VMF-422

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Marine Fighting Squadron 422
VMF-422.JPG
VMF-422 Insignia
ActiveJanuary 1, 1943 - April 7, 1947
CountryUnited States
BranchUSMC
TypeFighter squadron
RoleAir interdiction
Part ofInactive
Nickname(s)Flying Buccaneers
EngagementsWorld War II
* Marshall Islands Campaign
* Battle of Okinawa
Aircraft flown
FighterVought F4U Corsair

Marine Fighting Squadron 422 (VMF-422) was a Vought F4U Corsair squadron in the United States Marine Corps. The squadron, also known as the "Flying Buccaneers", fought in World War II but is perhaps best known for its role in the worst accident in naval aviation history when they lost 22 of 23 aircraft flying through a storm on January 25, 1944.

Unit history[edit]

Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF 422 was commissioned on January 1, 1943 at Naval Air Station San Diego. Later that month it moved to Marine Corps Air Station Santa Barbara under the command of Major John S. MacLaughlin, Jr. a 1937 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Initially the roster consisted of forty pilots and 120 enlisted men. Three pilots, Captains Cloyd Rex Jeans, Charles Hughes and John Rogers were veterans of combat in the Pacific, all having served in other VMF units from Midway to Guadalcanal. Most of the pilots were new, having earned their wings in 1943 from NAS Pensacola or NAS Jacksonville. They completed Carrier Qualification Training (CQT) at NAS Chicago aboard either the Sable or Wolverine. For the most part the pilots flew North American SNJ trainers or six FM1 Wildcats until late August when they were transported to NAS North Island, San Diego to take delivery of twenty-four new Vought F4U-1D Corsairs. They participated in gunnery and bombing training at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake in the Mojave Desert.

The squadron was declared operational on 24 September 1943 and ordered to San Diego where the lead echelon of twenty-four pilots and planes would be loaded aboard the new Essex-class carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) for transport to Pearl Harbor, arriving on 3 October.

While stationed at MCAS Ewa Field on Oahu, the Corsairs were detached from the squadron, which, on 15 October, was sent by transport to Midway for advanced air patrol training with Marine Air Group 22. There the squadron suffered its first casualties when First Lieutenants Stafford Drake and Edmund Farrell were killed in a mid-air collision with First Lieutenant William Aycrigg. Only Aycrigg survived. The dead pilots were replaced by pilots from the rear echelon. Upon returning to Oahu on 15 December, they were issued twenty-four new F4U-1D Corsairs.

They received orders to board the escort carrier USS Kalinin Bay (CVE-68) just after the New Year. Their destination was Hawkins Field on the island of Betio in Tarawa Atoll in the recently captured Gilbert Islands. Arriving on the early morning of 24 January they were catapulted off the ship to fly to Hawkins Field. Major MacLaughlin was met by the Chief of Staff of the Fourth Marine Base Defense Air Wing (MBDAW) Colonel Lawrence Burke, who informed him that VMF-422 was to fly to the island of Funafuti, 820 miles to the southeast to await their role in Operation Flintlock, the invasion of the Marshall Islands, scheduled for 3 February. MacLaughlin was provided with weather, navigational and radio code information for the flight. An escort plane was standard Navy policy for single-engine fighters going on long, over-water flights. But despite having formally requested a multi-engine navigational escort plane from the Fourth MBDAW commander, Brigadier General Lewie G. Merritt, MacLaughlin and his pilots were told to make the flight alone.

In addition, MacLaughlin was not told that the weather report, which forecast scattered clouds and rain showers down to their destination, was more than twenty-six hours old. Some of the radio call signs and navigational radio range frequencies were incorrect as well.

Doomed flight[edit]

Shortly before 1000 hrs. twenty-three pilots took off from Hawkins Field. One, Lieutenant Robert Scott, had starter trouble and was unable to leave.

The remaining Corsairs, which carried enough fuel to last until about 1600 hrs., flew south along the chain of Gilbert and Ellice Islands, headed for their first stop, Nanumea, the home base of the USAAF 11th Bomb Group. Nanumea was located approximately halfway along the route to Funafuti. But due to a procedural error among the air operations staff at Hawkins Field, neither Nanumea nor Funafuti had been informed of VMF-422's imminent arrival.

