18. Marines Replace Dive Bombers

"Millington claimed the first kill by CV-based Marines during WW II."

On December 28, 1944, two Marine fighter squadrons replaced the VB-4 due to consistently heavy losses of the SB2C dive bombers. VMF-124 and VMF-213 were the first Marine squadrons to augment carrier air groups during World War II. (1)

Bombing Four, the "Top Hatters," were transferred to Guam. The Torpedo pilots hated to see them go. We had a lot of close friends in VB-4. Some were regulars at our poker tables. We respected the dive bombers because their missions and responsibilities were similar to our own.

The Marine pilots, flying F4U "Corsairs," soon lost their cocky attitude as they discovered that carrier operations were more difficult than land-based flights. Two pilots and three F4Us were lost in the first two-day shake-down. (2) Records from the archives show the following planes lost: (3)

In addition to these Marine F4Us that were lost, there were many damaged, with frames buckled, during hard landings on the Essex. Watching the launch and landings of the Marine Corsairs was a great pastime for pilots and crews not scheduled for the flights. We could anticipate that someone would get in trouble almost every day.

The Corsair was a good carrier-based plane, but it took good pilots and much practice to compete with our Navy F6F Hellcats. The Marines believed that the F4U could not carry a 1000-pound bomb from the flight deck, but later experience indicated this could be done.

There were 54 pilots, 4 ground officers, and 120 enlisted men when the two squadrons came aboard the Essex. (2) Lt Col William Millington was in command of VMF-124 and Major David E. Marshall commanded VMF-213.

Millington claimed the first kill by CV-based Marines during WW II. Later when Cdr Klinsmann was shot down during the strike on the Pescadores, Millington became our Air Group Commander, CAG-4, the first Marine to command a Navy Air Group. Thus, VMF-124 and VMF-213 became an integral part of the Essex Air Group and we came to know the pilots on a personal basis.

Mistaken Identity

The Marine Corsair pilots were anxious to make a name for themselves--particularly to gain the respect of the VF-4 Hellcat fighter pilots. Perhaps they were too eager and that accounted for some of their losses. Perhaps, also, this eagerness led to the unfortunate attack on an Army Air Force B-24.

The story we heard after we returned from strikes on Saigon on January 12, 1945, differs somewhat from the official report now declassified in the Naval Archives. We heard that "those eager-beaver Marines didn't heed the radio warnings. Anybody should have known that those were Army B-24s because they dropped their bombs in the water." There was also scuttlebutt about breaking flight discipline, lack of attention to ID (aircraft identification) training, and a potential Court Martial.

The USS Essex official "Report of Circumstances Surrounding Shooting Down of Friendly B-24 Over Camranh Bay, French Indo-China, during South China Sea Sweep of the Third Fleet" outlines reports from the Marine pilots, B-24 sightings by VF-4 Hellcat pilots, various endorsements and gun camera film. (4)

Interrogation of F6F pilots from VF-4 after the incident revealed the following sightings of B-24-type aircraft on January 12, 1945:

  1. "TCAP #1 (Combat Air Patrol)"
    "At 0815 one silver-color B-24 was sighted at 9500 feet… presumed to be friendly."
  2. "Strike #1"
    "At 0845 a single B-24 was sighted at 12000 feet… presumed to be friendly."
  3. "TCAP #3"
    "At approximately 1435 (I) four B-24s were sighted at 7000 feet… F6Fs observed bomb splashes in the water offshore."
  4. "Between 1445 and 1500 a CAP was vectored out to two B-24s 25 miles west of force at 7500 feet…."
  5. "CAP #4"
    "CAP closed near enough to identify a bogey as a B-24."
  6. "Photo Mission #2"
    "At 1730, one B-24 was sighted…."

Most of the F6F pilots stated that insignias on the B-24s were not visible and that some of the Liberators were camouflaged. Also, some Navy planes were fired on when they approached the B-24s. Evidently, there was no radio communication with the Air Force planes due to different frequencies.

