The Navy solved the F4U Corsair problems by giving them to the Marines.
On May 29, 1940, the prototype XF4U-1 Corsair first took to the air. Exceeding 400 MPH on a later test flight, the Corsair promised world class performance as the US Navy found itself gearing up for its participation in the Second World War. Unfortunately, design delays due to combat lessons from the Air War over Europe led to a redesign, and a crash of the prototype also slowed development. Redesigned with a heavier armament, and partially relocated wing fuel tanks to the fuselage leading to a lengthening of its nose and a consequent reduction in its carrier capability because of the lower pilot visibility further aft.
The Corsair’s teething troubles aboard the Boat led to its development as a carrier aircraft being a prolonged Saga which wasn’t properly solved by the US Navy until the end of 1944. Fortunately, Grumman was able to step into the breach with their magnificent F6F Hellcat, a machine far more forgiving for the vast wartime intake of inexperienced Aviators would make up the majority of Carrier pilots in the campaigns to come. The Navy solved this problem the way it always had, by giving them to the Marines.
Thus, an aeronautical legend was born, as the Corsair became the primary USMC fighter during the Solomon Islands Campaign. Fast, long ranging, the Corsair would suffer during its initial combat deployment over Rabaul, as highly experienced Zeros there remained a threat into 1943. Gradually, Marine Aviators learned to fight their mounts to the best of their ability, and by doing so, began inflicting substantial casualties during the long war of Attrition between Imperial Japan and the Allies in the Solomons, a time when both sides were exhausted by the great Carrier Battles of 1942.
Thus, the Corsair found itself at the tip of the Allied Air Superiority Spear, often flying top cover for Allied Aircraft operating over the Solomons. Aces like Prewar enlisted Pilot Ken Walsh began flying it to it’s strengths, using it’s longer range and speed capabilities to expand the reach of American Fighter power during the island-hopping campaign along the chain. Though the Navy’s Fighting 17 Jolly Rogers Squadron managed to successfully operate the Corsair from the carrier Bunker Hill by mid-1943, the squadron was ordered to land based duty with the Marines in the Solomon Islands for logistical reasons, though their carrier capability did prove helpful while covering the Bouganville landings at the end of 1943.
Marine Gregory Boyington would become another legend with his Blacksheep Squadron, and despite questions about his final victory total, his impact on Marine Corps Aviation was profound, despite the man’s problems with the bottle. Marine Corsair Ace Bob Hanson would also run up an epic score which put him as the USMC’s 3rd top scoring ace in a matter of weeks Marine Fighter Squadrons would remain an integral part of Marine Aviation to this day, and the Corsair found further use as a Close Air Support Platform by the end of the war.
In the UK, the Corsair was eagerly accepted despite its carrier handling flaws, though Eric “Winkle” Brown was not a fan, and never quite became one with the aircraft, preferring the Hellcat as a fighting aeroplane. The Corsair escorted Fleet Air Arm strikes against Tirpitz in 1944, and subsequently operated off HMS Illustrious and Victorious in the Far East with the British Eastern Fleet, which morphed into the British Pacific Fleet. Royal Marine Ace Major Ronnie Hay would score multiple victories in type while leading Royal Navy Strikes against the Imperial Japanese occupied refineries at Palembang, and Canadian Robert Hampton Gray would posthumously win the FAA’s only fighter pilot Victoria Cross during the final days of the war. The Royal New Zealand Air Force also made the type their primary fighter aircraft, and their land-based Corsairs are often confused with Royal Navy Corsairs in the Pacific.
In 1945, the Kamikaze threat found the US Navy accepting the Corsair’s carrier foibles and bringing USMC units aboard ship to operate as an Anti-Kamikaze interceptor. By this time the Kamikaze threat was such that Navy Carrier Air Groups were composed of two large 36 plane squadrons, one of Pure Fighters (VF) and another split off as a Fighter Bomber Squadron (VBF) to alleviate the organizational nightmare of a single 72 plane squadron, with a single vestigial Bombing or Torpedo unit remaining. Numerous Naval Aviators flew Corsairs in these new units, as experienced USMC Corsair units were joined by new Navy squadrons Over Tokyo, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Corsairs would score many victories against the Kamikaze menace from bases afloat and ashore, and were flying sustained missions over the Japanese home islands in the War’s final days as fighters and strike aircraft.
Postwar, the Corsair soldiered on, flying over Korea, where they engaged in endless sorties from initial strikes flown from the USS Valley Forge, to the end of the war. Flying from USS Leyte, Navy Corsair pilot Thomas Hudner would win a Medal of Honor for his attempted rescue of his colleague Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black Naval Aviator. In many ways the Corsair was a backbone of Navy and Marine Corps Aviation at a time jets were short ranged and not yet night capable. The Corsair on the other hand were available for missions around the clock with Day and Nightfighter units operating throughout the Korean Peninsula during the seesawing conflict which saw Seoul change hands FOUR times in less than a year. Corsairs typically made up 2 out of 5 squadrons aboard a Carrier Air Group, with 2 being Jets, 2 Corsairs, and a single AD Skyraider squadron completing the typical air group of the period.
Along the way Corsairs managed to be an important close Air Support Asset for ground forces, and an important part of the defense against night hecklers, which Air Force Jet Nightfighters took casualties to attempt to intercept such low and slow targets. Corsairs were also able to shoot down multiple North Korean Yak-9s and Marine Jesse Folmer managed to shoot down a MiG-15, though losing his aircraft to another. The Navy’s only Korean War Ace, Guy “Lucky Pierre” Bordelon, scored all 5 of his victories while flying the Nightfighter patrol on protection duties for the vast USAF base complexes at Kimpo, Suwon and Taegu.
In French hands, Corsairs would fly combat over French Indochina, Algeria and the Suez, as the French Navy became the final customer of the type, purchasing factory fresh F4U-7s in 1952, and getting a supplemental gift of former USMC AU-1s in 1954. The French Aeronavale operated them until their purchase of F-8E Crusaders from the same firm in 1964. Thus, the Corsair would possess the unique distinction of having the longest production run of ANY Propeller Driven American Fighter Aircraft, at over a Decade.
Corsairs would also serve at sea in Argentina’s Navy, giving Argentinian Naval Aviation a Cadre of Aviatiors experienced in South Atlantic Carrier Operations, whose successors would fight the British over the Falkalnds. Finally, the Corsair saw the end of its War Service fighting against its own kind, as the 1969 “Soccer” War between El Salvador and Honduras resulted in the final air to air victories of this long serving type, and indeed the final air combat engagements where both sides flew piston engined aircraft.
As a form of video tribute, we offer the introduction to Baa Baa Blacksheep, which showcased the Corsair’s aeronautical pulchritude to a new generation of Airplane fans in the 1970s.
Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps