Lt. Cdr. John T. "Tommy" Blackburn
C.O. of Jolly Rogers, Fighting Squadron 17 (VF-17)
By Stephen Sherman, Sept. 1999. Updated July 1, 2011.
One of the great ones, whether shooting down Zeros, motivating a bunch of cast-offs, smuggling cases of beer in the squadron's Corsairs, or strafing a Japanese officers' cat house, Tommy Blackburn epitomized the hard-driving, hard-playing fighter pilot of times past.
He was the heart and soul of VF-17 - the famous Jolly Rogers.
Training at Miami NAS
When the war started he was running a Naval Aviation advanced flying school at Miami (Opa Locka). This school took the graduates of primary flight training and introduced them to some requirements of actual combat: instrument flying, high-performance aircraft, gunnery, and formation flying. They worked under extraordinary pressure, to turn out enough pilots to satisfy the U.S. Navy's growing need for pilots while providing the cadets with enough training so that they would be somewhat qualified as Naval aviators. At Opa Locka, he met many fliers with whom he would work closely later on, notably Roger Hedrick, Tom Killefer, and "Jumpin' Joe" Clifton, who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1930, three years ahead of Blackburn. (Born on , Blackburn had entered the Academy in 1929.)
Blackburn was at Miami when word of Pearl Harbor came over the radio. Unaware at first of the magnitude of the destruction, the fliers were not unhappy that the long-expected battle had at last been joined. They were also initially confident that the U.S. fleet would mount a devastating counter-stroke against the Jap raiders. They soon found out how unprepared the fleet had been. Things changed immediately, starting with F2A Brewster Buffalos being made available for training. In December, 1941 the Navy began to re-equip the Navy and Marine fighting squadrons with the more advanced Grumman F4F Wildcats, and released Buffalos to the training schools. While not first-line fighters at that time, the F2As were ideal for training, as they had similar engine power and flight characteristics as the new Wildcats.
While he knew the importance of training, Blackburn chafed to get into a fighting squadron. After his CO rebuffed his first request for transfer, he pulled all the strings he could and wangled orders to organize and command VGF-29 aboard the new escort carrier USS Santee.
On July 1, 1942, he reported to Norfolk NAS (Naval Air Station), and began, with his new squadron, to learn all about the latest Wildcat, the F4F-4. It boasted folding wings and six machine guns, two more than its predecessor, the F4F-3, and was therefore heavier. As shown at the Coral Sea and Midway, it was a tough plane. While not as maneuverable as the Zero, it had already earned a reputation for bringing its pilots home. One of its odd features was its manually-retracting landing gear. As a pilot got airborne, the first thing he had to do was crank up the landing gear by hand. In so doing, he invariably imparted a distinctive up-and-down motion to the ascending Wildcat.
The pilots of VGF-29 were mostly new ensigns, right out of advanced flying school at Corpus Christi. As his exec, Blackburn had Lt.(jg) Harry "Brink" Bass, a 1938 Annapolis graduate who had earned a Navy Cross for helping to sink the carrier Shoho at the battle of the Coral Sea. Not long after the squadron was formed, Blackburn was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and the squadron moved to its own base at Pungo, about 15 miles south of Norfolk. Here they could fly when and where they wanted.
For carrier qualification, they used the jeep carrier Charger, until the Santee was converted from a tanker. These small carriers stayed inside the relative safety of Chesapeake Bay, out of reach of German U-boats. During an early flight from the Santee, Blackburn had to provide his call sign to the Flight Director on board; impromptu, he came up with "Shillelagh Leader." The nickname stuck, and soon Kelly green Irish war clubs were painted on the squadron Wildcats.
In October 1942, the Santee sailed for Bermuda, as part of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. On October 26, one of the SBD's, while being catapulted off the ship, accidently dropped a 500 lb. bomb into the water. The huge explosion shook everyone up and upset a heavy optical range-finder. While not evident at the time, the explosion had also knocked out the carrier's aircraft homing device. The remainder of the crossing was uneventful, and they arrived off Moroccan waters on Nov. 6. Fighting-29's first combat mission, set for Nov. 8, was to strafe an airfield at the town of Safi. They took off before dawn, in a hairy night-time launch. The Wildcats formed up and flew over Safi, only to find that the reported airfield did not exist. Angry and frustrated, they circled a while, then headed back for the ship. In meantime, the weather had turned dark and rainy.
