The F4U Corsair: A World War II Legend, Explained

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Here's what to keep in mind: The Corsair was the only operational WWII fighter to continue production after the war ended.

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Thanks to the fairly far-fetched television series Black Sheep Squadron from the mid-1970s, the curved image of Chance-Vought's F4U Corsair is undoubtedly one of the most lively WWII fighters in the minds of most Americans. The dark blue shapes of the squadron's corsairs appeared on the screen every week and excited millions who watched the fictional exploits of men by VMF-214, the United States Marine Corps' fighter squadron commanded by legendary Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington 1943 over the Solomon Islands against dark Japanese aces in the sky.
The events portrayed in the series were fictional, but the planes were real, and the series was based on real men who had fought the same type of combat against the Japanese a few decades earlier when the winged Corsair symbolized Marine Corps Aviation.
Development on the F4U Corsair
The Corsair was the first of several successful fighters built around Pratt & Whitney's R-2800 double wasp engine. This was named because of the double-cylinder, nine-cylinder engine that was designed to boost the performance of the company's famous Wasp engine. The United Aircraft vought division submitted the draft of a new fighter aircraft request that the U.S. Navy submitted in early 1938 for a high-performance carrier-based fighter that would be able to achieve and maintain air superiority over the fleet.
In order to use the powerful engine as efficiently as possible, the Vought design team decided on a particularly large propeller that extended the length of the fuselage by several feet so that the ends of the propeller blades did not reach the ground and unique wings also led to the aircraft. The elongated nose severely restricted visibility, especially when the plane was on the ground, which made it difficult to roll the Corsair. It also limited forward visibility during the critical approach, as the pilot would see the end of the runway completely disappear if the aircraft was in the short final. Unfortunately, the lack of forward visibility adversely affected the Corsair's capabilities as a carrier aircraft, although this would turn out to be a bonus for the Marines in the early days of the war, when high-performance aircraft were very important.
The size of the support also led to the most famous features of the Corsair. Instead of using a longer landing gear that is difficult to stow in the wing of an aircraft that is designed for use outside of aircraft carriers, the designers decided to bend the wing into a seagull shape so that the landing gear section of the wing is closer to the ground than the hull. The curved wings made it possible to use shorter struts while keeping the propeller blades off the ground, and gave the hunter the gull-wing look that differentiated corsairs from other WWII fighters. Only the Stuka dive bomber used by the German Air Force in Europe was characterized by a similarly shaped wing.
A top speed of over 400 miles per hour
In the spring of 1940, the prototype Corsair was ready to fly and on May 29, it first climbed from the Vought factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There is confusion about the actual date of the first flight. Some sources say it was April 29, others set the date to May 29 a month later, which is probably the correct date. The design was not flawless and test flights often ended prematurely due to mechanical problems.
The fifth flight ended in disaster when the plane ran out of fuel and had to crash on a golf course. Although the airframe could be saved, the prototype suffered major damage when it crashed, leading to a setback in the test program. It was back in the air in October, and on the first day of the month, the plane made a short flight from the Vought factory in Bridgeport to Hartford and was clocked at an average ground speed of 405 miles per hour.
Modern aviation media experts claim that this is the first time that a fighter has flown faster than 400 miles per hour in level flight, but that's really not true. The reported 400 mph was actually ground speed, ie the actual speed of an aircraft above ground, a combination of true airspeed and a headwind or tailwind correction. In this case, the speed of the Corsair was increased by a significant tail wind. Lockheed's prototype XP-38 had exceeded 400 mph during an overland flight more than a year ago. The P-47 of the Republic, which was still developed with the same engine, would be significantly faster. The official top speed for the first series F4Us was only 405 mph, although later models could reach speeds of over 450 mph.
Marines adopt the F4U
Construction problems hampered the production of the new fighter, and it wasn't until June 1942 that the first production aircraft rolled off the assembly line in Stratton. The Navy received its first F4U a month later. It wasn't long before Navy test pilots realized they were having a problem. The Corsair was difficult to handle, and some wagons later referred to it as The Ensign Eliminator because an experienced pilot had to be able to handle it at the edges of the flight area.
