Fighting Squadron 17: The Jolly Rogers in the Pacific Theater
The Jolly Rogers unit, officially Fighter Squadron 17 (VF-17) was formed in January 1943 in Norfolk, VA. It was also known as the 90th bombardment group and part of the 90th U.S Air Force Missile Wing during WW2.
The unit commander was Tom Blackburn. The epitome of a tough, hard-driving WW2 fighter pilot, he had already 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 aircraft 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 and get them to operational level quickly.
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.
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. The aircraft also needed careful maintenance to keep it operational.
This cast doubt on the Corsair’s operational capacity within Navy high command. However, with a few modifications to improve carrier landings and general performance, the problems seemed to be resolved.
In September 1943, 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 Bunker Hill.
War in the South Pacific
In January 1942, Japan had successfully attacked and captured an Australian garrison at Rabaul on the Pacific island of New Britain. Realizing the advantage this position gave them in the South Pacific, the Japanese transferred over 100,000 troops to the area and turned it into a major operations base.
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 took part in an attack on Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, part of the North Solomons. It was the first U.S. Navy unit to see action. And in what was later to be 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.
The VF-17 unit went on to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima from their new base on board the carrier USS Hornet.
The Jolly Rogers Ace Pilots During 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 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross.
History and the Jolly Rogers today In 1946 the original VF-17 squadron was redesignated VF-5B and then VF-61 in 1948. This unit was decommissioned in 1959.
However this wasn’t the end of the Jolly Rogers.
Through the years since WW2, several squadrons have been redesignated the Jolly Rogers and have continued the history and traditions of this elite unit. And today the VFA-103 Jolly Rogers carry forward this legacy with the familiar grinning skull and crossbones emblazoned on the tails of their fighters.
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