The F4U Corsair: A World War II Legend, Explained

June 24, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: F4U CorsairCorsairU.S. Air ForceWorld War IIKorean War

The F4U Corsair: A World War II Legend, Explained

What's so special about it?

Ken Walsh: First Corsair Ace

Four days later, Corsair pilots began making their mark. A flight of Corsairs had just been relieved on combat air patrol over the Russell Islands by a flight of P-38s when the Army formation was attacked by a large number of Japanese fighters. The Marines returned to the battle, and the combined force accounted for 20 Japanese aircraft. Three were credited to 2nd Lieutenant Ken Walsh of VMF-124, who would become the first Corsair ace and would later be decorated with the Medal of Honor. Walsh was a former enlisted pilot who had only recently been commissioned, but he had been flying observation planes, scout bombers, and fighters in the Marine Corps since 1938 and was probably one of the most experienced pilots in the squadron.

Walsh and the rest of VMF-124 missed out on another huge air battle on April 7 because the squadron had left for rest and recuperation in Australia three days before when VMF-213 arrived at Henderson Field. When radar picked up a large force of Japanese planes headed for the Russells, 76 fighters, including Army P-38s and P-39s and Marine F4Fs and F4Us, were sent up to meet them. Army pilots were credited with 13 of the 39 Japanese airplanes that went down that day—Marine and Navy fighters got the rest.

By May, VMF-124 was back in action, and on the 13th Ken Walsh became the first Corsair ace when he shot down three Zekes, bringing his total to six. Such victories as Walsh’s over the three Zeros proved that the previously feared Zero was no longer superior to U.S. naval fighters. By the middle of August, Walsh had shot down 10 Japanese planes and was now a double ace. On August 15, Walsh shot down three more Japanese planes before his Corsair was shot up by another in an action when the Marines were badly outnumbered. Walsh repeatedly dived into the Japanese formation before his airplane was knocked out of action. VMF-124 pilots claimed 10 victories that day.

On August 30, Walsh performed another heroic action that, combined with the events of August 15, would result in the Medal of Honor. He was part of a mission escorting Navy Liberators against Kahili airfield on Bougainville when his airplane developed engine trouble and he was forced to land at Vella Lavella, where he jumped into another Corsair and took off to catch up with the formation. A force of about 50 Zekes attacked the Liberators, and Walsh went after them. He shot down four before his own Corsair was shot down and he went into the sea. He was rescued and soon went back home to receive the Medal of Honor. He would return to the Pacific for another combat tour in Corsairs with VMF-222 in the Philippines and would finish the war with 21 confirmed kills, the last one being a kamikaze he shot down during the Battle of Okinawa.

The Swashbucklers

The most famous of the Corsair squadrons, thanks largely to the fame of one of its commanders, was VMF-214. The squadron entered combat a few days after VMF-124 but was equipped with F4F Wildcats during its first tour. After rest and reequipping with Corsairs, VMF-214 returned to combat in June 1943. On August 6 the squadron, then known as The Swashbucklers, produced its first ace when former enlisted pilot Al Jensen shot down a Japanese Jake fighter and two Zekes to add to the two victories he had scored when he was flying Wildcats.

On August 28, Jensen earned the Navy Cross when he attacked the Japanese airfield at Kahili. He was officially credited with 15 aircraft destroyed on the ground, but aerial photographs taken the next day showed 24 destroyed airplanes on the field. In early September, squadron personnel went to Australia in preparation for returning to the States, and when they left the squadron was broken up and the designation was given to a new unit that was being formed locally.

Major Gregory Boyington and the Black Sheep

Author and Hollywood producer Stephen J. Cannell depicted the men of VMF-214 as a drunken bunch of misfits in his 1970s television series Black Sheep Squadron, a depiction that did not set well with the aging veterans who had actually made up the unit. While the description did perhaps fit their commander, Major Gregory Boyington, who had a reputation as a hell-raiser and malcontent who could not get along with his superiors, the squadron was actually made up of pilots with varying backgrounds who were scattered around the South Pacific in nonflying positions or who had arrived in the theater as replacements but had not been assigned to combat units.

Boyington was a prewar Marine Corps pilot who had left the service to fight in China with the American Volunteer Group, apparently to earn money to pay off his huge pile of debts. Although he was credited with six Japanese planes, including 3.75 on the ground, he got into trouble with General Claire Chennault and went AWOL from the group, an act for which he was given a dishonorable discharge. Ordinarily this would probably have ended his military aviation career, but experienced combat pilots were few in mid-1942, and after he got back to the States the Marines took him back and gave him the rank of major.

Boyington went to Guadalcanal in early 1943, and after a stint as a staff officer, took command of VMF-122, which was still equipped with Wildcats. He was constantly butting heads with a superior officer with whom he had a prewar history, and by mid-September he was in an administrative position matching up newly arrived replacement pilots with combat squadrons.

There was a shortage of combat units in the Solomons, and someone, allegedly Boyington, suggested forming a new squadron made up of pilots who were already in the theater but were not assigned to combat units. According to Boyington’s memoir, he was on desk duty in charge of assigning replacement pilots to squadrons and suggested that he be allowed to form a squadron of his own. Perhaps to get him out of their hair, the staff of Marine Air Wing One apparently went along with the plan, and Boyington was placed in command of a new VMF-214.

Twenty-six pilots were pulled together, including eight who had been in VMF 122 with Boyington, a couple who had flown with other Corsair squadrons, three who had flown with the Royal Canadian Air Force, four who had instructed in Corsairs in the States, and several who had been flying Wildcats. All in all, the men of the soon to be famous squadron were a pretty experienced bunch. The original VMF-214 pilots were sent back to the United States, and the new unit decided to forgo the old name Swashbucklers in favor of a new one that they felt better reflected their former status as pilots with no family connection—Black Sheep.

The Black Sheep moved to their combat base in the Russell Islands in September and flew their first combat mission on the 14th. Over the next few months, they racked up one of the most impressive combat records of any military aviation unit in history. In 84 days of combat, the men of VMF-214 were credited with over 200 Japanese planes destroyed or damaged in the air and on the ground, as well as dozens of barges and other ground targets. Almost 100 of their kills—94 confirmed—were air-to-air.

Their commander, Major Boyington, led the pack. By the time he was shot down over Rabaul on January 3, 1944, he had been credited with 22 victories. His AVG victories brought his total to 28. Boyington was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. After the war, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Not long after the loss of their commander, VMF-214 was again broken up after being awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. The designation would reemerge later in the war as a Corsair squadron flying off the carrier USS Franklin.

Charles Lindberg Joins the Corsair Program

It was the Corsair that led to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s combat role in World War II. Blackballed by the White House and U.S. Army Air Forces commander General Henry H. Arnold because of his outspoken opposition to U.S. involvement in the war in Europe and the prewar resignation of his commission as a colonel in the Army Air Corps, Lindbergh sought a position in the aviation industry. In early 1942 United Aircraft President Eugene Wilson, a friend of Lindbergh’s, offered him a position with the company, but the offer was withdrawn due to pressure from the White House.

Lindbergh instead went to work for Henry Ford, who had no fear of the Roosevelt Administration and whose huge company was badly needed to produce war materials, including Consolidated Aircraft Company’s B-24 Liberator, Republic’s P-47 Thunderbolt fighter, and Pratt & Whitney’s family of engines. After Lindbergh became involved in high-altitude research work in fighters, Wilson reconsidered his relationship with the White House and asked Lindbergh to come to work for him in the Corsair program. At first, Lindbergh went back and forth between the two companies, but by the spring of 1944 he was working solely for United in research and development. As an experienced military pilot, he flew Corsairs on maneuvers with Marine units and on one occasion engaged two of the Corps’ best fighter pilots in a mock dogfight and beat them both. He was a man who knew the Corsair, and the leaders of Marine Aviation knew it.