Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) was commissioned on August 1, 1943, and was quickly brought up to combat-ready status under the leadership of young Maj. George Axtell Jr. Instilling great discipline and aggressive fighter tactics, the men of VMF-323 certainly earned their squadron’s nickname as the “Death Rattlers.” At the controls of the F4U and FG-1 Corsairs, the men of VMF-323 not only provided ground support for the island-hopping Marines below but also shot down more than 124 Japanese planes. Here is the story of three such men who, by their own accounts, were each “just doing my job.”
Maj. Gen. George C. Axtell Jr., USMC, Ret.
“When I was promoted to the rank of major in 1943 and given command of a Marine fighter squadron, VMF-323, at the ripe old age of 22, I suddenly became the youngest squadron commander in the Marine Corps. I may have been tough and hard on them and had very little patience for screwups, but my role as CO [commanding officer] was not to make friends. My role was to mold boys into men, creating the deadliest, most highly trained fighter pilots in the world at the controls of the Corsair.
“To me, the Corsair was the nicest fighter I had flown at the time, even better than the F6F Hellcat. The F4U was very smooth; steady; and a delightful, stable gun platform. We could also carry a large assortment of ordnance, including napalm, rockets, and bombs, as we supported the Marines on the ground during the island-hopping campaign.
“I was leading a flight of eight Corsairs in the late afternoon of April 22, orbiting above the picket ships that formed a defensive ring around Okinawa, as their radar scanned the skies for incoming kamikazes. One of the Corsairs had to abort because of mechanical problems, so we were down to seven as we flew circles above the ships at 25,000 feet. I received a vector from the controllers to proceed about 50 miles north of Aguni Shima. The weather was lousy with cloud cover all over the sky as we flew in and out of rain clouds. That was the trick of the kamikazes: to use a weather front as a shield and fly on the back side of it as they made their way south from Japan. Today was no different.
“All of a sudden, we popped out of a cloud, and there were enemy airplanes all over the place. They were below us at between
5,000 and 10,000 feet, heading for our ships. There must have been 40–50 Japanese Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive-bombers, all of them hell bent on dying for the Emperor of Japan. Those were the worst ones because they were normally the tough ones to shoot down; they just didn’t give a damn! I dove our seven Corsairs down onto the Vals, as I led the first flight of four Corsairs and my XO [executive officer], Maj. Jefferson Dorroh, led the other three. Airplanes were going up and down all over the sky, as I swung into one of the Vals, identified it, and gave him a burst. He blew up in front of me. I went looking for more, as did my section leader Lt. [Jeremiah] O’Keefe.
“The weather was horrible, but you get spaces where you can see three or four miles. One moment you’re in a rain shower, and suddenly, when you come out of it, you find a Val on the other side of a cloud. You go in until you get so damn close that it fills up your gunsight; you swing in behind them and shoot the airplane that’s in front of you, as you look around for the next one. We trained not to shoot from too far out and to get in as close as you could. You’re not thinking; our training taught us to just react and to go into it. The one hard-and-fast rule is to kill them, to destroy the enemy. We knew we were more highly trained, and always thought we were better than anything or anybody else out there. Never once did we think otherwise. Anything less and you were dead. By the time it was all said and done, I got five Vals and damaged some others. Maj. Dorroh bagged six and Lt. O’Keefe shot down five, as our squadron, as a whole, accounted for 24.75 victories that day.” [Editor’s note: George Axtell was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism on this mission.]
Lt. Jeremiah O’Keefe, USMCR, Ret.
“We were terribly impressed with the Corsair. We thought it was a wonderful airplane, and we really felt honored and delighted to have an opportunity to fly it. At that time, it was one of the finest airplanes in existence, although the only other fighter I had flown was the little Grumman F4F Wildcat. Stepping up to a Corsair was a big improvement because it proved to be both an aerial gunfighter and a great ground-support weapons platform. The Corsair had an enormous capacity to carry rockets, machine guns, napalm, or regular bombs.
