News | Sept. 7, 2023

Keeping the Peace, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 During the Cold War 1946-1991

By Stephen K. Dixon

Review by Cmdr. Peter Mersky, USNR (Ret.)
Most single-book histories of specific Marine aircraft squadrons have been published by the Marine Corps History Division at Quantico, Virginia. However, this account of the “Thunderbolts” comes from a commercial publisher in Great Britain and the U.S. Its author is a former enlisted member of the “elect shop” (sic). While certainly a welcome addition to literature of specific Marine Corps squadrons, the book is not without errors in both writing and terminology, mostly in need of a knowledgeable editor, which is a problem these days encountered when reading about military aviation.

For instance, on page 13, early in the text, the author notes the F4U-4D Corsair. There was no such designation and was most likely the FG-1D Corsair, built by Goodyear, a typical cross-manufacturing arrangement with another large company during World War II when the originating company either wanted to, or was directed to concentrate on new aircraft, but which the government still wanted to produce. Another example was the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, which passed manufacture on to General Motors, normally an automobile and truck company, whose Avengers were subsequently designated TBMs, resulting in Corsair models becoming confusing.

Also, mention is made of the fighter carrying two 1,000-pound bombs on centerline racks, where fuel tanks were actually attached. The bombs were on wing stations.

After a lengthy period of settling in as a reserve squadron, flying borrowed Corsairs, then-Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 251 received Douglas AD Skyraiders, which were not usually flown by the Marines. Here, we encounter another error, or perhaps an indication of a lack of understanding when describing Marine Air Groups (MAGs) or Marine Air Wings (MAWs), when the correct terminology uses “aircraft.” Admittedly minor lapses in accuracy but nonetheless something normally left to a knowledgeable editor to correct.

Where most Marine Corps fixed-wing squadrons in Korea flew F4Us (as well as the AU-1 close air support variant of the Corsair), three Leatherneck squadrons flew jets—Grumman F9F Panthers, McDonnel F2H Banshees and Douglas F3D Skyknights. Only three flew different models of Skyraiders, including now-Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 251, which had been changed from its original VMF fighter designation in April 1951. These Skyraider-equipped units flew several months of occasionally brief but intense missions later in the Korean War.

When a ceasefire finally stopped the fighting—there was never a treaty that formally ended the Korean War, a situation which remains to the current day—VMA-251 remained in place occasionally flying combat missions along the ceasefire line until 1955 when it returned to the States.

Up to this point in the book, the editing is very uneven, resulting in a cluttered, ill-managed narrative full of dates, brief actions and aircraft and pilot names that are hard to keep track of while reading. One person I know with direct personal knowledge of the time and, indeed, the F-4 Phantom in squadron service, compares the writing to being “something like a log.”

The squadron’s designation was eventually changed back to VMF-251 on April 20, 1957, as it entered the jet age when it started flying the North American FJ Fury, a navalized, but well-modified version of the highly successful F-86 Sabre, which had done so well in the Korean War.

It was a time of getting to know their new mount, fraught with mishaps—not accidents as the author refers to them. The Navy uses “mishaps” when referring to such events, a term I have never really had satisfactorily explained, even with 16 years at the Naval Safety Center. I think it had something to do with the feeling that

“accident” had some link to human error, which is often the case, but which ignores the possibility of uncontrolled influence.

The squadron flew several models of the F-8 Crusader, while experiencing quite a few mishaps. Some involving the loss of both the aircraft and pilot. It was a difficult time for the Navy and Marine Corps, getting used to this world-beater high-performance jet fighter.

Dixon offers limited but basically detailed descriptions of the times and specific experiences of this hard-working unit of dedicated aviation Marines.