Major Archie Donahue’s reputation preceded him when he began training a new generation of U.S. Marine pilots to operate the Vought F4U-1D Corsair from aircraft carriers in 1944. At the ripe old age of 26, he was one of the early birds who had fought the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, enough in itself for the newer squadron members to regard “the Old Man,” as they called him, with reverence. Moreover, Donahue was one of only seven Marines credited with downing five enemy planes in one day—a distinction that may have been marred by one being listed as a “probable,” but which he would make up for later with a second quintuple victory. Regardless, it was Donahue’s reputation as a battle-seasoned flight leader that impressed his squadron mates the most. “The guys liked to fly with him,” said Philip S. Wilmot, “because they knew Archie always came home.” “Before each mission Archie used to put coins in a Buddha on his desk,” recalled Charles H. Hodson. “He said it covered all the luck we’d need.”
Donahue was lucky indeed. After three years at the University of Texas studying engineering, he left to join the U.S. Navy’s Naval Aviation Cadet program, but his flying career almost crashed before it got off the ground. “I badly wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he explained. “When I took the Snyder Test to see if my blood pressure was acceptable, my pulse would go way up. They would say, ‘You are not fighter pilot material.’ But I was persistent. I kept trying for nine months to a year, and it finally worked out. I think the doctor didn’t count all the beats. Funny thing is, after downing my first enemy plane, I took my own pulse and it was normal!”
Donahue joined the Navy in March 1941 and did his initial training with that organization. “The upper 10 percent of the class could join the Marines at Corpus Christi,” he said. “Being an educated Joe, I went for that. I did enjoy my carrier pilot days—good food, clean quarters—but I thought the Marines were fighters.”
Donahue graduated from the cadet program as an ensign on December 4, 1941. “I got my wings three days before Pearl Harbor,” he recalled. “It made things easier to go where you wanted to go.” Transferring to the Marines, he was assigned to fighter squadron VMF-112 at North Island, Calif., which was equipped with Brewster F2A-1 Buffalos and then Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats.
On one occasion, while Donahue was training some pilots in aerial gunnery at El Toro, a plane came out of its dive and collided with his Wildcat, cutting off the tail five feet behind him. Ground observers reported that Donahue was dead, because they had not seen his parachute open. Once again, though, his luck held. He had actually bailed out, but his plane was spiraling down just above him. “I was afraid the chute would get caught by the plane,” Donahue explained. “So I waited until the last minute and opened the chute just about 150 feet above the ground. The plane passed me by, hit the ground, exploded, and blew me back up in the air before I finally descended. Amazingly, I wasn’t even injured.”
On November 2, 1942, the squadron arrived at its first combat assignment: Guadalcanal in the Solomons. There, the Marines and their offshore U.S. Navy support were still fighting to hold the island and its airstrip, Henderson Field, code-named “Cactus” by the Allies.
Second Lieutenant Donahue’s first victory came during three days and nights of naval and aerial combat that brought the struggle for the island to its climax. On November 13, Henderson-based U.S. Navy and Marine aircraft, joined by planes from the carrier Enterprise, attacked and sank the Japanese battleship Hiei, which had been crippled in a wild naval action the night before. For the Wildcat pilots, that involved protecting their bombers from Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters operating from Japanese bases in the upper Solomons. In the course of those encounters, Donahue shot down a Zero off Guadalcanal, killing Chief Petty Officer Tasuke Mukai from the carrier Zuiho’s air group.
That night Japanese cruisers arrived off Lunga Point and lobbed 1,400 shells at Henderson, destroying 18 American planes and damaging 32 others. They failed to render the field inoperable, however, and when Japanese Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka’s Destroyer Squadron 2, better known to his American adversaries as the “Tokyo Express,” escorted 11 transports to Guadalcanal, every Marine and Navy aircraft that could still fly, joined by Enterprise’s planes, attacked. They damaged the retiring cruiser Maya and sank seven of the 11 transports, although “Tenacious Tanaka” ran the four remaining ships aground to land 2,000 troops and supplies, while his destroyers rescued some 5,000 survivors.
