The History of VF-17, the Jolly Rogers

8X History of the Jolly Rogers 8X

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The Ready Room: Ondongo, 15 November 1943. From left to right, Schub, Davenport, Chasnoff, March, Kepford, Blackburn, Wharton (kneeling), Kurlander (kneeling), Streig, Hogan.

Beginnings

Fighting Squadron 17 was formed in Norfolk, VA on 1 January 1943 under the command of LCdr John Thomas Blackburn. Before having led VGF-29 in Operation TORCH, Blackburn had been a flight instructor at NAS, Miami; he recruited fellow instructor LCdr Roger Hedrick to be XO of the squadron. [F4U] Fighting Squadron 17 was selected to fly the new Vought F4U-1 Corsair, a gull-winged fighter built around a powerful Pratt-Witney 18 cylinder radial engine. The pilots of VF-17 loved their birds, and quickly gained the nickname "Blackburn's Irregulars" for hell-raising antics: Ens Howard "Teeth" Burriss ran a truck off a highway while playing "chicken" in an inverted F4U, and Ens Ira "Ike" Kepford held an impromptu low-level dogfight with an Army P-51 pilot over residential Norfolk. After word of this "flat-hatting" reached higher ears, VF-17 was transferred to rural Manteo, NC (on the coast near Kitty Hawk) where they completed their pre-carrier training.

Initially, VF-17 was assigned to the carrier Bunker Hill (CV-17), but problems with visibility and landing gear bounce caused the Navy to question the Corsair's carrier-worthiness. The Jolly Rogers worked closely with engineers at Vought to modify the F4U rather than switching to the F6F Hellcat, which they believed to be an inferior fighter. Lt(jg) Butch Davenport of VF-17 helped develop an airflow spoiler on the right wing of the F4U which helped keep the wings level in a low-speed stall; this modification became standard in all later models of the Corsair. Despite the addition of oleo struts to reduce bounce and a raised seat for added visibility, VF-17 was reassigned to land-based duty while on-route to Pearl Harbor. Fighting squadron 18, flying the Grumman Hellcat, was assigned to Air Wing 17; VF-17 was transferred to the Solomon Islands. The Jolly Rogers reached Ondonga, New Georgia in October 1943.

The Jolly Roger 8X

While at Norfolk, Blackburn decided that the squadron needed an insignia which would reflect the proper "attitude." Since the squadron was flying Corsairs, he wanted the insignia to have a piratical theme. Soon thereafter, a black flag with white skull-and-crossbones (the "Jolly Roger") was painted on either side of the F4Us engine cowlings, and the squadron's nickname was born. (see the origin of the Jolly Roger.)

Place of Death

In the local language, Ondongo meant "the Place of Death." Despite the ominous name, conditions were relatively decent for the Jolly Rogers at their new home. Their field was located in the middle of a coconut plantation, in the shadow of dazzling green mountain faces. Much to their dismay, however, the pilots of VF-17 found that the nearest woman was a nurse at Espiritu Santo . . . a steep price for a base described by Blackburn as "clean, virtually bugless, free of snipers, and above all, near the enemy." To the north of New Georgia lay Japanese-held Bougainville: the new focus of the fierce Solomans campaign.

Cherryblossom

The Allies planned on invading Bougainville at Empress Augusta Bay, at the Torokina Beachhead code-named Cherryblossom. The Jolly Rogers became the first Navy squadron to see action in the F4U while covering the opening moves of this invasion on November 1 (see attached action report). On their first day of action, the Jolly Rogers downed 6 Zekes and damaged 6 more Japanese planes. Unfortunately, VF-17 also suffered its first loss on this day when Lt Johnny Keith was downed by AAA over Ballale.

Fighting 17 found little action on 2-7 November. The only sighting of an enemy was when a flight of four Hogs led by Davenport encountered a lone Betty bomber, and downed it after repeated passes.

On 8 November, a flight led by Hedrick intercepted 24 Zekes and 15 Vals over Empress Augusta Bay. The Vals turned and ran as soon as the Hogs were sighted. Schanuel, Anderson and Cunningham each flamed a Zeke; Hedrick damaged 3, and Cordray damaged 1. Through teamwork, the outnumbered Americans emerged from the encounter without loss.

Battle of the Solomon Sea

The Japanese stronghold on Rabaul, on the northeast corner of New Britain, remained a major thorn in the side of South Pacific Allied operations. In order to neutralize this threat, Task Group 50.3 (including the carriers Essex, Independence and Bunker Hill) launched a major strike on the morning of 1 November 1943.

While the carrier-based planes struck Rabaul, several land-based squadrons were assigned to CAP the task group. Fighting-17 joined VMF-212, VMF-221, the Hellcat-flying VF-33, and a squadron of New Zealand P-40s in this mission. The Jolly Rogers were to take off at 0400, CAP from dawn to 0900, refuel and (if needed) rearm on the carriers, and continue the CAP at 1030 until fuel/ammo/damage demanded they return to Ondongo.

After an hour of early-morning CAP, Blackburn flamed a lone incoming Tony which was detected by shipboard radar. There was no further action by 0900, when VF-17 and -33 landed to refuel. Blackburn noted that these landings proved to any skeptics that the Corsair was indeed carrier-worthy.

Morning faded into early afternoon, and the weather conditions over the task force began to degenerate. Puffy clouds developed into massive cumulous clouds; visibility shrank. At 1300, radar detected a large inbound Japanese strike, and the CAP was scrambled to intercept. A few minutes out from the carriers, the pilots of VF-17 sighted 65 Zekes escorting 25 Val dive bombers and 15 Kate torpedo bombers. The Hogs dove onto the Zekes with a considerable altitude advantage; Streig, Jackson, Hogan, Hedrick and Baker each bagged one, with Anderson and Chasnoff sharing the kill of a sixth Zeke. Burriss dove through the Zekes and flamed a Kate; Blackburn damaged a Zeke and followed it down to 2,500 feet, where he lost it in the clouds. The remainder of the Kates dodged into a nearby cumulous, and were temporarily lost from sight. Bell bounced the Vals, and flamed two. After searching unsuccessfully for the remaining Kates, Burriss sighted and downed a Betty twin-engined bomber. He then shared a kill of a Kate with one of VF-33's Hellcats.

The remainder of the Kates emerged from the protective cumulous and initiated a torpedo run on the Bunker Hill. They were quickly bounced by Kleinmann, Hill, Gile and Kepford. As the planes closed on the carrier, 40mm and 20mm AA erupted around them and sent huge plumes of water before and between the planes. Hill downed one of the Kates and pulled out to escape the AA; Kleinmann flamed a second, but was hit by an AA shell which shattered his windshield and peppered his face with broken glass. He disengaged and limped his Hog back to Ondonga. Gile came up on a Kate after it dropped its torp (fortunately from too high an altitude, causing the weapon to malfunction), and downed it after a prolonged hammering. Ignoring the Zeke cover which had materialized overhead, Ira Kepford dropped onto the tail of a Kate which had closed to 1,000 yards of the Bunker Hill. As the Japanese pilot closed his finger onto the release button, Kepford opened up . . . simultaneously, a Zeke dropped onto his six and started firing. The Kate burst into flames and crashed into the sea; before Kepford became aware of the Zeke, a Hellcat dropped behind it and blew it out of the air. Kepford successfully dodged the AAA, climbed to altitude, and spotted a flight of six Vals heading back to Rabaul. He zoomed up on their low 6, lined up, and flamed three in succession. As he opened up on the fourth, the last of his ammunition was expended.

For the day's action in what came to be called The Battle of the Solomon Sea, VF-17 was credited with 18.5 confirmed kills and 7 damaged Japanese planes. Two pilots, Baker and Hill, were forced to ditch their planes on-route to Ondongo; both were successfully rescued. The battle was a major strategic victory for the Allies, as the Japanese gave up all attempts to repel the invasion of Bougainville afterwards. Instead, they attempted whatever holding action they could in the Solomons while withdrawling their forces to the strongholds of Truk and Rabaul.

Under construction from here

Piva Yoke, January 1944

In January 1944 the Jolly Rogers were moved to Piva on Bougainville, where they took part in the reduction of the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. They were disestablished on 10 April 1944. LCdr Roger Hedrick, the former XO of VF-17, carried the name and tradition of the Jolly Rogers on the was assigned to lead the newly-formed squadron VF-84 that same year (see Troy "Corsair" Fokker's Jolly Rogers Squadron Room for the history of later squadrons bearing this name). Fighting-17 was reformed at Alameda in April 1944, under Lt Comm M. U. Beebe. Aboard the carrier Hornet, VF-17 took part in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In fighter sweeps from 18 March to 17 April 1945, the pilots of VF-17 downed 146.5 Japanese planes.

For the record

In their five months of action in the Solomons, the Jolly Rogers shot down 8 Japanese planes for every Corsair lost. They flew 8,577 combat hours, destroyed 156 planes and 5 ships for a loss of 12 pilots. The squadron had 12 aces, more than any other naval unit. As the tide of the war in the Pacific turned, VF-17 was there.


Sources

Blackburn, Tom (1989): The Jolly Rogers. Orion Books, New York.

Dynamix (1992): Aces of the Pacific (software manual).

Guyton, Boone (1990): Whistling Death, the Test Pilot's Story of the F4U Corsair. Orion Books, New York.

Musciano, Walter A. (1989): Corsair Aces, The Bent-Wing Bird over the Pacific. Aero, Pennsylvania.