HISTORY - Articles - Mike Crowder|
The following information is provided by Mike Crowder of
Enterprises. The information is from their new CD, USMC Aviation Squadron
Lineage, Insignia and History, Vol 1 - The Fighter Squadrons, VMF, VMF(N),
VMF(AW), VMFA & VMFA(AW). You can order the CD from the above site. Used with
MARINE FIGHTER/ATTACK SQUADRON 251, THE THUNDERBOLTS, a.k.a., THE BLACK PATCHES
(as VMA), LUCIFER'S MESSENGERS (as World War II VMF), NO NICKNAME AS VMO
Today's VMFA-251 was activated on 1 December 1941 at San Diego as Marine
Observation Squadron 251 [VMO-251] under the command of Captain Elliot E. Bard
whose tenure of command lasted only eleven days until Major John N. Hart assumed
command on 12 December. These changes came in the midst of the turmoil that
existed in the wake of the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor, and there can
be little doubt that tasks that were merely difficult in more normal times were
rendered almost impossible amid the rush to war. While the "powers that be"
settled the squadron's command arrangements, it went about the business of
preparing for what was to come. As an observation and reconnaissance squadron,
VMO-251 was serving in the original mission of military aircraft in the armed
services of all nations. In order to perform this mission, it was equipped with
two different, and highly specialized versions of the standard Navy and Marine
fighter aircraft of the period, the Grumman F4F WILDCAT.
The first of these versions of the WILDCAT was the F4F-3P. It was a
camera-equipped photo-reconnaissance version of the standard F4F-3 fighter and
retained the armament of the standard fighter versions. The second version was
the F4F-7, which was virtually a fuel tank with an engine and wings attached.
All armor and armament were deleted, and this camera-equipped aircraft carried
an incredible 555 gallons of fuel. It was the longest-ranged, single engine U.S.
aircraft of the time, and its ability to fly great distances would soon be put
to good use in the South Pacific. [It would be interesting, perhaps, to know
what its pilots thought of this ability to stay aloft for these extended
periods. One of the most frequently heard complaints about the fighter versions
of the WILDCAT was its relatively short range. No doubt those pilots who
frequently flew the F4F-7 had exactly the opposite complaint!]
The squadron's original insignia was applied to the fuselage sides of its
aircraft, just below the windscreen. It consisted of a white, cloud-shaped
background with a green octopus equipped with gold wings. Each of the creature's
tentacles held various items emblematic of the squadron's mission, such as a
pair of binoculars, a camera, etc.
VMO-251 received a warning order to prepare for movement to the South Pacific in
May 1942, just after the conclusion of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Its original
destination was to be New Zealand, but the hurriedly mounted landings on
Guadalcanal in the Solomons caused its destination to be changed while en route.
The squadron was ordered to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides from where it
operated in support of the American troops engaged on Guadalcanal. Its primary
duties were long-range reconnaissance missions in search of Japanese forces
attempting to recapture the island and photo missions of enemy installations,
but the long-range fuel tanks for its aircraft were delayed in transit. During
this interval, several of the squadron's photographers flew missions aboard Army
Air Force B-17s of the 11th Bomb Group that were employed to the
photo-reconnaissance mission. In addition to these official duties, it served as
a replacement training squadron in support of the Marine fighter squadrons at
Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. VMO-251 also functioned as a ferry squadron to
move replacement aircraft to the fighter squadrons on the island that,
fortunately, suffered a much higher rate of attrition in aircraft than in
pilots. This duty presented a unique problem for the squadron members in that
the primary method used to move fighter aircraft to Guadalcanal was via carrier.
The problem lay in that few of the squadron members had so much as set foot
aboard a carrier, and those that had were nowhere near current in carrier
Lieutenant Colonel Hart instructed the members of his brood selected to take
part in the first large-scale movement of replacement WILDCATs to the island in
mid-September in the fine art of carrier takeoffs. Satisfied they were as ready
as his hurried lectures could make them, Hart wished his charges well as they
and the replacement fighters were loaded aboard U.S.S. Wasp (CV-7) and Hornet
(CV-8) in the harbor of Espiritu Santo on 12 September. As soon as the loading
was completed, the two carriers and their escorts cleared the harbor and set a
course northwestward toward Guadalcanal.
