Vought F4U-1a Corsair

I imagine this type needs little introduction.

Let’s take a look at a Corsair flown by the type’s most famous pilot.

The first significant claim of Vought’s F4U fighter was as the first US fighter to top 400 mph in level flight. But the pace of airframe and engine development at the time was such that it soon had plenty of company. It was ordered into production quickly, even as a number of technical and performance issues were still being sorted out.
By the time production samples were arriving in mid-1942, Grumman’s new Hellcat was also entering service. The two types were both powered by Pratt & Whitney’s massive R-2800 radial engine and had broadly similar performance, differing in some interesting details. The Corsair was slightly faster (just over 400 mph, while the Hellcat was just under) with a better rate of climb. While the Hellcat was more ruggedly built and had ease of maintenance built into every aspect of its design. Real differences became apparent when the two types were being evaluated for aircraft carrier operations. It was immediately obvious the Corsair had visibility problems over that long nose, it also had a disturbing tendency to violently roll to starboard when it approached stall. Finally the landing gear was just too stiff, causing dramatic bouncing in all but the gentlest of landings (not ideal on an aircraft carrier!). All these problems would be solvable, in time the Corsair would serve well at sea. But the Hellcat proved to be a good carrier aircraft from the start; with good handling and visibility. The immediate solution was to put the Hellcat on the carriers, while the Marines would get the Corsair.

The rack beneath the fuselage was a bomb rack designed by Brewster. Perhaps their most meaningful contribution to the War effort…

No doubt the Marines were happy with this turn of events. By February of 1943 the Corsair was equipping Marine fighting squadrons on Guadalcanal, the Guadalcanal campaign was wrapping up but the extended Solomons Campaign would be on-going for over a year.
In August of 1943 the administrative entity known as VMF-214 was put under the command of Major Gregory Boyington on New Hebrides. Its a little confusing to sort out exactly what Boyington was given command of at that time. Apparently most pilots, all administrative and maintenance personal and all aircraft had already been assigned as replacements for other squadrons. Boyington showed some initiative and imagination in re-staffing his command. He famously spun the tail as collecting cast-offs and rejects; it might be more accurate to describe it as an administrative hustle, collecting personnel who were between assignments, or missed transport due to illness or other issues. But no doubt Squadron personnel felt like rejects. In September, VMF-214 chose the name “Boyington’s Bastards” and adopted an insignia from medieval heraldry, a shield with a black bar sinister to denote illegitimacy. Marine Public Affairs Officer, Capt Jack DeCamp, vetoed the name and suggested an alternate, “Black Sheep Squadron”. The Squadron accepted the new name, and superimposed a black sheep on their shield insignia, the black bar remained.
VMF-214 arrived in the Russell Islands that same September to begin their first combat tour. They remained for 84 days, scored 203 kills and produced 9 aces. They sank Japanese shipping and destroyed shore installations. The Black Sheep were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
After a week of rest they were re-inserted for a second tour of duty. This tour was more abbreviated, and ended on January 8, 1944. Five days after Major Boyington was shot down and declared “Missing In Action”.

So let’s take a look at the famous Major Boyington. I’ll start with an important disclaimer. Gregory Boyington was NOT the top Marine ace of World War II. I think this confusion starts with his claim of six kills as a Flying Tiger. Even though the AVG officially only credited him with two kills, the Marines took him at his word for publicity purposes (as a mercenary outfit the AVG paid cash bounties for kills, Boyington always claimed they were unfairly strict as a matter of cheapness) and always considered him to already have six kills. So when he beat Eddie Rickenbacher’s World War One total with 28 total kills, he only had 22 as a Marine. That means Joe Foss with 26 kills is the top Marine ace of World War Two (and all time). I think its an important distinction, especially since 4 of those earlier kills were never officially acknowledged by the appropriate authority. And more to the point, the Marines only consider him to have 22 kills.

