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Marine Corps Aviation Centennial: Marine Aviators In Their Own Words


  • Korea, 1953
  • F4U-4B Corsair
  • Maj. E.N. “Red” James, VMF-312

I flew 101 missions in Korea from the aircraft carriers Badoeng Strait  [CVE 116] and Bataan [CVL 29] beginning October 1952. They gave me a choice of land-based or carrier-based. I remembered a sleeping bag from World War II and said I’d take the carrier because they have showers, napkins, and tablecloths.

For the most part, I loved the cannon-equipped F4U-4B Corsair – but it wasn’t easy to love. The Corsair had shock absorbers that were too sensitive, the seats were too low, and the tailwheel was too low for carrier operations, which is why the Marines were late using them on ships.

On the right wing of the Corsair, right above the right wheel, there’s a spoiler, about four inches long, so that both wings can stall at the same time. Handle that airplane wrong and it would cartwheel. But when it did have an accident, the wing would come off, the nose would come off, and the pilot would still be sitting there totally unharmed and happy. I saw it happen twice.

F4U-4B Corsair

A U.S. Marine Corps F4U-4B Corsair from VMF-312 lands on the USS Bataan during the Korean War. National Archives photo

We were on the west coast of Korea near the island of Paengyong-do, known as P-Y-do. They told us to kill every occupant we saw on the mainland because their food would feed a communist for a month. We saw this “gook” leading an ox toward the Yellow Sea. My section leader, Capt. Jerry Jerominsky, made a turn and put his guns on him. The guy slapped his ox and started running. Jerry tightened his turn and didn’t have the power to do it, so he flew into the ground. He flew into the ground and bounced and continued flying. He landed with no gas tank and with weeds stuck in his rocket launchers.

We made another sortie and, incredibly, the guy with the ox was still there. I put the power on and fired 20 mm at the ox and not a one of those rounds hit him. He got away a second time.

I’d been a Marine pilot stateside during World War II. That included a brief time learning how to fire the huge Tiny Tim air-to-ground rocket; there was a plan to use us to attack German submarine pens, flying Corsairs from escort carrier decks, but it never happened. I was in the reserves when they sent me orders in November 1951. They sent me to Korea to join VMF-312, the “Checkerboards.”

Shortly after the incident with the ox, I got hit by ground fire and had a massive oil leak. Oil completely covered my windshield. I pulled out to the right and told the rest of the flight to go on in. I proceeded south along the water intending to make a water landing. As I went back past P-Y-do, the beach was exposed and I had the thought to land there. I went in wheels down. It was like landing at Daytona Beach [Fla.]. A British mechanic there discovered that a bullet had hit my sump pump. He cleaned it up, so I got ready to go and poured on the power for takeoff. I didn’t realize the tide had come in and I didn’t have much beach to take off in. I took off in a very short distance and returned to the Bataan.


  • South Vietnam, June 1, 1964
  • UH-34D Choctaw
  • Cpl. Warren R. Smith, HMM-364

I reached Vietnam Feb. 1, 1964. It was an election year, [Lyndon B.]Johnson in office, [Barry] Goldwater the challenger. We thought we were part of a plan to get out of Vietnam by training South Vietnamese to fly. We also flew support missions for the South Vietnamese Army and U.S. Special Forces, who had no roads in and out of their facilities.

Cpl. Warren R. Smith

Cpl. Warren R. Smith, with a Vietnamese counterpart, holds an M3 “Grease Gun” in the door of his UH-34 helicopter in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

I was a corporal E-4 and a crew chief and gunner in [Marine Medium Helicopter] Squadron HMM-364, later called the “Purple Foxes.” We were flying Sikorsky UH-34D Choctaw helicopters. It had a nine-cylinder, 1,820-cubic-inch Pratt & Whitney radial engine. We had pilot, co-pilot, crew chief, and first mechanic. We didn’t have air conditioning, so we took the doors off. We had guns on either side of the ship.

At that time, there was controversy with the commandant of the Marine Corps about the role of the helicopter. It was generally looked at in the Marine Corps as a logistics function and not an assault function.

You don’t want to fly into a hot landing zone without close air support, but we usually didn’t have any, other than an Army unit nearby with Huey gunships. Occasionally, we’d catch a T-28 or a few A-1 Skyraiders for close support.

In 1964, no one knew how big Vietnam was going to get. There were 400 Marines in the whole country. That summer, we went to help a Special Forces base that had been under fire for quite awhile. In the afternoon, they radioed that they didn’t think they could make it through the night unless they could be resupplied with ammunition. We hustled on out of Da Nang with three UH-34Ds and a couple of Army Hueys that came along for gun support.

We flew into a mountainous area, got close to this base, and couldn’t make radio contact. We saw tracers. They were taking quite a bit of heat.

We positioned two Hueys as wingmen on each side of the lead UH-34D, just in front of it, and they laid down machine gun and rocket fire to keep heads down. The -34 landed in the middle of the compound.


HMM-364 UH-34D Choctaws over Vietnam, April 1964. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

I was flying cover above with the other two Hueys. The second chopper in our flight went in. He was able to drop off ammo. But on the exit from the compound, one of the Hueys took a round in the fuel tank and was spraying fuel. They were afraid their exhaust might torch them off. So, a mile from the Special Forces base, they set down on a sandbar next to a river, with a village looking them in the face.

We went to help. I began shooting. Once you picked up on a tracer you could follow it back with bursts and you could see where the source was. You’d follow them back and they’d go silent. You’d pick up another stream of tracers and follow them back.

With aircraft everywhere and everybody shooting, the UH-34D that had gone into the outpost to drop the ammunition off now had to rescue the four-man crew of the Huey. They dropped down and the guys on that Huey scrambled into the UH-34D. They took off.

In their haste, they had left the four M60 machine guns and all the ammunition on the Huey. That would be a prize possession for all the guys who were shooting at us. Remember, the Viet Cong were not that well equipped then. They used to take drainage pipes and made mortars out of them. So we got approval to destroy a piece of government property. We circled around and expended every bit of ammunition trying with our own tracers to burn the Huey. We didn’t succeed. We decided, “It’s so dark. We’re out of ammo. We’d better get out of here.” We got ourselves back to Da Nang with the night closing in on us.

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