F4U Corsair: Blue Meanie
Between 1941 and 1952, the Chance Vought Corporation hammered out 12,500 handsome fighters with powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radials driving Hamilton Standard propellers with a span so great—more than 13 feet—the fighter’s wing had to be bent into an inverted gull to afford the props ground clearance. (The landing gear descended from the low point of the wing.) At the time, the engine-propeller combination was the largest ever flown on a fighter, and it gave the Corsair a speed of 400 mph, which delighted Vought’s customer, the Navy. Poor pilot visibility, however, made the aircraft almost impossible to land on a carrier. And that’s how the Corsair came to join the Marines. Initially land-based, it went on to become the most ferocious and famous Marine fighter of World War II.
Most people were introduced to the lovely deep blue of the Corsair by a 1970s television series, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which loosely dramatized the exploits of the best-known Corsair ace: Between September 1943 and January 1944, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington shot down 26 Japanese aircraft. But students of aviation history know that the Corsair was also a danger to Japanese ground troops; it won the nickname “Angel of Okinawa” for the role it played in supporting ground forces in the battle for that island, a mission it continued to fly in the Korean War.
In one of the most famous actions in Korea, the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, Marine air groups flew 154 sorties in one day, November 30, 1950, to help their brothers on the ground escape Chinese soldiers, who heavily outnumbered the Americans. Aided by the air strikes, the Marines began fighting their way to the coast. Marine rifleman John Cole, recorded on a CD accompanying the book 100 Years of Marine Corps Aviation, recalls what it was like to have Corsairs on his side during the desperate march to safety:
“The Corsairs would come in and help drive the Chinese off when they had roadblocks set up [to impede the retreat]. They’d gone up the valley just about dusk and were gone for a while and when it got a little closer to dark, here came three of them back down the valley, and the Chinese knew, ‘Okay it’s getting dark and they have to get back home and so that’s the end of their air support.’ And all along this ridge, you could see the fires light up because they were in the trees where they could get wood to burn. And they just got their fires going good, and everybody was getting around them to do whatever, with their rice and what have you, and here came that fourth Corsair down the valley. And you could hear his guns just a hammering. And he went right down that ridge, and boy, you talk about the lights going out. Of course all of the guys that were walking—and most of the wounded, all the guys that could walk, walked; you needed space for all the dead and those that couldn’t walk on the trucks; we were several miles long with that convoy getting out of there—and you could hear the guys yelling and screaming, ‘Hey! Way to go, flyboys!’ ”