It would be easy to understand why the China-based Army gunners would open fire on the Navy fighters, especially since they were not forewarned of the surprise carrier-based attack on French Indo-China. Even with this confusion, it seems hard to justify the action taken by the Marines. Excerpts from the official report follow: (4)

"At 1850 on 12 January 1945, while on CAP #5, Captain Edward P. Hartsock, USMCR, 1st Lt George Parker, USMCR, and 2nd Lt Herbert Libbey, USMCR, shot down a four-motor, reddish-brown colored patrol bomber (later identified by photos as a B-24) over the French Indo-China coast near Camranh Bay. The plane was unmarked except for camouflage paint and responded to questioning maneuvers and signals with gunfire only."
"…On closing, the bogey began firing furiously at our CAP from waist gun positions. Hartsock and Parker were on the bomber's starboard side, above and slightly aft, while Libbey was abeam of Hartsock on the bomber's port side. Hartsock waggled his wings, and pressed his "C" channel button (not being sure of the type of plane), but heard nothing and received continuous fire from the bomber. As it turned toward him and Parker, diving for the overcast, Hartsock made his decision to attack."
"…Hartsock and Parker attacked in overhead passes, both scoring hits which seemed to cause smoke. Libbey, attacking in a high side run, concentrated in a long burst on the port inboard engine, flamed it and exploded the bomber which then disappeared, smoking, into the overcast."
"…Immediately after shooting down the subject plane the three F4U pilots participating in the engagement identified it (in a report of VHF) as an EMILY."
"Upon returning to Essex, these same pilots reported to the ship's ACI Officer and expressed their concern over the exact identity of the plane they had destroyed. They stated that upon first sighting the subject plane they thought it was a flying boat but that upon closing each of them noted twin tails and general resemblance to a B-24. However, the lack of any insignia and hostile actions of the subject plane caused them to attack."
"…On 13 January, 1945, development of the film from the gun cameras of the F4Us proved conclusively that the subject plane was a B-24."

This unfortunate incident served as a lesson to us all. It pointed to the importance of further ID training and it recalled the times our own ships' gunners had fired at our own planes returning from strikes. We were all vulnerable to mistakes. (4)

"Much later, it became known that the B-24 had radioed its base that it was under attack by US Navy aircraft. Why the Liberator should have opened fire on planes it recognized as friendly remains a mystery. And while the tragedy caused considerable grief, there were no recriminations. Correspondent Robert Sherrod, aboard the Essex at the time, overheard one major say, "I'd have done the same thing. If anybody shoots at me, I'm going to shoot back." I expect the other fellow to know his recognition as well as I do. There are ten lives in a B-24, but it can cause a thousand deaths aboard ship if there are Japs in it."

As the Marine pilots gained experience, all members of Torpedo Four looked forward to seeing the beautiful inverted gull-winged F4U Corsairs flying cover for our strikes. In time the Corsair pilots also agreed to carry a heavy bomb load and competed favorably with the old reliable Hellcats. Thus, the F4U became a multipurpose, carrier-based combat plane.

During the remainder of our tour of duty on the Essex, Marine fighters were credited with 10 Japanese aircraft shot down, 16 destroyed on the ground, and at least 11 ships damaged by bombs or rocket fire. The loss of 8 pilots and 17 Corsairs, half of the original complement, demonstrated both the risk and the determination of the Marines. As Admiral McCain was quoted as saying when the Marines shot down three Helens making kamikaze runs on the task force, "Three cheers for the Leathernecks!"

Photo: F4U Corsair Takes a Wave-Off.

Photo: F4U Corsair from Air Group 4.

Photo: Signatures of VMF-124 and VMF-213.

(1) Sherrod, Robert Lee. 1952. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Combat Forces Press.
(2) See "War Diary of Two Marine Squadrons -- VMF-124 and VMF-213 Aboard the USS Essex" elsewhere on this web site for more information.
(3) War Diary, VMF 124 and VMF 213. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(4) USS Essex. "Report of Circumstances Surrounding Shooting Down of Friendly B-24 Over Camranh Bay." U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas