Marine Corp Air Station Beaufort (Merritt Field), known as “Fightertown East” is located in South Carolina, USA. Hosted by VMFA-312 “Checkerboards”, Paul Newbold and Stuart Skelton present this report for AeroResource.
The base is exclusively home to the Boeing (formerly McDonnell Douglas) F/A-18 Hornet. The Hornet first flew on November 18th, 1978 and has gone from strength to strength, finding use in many roles ever since. It is utilised by the US Navy and Marines, along with the air forces of Australia, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland . A testament to a great design is that it is still in production today.
The Marines operate the legacy version (i.e, the F/A-18 Hornet, rather than the newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornet) of this flexible aircraft and are very happy with its performance – although they are looking forward to receiving the new Lockheed Martin F-35B/C Lightning II in the near future. VMFA(AW)-533 were recently honoured with escorting the Marine and Naval version of the Joint Strike Fighter to its test base at Naval Air Station Paxutent River, during the transit flight to the F-35 Test Unit.
Based at MCAS Beaufort are the specialised reconnaissance version of the F/A-18D, flying with VMFA(AW)-224 ‘Bengal Tigers’ and VMFA(AW)-533 ‘Hawks’. 48 of the F/A-18D(RC) are fitted with the modified nose to take the ATARS (Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System) electro-optical sensor package that includes a sensor pod and equipment.. The system replaces the aircraft’s M61 cannon in the nose with infrared and visible light sensors, two digital tape recorders, a Reconnaissance Management System (RMS); interface with the APG-73 Radar Upgrade (Phase II) which records synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery; and a digital data link mounted in a centre line pod. The digital data link will transmit imagery and auxiliary data to any Common Imaging Ground/Surface Station (CIG/SS) compatible system including the Joint Services Imagery Processing System (JSIPS) or Marine Tactical Exploitation Group (TEG) based ashore and Navy JSIPS (JSIPS-N) aboard ship.
MCAS Beaufort, Marine Air Group 31, and it’s assigned squadrons have a rich history, which is summarised here.
Marine Aircraft Group 31 (MAG-31)
There are six squadrons based at MCAS Beaufort as part of Marine Aircraft Group 31 (MAG-31). MAG-31 was commissioned on 1st February 1943 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina and left in September 1943 to take part in World War II flying from Samoa and Okinawa on missions against the Japanese Empire,. On 12th October 1945 MAG-31 became the first air group to operate from Japanese home soil. Returning home to the USA and moving to MCAS Miramar, California on 5th July 1946, the group was later decommissioned on 31st May 1947. Reactivated on 17th March 1952 at Cherry Point it was again deactivated in 1958. The last activation took place at MCAS Beaufort on 1st November 1961 where it remains to this day as part of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
Their mission is to provide air support to Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) commanders. All Marine Corp aircrew are fully trained in ground combat, which is a huge help in providing the men on the ground with what they need to fulfill their mission as the aircrew are better equipped to identify with the needs of ground combat, and so can deliver their mission more effectively.
The host squadron for AeroResource’s visit was VMFA-312 “The Checkerboards”, abley represented by Captain “Supre” Dupre. The Squadron was commissioned in June 1941 at Page Field, Parris Island, South Carolina, flying SNJ-4 Texans & F4U-1D’s. The Checkerboard emblem was painted on to the engine cowlings and rudders in the earliest days of the squadron and has stayed on their aircraft ever since. Aircraft flown have includedthe Goodyear FG-1 Corsair, Grumman F7F-3 Tigercat, Grumman F9F Panther, FJ Fury, McDonnell F-4B Phantom II, McDonnell F-4J, McDonnell F-4S, F/A-18A Hornet & their current aircraft – the Boeing F/A-18C Hornet.
During this time the unit has deployed to all of the world’s major hotspots and has a reputation of being one of the finest in the Marine Corps. As VMF-312, the Checkerboards first tasted blood on 12 April 1945 flying from the recently captured Kadena airstrip in Japan, when four squadron aircraft intercepted 20 Japanese Zero’s and achieved eight kills without a loss. Another of their ‘finest hours” was in March 1951 aboard the light carrier USS Bataan (CVL-29) – the Checkerboards were assigned escort and blockade missions flying FG-1 Corsairs. Leaving the ship in June 1951, the squadron amassed 4,945 accident-free hours of carrier operations while logging 1,920 carrier landings. While aboard USS Bataan, the Checkerboards became the first piston engine squadron to shoot down a jet aircraft, when Captain Jesse Gregory Folmar shot down a MiG-15 jet fighter with 20mm cannon fire from his Corsair. As with any military unit, history and tradition have an integral place in the squadron, and a painting depicting this event sits proudly on the wall of their operations room.
