The WW2 Pacific Treasures of Kwajalein Lagoon by Dan Farnham Part 16: The F4U-1 Corsair wreck near Mellu Island

Aircraft wrecks, Contact, Interviews, WW2, WW2 Pacific Treasures, WW2 Wrecks

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos, text and research submitted by Dan Farnham, used by permission

Designed in 1938, the Vought F4U-1 ‘Corsair’ would become the greatest American-built carrier fighter of World War II. It would also have the longest production run of any piston-engine fighter in history.

F4U-2 night fighters of VF(N)-101 on the USS Intrepid (CV-11) in early 1944
F4U-2 night fighters of VF(N)-101 on the USS Intrepid (CV-11) in early 1944

The first Corsair was built in 1940, and by the time the last Corsair came off the production line in December 1952, a total of 12,571 examples of the type had been built. F4U stands for “fighter, 4th in series from Vought,” and the ‘U’ was the letter assigned by the U.S. Navy to all aircraft built by Vought. The distinctive “bent-wing” design would forever characterize the Corsair, making it one of the most easily-recognizable airplanes of all time.

F4U-2 night fighters on the USS Enterprise (CV-6) in January 1944
F4U-2 night fighters on the USS Enterprise (CV-6) in January 1944

The first major production version was the F4U-1, and what commonly comes to mind when thinking of that version is the distinctively-framed “birdcage” canopy. During production of the F4U-1, a number of improvements were introduced on the production line, one of which was raising the pilot’s seat seven inches for better visibility over the nose of the plane.

Pilot’s manual for the early model Corsairs. Note that “F4U-1A” is not on the list because it was not an “official” US Navy designation at the contracting/acquisition level.
Pilot’s manual for the early model Corsairs. Note that “F4U-1A” is not on the list because it was not an “official” US Navy designation at the contracting/acquisition level.

Another change was incorporating a taller and wider canopy with only two frames. The improved version would eventually become known as the F4U-1A, but at the time of the production changes, the ‘A’ was a designation used internally by the manufacturer.

A Corsair of the 4th Marine Air Wing taxis back to parking following a scramble from Roi Island. June 20, 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)
A Corsair of the 4th Marine Air Wing taxis back to parking following a scramble from Roi Island. June 20, 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)

While the “F4U-1A” designation eventually made its way into official U.S. Navy documents below the acquisition level, as well as common public usage, it was not an “official” U.S. Navy designation at the time of manufacture.

Pilots sprint for their Corsairs when word is flashed of unidentified aircraft approaching Roi, on June 20, 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)
Pilots sprint for their Corsairs when word is flashed of unidentified aircraft approaching Roi, on June 20, 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)

The U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) received its money from Congress, which had already approved the funds for the manufacturing of the initial Corsair production run, under the designation “F4U-1”. Changing the designation officially would have required going back to Congress to get more money for “new” Corsairs.

Pilots of the 4th Marine Air Wing discuss their engagement following a scramble from Roi, in June 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)
Pilots of the 4th Marine Air Wing discuss their engagement following a scramble from Roi, in June 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)

So, Vought was allowed to use the “-1A” designation internally to distinguish the F4U-1’s which had the new improvements, and it also allowed the production line to continue without interruption.

This black and white photo, shot by Dan Farnham, is an iconic WW2 fighter: The Corsair at Mellu Island.
This black and white photo, shot by Dan Farnham, is an iconic WW2 fighter: The Corsair at Mellu Island.

The U.S. Navy contracted out to two other aircraft manufacturers to assist with Corsair production in order to help meet the high demand. F4U-1 equivalents built by the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation were given the designation FG-1, and those built by the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation were given the designation F3A-1.

Corsairs of the 4th Marine Air Wing sit on the alert line on Roi Island, awaiting their next mission in June 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)
Corsairs of the 4th Marine Air Wing sit on the alert line on Roi Island, awaiting their next mission in June 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)

The F4U-2 was an experimental conversion of the F4U-1 into a carrier-borne night fighter, fitted with Airborne Intercept (AI) radar in a radome on the right wing. It was armed with five .50 caliber machine guns instead of the usual six- the outer gun on the right wing was removed to help offset the weight of the radome.

Only 34 of this version were manufactured.

Corsairs head out to strike bypassed targets in the Marshall Islands, in 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)
Corsairs head out to strike bypassed targets in the Marshall Islands, in 1944. (Dan Farnham collection)

Another variant of the Corsair was the F4U-1C, which was armed with four 20mm cannons instead of the usual six .50 caliber machine guns. Only 200 of this version were built.

Almost all of the early Corsairs were given to U.S. Marine Corps squadrons, who flew them from narrow landing strips on islands scattered across the Pacific.

USMC Master Technical Sergeant James Dawson stands next to a F4U-1C of VMF-311, on Roi in January 1945. This was the squadron CO’s plane, which MSgt Dawson took care of. (Photo courtesy of Todd Martin, used by permission)
USMC Master Technical Sergeant James Dawson stands next to a F4U-1C of VMF-311, on Roi in January 1945. This was the squadron CO’s plane, which MSgt Dawson took care of. (Photo courtesy of Todd Martin, used by permission)

Thanks to Baa Baa Black Sheep, a television series that aired in the mid-1970’s, the most well-known of these squadrons was VMF-214, the ‘Black Sheep Squadron’.