That night, the members of VMO-251 aboard the two ships enjoyed a taste of the
comparative luxury in which the carrier aviators lived. While the living
conditions at Espiritu Santo were certainly far better than those encountered on
Guadalcanal, they were the very definition of the adjective "primitive" when
compared to those aboard a carrier. The squadron's officers enjoyed the evening
and dinner in the wardroom, and the enlisted aviators savored whichever of the
crews' messes to which their rank entitled them. Said Master Technical Sergeant
Wendel Garton after a dinner of salad, steak, cake and ice cream in the Chief
Petty Officers’ mess, "That was the only way to fight a war!" The Sergeant’s
enthusiasm may have been tempered somewhat had he known than in slightly more
than six weeks from that night, both carriers and a considerable portion of
their crews would lie on the bottom of the Pacific. Wasp would fall victim to
the torpedoes of a prowling submarine a mere three days after it sailed from
Espiritu Santo, and Hornet would receive the coupe de grace from Japanese
destroyers after she was reduced to a flaming hulk by air strikes during the
Battle of Santa Cruz.
Before dawn the next morning, the carriers turned into the wind, and seventeen
members of VMO-251 were on their way to an uncertain future on Guadalcanal. All
seventeen managed to get airborne without mishap and two hours later, broke into
their landing pattern above Henderson Field. Hardly had the Marines reached the
ground when the wail of the air raid warning sounded at 0800, and one of the
newly arrived aviators of VMO-251, Lieutenant Rutledge, tried to join his fellow
Marines in the pending fight. Manning an unattended F4F, Rutledge attempted to
get it airborne without taking the time to adjust the seat and rudder pedals.
Barely managing to clear the trees at the end of the runway, the fighter
suddenly stalled, snap rolled to port and crashed inverted into the trees.
Miraculously, Rutledge survived the mishap, but what happened to him was but one
of many typical examples of the potential brevity of life on the island - three
of the newly arrived F4Fs were shot down or otherwise lost before they could be
assigned to a squadron. The next day, the members of VMO-251 were flown back to
Espiritu Santo, but most of them had not seen the last of life on Guadalcanal.
Throughout the remainder of the heavy fighting around Guadalcanal, members of
VMO-251 continued to act as a ferry service to move badly needed fighters to the
squadrons on the island. While there, most also flew combat missions with those
fighter squadrons assigned to Henderson Field, some officially and others
unofficially and, regardless of status, certainly repaid the American taxpayer
in full for the moneys spent for their training. And, as the squadron continued
to send men aircraft forward, life continued at Espiritu Santo. Like most of the
other squadrons in the Pacific during this period, VMO-251 experienced a series
of changes in command during the last quarter of 1942. On 30 October, Lieutenant
Colonel Charles H. "Fog" Hayes relieved Lieutenant Colonel Hart. Captain Ralph
R. Yeaman commanded the squadron for a week from 1 - 7 December and Major
William R. Campbell from 8 - 10 December. The changes continued as Major Joseph
N. Renner assumed command on 11 December.
The entire squadron moved from the New Hebrides to Guadalcanal on 17 January
1943, and once there it continued to fly its assigned photo and reconnaissance
missions up the Slot from Henderson Field. It also served as a de facto fighter
squadron due to the fact that it had managed to acquire several standard fighter
versions of the WILDCAT. It is likely these were left behind by squadrons that
had completed their combat tours and departed the South Pacific for the rear
areas or were returned the United States. Prior to the arrival of the entire
squadron, however, its members continued to take part in combat. As the Cactus
Air Force began to move from defense of the island and its surroundings to
offensive operations, Lieutenant Michael N. Yunck claimed three kills on 8
December during a strike against New Georgia. Lieutenant Kenneth J. Kirk, Jr.
