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?

At dawn, three P-400s took off and immediately attacked. Two were hit by ground fire, one during its first run and the other during its second, and had to return to Henderson Field, but the third pilot came around for a third pass and kept strafing until he ran out of ammunition. The effect on the Japanese was devastating. Hundreds were killed and wounded, and the survivors retreated into the jungle. Later that day, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, the commander of the Marines on the island, visited the three airmen and told them that their attack had decided the outcome of the battle of Guadalcanal.

After Guadalcanal, the Marine Corps began emphasizing close air support, but it would be nearly two years before the F4U became heavily involved. Planning for operations at Tarawa and the Central Pacific called for close air support by Navy and Marine squadrons flying Douglas SBD dive-bombers and F6F Hellcats. Even though they had not been assigned the close air support mission as yet, Marine Corsair squadrons began conducting dive-bombing missions, and after Lindbergh demonstrated that the Corsair could carry a 4,000-pound bomb load, the F4U became even more important as an attack weapon.

In addition to bombs, the Navy began equipping the Corsair to carry the new high-velocity aircraft rockets that the service had developed, and hard points were installed under the wings that allowed them to carry eight rockets to supplement the firepower of their six .50-caliber machine guns on strafing missions. Corsairs were also equipped to carry napalm as well as high-explosive bombs.

The Navy’s Primary Close Air Support Aircraft

By late 1944, the Department of the Navy had decided to make the Corsair its primary close air support aircraft now that the airplane had been adapted for carrier operations. Previously, Marine squadrons were not assigned to carrier duty nor were Marine pilots carrier qualified due to the increasing need for Navy pilots to staff the squadrons planned for the new fast carriers. With the battle for the Solomons over and with less need for ground-based squadrons in the Central Pacific, many of the Marine fighter squadrons were reassigned to the fleet for carrier duty with the mission of providing close air support for Marines in amphibious operations.

The landing on Iwo Jima was the first to see the Corsair as the primary close air support aircraft. Once again, VMF-124 was first, as the squadron led an attack on the invasion beach by 24 F4Us and an equal number of F6Fs flying from Essex-class carriers with napalm, rockets, and strafing. Although the missions were successful, the Marine squadrons operated over Iwo for only three days. The threat of kamikaze attacks led the Navy to decide to attack air bases on Honshu, and the Marine Corsairs went north with the carriers, leaving the Marines without close air support until Army fighters could be flown in.

Corsairs were also expected to provide close air support for the landings on Okinawa, but the intensity of kamikaze attacks caused Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, the senior officer in command of the invasion, to order the Corsairs to fly combat air patrols to defend against incoming suicide bombers.

Corsairs Over the Philippines

Corsairs would play a role during the Philippine campaign, as two Marine fighter groups, MAG-12 and MAG-14, made a nearly 2,000-mile journey from the Solomons to take up station onshore on Leyte and Samar. The Corsairs of MAG-12 were brought up to serve with the 308th Bombardment Wing of the Army’s Fifth Air Force in the battle to liberate the Philippines. Although the initial plan had called for the air role in the Philippines to be an all-Army show, events and military politicking on the part of senior Marine officers under Army General Douglas MacArthur’s command led to the introduction of Marine squadrons.

The first Corsairs arrived at Tacloban in early December and immediately went into combat under Army control. The Marines flew with Army P-38s and P-40s on interception and ground attack missions as they fought to deprive the Japanese of the ability to reinforce their forces on Leyte. The aviators not only had to contend with enemy opposition, they also had to be wary of trigger-happy sailors. One Corsair pilot, Lieutenant R.M. Robinson, was shot down by a PT boat and then rescued by the same boat that shot him down!

In spite of enemy opposition that cost the group nine pilots and 34 airplanes, MAG-12 Corsairs accounted for more than 40 Japanese planes and sank seven destroyers, nine freighters, and three troop transports in less than a month. At least 11 other Japanese ships had been damaged. MAG-14 also came up from the Solomons and began operating from Samar in early January 1945. By the time they arrived, the Leyte campaign was winding down, and the war in the Philippines was entering a new phase. MAG-14 Corsairs joined MAG-12 in strikes on targets in the southern Philippines.

One of the MAG-14 pilots was Ken Walsh, now a captain. The Marine pilots had developed techniques for attacking ships at very low altitude, a tactic they perhaps adopted after the successes of Army light and medium bombers in New Guinea. On February 23, 1945, a flight of Corsairs sank a submarine that they spotted on the surface off Cebu. The four pilots failed to sink either of two subs sighted during their initial attack, but after running out of bombs they returned to their base to rearm. The four Corsairs then dropped down for a wave-top skip-bombing attack with 1,000-pound bombs and sent one of the submarines to the bottom. It was believed to be the first submarine sinking by Corsairs.

Although Marine aircraft were initially prevented from carrying out their new role of close air support of ground troops in the Philippines, by February 1945 Corsairs and Marine SBD dive-bombers were heavily engaged in support of Army ground units. Far East Air Forces commander General George C. Kenney had been less than enthusiastic about close air support because he was afraid that ground troops would come to rely on it to seize their objectives and thus lose the aggressiveness necessary for ground combat. Many of the close air support missions were flown in support of indigenous guerrilla units on Mindanao and in northern Luzon. Corsairs and other Marine aircraft were able to provide firepower that helped the guerrilla units overcome their lack of heavy weapons.

Combatting Kamikazes

The Corsair had originally been designed to defend the fleet, and its finest hour as an interceptor was during the Battle of Okinawa when F4Us provided the first line of defense against almost 1,000 Japanese kamikazes that were launched against the fleet from airfields on Kyushu and Formosa. Considerably faster than the F6F Hellcat and with superior climb performance, the Corsair was more suited to the task of intercepting the incoming Japanese formations before they reached the fleet.

An oft-repeated popular myth is that the F2G version of the Corsair was designed in response to kamikaze attacks, but this is untrue. The F2G was in development before the Japanese adopted kamikaze attacks and was expected to serve as an interceptor against conventional air attack. Only a handful of F2Gs were produced, and the order was cancelled as the end of the war drew near.

The Corsair’s first encounter with kamikazes did not come off too well, as a formation of nine bomb-carrying Zeros managed to break through the fighter screen over the fleet off of Leyte and attacked the small escort carriers that operated offshore. The most serious damage was to the escort carrier St. Lo, which sank. In response to the attacks, the Navy developed tactics to defend against kamikazes by intercepting and shooting them down as far from the fleet as possible. Commander John S. Thach came up with what he called “the big blue blanket,” an around-the-clock fighter patrol over the fleet. Corsairs and Hellcats would maintain station at sea away from the main fleet and carry out airstrikes on Japanese airfields.

Thanks to Thach’s tactics, the intense kamikaze attacks off Okinawa caused far less damage than they might have. Although almost 1,500 kamikazes were launched from Kyushu and Formosa, only a small fraction actually reached the fleet. They managed to inflict heavy damage among the destroyers and other small ships maintaining picket duty away from the main fleet, but none of the capital ships or carriers were sunk although several sustained hits.

The effectiveness of the Corsair is illustrated by the battle on April 22, 1945, when Corsair pilots from VMF-323 were part of a formation that attacked a force of 80 kamikazes focusing on picket ships north of Okinawa at dusk. VMF-323 pilots alone downed 23 of the attackers in just a few minutes. Three squadron pilots, including the commander, Major George Axtell, shot down five or more airplanes. The battle was fought under low clouds with showers all around. During their combat tour, Axtell and his men were credited with 124.5 Japanese airplanes shot down, most of them kamikazes.