Donahue was part of an eight-plane patrol led by 2nd Lt. James G. Percy northwest of the Russell Islands at 1045 on November 14 when the Marines spotted six Zeros of the 253rd Kokutai, dispatched from Vunakanau airfield on Rabaul, en route to engage the Americans who were attacking Tanaka’s convoy. “They dived from a great height,” Donahue recalled, “and we all shot at them and they kept on diving. I thought we got a couple of them. If you got a good shot into one, it burst into flame—then you know you got him.” Five Zeros were credited to Percy’s flight—including one to Donahue—though in fact only three of the Japanese failed to return to base.
Not long after his eventful combat debut Donahue, like many other Marines at Guadalcanal, fell ill with malaria, but later in November VMF-112 was withdrawn to Sydney for a rest. While the unit was there, as a group of the squadron’s pilots collectively asked an Australian girl for a date, she shook her head and remarked, “You’re a pack of wolves!” That response inspired the Marines to adopt “Wolf Pack” as their squadron sobriquet, and they subsequently designed their insignia around it.
Donahue was still in the hospital convalescing from malaria when VMF-112 returned to Guadalcanal in late January 1943. “It was a beautiful life when they sent me to Australia,” he said, “but as soon as I was well enough to fight again I caught a plane back to Cactus.”
By May VMF-112 had exchanged the last of its F4F-4s for Vought F4U-1 Corsairs. Like most Marines who flew the “Bent-wing Bird,” Donahue fell in love with the powerful new fighter. “You thought you were going to make a round trip in a Corsair,” he said. “That thing was marvelous. Its greatest asset was speed, as far as I was concerned.” It wouldn’t be long before Donahue put the fast fighter to good use.
On May 13, flying F4U-1 Bureau No. 02349, he and his flight encountered Zeros west of Florida Island at 1250 hours. In an hour-long series of dogfights, Donahue was credited with four Zeros and one probable, though he wrote over the latter entry in the report, “[1st Lt. Milton M.] Cook verified the fifth.” Whatever the case, Japanese naval records note the loss of four A6M3 Zeros and the death of three pilots off the Russells. One of three Corsairs shot down that day was flown by Donahue’s wingman, 1st Lt. Otto J. Seifert, who was last seen plunging to earth at a 45-degree angle, trailing a plume of smoke. Donahue remembered little of that moment, except to recall, “I think he saved my life.” Seifert was VMF-112’s second—and last—air-to-air combat fatality of the Solomons campaign.
Eleven Wolf Pack Corsairs escorted Grumman TBF-1s and Douglas SBD-3s on a June 5 raid on Kahili Bay and got into a dogfight with some 40 Zeros west of the Shortlands at 0930. In the ensuing two-hour melee, VMF-112 pilots were credited with 11 victories, including one for Donahue.
Two days later, the Japanese struck back against American units in the Russells with 24 Zeros of the 204th Kokutai and 36 Zeros of the 251st Kokutai, which were hotly engaged by fighters of the Thirteenth Air Force as well as Navy and Marine fighters between 1020 and 1220. VMF-112 was involved in two major dogfights that day. In the first, north of the Russells, Major Robert B. Fraser’s eight-plane flight was jumped from above and behind by 14 Zeros, probably from the 204th. Turning on his assailants, Fraser claimed the first Zero in line. First Lieutenant Stanley T. Synar got the second as it latched onto Fraser’s tail, and 1st Lt. James E. Johnson was attacking the third when another Zero drove him out of the fight with half his rudder, his hydraulic system and a tire shot away. In spite of that damage, Johnson managed to get credit for downing a Zero on his way back to a safe landing at Henderson Field. Percy claimed Johnson’s attacker, but then his controls were shot away by another Zero. Bailing out at 300 feet, Percy hit the water before his parachute could open, but miraculously survived despite a broken pelvis, two sprained ankles and numerous bruises. He managed to swim to a coral reef, and the next day made his way to an adjacent island, from which he was rescued and shipped home.