Gregory Boyington was born in Idaho, 1912. He was part Sioux. After moving to Washington he took up high school wrestling, at which he excelled. He entered the University of Washington in 1930 and joined Army ROTC. During this time he worked in logging and road construction, until graduating with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He got a job as a draftsman for Boeing while serving in the Army Reserves as an artillery Lieutenant.
He attempted to enter the Aviation Cadet training program, but was rejected because he was married. He had recently learned that his father was actually his step-father, so he ordered a copy of his actual birth certificate and learned his birth name was Boyington. So after completing his obligation to the Army he enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the Marine Corp under his birth name. He completed training as a naval aviator in March, 1937. He continued his Marine and aviation education over the following years while participating in the big Fleet Training Problems. In November 1940, now a 1st Lieutenant, he was posted back to Pensacola as an instructor.
He held this position until the following summer when he resigned to become a Flying Tiger. He quickly proved his worth and was made a flight leader. During this time he claimed six kills to make ace, as previously mentioned the AVG only ever credited two aerial kills and 1.5 on the ground. He broke his contract with the AVG in April, 1942 to rejoin the Marine Corp.
The Marines were desperate for experienced pilots at this time and he found himself with a leadership role, while bouncing around the southwest Pacific. But he saw no combat. Until August of 1943 when he was given command of VMF-214. He was given four weeks to get the unit ready for combat, even though the “unit” was more of an organizational chart than anything solid. It was perhaps his greatest accomplishment to improvise a full squadron; 28 pilots, a skeleton staff, and planes that were technically “borrowed”, and turn them into a capable combat unit in the allotted time. At 31 years old he was ten years older than most of his pilots, so they took to calling him “gramps”. This apparently became “Pappy” because of a currently popular song.
He did also prove to be a more than competent combat leader. And a deadly pilot, at one point scoring 14 kills in 32 days. This took a physical toll, Boyington had a serious drinking problem at this time and was inflicted with several tropical ailments. When the Squadron was given a break and sent to Australia for a week of R&R, Boyington was required to remain on station for a brief PR tour. This was because Boyington was now credited with 26 kills (20 as a Marine), which tied with Eddie Rickenbacher and Joe Foss. Breaking Rickenbacher’s record was considered a big deal. Then the second tour started with no break for Boyington. On January 3rd, 1944 Boyington scored two last kills. These were seen by other pilots in the squadron and officially broke the tie. But Boyington was also shot down on this mission. A large search and rescue mission was launched, but it proved futile since he had already been recued, by Japanese submarine I-181.
Gregory Boyington spent most of the next two years as a guest of the Japanese. He was never reported to the Red Cross as a POW, so he was presumed killed in action. He was awarded a “Posthumous” Medal of Honor, and always believed that never would have happened if it had been known he survived (he had a knack for annoying those over him). He also credited the Japanese with “helping” him get sober for the first time as an adult. The alcoholism would become a major problem in his life after he was liberated at the end of the War, but he finally joined AA and spent his later years sober, always claiming he was inspired by memories of how he’d felt as a sober POW.

This aircraft is Boyington’s best known mount, but ironically he probably never flew it in combat. VMF-214 did not assign planes to individual pilots. Partly because their planes were all borrowed, and partly because Marine squadrons rarely considered airplanes property of anything other than a Squadron (Squadron commanders sometimes were an exception, but sometimes not). Pappy Boyington in particular always made a point of flying the plane in the worst condition, of those considered ready for action. Sort of the reverse of the usual privilege of command, but he wanted his pilots to know he would never send them out in a plane he wouldn’t fly. This plane, “White 86”, was chosen for pictures because it was in reasonably good shape, but one source mentioned it was not actually a VMF-214 aircraft. (?) Do they mean in some sense other than fact VMF-214 had no aircraft? I don’t know!
This all meant when time came to give a pilot the full PR treatment, a plane was painted up for that purpose. This plane was prepared for Boyington for photos that were taken while the rest of the pilots were between tours. The only pictures published that showed the name had it partially obscured by a groundcrew’s arm. In later years Pappy always remembered the plane as “Lulubelle”. But a ground crewman who was there thought the plane was named “Lucybelle”. During the War years, between marriage one and two (of four total), Boyington was dating a woman named Lucy Malcolmson. After an ugly break up she ran off with most of his money. Photos that came to light many years later clearly showed it to be “Lucybelle”. Funny he “misremembered” the name!

Gregory Boyington started his combat flying, and made ace if we choose his version of the story, with the Flying Tigers.
The vast majority of Boyington’s combat flying, and The Black Sheep’s first two combat tours, was against A6M2 and A6M3 Zeros in the Solomons.

This is the Tamiya kit with Cutting Edge Decals. The excellent decal set includes options for, and a pretty thorough accounting of four Corsairs associated with Pappy Boyington. White 86 includes a decal for both “Lulu” and “Lucy”.

One of the photos from the December 1943 PR session. Boyington in the cockpit, the ground crewman obscures the actual name of the plane. [photo from “theaviationgeekclub.com”]
After the War, Boyington frequented air shows and signed posters of this photo. He is with a Warbird painted as “his” famous Corsair, painted per “his” memory! [photo taken in 1970. From “theaviationgeekclub.com”]
Years later, this photo surfaced with VMF-214 pilot Jim Hill in White 86. Apparently several pilots found the photo-op bird after returning from Australia and thought it was funny to get their own pictures taken with it. This picture shows part of the name, and the key letters missing from the other picture. Also of interest, the kill flag stickers have been all correctly aligned and burnished into place better! [photo via”theaviationgeekclub.com”]

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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19 Responses to Vought F4U-1a Corsair

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Your best post Dave!