At 1230 hrs., still short of Nanumea, the squadron encountered a massive Pacific cyclone measuring nearly 150 miles 240 km) in diameter and reaching to more than 50,000 feet, (1524m). Having little choice, the pilots flew into the storm and were immediately blown far to the south and east by the clockwise rotation of the cyclone, which carried them beyond Nanumea. The base had its radar up and running but with no information that a Marine squadron was in the air, did not attempt to make contact. By the time the scattered Corsairs broke out of the first storm front nearly twenty minutes later they were already more than fifty miles (80 km) past Nanumea. In an attempt to find the Nanumea radio range beacon, Major MacLaughlin made two radical course changes that further broke apart the formation. Five pilots, Captain John Rogers, Lieutenants John Hansen, Don Walker, Robert Moran, Walter Wilson and Earl Thompson were missing. Lieutenant Christian Lauesen had engine trouble and was forced to ditch in the heaving seas. Against orders, Lieutenant Robert Lehnert chose to stay behind and circle the downed pilot while making continual efforts to contact a base. Walker soon rejoined the rest of the pilots, but the other four were still unaccounted for. The remaining pilots continued south, hoping to reach Funafuti.

Another storm front swallowed them and at last, MacLaughlin agreed to turn back and try to fine either Nanumea or Nui, which was closest to their estimated location. But when they reached the area, Major MacLaughlin was not among them. The last men to see him alive, as he was making desperate attempts to use his radio, were Lieutenants John Lincoln and Jules Flood.

The squadron was now under the command of Captain Cloyd Jeans. He decided that with fuel running low, they should stay together and ditch as one group. Meanwhile, Wilson had miraculously ditched on Niutao Atoll, east of Nanumea, and Moran had made brief radio contact with both Nanumea and Jeans. He parachuted over Nui, but due to injuries in the bail-out, died in the surf. Hansen was the only one of the pilots who managed to get a fix on the Funafuti radio range and landed safely. His unexpected arrival was the first indication to the Navy that a Marine squadron was missing at sea. Jeans and fourteen other pilots ditched as the storm drew closer. Two pilots, Lieutenants Bill Aycrigg and Ted Thurnau were too far away to be reached by raft.

Lehnert, who had parachuted over the swimming Lauesen at the height of the storm when his own fuel ran out, was unable to find the other man. He spent the next three days alone on his raft until being found by a Consolidated PBY Catalina from Patrol Squadron 53 on the early afternoon of 28 January.

The other thirteen downed pilots managed to survive three days of heavy wind-whipped seas, severe exposure and sharks until the afternoon of 28 January. A PBY Catalina out of Funafuti, piloted by Ensign George Davidson found the tiny band of rafts 143 miles (230 km) southwest of Funafuti. They had drifted more than two hundred miles (320 km). The landing damaged the flying boat and only by heroic efforts was the plane kept afloat until they were picked up by the destroyer USS Hobby (DD-610). A day later Thurnau was rescued by the destroyer USS Welles (DD-628). MacLaughlin, Rogers, Thompson, Lauesen and Aycrigg were never found.

In all, six pilots died and twenty-two planes were lost. It was considered the worst non-combat loss of a Marine squadron in the war.

Investigation[edit]

A Navy Board of Inquiry was ordered by Rear Admiral John Hoover, commander of Task Group 50.2, which had jurisdiction over Marine air operations in the area. From 27 January to 10 February, eighteen witnesses were called to the wardroom of the USS Curtiss (AV-4) in Tarawa Lagoon. The board concluded that the leading cause was the denial of an escort by the Fourth MBDAW commander, General Merritt. It also concluded that proper procedures for air operations on Tarawa had not been followed. These factors, along with an outdated weather report contributed to the loss. The findings and recommendations went up the chain of command to Commander in Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King and on to James Forrestal, Undersecretary of the Navy at the Pentagon. The recommendations were endorsed at each level which resulted in letters of censure for several officers, including General Merritt. But likely due to his political connections, Merritt was able to stay clear of any association with the loss of six pilots. However, the Navy did take steps to assure that no single-engine plane or unit was unescorted on \an over-water flight. By Order of CINCPAC escort planes were official Navy policy for single-engine fighters. The pilots who had survived the disaster had been sent back to the states in December for assignment to other squadrons. Few had ever known what had been the real cause of the loss of six of their number. The six men lost were officially declared dead by the Navy Department on 25 January 1945. Despite inquiries by relatives, there had never been an official explanation as to the cause of the disaster. John MacLaughlin was posthumously given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The 2017 book by Mark Carlson, entitled The Marines' Lost Squadron – The Odyssey of VMF-422 has revealed the root causes and personal accounts of the disaster. The author spent four years on the project, interviewing the last survivors of the squadron and studying hundreds of documents obtained from the Navy Judge Advocate General's Office at the Washington Navy Yard. The 2012 documentary film "The Flintlock Disaster" [1] [2] recounts the events and losses during that flight.

