R4D DAKOTA & F4U-1 CORSAIR PILOT
VMJ-253 & VMF-122
Technical Sergeant Thomas Efstathiou USMC was born on May 22, 1918, in Bronx New York. He was the son of the Greek immigrant couple, John and Mary Efstathiou who also had one more son, George. Thomas was raised within the Greek community and according to his military file, he spoke Greek very well. After school, he worked in Steel Construction as a Power Shearer. He enlisted as a private in the USMC recruiting station in New York on June 20, 1938, to serve for a 4-year period. Until 1941 when he extends his enlistment for three more years he served as a metalsmith in various USMC Squadrons including VMF-1 and VMS-1 and was promoted first a Corporal (10/06/1940) and then as a Sergeant (03/06/1941). He applied for naval aviator training and after successfully passing a written examination to determine his education status on June 9, 1941, he joined NAS Pensacola on November 22, 1941, entering the 11B-41P Class. He was designated as a Naval Aviation Pilot of the USMC, on May 7, 1942, specializing in Patrol type airplanes and soon after joined the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing before he was posted to Marine Utility Squadron VMJ-253 on July 4, 1942, having already been promoted to Staff Sergeant on June 3, 1942. On August 30, 1942, he embarked aboard US Troop Transport SS PRESIDENT MONROE in San Diego and the next day sailed for Noumea, New Caledonia. While at Sea he was promoted once more to Technical Sergeant on September 9, 1942. He arrived at his destination on September 23. Five days later he took a flight to Guadalcanal and from then on, he flew operationally over the Solomons Islands area where he logged 62 flights and 222 flight hours a total of 481 hours till that time. He flew as Co-pilot in R4D-1 airplanes, the Navy version of the famous C-47 widely known as the Dakota transferring men and equipment to and from the front. Serving in Guadalcanal and watching the struggle of the USMC, USN, and USAAF fighter and bomber squadrons in Henderson Field, against the Japanese raiders he decided to apply for fighter training, transferring to the Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-122 of Marine Air Group 22, in Espiritu Santo, on April 22, 1943, led by none other than the soon to be famous and Medal of Honor holder, Major Gregory Boyington. The Squadron replaced their old F4F-4 Wildcats just a few days before and was transitioning to the early variant of the F4U Corsair fighter, the F4U-1. During those days VMF-122 took its operational training on the Corsair while keep flying Combat Air Patrols and it’s strange how Thomas was able to be trained not just in another airplane but in a fighter which needs a totally different approach in the learning curve especially in the combat aspect and most important requires time. A luxury that the Marines didn’t have. Efstathiou had almost one month to be ready for the next combat operation of the VMF-122.
On June 12 the Squadron arrived in Guadalcanal and the Japanese welcomed them with a raid the next day. On June 14 VMF-122 flew its first combat missions in the area, flying a bombing and escort-strafing sortie to Vila, followed by two patrols the next day. On June 16, 1943, a sizable Japanese force appeared on Guadalcanal radar scopes, which consisted of two dozen No. 582 Ku D3A2 Val dive-bombers and sixteen escorting Zeros from the same unit. The force was further supported by two separate formations of two dozen No. 204 Kokutai and thirty No. 251 Kokutai Zeros, making a total of 92 aircraft. Lieutenant-Commander Shindo Saburo led the composite fighter contingent, which included the dive-bombers and the escorting Zeros. The two trailing Zero formations flew slightly above and behind the dive-bombers, using their tried and tested tactics. As they approached Guadalcanal, they flew between Savo Island and Cape Esperance, maintaining a height of around 25,000 feet, which was the effective service ceiling for the fully loaded Vals. The Americans first thought that the Japanese intended to attack airfields and ground installations, given the relatively few USN ships in the harbor compared to previous months. Fighter Direction then dispatched a total of 104 USAAF, USN, USMC, and RNZAF fighters to different locations, prepared for any contingency. Fighter formations were stacked at Russells, Cape Esperance, Tulagi, and Henderson Field, with additional fighter reserves placed to guard shipping anchorages. It was expected to be a massive fight. VMF-122 Corsairs were scrambled, and Technical Sergeant Thomas Efstathiou flying the F4U-1, BuNo.023332, was bounced and shot down cleanly by another Zero, while Lieutenant EE Shifflett claimed a Zero in the same encounter. During the 45-minute close combat, American and RNZAF fighters inflicted significant losses on the Japanese, but the actual numbers were nowhere near what was claimed. AA fire, both land-based and from ships, supplemented the air combat as was typical in Guadalcanal battles at this stage of the Pacific War. The total US claims of downed Japanese aircraft bordered on the fanciful, with 79 aircraft claimed to be downed in air combat and 28 to AA fire (all types). Only ten Vals and fourteen Zeros were brought down during aerial combat, with three more Vals taken down by ship-borne AA, for a total loss of 27 Japanese aircraft. The Allied fighters, on the other hand, over-claimed by a factor of more than six to one. Japanese claims were even more exaggerated. Although six US fighters were lost, only two fell in combat, one of them being Technical Sergeant Thomas Efstathiou. The other four losses were due to mid-air collisions, which was concerning. The Greek American pilot was considered missing in action and for a long time his family hoped that he was taken as a prisoner of war until finally declared dead in 1945. Efstathiou was awarded posthumously with the Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon with a star, the American Defense Service Medal with Base clasp for his service in the Virgin Islands, and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.
Thomas Efstathiou identity card photo, with his serial number visible below (Thomas Efstathiou Officer Military File)
A refrigerated truck loads perishable items aboard an R4D in January 1944. Thomas flew with the VMJ-253 R4Ds, the Navy version of the C-47 Dakota, flying missions over the Solomons before transferring to fighters and the venerable Corsair. (National Archives via https://www.marineairgroup25.com/)
A6M3 Model 22s of the 251st Kokutai heading out on a patrol from Rabaul, May 1943. The Greek American pilot would fall the next month from the guns of the Zeros either of the 251st Kokotai or the 202nd Kokutai, in a big dogfight in which USN, USMC, USAAF, and RNZAF fighters took part. (Hajime Yoshida via Zero Fighter Pilots Facebook Community)
TSgt Thomas Efstathiou flew an early model of the famous F4U Corsair with a birdcage canopy while flying with VMF-122 over Guadalcanal. Although his last flight was in F4U-1, BuNo.023332, we don't know Corsair's identification number. Unfortunately, photos from VMF-122's early service are rare. However, we have two photos above that show us a representative model. The photo on the left, White 82, is of 2Lt Harry S Huidekoper, USMCR of VMF-213, taken around September 1943. It's a former VMF-122 fighter with 'George' nose art and the VMF-122 'Bulldog' insignia under the canopy. On the right, 2nd Lt. Virgil G. Ray poses inside the cockpit of his Corsair, also with the 'Bulldog' insignia, which indicates that it was a common practice for all the Squadron fighters unless both photos depict the same Corsair. (Copyright Gaetan Marie - Photos by A.Ray via WW2aircraft.net Forums)
Thomas Efstathiou OMPF
Pacific Adversaries Volume Four- Imperial Japanese Navy vs The Allies, The Solomons 1943-1944, Michael Claringbould, Avonmore Books, 2021, ISBN – 978 0 6489262 2 1
Special Thanks to Peter Ingman for bringing Thomas Efstathiou service to our attention and providing us with details of his last mission as well as Donald Mounts (Global Military Research, LLC) for his invaluable help regarding the retrieval of Thomas Military File.