claimed three on 24 December on a strike against Munda while flying on the wing
of Major Donald Yost, the commander of VMF-121. On 15 January, while engaged in
coverage of a strike against shipping in the New Georgia area, aviators from
VMF-121 and VMO-251 claimed twenty of the enemy. Meanwhile, another series of
changes of command took place. Major Renner was transferred to other duties, and
Lieutenant Walter W. Pardee commanded the squadron from 9 - 31 March. He was
relieved by Captain Claude H. Welch on 1 April, and he was followed by
now-Captain Yunck on 15 May, who commanded the squadron during most of its
return trip to the United States until relieved by Major Carl M. Longley on 4
Captain Yunck was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross for
his actions during the squadron’s service in the Solomons. Likewise, Major
Renner and Lieutenant Kirk each received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After spending the early months of 1943 in the Solomons, the squadron was
relieved from combat and ordered to return to the West Coast. By July, it was in
Southern California enjoying a well-earned rest. For its service during the
Guadalcanal campaign, VMO-251 was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the
period 7 August through 9 December 1942.
After its arrival in the United States, the squadron began to exchange its
specialized WILDCATs for fighter versions of the F4U CORSAIR, and Captain Robert
W. Teller assumed command on 1 November 1943, but Major William C. Humberd
succeeded him on 6 November. With the arrival of its new aircraft, it became
obvious to all that the squadron's days as an observation squadron were a thing
of the past, in fact if not in the eyes of officialdom as it retained its
designation as an observation squadron. It then began the process of training
and familiarization with its new aircraft. Shortly after the turn of the New
Year of 1944, VMO-251 was alerted to prepare for movement overseas once again.
On 29 February 1944, the erstwhile observation squadron and its now familiar
CORSAIRs departed the West Coast, bound once again for the South Pacific. It
arrived at its old home, Espiritu Santo, on 9 March. After a short stay at
Espiritu, VMO-251 moved up the Slot to the Northern Solomons. Its destination
was the Green Islands, but after a short stay there, the squadron moved again,
this time to Bougainville.
By the time the squadron reached the battle area, Rabaul had been beaten into
sullen submission and was largely a non-factor in the overall plans of Allied
offensives. The Allied air forces then turned their might on the Japanese
garrisons in the Bismarks, pounding them into the same state of impotence as
those at the once-mighty Rabaul. VMO-251 was engaged in these missions from June
until early December 1944.
By the latter months of 1944, Japanese strength in the Northern Solomons and the
surrounding areas had been thoroughly sapped by a continuous stream of
amphibious assaults and air strikes. In short, the vast majority of the
squadrons engaged in these actions had literally run out of worthwhile targets
prior to the fall of 1944. By this time, their post-mission assessments of the
damage inflicted upon the enemy largely revealed that they were doing an
excellent job of blasting large chunks of rubble into many smaller chunks. The
Marine squadrons in the area literally had worked themselves out of a job. This
led to a situation in which a large, powerful and combat experienced collection
of American air power in the Pacific Theater had very little that was worthwhile
to contribute to the war effort.
This situation came to an end after the American return to the Philippines.
Envisioned, at least by the U.S. Army, as their show, both in the air and on the
ground, the Philippines campaign left the Army Air Forces in the rather
embarrassing position of being unable to accomplish the missions assigned.
Another factor that compounded this problem was the disdain in which the Army
Air Forces generally held the close support mission. It seems that organization
has always preferred to execute what is today called the interdiction portion of
the tactical mission instead of the support of troops in contact with the enemy.
The Marine Corps, on the other hand, has taken the exact opposite view. The
primary mission of Marine air is close air support of the Marine on the ground.
