Corsair Pilots Tell Their Stories

By Frank Lorey ©2012

Over seventy years ago, in 1938, the Navy came up with a specification for a new carrier-based fighter, with the Bell, Grumman, and Vought companies entering designs in the competition. The Vought prototype flew in May, 1940, and eventually the experimental version became the United States' first 400 MPH single-engine fighter, winning the contract.

Around 15,000 Corsairs were built between 1940 and 1952, and the fighter saw American service in both World War II and Korea, being phased out of reserve service in 1957. In World War II, the Corsair achieved a 3-to-1 victory ratio over the Japanese. The long-lived plane continued in foreign service until the early 1980's, with the result that many have been available for preservation and restoration by collectors.

General Bob Owen was a Marine Corsair pilot who started his career at Pensacola in 1939 flying VG-1's, the Great Lakes biplane dive bomber. He transitioned into SBD Dauntless dive bombers, went to Hawaii, got married, and then the war started.

"I got married in October, 1940, and since the war started in December, I had a pretty short honeymoon," he lamented. Since almost all the American aircraft in Hawaii were shot up, Owen was sent back to Santa Barbara, arriving the day after a Japanese submarine had shelled the oilfield at nearby Goleta.

"The locals thought we were the Marine reinforcements, and were very glad to see us," Owen recalled. His job at Santa Barbara was to form the 240th Fighter Group, and eventually the 215th Fighter Squadron. They had to re-train on the SNJ Texan, old models of the F4F Wildcat, and then on to the new F4U Corsairs.

"We were flying the old 'birdcage' model Corsair, with a large cushion on back of the seat, and lots of torque when the engine started. I never thought it would be a good carrier plane--it bounced a lot," Owen stated, adding that "if you bounced and missed the hook, you had lots of problems."

Owen was sent back to Hawaii, based at a tiny rock in the ocean--French Frigate Shoals.  The island only had enough room for the airstrip, and crewmen based there had to stay on an old ship that had been put around for that reason. He became the Executive Officer of the 215th Fighter Squadron for three combat tours in the Pacific. They were based in and around the Bouganville Island area. Most of the mission were ground-strafing attacks, hitting enemy airfields. The squadron also had a total of 137 1/2 aerial victories. Owen himself accounted for seven of the total, leading to a few interesting stories.

"One time I saw a 'Tony', and I was going about 100 knots faster than he was. I hit him, but then my wingman fired after I went by and damaged my plane," Owen related, adding that he had to "land in the ocean, a beautiful landing between the waves in the troughs, and I was picked up about 30 minutes later.

"Another time I had taken a student pilot up, but ran into Zeros," he recalled.  "When Zeros were all around you push the throttle as fast as you can, which I did, but the student pilot passed me three times on the way down and back," Owen stated.

General Owen went on to compare the two main Navy fighters of the time--the F6F Hellcat and the Corsair, saying that the Corsair was faster and better at diving, but the Hellcat was a better carrier plane, easier for inexperienced pilots to handle.

Second Lt. Roger Conant was General Bob Owen's wing-man for three years, and had joined up with the squadron with only about 200 hours total flying time. He had been taken out to a Corsair, and in about fifteen minutes all the switches and controls were pointed out to him, then he was told that he was on his own.

"I went out a circled a brush fire for a while, came back and landed, and the next day I was sent overseas," said Conant. He felt the Corsair was a tough plane to fly--"it had poor front visibility with the nose 13 feet in the air, and night take-offs were really hazardous, since until the tail wheel lifted off you couldn't see where you were going."

Conant did say that the Corsair "was a beautiful plane in flight--once it was airborne you could get it to do anything you wanted." He recalled one particular mission where the Corsairs were escorting B-24 Liberators to Bouganville. The fighters job was to weave back and forth in the midst of the bombers, providing cover from enemy fighters.

"We saw 30 or 40 Zeros and Tonys hanging around in the distance, and once the B-24's dropped their bombs they flew into the clouds," adding that "we told them if they went into the clouds they would have no escort."

"We took off after the Zeros and Tonys, and I saw a Tony on Bob's tail," Conant related.  He thought that the Tony would get to his leader before he could get to the Tony, but Conant was able to close faster.