“Our squadron had been in the South Pacific for almost a year and had not seen any enemy action during that time. We flew a lot of patrols over islands that had already been captured or bypassed by Allied ground forces, and there was no aerial opposition to speak of. Our squadron had been given the nickname of ‘Death Rattlers,’ named after the venomous rattlesnake of the American West, so it was only a matter of time before we would make our first kills when we entered the combat arena in April of 1945 led by our CO, Maj. Axtell, as we orbited over the picket ships off Okinawa.
“When Maj. Axtell brought us down to attack Vals, we were at 4,000 feet, and it was the first time many of us had ever seen enemy aircraft. Vals had fixed landing gear, and they were obviously kamikazes. Needless to say, we got very excited and kind of broke ranks, so to speak, as we went after individual airplanes. My wingman, Bill Hood, stayed with me the best he could, as I latched onto one of the Vals. I was amazed when I shot at my first airplane, as all the long, hard training seemed to kick in, as the bullets ripped into him and he began to burn and spiral downward. I looked around for more of the Vals and saw six others below me. My only thought was, ‘I’m going to go after all of them!’ I attacked from the rear and above, and went after the Val on the far left; as I throttled back, I dropped some flaps to compensate for their slower speed as I got behind him.
“I shot at him and missed as he quickly turned away from the other Vals and ducked into some clouds. I went right in after him as he played cat and mouse for a while until he had no more clouds to hide in; I gave him a short burst, and he crashed into the water below. I tried to find the other Vals that I had seen earlier, but they were nowhere in sight. I found two others and quickly shot them down as well, but when I ran into the last one, I could tell this guy knew what he was doing; he flew his dive-bomber like a fighter.
“All my prior victories were shots from the rear, as I aimed for the wing root and cockpit area. But this last guy went head to head with me as we came at each other, firing our machine guns at one another. We began to scissor with one another back and forth as he would turn and then I would turn and then we would come back at each other head-on. We did this at least three times until I noticed that, on the last pass, I must have hit him because his Val was smoking. We turned into each other for another go at it, and that guy, probably realizing that he was going to die anyway, tried to ram his Val into me. For a brief, scary moment, I thought he had me as I yanked the Corsair skyward fully expecting to get hit by him. When I opened my eyes and realized I was still flying, no worse for wear, I looked back and saw the Val spiraling down until he crashed into the sea. By the time I got back to our base, I only had a small amount of ammunition left in two of my guns; all the rest were empty. That was a long 25 minutes as I, along with two others from my squadron, became an ace in a day.” [Editor’s note: Jeremiah O’Keefe was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism on this mission.]
Col. John Ruhsam, USMC, Ret.
“On May 4, 1945, we took off in the morning on a four-plane flight and arrived over and near Ie Shima. When we got over the picket ships, our main job was to protect them from any incoming kamikazes. Mostly, we would sit there and circle at between 20,000 and 30,000 feet or wherever they stuck us, usually circling there for maybe three hours. But on that particular day, as we arrived and began our initial climb up, the next thing I knew was that there was a Val coming, head-on, at us.
“I spied him about the same time that everybody else did. It was one of the few times that I didn’t tell my wingman, Bob Wade, that he was coming right at us, and I made a hard right turn. But I was too close and too fast, and I overshot him. I got a few rounds off at him but overran him too quickly. The flight leader came over the radio and told me I had gotten good hits, and he burst into flames. We continued climbing on up, and we had gotten up to our perch overlooking our area of responsibility when, all of a sudden, Warren Beswick’s Corsair started smoking. There was thick black smoke coming out from the cowling etching, a long black line behind the Corsair. It was Capt. Joe McPhail’s responsibility to escort his wounded wingman to safety as both Corsairs headed for home. That left Wade and me sitting up there under control of the radar as we continued to climb up and circle. Nothing was showing on the screen of the radar operator, but we could see what looked like a destroyer, off to the west of us. It was burning as it had been under attack. It wasn’t unusual to see a ship burning or something.
“We decided to swing our Corsairs out toward the ship to see what we could do. We dropped down a few thousand feet and began circling when all of a sudden there’s a Japanese Val in front of me. I slowed down as I began to tail it and then squeezed the trigger as I shot at his tail. Still moving too fast, I overran him the first time. That was a problem in a Corsair as we had the speed, which was a good thing, but you had to compensate for the slow speed of the Vals. From that moment on, I don’t have any idea how much time or how long I was in this running battle. I know we overran him and then suddenly Wade wasn’t there. The next thing I know, there’s another Val right in front of me as I began to fire. I know that I was sitting on the tail of that Val when Capt. McPhail came back up on the radio and said he was back in the original position, asking where we were.
“There were a lot of little clouds around, and he kept saying, ‘Where are you?’ We kept saying that we were over where the little clouds were. The problem was that I was a little busy trying to shoot this Val down as he’s asking me, ‘Where are you?’ I replied, ‘I’m over here on the tail of this Jap!’ Capt. McPhail told me later that all he could hear was my darn guns going off.
“Then Wade came up alongside me and joined up, and another Val flew right across in front of me; all I had to do was pull the trigger and he was gone.
“Although they were kamikazes, they were all split up. I guess they’d done the attack on the destroyer, and after they got it burning, some of them must have gotten indecisive and didn’t know what they were doing and were just wandering around up there. We managed to get in the middle of them and create a bit of havoc.
“Most of the Vals I shot down had rear gunners in them. That was another thing that kind of amazed me with the kamikazes: They all had a rear gunner. I don’t remember any two-seater that didn’t have a gunner in the rear seat. Whether they went on as kamikazes I don’t know, but these guys were all in Vals, army types. They were all camouflage green. I remember vividly, when I finally ran out of ammunition chasing them, that there was just one more down low. I had hit the rear-seat gunner, and he was slumped in his seat, so at least he wasn’t shooting at me.
“That Val was right in front of me; I had him right down onto the water. And the next thing I realized, as I squeezed the trigger, was that I had no ammo. It’s a hell of a feeling. I wanted to get the guy so badly, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll sneak under and cut his tail off.’ Well, I couldn’t; he was right on top of the water. I thought, ‘Well, you do that, John, you’re gonna go in the water too, so don’t be an idiot.’ So I pulled up right next to him. I thought, ‘I’ll just take my .38 revolver out and shoot him—open the canopy
and squeeze a couple of rounds off.’
“I didn’t think that was too good of an idea either, so I didn’t really know quite what to do. But I could see he was panicked as I continued to run with him. He had a pilot helmet on, and I remember it was fur-lined all the way around, which was typical Japanese.
As I am focusing on his headwear, a couple of tracer rounds went zooming by me. I jerked my head to the left, and I looked back and saw my wingman, Bob Wade, coming in. I’m right on the Val’s right wing, and I could have just reached out and spat at him if I had been on the ground; we were that close together. Then what I thought he might do and hoped he would do is take a quick left turn. He could have got us both if he had just pulled up; we’d have both run right into him.
“But that guy made a mistake, and did the drastic thing and turned away. The minute he turned away, he stuck his left wing into the water. That wing dug into the water, and that was the end of that airplane. It just disintegrated in front of me. With no more enemy airplanes around, we formed up and headed for home. Seeing as I was a flight leader, I ended up earning the Navy Cross, then they gave Wade credit for the one that we ran into the water. We’d flown together in combat for almost two years, and we had made a little deal there that if we had the chance to fly together in combat, then we would split our kills. Unfortunately, there were plenty of kamikazes to pick from.”
FHCAM’s Bent-Wing Bird
The Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum (FHCAM) at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, maintains and flies several combat veterans, one of which is Goodyear FG-1D Corsair Bureau Number 88303. The Corsair was a Vought design, but in order to increase production, the Brewster Aircraft Corporation and the Goodyear Aircraft Company were contracted to build additional aircraft. The Goodyear aircraft were given the “FG” designation, and the FG-1D was the first true fighter-bomber Corsair, with its ability to carry bombs or rockets. Of the 12,571 Corsairs produced, Goodyear built 4,017 under contract during World War II.
One of 205 Corsairs that rolled out of Goodyear’s Akron, Ohio, plant in April 1945, 88303 was accepted by the U.S. Navy on April 26. Four days later, at the Aircraft Delivery Unit in Port Columbus, Ohio, the Navy took delivery of the “Bent-Wing Bird.”
After a final test flight on May 3, 1945, 88303 flew to Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island in San Diego, California, from May 6–9. There, she was deployed to the Pacific and made combat-ready at Aviation Repair and Overhaul Unit 2 at Guiuan in the Philippines. Assigned to VMF-115 based at Zamboanga in the southern Philippines, 88303 flew numerous close-air-support missions and combat air patrols between July 7 and August 30, 1945.
