The local community had an opportunity to meet a true hero when one of the last surviving World War II Marine Corps ace pilots spoke to a crowd Oct. 4 at the Del Mar Hilton.
Retired U.S. Marine Col. Dean Caswell shared his story as part of a speaker series by the San Dieguito American Legion Post 416.
“We have an unspeakable pleasure to have one of the great American heroes in our midst,” said Post 416 Commander Steve Lewandowski as he introduced the colonel. “The stories that this man has to tell are unbelievable. He truly is a great American hero.”
“I’m honored, myself, to be here, to talk to you and to hear your stories, too,” the colonel said in response. “It’s quite a privilege for me.”
The 93-year-old, who is also a former Blue Angel pilot, talked about his military experience, explaining how he served in Japan during WWII. He fought the Japanese over the Pacific and provided air support to troops in Okinawa.
“The young need to know our history,” he said.
Caswell joined the Marine Corps two weeks before the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. With two years of college, he requested flight training and was eligible.
He remembered the comments his instructor wrote in his first flight log.
“He wrote, ‘He sure tries hard, but he’s very uncoordinated,’” Caswell said with a laugh.
Despite the shaky start, Caswell soloed after three hours of instruction and continued on to train as a fighter pilot in Santa Barbara.
In 1944, Caswell joined Fast Carrier Task Group 58. Led by Admiral Marc Mitscher at Ulithi in the Caroline Islands, Caswell said the task group comprised 800 ships, including 14 big carriers, and numerous smaller carriers, battleships and supply ships. Their mission was to cripple Japanese air power and provide support in the 1945 battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“I was a part of that,” Caswell said.
His first aerial combat was at 28,000 feet over Tokyo.
“I didn’t really know where I was, and I wasn’t getting good oxygen, so it wasn’t making me feel very good,” Caswell said. “Suddenly, a Japanese fighter appeared above me. I did not know they could fly higher than we could. I did not know that they had superchargers, but they did. That airplane went straight down, and I never saw him again.
“By the time the combat was over, I had shot at everything I could shoot at. I didn’t hit a thing — I didn’t know where I was. When I got back to the carrier, the ceiling was 300 feet, with snow. That was my first carrier landing in the winter.”
For nine months, the Marine fighter pilot flew missions from the USS Bunker Hill.
“Task Force 58 attempted to kill every Japanese airplane they could find,” he said.
“The theory was if they could destroy Japanese air power, then we could launch attacks from Okinawa into the homeland, and hopefully, win the war. The Japanese were not going to surrender.”
Caswell became an ace for shooting down seven confirmed enemy aircraft and destroying 25 to 30 planes on the ground — and never once receiving a bullet hole in his Corsair aircraft.
“My plane was famous,” Caswell said.
But it wasn’t easy.
At 23, the 6-foot-1 Caswell weighed 185 pounds. In those nine months, he lost 43 pounds.
“When it was over and I was still alive, I weighed 142 pounds,” he recalled. “Nine months took that.”
Caswell went on to serve the country for more than 30 years, flying in three wars, including WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with three Gold Stars, and the Air Medal with five Gold Stars.
He details his experiences in his memoir, “My Taking Flight.”
“There are many stories,” he said.