This year marks the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Blue Angels. Annually since 1946, a select number of naval aviators have thrilled air-show audiences with high-flying formations and thunderous low-altitude passes. When the team was formed, its first flight leader, Lieutenant Commander Roy M. “Butch” Voris, ensured its pilots were all combat-seasoned aviators. Though not all who have followed in the footsteps of those first “Blues” have faced the crucible of combat, many have, either before joining the team or when returning to front-line squadrons following their tours as demonstration pilots.
World War II shaped the lives and flying careers of many early Blues. When Lieutenant (junior grade) John Magda climbed into the cockpit of his Grumman F4F Wildcat on board the USS Hornet (CV-8) off Midway Atoll on 4 June 1942, he expected the ensuing hours to involve combat with enemy fighters. Instead, because of erroneous navigation by the strike group’s leader, the young naval aviator spent five days floating in a life raft after being forced to ditch when he ran out of fuel. Rescued by a PBY Catalina flying boat, a haggard Magda appeared in a motion picture by Hollywood director and Naval Reserve Commander John Ford, who was filming on the atoll. Even though The Battle of Midway won the best documentary Academy Award for that year, no one back home knew the name of the black-haired young officer in khaki.
That all changed in 1949, when Lieutenant Commander Magda became the virtual face of naval aviation, commanding the Blue Angels. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 prompted the Navy to disband the unit, however, and make it the nucleus of a front-line squadron, Fighter Squadron (VF) 191, and Magda assumed command. The press reported the news that the Navy’s famous crack pilots were now heading overseas to serve their country.
While Magda had been recovering from his experience at Midway, in the summer of 1942 Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Flatley began forming a new fighter squadron. Among the fresh-faced aviators ordered to VF-10, known as the Grim Reapers, were Voris and future Blue Angel Ensign Raleigh “Dusty” Rhodes. Their combat experiences took divergent paths in the bitter air battles over Guadalcanal and its surrounding waters.
During the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942, Rhodes launched from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) with other VF-10 pilots, escorting a strike force against the Japanese carrier Zuiho. They had traveled only 70 miles toward their target when enemy Zeros pounced on the formation, the deadly fire from their machine guns quickly sending three TBM Avengers down in flames. As he followed his flight leader toward the attackers, Rhodes’ auxiliary fuel tank would not release. With his Wildcat’s performance affected by the drag of the tank, he was at a tactical disadvantage when another group of Zero fighters attacked from above. Bullets tore into Rhodes’ airplane, holing the troublesome fuel tank, shattering instruments, and even knocking the goggles off his forehead.
True to the nickname bestowed on its manufacturer—the “Grumman Ironworks”—the tough Wildcat offered hope for making it to safety. But it was not to be. Bailing out, Rhodes floated in a life raft. In contrast to Magda’s better fortune at Midway earlier in the year, his time in the water ended with capture by the Japanese and a hellish three years as a prisoner of war.
Seasoned in Combat
The following month, Voris got a chance show his mettle in combat. A report of incoming bogies on 15 November sent him running toward his F4F Wildcat, part of an element of VF-10 operating from Guadalcanal. Getting airborne and manually cranking up the landing gear, Voris and his wingman climbed to altitude. Spotting the attack group of dive-bombers with escorting Zero fighters, they dove on their quarry. Voris fired rounds from his machine guns into the cockpit of one of the fighters, shooting it down. He maneuvered to the tail of another Zero and fired.
Before he could ascertain the enemy’s fate, his cockpit seemingly exploded all around him. Bullets slammed into the instrument panel, and a round entered his thigh. Trying to shake his attacker, Voris eventually snap-rolled his damaged aircraft on its back and entered a steep dive. The slick maneuver distanced him from his pursuer and allowed him to nurse his crippled plane back to Guadalcanal.
As the war continued, more naval aviators destined to fly later with the Blue Angels completed training and joined fleet squadrons bound for combat duty. Some of them were flying the F6F Hellcat, which after the war would serve as the team’s first aircraft. Among the pilots was Lieutenant Arthur Ray Hawkins, who proved a crack shot. Flying with VF-31 off the USS Cabot (CVL-28) from April to September 1944, he shot down 14 enemy aircraft to become the tenth ranking Navy ace of the war and the recipient of three Navy Crosses. Three of those kills came at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The young aviator splashed a trio of Zeros in quick succession, doing his part in an engagement dubbed the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” because of the number of enemy planes shot down.
Downing an enemy airplane of his own during the battle was Butch Voris (he would eventually shoot down five), recovered from his wounds at Guadalcanal. Also in the air during the Marianas campaign were two fighter pilots, Ensign Al Taddeo and Lieutenant (junior grade) Maurice “Wick” Wickendoll, whom Voris would ask to join the first Blues team. Wickendoll is credited with naming the Navy’s flight demonstration team after seeing an advertisement for the Blue Angel nightclub in an issue of The New Yorker magazine.