In order to simplify the logistics pipeline in the fleet, the U.S. Navy did not use the Corsair widely on its carriers until late 1944. However, four F4U-2 night fighter Corsairs of VF(N)-101 were aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6) during Operation Flintlock in late January 1944.

Roi combat veteran, F4U-1 BuNo 17799, in flight over southern California. (photo from the internet)
Roi combat veteran, F4U-1 BuNo 17799, in flight over southern California. (photo from the internet)

Following Operation Flintlock, several Corsair squadrons were assigned to Kwajalein Atoll until the end of the war, operating from both Roi Island and Kwajalein Island.

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The Corsairs were tasked with the defense of Kwajalein Atoll, and attacking other atolls and islands which had been bypassed by the Americans but still held Japanese garrisons. They also served as escorts for bombers attacking the same bypassed atolls and islands.

F4U-1_wreck_map

The aircraft graveyard off Mellu Island has the wreck of one Corsair, and it is BuNo 56267. The framework on the canopy is what we usually associate as a “F4U-1A” version of the Corsair, although as noted earlier it was “officially” a F4U-1.

The aircraft wreck sits nose down on the sandy seabed
The aircraft wreck sits nose down on the sandy seabed

This Corsair came off the Vought assembly line in mid-December 1943 and was quickly delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps. In October 1944 this plane became part of the headquarters squadron of Marine Air Group 13, which was based Majuro Atoll.

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The gull wing is a trademark of the Corsairs

In June 1945 the plane was transferred to Combat Aircraft Service Unit (Forward) #20, or CASU-F-20, which was based on Roi Island. This plane was stricken by CASU-F-20, and it was dumped into the lagoon near Mellu Island on June 30th. How and why it ended up at Roi for disposal, instead of being disposed of at Majuro Atoll, remains a tantalizing mystery.

Scuba divers are offered with a unique sight, as they approach the iconic WW2 fighter wrecksite.
Scuba divers are offered with a unique sight, as they approach the iconic WW2 fighter wreck site.

The plane is nose-down at a depth of 110 feet. A spare propeller was unceremoniously dropped into the cockpit before the plane was pushed into the water, and the rudder, elevators and landing gear are missing from the plane. Parts of the wings and flaps were fabric-covered, and the fabric has long since disintegrated, leaving the metal framework exposed.

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Marine life has made the Corsair its home

I’ve heard and read claims that the engine is buried in the sand, but I don’t believe that to be the case. The nose of the plane extended approximately 5 feet 4 inches past the leading edge of the wing.

Fabric-covered
Fabric has disintegrated, exposing the metal structures it once covered

If the sand was soft enough for that much of the plane to bury itself in the bottom, then most of the other planes in the ‘aircraft graveyard’ would be much more buried as well, including the engines which have fallen off the various PBJ-1H ‘Mitchell’ wrecks which are scattered around the aircraft graveyard.

Impressive photo of the Mellu island Corsair
Impressive photo of the Mellu island Corsair

To me, it seems much more likely that the engine was removed before the plane was dumped, and the tubular engine mount framework is what speared into the sand and helps hold the plane upright.

Scuba divers explore the wreck
Scuba divers explore the wreck

In addition, there are two more props at the front of the plane at the level of the sand, so I think that the spare props were dropped into the engine mount framework before the plane was pushed into the lagoon, and the weight of those props is also helping keep the plane in the nose-down position.

A nice black and white photo of the Mellu island Corsair
A nice black and white photo of the Mellu island Corsair

The Corsair has always been my favorite plane, which is directly due to watching Baa Baa Black Sheep as a young kid in the mid-1970’s. So naturally, it is my favorite plane wreck in the lagoon, and I’ve done numerous dives on it.

Front view of the Corsair, with the propeller
Front view of the Corsair, with the propeller tucked into the cockpit

I always do at least one dive on the Corsair whenever I make a trip to Roi, regardless of what other plane wrecks are on my list to visit on any given trip. And the Corsair was the site of my 1,000th dive in July 2014.

And there is one Roi combat veteran still flying today- F4U-1 BuNo 17799 was based at Roi with VMF-441. Sometime during the war, the plane made its way back to the US, and was eventually restored. It is now owned by the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, and flies regularly on the airshow circuit and over southern California.

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Scuba divers hover around one of the most impressive wrecks in Kwajalein Atoll.

During World War II, Corsairs were also operated to great effect by the British Royal Navy, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. And the service of the Corsair continued well into the post-war years. But those are stories for another article.

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Scuba divers respectfully approach the WW2 Wreck

Kwajalein Atoll divers are lucky to have at least one example of the Corsair to dive on and explore. It provides a great look at one of the US Navy and US Marine Corps best aircraft of World War II.