"I shot him up pretty good, hit the fuel tank, and he went straight down," Conant remembered. At that point, another Zero took out after him, causing Conant to dive away from trouble.

"That night, Tokyo Rose said that Corsair pilots turned tail and went home when Zeros showed up, and I knew she was taking about me," he related. The victory that day was just one of Conant's total of six enemy kills.

Conant had also flew the F4F briefly before his time in the F4U Corsair, where he became an ace. He was flying the F7F Tigercat when the war ended, and flew F6F Hellcats after the war.

“I went to the airlines for about five years, and then was called back into the Marine Corps for Korea, flying the F9F,” Conant said. He went to work for Douglas Aircraft after Korea, and flew just about everything they had—the A3D, A4D, and ended up with what became his favorite aircraft—the DC-10.

About his experience with warbirds, Conant remarked that he “didn’t really like the Wildcat, it was a good airplane, but I didn’t fly it much. The Corsair gave us a pretty good advantage over the Zero, it was dependable.”

Two Corsair pilots had remarkable careers flying in the F4U. Both became quite famous for their exploits in the Marine fighter.

Archie Donahue made the transition to the F4U Corsair from the F4F Wildcat, and it made quite a difference to him—“I was flying the Corsair, and we had to get into engagements—we couldn’t get into them that often.” Donahue was one of the real rarities—he shot down five enemy aircraft in one day twice.

“I didn’t think it could happen [again], and it was on my last flight, off a carrier at Okinawa,” recalled Donahue. He added that they “ran into a flight of 16 [enemy aircraft], I got five, and we got all of them.”

Col. Jim Swett was awarded the Medal of Honor for destroying seven Japanese aircraft in one day while flying the Corsair. He recalled that action as happening so fast that he "didn't know Zeros were in the air or where they were." He was operating off Guadalcanal with Fighter Two, and was shot down to conclude his eventful day of action, just off Tulagi.

"I landed in a couple thousand feet of water, but it only took 15-20 minutes to get rescued as a Coast Guard picket boat saw me hit the water," he recalled. Swett ended the war with 15 1/2 confirmed victories, and another four probables.

Major Bob Porter flew just about everything the Marines had--the F4F Wildcat, F4U Corsair, and F6F Hellcat. He only flew the Hellcat as a night fighter, however.

"My favorite was the Corsair, since I flew that right after the Wildcat. It had power, and its performance was incredible," Porter remembered. He ended the war with five victories confirmed and another one as a probable.

Wally Thompson entered the service in October, 1941 as a Naval Cadet. He was given the opportunity to switch to the Marine Corps, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in August, 1942, mainly because, as he put it--”I could put holes in the target sleeve, and no one else could.” After flying the F4F Wildcat, he transitioned to the Corsair in June 1943, training at Pearl Harbor, then going on to serve three combat tours with VMF-211 at places such as Espiritu Santo and the Solomon Islands.

“I was on the flight that Pappy Boyington was shot down,” Thompson recalled, relating that “there were lots of clouds that day.” Boyington decided to drop down through the clouds, flying along at sea level. Thompson said that they couldn’t see him after he dropped below the clouds, and “when we got back we were shocked that he was lost.”

Once, in the Solomon Islands, Thompson was assigned to test out a Corsair that had a replacement wing due to an accident. He started down the runway and got to around 60 knots when the wing came off.

“I saw I was headed into a group of P-40’s [Warhawks] that were at the other end of the runway.  The plane fortunately veered off to the side and into a swamp,” Thompson remembered, saying that “I did complain about that one.”

Another close call came when he was flying an F4F at night, up at 10,000 feet. His engine quit cold, but Thompson managed to get back. Later in his career, while serving back in the States as a test pilot at Patuxent River, another incident came to mind.

“I was flying a F7F [Tigercat], shooting the 20-mm. cannons at a target 40 miles offshore.  There was lots of smoke, too much smoke for the oxygen mask to help,” Thompson related. When he got back, everyone was looking at his aircraft. The guns had misfired and shot out the whole nose section.

Thompson did score victories over two Japanese Zeros at Rabaul. His group was on a “48-plane sweep at 25,000 feet, watching all five Jap bases, and we could see the dust clouds as they rose up.” The action started when they spotted two Zeros about 5,000 feet below their flight.

“I went into a steep dive into them, and the wingman broke back and forth, eventually even flying upside down,” Thompson recalled. The leader just kept flying straight and level, apparently not seeing either the motions of his wingman or the approaching Corsair.  Thompson eventually shot both of them down.

Lt. Jack Callahan got right into the Corsair in training at Santa Barbara, where three or four squadrons were learning how to fly the new high-powered fighter. Callahan kept getting held back at the state-side base when the time came to go overseas, mainly because they wanted him to serve as ordinance officer, engineering test pilot, and accident investigator at various times.

He finally got to get into the action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa late in the war, serving alongside F6F Hellcat squadrons on the USS Bennington with VMF-112. He recalled the action as “fast and furious.” Callahan said “I was never really mad about going to war, but I was when I found out they were firing real bullets at us.” He also almost got shot down by his own wingman.

“Four of us Corsairs were in a dive over our carrier, my wingman was drunk and decided to charge his guns,” Callahan remembered. “I got hit in the windshield, got glass in my eyes, and the wind was tremendous,” he added. The other planes were allowed to land first and get out of the way.

“I came in and caught the #2 wire, but all the time I was circling I was throwing glass out of the cockpit,” Callahan recalled. Those on the deck of the carrier were not too happy with him, as several of the chunks hit the deck and scattered like shrapnel.

Callahan was strapped to a litter and carried to the sick bay, where a doctor added medicine and novocaine to his eyes. He was told to keep his goggles on so that he would not rub his eyes.

Callahan summed up his experiences saying that he “had a lot of wonderful times flying the Corsair.” He recalled flying many “gas calibration hops” in training, and saw many celebrities at the Santa Barbara base. “Joe Foss [Marine Ace] was at Santa Barbara also, and Lindbergh came through--lots of famous people,” Callahan said.

Some of his test work came firing rockets out of Inyokern, a remote base in the high desert. Callahan recalled the planes having “eight rockets each, and we went around firing at dry lakes like Muroc.

Mel Locke was also a late entry into the war, serving as a Marine Corsair pilot on an escort carrier out of Hawaii. They usually circled around and came back for a landing on their ship, but one day he did not get the message that their assignment was different.

“The first thing I knew, the leader’s message to us was ‘Which runway do you want to use?’, Locke recalled. Since he had not heard the part about landing on an island, he had no idea of what was going on. They obviously were not used to having a choice of runways on a carrier.

Locke had trained at El Toro with its long runways, and after the war he did occupation service in Japan.  There they had runways as short as 2400 feet, which could go by very quickly.

“At Tokyo Bay, there was a runway that had a sea wall at the end,” he remembered. Locke came in too fast, and realized he was running out of room. The only thing he could think of was to lock the tailwheel. He wound up doing a ground loop.

Locke was brought back into the service for the Korean War in 1952. He was assigned again to El Toro for refresher training in the Corsair, and started F9F Panther simulator training. At that time, his wife gave birth, so he got out of further training to be with her. Since he did not finish with the Panther, the Marines sent him overseas as a Corsair replacement pilot. He was assigned to VMA 323, the “Death Rattlers.”

Locke had a memorable time in Korea, serving with former New York Yankee Jerry Coleman, who later went on to become a San Diego Padres broadcaster and manager. Coleman was a “hot-shot” jet pilot, and liked to pull a few pranks. One of his favorites was go into a dive right over the mess hall, causing a sonic boom that sounded like a 500-lb. bomb going off.

“One day he did it while a general was in the mess hall,” Locke remembered. Coleman got caught, and was about to be sent to Japan, which would mean an early return to the United States. Coleman pleaded with the general, and was asked what his secondary specialty was, which turned out to be forward air controller.

“He got the duty for our squadron--calling out targets, and assessing the damage afterward,” Locke said. Since Coleman was friends with Locke, he always gave them 100% marks on target, which “usually didn’t happen, but he gave it to us.”

The Corsairs were valued in Korea, even though they were well past their prime, because they could stay over a target for up to four hours. They could also be used for just about any mission. Locke remembered missions with the “daisy cutters,” a bomb that exploded into one-inch shrapnel that would cover about 100 yards.

