The F4U Corsair was one of the best fighters to come out of World War II. Some claim it was the best. Marine Corps fighter squadrons such as Boyington’s “”Black Sheep Squadron,”” VMF-214, and the Navy’s VF-17, Blackburn’s “”Jolly Rogers,”” made the Corsair front-page news during World War II. Stories abound about its ruggedness and versatility. But there is also a human side to those stories about this bent-wing bird.
I recently attended a symposium that honored five men who came from different branches of the service and fought in different wars, but had one thing in common: They were all Medal of Honor recipients. Two of them flew Corsairs, one in World War II and the other in Korea.
Col. James Swett, who was a Marine Corps pilot, arrived in Guadalcanal in late January 1943 and first flew a Wildcat with Marine Corps fighter Squadron VMF-221 before it transitioned to the Corsair. Swett received the Medal of Honor for his action on April 7, 1943, while flying the Wildcat, but he also had an interesting Corsair story to share with the audience.
It seems there was an emergency landing strip in the Russell Islands where a Seabee outfit was based. One of the Seabees had accidentally hit a cow with a tractor and killed it. As a result, they ended up having the rare, and much sought after, treat of hamburger. In addition, since they also had a refrigeration unit, they had ice cream.
As soon as word got out that pilots making emergency landings at the strip were treated to hamburgers and milkshakes, there was a rash of emergency landings. When the CO found out what was happening, he put a stop to the so-called emergency landings.
Another Corsair pilot was Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, Jr., only for him it was a different war. On June 26, 1950, the North Koreans crossed the line and invaded South Korea. Hudner’s squadron was in the Mediterranean at the time, aboard the carrier USS Leyte off the coast of Italy. They returned to the States to pick up new planes before heading for Korea via the Panama Canal.
Hudner’s squadron, VF-32, started flying close air support missions in October 1950 from the carrier USS Leyte. By the end of November, MacArthur’s forces had pushed all the way to the Yalu River, which is on the border of North Korea and Manchuria. Then an unexpected mass of Chinese troops poured over the border, encircling our troops at the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines found themselves embroiled in a bloody fight for survival in subzero weather as they fought their way along a narrow dirt road to the port of Hungnam where they were to be evacuated.
On Dec. 4, Hudner, Jesse Leroy Brown, and four other Corsair pilots took off from their carrier on a ground support mission for the beleaguered Marines. Over hostile territory Brown’s plane took a hit from ground fire, and he crash-landed on the only open spot he could find on the slope of the tree-covered mountainous terrain. Brown survived the crash, but was trapped in the cockpit. The engine had separated from the plane, and a fire smoldering near the gas tank just ahead of the trapped pilot threatened to engulf him in flames at any moment. Hudner knew he could end up trapped in his plane like Brown, but he also knew Brown needed help right then if he was to survive, so he crash-landed his Corsair nearby and went to Brown’s rescue. Unable to free Brown from the wreckage, he tried unsuccessfully to put the fire out by packing snow on the smoldering fuselage. In the meantime, their squadron mates were flying cover and a helicopter had been called in. Unfortunately, neither Hudner nor the helicopter pilot was able to free Brown from the wreckage before he died.
The incredible life story of Ensign Brown, who happened to be the Navy’s first black fighter pilot, and this daring rescue attempt are told in the interesting book “”The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown,”” by Theodore Taylor.
Stan Vosburg, an aviation artist, has a different Corsair story to tell. Vosburg, like many other aviation enthusiasts, had his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot dashed by eyesight that was not quite perfect, but that disappointment did nothing to dampen his love for aviation. On the contrary, he moved on into an engineering career in the aerospace industry. He has an innate artistic talent and thinks like an engineer, qualities that combine to give him a style reminiscent of Norman Rockwell.
Vosburg’s first lithograph, “”Balboa Rendezvous, 1944,”” is indicative of his powerful style, which has nostalgic appeal to many. It is the first in a series of paintings that show the impact of military aviation on people who lived and worked on the Home Front during the 1940s.
“”It’s a bright January morning in 1944,”” says Vosburg, as he describes the image. “”Far away in Europe and in the Pacific, America is engaged in an epic struggle against the forces of Fascism. Our nation’s industries are humming with ever-increasing activity as they supply the tools necessary for ultimate victory. Yet, here along the sandy shore of Balboa Peninsula, the only sounds are the murmur of spent waves, the laughter of frolicking boys, and loping pant of faithful ‘Cooper.’ In the distance stands the Newport pier with its little weather-beaten hamburger house marking the tip of its intrusion into the peaceful Pacific. Just visible between the pilings, Palos Verdes seems to rise serenely like the back of a sunning whale.
“”Then a blast of thunder from 4,000 galloping horses, the flash of sunlight on whirling propellers, a glint from plexiglas, and the perception of kindred spirits hurtling joyously through the invisible air. In a fleeting moment, a brief rendezvous, the mighty bent-winged Corsair forges a memory of bridled power and the wonder of flight. Soon its riders will dismount at the orange tree-surrounded field called El Toro. There they will recount with glee the stolen thrills of the morning’s training mission, and the boys they caught by surprise on the sandy shore of Balboa.””
Vosburg spent nearly a year researching this painting. He visited the scene at the appropriate time of year to make sure he would have the lighting just right. He said the easy part of his research was the markings on the Corsairs. Researching the type of clothing the young spectators would be wearing and the bikes they would be riding took more digging. His engineering spirit brings to the painting such realism that those who lived then are swept back in pleasant memories.
We all have fond recollections of our youth. It’s like finding a long lost friend when we find an image that triggers flashbacks to those wonderful moments. Many of us have developed a lifelong love of airplanes, such as the Corsair, and of flying because of a chance encounter like this. What more could you ask for in a painting?
Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103 or at BledsoeAvArt.com.