The long-nose vision problems were the most serious. As a result, the Corsair failed the carrier tests and it took two years for the Navy to approve it for ship operations. In the meantime, the Marine Corps' fighter squadrons in the Southwest Pacific had fought with outdated Grumman F4F Wildcats and needed something that could intercept high-altitude Japanese bombers. With the Navy rejecting the F4U as a fleet fighter, the Department of the Navy decided to give the Marines the Corsair and adopt the Grumman F6F Hellcat as the Navy's main fighter.
Both the Navy and Marine Corps were injured by a decent fighter in 1942, but due to heavy carrier losses in the Coral Sea and Midway battles, naval aviation was temporarily removed from the war and could wait until new carriers could be launched and ready so that the sea can equip its squadrons. The Grumman F6F Hellcat, which used the same engine as the Corsair, was under development. Deliveries should begin soon, so the Navy took him over as the main fleet fighter.
The Marines, on the other hand, had been sent to the South and Southwest Pacific, where the Pacific Ocean forces were fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal. The Corps' F4F wildcats lacked the power to intercept the Japanese bombers who regularly came to blow up Henderson Field, although superior naval pilots could do more than beat the Japanese bombers and fighters if they could gain altitude in front of the enemy Airplanes reached their destinations or when they came to lower altitudes, where they were more evenly coordinated.
The Army's P-39 and P-40 were also stationed in Henderson as part of the "Cactus Air Force", and although they were in some ways superior to the wildcat, in which the pilot had to manually crank the landing gear after takeoff they were still unable to gain altitude in time to intercept a bomber formation. The Corsair's performance was promising, although the battle of Guadalcanal was decided at the time of the fight. As a result, Marine F4Us would see the service primarily in the role of escort and ground attack, rather than an interceptor.
First fight for the corsair
VMF-124 was the first naval squadron to receive corsairs, and in late 1942 the squadron was operational. They were immediately dispatched to Guadalcanal and arrived on the night of February 11-12. The next morning the squadron went on a rescue mission. Before the day was over, squadron aircraft had logged nine hours in the air. On February 13, a flight of 12 corsairs from VMF-124 accompanied the B-24 bombers of the 13th Air Force to Bougainville, the longest escort mission of the war in the Solomon Islands at the time.
The Corsair's first exposure to air-to-air combat took place the following day, when VMF-124 contributed multiple aircraft to a joint task force consisting of P-38 and P-40 from the Army, Navy Liberators and Marine F4Us. Eight American fighters and two bombers were lost, including a pair of corsairs, one of which collided with one of the three Japanese zekes that had died in battle. It was a bad start for the Corsair.
The February 14 casualties temporarily canceled further daytime attacks against Japanese positions, and the combined strength of the Army and Navy liberators turned to the nighttime attack until the strength of the fighters could be built up. Daylight missions only resumed on March 28, when eight VMF-124 Corsairs were part of a strike group against the Shetland Islands. The Marines missed it when seven corsairs reversed along with three of the eight P-38s. The rest of the group got involved in a formation of Japanese Nakijima seaplane fighters and shot down eight of them.
Ken Walsh: First Corsair ace
Four days later, the Corsair pilots made a name for themselves. A flight of corsairs had just been relieved on the air patrol over the Russell Islands by a flight of P-38 when a large number of Japanese fighters attacked the army formation. The Marines returned to battle and the combined force made up 20 Japanese aircraft. Three were credited to 2nd Lieutenant Ken Walsh of VMF-124, who would become the first Corsair ace and later be awarded the Medal of Honor. Walsh was a former soldier who had recently been commissioned but 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 the VMF-124 missed another major air battle on April 7 because the squadron had traveled to Australia for rest and relaxation three days earlier when VMF-213 arrived at Henderson Field. When the radar picked up a large number of Japanese aircraft heading for the Russells, 76 fighters, including the Army P-38 and P-39 and Navy F4Fs and -F4Us, were sent to them. Army pilots were credited with 13 of the 39 Japanese planes that crashed that day - the rest were given to naval and naval fighters.
VMF-124 was back in action in May, and Ken Walsh became the first Corsair ace on the 13th when he shot down three Zekes and increased his total to six. Such victories as Walshs over the three Zeros proved that the previously feared Zero was no longer superior to the US Navy fighters. By mid-August, Walsh had shot down 10 Japanese aircraft and was now a double ace. On August 15, Walsh shot down three more Japanese planes before his Corsair was shot in one action by another when the Marines were outnumbered. Walsh repeatedly dived into the Japanese formation before his plane was taken out of action. VMF-124 pilots took 10 wins that day.