Locke had some excitement while testing out a plane that had a replacement tail hook.  He came in high and fast, lowered the nose, cut the throttle, and hit six wires with none catching. He hit the brakes, but still went over the side.

“Someone threw me a life raft, and an escort carrier came alongside,” he related. Locke was stripped of everything, and told that “you are ours--we saved your life.” They rigged a “breeches buoy” to send him back over to the carrier, but had a little fun while at it. While he was suspended between the two ships, the destroyer would move in close, dropping him into the water, then backing away to rocket him up into the air. Officers on the carrier told them to knock it off, and the experience was enough to convince Locke to never put a plane into the water again. He finished off his service as a flight instructor.

Phil De Groot served in both World War II and Korea, flying combat missions in the F4U Corsair fighter.

DeGroot had signed up in 1941, but wasn’t sent off for training until August 1942 as one of fifty recruits from the University of California billed as the “Golden Bears” after the school mascot. Training started at Oakland, then switched to Livermore for three months. He recalled Livermore as “an e-base, for elimination.”

From there it was on to Corpus Christie to fly Stearmans and other trainers including the AT-6/SNJ Texan, where he graduated in February 1943 and joined to Marines.

“We were sent to Opa Locka, Florida, and flew the Brewster Buffalo, which was just plain dangerous,” DeGroot remembered. They also flew the obsolete OS2U, an aircraft meant for launching from catapults and landing on a pontoon.

DeGroot said “from there we were sent to the Great Lakes in SNJ’s for carrier qualifications off the old Wolverine. We had to have a certain wind on the lake, about 30 knots, or we couldn’t take off. The SNJ had a tailhook rigged with clothesline to trip it.”

After the carrier quals were done, DeGroot had a brief leave and then reported to Miramar, California to join with his squadron, VMF-224, to El Toro. At first they had no planes to fly as they were waiting for Corsairs, so they went down to San Diego to fly F4F Wildcats.

“On the way back to El Toro, my engine quit just north of Oceanside,” DeGroot recalled, adding that “I bailed out over the sea, got out low--about 900 feet--and was heading toward a fire burning below.” It turned out to be his aircraft, and the wind from the fire fortunately blew him out of harm’s way.

After receiving the Corsair and training for about 10 hours of flight time at Mohave, they were finally sent overseas. They even got to hear one of the Lindbergh lectures on flying as part of the training.

DeGroot was based at Samoa, Tarawa, Funafuti in the Ellis Islands, and Kwajalien.  Many times at night they were bombed by a single Japanese aircraft, which once got lucky and hit the ammo depot, leaving a crater 40 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep. It took out most of their food supply, also. Most of the missions were to hit the Japanese-held island that were by-passed by the invasion fleet.

After an accident, DeGroot was sent to a hospital in the U.S. and remained stateside for six months. He reported back to El Toro and was sent to Gillespie for the final year and a half of the war, serving as the base commander up until the base closed about three months after the war was over. He recalled the parachute training towers and a large swimming pool that were once part of the facility, but now long since vanished.

DeGroot remained in the civilian reserves and was called back to duty in 1950 for the Korean War. After three months of refresher training as a flight officer, he went over in January 1951 with VMF-223, but only remained in combat until being shot down in April of the same year.

“We were part of the campaign against the North Korean’s spring offensive that had a British regiment surrounded on a hill north of Seoul,” DeGroot stated. Eight Corsairs went on the mission, led by an air controller who directed the bombing at the base of the hill.

DeGroot remembered “the controller called out enemy activity, and I took my wingman down to take a look, but just as I said ‘I don’t see anything’ I got shot in the leg. I tried to fly back, but got faint. I jettisoned the belly tank and made a wheels-up landing.”

He was flown in an L-5 to a MASH outfit, only to find it had moved, so they went to Seoul to a field hospital. It was the end of DeGroot’s war and military career, being mustered out as a Captain.

3 thoughts on “Corsair Pilots Tell Their Stories

  1. I was stationed in the MAMS 13 radio shack Kanehoe Bay 1952/3. Reserve pilots had been called up to practice carrier landing in Corsairs. A lot of time was spent heliarcing cracked wheels.

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