In Sept 1956 the Death Rattlers received the FJ4 Fury, a super-sonic, single-engine, single-place fighter. VMF-323 was the first Marine squadron to receive the FJ4. On 31 Dec 1956, VMA-323 was redesignated VMF-323 once again to reflect its primary fighter mission. On 3 Jan 1957, LtCol Daniel I. Cummings relieved LtCol Warren McPherson as commanding officer. The squadron began preparing for deployment to Japan. Simulated carrier landings on a runway at El Toro and air-to-air gunnery at MCAS Mojave in May.
VMF-323 departed El Toro for Atsugi, Japan on 30 June 1957. By 5 July 40 officers and 152 enlisted men had arrived. Joining them were 8 officers and 59 enlisted men transferred from VMF-451, the squadron the Death Rattlers were replacing. Repainting of VMF-451’s aircraft with the Death Rattlers markings began.
From 28 Nov to 18 Dec, the squadron deployed to Cubi Point NAS in the Philippines for Phiblink. Following this operation, VMF-323 pilots took part in a historic non-stop flight from NAS Cubi Point to NAS Atsugi. At the time, it was certain that this flight set an FJ4 record for a mass, long distance, point-to-point flight over the open ocean.
By Feb 1958, VMF-323 had reached 10,000 accident free hours in the FJ4. From 22 Feb to 4 Mar 1958, the squadron participated in Operation Strongback, also in the Philippines. Probably the saddest note in VMF-323s history was the crash on 7 Mar 1958 of an R4Q transport aircraft returning from a successful mission in the Philippines. The crash was the result of a mid-air collision with an AD Skyraider during an instrument approach into Naha, Okinawa. The AD accompanied the R4Q because single engine aircraft were not permitted to fly over water unescorted. Apparently the AD had communication or navigation problems and elected to fly wing on the R4Q during the approach. Both planes crashed in the Pacific Ocean. This was a tragic loss for the Death Rattlers. The 9 lost were, Capt Howard J. White, TSgt Owen M. Dunn, TSgt Donald E. Shoemaker, SSgt John W. Poulter, Sgt Robert W. Avenire, Sgt Marshall E. McAllister, Sgt Kenneth D. Alpin, Sgt James A. Williams, and Sgt Leonard T. Wasley.
On 31 Aug 1958, the Death Rattlers departed Atsugi for Ping Tung, Taiwan. Clive Jenkins was killed in a crash departing Atsugi. As a part of MAG-11, VMF-323 was used to cover the naval resupply of Chinese Nationalist forces on the islands of Matsu and Quemoy between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. The squadron remained at Ping Tung, flying routine patrols until 15 Sept 1958 when it was relieved in place by VMF-451. Squadron personnel departed Taiwan on 18 Sept by air for NAS Atsugi and then on to MCAS El Toro and MAG-33.
Though VMF-323 flew the FJ4 Fury for only 2 years, they set several new records, adding to the history of the Death Rattlers. They had proved once again that the Death Rattlers could over come anything. The loss of 10 of their own was the hardest yet.
To add a little additional luster to the VMF 323 history in the 1956-58 timeframe, some of you may remember that 5 NCOs from our squadron--selected for their knowledge and expertise as to various aspects of the Sidewinder-- and I went TAD with the Chinese Nationalist Air Force in August 1958 at Hsinchu Air Base in Taiwan. It’s a long and very interesting story in which our Squadron was not only instrumental but key in the first use of air to air guided missiles in actual aerial combat in history. Fired from 4 Chinat F86Es, the 8 VMF-323 installed sidewinders downed 6 MIG-17s with 6 more downed with guns when the MIGs had to come down to lower altitude to get out of the con layer where they were sitting ducks. If you ever had any doubts, the Sidewinder we had at the time was one hell'uve a deadly weapon!!
We were sent by CINCPAC under top secret orders, and even Col. Cummings did not know the purpose of the mission at the time. The mission's purpose we learned after we got to Taipei and I was ushered into see the Commanding General of the US Air Force Advisory group to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. Our mission was to install and test the Sidewinder on Chinat F86Es to combat the new MIG 17 that the Red Chinese had just gotten from the Soviets, and to develop the necessary tactics to use effectively against a vastly superior aircraft that had a much higher service ceiling, airspeed and climb rate.
You can imagine my surprise when the Air Force General tells me that they have some how purloined 40 of the Navy's highly secret Sidewinders and 40 Racks and Rails. We were the only squadron stationed in the Far East with this weapon other than carrier based aircraft, and we still had all of ours. To my even greater surprise when he asked me if they could be installed and fired from the F86 platform? Why they had sent a first tour 1st Louie in charge of such a mission is also beyond me, but it was a hell'ue an experience. To this day I can't imagine how they could actually obtain one of the most sensitive and advanced weapons in our arsenal for use by the Chinats without even knowing whether the damn things could even be adapted to the Air force F86. Even China Lake had no idea what was going on with their "Baby", until much later in the game.
