WALK OUT ON THE RAMP, PAST THE STATIC DISPLAYS, the remote-controlled-model tent, the Marine recruiting stand, and the car show, on across the drying grass to where the flying exhibits were parked, then around the corner at the tail of a B-25. There they are, all gleaming deep blue and jutting propeller blades. It's the Corsairs.
Few airplanes--the triple tail Connie, the Staggerwing Beech among them--are as instantly recognizable as the inverted gull winged F4U Corsair.
Inspired by an event for P-51s in Florida in 1999 (see "Mustang Mania", June/July 1999), last September the Indianapolis Air Show assembled as many flyable examples as possible of the Chance Vought F4U Corsair, a hog-nose, bent-wing, big-ass Mack truck of a fighter that raged across the South Pacific during World War II and later in Korea. Between 1941 and 1952, some 12,500 F4Us rolled off the assembly line. Today there are fewer than 30 Corsairs left, and only 10 to 15 are flyable in the United States. There were only seven of those at the Gathering of Corsairs and Legends reunion at Indianapolis.
Across from the visitor area, in a large red-and-white-striped tent, were some old men wearing baseball caps adorned with unit identifiers like "VMF-223." These were the Legends, the men who flew the F4U in combat.
Also prowling the grounds was Robert Ginty, who came all the way from Dublin, Ireland. Ginty played T.J. Wylie in the 1976-'77 television series "Black Sheep Squadron," which was based loosely on the memoirs of Major Gregory Boyington, the commander of the legendary Marine VMF-214 Black Sheep squadron. T.J. was the young, somewhat naive flier, always peeling off into a swarm of Zeros while calling out an enthusiastic "I've got 'em, Pappy!" over the radio. Ginty made no attempt to vindicate the television series; "I think everybody knew that the show was kind of unrealistic," he said. (Boyington was never called "Pappy" by his squadron, for example; that was an invention that came well after the war.) "It was really meant as a kids' show. It was not meant to show anything about war." The show lasted only two seasons, its demise due to a combination of economics and, Ginty suspects, influence on the network from those who may have felt the scripts did not do the original heroes justice. However naive the character of T.J. was, Ginty is no dilettante. He holds a deep regard for the original Black Sheep, perhaps because he has attended many events like this where he has heard the tales the Black Sheep tell.
At the Gathering of Corsairs and Legends dinner and symposium on Friday night, the eve of the airshow, the tables were filled mostly with those who hadn't been there during the reign of the Corsair. Those who had-the veteran pilots-were dispersed throughout the hall, one to a table, to share their stories. Each Legend took a few minutes at the microphone to reflect on his experiences from the distance of a half-century. The stories tended more toward the humorous than the heroic, and, unlike their film counterparts, these men express modesty mixed with an appreciation for how lucky they are to be here to talk about it all.
Glen Bower, who spent part of his second World War II tour with the Black Sheep, remembered the time he came out of a cloud one day: "I'm flying formation. With a Zero. I looked across...and he smiled back at me. There was no way I'm going to get on his tail. So I pulled back up into the cloud and left him for someone else."
Tom Emrich was flying wing for Boyington during the latter days of a second tour with the Black Sheep. During a fighter sweep, Emrich spotted "a Zero on the most perfect beam shot you'd ever want to see. The machine guns were twinkling on the cowling and a stream of fire was going between me and Boyington." Emrich had to drive his Corsair through the machine gun fire in order to cut off the attack on Boyington. "They used the 7.7 [machine guns] to train their cannons, and when they had you in their sights, they fired their cannons." A 20-millimeter cannon shell exploded at the juncture of the vertical fin and the fuselage, severing Emrich's rudder cables. He nursed the fighter home and managed to get it on the ground in one piece.
Ed Harper was lucky to be sitting anywhere 55 years later. Harper had likely been hit with a .51-caliber armor-piercing anti-aircraft round, which collapsed one lung and nicked his spine, paralyzing his legs and leaving "a hole in his back where you could put your fist," according to John Bolt, another pilot on the raid. Slumping in and out of consciousness, Harper was guided home by his wingmen and only barely managed to land the stricken Corsair.
William Heier struggled during his two minutes with the microphone to come to grips with something he couldn't quite bring himself to recount-perhaps an aspect of war more heinous than heroic. In closing, Heier found a path to vindication. "We could have done a lot worse," he said.