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?

Marine Corsair squadrons at Okinawa operated both from carriers and from Kadena and Yomitan airfields on the island, once they had been secured. Corsair pilots took off and landed on the two airfields even though Japanese troops still held the southern part of the island. The land-based fighters were primarily responsible for the combat air patrols over the ships since they were not hampered by the limitations of carrier operations.

Corsairs were the first choice for kamikaze interceptions due to their higher speeds and climb performance. Marine fighters were credited with 506 of the some 3,000 Japanese aircraft expended during the battle. Roughly half were kamikazes. Navy fighters and antiaircraft accounted for most of the rest. Less than 10 percent of the kamikaze aircraft managed to actually mount attacks.

Other Allied Corsair Operators

In addition to the Corsairs operated by the Navy and Marine Corps, the British Royal Navy and the New Zealand Air Force also took deliveries of new birds straight from the factories. The first Royal Navy Corsairs were delivered in November 1943. Royal Navy pilots were sent to the United States to train in the new airplanes, then were sent to the fleet. Although they were plagued with the same problems as the U.S. Navy in regard to carrier operations, the British squadrons operated off carriers from the beginning.

The demand for Corsairs led United Aircraft to license Brewster Aircraft and Goodyear to build the airplanes, including many of the British airplanes. After the initial delivery of 95, British Corsairs were delivered with eight inches clipped off the wings to allow easier storage aboard carriers.

British Corsairs flew their first combat missions in April 1944 in support of a Royal Navy strike against the German battleship Tirpitz, which was cloistered in a Norwegian fjord. A few days after the Corsair involvement in attacks on the Tirpitz, Royal Navy Corsairs went into operation in the Indian Ocean. The Royal Navy equipped 13 of its squadrons with Corsairs, a total of 225 airplanes. British Corsairs operated off Royal Navy carriers in the Pacific during the final months of the war, participating in air strikes in bypassed areas of the Southwest Pacific as well as Okinawa and Japan itself. Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a Canadian flying with the Royal Navy, was awarded the Victoria Cross for attacking and sinking a Japanese destroyer off Honshu on August 9, 1945.

New Zealand received more than 400 Corsairs, and the first squadron became operational in May 1944 on Espiritu Santo. With Rabaul bypassed, the war was moving north, and the Kiwi Corsair squadrons were assigned primarily to ground-attack missions against isolated Japanese positions on islands that had been bypassed.

The other primary user of the Corsair was France, although the French did not begin operating the Vought fighters until after World War II had come to an end. After receiving a number of former U.S. Marine Corsairs that had fought in Korea, France contracted with Chance-Vought for 94 new planes, and the assembly lines were reopened and production continued from 1952 to 1953. Consequently, the Corsair had the longest production history of any U.S. reciprocating engine fighter.

A Misleading 11 to 1 Kill-Loss Ratio

While the Corsair is sometimes depicted as the finest Allied fighter of the war, its record is actually mixed. U.S. Marine and Navy Corsair pilots were credited with shooting down 2,140 Japanese planes with a kill-loss ratio of 11 to 1, the lowest loss rate of any fighter of the Pacific War. But the statistics are misleading. The air-to-air role of the Corsair was primarily in the Solomons and Rabaul campaigns, and once the war moved farther north, Corsair squadrons saw less opportunity for air-to-air combat and less exposure to attack by Japanese aircraft.

Most of the leading Corsair aces racked up their scores from August 1942 after the invasion of Guadalcanal to January 1944 when the skies over Rabaul were secured. After that, Corsair operations were primarily in the ground-attack role except for the few weeks in December 1944 during the battle for Leyte. Marine Corsair squadrons were heavily involved in defending the fleet against kamikaze attacks, but the suicide pilots were not trained for air-to-air combat.

Other fighter types—particularly Navy and Marine F6Fs and Army P-38s and P-47s—saw considerably more air-to-air combat than the F4Us during the last 18 months of the war. The accident rate for the Corsair was deplorable. Only 189 F4Us were lost in air-to-air combat, while 349 fell to ground fire, but 692 were lost in nonoperational accidents. Operational losses (accidents during combat) claimed 230 of the bent-wing birds.

World War II’s Last American Fighter

The Corsair was the only World War II operational fighter that continued in production after the war ended. While production of Grumman F6Fs ceased, Corsair production continued into the 1950s as F4Us remained in Navy and Marine service, primarily in the ground-attack role. The Navy also used Corsairs in the night-fighter role, and Navy Lieutenant Guy Bordelon achieved ace status by shooting down five enemy planes, making him the only Navy ace of the Korean War as well as the only ace of the war to make all of his kills in a propeller airplane. He was most likely the last propeller ace in history.

One Corsair pilot was credited with bringing down a Japanese plane by chopping off its tail with his propeller. Marine Lieutenant R.R. Klingman was attempting to intercept a twin-engine Japanese bomber at high altitude off Okinawa when his guns iced up due to the extreme cold and would not fire. Not willing to let the enemy plane escape and perhaps dive into the side of a ship, Klingman pulled up behind the bomber and let his propeller eat into its tail.

The tail came off, and the bomber spun to earth out of control. Although he lost five inches of his propeller, Klingman managed to land safely and was awarded the Navy Cross for the mission. It was not the first time a Corsair brought down an enemy plane by direct contact. The first Japanese plane brought down by a Corsair was the result of a midair collision.

Corsairs continued in military service with several countries through the 1950s and 1960s, although the U.S. Navy retired the type after the Korean War. French Corsairs flew in Indochina and Algeria. The last combat use of Corsairs was in 1969 during a conflict between El Salvador and Honduras, both of which operated the type.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network on December 16, 2018 and is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Wikimedia.