Col. Dean Caswell, Last of the WWII Combat Ace Pilots, Dies At 100
By Dan Doyle
The Veterans Site News
Originally published Dec. 2022
In yet another reality check for the “Greatest Generation,” it has come to my attention through a Marine Times article, that the last WWII flying Ace died at his home on September 21, 2022, some 80 years after he had joined the United States Marine Corps. Dean Caswell was 100 years old at the time of his death.
The video attached to this article is actually made from a telephone interview he participated in back in 2019 with the author of a book on WWII Ace pilots. It is accompanied with some photos of Col. Caswell, but what makes it most interesting is the quality of his mind and memory and the stories he tells about his experiences as a Marine Corps fighter pilot in both WWII and Korea.
Caswell joined the Marine Corps at the age of 20 in September of 1942. He had wanted to go to Canada to fly with the Canadian Air Force and to participate in the Battle of Britain, but his dad wouldn’t let him. He went to college in California and that is where he joined the Marines.
In the interview he is asked about his training as a pilot. The American pilot, especially that for the Marine/Navy pilots was much more rigorous than that for the British Royal Air Force and others, and the reasons for that are explained in his interview. Long story short, he had some 200 hours of flight time under his belt before he entered combat. That made much of the difference.
Caswell served aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bunker Hill in the South Pacific with Marine Fighter Squadron 221. He flew some 110 combat missions during his time and flew would fly some 10,000 hours. His plane was the Vought F4U Corsair.
As a baby boomer, born just after the end of the war, one of my hobbies was to build from kits some of the famous planes that fought in WWII. I had two favorites, the P-51 and the F4U Corsair. You will see a photo of him holding a model of that plane in the video.
Col. Caswell fought all over the Japanese held islands while with Marine Fighter Squadron 221 off of the carrier, USS Bunker Hill.
On one mission they came across a flight of some 25 Mitsubishi A6M Zeros and lit into them. On that occasion he shot down three of those planes. On another mission, he was credited with shooting down seven planes himself. On yet another mission, 36 Corsairs from his squadron took off of the Bunker Hill and became engaged in a massive aerial battle with the Japanese. Fifteen of his fellow pilots did not return. The 15 who did were credited with being aces.
During the Battle of Okinawa, the USS Bunker Hill was itself attacked and hit by two Japanese Kamikaze planes. Caswell and a fellow pilot were three decks below the flight deck when the attack occurred. The Bunker Hill had huge fans that were designed to bring fresh air below decks. When the Kamikazes hit they started huge, heavy oil fires up on the flight deck and some decks below. Those fans became deadly as they brought the heavy oil smoke from those fires down below decks.
The smoke was so thick that it contributed to most of the 800 deaths the Bunker Hill suffered on that occasion. Caswell and his fellow pilot were able to escape to the flight deck because they had oxygen masks. They then took part in the three day and three night effort to put out the fires.
The Bunker Hill ship would survive, barely. It was towed to a nearby island where one of the engines was repaired. It went back out to sea at a pace of about three miles an hour, laboriously making it to the repair yards in Seattle, WA. When they got there, they found that the dock workers were on strike.
For Caswell, this was a source of much anger. You will hear his response to that experience and that of many of the Bunker Hill survivors in the interview.
Eventually, the Bunker Hill was repaired and went back into service in the South Pacific.
Caswell tells many more stories of his experiences here in this interview. I think you will find it as engaging and interesting as I did. He tells them with clarity and you will get a real sense of his character. At one point he says, “The war was over and I felt sorry for the guys I had to kill”.
Col. Dean Caswell stayed in the Marine Corps after WWII and would fly in combat missions again in the Korean War. You will hear some of those experiences here too. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1968 after a distinguished 26-year career. During his service in two wars he would receive among many awards: a Silver Star, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses with three gold stars, and a Congressional Gold Medal.
The Veterans Site expresses its condolences to Col. Dean Caswell’s family. He was one of this nations greatest fighter pilots, a man of skill, integrity, courage, and dedication to duty.
Bravo Zulu and Semper Fidelis, good Marine. OooRah!