One future flight leader, Lieutenant Richard L. “Zeke” Cormier, saw combat in both wartime theaters. Flying a TBF Avenger from the USS Card (CVE-11) in the Atlantic, he depth-charged a U-boat as she submerged during an August 1943 attack. Transitioning to F6F Hellcats, he joined VF-80 on board the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) and was credited with shooting down eight enemy airplanes.
Magda later had the opportunity to avenge himself of the Japanese aircraft he missed at Midway, achieving ace status with five kills to his credit. Lieutenant Ed Holley, the last World War II veteran to command the Blue Angels, flew TBF Avengers, beginning with service as an ensign flying with Torpedo Squadron 3 off the Enterprise during the Guadalcanal campaign. He later received the Navy Cross for his heroics at the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 24 October 1944, when he pressed home an attack in the face of antiaircraft fire to score a torpedo hit on a Japanese battleship.
Nimitz Orders a Demonstration Team
The desire to keep the wartime accomplishments of naval aviation at the forefront of the public consciousness inspired Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to order the establishment of the demonstration team. The first one flew the F6F Hellcat, an airplane familiar from the great naval air battles of the war. Voris introduced a sequence to the show in which an SNJ Texan trainer, painted to resemble a Japanese aircraft complete with red meatball insignia, was “shot down” by a team member. A smoke grenade simulated battle damage, and a dummy with a parachute thrown from the rear cockpit represented the “enemy” pilot bailing out. The airplane (later an F8F Bearcat) was known as Beetle Bomb, and the air combat simulation was part of the show until 1949.
That year also marked the introduction of the F9F Panther, its roar of jet engines replacing the buzzing of propeller-driven aircraft in the team’s performances. They were an instant hit when the team embarked on the air-show circuit. At venues across the country, including the dedication of what is now O’Hare International Airport, the Blues thrilled crowds not only with the maneuvers for which they were famous, but also in demonstrations of the loud, raw power of jet aircraft, a novelty in the skies at that time. They also added a new element to the show. As a Life magazine article noted, the team’s ground-support personnel filled the fuel tanks on the wingtips of the F9F Panthers with colored water, which the pilots released at various points in the show, leaving a trail for spectators to follow.
Unlike today, when the F/A-18 Hornets flown by the Blue Angels are some of the longest-serving aircraft in the fleet, in 1949 the team was among the first units to receive the Navy’s newest jets, with the demonstration pilots representing some of the most experienced in the Sea Services.
The Korean War forced the Navy to call on the experienced Blue Angels pilots. They were directed to fly their last air show at Naval Air Station Dallas, Texas, on 30 July 1950, and then report to the West Coast to form the nucleus of VF-191, which was transitioning into jet aircraft. On an interesting note, the squadron’s nickname was the less-than-angelic “Satan’s Kittens.”
By late 1950, VF-191 and the other squadrons of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 19 were in the West Pacific flying from the deck of the USS Princeton (CV-37). The squadron joined other aircraft supporting embattled Marines at the Chosin Reservoir and settled into the routine of Korean War carrier operations. Because they ventured over enemy territory, many of the missions were categorized as “armed reconnaissance,” during which pilots sought out targets of opportunity ranging from trucks to gun emplacements. Making these attacks at low altitude exposed them to enemy antiaircraft fire, and on 8 March 1951, North Korean rounds struck Magda’s F9F. He managed to complete his attack and navigate his burning aircraft over the water, where the jet crashed into the sea. The Blue Angels’ fourth flight leader received the Navy Cross posthumously.
On 2 April, a pair of squadron F9Fs launched from the Princeton carrying six bombs each; they executed a successful mission against a railroad bridge near Songjin, North Korea. This marked the first-ever bombing mission carried out by a U.S. Navy jet fighter. The air wing’s final action report of the cruise in May 1951 noted that VF-191’s performance in combat “proved the worth and versatility of the jet.”
The Blue Angels returned to the air-show circuit in 1952, with Hawkins and Lieutenant Pat Murphy, demonstration pilots at the time of disbandment in 1950, part of the reconstituted team. They remained the following year, and Hawkins assumed the role of flight leader, replacing Voris. They were the last members of the 1950 team to fly with the Blues, though links to Satan’s Kittens remained in the personages of Lieutenant Bud Rich and Captain Ken Wallace, both of whom flew with the Blue Angels following the Korean War. The quick-witted Wallace served with the team on three occasions, including a stint as flight leader in the early 1960s and as a special program manager in 1974. He was responsible for selecting and training pilots and modifying the A-4 Skyhawk for use as a demonstration aircraft replacing the F-4 Phantom II. Links to Korea endured. The 1956 team, for example, including five veterans of that conflict, including officer-in-charge Zeke Cormier.