Suddenly the ships of the task force were impossible to find. Blackburn led his flight through standard procedures to locate the Santee. After all other measures failed, he called in on voice radio and got a bearing, which still didn't put him over the ship. As fuel ran low, he ordered the flight to head for land. Soon, he ran out of fuel, as the other planes continued on. He ditched the Wildcat, shucked off his parachute, inflated his tiny raft, and started to drift. He estimated that the wind and drift were carrying him toward land, but at a rate which would take six days to get there. He floated along for three full days, when the task force luckily came his way. The alert crew of a destroyer spotted him half a mile off, and dispatched a whale boat to pick him. He was hungry, thirsty, and suffering from an advanced case of immersion foot, but within two days felt well enough to try to fly a mission (which the ship's doctor and captain prevented him from doing).
Other fighter, dive bombers, and torpedo planes all had difficulty getting back to the Santee, due to the damaged homing antenna. Later, his four Wildcat pilots were recovered; they had made it to shore and crash landed. All in all the aerial part of Torch was a disaster.
Organizing VF-17, Early 1943
In December 1942, he received orders to form and command Fighting Squadron 17 (VF-17) which was to serve on the new Essex-class carrier Bunker Hill. Reporting to Norfolk, Virginia on Jan. 1, 1943, he began to organize his new command. From the Miami training school, he secured Roger Hedrick as his exec and Lt.(jg) Timmy Gile. He also had two veterans of the early fighting at Guadalcanal - Lts. Halford and Kleinman. These five were the only ones with any experience flying combat-type aircraft. The rest of his 42 pilots were new ensigns, right out of advanced flying school at Corpus Christi, where they hadn't flown anything more advanced than SNJ trainers.
The all-new squadron was to begin working with the Vought F4U-1 Corsair, a hot new fighter, which the Navy's test pilots viewed with trepidation and was barely in production. In addition they had to integrate their fighter activities with the Bunker Hill's dive bomber and torpedo plane squadrons. The plans called for them to be in the Pacific by August, 1943. Since the new Corsairs were not due until February, Blackburn started training and evaluating his fresh pilots on SNJs and F4Fs. By the end of January, all the fliers had soloed in the Wildcats.
He also used this time to ease out five pilots that he didn't think were fighter material. He wanted no "reluctant dragons" in Fighting-17 and let it be known that anyone with reservations could see him about a clean transfer to other duty. He didn't extend this option to Lts. Halford and Kleinman, Guadalcanal veterans who were understandably reluctant to endure more front-line combat. While Blackburn couldn't spare his only two combat veterans, he and Hedrick promised the two fliers that they could opt out after one combat tour. VF-17 was never a spit-and-polish operation; they saved discipline for the air, when it counted. They focused on meshing the pilots with their aircraft and then meshing the pilots into the squadron's organization:
- 2 planes (leader and wingman) in a section
- 2 sections in a division of 4 planes
- 2 divisions in a flight of 8 planes - a 'flight' being the largest tactical unit
- 5 flights in the whole squadron of 36-40 planes (less those under repair)
Blackburn used any methods or "corny gimmicks" to raise morale, including red scarves, the 'Jolly Rogers' nickname, and the skull-and-crossbones insignia.
He picked up the first Corsair himself at Floyd Bennett Field in New York, and promptly learned some lessons on its handling characteristics. By mid-March, the squadron had its 36 plane allotment and all the pilots had flown them. About this time, the F4U picked up its 'Hog' nickname, and Blackburn, vowing not to be stuck without a call sign again, dubbed his aircraft 'Big Hog'.
Learning Carrier Ops
The first step in getting carrier-qualified was to land on a simulated carrier: a marked-off, carrier-sized area on a longer concrete runway. After accomplishing this, Blackburn made the first real carrier landing on May 1. With the skilled LSO, Catwalk Cummings, guiding him, he approached at 90 knots, chopped the throttle, IMPACTED the deck and BOUNCED about 20 FEET in the air! All the tires blew out, but the plane and pilot were okay. His next four landings improved. In due course all VF-17 pilots made their required five carrier landings without loss.