During the Vietnam War, the Checkerboards performed the vital mission of training combat aircrews prior to their deployment to Southeast Asia .
The squadron served with distinction in the 1990s in the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia . At the conclusion of these short, but intense campaigns, the Checkerboards proved again that they could deliver swift and lethal attacks on ground targets in combat, and emerge without losses.
In April 2000, the squadron joined the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on her maiden deployment. In Jan 2001, the Checkerboards were involved in the first combat action for this carrier, when an anti-aircraft artillery site was destroyed in Southern Iraq, which had been posing a threat to coalition aircraft. On February 16th, five VMFA-312 aircraft participated in a large scale strike against numerous targets in the vicinity of Baghdad.
More recently, in May 2010, the squadron was deployed again on the USS Harry S. Truman for “Operation Enduring Freedom”, providing close air support to coalition troops on the ground in Afghanistan .
The “Hawks” were commissioned on October 1st 1943 as Marine Night Fighter Squadron 533 (VMF(N)-533). Originally known as “Black Mac’s Killers”, after their first commanding officer Major Marion M. Magruder, they were one of three night fighter squadrons to be activated in the Marine Corps. For this mission they were equipped with the F6F-5N Hellcat, utilising it’s APS-6 radar.
On May 7, 1945, with only two days notice, the squadron of 15 Hellcats took off from Engebi island in the Pacific and flew to Saipan, a total of 1,004 nautical miles (1,859 km). This was the longest flight ever undertaken over water by a squadron in single engine military aircraft.
Between May 14th and June 29th 1945 while based at Le Shime, Okinawa, the squadron shot down 30 Japanese aircraft using their radar equipped Hellcats, at night, and without one operational loss. This was a night fighter record for enemy aircraft shot down by a single squadron. Capt Robert Baird, part of 533 was also their first night fighter ace.
From 1967 to 1969 VMA(AW)-533 (as they were known to reflect their all weather (AW) ability) took their brand new A-6 Intruders to South East Asia, gaining the Commandant’s Aviation Efficiency Trophy while flying 10,000 combat missions during this period. On October 25th 1967 three of their pilots gained the distinction of being the only fixed wing pilots to gain the Navy Cross during an intense mission attacking the Phuc Yen airfield near Hanoi. The Hawks also returned to South East Asia for a short period during 1972.
In the past 23 years the squadron has served with distinction in action in the 1990s in the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia .
Aircraft flown have included the F6F-5N Hellcat, F7F-3N Tigercat, F2H-4 Banshee, F9F Cougar, A-4 Skyhawk, A-6 Intruder and currently the F/A-18D Hornet. Some of the units’ airframes are the highly specialised F/A-18D RC, using the sophisticated Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System
VMFA(AW)-224 ‘ Bengal Tigers’
VMFA(AW)-224 “Bengals” were commissioned on May 1st 1942 at Barbers Point, Hawaii as VMF-224. The squadron entered World War II led by Medal of Honor recipient Major Robert Galer as part of the ‘Cactus Air Force’ on Guadalcanal, where 60 Japanese aircraft were destroyed by the squadron in a 2 month period – contributing heavily to the US Victory here. Later during the battle for Okinawa, a further 55 enemy aircraft were accounted for by the squadron.
In 1956 the Bengals were the first to fly the new Douglas A4D Skyhawk ‘Scooter’.
The squadron has served with distinction in action South East Asia and in the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia .
VMFA-115 ‘Silver Eagles’
Formed in 1943 in Santa Barbara, California, and originally known as the “Able Eagles” , VMFA were initially lead by Major Joseph Foss – holder of the World War II Marine Corps record of twenty-six enemy aircraft shot down.
During the Vietnam War, VMFA-115 flew more than 34,000 combat sorties and the squadron was awarded the Hanson Trophy in 1971. The squadron has flown the F4U/FG-1 Corsair, F9F Panther, F4D-1 Skyray, F-4B Phantom II and F/A-18 Hornet. The transition from McDonnell F-4B Phantom IIs to the F/A-18A Hornet in 1985 brought with it the change of name to “Silver Eagles”.
