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Posted on Oct 29, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Jolly Rogers – Book Review

By Richard N Story

jr1.jpgBook Review: The Jolly Rogers: The Story OF Tom Blackburn And Navy Fighting Squadron VF-17
Zenith Press, 2006, Paperback.

The F4U Corsair is undoubtedly one of the greatest warplanes ever created. To the Japanese it was known as the ‘Whistling Death’ because of the unique sounds created by this plane making attack runs. From the bent wings to the large Pratt-Whitney engine and the oversized Hamilton Standard propeller, the F4U Corsair is instantly recognizable by even the most novice of aviation watchers. Yet the Corsair was not without faults. From the poor visibility for the pilot directly ahead of him when on the ground or landing to the stiff landing gear which gave the Corsair its bounce on landing; the Navy decided that the plane was not carrier qualified and limited the distribution of the Corsair to Marine ground units. It was not till the British Royal Navy demonstrated that the Corsair could safely be flown off carriers that the United States Navy reconsidered its position. One of the first fighter squadrons to be formed to fly off carriers with the Corsair was Fighter Squadron 17 ‘The Jolly Rogers’ commanded by Tom Blackburn. The Jolly Rogers is the story of how Tom Blackburn came to command the squadron and its combat tour in the Solomon Islands area.

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No history can truly be a discrete event or series of events that lie separated from the rest of time and The Jolly Rogers is no exception. The book starts out with Commander Blackburn’s own history prior to being given command of VF-17. As an Annapolis graduate and a career Navy officer; Tom Blackburn was one of the few officers ‘allowed’ to fly with VF-2 ‘The Fighting Chiefs’ which was an elite squadron composed of enlisted naval aviation pilots for the pre-war Navy. He was detached from VF-2 to become an instructor at NAS-Miami which was also known as Opa-Locka in January of 1941. This assignment was to be a mixed blessing for Commander Blackburn. The downside was that he was leaving one of the premier fighter squadrons of the Navy for training the hordes of incoming nuggets (fledgling pilots), but the upside was that while at Opa-Locka he could hone his skills in the arts of aerial warfare and, presumably, leadership over a group untested pilots. It could even be inferred that the Navy was using these assignments to groom the future squadron leaders for the coming war. However Tom Blackburn ran afoul of his boss at Opa-Locka. It appeared that Tom was too good of an instructor to ‘waste’ at sea. Fortunately for the Navy Tom did have a hidden ace up his sleeve. A friend of his was the detailing officer for Naval Air. One written request and Tom soon found himself commanding a fighter squadron, but not of the bigger units instead he was assigned to form and command Escort Fighting Squadron 29 (VGF-29) for duty aboard the escort carrier USS Santee.

VGF-29 was issued with the famous F4F-4 Wildcat built by the Grumman ‘iron works’ Aviation. It was during this time with VGF-29 that Tom Blackburn came the closest to losing his life. After a mission over the Torch beachhead looking for a non-existent Vichy French airfield a malfunction in the navigation equipment caused his flight of Wildcats to become lost and run out of fuel. Tom ditched at sea while the four other Wildcats made for the beach. Tom spent the next two days in a life raft waiting for rescue. It was a miracle that the task group the Santee was with spotted the man in the raft during refueling operations and rescued him. Adding to the miracle was that a trained observer could spot a man in a life raft about a mile at best. But when you added in the 10 foot swells running at the time than the only time the raft could be seen was at the top of the wave. Shortly there after, Tom Blackburn was detailed to form, commission and lead Fighting Squadron 17 to serve with Carrier Air Group 17 aboard the USS Bunker Hill, a brand new Essex class aircraft carrier.

VF-17 was duly commissioned and proved that the fighter could fly off a carrier but instead of being the first Navy squadron to fly off a carrier; they were rushed to the Solomons where all the available fighters were needed. Combat operations were a mixture of exhilaration and boredom, but the war took its toll on VF-17. Thirteen pilots were to lose their life in the war including one where a ‘golden bb’ from a rifle caliber sized bullet made a lucky hit and killed the pilot instantly. But for each loss the squadron suffered; the Japanese were to pay a higher price. VF-17 destroyed 154.5 Japanese aircraft and 13 pilots became aces with VF-17 and two others went on to be aces with other squadrons. Thus for every pilot that VF-17 lost; the Japanese lost nearly 12 planes. Perhaps the high point for VF-17 came right before it was rotated out of the line. During operation: Chatte Flambee which was to be a strike against a strategic target frequented by Imperial Japanese Navy Officers. With a successful strike, VF-17 left the line.

The Jolly Rogers is a Zenith reprint from the 1998 version published by Words To Go Inc. The book is highly interesting to read, but has several flaws. First there were several spelling errors, which while not crucial, were annoying. Secondly there were three misprints in the book. These misprints look like somebody took White Out to these pages to correct errors. It is unknown what form of publishing was used to print this book, but if it was camera ready pages and digital printing than the use of White Out to correct errors is another annoying flaw that shouldn’t have happened.

Perhaps the most confusing aspect to the book was the glossary. In it there was stuff that didn’t need explaining, but he left out the term Tyro. One other fault I found with the book was that while the photos were excellent; the maps left something to be desired due to a lack of clarity and readability. It must be emphasized that these flaws are minor. The book is an excellent read and well worth the $17.95 list price. Anybody interested in a first hand account of the war in the Pacific or about flying the Corsair in combat is highly encouraged to purchase the book for their library. And for the record; a Tyro is the same as a nugget. He is a young, inexperienced or novice in a trade. In this case Tyro pilots.

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