He went to war at 22 with limited flying experience but dodged Zeros, knocked out bombers and won the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.
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Samuel Folsom, one of the last surviving Marine fighter pilots of World War II, who engaged in aerial dogfights and shot down two Japanese bombers in the horrific struggle for the strategic island of Guadalcanal at a crucial juncture in the Pacific war, died on Saturday in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He was 102.
Mr. Folsom’s son, Gerrit, said he died at the Village at Sherman Oaks, a retirement community.
In the vast undertaking to capture and hold Guadalcanal in the late summer and fall of 1942, Lieutenant Folsom was a 22-year-old aviator who had never flown at high altitude and had fired the wing guns of his Grumman F4F Wildcat only once, in a training exercise in California.
But he loved flying and, sent into the thick of air combat over Guadalcanal in the first major Allied land offensive since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he had two essential qualities for survival: guts and luck. His 40-pilot squadron battled Japanese Zeros that escorted the Imperial Navy’s cigar-shaped “Betty bombers,” the twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M attack planes that were his squadron’s prime targets.
During Lieutenant Folsom’s three months on the island, nearly half of his squadron’s pilots were killed or wounded. In dogfights, the faster, more maneuverable Zeros often riddled his plane with bullets. He was wounded twice by shrapnel and once by a bullet that gashed his leg. When he ran out of ammunition, he escaped by flying into clouds and circling back to his tiny airstrip, Henderson Field.
Lieutenant Folsom scored his first enemy kill in a dogfight with a Zero on Nov. 11. “The sky was filled with tumbling aircraft,” he recalled in an oral presentation in 2011 for the Veterans’ History Project of the Library of Congress. “A Zero burst into flames to my right. A Wildcat dove directly in front of me, trailing plumes of oil smoke. The pilot came out, his chute blossoming above him.”
“Diving from above,” he went on, “a Zero overshot and was suddenly in front of me. He had the speed advantage, although after drawing ahead a little, didn’t seem to know how to use it. I chased him out of the fight, following and firing as best I could at his wildly gyrating plane.” After more bursts of what Mr. Folsom called his own “rather poor shooting,” the Zero began smoking.
“I poured in the rest of my ammo and he went into a spiraling dive, disappearing into a cloud at about 3,000 feet, still heading earthward.”
No one could doubt the outcome. But Mr. Folsom, modest and scrupulous about his war reports, added: “Not having seen him explode or crash, that was not a confirmed victory — merely a ‘probable.’”
The next day was his most successful of the campaign. Flying at 20,000 feet with Wildcats on his wing, he spotted a group of Mitsubishi bombers far below, skimming the ocean surface for a torpedo attack on a flotilla of American ships in the channel between Guadalcanal and Savo Island.
“Over went our noses and down we went, vertically, in a screaming dive,” Mr. Folsom recalled. “The surface vessels were throwing up a tremendous barrage of ack-ack fire.” He leveled off just over the water, pulled in behind an enemy bomber and fired bursts from his six 50-caliber wing guns. The bomber’s tail gunner shot back. “The guns in that baby winked at me but never made a hit,” he said.
“Some of my slugs must have hit the pilot, for not 50 yards in front of me, and from about 10 feet off the surface, he skimmed in. There was a sudden lurch, followed by a cloud of spray and I was over him, headed for the next one. I followed the same tactics again, but this fellow didn’t fall such easy prey. As I came up astern, he began to skid from side to side.”
One of the bomber’s twin engines smoked, but it kept going. “Closing in again, I peppered him with the last of my ammo,” Mr. Folsom said. “This time I was rewarded by seeing him hit the water for keeps, right wing first. The plane catapulted into the sea.” He later learned that 24 Mitsubishi bombers and six Zeros had been shot down that day. The Americans had lost six planes and two pilots.
A month later, the Japanese abandoned efforts to retake Guadalcanal and, in February 1943, evacuated their remaining forces. When the battle was over, 1,600 Americans had been killed, 4,200 had been wounded and several thousand had succumbed to malaria and other diseases. Japan had lost more than 30,000 of its most experienced ground troops and fliers and a heavy toll in ships, planes and irreplaceable matériel.
Strategically, Guadalcanal marked the Allies’ transition from defensive to offensive operations in the Pacific, securing a base in the Solomon Islands for attacks on Japanese strongholds in Rabaul, Saipan and Iwo Jima as the noose closed around Japan’s home islands.
Lieutenant Folsom, who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross, went on to a distinguished military career, commanding night fighter squadrons in battles over Okinawa and in the Korean War. He was a high-altitude test pilot, served in the Office of Naval Operations in Washington and for two years was the assistant Naval attaché at the American Embassy in Norway. He retired from active service in 1958 as a lieutenant colonel.
Samuel Bruce Folsom Jr. was born in Quincy, Mass., on July 24, 1920, to Samuel and May Folsom. Samuel, who never used the “Jr.,” was adopted in infancy by an uncle and aunt, Frank and Florence Lindsey, and raised in Peabody, Mass., where he attended public schools and graduated from Peabody High School in 1938. A younger sister, May, and brother, Charles, were raised by their mother and other relatives in Schenectady, N.Y.
Samuel attended the Massachusetts Maritime Academy for two years and was commissioned an ensign. After serving on a Navy oiler in the Atlantic briefly, he acted on a longstanding desire to be a flier and obtained a transfer to flight training with the Marines. He graduated from flight school in January 1941 and was commissioned a second lieutenant.
For five months in Miramar, Calif., he was trained to fly F4F fighters, but there were only 20 of them for 80 trainees, and his flying time in F4F’s was only 25 hours before he was sent into action at Guadalcanal.
“At the time we shipped out, none of us second lieutenants had ever worn an oxygen mask, had probably never flown above 10 or 12 thousand feet,” he said. “Our experience was more than limited. It was almost nonexistent. But we went.”
In 1951, Mr. Folsom married Barbara Cole, a dance teacher, who survives him. In addition to her and their son, Gerrit, he is survived by their daughter, Lindsey Cole Folsom, and three grandchildren.
In 1958, Mr. Folsom joined Pan American World Airways, assisting the chairman, Juan Trippe, to develop helicopters and heliports in New York. He became the Hertz Corporation executive in charge of East Coast real estate in 1973.
Mr. Folsom lived for many years in Manhattan and was a volunteer at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the popular Midtown tourist destination on the Hudson.
He made headlines in 1998 when at 77 he entered a bank on the Upper West Side and found a robbery in progress. He ran out, alerted two police officers and helped them subdue the suspect, pinning his arm so the officers could handcuff him. The thief had simulated a gun in his pocket. In the struggle, some of the $12,000 in loot blew away on Broadway.
Mr. Folsom appeared on NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and was invited to a policemen’s ball by the actor Harvey Keitel.