This, coupled with the immediate availability of a respectable number of veteran
squadrons in the South and Central Pacific, areas led to the immediate dispatch
of the majority of them to the Philippines. Among the first to be sent to the
Islands was VMO-251. [Initially, the campaign was planned to be a straight,
south to north, island-by-island series of amphibious assaults to free the
Filipino people from the Japanese yoke. The first assault had been planned
against the southernmost island of Mindanao in November, and the initial
planning had called for the Marines to be included in the aerial assets assigned
to the assault. However, the advanced timetable for the entire Philippines
campaign left out the Marines.]
Alerted for movement in December 1944, the squadron arrived on the island of
Samar in the central Philippines on 2 January 1945. It flew its first mission of
its prolonged stay in the islands the next day. On 31 January, VMO-251 was
redesignated VMF-251, a belated recognition of the squadron's actual mission
performance during the previous two-plus years, and Major William L. Bacheler
assumed command on 10 February. He commanded the squadron until 14 April, when
Major Thomas W. Furlow took over VMF-251. It remained engaged in the central and
southern Philippines until 12 May and was deactivated there on 1 June 1945. The
squadron's last commanding officer was Lieutenant Glen F. Keithley who relieved
Major Furlow on 21 May. Majors Bacheler and Furlow were awarded the
Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of the squadron’s accomplishments
while each was in command.
In addition to the previously mentioned award of the Presidential Unit Citation,
VMF-251 was credited with the destruction of nine Japanese aircraft in aerial
combat. When one considers that the squadron was engaged in the Solomons
campaign from the outset, that many of its pilots were assigned to other fighter
squadrons on a temporary basis, and that it served as a fighter squadron, in
fact if not in designation, for the bulk of its time in the Solomons, this kill
total seems surprisingly low. Perhaps this is due to two factors. First, the
kills achieved by VMO-251 pilots while serving with other squadrons likely were
credited to that squadron. Second, perhaps the total of nine represents the
number of victories scored after its redesignation as a fighter squadron and
does not reflect the number scored while designated an observation squadron.
Unfortunately, records from the period are far from clear on the subject.
VMF-251 was in limbo for thirteen months until it was reactivated as a component
of the Marine Corps Reserve at NAS, Grosse Isle, Michigan in mid-1946. It
continued in its role as a peacetime reserve squadron until its recall to active
duty on 1 March 1951 as a part of the continuing increase in force levels
brought about by the Korean War. Its activation was also the occasion for the
squadron to exchange its CORSAIRs for the Douglas AD-3 SKYRAIDER attack
aircraft. Shortly thereafter, the newly equipped squadron was transferred from
its home station to MCAS, El Toro.
On 29 April 1951, the squadron was redesignated VMA-251. The training period for
the squadron in its new role was a protracted one, and it did not depart the
West Coast for Korea until 1 June 1953. Less than two months later, the Korean
War came to an end.
Despite its short combat tour in Korea, VMA-251 achieved at least one notable
milestone during that time. At 2125, 27 July 1953, Captain William J. Foster
rolled his SKYRAIDER into a dive and planted three 2,000-lb. bombs into
Communist positions along the battle line. Slightly more than half an hour
later, the cease-fire went into effect, and the Korean War passed into the pages
of history. It is believed that Captain Foster's bombs were the last to be
dropped in combat during this bitter, three-year "non-war." [It should be noted
that several other squadrons claim the distinction of dropping the last bombs of
the Korean Conflict, but this account appears to be the most credible.]
VMA-251 was one of the many former Reserve squadrons that remained on active
duty after the end of hostilities rather than being released to return to the
Reserves. It stayed in Korea as a part of the American forces that served as
guarantors of the ceasefire agreement until 7 January 1956, when the squadron
was transferred to MCAS, Iwakuni, Japan. Its stay there lasted slightly more
than fifteen months. At that time, it departed the Far East for its new home at
MCAS, Miami. No doubt, it did not take long for the squadron members to come to
appreciate their new station when compared to several long, cold winters spent
in Korea and in Japan, among other equally obvious reasons.