There were plenty of challenges. The Corsair was temperamental beast that required careful maintenance. Before starting its engine, two men had to pull the prop around several times to clear the lower cylinders of oil. Then it had to be primed with gasoline, but not so much as to flood it.
Finally, they fired the shotgun starter -- which sometimes worked. The plane also leaked oil, from the engine and from the 14 cowling flaps - each with its own little hydraulic system. To cope with oil-obscured windshields, the pilots learned to look for rain clouds to duck under for a quick wash. Disorientation (a pilot's sense that the plane is flying straight and level when, in fact, it's spiraling down) killed at least two pilots. Blackburn and Hedrick mandated a refresher course in instrument flying for all. Unlike a pilot's 'sense', the instruments always showed the accurate situation of the plane, and the pilots had to learn to trust the needle, ball, and airspeed indicator however those readings conflicted with their instincts. They lost no more fliers to disorientation.
Wild, perhaps even dangerous, flying was an important part of fighter pilot training, or so Blackburn and the Jolly Rogers felt. After numerous scrapes with the conservative air operations people in Norfolk, VF-17 moved to Manteo, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a remote place where they could "flat-hat" and "grab-ass" without much interference. The unpopulated islets in Currituck Sound offered ample opportunities for low-level gunnery practice, which later paid huge dividends in the Pacific. They worked on many other important skills:
- high-altitude flight ops, focusing on the changes in performance characteristics experienced above 30,000 feet
- target acquisition or constant scanning of the entire sky
- power plant operations
- aircraft recognition
- One key player was Lt.(jg) Basil "Duke" Henning, the ACIO (Air Combat Intelligence Officer), a 1932 Yale graduate and former history professor. (I never miss a chance to mention a Yalie. - SS) He was the only non-flier in the leadership of VF-17. The young fliers felt comfortable sharing their problems to the mature, calm, and thoughtful Henning.
- Lt. Chuck Pillsbury, a former elimination instructor, took on scheduling and operations, as well as leading one of the 8-plane flights.
- Lt. Butch Davenport showed an aptitude for engineering and became the squadron maintenance officer, working with the Vought rep to develop an extremely useful airflow spoiler.
- Ens. Hal Jackson was the scrounger.
- Lt. Clement D. "Timmy" Gile, another Yalie(!), was squadron gunnery officer, led a 4-plane division, and later became one of the squadron's high-scoring aces.
Bunker Hill cleared the ways at Quincy, Massachusetts in June of 1943 and shortly arrived off Norfolk, where VF-17 welcomed her in grand fashion, three 8-plane flights buzzing her from three different directions. After taking aboard her three air squadrons (dive bomber, torpedo, and fighter), Bunker Hill set off on her shakedown cruise in Trinidad's Gulf of Paria, a wonderfully protected 30 by 70 mile bay. Here they repeatedly practiced the complex details of carrier operations, not only the three air squadrons comprising the air department,but the other departments as well: engineering, navigation, gunnery, supply, communications, etc.
Carrier Flight Operations
They practiced flight deck operations, "spotting" the planes, i.e. optimally positioning the 90 planes on the flight and hangar decks for the air operation underway or anticipated. Taxiing or take-off accidents had to be avoided at all costs. While any accident that endangered life or valuable property was to be avoided, such an event on the flight deck of a carrier instantly rendered the huge, expensive, and complex ship completely useless and vulnerable. Thus plane-spotting and flight deck operations had to be perfect.
The flight deck officer oversaw the launches and landings. Using hand and flag signals, he precisely instructed the pilot in take-off position to rev up and take-off. In seconds, he then signalled number two. His assistant, the yellow-shirted director, ordered the next waiting plane up into take-off position, and turned over direction of that plane to the flight deck officer. And so on, all perfectly choreographed, and executed as rapidly as possibly, to save precious seconds and minutes in a combat situation. The air officers monitored all the flight deck ops and constantly worked to improve them. An elaborate system of fines helped motivate the pilots to achieve perfection.
