HISTORY - Articles - Steven Albright|
The following article first appeared in "The Hook" Magazine, Fall 1998, pp
51-53. It is used with the permission of the author Steven Albright.
The lineage of Marine Squadron 251 began on 1 December 1941 when Marine
Observation Squadron 251 (VMO-251) was established at San Diego, Calif., under
the command of CAPT Elliot E. Bard. The unit received the Grumman F4F-3P
Wildcat, a camera-equipped fighter. Although the primary mission of the unit was
reconnaissance, the unit trained and flew as a fighter squadron.
In May 1942 it was ordered to proceed to New Zealand in the South Pacific for
the build-up of U.S. forces for the offensive against the Japanese. They arrived
at Noumea, New Caledonia, on 12 July aboard USS Heywood (AP-12), and began
unpacking and reassembling their crated Wildcats. At this point, the invasion of
Guadalcanal (code-named Cactus) was imminent, and VMO-251 was ordered to the
island of Espiritu Santo, nearly 500 miles southeast of Guadalcanal. The
squadron reached Espiritu Santo on 2 August, and upon arrival, several of -251's
photographers were sent to Army B-17 squadrons to participate in the pre-strike
photo-reconnaissance of Guadalcanal. The ground crews were responsible for
fueling, loading and servicing Army, Navy and Marine Corps planes.
The Guadalcanal landings were scheduled for 7 August and it was determined that
VMO-251 and established VMF-212 would provide air support for the invasion,
However, VADM John S. McCain, ComAirSoPac, was concerned with the make-up of the
two Squadrons overwhelmingly stocked with pilots straight from the training
command. He passed the responsibility of air support to MAG-23, which basically
had the same problem.
After the successful invasion of Guadalcanal, LTCOL Charles "Fog" Hayes, the
executive officer of VMO-251, was ordered to prepare an airfield on the island
for MAG-23's aircraft. With three officers and 118 men from CUB-1, the field was
ready for fighters and dive bombers on 20 August. The Japanese were determined
to reclaim the island, and sent waves of Rabaul-based fighters and bombers to
destroy the American forces. Although VMO-251 was based on Espiritu Santo,
several of the pilots got into the action by ferrying replacement aircraft to
Guadalcanal and tagging along with MAG-23's pilots.
Wildcats were adorned with the most distinctive markings in theater. The
fuselage carried the pre-war identification codes, for example, 251-MO-11, along
squadron's insignia. The unit crest consisted of a green octopus with yellow
wings and goggles superimposed over a cloud. In the six visible tentacles, the
octopus is carrying an item consistent with VMO-251's responsibilities: a monkey
wrench to symbolize the servicing mission of the ground crews, binoculars for
reconnaissance mission requirements, a camera to show its photographic
capability, a bomb to signify ground attack, a machine gun for air-to-air combat
and toilet paper for servicing, refueling and loading the Army and Navy aircraft
which the ground crews referred to as "wiping their butts."
Under the command of MAJ Joseph N. Renner, VMO-251 was officially ordered to
Guadalcanal on 1 December after receiving a complement of replacement pilots
from Samoa. The Japanese were constructing a new airfield on Munda Point, New
Georgia, only 175 miles north of Henderson Field. The Marine flyers attacked the
field daily, and on 4 December, LT Kenneth H. Kirk Jr. downed three Zero
fighters. After six months of continuous fighting, the unit was ordered back to
the United States in July 1943. The squadron was awarded the Presidential Unit
Citation for the Guadalcanal and Tulagi campaigns.
29 February, the squadron was ordered back to Espiritu Santo, and arrived there
on 9 March with a fresh batch of F4U Corsairs. The unit continued to pound at
the Japanese fortress on Rabaul until 2 January 1944, when they were ordered to
Guiuan, Samar, thus becoming the first Marine unit to arrive in the Central
Philippines. The squadron moved to Bougainville in June to participate in the
Bismark Sea campaign before returning to Samar on 2 January. At the end of the
month, the unit was redesignated VMF-251 and adopted the new nick-name Lucifer's
The squadron supported missions in Central and Southern Philippines until 12 May
1945, when flight operations were suspended. The unit was deactivated on 1 June
of that year. VMF-251 finished the war with a Presidential Unit Citation and
nine air-to-air kills.
On 1 July 1946, VMF-251 was reactivated at Grosse Isle, Mich., as a Reserve unit
and equipped with F4LJ-4s. The unit was recalled to active duty on 1 March 1951
in response to the Korean War. The squadron was moved to MCAS El Toro, Calif.,
and equipped with the Douglas AD-3 Skyraider. On 26 April, the unit was
designated an attack squadron, VMA-251, and adopted the name Black Patches.
On 1 June 1953, the squadron was sent into combat again, and operated from
Pyongtaek, Korea (K-6). Their combat tour was brief yet remarkable, for on 27
July, CAPT William J. Foster dropped three 2,000-lb. bombs-the last ordnance
expended in the Korean War. VMA-251 continued to operate the AD Skyraider from
Pyongtaek until 7 January 1956, when they were ordered to MCAS lwakuni, Japan.
In April 1956 the unit was reduced to zero-strength and moved to MCAS Miami,
20 April 1956, the unit was redesignated VMF-251 and equipped with the North
American FJ-3 Fury. The tail code "AL" was replaced by MAG-31's "DW." With the
new designation, the unit adopted the name Thunderbolts. CAPT Richard Carey
designed the unit insignia consisting of a white cross (symbolizing purity) over
a red diamond (indicating courage) on a blue field (loyalty). A silver
thunderbolt (later changed to orange) slashed diagonally across the crest. The
squadron's motto became Custos Caelorum or "Guardians of the Sky."
The Thunderbolts continued operating from Miami until 28 April 1958, when they
were again reduced to zero-strength and moved to MCAS El Toro. Once established
on the West Coast, the unit was equipped with the Vought F8U-1 Crusader. On 16
October 1959, the squadron boarded Core (T-AKV-41) and deployed to NAS Atsugi,
Japan, arriving on the first day of November. In January 1960, the unit moved to
NAS Cubi Point and upgraded to F8U-lEs. After six months in the Philippines, the
squadron returned to lwakuni, where it remained until 1 January 1961, when it
quite literally swapped places with VMF-312 Checkerboards at MCAS Beaufort, S.C.
The Thunderbolts went aboard Shangri-La (CVA-38) on 7 February 1962, and applied
CVG-10's AK tail code to their Crusaders. The squadron returned from the
Mediterranean on 28 August.
It began receiving the McDonnell F-4B Phantom 11 in the fall of 1964, and was
redesignated a Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron (VMFA-251) on 31 October 1964. The
squadron continued operating the F-4B until the early '70s, when it upgraded to
On 22 July 1977, the unit deployed to MCAS lwakuni and relieved VMFA-115, which
had been stationed in the Far East for more than 12 years. The Thunderbolts were
relieved by VMFA-122 in July 1978, and returned to Beaufort.
The unit began trading their aging F-4Js for the upgraded F-4S Phantom II in
1979. It deployed to Denmark in August of 1982, and returned to Beaufort in
October. The squadron ended its 22-year affiliation with the Phantom in July
1986, when it accepted the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet.
The Thunderbolts deployed to lwakuni for the first time as a Hornet squadron in
July 1988. Returning to Beaufort in January 1989, they deployed to WestPac again
in July 1991 and remained there until January 1992. The squadron participated in
an additional six-month WestPac tour from January to July 1993, before being
assigned to Aviano, Italy, in January of 1994.
While at Aviano, the squadron participated in UN contingency operations Deny
Flight and Provide Promise over Bosnia and Herzogovina. On the afternoon of 11
April, UN positions in Gorazde came under attack by Bosnian Serbs. Two T-Bolt
F/A-18As, flown by LCOL Robert E. "Rooster" Schmidle Jr., the squadron's
commanding officer, and CAPT William H, "Ozzie" Osborne were ordered to attack
the Serbian positions by a British FAC. As CAPT Osborne released a Mk 82 Snake,
it marked the first time that -251 had dropped a bomb in anger since the Korean
War. LCOL Schmidle made several strafing runs on the target before both Hornets
left the area. The strike resulted in the loss of one Serbian tank and two
armored personnel carriers.
The Thunderbolts were relieved by VMFA (AW)-224 on 14 April, and they returned
to Beaufort four days later. Upon their arrival, they gave their Lot Xi F/A-
18As to VMFA-115 and accepted Lot XVI F/A- 18Cs in May.
In August they began preparing for their first carrier deployment in 32 years.
They were scheduled to conduct carquals aboard America (CV-66), but the carrier
was diverted to cover the Haitian crisis. The Thunderbolts were then ordered to
the West Coast, and began qualifying aboard Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on 1
October. They returned to Beaufort three days later.
In December, they began preliminary carquals aboard their home carrier, America,
in preparation for joining CVW-1 for the 1995 Med cruise. In March, the air wing
deployed to NAS Fallon, Nev., for close air support training.
The T-Bolts began their cruise on 28 August, when LCOL Colin "Leak' Lampard, the
new CO, led a 12-plane fly-on to the carrier. America's air wing participated in
Operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force over Bosnia-Herzogovina. The
squadron was the first CVW-1 unit to drop ordnance over Bosnia when MAJ Kevin "Boink"
Elder and LCOL Lampard dropped GBU-12 laser guided bombs on a target provided by
a Danish FAC. The T-Bolts continued to strike targets in the area until
mid-September, when a bombing halt was called and the carrier sailed to Greece
for R&R. America was relieved in January and returned to the East Coast in
February, where VMFA-251 disembarked and returned to Beaufort. The Thunderbolts
remained at Beaufort as CVW-1 was moved to George Washington (CVN-73) after
As the Thunderbolts continue to add a carrier-bome Marine presence, they can do
so with a proud heritage, an impeccable history and the firm knowledge that
Marine Squadron 251 has made a difference.