As the Zeros disengaged, Donahue, flying F4U-1 02383, went after them and shot down two. “There was one day we took a lot of burning on them,” he recalled. “I got lost in a cloud, dove down, got two and there I had the other seven cornered. There was another flight of U.S. planes lower, but they didn’t know I was up there. Those Zeros were all over me, and suddenly my plane started shaking. I managed to get away and landed in the Russells to find that they’d shot a hole in my prop, which caused all the vibrations. The Zeros were strafing the island, so I jumped into a foxhole, only to hear a strangely familiar voice yell ‘Get the f— off me!’ It was Joe Cain, a girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend who I had known when we went to the University of Texas. He was a Marine, and there we were, meeting again in a foxhole in the Russells.”
While the Japanese fighters re-formed, Fraser and Synar looked for more trouble and got it when 12 Zeros attacked them from above. Fraser blew one up, but another hit him in the oil line. Forced to ditch in the sea, he was later picked up by a rescue boat. Synar made it back to Henderson despite a damaged oil system.
At that point, Curtiss P-40Fs of the 44th Fighter Squadron dived into the melee and claimed eight Zeros. First Lieutenants John Stack, Julian Willcox and Samual Richards Jr. of VMF-112 joined the fight, and Stack was closing on a Zero that had turned for home when, much to his chagrin, Richards sped by and blew it up. Another Wolf Pack pilot, 1st Lt. Samuel S. Logan, was alone when he spotted a Zero on a P-40’s tail and drove it away, only to be caught from behind by another that shot away his controls. He bailed out at 18,000 feet, but as he parachuted down his opponent made repeated attempts to slice him with his propeller, succeeding in cutting off half his right foot on the third pass before another American fighter drove him off. As he continued his descent, Logan coolly applied a tourniquet, injected himself with morphine and took sulfathiazole tablets.
A Grumman J2F floatplane rescued him, but upon his return to Guadalcanal medics were forced to amputate his foot. “One of the bravest men I ever knew was Sammy Logan,” Donahue would say thereafter.
The Americans claimed 23 enemy planes destroyed on June 7, while the Japanese reported nine Zeros and seven pilots lost that day. Four of the fatalities were from the 251st Kokutai, including Petty Officer 1st Class Masuaki Endo, who after his plane was set on fire rammed 1st Lt. Henry E. Matson of the 44th Fighter Squadron for his 14th and final victory. Thanks to his P-40F’s rugged construction, Matson survived to bail out and was later saved by a rescue boat. VMF-112 lost three Corsairs, along with Donahue’s and two others damaged, but all its pilots came back alive.
Later that month the battle-weary VMF-112 was shipped back to the United States, having tallied 90 aerial victories since its formation on March 1, 1942. Captain Donahue, whose own score stood at nine, was made the flight operations officer at El Toro Naval Air Station, Calif. On February 15, 1944, a new Marine unit, VMF-451—the “Blue Devils”—was formed at Marine Corps Air Station Mojave, and Donahue was tasked with training its pilots to qualify for carrier operations.
The Marines had originally received the F4U-1 because the Navy had rejected it as unsuitable for carrier use, but VMF-451 was equipped with the F4U-1D, featuring a new roomier frameless Plexiglas canopy that greatly improved visibility for the pilot. Donahue stated that he and his pilots had no trouble adapting to carrier landings. “I thought that inverted gull wing helped you get into position,” he said. “When landing, you’d fly with the signal officer, and that dip in the wing as you made a left turn allowed you to see him. If you do what you’re supposed to do, you’re going to get in there.”
Commanded by Major Henry A. Ellis Jr., with Major Herbert Harvey “Trigger” Long, a Solomons veteran who had previously served in VMF-121 and VMF-122 as its executive officer, VMF-451 was assigned to Air Group 84 aboard the carrier Bunker Hill, along with Navy squadron VF-84 and Marine VMF-221, all equipped with Corsairs. Donahue was the Blue Devils’ operations officer as well as a flight leader.
VMF-451 scored its first aerial victory during a raid on Tokyo on February 16, 1945, when 1st Lt. James R. Anderson Jr. and 2nd Lt. Phil Wilmot shot down an Aichi E13A1 floatplane off the coast, but also suffered its first loss: 1st Lt. Forrest P. Brown, killed by anti-aircraft fire. Over the next few days the squadron supported the Marine landings on Iwo Jima, then returned to the Japanese Home Islands on March 18, during which Trigger Long scored VMF-451’s second kill, a Zero over Miyazaki airfield.