During the shakedown cruise, problems with the Corsair (especially carrier landings) triggered the first official question. ComAirLant offered to replace VF-17's Corsairs with F6F Hellcats. Blackburn felt strongly that the Corsair was a better fighting plane and recommended that they stay with it. Further the Vought company had incorporated several improvements and promised to deliver twelve of the new F4U-1As to Norfolk on August 10. The pilots cheered the subsequent official decision to deploy VF-17 with Corsairs. On their return to Norfolk, the new -1As were ready; all hands worked long hours to familiarize themselves with them. At this point, Blackburn accepted Tom Killefer's transfer into Fighting-17, the first of many talented, but restive cast-offs from other squadrons.
Apparently settled with planes and pilots, Bunker Hill set off for the Pacific on September 10. Transit of the Panama Canal proved a fascinating experience, as it was for all who experienced it,including my father who went through it in USS Denebola. When the canal was built 40 years earlier, the largest battleships were 500 feet long and 85 feet wide. But the far-sighted geniuses who designed it built the locks to be 1,000 feet by 110 feet. And the Essex-class carriers were built with that size limit in mind. But while the ships cleared at the waterline, the overhanging flight decks of the big new carriers knocked down concrete lampposts that lined the locks. The trip to the West Coast of the United States was uneventful, and they sortied from San Diego on September 28.
But a few days out, official lightning struck. VF-17 was detached from Bunker Hill, and ordered to the island of Espiritu Santo, to operate as a land-based squadron. The problem was one of logistics, not of operations. The high command knew that Blackburn's Corsairs could operate from a carrier. But as the only Corsair squadron in a Navy full of Grumman Hellcats and Wildcats, supplying and maintaining them would be a headache. Ashore in the Solomons, VF-17 could rely on Marine Corps' established Corsair maintenance resources. There was no appeal. On October 2, they off-loaded from Bunker Hill (minus a precious typewriter that Blackburn had tried to expropriate). But they were plus two more castoffs: Harry "Dirty Eddie" March Jr. and Don "Stinky" Innis, two more Guadalcanal veterans from VF-5.
They sailed from Pearl Harbor on October 12 in the jeep carrier Prince William "Pee Willie," made Espiritu Santo on the 25th, catapulted off "Pee Willie" that day, and flew up to Guadalacanal on the 26th. Blackburn was struck by the extraordinary natural beauty of the war zone: cobalt blue waters, green-clad mountains rising up, with volcanic cones shrouded in misty white clouds. They landed at Henderson Field at mid-day, amidst the wreckage and damage from the earlier fighting - frondless coconut palms, bomb craters, and Wildcat carcasses. Even the normally exuberant Jolly Rogers were moved and mute at the sight.
Blackburn was ordered to proceed directly to Ondongo, New Georgia, and to report to ComAirSols (Commander Air Forces Solomon Islands), Gen. Nathan Twining, and more directly to his Fighter Command boss, Col. Oscar Brice, USMC.
Ondongo, October - November, 1943
At 0730 on Oct. 27, Fighting-17 came over the coral strip at Ondongo, executed a perfect carrier-style break-up and approach, touched down at thirty-second intervals, and used up only 200 feet of runway.
They thought they were showing off. The Army P-39 and New Zealand P-40 pilots thought they were nuts.
Ondongo, "Place of Death," was beautiful, bug-free (good), sniper-free (better), close to the enemy (best), but unfortunately devoid of women (very bad). The maintenance crew of Marine squadron VMF-215 adopted the Jolly Rogers from the beginning, and they got along famously for the whole tour.
Col. Brice immediately assigned Blackburn and VF-17 their first combat mission, to fly close support for the 3rd New Zealand Division which had landed on the Treasury Islands, a small group lying towards Bougainville. So began a series of milk runs in the last week of October.
- Oct. 27 - three flights over the Treasury landing beaches, on the afternoon of their arrival
- Oct. 28 - forty-four combat sorties, with no enemy contacts
- Oct. 29 - sixteen planes on a barge-busting mission
- Oct. 30 - twenty-three planes escorted bombers over the Shortlands
Nov. 1 - First Combat
November 1 brought real action, as the Marines landed at Cape Torokina, near Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville's western side. VF-17 provided high cover for the landings, with staggered eight-plane flights on station until mid-afternoon. Blackburn led off the first flight of the morning, taking up station north of the landing area, an oval pattern about 10 x 3 miles at 25,000 feet. The command ship, code-named "Cocker Base" announced bogies and Blackburn signalled his flight to attack. The targets comprised 18 Vals at 14,000 feet and 12 covering Zeros above them. Both four-plane divisions went into a long shallow dive, building up their speed to 350 knots.
|Leading the first division, tense with the excitement of first combat, Blackburn opened up at 500 yards, hitting, but not destroying, his target. The F4Us recovered and zoomed up to 20,000 feet. Suddenly Blackburn found himself on a Zero's tail; he fired, it blew up, and his Corsair flew right through the resulting fireball. Meanwhile his wingman, Doug Gutenkunst, briefly chased a Val northwards, returned to rejoin the main fight, ducked into a cloud to escape a Zero, and then headed back to Ondongo when he couldn't locate the others. Ens. Jim Streig and Tom Killefer flamed two more Zeros.
|Thad Bell's second division followed Blackburn's and made one abortive firing pass. Bell and Earl May then headed back; Ray Beacham and Don Malone got separated, but Beacham pounced on a Zero. The pilot mistakenly tried to dive away, but the heavier Corsair caught up, and Beacham's burst from 200 yards blew him up. This was later determined to be the Jolly Rogers' first combat victory. Then a pair of Zeros bounced Beacham from out of the sun and shot up his right wing beyond repair. Beacham dived away and struggled home by himself.
Beacham's wingman, Malone, joined up with Blackburn for the trip home. They spotted a P-40 far ahead with a Zero about a mile behind him. The Corsairs couldn't hope to catch up but, in desperation, Blackburn fired at extreme long range. Incredibly, the Zero turned back toward them, and then, even more incredibly, motored straight in without any evasive action. With a short burst at 200 yards, Blackburn sent him down in flames.
The results of the day's first mission: 5 Zero kills and 4 damaged, no losses to VF-17.
Halford's second flight and Kleinman's third flight didn't find any aerial opposition and contented themselves with strafing the Ballale airstrip on the trip home. On Roger Hedrick's fourth flight, he scored on one kill, as described in the Hedrick article. Later that afternoon, Fighting-17 lost its first man in combat when Lt.(jg) Johnny Keith was hit by AA over Ballale. Others saw him ditch and swim clear of the sinking fighter, but by the time the Dumbo mission got to the area, darkness had fallen, and a morning search turned up no trace of him. (This story closely resembles Indian Joe Bauer's last flight. One wonders how many times this tragedy was re-played on the limitless Pacific stage.)
November 2 was a busy but unproductive day, marked by a breakdown in fighter communications as they tried to respond coherently to a dive bombing attack on the destroyer Foote. VF-17 launched 47 sorties, but made no contact. November 3 was similar, another 40+ sorties with no action but strafing. On the 5th, two U.S. carriers launched successful strikes against Jap warships at Rabaul; VF-17 flew CAP over the carriers.
Nov. 8 - Hedrick is ConvincedAt this time, the Japanese remained in control of several bases on Bougainville: Buka, Bonis, Chabai, & Matchin Bay in the north, Tenekau & Kieta on the east coast, and Kara, Kahili, & Ballale in the south. While the Allies planned to let these forces 'wither on the vine', in early November, 1943, they still posed a real threat, with their ability to launch or recover air strikes. One of AirSols' primary responsibilities was to neutralize these facilities.
AirSols' plan for the 8th called for nine B-25s to bomb and strafe Matchin Bay, escorted by twelve F4Us of VF-17. Breakfast was at the "Hotel Ondongo Mud Plaza," Army chow, which the Navy fliers found grossly inferior to the decent food on carriers. Blackburn led the dawn take-off, circled for ten minutes, and became furious when only five Hogs showed. Missing seven planes, they went to meet the bombers, none of whom showed. The five Corsairs headed north to do what damage they could, catching a light transport plane on final approach. Another one for Big Hog! Kleinman led the day's second flight, a four hour jaunt in which the pilots suffered from that ever-present enemy: AAA, Acute Aereo Asserosis.
Sharp-eyed Roger Hedrick led the third flight of the day and found plenty of opposition. While his flight could only count two confirmed kills, the Corsairs' outstanding performance in real combat put an end to his reservations about the plane. Details in the Hedrick article. The day concluded with two more missions and with Blackburn "sharing his feelings" with all hands about the seven aborts that morning.
The squadron was rapidly maturing and changing. While he retained the original five flight leaders (himself, Hedrick, Chuck Pillsbury, Halford, and Kleinman), Blackburn began to promote new division leaders. Each pilot theoretically had his own assigned aircraft, whose quirks he was most familiar with, but the realities of battle damage, mechanical repair, and scheduling meant that a pilot took up whatever plane was available. With 5 flights, the squadron usually ran 3 or 4 missions per day, permitting 1 or 2 flights to rest periodically. Blackburn also began to weed out the weak sisters, men with 'buck fever' - the inability to fire six 50 caliber machine guns at another human being, or men whose planes seemed prone to 'Kahili Knock' - frequent reported engine problems on tough missions.
Nov. 11 - Battle of the Solomon Sea, Reunion on Bunker HillOn the 9th Blackburn and Duke Henning flew to Munda for a ComAirSols briefing. While the Rabaul raid of the 5th had crippled several Jap naval vessels, the brass still feared an enemy surface attack against the Torokina beachhead. Another strike was proposed for the 11th, this time with five carriers. Once again AirSols would be tasked with providing fighter protection for the carriers, because the carrier fighters would be escorting the strike. To provide maximum fighter protection while the carrier aircraft were away, twelve land-based fighters would refuel and re-arm on each of three carriers (24 Corsairs of VF-17 and 12 Segi-based Hellcats). Blackburn enthusiastically confirmed that his Corsair pilots could still make carrier landings, noting that they had qualified on tiny jeep carriers. "An Essex-class with plenty of wind would be a piece of cake." Once back at Ondongo, the ground crews re-installed the tailhooks and checked out the landing gear.
The night was clear and pitch-black for the 0420 take-off. On schedule, they arrived over the carriers. As dawn broke, the fliers saw the beautiful sight of three carriers with their long white wakes trailing behind and with nine destroyers deployed around them in a two-mile circle. After an hour's circling, the Hogs were directed to intercept a single bogey coming in from the northwest. It was a single Ki-61 Tony; Blackburn's flight intercepted and he flamed it. More circling, then the carriers below turned into the wind and launched their strike planes. At length some Marine F4Us arrive to relieve VF-17, which could land on the carriers.
It was an exciting moment for Blackburn as Bunker Hill signalled "P C" ("Prep Charlie," meaning 'prepare to land'), then a single "C" - "Land!" At 0830, his flight executed perfect touch-downs, as did Hedrick's flight on Essex. While the Corsairs were serviced, the VF-17 pilots enjoyed a brief reunion with their shipmates as well as a delicious Navy breakfast: good coffee, fresh grapefruit, real eggs, steaks, more of anything, all served courteously on white tablecloths. In two hours, they were back in the air.
His radio transmitter promptly crapped out and he turned over command of his flight to Chuck Pillsbury. Three other planes had engine troubles and Chuck sent them home. At 1300, Essex's radar picked up bogies - only 30 miles out and closing fast. The Corsairs went after them; Blackburn heard "Tallyho! Thirty Zekes. Twenty-five Vals. Eleven o'clock." Those were the last intelligible transmissions he heard; soon the fighter channel was jammed with rebel yells, war whoops, "Look at that flamer!" "Wow!" and other junk transmissions. (Lack of radio discipline was one of Blackburn's pet peeves.)
Another confusing, wild, twisting, gut-wrenching dogfight ensued. Suddenly six Tonys were all over Blackburn, who jumped into the nearest cloud. He circled inside it long enough to get his heart rate and blood pressure down, then nosed out of it. BAM! BAM! BAM! He was hit! An agonized Rog Hedrick pulled up alongside to see how badly he had shot up his boss. He and his plane were okay but by now all were low on fuel. They headed for the barn.
The other pilots continued the fight and when the day was over VF-17 scored 18.5 confirmed kills; Ike Kepford had an especially exciting and rewarding day. Overall, the U.S. raid on Rabaul of Nov. 11 was decisive; the Japs lost 137 warplanes and suffered further damage to their ships in Rabaul's Simpson Harbor. They never again based large warships there.
