These Marine Aces Were Some of the Best Fighter Pilots of World War II
“As a returning flight of Marine SBDs, dive bombers, were setting down on the airstrip, one of the planes lost a bomb which had failed to release during the mission. The bomb skidded down the runway and came to a stop in the middle of the field. No one knew if the bomb was armed. Everyone was ducking for cover. Where it lay it was preventing other planes from landing. So, Al Tierny, from St. Paul, Minnesota, and I volunteered to go out and get the bomb off the runway. We jumped in a small truck with a hoist and went out and hooked the bomb up, lifted it off the ground, and got it off to the end of the airstrip, permitting the waiting aircraft to land.” So reported Lance Corporal Robert Vannoy, who was not only an aircraft armorer, but also held a marksman’s badge.
According to my father, Lance Corporal Robert Vannoy, this was part of “life” on a Marine airstrip in the South Pacific.
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VMF-115 of the Budding Marine Corps Air Arm
The entry of the United States into World War II saw a rapid expansion of the Marine Corps’ air arm, reaching a peak by 1945 of five air wings, 31 groups, and 145 squadrons, with just over 100,000 personnel.
For the first two years of the war, Marine air spent most of its time protecting the fleet and land-based installations from attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. This began to change after the Battle of Tarawa in late November 1943, as air support for ground troops as flown by Navy pilots was found wanting. After the battle, Marine General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith recommended that “Marine aviators, thoroughly schooled in the principles of direct air support,” take over the job.
One of the squadrons, Marine Fighter Squadron 115 (VMF-115), officially became part of Marine Fleet Air on July 1, 1943, at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Santa Barbara, California. Its commanding officer, Major Joseph J. Foss, took charge of the unit on July 17. Foss was already a legend as the Marine Corps’ leading ace and a recipient in May 1943 of the Medal of Honor (in late 1942 and early 1943, he shot down 26 Japanese planes in 44 days).
One can only imagine what it felt like for the members of the squadron—both pilots and ground personnel. It must have been an amazing experience for a bunch of young men to come together at such a time and place. In the summer of 1943, optimism was in the air as the war in the Pacific seemed to be in the process of turning in the United States’ favor—even though there was still a great deal of fighting ahead. Santa Barbara, northwest of Los Angeles, was (and is) a fantastic setting. Add to this an amazing new aircraft, the F4U Corsair, and a commander who was already a national celebrity (Foss’s picture appeared on the June 7, 1943, cover of Life magazine; he had just returned from fighting at Guadalcanal, where he became the first American pilot to duplicate Eddie Rickenbacker’s number of kills in World War I). How could these Marines not have wanted to excel in their new roles?
As VMF-115 was starting to get organized, Major Foss was in the process of completing a war bond tour across the United States after being awarded the Medal of Honor. The unit was officially known as the “Silver Eagles,” but he asked the Walt Disney studios to design an “unofficial” insignia for the squadron that would exemplify a more aggressive, devil-may-care attitude. The final insignia was an animated, happy, diving Corsair smoking a cigar––Foss’s trademark––complete with goggles and flowing silk scarf, across a five-card royal flush with a joker and the squadron’s nickname: “Joe’s Jokers.”
The unit received its first F4U Corsairs on July 31, 1943, replacing several Grumman F4F Wildcats. The Corsair was a magnificent plane, called by some the “most beautiful prop-driven fighter of all time,” that would go on to be one of the top fighter aircraft of the war. It was built around a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial engine with fuel injection, internal supercharger, twin Bosch magnetos, disc brakes, and a master hydraulic system. It had a top speed of 417 miles per hour, a maximum ceiling of 36,000 feet, and it was armed with six .50-caliber machine guns. Deciphering the model number, F4U, F is for fighter, 4 indicates the fourth fighter built for the Navy by the manufacturer, and U designates Chance-Vought, the builder. There was also an FG version made by Goodyear.
Charles Lindberg Flies With the Squadron
But the first new Corsairs off the assembly line had mechanical problems. Their engines tended to cut out above 21,000 feet. After three or four pilot deaths, Foss requested that higher headquarters provide an expert to look into the problem. Two days after he requested assistance, a man arrived whom he had tried to meet years earlier as a boy in Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Yes, that Charles Lindbergh.