apocryphal anecdotes and a good dose of propaganda) quoted Smith’s philosophy as “Hell with the weather, hell with the schedules, get the supplies through and let the devil collect his dues.”[34] Perhaps none of the group’s feats were as recognized as the airlift of aviation gasoline to the Cactus Air Force during October, when other sources of supply were not available. The fuel kept the island’s aerial defenders from being grounded during a critical period.


Smith knew that his group had been fortunate during the first months of the Guadalcanal Campaign, despite the painful loss of Maj. Walter Kimball and his crew in a crash at Tontouta. There had been plenty of close calls, and before the campaign drew to a close two more MAG-25/SCAT aircraft would be lost with their crews. The men of MAG-25 had taken to calling themselves the “Gentlemen from Monte Carlo” in recognition of the risks they took. On November 10, 1942, Smith spoke with International News Service war correspondent Robert Brumby:


“We’ve been mighty lucky so far,” Col. Smith of Rochester, N.Y., told us with a wry smile. “Our motto is, ‘In Clouds We Trust,’ and we hope it keeps working for us in the right direction.”


“We pray for bad weather,” Col. Smith said, as his executive, Col. W.F. Marshall of Minneapolis, Minn., nodded agreement. What Col. Smith did not say, however, was the fact that his boys fly blind over mountain tops and uncharted sea.[35]


The weather was a double-edged sword. While cloud cover aided in concealment, storms popped up frequently and without warning, especially in the wetter months of late spring, summer, and early fall (October-April) and the concurrent cyclone season. With inadequate weather forecasting, aircrews could quickly find themselves in weather whose dangers far outweighed its concealment value. The R4D was unpressurized, and could not fly as high above the weather as pilots often do today.

MAG-25 R4D on Guadalcanal. (National Archives)

VAdm. Aubrey Fitch ordered the creation of SCAT on November 24, 1942. The following week, on December 2, SCAT was established with Smith as its commanding officer, a position he held concurrently with his command of MAG-25. By the time Guadalcanal was secured, SCAT was firmly established as the South Pacific’s de facto intratheater airline and air ambulance service. On April 19, 1943, Smith was promoted to colonel with rank from November 5, 1942.[36]


Under Smith’s command, Marine Air Group 25 and its attached USAAF component, the 13th Troop Carrier Squadron, received a Presidential Unit Citation as part of the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced) at Guadalcanal. Smith’s leadership of SCAT was also reflected in the Navy Unit Commendation awarded the unit for “outstanding heroism in support of military operations in the forward areas of the South Pacific from December 10, 1942, to July 15, 1944.”


Smith personally received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal “for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service” in 1943:

Colonel Smith instituted flights to Guadalcanal in August [sic] 1942 when the airfield was under heavy siege, set up his own schools for the training of personnel, and evacuated casualties to base hospitals. Undeterred by darkness and tropical squalls, his vital air transport contributed materially to the defense of Guadalcanal.[37]


Smith also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, “for heroism and extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as Commanding Officer, Marine Air Group TWENTY-FIVE,” as well as the Bronze Star and at least one Air Medal.


On July 10, 1943, Col. Smith handed off command of MAG-25 and SCAT to his longtime executive officer, Lt.Col. W. Fiske Marshall.[38] Smith joined the headquarters staff of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, then played a key role in the establishment and training of MAG-61, a medium bomber unit flying the North American PBJ Mitchell.[39]

PBJ Mitchells of MAG-61 over Emirau. (U.S. Navy)

Smith took command of MAG-61 in October 1943 and led the group overseas to the South Pacific in July 1944. MAG-61 was predominantly engaged in raids against Japanese bases in New Britain, particularly the bypassed fortresses of Rabaul and Kavieng, as well as Japanese shipping. Units of MAG-61 also participated in the Philippines Campaign and actions in the Bonin and Marshall Islands. Smith commanded the unit until June 20, 1945, performing dual duties as Commander Aircraft Emirau while based on that island.[40]


