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This Web Page is humbly dedicated to the memory of "The Skipper" LtCol Claude Otis Barnhill, Jr.  He Commanded 323 from 13 July 1962 until 28 April 1964.



Commanding Officers from 19 Sep 1958 to 30 Jun 1964  
LtCol Floyd C. Haxton 19 Sep 1958-28 Jan 1959 LtCol Frederic T. Watts, Jr. 2 Jun 1961-15 Jul 1962
LtCol Dwain L. Engel 29 Jan 1959-1 Dec 1959 LtCol Claude O. Barnhill, Jr. * 16 Jul 1962-4 May 1964
LtCol Frank E. Wilson 2 Dec 1959-10 Jan 1960 Maj Donald K. Tooker 5 May 1964-30 Jun 1964
LtCol Robert E. Johnson 11 Jun 1960-1 Jun 1961    
* Killed in tragic jeep accident in the Phillipines 28 Apr 1964.  

    VMF-323 received its first Chance Vought F8U-1 “Crusaders” in September 1958.  They didn’t have a full compliment of F8s and flying started catch as catch can.  The squadron had no starters and had to borrow VMF-334s only started when they could.  So VMF-323 often had 10 birds ready to fly but no way to start them.  Then the Navy started taking some newer F8s and VMF-323 then got the earlier models without the landing gear beef up.  Only the newer pilots out of training command flew the morror and that resulted in some landing gear collapses.  In April 1959, the entire squadron went aboard the USS Oriskany to become the first F8U squadron to go aboard a carrier.  Assigned to Carrier Air Group 14 aboard the USS Lexington (1961-62), VMF-323 was the first Marine F8 squadron to go on a cruise with the Crusader.  In 1962, the squadron received the Chance Vought F8E (F8U-2NE) and was designated as Marine All Weather Fighter Squadron   VMF(AW)-323.  Its first Tailhook operation with F8E’s was aboard the USS Constellation in October 62.  The second was aboard the USS Midway in May 63.  The squadron was assigned to MAG-33, 3rd MAW at MCAS El Toro, California until June 1963 and was set to fly a Trans-Pac to Atsugi, Japan. 

    While one sortie was in-flight refueling over the Pacific Ocean, Maj Tooker’s F8E caught fire and he had to bail out through a sheet of flames.  He was in the water about 20 minutes and the raft 20 minutes and was picked up by a Navy Destroyer.  The next day, LT Judkins F8E caught fire at 15,000 feet and his canopy and Martin Baker seat did not function.  At 220 knots, he manually bailed out and his chute did not deploy.  Incredibility he survived the 15,000 foot free fall.  He was picked up in a little over 2 hours.  The Trans-Pac was scrubbed and the remaining Crusaders were transported by ship.  The squadron was now part of MAG-11, 1st MAW located on the East side of NAS Atsugi, Japan, better known as “East Camp.”  The Marines of East Camp were affectationly called “East Camp Animals.”

    323 deployed to Naha, Okinawa in August 63 and aboard the USS Oriskany in October 63.  In April 64, the squadron deployed to Kangshan, Taiwan attached to MAG-12 for Operation Back Pack.  March 64 found 323 in Ping Tung, Taiwan rejoining MAG-11 where the squadron broke a Navy/Marine record of 1600 flight hours in 26 days with no accidents.  While in Taiwan, Death Rattler Crusaders provided fighter escort for photo recon aircraft over North Vietnam.  In April 64, part of 323 returned to Atsugi and part went to NAS Cubi Point.  A sad note to the deployment at Cubi Point on 28 April 1964, the Skipper, LtCol Claude O. Barnhill was killed in a tragic jeep accident.  Maj Donald K. Tooker took command until July 1964 and with his strong leadership and the steady hand of “The Top”  First Sergeant Osborne, the squadron was held the squadron together. 

    VMF(AW)-323 was scheduled to return to the states in July 64.  All F8E’s were repainted and turned in.  While this was being done, the squadron was reforming at Cherry Point (where 323 was first commissioned in August 1943) with F4 Phantoms and re-designated as VMFA-323.  With the return to the states, another chapter of 323’s 21 year history came to a close as another chapter was about to be written in a little known place called Vietnam.

Note:  Below story submitted by Tom Rochford (1958 Death Rattler)

Some of the first F8s that 323 received had a rocket pod that popped out right under the main fuel cell.  Believe they were 2.5 rockets with fins that folded when in the pod.  A total of about 24 and the primary use was air to air.  The rockets could be set to fire all or half.  The pod was in the fuselage in front of the speed brake.  When the trigger was pulled the pod dropped down out of the fuselage and the speed brake would partially deploy for trim, the rockets fired, and the pod retracted back in the fuselage automatically.  Anyone see anything wrong here………Yipes!  The top of the pod was thin aluminum and under the main fuel cell.  What if there was a hung up rocket and the pod was retraced up?  Thankfully that was noted for our training hops.  I had a couple of hops with loaded rockets.  We had no air to air targets so we fired them at the old El Toro ground target.  The procedure we used was to deploy the pod first using the ground loading switch.  Then fire the rockets.  An amazing sight as the fins didn’t always deploy properly and they went in multiple directions.  After firing we didn’t retract the pod until we checked each other to make sure no rockets remained in the pod.  The procedure was to land with the pod out if there were any rockets that didn’t fire.  Because of the above, not too many Crusaders were built with the rocket pod.  I don’t think many F8 pilots knew of the early rocket pod.

The following story is recounted by Don Griffith, an Ordnance Death Rattler from 1962-64.

     It was Christmas Eve, 1963.  We were in Atsugi, Japan and it wascolder than the law allows in most places.  The members of our squadron, VMF(AW)323, climbed into the back of the 6X's and hunkered down for the long drive to where we would all spend the remainder of Christmas eve and Christmas morning.  For many of us, it would be our first Christmas away from our families and loved ones and not a few of us were very homesick.

     In the back of the trucks, along with all the warm bodies, were aChristmas Tree, decorations, Christmas gifts wrapped in all their pretty colors, candy, and enough food to feed an army of hungry men.  Our destination was the orphanage we had been supporting since arriving in Japan in June of that year.  The plan was to set up and decorate theTree, lay out all the gifts for the children, then kick back and wait for the kids to wake up Christmas morning.  Well, part of the plan worked anyway.

     Upon arriving at the orphanage, we unloaded the trucks and began the task of setting up and decorating the tree.  When that was finished, we lay out under the tree, all the Christmas gifts for the children.  By this time it must have been about 0400, and was at least two or three more hours before the children would start waking up.  We had already unloaded all the food and candy from the trucks, so there wasn't much else to do but wait.

     Many of us were only a few years older than some of the orphans and the excitement was beginning to build.  Slowly at first, the guys began disappearing, going up the stairs by two's or three's to the sleeping quarters.  They began gently probing and tickling the children to wake them up until by 0500, every child was awake, wondering what in the world these guys in green uniforms were up to now.  By this time most of us were upstairs helping the little ones get dressed.  When all were ready, we led them downstairs.

     Until the day I die, I will never forget the look of surprise, joy, and love those children showed when they saw the Christmas tree with all the gifts laid out beneath it.  We passed out the gifts for the children to open, sang some Christmas carols, and later in the day had a nice Christmas dinner.  When we were ready to leave that day, more than one big bad Marine had a tear in his eye for all the hugs, kisses, and gratitude bestowed on us by the children of that orphanage.  I would like to believe that we made a difference in a few children’s lives that Christmas.  For those of us who were there, I know they made a difference in our lives.

     It has been 39 years since we spent that Christmas with thoseorphans and there has not been a Christmas since that I have not thought about it.  I just wanted to pass along my thoughts to all of you this year in hopes that you might be reminded of a Christmas far from home that was made bearable by a group of children who had nothing to give but their love.  For me, and I know for most of you, that was more than enough.

Note:  The Death Rattlers helped support the orphanage during their tour at Atsugi.


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