  2. Pingback: Vought F4U-1a Corsair – My Forgotten Hobby

  3. tinkll says:

    I greatly enjoyed your post. In the mid to late 70’s, at a Marine Birthday Celebration at El Toro Air Station (Orange County, CA), I was introduced to “Pappy” by my next door neighbor, Lt. Col. Jerry Thompson who was commander of Squadron VMF-214, then A-4 Skyhawks.

    • atcDave says:

      That’s an awesome connection! I remember seeing him at a few airshows when I was a kid, signing books and posters. But 12 year old me couldn’t afford such a thing!
      His booth was usually next to a Japanese pilot/author who claimed to have shot him down on January 3. They’d yell and insult each other, all part of the act. I guess most historians today are pretty sure he’s not the one who really got him.

  4. Nice post and a very nice model. Love the Corsair!

  5. jfwknifton says:

    A very interesting post and thank you for sharing it. I think Boyington must be the first person I’ve ever heard of who benefited from a spell as a guest of the Emperor.

  6. Ernie Davis says:

    Excellent post Dave. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Corsair. A bit of an ugly duckling, but a formidable fighter right out of the gate that only got better, as you point out. I was also a fan of a short lived TV series “Black Sheep Squadron” that was a weekly network series from (Checks IMDB) 1976 to 1978 with Robert Conrad (I knew that) playing “Pappy” Boyington. (Also in his first networs series as a regular a young John Lrroquette). For the time, and those of us starved for decent series or movies on the subject it was pretty well done. They had an entire flight of Corsairs and used them at least occasionally to fly in formation over the California coast until the fights started and they did the standard cut in footage from gun cameras and other sources. It looked like they had a few Zeroes, or whatever passed for them in those days also. It did portray him as a rather colorful character as required for dramatic effect, but also downplayed some of the rougher edges.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah I don’t think the show made a big deal of his marital woes or serious drinking problem. Funny I didn’t remember John Larroquette being in it!
      I do remember the Corsairs, Zeroes and other warbirds as a highlight.
      Although I believe ALL of the Corsairs were later models, mostly -4 and -7 models, more appropriate for Korea than World War II. And they were all (most?) in overall gloss Sea Blue, even though that scheme wasn’t adopted until Pappy had been with the Japanese for six months. The Zeroes were the same AT-6s modified for Tora! Tora! Tora!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well they did portray him as having a taste for both the booze and the women, just the more sanitized network TV version. As I said, for a network TV show they did pretty well, at least as well as a big budget movie.

      • atcDave says:

        I didn’t remember the drinking!
        He was bad with women, four marriages. He got his first divorce in between his stint with the Flying Tigers and re-joining the Marines. Then somewhere before he first deployed overseas (had to be, since he didn’t come back until after the War) he started dating Lucy. Then after the War she divorced her husband (!) to marry Pappy, but he left her at the altar to marry someone else. She then took advantage of having all his power-of-attorney rights (he had apparently designated her in his military benefits paperwork because he was worried about having someone to look out for his three kids if he didn’t return) to clean out his accounts. He sued her but she won in court because she did indeed have legal control of his assets.
        I *think* his fourth marriage actually stuck since he’d stopped drinking by then. Not sure though.

        No doubt he was a colorful character!

  7. Chris Kemp says:

    A very interesting read, Dave.

    I had always thought that a flying example had crashed locally at Sywell Aerodrome, in 2001, but on looking it up, it was a Sea Fury. Memory is a funny thing.


    Regards, Chris.

    • atcDave says:

      Sorry this got stuck in the filter (too many links?), and with all the Holiday travel and stuff I only just now saw it.

      The memory thing is funny, I’ll guess as a Wargamer you normally have a pretty good one! I normally do too, but this website has exposed me a few times for misremembering things I was SO SURE OF!

  8. I have Boyington’s book; while famous, his attitude(s) were his own worst enemy. If you read it, you’ll understand why I don’t associate with people like him. One example – the expression “at the drop of a hat” fitted his penchant for fighting. But, I suppose it was that aggressiveness which made VMF-214 what it became. Here is an almost 3 yr old post on Marine Corsair pilots:

    Book review – Semper Fi In The Sky

    • atcDave says:

      Boyington definitely had a short fuse! And he was a braggart. But I think a lot of top fighter pilots are difficult personalities.

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