Smith then returned to the United States, again serving on the headquarters staff of Marine Fleet Air West Coast, and shortly thereafter assigned to Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, DC, and Arlington, Virginia.[41] In the years following World War II, Smith led the G1 Section (Personnel) of the office’s Division of Aviation. In June 1948, he returned to the field as chief of staff of MAG-24 on Guam.[42] He received command of MAG-24 in April 1949.[43] In July 1949, he took command of MAG-15, based in Edenton, North Carolina.[44] In August 1950, with the Korean War underway, Smith joined the staff of Headquarters Squadron, Air, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, serving time as chief of staff and acting commander.[45]

Douglas R5D of VMR-152, MAG-25, at Itami, Japan. (National Archives)

On July 1, 1952, Smith returned as commanding officer of MAG-25, now responsible for aerial logistics support of the 1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing both Stateside and in Korea, with forward detachments in Hawaii and Japan. Most of Smith’s duties were Stateside at El Toro, but on at least one occasion he saw forward duty attached to Sub-Unit 2 of VMR-152 at Itami, Japan. Smith was detached from MAG-25 on

June 2, 1953.[46]


Smith’s last assignment was a return to Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.[47] Smith retired from the Marine Corps on June 30, 1954, with the rank of brigadier general. He died in 1974 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Brig.Gen. "P.K." Smith (center) at an early MAG-25 reunion. (MAG-25/SCAT)

***

[1] “Perry Smith Safe After Air Drama,” Elmira Star-Gazette, July 2, 1938, p. 2; Veterans Administration, Beneficiary Identification and Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File.


[2] “Perry Smith Safe After Air Drama,” Elmira Star-Gazette; Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, January 1, 1921 (Washington: GPO, 1921), p. 254.


[3] Muster Roll, 45th Company, 3rd Battalion, Fifth Regiment, Fourth Brigade, U.S. Marine Corps, July 1924; Muster Rolls, Barracks Detachment, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January – April 1925; Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, July 1, 1926 (Washington: GPO, 1926), p. 78.


[4] Muster Rolls, Thirteenth Battery, 1st Battalion, Tenth Regiment, July 1925 – April 1926.


[5] Muster Roll, Group Headquarters, First Aviation Group, Marine Base Quantico, Virginia, February 1926.


[6] David N. Buckner, A Brief History of the 10th Marines (Washington, DC: GPO, 1981), pp. 33-34.


[7] Muster Roll, 13th Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Regiment, Marine Postal Guard Detachment, Kansas City, Missouri, October 1926; Muster Rolls, 11th Battery, 10th Regiment, Marine Postal Guard, Cleveland, Ohio, October – December 1926; Muster Roll, Service Battery, Tenth Regiment, Mail Guard Detachment, Cincinnati, Ohio, January 1927.


[8] David N. Buckner, A Brief History of the 10th Marines (Washington, DC: GPO, 1981), pp. 34-38.


[9] Muster Rolls, 13th Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Regiment, February – March 1927.


[10] Muster Roll, Sixth Battery, First Battalion, Tenth Regiment, China Composite Expeditionary Force, on board the S.S. President “Grant,” April 1927.


[11] Muster Roll, Sixth Battery, First Battalion, Tenth Regiment, Artillery, Tientsin, China, August 1927.


[12] Muster Roll, Marine Corps Schools Detachment, Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, March 1928.


[13] Muster Rolls, Utility Squadron 6-M, May – June 1928; Muster Rolls, Aviators and Student Naval Aviators, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, June 1928 – June 1929.


[14] Muster Rolls, Observation Squadron 6-M, July – August 1929.


[15] John M. Elliott, Marine Aviation at Quantico 1918-1941 (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2012), pp. 67-73.


[16] Muster Rolls, Fighter Squadron 4-M, Aircraft, August – September 1929; Muster Rolls, Observation Squadron 6-M, September – December 1929.


[17] Muster Rolls, Patrol Squadron 3-M, Sumay, Guam, February 1930 – February 1931.


[18] Muster Roll, Aviators and Student Naval Aviators, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, May 1931.


[19] Muster Roll, Aviators and Student Naval Aviators, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, June 1933.


[20] Muster Rolls, Scouting Squadron 14-M, June 1933 – November 1934.


[21] Muster Roll, Observation Squadron 8-M, November 1934; Muster Roll, Utility Squadron 7-M, December 1934.


[22] Muster Rolls, Utility Squadron 7-M, January – April and June – July 1935.


[23] Muster Rolls, Observation Squadron 8-M, April – June 1935; Muster Rolls, Utility Squadron 7-M, June – July 1935.


[24] Muster Roll, Observation Squadron 8-M, July 1935 – June 1936.


[25] Muster Rolls, Headquarters Squadron 1-M, July – September 1936.


[26] Muster Roll, Service Squadron 1-M, April 1937.


[27] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 1-M, May 1937; Muster Roll, Miscellaneous Roll, Washington [DC], June 1937.


[28] “Perry Smith Safe After Air Drama,” Elmira Star-Gazette, July 2, 1938, p. 2; “Marine Flier Reported Safe,” Reno Evening Gazette, June 30, 1938, p. 7.


[29] “Marine Flier Reported Safe,” Reno Evening Gazette.


[30] Muster Rolls, Base Air Detachment One, June 1940 – January 1941; Muster Rolls, Marine Utility Squadron 2, January – June 1941; Muster Rolls, Marine Utility Squadron 252, July – December 1941.


[31] Muster Rolls, Headquarters Squadron 25, Marine Air Group 25, March – May 1942.


[32] Muster Roll, Headquarters and Service Squadron 25, Marine Air Group 25, June 1942.


[33] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 25, Marine Air Group 25, August 1942.


[34] Richard G. Hubler and John A. Dechant, Flying Leathernecks: The Complete Record of Marine Corps Aviation in Action 1941-1944 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1944), pp. 158-159.


[35] Robert Brumby, “The Gentlemen From Monte Carlo Play Vital Roles in Our Success at Gualdalcanal [sic],” Albuquerque Journal, December 1, 1942, p. 6.


[36] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 25, Marine Air Group 25, April 1943; Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy, NAVPERS 15,018, 1 January 1955 (Washington: GPO, 1955), p. 698.


[37] Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 320, November 1943.


[38] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 25, Marine Air Group 25, July 1943.


[39] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron Three, Third Marine Aircraft Wing, Fleet Marine Force, Cherry Point, North Carolina, October 1943; Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 61, Marine Air Group 61, October 1943.


[40] Muster Rolls, Headquarters Squadron 61, Marine Air Group 61, January 1944 – June 1945; War Diaries, Marine Air Group 61, June 1944 – June 1945.


[41] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron, Marine Fleet Air West Coast, October 1945; Muster Rolls, Co “A”, HqBn, HQMC, October 1945 – April 1948.


[42] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 24, Marine Air Group 24, June 1948.


[43] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 24, Marine Air Group 24, April 1949.


[44] Muster Rolls, Headquarters Squadron 15, MAG-15, July 1949 – July 1950.


[45] Muster Roll, Headquarters Squadron 15, MAG-15, 22 July 1950; “Korea Decorations Given Four Southland Widows,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1951, p. 10; “Silver Star Posthumously Awarded To Husband of Irvine School Teacher,” Tustin News, February 22, 1952, p. 1.


[46] Muster Rolls, HqSq MAG-25, AirFMFPac, July 1952 – June 1953; Muster Rolls, Sub-Unit 2, VMR-152, MAG-25, AirFMFPac, 3 April 1953 and 5 April 1953.


[47] Muster Rolls, C Company, Headquarters Battalion, HQMC, June 1953 – June 1954.

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