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Fighting Squadron 17: The Jolly Rogers in the Pacific Theater
Fighter Squadron 17 (VF-17), known as the 'Jolly Rogers' was formed in January 1943 in Norfolk, VA.
Their leader was Lt. Cdr. Tom Blackburn. He was everything you would expect in a tough, hard-driving WW2 fighter pilot. And before taking command of VF-17, had downed an impressive number of enemy planes.
When forming VF-17, Blackburn pulled several key people into the unit. This included combat veterans Lt. Kleinman and Lt. Halford who fought at Guadalcanal. Other members of his squadron were Roger Hedrick, Ira Kepford and Lt. Timmy Gile.
The remaining thirty seven pilots were straight out of flight training school. With no combat-flying experience. Most had only been in trainers and had never sat in a fighter plane let alone flown one.
Pirates of the Skies
Undaunted by their lack of experience, Blackburn trained them hard. And used several ploys to raise morale and shape his rookie pilots into a strong team. He had to get them to operational level fast.
He decided the unit needed an insignia that showed attitude. And as they were flying Corsairs – another name for a pirate – he settled on the nickname 'Jolly Rogers.'
The unit adopted the pirate’s calling card of a black flag with white skull and crossbones. And soon after this, all VF-17 planes were painted with grinning skulls and crossbones.
They gained a formidable reputation. And the Japanese nicknamed the Corsairs, “whispering death.” To cross paths with these pirates meant death to anyone who chose to fight them.
From Sea to Land
The unit was assigned to the newly-built carrier USS Bunker Hill. But the pilots soon discovered the Corsair was difficult to land on the carrier.
Within Navy high command, this caused concern about the Corsair’s operational ability. However, a few modifications improved carrier landings, and seemed to resolve the problems.
In September 1943, USS Bunker Hill and the VF-17 squadron set sail for the South Pacific. However, as they approached the Solomon Islands, VF-17 received orders to transfer to a land base near New Georgia.
Navy high command had decided it would be easier to manage the Corsairs from a land base and transferred a squadron of F6F Hellcats to USS Bunker Hill.
War in the South Pacific
In January 1942, Japan successfully attacked and captured an Australian garrison at Rabaul, on the Pacific island of New Britain. To regain control of this area, a combined Allied air, sea and land offensive – Operation Cartwheel – was planned.
As part of this operation, VF-17 attacked Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, in the North Solomons. It was the first U.S. Navy unit to see action.
And in what was later called, The Battle of the Solomon Seas, they downed 18 Japanese fighters, badly damaging several others.
In November 1943, the unit took part in the combined Task Force attack on Rabaul. It would take until March 1944 to successfully overcome the Japanese in Rabaul.
And the VF-17 unit went on to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima from their new base on the carrier USS Hornet.
The Jolly Rogers Ace Pilots
In WW2, VF-17 was the highest scoring squadron in the Pacific theater with 13 confirmed Aces – more than any other naval unit at that time. Blackburn himself received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross.
History and the Jolly Rogers today
The VF-17 was decommissioned in 1959. But this wasn’t the end of the Jolly Rogers.
Through the years since WW2, several squadrons have been redesignated the Jolly Rogers and continue the history and traditions of this elite unit.
Credits: acepilots.com / history.com/topics/rabaul / www.pinterest.com
Jolly Rogers USS Bunker Hill VF17
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