Through the end of November, the Jolly Rogers kept flying from their base at Ondongo. During this time Lts. Halford and Kleinman, the weary Guadalcanal veterans, were sent home, Brad Baker and Chuck Pillsbury were MIA (presumed dead), and Butch Davenport skillfully managed the rescue of Lt. Anderson.
Starting on December 2nd, Fighting-17 enjoyed two weeks of R&R in Australia. Bacchus and Eros were well-honored. On the 15th, they went to Espiritu Santo for re-fit and re-organize. They welcomed Bobby Mims and Oc Chenoweth, while Lem Cooke and Jack Chasnoff departed. It was also announced that they would set up shop at a new forward base on Bougainville.
Toward the end of their stay at Espiritu Santo, they realized they had a problem - 148 cases of beer they had acquired. Transport by ship was out of the question; it would be a 100% loss. Finally Hal Jackson, the scrounger, figured that the roomy ammunition cans inside the F4Us could hold a lot of beer. A little arithmetic indicated that if each of the Corsairs carried one-third of its ammo capacity, the beer could fit in the remaining space. Blackburn confirmed that 24 Corsairs, thus armed, could deal with any possible Jap opposition. When they arrived at Bougainville, each pilot gave his plane captain a can opener and invited him to have a cold one.
Torokina, Early 1944During the Jolly Rogers' absence the Americans had stepped up the pressure on Rabaul, building air strips on Bougainville at Torokina, and nearby Piva Uncle and Piva Yoke, under a new command, AirNorSols. The plan was to increase the air attacks on the Jap base, to which they would surely have to respond. AirNorSols' first strike on Rabaul came on December 17, and soon the Japs stripped other areas of 300 fighters to deploy in the five airfields around Rabual.
Jan. 26 - VF-17's First Raid on RabaulFighting-17 re-joined the fray with a 32-plane escort mission against Rabaul's Lakunai airfield. As the SBD's recovered from their run, a lone Zero came out and Blackburn splashed it. He was VF-17's first ace. That day Fighting-17 downed 8 Jap planes and prevented any losses to the SBDs in their care, but lost two Hog pilots and totalled a third plane. While such results were favorable; they were unsustainable. Losing two per day would wipe out the squadron in less than three weeks.
Jan. 27 - Sixteen for SeventeenThe next day, they ran a similar mission, this time with 24 F4Us. After the B-25s dropped their bombs, about 70 Zeros hit Thad Bell's division. No one ever saw Thad again. Ike Kepford, leading a division, and his number 3, Danny Cunningham both scored twice. Bobby Mims got 2.5 kills. A Zero shot up "Teeth" Burriss' plane badly. His wingman, Ensign "Andy Gump" Jagger, was able to get behind the Zero and smoked it; Teeth saw it go in. Shortly, Teeth's engine cut out and he ditched successfully. Blackburn and three others circled over him until a Dumbo picked him up. Again, the squadron had done its job: none of the B-25s were hit, sixteen Zeros were downed, but another Corsair pilot had been lost. (There's a famous photo of Andy Jagger exulting after a hot mission. The Newsday article dates the photo to 1944, perhaps it was this mission.)
Jan. 28 - Roving High CoverFollowing the loss of three pilots in 2 days, Blackburn and his officers devised a new tactic. Six extra planes (made available by the superior maintenance of their Marine plane crews) would fly well above the assigned fighters escorting the bombers and get the jump on any Zeros that approached. Of course VF-17 would still have to meet its primary escort responsibilities, and the six planes would essentially be all alone. Cols. Brice and Bryan at Fighter Command approved the scheme. On the morning of the 28th, Blackburn led 20 Corsairs, part of an escort for 17 TBFs that were "glide bombing" Tobera airfield. Rog Hedrick led the RHC (Roving High Cover), 6 planes at 32,000 feet. They made 4 kills and disrupted the Japs' fighter response. The 14 remaining fighters, that stayed close to the bombers, scored another 10.5 kills. Again, all of the bombers came through unscathed. And so did VF-17.
On the 29th, two of the four aircraft planned for the RHC aborted, but Kepford and Burriss pressed on, and got four Zeros apiece. At that night's pilots' meeting, Blackburn chewed them out (!?) for recklessness and over-confidence, and then announced that separate pairs would not go in below 30,000 feet.
Jan. 30 - Collision at TorokinaIn the morning, Hedrick led a routine escort mission of twenty F4Us over Tobera and shot down a Zero. In the afternoon, ComAirSols got word of a Jap carrier in Rabaul, and scrambled every available fighter and TBF to go after. VF-17 sent up every plane it could. At Rabaul, there was no carrier, but the Hogs made 10 confirmed kills: Kepford got 2, Davenport got 2, Chenoweth 1, etc. But one pilot disappeared; a second ditched and was recovered. Tragically, Doug Gutenkunst, Blackburn's frequent wingman and close friend, collided with a damaged Marine Corsair as they came in for a dusk landing at nearby Piva Uncle.
The next day, Teeth Burriss went down. In sum, January (or its last six days) was impressive: 60.5 enemy planes destroyed, at a cost of 6 men and 13 Corsairs.
Feb. 6 - Big Hog Gets FourBlackburn led twenty fighters up, finding forty Zeros defending the airspace over Lakunai. The mission was one twisting, exploding, zooming dogfight after another. Blackburn had a new wingman, who stuck with: through flaming fireballs of exploding Zeros, through high-G pullouts, and through twisting chandelles. Blackburn got 4 and Bobby Mims got 3, making ace. Back on the ground, the new wingman who had performed so well approached Blackburn and shocked him. He wanted out! Blackburn and the Jolly Rogers were nuts!
Feb. 7 - The Statue of Liberty PlayBlackburn, Henning, and Hedrick were always trying to come up with a better idea. They noticed that the Zeros never pursued the U.S. bombers after a certain distance. Presumably the Japs had orders to stay within a certain radius. Beyond that point, on the return trip, the bombers were safe. Thus, they proposed to take eight F4Us (with plenty of fuel and seasoned pilots) back north, over New Ireland, and come streaking over Rabaul at wave-top level. In the best case, they hoped to catch a bunch of Zeros unsuspectingly coming back to base. In the worst case, they'd be caught on the deck, with nowhere to dive away to.
The morning of the 7th started with a standard escort to Vunakunau. Some 40 Zeros came up and offered battle, but no Corsairs or bombers were lost. The Japs chased a little farther than usual, but did turn back in time for Blackburn to run his play. He and five others turned again to the north, came around, and strafed the Rabaul airport. They did some damage, but nothing like they had hoped for.
They completed several missions in the next ten days, but encountered very little opposition. On the 17th, the Japs' opposition stiffened, and they shot down 2 VF-17 pilots (its last casualties). The following day, Fighting-17 added 7 more to their scoreboard. February 19 was "one for the books": the squadron scored 16 kills, including 3 by Ike Kepford, in one of the war's most famous missions. Finally convinced of the futility of Rabaul's air defense, the Japanese pulled all their planes out on February 20, 1944.
Feb. 26 - Chatte FlambeeThe Jolly Rogers kept at it for a few more days: escorts, strafing missions, and the like. Becoming bored, they dusted off an earlier idea of Blackburn's. Back in November, they had rigged up some crude bomb racks for the Corsairs. With the help of professionals from Fighter Command, they rigged up better racks. In great secret, Blackburn organized a fighter-bomber raid on a target on the outskirts of Rabaul. The target was a particular frame building; their objective was to drop their bombs around the building, not on it. Only after they returned did Blckburn share the target's identity with them; it was the Rabaul officers' brothel.
Mar. 6 - Last MissionThe flew two more weeks of uneventful missions. Butch Davenport led the squadron's last mission: 14 F4U's on a barge-busting mission to the Bismarcks. On the 7th, VF-34 relieved them. And so VF-17, the original Jolly Rogers, passed into the history books.
Some members, notably Hedrick, Freeman, and Smith, saw more combat and scored more aerial victories. Blackburn was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross; he made CAG (Commander Air Group-74) of Midway just before V-J Day. He stayed with the Navy, and eventually commanded Midway. He retired from the Navy in 1962, with the rank of Captain. In his California retirement, he ran a vineyard and bred golden retrievers. He died on .