Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Jolly Rogers by Tom Blackburn and Eric Hammel

The Jolly Rogers by Tom Blackburn and and Hammel

Just finished reading The Jolly Rogers by Tom Blackburn and Eric Hammel today and I have to say that it was a book I couldn't put down. Initially published in 1989, it details the life of the VF-17 "The Jolly Rogers" who operated and distinguished themselves in the Pacific Theater of World War II flying the Vought F4U Corsair, as told by their Commander, Thomas Blackburn.

To supplement Tom Blackburn's and his squadron mates personal accounts, this book also taps into the Logs, War Diary and Action Reports of VF-17 in order to compose a precise picture of VF-17 from its inception to its decommissioning.

The book also focuses a little on the life of Tom Blackburn before leading up to how he commanded and formed the VF-17 Jolly Rogers. Specifically how he worked as a flight instructor training aviation cadets then being able to astutely weasel his way out of that in order to be assigned to the frontline.

Tom Blackburn first took command of VGF-29 that operated off the escort carrier USS Santee. He took part in Operation Torch where in one of their flights back to the USS Santee, was marred by a massive navigation error due to faulty homing equipment on the Santee. That faulty equipment forced him to ditch his F4F Wildcat at sea from lack of fuel. After a few days out at sea, he miraculously drifted into view of the USS Santee, where one of its eagle eyed destroyers finally found him and picked him up.

On January 1943 he received orders to head to the Atlantic Fleet Air Force Commander in order to command and commission VF-17. The book then takes us to their formation and training grounds at Norfolk then Manteo, where they worked to familiarize themselves with the F4U Corsair as well as train themselves to be a credible fighting unit. Tom Blackburn christened the squadron the "Jolly Rogers" as he thought that a "piratical" theme would best suit the squadron to match the similar themed name of the F4U Corsairs that they would be flying.

The F4U Corsair was a very fast airplane but it had massive amount of gremlins in its design that had to be worked out. VF-17 however didn't give up on the plane as Tom Blackburn felt that the speed advantage of the Corsair made it the better combat plane (versus the Hellcat) and was well worth the trouble of working to fix those defects prior to shipping out. Some of the problems they helped work out were the installation of the stall strip at the outboard wing that prevented the starboard wing from dropping uncharacteristically during slow landing maneuvers. There was also the issue of the Corsair bouncing too high off the flight deck during carrier landings due to the design of the main landing struts as well as problems with the design of the arrestor hook that forced a lot of barrier crashes. All these and other problems were eventually fixed.

The Navy however didn't see it fit that the F4U Corsair be allowed to operate off of Aircraft Carriers. Aside from the teething problems that were being worked out, there was also the possibility of a supply problem of parts cropping up to maintain the F4U Corsair in a fleet that was mostly populated by F6F Hellcats already. And with that, the F4U Corsairs of VF-17 were transferred from their carrier, the USS Bunker Hill, replaced with VF-18 (a Hellcat squadron) and made to operate off of land bases in the Pacific. VF-17, the second squadron to operate the F4U Corsair in the Navy, became the only squadron to operate Corsairs in the Navy as the rest transitioned to F6F Hellcats.

The book then makes a graphic description of the life of VF-17 as it operated off of the famous Henderson airfield in Guadalcanal and other island strips, whose capture from the Japanese was paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of the United States Marine Corps.

This, in my opinion, is the strong point of the book at it is a no holds barred narration of each action and does not skimp on the details of the tragic loss of each member of the Squadron. Based on the logs, action reports, war diary and personal accounts of the surviving members of VF-17, it really portrays a very complete picture of the air war in the Pacific as the Allies tried to drive the Japanese off the Pacific strongholds as well as on its continued harassment of their main base at Rabaul to break the enemy's spirit as well as to slowly whittle away its air supremacy in the Pacific.

VF-17 flew its last mission on March 6, 1944, hunting Japanese barges while another squadron escorted TBF bombers. On April 10 aboard the Prince William, Cmdr Blackburn read the tearful orders to the men of VF-17 that it was being decommissioned. That however was not the end of the Famous Squadrons moniker, as others took up the name and continued the tradition. Even till now that famous tradition is being carried on by VFA-103

VF-17 had a very storied career in the Pacific, aside from producing over a 150 kills, (they produced a lot of Flying Aces), they helped develop tactics to better employ their Corsairs in the fronline. Such as Roving High Cover (RHC) which added another flight of fighters as top cover to get the jump on Japanese fighter planes forming up to ambush a bomb run, this in effect helped lower the attrition rate from these attacks and therefore helped save a lot of lives. It also had the added effect of getting a lot of pilots running this cover a coveted kill mark. Another notable accomplishment of VF-17 was their help in the design and development of the bomb racks of the F4U to transition the Corsair to a ground attack fighter.

As the lone Navy squadron that did not give up on the F4U Corsair, it is a testament to the skill and doggedness to get the job done by the airmen and ground crew of VF-17, that helped immensely with the fight of the Allies against the Empire aspirations of the nation of Japan and in turn gave back the freedom of Asia from the tyrannical grip of the Armed Forces of Imperial Japan.