On August 30, Walsh performed another heroic deed that, together with the events of August 15, would lead to the Medal of Honor. He was part of a mission that Navy Liberators escorted against Kahili Airfield in Bougainville when his plane suffered an engine failure and he was forced to land in 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 followed. He shot down four before his own corsair was shot down and he went into the sea. He was saved and soon returned home to receive the Medal of Honor. He would return to the Pacific for another battle tour in Corsairs with VMF-222 in the Philippines and end the war with 21 confirmed kills, the last being a kamikaze that he shot down during the Battle of Okinawa.
The Swashbucklers
The most famous of the Corsair squadrons was VMF-214, largely thanks to the fame of one of its commanders. The squadron entered combat a few days after VMF-124, but was equipped with F4F Wildcats during its first tour. After a pause and re-outfitting 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 pilot Al Jensen shot down a Japanese Jake fighter and two zekes to the two victories he achieved when flying Wildcats.
Jensen received the Navy Cross on August 28 when he attacked the Japanese airfield in Kahili. He was officially credited with 15 devastated planes, but the next day aerial photographs showed 24 devastated planes in the field. In early September, squadron workers traveled to Australia to prepare for the return to the United States. When they left the squadron, it was disbanded and a new unit named that was formed on site.
Major Gregory Boyington and the black sheep
Author and Hollywood producer Stephen J. Cannell portrayed the men of VMF-214 in his 1970s Black Sheep Squadron television series as a drunken group of outsiders, a representation that the aging veterans who made up the unit did not well received. While the description might fit their commander, Major Gregory Boyington, who had a reputation for being a hell conjurer and dissatisfied who couldn't get on with his superiors, the squadron actually consisted of pilots from different backgrounds scattered across the South Pacific in non-flying positions or who had arrived at the theater as a replacement but had not been assigned to combat units.
Boyington was a pre-war Marine Corps pilot who had left duty to fight with the American Volunteer Group in China, apparently to make money to pay off his huge pile of debt. Despite being credited with six Japanese planes, including 3.75 on the ground, he got into trouble with General Claire Chennault and left the group for AWOL, an act for which he was dishonoredly released. Normally, this would probably have ended his career in military aviation, but there were few experienced fighter pilots in mid-1942, and after he returned to the States, the Marines took him back and gave him the rank of major.
Boyington went to Guadalcanal in early 1943 and, after serving as a staff officer, took command of VMF-122, which was still equipped with wildcats. He was constantly bumping into a supervisor with whom he had a pre-war history, and in mid-September he was in an administrative position in which he brought newly arrived replacement pilots with fighter squadrons.
There was a lack of combat units in the Solomon Islands, and someone, allegedly Boyington, suggested creating a new squadron made up of pilots who were already in the theater but not assigned to any combat units. According to Boyington's memoir, he was responsible for assigning replacement pilots to squadrons at the front desk and suggested that he be allowed to form his own squadron. Perhaps to get him out of the hair, Marine Air Wing One staff apparently agreed to the plan, and Boyington was appointed commander of a new VMF-214.
26 pilots were contracted, including eight that had been with Boyington in VMF 122, one pair that had flown with other Corsair squadrons, three that had flown with the Royal Canadian Air Force, four that had taught in Corsairs in the United States had. and some who had flown wildcats. All in all, the men of the soon-to-be-famous squadron were a fairly experienced bunch. The original VMF-214 pilots were sent back to the U.S., and the new unit decided to forego the old Swashbucklers name to get a new one that better reflected their previous status as non-family pilots - Black Sheep.
The Black Sheep moved to their base in the Russell Islands in September and flew their first combat mission on the 14th. Over the next few months, they have set one of the most impressive combat records of any military airline in history. Over 84 days of combat, the VMF-214 men were credited with over 200 Japanese aircraft destroyed or damaged in the air and on the ground, as well as dozens of barges and other ground targets. Almost 100 of their killings - 94 confirmed - were air-to-air.
Her commander, Major Boyington, led the pack. When he was shot down over Rabaul on January 3, 1944, he was credited with 22 victories. His AVG victories brought his total to 28. Boyington was captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. After the war he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Not long after the loss of their commander, VMF-214 was disbanded after being given a quote from the presidential unit. The designation would reappear later in the war as a Corsair squadron departing from the USS Franklin.
Charles Lindberg joins the Corsair program
It was the Corsair that led to the role of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh in the Second World War. Lindbergh was blackened by the White House general and the U.S. Air Force, General Henry H. Arnold, because of his outspoken opposition to U.S. participation in the war in Europe and the resignation of his commission as a colonel in the Army Air Corps before the war . In early 1942, United Aircraft President Eugene Wilson, a friend of Lindbergh's, offered him a job at the company, but the offer was withdrawn due to pressure from the White House.
Lindbergh instead went to Henry Ford, who was not afraid of the Roosevelt administration and whose huge company was desperately needed to produce war materials, including the Consolidated Aircraft Company's B-24 Liberator, the Republic's P-47 Thunderbolt fighter and the Pratt & Whitney family of engines. After Lindbergh was involved in high altitude research on fighters, Wilson considered his relationship with the White House and asked Lindbergh to work for him in the Corsair program. Initially Lindbergh commuted between the two companies, but in the spring of 1944 worked exclusively for United in research and development. As an experienced military pilot, he flew corsairs during maneuvers with naval units and once involved two of the best fighter pilots in the corps in a fictitious aerial battle and beat them both. He was a man who knew the Corsair, and the leaders of Marine Aviation knew it.
Lindbergh's involvement in the Corsair brought him into contact with many members of the military, and in spring 1944 he attended a meeting with representatives of the Marine Corps in Washington, DC. During the meeting, Lindbergh mentioned that United had received conflicting reports of single- and twin-engined fighters, and he thought it would be a good idea for someone with significant Corsair experience to visit Pacific Navy units and watch first-hand combat.
Marine Brig. General Louis Wood said, "Why don't you go?" Lindbergh replied that his relationship with the White House was not very good. Wood said the White House did not need to know and that he would make the necessary arrangements for the trip.
Lindberg in the fight with the F4U
In April 1944, Lindbergh, as a technical representative of Corsair, traveled to the South Pacific with permission to fly missions as an observer. The first leg of the trip was an overland flight to bring a Corsair to the marine airbase in El Toro, California. He stayed in California for a few days, visited naval fighter squadrons and spoke to the pilots. His next stop was Hawaii, where he took the time to visit bases and meet fighter pilots, including a visit to the Midway Atoll before continuing on to the South Pacific. He visited with naval squadrons from Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal and began flying combat missions from Green Island on May 22nd.
High-ranking naval officers were initially reluctant to allow a civilian to fly combat missions, but when some flights to test the water had no effect, the lone eagle in the South Pacific sky was released. By June 10, he had flown 13 missions, including escort missions and streaking attacks on Japanese barges. Lindbergh left the Marines for a while to fly with the P-38 Army, but made several more weeks with Navy Squadrons in Kwajalein and Tarawa before returning to the United States. He wanted to spend a few days in Guam, but decided to stop in the Marshall Islands first.
On his second visit to the Marines, the experienced aviator taught the Corsair pilots new bombing techniques and convinced them that the fighter could carry much larger bombs than they thought. He proved to the Marines that the Corsair was able to carry a £ 3,000 bomb load on September 3, 1944, when he dropped three £ 1,000 bombs on Wotje Atoll. On September 8, he dropped the first £ 2,000 bomb ever delivered by a Corsair in another attack on Wotje. Five days later, he raised the stake to £ 4,000 when he took off with a £ 2,000 bomb and two £ 1,000 bombs to carry out another attack.
Lindbergh also taught the Marines how to save fuel by using lower revs and higher manifold pressure, a technique that extended the combat range of the fighters by several hundred miles. He had taught army pilots the same technique, a technique that allowed fighter pilots to escort bombers much deeper into Japanese territory than ever before.
The Royal Navy demonstrates the F4U's carrier-borne capabilities
While the Marines gained the reputation of the Corsair, the aircraft was designed to operate outside of carriers and was originally intended to operate with the fleet. But for more than a year, the Navy limited its corsairs to landbase operations with naval squadrons.
