Every Marine a Rifleman...and Some a World War II Ace

Every Marine a Rifleman...and Some a World War II Ace

During the course of the war, Marine aviators were credited with shooting down 2,355 Japanese aircraft while losing 573 of their own in combat, producing 120 aces, and earning 11 Medals of Honor. F4Us would claim 2,140 of the shootdowns at the loss of only 189 Corsairs.

Key point: These accounts tell what it was like to fight in 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.

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?

“Joe’s Jokers”

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.

As an aeronautical engineer, Lindbergh was a troubleshooter for military aviation. After working with the squadron for a month, Lindbergh solved the problems with the Corsair and in the process hit it off with the members of the squadron, as well as with Foss, who told him that he was welcome to fly with the squadron any time. (Lindbergh took him up on the offer many times.)

The Men on the Ground

With an authorized strength that included some 40 pilots, the bulk of the unit was in the ground support element, or aircraft maintenance personnel. A member of the maintenance staff, Charlie Romine, described the organization. The squadron’s table of organization for the aircraft maintenance crew called for a leading chief, an MT sergeant (master technical sergeant), as the top NCO, who came under the squadron’s engineering officer. The leading chief’s duties were to coordinate the activities of the line chief and engineering chief. The line chief, also an MT sergeant, supervised all crew chiefs, who conducted preflight inspections, maintained the aircraft, and supervised minor repairs. The engineering chief oversaw periodic engine checks, problem analysis, major repairs, and the general condition of the aircraft. However, operational reality was different from the table of organization as crew talents of the new “Air Marines” developed and functions became smoother. The need for the leading chief to coordinate and provide detailed direction decreased, the unit becoming a close-knit organization.

The squadron underwent a transformation as the group of young men that had been thrown together became a highly efficient organization in a short time. Most of the Marines were just 18, 19, or in their early 20s, but all were Marine volunteers. They were radiomen, mechanics, ordnance technicians, and other specialists—trained, but without practical experience. They quickly realized the importance of their duties and the squadron’s operational mission.

Ground personnel understood that their whole reason for being was to keep the Corsairs in the air and in fighting condition. Therefore, they had a great deal of admiration and respect for the pilots, the men who would be putting their lives on the line every time they went up. The pilots lived in their own world and developed a strong brotherhood, having a special kind of pride, independence, and confidence, which some misread as arrogance.

Foss Readies His Squadron For Combat

Given Foss’s previous overseas experience, he wanted to have the best-equipped squadron possible, and not just in terms of aircraft. The unit also had a portable sawmill, rumored to have been provided by one of Foss’s admirers, along with an ice-cream-making machine and a ton of ice cream mix. Another addition was a machine shop, which was attached to provide a greater degree of self-sufficiency. The machine shop was housed in a large trailer equipped with lathes, a mill, a grinder, welding equipment, and all the appropriate tools and fixtures.

As an added bonus for the squadron, Foss’s newfound fame and Hollywood connections brought a number of entertainers to the base to put on shows for the men. These included comedian Bob Hope, actor Gary Cooper, singer Bing Crosby, and bandleader Kay Kyser.

For the next seven months the squadron trained at Santa Barbara and prepared to go into combat. But “routine” operations resulted in numerous crashes due to pilot error and mechanical failures. The loss of 15 pilots during this time provided a reminder of the cold realities of war.

Foss was given a great deal of freedom in organizing the squadron; he was allowed to choose his own top officers: Greg Loesch, executive officer, a veteran with eight and a half air victories who had been Foss’s second in command in VMF-121; and Big Bill Freeman, engineering officer, with five victories and three engineering degrees—mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical. The three men had served together in VMF-121 during the heady days on Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. (Loesch was later killed at Santa Barbara when he and his wingman collided in midair. Freeman would later add a sixth kill to his record.) Foss also selected five other veteran officers to be part of the squadron.