The squadron was recognized for superior maintenance, receiving the Secretary of Defense Phoenix Award for Maintenance Excellence, and earned the Hanson Award as Marine Corps Fighter Squadron of the Year for both 1987 and 1988. This was the first time a Marine Fighter Squadron had won the Hanson Award two consecutive years
At the end of 2001 the Silver Eagles upgraded to the F/A-18A+ and were once again part of a carrier air wing, deploying aboard the Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) as part of CVW-3 in 2002. In March 2003, the Silver Eagles fought against Iraqi forces as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, delivering more than 150 tons of ordnance. In October 2004, the squadron again deployed with CVW-3 aboard the USS Harry S. Truman for Operation Iraqi Freedom II, providing close air support and overhead security in support of Iraq ’s historic democratic elections.
Two of the squadrons’ aircraft took part in the MCAS Cherry Point (100years of the Marine Corp celebrations) night airshow with impressive use of the Hornet’s General Electric F404-GE-402 afterburning engines.
Commissioned as VMF-122 ‘Candystripers’ on 1st March 1942 under the command of Ace and Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient Major Pappy Boyington, the squadron downed 35 ½ enemy aircraft flying the F4U Corsair in April 1943. On their 2nd tour of duty in 1944 during the battle of Peleliu island they provided support to Marines on the ground, at times at distances only 1 mile from their airstrip. With their good use of Napalm and Rockets, they helped to expel the last Japanese forces from the island. They stayed here for the remainder of World War II before disbanding. During this time the nickname ‘Werewolves’ was gained.
In 1947 the squadron was reactivated and became the first USMC squadron to fly a jet fighter, in the form of the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom and during this time formed the only ever Marine demonstration team ‘The Flying Leathernecks’. In 1950 while deployed aboard the USS Oriskany they became the first squadron qualified for carrier operations during both day and night.
In 1957 after many aircraft type changes they became the first Marine squadron to fly the Vought F-8 Crusader and in doing so changed nickname to the ‘Crusaders’ and also changed to VMF(AW)-122 to reflect the all weather capability of the F-8E. The squadron flew Combat Air Patrol missions from NAS Key West during the Cuban missile crisis.
While flying the F-4B Phantom II the squadron deployed to South Vietnam 3 times in the 1960s.
In the 2000s VMFA-122 was involved in many deployments around the Pacific rim and prior to a 2008 deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the commander changed the nickname back to the Werewolves. This was their first combat deployment in more than 30 years.
Aircraft used by the squadron have been many! : F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair, FH-1 Phantom, F2H Banshee, F9F Panther, FJ Fury, F-8 Crusader, F-4 Phantom II, F/A-18A Hornet and currently the F/A-18C.
This squadron are currently away on deployment onboard the USS Enterprise as part of Operation Enduring Freedom..
Activated Dec 1st, 1941 as Marine Observation Squadron 251, VMO-251 took part in many campaigns with distinction during World War II flying the F4F Wildcat and as VMF-251 the F4U Corsair.
In 1962 VMFA-251 became the first Marine F-8 squadron to deploy aboard an aircraft carrier. In October 1964 they became the first squadron in the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing to transition to the F-4 Phantom II and in doing so took their current designation of VMFA-251. The Thunderbolts received the Chief of Naval Operation’s flight safety award in 1967 and again in 1969 as well as the Fleet Marine Force Atlantic safety award for the years 1967, 1968 and 1970. In 1969 they also received the Robert M. Hanson award, presented annually to the “most outstanding Marine fighter squadron of the year.”
In April 1994 the Thunderbolts provide close support in operation Deny Flight, enforcing the UN operation to provide a no fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina. These were the first combat missions flown by a Marine squadron since WWII. After deploying as part of CVW-1 onboard the USS America, and later the USS George Washington, they became the first Marine squadron to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom whilst operating from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The squadron returned to from deployment to MCAS Beaufort in March 2002, and in September of that year, the Thunderbolts were presented with the Robert M. Hanson Trophy as the “Marine Fighter Attack Squadron of the Year”. Between 2003 and 2007 the squadron deployed 3 times to the Middle East and again recently deployed on March 9th 2012.
As previously mentioned, the USMC proudly recall their history, and in honour of this, a collection of aircraft used by the units stationed at MCAS Beaufort are displayed at the gate to the field.
A comprehensive history on all the units at MCAS Beaufort is provided on the USMC Website.
AeroResource would like to sincerely thank Media Chief Lance Corporal Norris and Captain Dupre for their valuable time and for giving us plenty of photo opportunities. Thanks as always also go to Mark Forest and Jason Grant for their part in planning and co-ordinating the visit.