It was up to the British to prove that the huge hunter could be operated from ships. The Royal Navy bought corsairs for naval use, and it was the Royal Navy pilots who eventually developed a method by which the long-nosed aircraft could land on aircraft carriers. Instead of aligning several thousand feet in front of the carrier deck during a normal landing, the British pilots began to take a sweeping approach that allowed them to keep the landing signal officer in sight until the plane was in the landing groove, and that was it It’s just about cutting off the power and letting the plane touch the deck and snap the wires into place. Since the fighters were stopped by holding the equipment and towed or pushed off the flight deck, taxiing was not necessary.
The funny Rogers
The U.S. Navy opted for the method and began equipping some of its own fighter squadrons with corsairs. As the war in the Solomon Islands ended, she planned to deploy several naval squadrons aboard ships once the pilots were qualified as carriers.
The first US Navy Corsair squadron to witness the fight was VF-17, the Jolly Rogers. VF 17 was organized in early 1943 for use by the Bunker Hill porter, one of the first “fast porters” in the Essex class. However, special considerations led to his role as a land-based unit.
The Corsair was not a popular aircraft in the Navy, and many pilots wanted nothing to do with it. VF-17 commander, Lt. Cmdr. John Blackburn was no exception, but he decided that the plane had some redeeming factors. After flying it for a while, he was convinced that it was indeed an excellent hunter. The squadron trained in Norfolk, Virginia, and on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Shortly after taking off in Quincy, Massachusetts, in July 1943, it joined the airline in Norfolk.
The Corsair's problems were obvious to Blackburn and the pilots of his squadron, but he declined to decline an offer to replace his F4Us with the new Grumman F6F Hellcat, which was just being added to the marine inventory. Bunker Hill made its way across the Panama Canal and San Diego in September to the Pacific. The VF-17 men had expected to fly farther into the Pacific and fly from the airline for a combat tour, but the plan changed suddenly immediately after Bunker Hill left San Diego. Blackburn was ordered to return his planes and men to San Diego. Instead of participating in the first Essex-class operation, they were sent to Espiritu Santo on land.
The VF-17 men had proven they could operate the F4U from a carrier, but there was another problem. As the only Corsair operational squadron in the Navy, VF-17 would face some unique supply problems when using its fleet. Maintaining the squadron's aircraft would require special supplies of aircraft parts, and it would be difficult to procure spare parts for a single squadron in time through normal supply channels. To solve the problem, the Navy decided to deploy the squadron in the Solomon Islands, where the Marines already had a number of squadrons flying F4Us and there were already sufficient spare parts.
Neutralize Rabaul
VF-17 arrived in Guadalcanal in late October and then drove north to its new base in New Georgia. Over the next few months, the VF-17 men set an impressive record when 13 squadrons reached Ace status. During a mission in early November, members of the squadron landed on Bunker Hill to refuel and upgrade during the first carrier attacks on Rabaul.
Operations around Rabaul were the focus of the VF 17 missions. The Army's Fifth Air Force had been deployed against the Japanese fortress to harass missions for more than a year. With the victory of the Allies in the Solomon Islands, however, the Americans could concentrate on the heavily defended target and allow the Fifth Air Force to pay attention to New Guinea. VF-17 fighters made up 60.5 Japanese aircraft in January alone when the battle against Rabaul reached its peak.
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 reinforcements and supplies. The war began to move north into the Central Pacific, and the Japanese forces that defended Rabaul were bypassed after Japan decided to stop trying to compensate for its aircraft losses. As things went on around Rabaul, the intensity of the struggle declined. In early March, VF-17 was replaced and the squadron deactivated.
Close air support in the Battle of Bloody Ridge
Throughout the Solomon Islands campaign, Navy F4U squadrons and the Navy Corsairs' individual squadron were mainly involved as escort fighters and in attacks on Japanese coastal facilities and airfields, with frequent forays into the hunt for ships against Japanese coastal shipping. When Japanese air defense lost its strength, the Corsair squadrons were trained to work in the role of air support, a mission that developed during the battle for Guadalcanal with Marine F4Fs and Army P-39s.
The Marine Corps had become aware of the value of an airstrike to support troops closely in the 1920s when the Corps was involved in operations in Central America, but few steps had been taken to implement it as a naval aviation mission. The concept of air support became part of marine science in the 1930s, but was hardly taken into account when planning the Guadalcanal invasion.
A handful of missions were flown by F4F pilots at the start of the campaign, but it wasn't until the Battle of Bloody Ridge that air support proved critical.

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