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?

Lindbergh’s involvement with the Corsair placed him in contact with many members of the military, and in the spring of 1944 he attended a meeting with Marine Corps representatives in Washington, D.C. During the course of the meeting, Lindbergh mentioned that United was getting conflicting reports on the capabilities of single- and twin-engine fighters, and he thought it would be a good idea for someone with considerable Corsair experience to visit Marine units in the Pacific and observe combat operations firsthand.

Marine Brig. Gen. Louis Wood said, “Why don’t you go?” Lindbergh replied that his relationship with the White House was not very good. Wood said that the White House did not need to know and that he would make the necessary arrangements for the trip.

Lindberg in Combat With the F4U

In April 1944, Lindbergh left for the South Pacific as a Corsair technical representative with authorization to fly missions as an observer. The first leg of the journey was a cross-country flight to deliver a Corsair to the Marine airfield at El Toro, California. He remained in California for a few days, visiting Marine fighter squadrons and talking to the pilots. His next stop was Hawaii, where he took time to visit bases and meet with fighter pilots, including a visit to Midway atoll before continuing to the South Pacific. He visited with Marine squadrons out of Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal, and he started flying combat missions out of Green Island on May 22.

At first, there was some reluctance by senior Marine officers to allow a civilian to fly combat missions, but when a few flights to test the water produced no repercussions, the Lone Eagle was turned loose in South Pacific skies. By June 10, he had flown 13 missions, including escort missions and strafing attacks on Japanese barges. Lindbergh left the Marines for a while to fly P-38s with the Army, but stopped off for a few more weeks with Marine squadrons at Kwajalein and Tarawa before he returned to the United States. He intended to spend a few days in Guam, but decided to stop in the Marshall Islands first.

During his second visit with the Marines, the veteran aviator taught Corsair pilots new techniques for dive-bombing and convinced them that the fighter could carry much larger bombs than they believed. He proved to the Marines that the Corsair could carry a 3,000-pound bomb load on September 3, 1944, when he dropped three 1,000-pound bombs on Wotje Atoll. On September 8, he dropped the first 2,000-pound bomb ever delivered by a Corsair in another attack on Wotje. Five days later, he upped the ante to 4,000 pounds when he took off with one 2,000-pound bomb and two 1,000-pounders to drop in another attack.

Lindbergh also taught the Marines how to conserve fuel by operating at lower rpms and higher manifold pressure, a technique that extended the combat range of the fighters by several hundred miles. He had taught the same technique to Army pilots, a technique that allowed fighter pilots to escort bombers much deeper into Japanese territory than they had ever gone.

The Royal Navy Proves the F4U’s Carrier-Borne Capabilities

While the Marines were making the reputation of the Corsair, the airplane had been designed to operate off carriers and had originally been intended for operations with the fleet. But for more than a year the Navy restricted its Corsairs to operations from land bases with Marine squadrons.

It fell to the British to prove that the huge fighter could be operated from ships. The Royal Navy purchased Corsairs for fleet use, and it was Royal Navy pilots who finally came up with a method that allowed the long-nosed airplanes to land on carriers. Instead of lining up with the carrier deck while several thousand feet out in a normal landing procedure, the British pilots began flying a curving approach that allowed them to keep the landing signals officer in sight until the airplane was in the landing groove, and it was just a simple matter of cutting power and letting the airplane touch the deck and engage the wires. Since the fighters would be halted by arresting gear and towed or pushed off the flight deck, taxiing was unnecessary.

The Jolly Rogers

The U.S. Navy decided to adopt the method and began equipping some of its own fighter squadrons with Corsairs and, since the war in the Solomons was winding down, made plans to station several Marine squadrons aboard ship once the pilots had been carrier qualified.

The first U.S. Navy Corsair squadron to see combat was VF-17, the Jolly Rogers. VF 17 was organized in early 1943 for assignment to the carrier Bunker Hill, one of the first of the Essex-class “fast carriers,” but special considerations led to its combat role as a land-based unit.

