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Marine Corps Aviation Centennial: Marine Aviators In Their Own Words

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When Marine Corps First Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham arrived at the aviation camp at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on May 22, 1912, it marked what is now celebrated as the beginning of Marine Corps aviation. The first Marine air squadron, called the Aviation Company, was formed on Feb. 17, 1917, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and by 1918, Marine aviators were flying missions in World War I, with two of them earning the Medal of Honor. Over a century later, the aircraft and weapons have advanced, but Marines remain true to their traditions. What follows is not a history, but  rather a representative sample of a few Marine Corps aviators telling their own stories of flying and fighting.

  • Guadalcanal, April 7, 1943
  • F4F-4 Wildcat
  • Capt. Thomas M. “Tommy” Tomlinson, VMF-214

A fire hydrant with wings: That’s the F4F. The barrel-like, mid-wing configuration of the Wildcat gave it a raffish appearance.

It was anything but a beauty. It didn’t handle well in the wrong hands. For takeoff, the Wildcat required especially careful handling, because the fuselage blanked the rudder, and it had a nasty tendency to veer to port. The tailwheel had to be locked and checked and didn’t perform well in a crosswind. Until you got the tail off the ground, you had to concentrate on stick and throttle every second.

In a dogfight with a Zero, the Wildcat couldn’t maneuver the way the Zero could. But the Wildcat was a solid, stable gun platform. If you mastered it, you could probably stand a chance of beating that Zero, although we really needed a newer and better fighting machine.

Capt. Thomas M. Tomlinson

Capt. Thomas M. Tomlinson. Photo courtesy of Robert F. Dorr Collection

I was at Guadalcanal in squadron VMF-214, the “Swashbucklers.” The term VMF-214 doesn’t belong only to the “Black Sheep,” led later by Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. I was in VMF-214 when it began at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, living in a coconut grove, with an outdoor head and few amenities.

After the Japanese no longer had any hope of taking back Guadalcanal, on April 7, 1943, they launched their biggest raid ever against the island – 67 Val dive bombers escorted by 110 Zeros. We intercepted them with portions of three Army and four Marine squadrons flying Wildcats, F4U-1 Corsairs, P-38 Lightnings, P-39 Airacobras, and P-40 Warhawks. Our “Swashbucklers” were credited with shooting down four Vals and six Zeros over Cape Esperance.

I went after one of those Val dive bombers. The six .50-caliber guns in the F4F-4 Wildcat were lubricated with Cosmoline, which thickened in the extreme cold at high altitude and could prevent the guns from working. When I locked onto the last Val in the Japanese formation, five of my six guns froze and refused to fire. I gave it some throttle and got up right behind him, which gave me a close-up look at the two men in the Val. I could see the disturbed reaction of the gunner in the rear cockpit of the Val. He was shooting at me when my bullets hit him and chewed him up. This was not pretty. I knocked off pieces of the Val and got it smoking, then banked near Lunga Point just in time to get away from a brace of Zeros. In June 1943, my squadron converted to the F4U-1 Corsair and after that, we just wiped Zeros off the map.

 

  • Roi-Namur, Kwajalein Atoll, Feb. 15, 1944
  • F4U-4 Corsair
  • Maj. Walter Attebery, VMF-224

In my only encounter with the dreaded Zero, I caught him in my gunsight for a split second but we were both diving and turning and he pulled away while my thumb was on the trigger. Other Corsair pilots had excellent success against Japanese fighters.

F4U-1As of VMF-224

F4U-1A Corsairs of VMF-224, flying out of Roi-Namur, on the way to attack Japanese positions on Wotje atoll. U.S. Marine Corps photo

The Vought F4U Corsair, even the “birdcage” model [early F4U-1], was a pilot’s aircraft with a solid feel and great control response. When the bubble canopy arrived, the visibility was dramatically improved. With the large prop and the very long nose, forward visibility on landing with this tailwheel aircraft was somewhat restricted, but we learned to live with it. When they eliminated the birdcage and put in electric starting [instead of shotgun charges], there was little else to be done except increasing the horsepower, which they did when we went from the F4U-1 to the F4U-4 model, and modifying the cockpit with a floor and easy access to all controls, again in the F4U-4 version. The Corsair was a superior gun platform and became a great dive bomber in the Marshall Islands.

I had previously flown the Brewster F2A Buffalo in training – a real dog – and the Grumman F4F Wildcat, which is often underrated. When I returned stateside, I flew the F6F Hellcat in squadron tactics and rocket training at Mojave, Calif. The Hellcat was a fine airplane, but did not compare favorably with the Corsair. The war ended while we were in Mojave and by then, the Navy in its wisdom began to replace its Hellcats with the Corsair.

 

  • Korea, Jan. 15, 1952
  • F9F-2B Panther
  • Lt. Col. Ron Wade, VMF-311
F9F-2B Panther

A VMF-311 F9F-2B Panther on Pyongtaek airfield in Korea. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

The F9F-2B Panther was a pioneer of the jet age, the flagship of the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team – which hadn’t yet added a Marine to its ranks at this point – and a fierce combatant in the Korean War. In June 1952, my outfit, Marine Corps Squadron VMF-311, the “Tomcats,” with Sylvester the Cat as its emblem, was operating from Pyongtaek Airfield. I wish I could tell you that we complained every day about how our heavy-duty aerial truck from the Grumman Iron Works had straight wings while those Air Force flyboys had the swept-wing F-86 Sabre. The truth is, we didn’t think about that much. We felt the Panther was underpowered and sometimes we built up a sweat when carrying bombs during a long takeoff run, but it was one of the best of the early jets and we took it for granted that this was the plane we were supposed to fly.

The record shows that our squadron flew 18,851 sorties in Korea and that astronaut and Sen. John Glenn and baseball star Ted Williams were among our pilots. I didn’t know John and overlapped with Ted only briefly.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...