Lieutenant Colonel Harold Bauer: The Legend of ‘Indian Joe’

Vanuatu's Bauer Field in Vila was named after a charismatic hero, Medal of Honor recipient and US Marine Corps fighter ace. Roderick Eime remembers the man.

United States Marine Corps Captain (CPT) Harold William Bauer. Official Portrait. By November of 1942, Captain Bauer was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

It’s easy to forget the ferocious battles that took place across the Pacific region from 1942 to 1945. Every nation in the region was embroiled in a fight to the death, caught between the giant protagonists, the USA and Japan.

There are the memorials and museums, as well as the scattered relics still hiding in the jungles of New Guinea and the Solomons. The remains of missing soldiers, sailors and airmen are still being found to this day.

Reminders of these desperate times are the airports of PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomons, named after some of the pilots who were among the first to fall in the early stages of the battle. Henderson Field at Honiara, Gurney at Alotau and Jackson at Port Moresby all commemorate gallant flyers killed during the early stages of the Pacific Campaign.

The airport at Port Vila is named Bauer Field in memory of the US Marine Corps (USMC) ace pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer. It’s worth remembering too that these decorated airmen, unlike the wizened old commanders such as MacArthur, Halsey and Nimitz, were young men in their prime, leading from the front and killed in the line of duty.

Harold Bauer was born in Kansas in 1908, joined the Naval Academy in 1926 and graduated in 1930. He was well-liked by his peers, a natural and charismatic leader as well as a keen sportsman playing both basketball and lacrosse. He transferred to the Air Academy where he earned his wings in 1936. At the outbreak of WWII, Bauer and his unit, VMF-221, were still on their way to Hawaii. By the time of the Guadalcanal landings in August 1942, Bauer was married with a young son and had attained the rank of major.

Nicknamed ‘Indian Joe’, he kept a diary throughout his time in the Marines writing poignant observations for both his wife and son.

“It was no picnic saying goodbye to the wife and kid feeling all the time that I might very readily never see them again,” he wrote as his unit was preparing to leave the serenity of California for Hawaii and New Caledonia where he would face the enemy in bitter combat.

He was on his way to Wake Island when he got the news that it was about to fall to the Japanese invaders. “I felt very sorry for the Marines at Wake and wanted to go to their aid but at the same time, I could see the futility of it all. Wake would fall to the Japs whenever they wanted to make the necessary effort.”

A week after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Bauer arrived in Hawaii and saw the destruction for himself. “We pulled into Pearl Harbor about 16 Dec. and saw the sight of our lives. We were stunned at the severity of the damage accomplished by the Japs. Imagine seeing 6 or 8 Battleships either capsized or sitting neatly on the bottom of the harbor, 2 or 3 cruisers in the same fix, destroyers and other ships destroyed, hangars burned, and airplane remains littered about like a junk heap.”

With the fall of Wake Island after a valiant defence, on December 23, Bauer was moved to Midway and spent the early months of 1942 forming new combat squadrons for the Marines in preparation for the fierce battles ahead. He was still occupied with these tasks at Noumea and on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) while the Battle of Midway raged in the first week of June.

He finally made it into the action after his new unit, VMF-212 "Hell Hounds", was transferred to Guadalcanal while in the midst of the intense campaign with fighting taking place in the air, on the seas and in the dense jungles of the Solomon Islands.

On September 28, a strong force of Japanese bombers escorted by Zero fighters made a raid on Henderson Field (Codename: Cactus) that was still being bitterly fought over by both sides.

“Well--the Japs came through in noble fashion. They brought over 27 bombers and about 30 zeros. We got 132 mile warning so had all our fighters up stairs to give them a welcome. We shot down 23 bombers and 1 zero. All our fighters returned safely,” Bauer wrote.

By October, Bauer’s wish for action had truly been answered. There were skirmishes and raids almost daily. His F4F Wildcat fighters were on constant standby with Japanese bombers and fighters an ever-present threat as the enemy threw everything into the battle to recover the critical airfield they had lost. Bauer himself was proving a very capable leader and fighter pilot, racking up his own tally of Japanese planes. On October 3, he shot down four planes in a single engagement, with a fifth smoking away to the horizon.

“The Japs came today about the usual time but left their bombers behind. Our division (6 planes) led by Capt. Carl dove on 10 zeros. We got 3 on the first pass. They all shoved right away leaving me to play with the zeros all by myself. I definitely shot down four and might have got more.”

The men of VMF-212 on Guadalcanal about the time of Bauer's disappearance (Oct 1942)

Things were clearly getting frantic about this time and Bauer’s last diary entry was made on October 13. On the following day, he and his men were ferrying new planes in from the huge base on Santo (Codename ‘Buttons’) nearly 1000km away. When they arrived a raid was in progress but the aircraft were all almost out of fuel after the long flight. Seeing the planes attacking a warship, the destroyer USS McFarland, Bauer immediately engaged the attackers, shooting down four and thus saving the ship from likely destruction.

On November 14, Bauer’s good luck ran out. He had just shot down two enemy aircraft in an attack against incoming Japanese transport ships 160kms from Guadalcanal but was hit by another and forced to bail out into the ocean. His fellow pilots saw him in the water, struggling to get his liferaft out of the sinking plane. Bauer was apparently unhurt and floating safely in his lifejacket as night began to fall. They raced back to base to get an amphibious rescue plane but were delayed by other traffic and could not begin a full search until the morning, by which time no trace of Lieutenant Colonel Bauer was ever found despite intense search efforts. He was just 33.

Bauer was officially declared dead on January 8, 1946. He earned the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart, posthumously. He is memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery. Afterwards, Port Vila Airport on Efaté Island in New Hebrides (Vanuatu) was renamed Bauer Field in his honour.


Posthumous Medal of Honor Citation (July 23, 1944)

US Medal of Honor

"For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage as Squadron Commander of Marine Fighting Squadron two twelve in the South Pacific Area during the period May 10 to November 14, 1942. Volunteering to pilot a fighter plane in defense of our positions on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer participated in two air battles against enemy bombers and fighters outnumbering our force more than two-to-one, boldly engaged the enemy and destroyed one Japanese bomber in the engagement of September 28 and shot down four enemy fighter planes in flames on October 3 leaving a fifth smoking badly. After successfully leading twenty-six planes in the over-water ferry flight of more than six hundred miles on October 16, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer, while circling to land, sighted a squadron of enemy planes attacking the USS McFarland. Undaunted by the formidable opposition and with valor above and beyond the call of duty, he engaged the entire squadron and, although alone and his fuel supply nearly exhausted, fought his plane so brilliantly that four of the Japanese planes were destroyed before he was forced down by lack of fuel. His intrepid fighting spirit and distinctive ability as leader and an airman, exemplified in his splendid record of combat achievement, were vital in the successful operations in the South Pacific Area."

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