VMF-422 Formation (as of January 1944) Call Sign: "Buccaneer Flight" "WM" (` denotes wingman) Red Flight 1st Division Major John S. MacLaughlin Jr. Call Sign: Buccaneer Lead MIA/KIA 1st. Lt. Earl Thompson WM Call Sign: Red Two MIA/KIA 1st. Lt. Chris Lauesen Call Sign: Red Three MIA/KIA 1st. Lt. Ken Gunderson WM Call Sign: Red Four 2nd Division Capt. Charley Hughes Call Sign: Red Five 1st. Lt. Sterling Price WM Call Sign: Red Six 1st. Lt. Stafford Drake Call Sign: Red Seven KIA (Jules Flood after 20 November) 2nd Lt. Edmond Farrell WM Call Sign: Red Eight KIA (Robert Scott after 20 November)

Gold Flight 3rd Division Capt. John Rogers Call Sign: Gold Leader MIA/KIA 1st. Lt. Walter Wilson WM Call Sign: Gold Two 1st. Lt. John Hansen Call Sign: Gold Three 1st. Lt. Don Walker WM Call Sign: Gold Four 4th Division 1st. Lt. Mark Syrkin Call Sign: Gold Five 1st. Lt. John Lincoln WM Call Sign: Gold Six 1st. Lt. Robert Whalen Call Sign: Gold Seven 1st. Lt. Royce Watson WM Call Sign: Gold Eight

Green Flight 5th Division Capt. Cloyd R. Jeans Call Sign: Green Leader 1st. Lt. Bill A. Aycrigg WM Call Sign: Green Two MIA/KIA 1st. Lt. Robert K. Wilson Call Sign: Green Three 1st.Lt. Robert Moran WM Call Sign: Green Four KIA 6th Division 1st. Lt. Robert Lehnert Call Sign: Green Five 1st. Lt. Ted Thurnau WM Call Sign: Green Six KIA 1st. Lt. Bill Reardon Call Sign: Green Seven KIA 1st. Lt. Caleb Smick WM Call Sign: Green Eight

Below is a list of officers who were moved up from the rear echelon to replace the men lost in the January flight. First Lieutenant Ted Thurnau was killed on 28 February on Apamama Island when his left wing folded during takeoff.

First Lieutenant Donald K. Skillicorn KIA First Lieutenant Donald H. Stout, Jr. KIA First Lieutenant Duane A. Dahquist KIA Second Lieutenant Emerald E. Wolverton KIA Second Lieutenant Raymond Schroeder KIA

VMF-422 was reconstituted after the disaster under the command of Major Elmer Wrenn with Jeans remaining as Executive Officer. By April 1944 the squadron was flying out of Engebi in Eniwetok Atoll on interdiction missions against Japanese Bases and shipping in the Marshall Islands. The Buccaneers hosted Charles Lindbergh during his short time in the region in September and he accompanied them on three strike missions to Wotje Island. The Buccaneers operated from Okinawa between May and September 1945, contributing to the defense of U.S. forces in the Ryukyu campaign. In that time the squadron was credited with 15 Japanese planes shot down.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

Bibliography
  • Carlson, Mark (2017) The Marines' Lost Squadron – The Odyssey of VMF-422 Sunbury Press, Boiling Springs, PA ISBN 978-1-62006-747-5 (Library of Congress Control Number: 2017960989)
  • Crowder, Michael J. (2000). United States Marine Corps Aviation Squadron Lineage, Insignia & History - Volume One - The Fighter Squadrons. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company. ISBN 1-56311-926-9.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. (2002). U.S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle - Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939 - 1945.’’. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31906-5.
  • Sherrod, Robert (1952). History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Combat Forces Press.
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