After giving him the: "If it can be done my men can do it" bit, I quickly learned how utterly dependant we as pilots and officers were on our highly competent and very skilled VMF-323 maintenance NCOs. My statement to the General, said with more bravado than common sense , proved to be "right on", as those guys dug in, and in one week had milled and fitted the racks to the F86 wing and converted the HAVAR rocket system wiring with toggle switches to become a jury rigged Sidewinder tracking and firing system. All of this was done with little more than a few technical manuals we had brought in our sea bags and an F86 wiring schematic.
After our people worked out the installation on the first F86 in one week working around the clock, I checked out and test fired the first Sidewinder from the first F86 installation. Whereas the FJ4 carried 4 Sidewinders, we determined that the F86 could only carry two without seriously affecting its performance. I fired a 5" HAVAR off the rail under the left wing, just as with the practice firings we had done from the FJ4, and tracked it with the Sidewinder under the right wing and pickled, which made the desired kill just as our men confidently predicted. Even the 7th Fleet had no idea what was going on, reporting that unidentified Chinat aircraft had just fired an air to air guided missile over the straits. Two weeks later we had 20 F86 aircraft mounted with 2 Sidewinders each, installed under our supervision.
An Air Force captain and I worked out Sidewinder intercept tactics flying Chinat F86s against Air force F100s (considered roughly comparable to the MIG 17) flying at Angels 40+. We had to dive and cut the pie and then convert our airspeed back to altitude, firing the Sidewinder at the top of our climb, putting us within the Sidewinder's high altitude range of the higher flying aircraft otherwise beyond reach. I logged around 30 hours in the F86E, which performed well up to about Angels 30, falling off rapidly above that altitude and almost useless above Angels 35, far different from our FJ4.
About a month later the Chinats launched the 4 Sidewinder equipped F86s that were sent out from strip alert, making the 6 Sidewinder MIG kills against the surprised sitting duck MIGs using the tactics we had developed, followed up with 6 more by guns after the MIGs were forced to come down to stop marking. The surprised Red Chinese pilots thought they were well above the performance ceiling of the F86 and the far better Chinat pilots - as they clearly were without the big Equalizer - until they started seeing their wingmen blowing up. In retrospect, this was a very significant event in the history of aerial warfare, as I believe it truly was the first use of air to air guided missiles in actual combat, the Chinat success for which can be equally claimed by VMF-323
The MIGs would not longer engage after that disastrous encounter losing 12 of their precious MIG 17 aircraft, not knowing which Chinat F86s were Sidewinder equipped, and with their newer MIG 17 altitude and performance advantage nullified by the Sidewinder. We know now that this short and extremely significant engagement actually ended the raging air battle between the Chinats and Reds for control of the air over the straits, essential to the Reds' invasion plans in 1958 during the Quemoy Matsu Crisis. It was the last actual air battle between the Chinats and Reds. At the time this was not realized, resulting in a continuing U.S. build up in the area including VMF 323 having to unpack for its early deployment home from Atsugi with our tour temporarily extended and sent down with the rest of MAG-15 to Ping Tung Taiwan. It was at the beginning of this flight to Taiwan from Atsugi that we lost Clive Jenkins who augured in during climb out from Atsugi for reasons never determined. Some say he got disoriented. I am reminded, however, of the contaminated LOX tank that earlier almost took out Deshasor.
As a sidelight, at lower altitude the Red Chinese pilots were no match for the far better trained Chinat pilots in the F86E, with even the most junior having a minimum of 1000 hrs each in the F86. Some of our own 323 pilots flying out of Ping Tung in the first few days (who shall mercifully remain nameless) embarrassedly learned that the FJ4 would not turn with the Chinat F86E below Angels 25, as it - like the MIG 17 - was designed for comparative performance at Angels 35 and above. They learned for the first time what it feels like to have a foreign fighter at their 6 - but fortunately friendly. They also relearned the value of the "YO-YO" that some of us may have forgotten in our earlier mock combat against higher performance aircraft such as the Navy Crusaders and Sting Rays. In future mock dogfights against the Chinats the "Yo-Yo" lesson was well applied to at least obtain a draw against these top notch Chinat pilots, who had a kill ratio of better than 30 to 1 against the Reds.
I joined a 40 Year Reunion of the infamous September 1958 Sidewinder air battle at Hsinchu Air Base in Taiwan in September 1998. The principle toast was to 40 years of Taiwanese prosperity owing in large part to the extremely successful Sidewinder Mission made possible by the contribution of VMF 323 coupled with the skill of these Chinat pilots. There were a substantial number of other toasts, but that is another story. Two of the pilots of that memorable Sidewinder flight were there to celebrate as retired Air Force Generals. Hsinchu now has the French Mirage, having been denied the F16 - a sad final commentary contrasted with our 1958 total support.
Note: Thanks to former Death Rattler pilot Ray “Robby” Robbins for the above additional history, he lived it!
Are you a former member of VMA-323 or VMF-323? We would like to add you to our Squadron Roster page. Did you fly or work on the Fury? We are looking for any pictures and old movies.