By September 21, 1945, 88303 was assigned to the aircraft carrier pool on Okinawa, where its logbook notes, “long-term preservation completed.” After surviving the perils of combat, however, 88303 was damaged just a few weeks after the war. On the afternoon of October 9, Typhoon Louise sank several ships and damaged about 60 aircraft, including 88303. The logbook simply states, “This a/c [aircraft] went through severe typhoon.”
Corsair 88303 was next assigned to the Naval Air Reserve Training Unit (NARTU) at NAS Anacostia on April 18, 1947, arriving two days later. It flew 486 hours while assigned to the unit. The aircraft began its final operational assignment on November 30, 1949, when it was assigned to the NARTU at NAS Minneapolis.
In 1958, 88303 retired from the Navy and became a civilian, when William P. Strube, of Columbia, Pennsylvania, bought it from the Disposal Division at the U.S. Naval Shipyard Philadelphia for $2,750. Eugene M. Strine of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, next bought the aircraft on September 14, 1960. Strine founded the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, and his son, Russ Strine, believes that the actual aircraft transaction was in 1958. The paperwork, however, appears to have been completed after the fact in order to facilitate Strube’s and Strine’s registration of 88303 as N6594D on August 3, 1962.
Thirty years later, Edward H. Shipley purchased 88303 on July 5, 1994. Shipley flew 88303 on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II as one of 11 warbirds that traveled from San Francisco, California, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). After having trained at NAS Alameda, the warbirds were loaded on the aircraft carrier for the trip to Hawaii. On the morning of August 29, 1995, Shipley launched from Carl Vinson along with a Wildcat and several B-25s and other warbirds. The aircraft logbook records this momentous event simply with, “Deck launch from USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) ‘Gold Eagle’” and is signed by the Vinson’s commanding officer and air boss.
Just a little over a year later, on October 13, 1996, 88303’s engine seized during landing at the Chester County Airshow, and she would not fly again for more than two decades. FHCAM acquired the Corsair in September 1998, and it was transferred to Ezell Aviation, Inc., in Breckenridge, Texas, to restore her to flying condition. The Corsair was delivered to FHCAM in 2017 and is now registered as N700G.
Jason Muszala, FHCAM’s senior manager of restoration and maintenance, describes the Corsair as “a pretty straightforward airplane to maintain. The biggest challenge, however, is standing on the wing without falling or sliding down!”
Kevin Eldridge, a highly experienced warbird pilot who flies with FHCAM, says that the Corsair is a “great-handling airplane, with very light ailerons even at speeds over 300 mph. Unlike other aircraft, the Corsair is not an airplane you wear. Instead, you seem to sit on top of it. Although you sit in an upright position with your legs hanging below (like sitting in a chair), it has an excellent cockpit. Just don’t drop your chart, though, because you’ll never be able to reach it in the Corsair’s cavernous belly!”
FHCAM’s Goodyear FG-1D Corsair is a unique piece of U.S. naval-aviation history, with a successful combat record. As a beautifully restored flying aircraft, 88303 remembers and honors all those who flew and supported the Corsair during the war.
John Ruhsam’s Navy Cross citation
“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Second Lieutenant John William Ruhsam (MCSN: 0-30883), United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Section Leader and a Pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron THREE HUNDRED TWENTY-THREE (VMF-323), Marine Air Group THIRTY-THREE (MAG-33), FOURTH Marine Aircraft Wing, in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Ie Shima, Ryukyu Islands, on 4 May 1945. Flying on combat air patrol, Second Lieutenant Ruhsam signed an enemy bomber-type aircraft disappearing over the horizon and, giving chase with his wingman, encountered a Japanese force of approximately twenty-five suicide dive-bombers headed for friendly shipping off Okinawa. Undaunted by the formidable array, he initiated an immediate attack and, alternating with his wingman, made repeated runs on the hostile formation to shoot down four of the enemy craft and damage three others, finally joining his wingman in scattering the remainder. His indomitable fighting spirit, courageous airmanship, and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
By James P. Busha