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'The men who flew the Vought F4U Corsair'
A dramatic account of air combat over the Solomon Islands in the US Navy's most powerful fighter of the war
Martin Bowman once again produces a comprehensive collection of stories of aerial warfare in The Men Who Flew the Vought F4U Corsair. Telling the complete story of the fastest fighter plane in the world at the time, he describes the development of the plane built around the Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp engine. The size of this engine, with its 13-foot propeller, dictated the distinctive gull-wing design.
All six of my guns needed only to bark at the bomber for less than a second before he disintegrated. As near as I could tell, the gunner never hit my plane. In the next instant, I had to pull back the stick to avoid flying through the debris of the exploding bomber.
While the history of the aircraft is of obvious interest to aircraft enthusiasts, the many accounts of flying the Corsair in action, from pilots from the US Marines and the Fleet Air Arm, will appeal to a wider audience. This is the story of the reality of US technological development outpacing the Japanese - they could produce the planes, but they also needed a generation of talented young aviators to truly exploit their advantage.
Major Hunter J. Reinburg of the USMC commanded VMF-122 in the absence of the famous ace ‘Pappy’ Boyington (injured in a bar room wrestling match). On the 15th July 1943, flying out of Guadalcanal, he found himself detached from his squadron over Bougainville. They engaged in combat with the Japanese Zero fighter escort while Reinburg went off in pursuit of a group of ‘Betty’ bombers by himself. He then turned to an unusual technique to outdo a Zero fighter that followed him:
My Corsair rotated left and down toward the straggler. When 90 degrees to his course I rolled abruptly to the right and began setting the proper gunsight lead. The Betty was not too near any other planes in the formation, so I would not be able to shoot at two in the same attack.
His speed caused me nearly to flatten out behind him before getting close enough to shoot. The tail gunner was already shooting at me. All six of my guns needed only to bark at the bomber for less than a second before he disintegrated. As near as I could tell, the gunner never hit my plane. In the next instant, I had to pull back the stick to avoid flying through the debris of the exploding bomber. It was a gruesome and yet rewarding sight. For an instant, several human bodies could be seen among the falling mess.
The rest of the bombers were now four hundred yards ahead and it took me long excruciating minutes to gain my attack position again, high on their right side. I realized that it would be impossible to destroy all of the bombers alone. I decided to get on the radio and broadcast the location, course, altitude and speed of the enemy formation. Many flights of friendly fighters were supposed to be in the area and perhaps some of them might be close enough to join and finish what I had started. After transmitting the blanket broadcast twice, I was almost ready for another attack.
My plane started to roll left for the attack when I realized that tracer bullets were whizzing by me. My first thought was that the tail gunners were responsible. A glance into my rear-view mirror cleared up the mystery. A Zero was there, pumping “arrows” at me. That distant speck I had noticed a short while ago had now grown to a full-sized and very unfriendly airplane.
The enemy pilot apparently was an acrobat. He was diving on my tail from higher altitudes and using his excess speed to loop over me when my skidding manoeuvre caused him to overrun my plane before he could aim properly. This would explain his quick disappearing and reappearing.
I chopped my throttle while putting the Corsair in a left skid. This decelerating manoeuvre was designed to catch my attacker by surprise, confuse his aim and cause him to scoot by before he could recognize my actions and his mistake. Then, when the nemesis appeared in front of me, I would have him at my mercy. This caper had worked well in practice so I automatically used it.
My trigger finger itched while I strained my eyes for the first glimpse of the Jap in my gunsight. It was then that I began to suspect that my attacker was no amateur, because he never flew in front of me. My head swivelled on my shoulders as I fearfully tried to relocate my opponent. There was no sign of him anywhere.
I then threw the airplane in a right skid but still could not see him. ‘In my frantic search for the Zero, I did happen to notice that the bombers were now a half-mile ahead of me because I had reduced my speed, hoping to trick the Zero. Seeing them again dispelled my fear as I returned my thoughts and efforts toward destroying more of those easy targets. It took several minutes to attain a good attacking position again. But tracers once more began to whizz by and strike my wings. The re-appearance of the Zero was confirmed by a glance in the mirror.
Without thinking, I executed the same evasive skidding caper. This eliminated the “arrows” like before, but again no Zero appeared in front. An alternate skid to the right still did not reveal the phantom. By now I was getting more angry than frightened. Another search of the sky revealed the Betty bombers, but nothing more. Where was that bastard? But seeing those juicy “sitting-duck” bombers crowded the fears from my mind as I resumed the chase.
