Editor's note: It has come to our attention that Lt. Col. Sam Folsom is happily not the only surviving World War II Marine Corps pilot. Stay tuned to Military.com for a follow-up on this story.
Sam Folsom, born July 24, 1920, in Quincy, Massachusetts, was one of the first echelon of 17 Marine fighter pilots with Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 121 tasked with defending Guadalcanal. He is also one of the last living Marine Corps WWII combat pilots.
It was late 1941, while Folsom was attending a flight training program in Jacksonville, Florida, that the unthinkable happened.
“I was lying in my bunk in Florida,” Folsom recalled. “I turned on the radio and it blared out 'Pearl Harbor has been attacked,' so I did what any patriotic American would’ve done. I jumped to my feet, got dressed and ran to the door as fast as I could.”
Folsom completed training in 1942 and received orders to Miramar, California, where he checked into his new unit, VMF-122. Later, the squadron was combined with another to form VMF-121.
Folsom’s assigned fighter plane was a Grumman F4F Wildcat, which he trained in for months before his unit was sent overseas to New Caledonia briefly, before being sent to Guadalcanal in late 1942.
“I spent six or eight months on the west coast in a squadron with about 40 pilots and only eight or 10 planes so, as you can imagine, none of us got much training,” Folsom said.
Folsom arrived on the island on Oct. 8.
The first few days of combat were rough for Folsom. In training, the highest they had ever flown was roughly 10,000 feet. Folsom had fired his guns only once in a training exercise.
Then suddenly his unit was sent on a mission dispatched at 30,000 feet, where they found themselves above a Japanese formation of G4M Betty Bombers with an escort of fighter planes.
When they dove down to attack, Folsom lost control. After recovering and regaining control, he closed in on the bombers and pulled the trigger -- only to find out his guns wouldn’t fire. Due to the lack of flying experience at this altitude, the unit didn’t realize that lubricating the weapons before flying would freeze the lubricant at that altitude.
“I never remember being frightened,” he said. “Just mad as hell going through this with your life on the line and having my guns not firing.”
Folsom and the other pilots had to return to base, considering the conditions of their weapons.
Toward the end of the squadron’s tour, the pilots received more experience flying in support of combat operations than they ever did through their training.
Later, Folsom and his squadron found themselves above another bomber formation. The bombers had already attacked and were returning home when Folsom dove down and closed in on the two bombers.
“I closed in on two Japanese bombers, one of which was directly in my sights, and I shot him down,” Folsom said. “I pulled over to the side, and I shot down the other one. It was just like a training exercise.”
Eventually, Folsom was out of ammunition and flew back to base. The Japanese fighter planes escorting the bombers closed in on Folsom. He found himself in a dogfight without any means of defense. His plane was shot multiple times, but he still managed to escape and make it back to base.
Folsom said that wasn’t the only time he found himself in a dogfight without ammunition. On one occasion, he was attacked by approximately six Japanese fighter planes, which damaged his plane and wounded his left leg.
After his three-month tour in Guadalcanal, he was transferred to Samoa, ending his time with VMF-121.
During his time with VMF-121, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for his actions in Guadalcanal. In total, he shot down two Japanese Betty Bombers and one Japanese fighter plane.
He continued his career in the Marine Corps and served nearly 18 years, retiring in 1960 as a lieutenant colonel.