Vietnam Calls on Former Blues
The long war in Vietnam cycled Navy and Marine Corps squadrons to the combat zone at an intense pace, from Yankee Station to strike places such as Hanoi and Haiphong from airfields in South Vietnam on close-air-support and strike missions. Former Blues Ken Wallace and Lieutenant Ed McKellar commanded squadrons and air wings. The pair’s combined Korean and Vietnam War missions totaled 540 and 342, respectively. Commanders Bob Rasmussen and Herb Hunter, who had helped introduce the F11F Tiger to the Blue Angels in 1957 and were brothers-in-law, served together on board the USS Oriskany (CVA-34), the former as skipper of VF-111 and the latter as executive officer of VF-162.
On 19 July 1967, Hunter was flying as a flak suppressor during a strike against the Go Trai Bridge when his F-8 Crusader took a hit in the wing. He managed to get his damaged airplane “feet wet” and headed toward the nearest carrier, the USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31). He was unable, however, to jettison his bombs or raise the variable incidence wing of his F-8, a design feature that helped slow the aircraft during recovery. Tragically, his high-speed attempt to get his airplane aboard caused the landing gear to collapse and the tailhook to miss the arresting wires. Plane and pilot plunged into the Tonkin Gulf.
Lieutenant Ernie Christensen was the first U.S. Naval Academy graduate to complete a tour with the Blue Angels, as pilots previously had been drawn from the ranks of the Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) program. Before flying jets with the recognizable Blue Angels color scheme, Christensen, a third-generation naval aviator, flew A-4s with Attack Squadron 113 off the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). His 360 Vietnam combat missions included one less recovery than launch, after his engine flamed out over the Tonkin Gulf following a combat mission in June 1968 and forced him to eject from 5,000 feet. Just more than two years later during an air show at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Christensen punched out at considerably less altitude when his F-4 Phantom II belly landed after one of the engines remained stuck in afterburner, running off the runway as he rocketed out of the cockpit.
A future flight leader, Lieutenant Denny Wisely, had his own eventful experiences in the skies over Vietnam over the course of 350 combat missions. Flying F-4 Phantom IIs with VF-114 off the carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) in 1966–67, he and his radar intercept officer (RIO), Lieutenant (junior grade) David L. Jordon, splashed two North Vietnamese aircraft in air-to-air combat: an Antonov An-2 Colt on a night intercept and a MiG-17, the latter shot down during the first strike against Kep Airfield on 24 April 1967. Perhaps a greater feat of airmanship occurred the following month when, during a strike against targets around Hanoi, antiaircraft fire slammed into Wisely’s aircraft. He flew for 60 miles without hydraulics before he and his RIO, Ensign James W. Laing, were able to eject over northern Laos, where they were rescued by helicopter.
One of the final chapters of the Vietnam War proved tragic for the Blue Angels. On 27 January 1973, word came over the airwaves that Taproom 113, call sign for an F-4 Phantom II from VF-143 off the Enterprise, was down. This was not an uncommon event, but this was not a normal day given that negotiators in Paris had signed a cease-fire agreement. Thus, the crew of Taproom 113, Commander Harley Hall, and Lieutenant Commander Philip Kientzler, were the last naval aviation personnel shot down during the war. Their wingman reported that he observed two good chutes and saw Hall moving on the ground. However, when prisoners of war were repatriated a few months later, only Kientzler returned. Though Hall was listed as a POW for a period of time, he was eventually declared killed in action. Teeth and bone fragments were later returned to his family, but no one knows for certain what happened to the popular Blue Angels flight leader, who led the team during the 1970 and 1971 show seasons.
Skyhawks to Hornets
The post-Vietnam era brought new airplanes for the team, who flew the A-4 Skyhawk between 1974 and 1986. Then the squadron began transitioning to the F/A-18 Hornet. Future commander-in-chief Pacific Fleet Admiral Pat Walsh, who was a member of the team when it transitioned to the Hornet, was among those to take it into combat, flying missions during Operation Desert Storm. Other Gulf War Hornet pilots were future flight leaders Commander Bob Stumpf and Captain George Dom, who both had taken the F/A-18 into combat for the first time over Libya in Operation El Dorado Canyon. Captain Ernie Christensen commanded the USS Ranger (CV-61) in Desert Storm, during which the flattop launched 4,300 combat sorties in 43 days of operations. He was one of a number of Blues to serve as carrier skippers during their careers.
From Afghanistan to Iraq and other global hot spots, the war on terrorism has involved a naval aviation force perpetually on the front lines, ensuring that for decades to come Blue Angels pilots will have combat pedigrees.
‘The Ultimate Price’
Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll’s combat flying in Operation Desert Storm, over Bosnia, and in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom framed a stint leading the Blue Angels in 1999–2000. “As a naval officer and aviator it’s been exhilarating, awe-inspiring, frightening, educating, and heartbreaking,” he remarked on his retirement at the USS Arizona Memorial. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my friends and my shipmates that I flew with that were not nearly as lucky as me; those that did not make it back to the carrier, that did not make it back to their families. . . . So as I get ready to go ashore for the last time I want to take this final opportunity on this great Navy memorial to recognize those I flew with, those I was responsible for, and those that paid the ultimate price for our nation.”