Lest We Forget: Homefront, VF-51 (Part 1)

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired), Lieutenant Commander Rick Burgess, U.S. Navy (Retired)
—Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

VF-51 (Part 1)

Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51) was established as Fighting Squadron One (VF-1) on 15 February 1943, beginning a 27-year membership as a unit of Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5). VF-1 was redesignated VF-5 on 15 July 1943. Equipped with F6F-3 Hellcat fighters, VF-5 operated from the USS Yorktown (CV-10) and engaged Japanese forces beginning in August 1943, striking Marcus and Wake Islands. During 1944 VF-5 participated in the invasion of the Marshall Islands and raided Truk, Palau, Hollandia, and the Marianas. The squadron downed more than 90 Japanese aircraft in ten months of combat. Switching to F4U-1D Corsairs, VF-5 returned to combat in March 1945 on board the USS Franklin (CV-13), but the deployment was cut short when the Franklin was severely damaged by Japanese bombs.

After World War II, VF-5 switched to F6F-5s and was redesignated VF-5A on 15 November 1946. After a 1947 Western Pacific deployment with F8F-1 Bearcats, VF-5A was redesignated VF-51 on 16 August 1948. In November, VF-51 became the first operational squadron to fly the FJ-1 Fury jet fighter. In July 1950, VF-51—equipped with F9F-2 Panthers on the USS Valley Forge (CV-45)—became the first Navy squadron to fly jets in combat and scored the Navy's first aerial kills of the Korean War. VF-51 deployed twice more to Korea, on the USS Essex (CV-9) with F9F-2Bs and on the Valley Forge with F9F-5s.

Over the next 10 years, VF-51 operated F9F-6 Cougars, FJ-3 Furies, F11F-1 Tigers, F4D-1 Skyrays, and F8U-1 Crusaders, making five deployments. In 1964, flying F-8E Crusaders from the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14), VF-51 flew secret missions over Laos and retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam following the Tonkin Gulf incident. VF-51 made six more deployments to the Tonkin Gulf, operating F-8Es, F-8Hs, F-8Js, and F-4B Phantom IIs in succession from four carriers: the Ticonderoga , USS Hancock (CVA-19), USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31), and USS Coral Sea (CVA-43), the last with Carrier Air Wing 15 (CVW-15). The Screaming Eagles lost only one F-8E, one F-4B, and three crewmen to enemy action. VF-51 F-8E pilots shot down two MiG-21 jets in 1968. VF-51 F-4B crews downed four MiG-17 fighters in 1972.

(Concludes next issue.)

—Lieutenant Commander Rick Burgess, U.S. Navy (Retired)

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