The enemy pilot apparently was an acrobat. He was diving on my tail from higher altitudes and using his excess speed to loop over me when my skidding manoeuvre caused him to overrun my plane before he could aim properly. This would explain his quick disappearing and reappearing. I should have suspected his manoeuvre at the time, as I had already fought with some acrobatic enemy pilots.
Amazingly, the whole situation was repeated identically for a third time! However this time the Zero, having more than his share of practice, sent a very hostile bullet into the cockpit. He must have been shooting from slightly on my left side, because the bullet entered just outboard of the armour plate, behind me, on the left, and shattered the altimeter on the instrument panel.The bulletjust missed my arm as it passed through the crook of my elbow.
The real danger from the rear now rudely awakened me. I lost my hero complex and devoted my full thoughts toward getting away from the Jap and giving him no further opportunity to kill me. I recalled that a few seconds before it was hit, the altimeter had registered 17,000 feet. I put the Corsair into a left skid and did a sloppy half-roll. I left the throttle wide open and, when inverted, pointed the airplane straight down. I continued jinking to spoil his aim as I kept the aircraft on its nose.
Early in the war our intelligence people and engineers had been able to get their hands on a Zero 21 fighter that crash-landed pretty much intact in a bog in the Aleutians. The Zero was scrutinized from stem to stern as well as flown by American pilots (after being rebuilt at North Island Naval Air Station in California).
Intelligence reports ascertained that the Zero was prone to lose its wings in a high-speed dive. Furthermore, if it did survive such a dive, I really doubted if it could not hold together in a hard right-turning pull out. With this in mind, I headed for the earth in a full-power, vertical plunge. Of course, I had hoped that he would not try to follow me down, but if he did it was my intention to try to prove or disprove Intelligence’s theory.
My Corsair quickly attained a high rate of descent. Due perhaps to an overpowering urge to go even faster, just the opposite seemed to occur: my plane hardly seemed to be gaining on the earth far below. I could see the island of Kolombangara underneath me, but with no altimeter to tell me when to start my pull out, I knew that I had better judge the moment very carefully or ol’ Hunter would grow no older and would become one more MIA.
Damn! Will my plane hold together? His bullets have struck and could have weakened its structure. Too late now: I’m already in my dive! I was too busy trying to figure out my altitude to be frightened. A glance in my rear-view mirror scared me further. The Zero was right with me in the dive. Gosh! He’s still after me and still shooting. He must be their highest ace. I’ll have to make this pull out a tough one to finish him ... or maybe me.
I levelled off just above the treetops of the jungle and continued my hard-right turn away from the mountain peak and toward the shore line. As the loads of gravity lessened on my body, I tried to see behind me, hoping to observe the Jap fighter crash.
The volcanic peak of Kolombangara was helpful in gauging my altitude. At what I guessed to be 2,000 feet, I commenced easing back on the control stick with both hands. When my eyes began to see more grey than light, I refrained from pulling back on the stick further. I froze it in that position while hoping the recovery would continue. When halfway out of the steep dive, I commenced a right rolling turn and could barely see the island shore line and the sea beyond. Am I going to make it?
The island seems to be coming up at me awfully fast! Perspiration stung my eyes. The strain of gravity prevented me from watching the Jap in the Corsair’s mirror. Made it!
I levelled off just above the treetops of the jungle and continued my hard-right turn away from the mountain peak and toward the shore line. As the loads of gravity lessened on my body, I tried to see behind me, hoping to observe the Jap fighter crash. But, if he survived, I wanted to get on his tail and give him some “arrows” in return and show him how he should have hit me.
After making a complete turn, there was no sign of the slant-eye. I started worrying that he might be close under my tail, in my blind spot and would soon be drilling me again. Several swishes of my tail calmed my fear. Another circle of the area revealed no Zeros. Hey, what’s that? Black smoke began to rise out of the jungle at about the place where I would have crashed, if unsuccessful with my pull out.
The smoke volume rapidly increased and the blackness was indicative of a petroleum fire. ‘Hot damn! That just has to be that Zero, but I’ll never know for sure, I guess. I just barely made the recovery so it seemed impossible that he could have. I guess I can’t even claim him as a probable even though the evidence is pretty conclusive that he crashed. Anyway, he’s not around to bother me. Boy, that fire’s really burning fiercely now and only gasoline could make such a blaze.
One more circle of the area for good measure still did not produce an airborne Zero. I flew low and slow over the fire, but could not see through the thick smoke and foliage. The jungle had swallowed another mystery.
This excerpt from The Men Who Flew the Vought F4U Corsair appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.
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