After its return to the United States, the squadron was redesignated VMF-251 on
20 April 1957 and exchanged its SKYRAIDERs for the North American FJ-4 FURY.
This marked the squadron's initiation into the jet age, and after a year at
Miami, VMF-251 was transferred to MCAS, El Toro.
After it had settled into its new surroundings, the FURYs were exchanged for the
supersonic F8U-1 CRUSADER. The new aircraft brought with it a whole new vista of
aircraft operations and a quantum leap forward in capabilities. It was during
this period the squadron adopted the design of its current insignia that has
been in use more than thirty years with only a single change to the designation
in the ribbon at the bottom of the insignia.
After their return to a combat ready status, the squadron departed El Toro for
NAS, Atsugi, Japan, on 16 October 1959. Their stay in the Far East lasted
slightly less than fifteen months during which the squadron operated from a
number of bases and installations throughout the region. Its deployment
completed, VMF-251 was relieved by VMF-312 on 1 January 1961. VMF-251 took the
place of VMF-312 at MCAS, Beaufort, South Carolina, and in the process, the two
squadrons exchanged aircraft.
In the latter months of 1960, the squadron was ordered to undergo carrier
qualifications in preparation for its first carrier deployment. On 7 February
1962, operational control of the squadron passed from the Marine Corps to the
Navy's CVG-10. The squadron boarded U.S.S. Shangri-La (CVA-38) for a
Mediterranean deployment that lasted until 28 August of the same year when it
returned to Beaufort.
In addition to the usual complement of ghosts and goblins that accompany the
season, Halloween of 1964 brought the squadron another new aircraft and another
designation, the McDonnell F-4B PHANTOM II (appropriate for Halloween) and
VMFA-251, respectively. It immediately began the process of attaining a combat
ready status with its new aircraft. The rumble of guns in Southeast Asia added
urgency to the tasks at hand.
Despite the extremely large U.S. commitment to the Vietnam War, VMFA-251 did not
deploy there. Instead, it remained based at MCAS, Beaufort and maintained a
normal, non-combat unit deployment rotational schedule.
After nearly fourteen years of operating various models of the "smoke and
thunder hog," as the PHANTOM was sometimes called, the squadron began to
transition to the F/A-18 HORNET in the spring of 1986. The transition was
completed by 1987. Today, it operates the latest upgraded versions of the
F/A-18C. The squadron did not deploy to Southwest Asia during either Desert
Shield or Desert Storm, and at the present time, it continues to conduct
peacetime operations and deployments from its home station at MCAS, Beaufort.
In recent months, however, VMFA-251 has been assigned to CVW-1 on what appears
to be a more or less permanent basis aboard U.S.S. George Washington (CVN-73).
The first of the squadron's insignia depicted in the plate is its current design
that has been worn since its designation as VMFA-251 in 1964. There are several
versions of this insignia to be found, but they are virtually identical in all
respects except for their slightly different background colors. This is another
example of variations in various examples of "official" insignia that will be
found when squadrons obtain their stock from different suppliers at different
The second example is the current flight suit shoulder disk of VMFA-251.
The third insignia in the plates is the first to bear the shield and cross and
was adopted when the squadron was re-designated a fighter squadron in April
The fourth example is the insignia of VMA-251 that was worn during the
squadron’s service in the attack mission from 1951 until 1957. During the
period, the squadron was nicknamed the "Black Patches."
The fifth insignia is an original example of the design adopted after the
squadron was re-designated VMF-251 on 31 January 1945. The artist who drew this
design is unknown, and it did not receive official approval.
The sixth insignia, that with the inverted gull wings of the F4U on either side
of the head of the octopus, is an original. This change to the design was made
when the squadron was re-equipped with the CORSAIR but prior to its
re-designation as a fighter squadron in 1945.
The final insignia is an original that dates from the period of the squadron’s
service during the Guadalcanal Campaign. This design was drawn by Lieutenant E.H.
Railsback and was used without official blessing.