The Corsair was not a popular airplane in the Navy, and a lot of pilots wanted nothing to do with it. VF-17 commander, Lt. Cmdr. John Blackburn, was no exception, but he decided the airplane had some redeeming factors. After flying it for a while he was convinced it was actually an excellent fighter. The squadron trained at Norfolk, Virginia, and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina; it then joined the carrier at Norfolk shortly after it was launched at Quincy, Massachusetts, in July 1943.

The Corsair’s problems were apparent to Blackburn and the pilots of his squadron, but he elected to turn down an offer to replace his F4Us with the new Grumman F6F Hellcat, which was just coming into the naval inventory. Bunker Hill set out for the Pacific in September by way of the Panama Canal and San Diego. The men of VF-17 were expecting to continue on to the Pacific for a combat tour, flying off the carrier, but the plan suddenly changed right after Bunker Hill departed San Diego. Blackburn was ordered to bring his airplanes and men back to San Diego. Instead of participating in the first sortie by the Essex-class ships, they were being sent to Espiritu Santo for land-based duty.

The men of VF-17 had proven that they could operate off a carrier with the F4U, but there was another issue. As the only operational Corsair squadron in the Navy, VF-17 would face some unique supply problems in fleet use. Maintaining the squadron’s airplanes would require special stores of aircraft parts, and replacement parts for a single squadron would be difficult to procure in a timely fashion through normal supply channels. To alleviate the problem, the Navy decided to use the squadron in the Solomons, where the Marines already had a number of squadrons flying F4Us and there were already adequate spare parts.

Neutralizing Rabaul

VF-17 arrived on Guadalcanal in late October, then proceeded north to its new base on New Georgia. Over the next several months, the men of VF-17 racked up an impressive record as 13 squadron members achieved ace status. On one mission in early November, members of the squadron landed back on Bunker Hill to refuel and rearm during the initial carrier attacks on Rabaul.

Operations around Rabaul were the focus of VF 17 missions. The Army’s Fifth Air Force had been operating against the Japanese stronghold for more than a year on mostly harassing missions, but with the Allied victory in the Solomons, the Americans were free to concentrate on the heavily defended target and allow Fifth Air Force to devote its attention to New Guinea. VF-17 fighters accounted for 60.5 Japanese airplanes in January alone, when the battle against Rabaul was at its height.

With bases closer to the target area, American aircraft were able to effectively neutralize the Japanese base while submarines, carrier aircraft, and land-based bombers prevented reinforcement and resupply. The war began moving north into the Central Pacific, and the Japanese forces defending Rabaul were bypassed after Japan decided to discontinue attempts to replace their aircraft losses. As things wound down around Rabaul, the intensity of combat decreased. In early March, VF-17 was relieved and the squadron deactivated.

Close Air Support at the Battle of Bloody Ridge

Throughout the Solomons campaign, Marine F4U squadrons and the lone squadron of Navy Corsairs were involved primarily as escort fighters and in attacks on Japanese shore installations and airfields, with frequent barge-hunting forays against Japanese coastal shipping. As Japanese air defenses lost their strength, Corsair squadrons were trained to begin operating in the close air support role, a mission that had developed during the battle for Guadalcanal using Marine F4Fs and Army P-39s.

The Marine Corps had become aware of the value of air attack in close support of troops in the 1920s when the Corps was involved in operations in Central America, but few steps had been taken to implement it as a Marine aviation mission. The concept of close air support became part of Marine doctrine in the 1930s, but little attention was paid to it in the planning for the invasion of Guadalcanal.

A handful of missions were flown by F4F pilots early in the campaign, but it was not until the Battle of Bloody Ridge that close air support proved decisive. Early on September 13, 1942, the Marines appealed to the commander of the 67th Fighter Squadron, an Army unit operating Bell P-400s, for a strafing mission at daybreak the next morning. Shortly after midnight, a large Japanese force launched an attack on what the Marines were calling Bloody Ridge, later referred to as Edson’s Ridge after the legendary commander of the 1st Raider Battalion.