It was the end of an era last Thursday when the United States Marine Corps held a sunset ceremony for the Marine Attack Squadron 311 (VMA-311) “Tomcats” at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. The famous unit was deactivated and shifted some assets to merge with sister squadron, Marine Attack Squadron 214 (VMA-214), the equally famous “Black Sheep Squadron,” as each begin a transition to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
Last week’s ceremony marked the end of the line for VMA-311 operation of the AV-8B Harrier short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft but also the overall structure of the unit, which was first organized as a Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) in 1942 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina and assigned to the Third Marine Aircraft Wing during the Second World War.
The Long Flying Tomcats
VMF-311 was one of the first units to utilize and develop tactics for the F4U Corsair in a ground attack mode, and the squadron was deployed to support the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. After the war, it served in occupational duty flying from Yokosuka airfield on the Japanese home islands.
During the Korean War, the VMF-311 became the first land-based Marine unit to take part in jet combat missions including providing close air support for Marines and soldiers on the ground. During the conflict, the squadron flew 18,851 close-air-support sorties in two and a half years, including missions that supported the Eighth Army during its time in the Chosin Reservoir.
The squadron was re-designated Marine Attack Squadron 311 (VMA-311) in 1957 and it was also bestowed the nickname “Tomcats.” During the Vietnam War, the Tomcats flew some 54,625 sorties, and it continued to be a rack up historical first the Marine Corps Times reported.
VMA-311 was named Marine Corps Aviator Association’s Attack Squadron of the Year in 1988 and 1991, and became the first Marine squadron to employ the AV-8B Harrier in combat during Operation Desert Shield. More recently, the Tomcats’ Harriers were the first to fly combat missions in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and participated in the first combat sortie of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
However, the Tomcats aren’t out of their nine lives just yet, and the traditions of the squadron will live on, when in spring 2022, VMA-311 will reactivate as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 311 (VMFA-311) operating the F-35C at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The F-35C is the carrier variant (CV) of the fifth generation long-range stealth strike fighter.
“The Tomcats imbued a level of morale within each other that was unmatched, but I have no doubt the newly adopted VMA-214 Black Sheep identity will be embraced, and they will continue performing remarkably,” said Sgt. Maj. Colin Barry, VMA-311 sergeant major.
Sunset for the Harrier
The deactivation of VMA-311 now leaves VMA-214 as the only Harrier squadron left in the Yuma-based Marine Aircraft Group 13, as the three other Harrier attack squadrons—VMA-223, VMA-231 and VMA-542—and one training squadron (VMAT-203) are based at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
The squadron will return to the sky, but the same can’t be said of the Harrier, as the Black Sheep will also sundown and it will be then be reactivated as VMFA-214 to fly the F-35B at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. At some future point, those other three Harrier attack squadrons and the training squadron will also phase out the Cold War era Harrier, and likely be reactivated with the F-35B, which is the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant. In addition to the Marine Corps, the Royal Air Force also operates this version of the Joint Strike Fighter, while the Italian Air Force will also operate the F-35B.
VMA-214 was also created in 1942 and rose to fame as one of the most effective Marines Corps fighter squadrons of the Second World War. Its role in the war was highly fictionalized in the TV series Black Sheep Squadron, which ran on NBC from September 1976 to April 1978.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.