The Zero—now code-named “Zeke” by the Allies—had been eclipsed by the newest American fighter designs, and Japan had few well-trained or experienced airmen left to fly them. But AA fire could still take a sobering toll on the Corsairs during ground attack operations. In one such bombing strike on Okinawa on March 24, 2nd Lt. Richard Walsey of VMF-221 and Air Group 84’s leader, Commander George M. Ottinger, were shot down and killed. Also badly hit was the Corsair of VMF-451’s Major Emerson H. Dedrick. Advised to ditch rather than land, he flipped over in the water and went down with his plane. During another strike on Minami Tori Shima, about 150 miles east of Okinawa, Captain John R. Morgan Jr. of VMF-451 was killed, again by AA fire.
On April 1, U.S. Army and Marine troops landed on Okinawa, with two Blue Devils pilots lost during dawn launches—both crashed into the sea on takeoff. While Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima’s Thirty-Second Army fought a protracted campaign of attrition against the Americans on the island, the Japanese navy mounted a series of mass attacks by kamikaze suicide planes, called kikusui (“floating chrysanthemums”), against the supporting task forces of the U.S. and Royal navies. VMF-451 claimed 11 Zekes on April 3, including two by Long; the Japanese recorded the loss of eight fighters.
Major Donahue, who was at that point acting as VMF-451’s executive officer, had not added to his score since he left the Solomons, but he got his chance on April 12 while leading a flight in F4U-1D 57621 (No. 141). “We were on patrol heading for the southern tip of Okinawa when we got into a tangle,” he later recalled. “There was a field on Okinawa, and some other flights joined mine. We had ’em outnumbered quite a bit. We lost a few, from another flight, but they took far the worst of it.” Tearing into the enemy formations west of Okinawa between 1237 and 1603 hours, Donahue was credited with three “Vals,” as the Allies called the Aichi D3A2 dive bomber, and two Zekes. Three other VMF-451 pilots, 1st Lts. George S. Petersen, Raymond H. Swallow and John R. Webb, emerged from the melee with two enemies planes each.
Bunker Hill was then serving as the flagship of Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher, commander of Task Force 58, so he was present to personally award the Navy Cross to Donahue for his quintuple victory. The citation commended Donahue:
For distinguishing himself by extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as leader of a carrier based fighter division on Combat Air Patrol over Okinawa on 12 April 1945. After taking over the lead of two other fighter divisions in addition to his own, he skillfully and courageously led the flight into action against numerically superior enemy planes that were directing an attack against units of our shipping. As a result of his able and inspiring leadership the flight destroyed a total of sixteen enemy planes of which he personally shot down five. His prompt and effective action in routing the enemy not only removed a dangerous threat to our shipping but was also accomplished without loss to our own planes.
More waves of suicide planes attacked the fleet thereafter, with Long splashing a Val east of Okinawa on April 16 for his 10th and final victory and 2nd Lt. Charles “Chucker” Hodson downing another. On May 11, 1st Lt. John S. Norris Jr. downed a Zeke near Anami for VMF-451’s 34th victory in 56 squadron sorties, but at 1005 that morning Bunker Hill’s luck suddenly ran out when a Zeke and a Yokosuka D4Y3 Judy slipped in from the clouds and got through. The Zeke dropped its 500-pound bomb before crashing into the parked aircraft on the deck. The bomb exploded after penetrating the flight deck, killing most members of the deck crews who were manning their 20mm guns. The Judy did a wingover off the port side of the ship and dived toward the deck where it met the island, dropping its 500-pound bomb into VF-84’s ready room and killing 50 Navy pilots before crashing and exploding on the deck.
“I was just coming in with my flight from the morning cover flight,” Donahue recalled. “We were all tired, and since we’d seen and done nothing that morning, I just wanted to release my men from duty, telling the intelligence officer, ‘We’re not going to debrief.’ Hank Ellis was going to turn me in at the bridge, but nothing happened—Ellis canceled the briefing. So we all went down to our bunks except for one pilot who stayed to write a letter to his wife. So 10 minutes after we landed, I had taken off my uniform and was climbing into my bunk to get some sleep when they hit! I ran topside and went along the ship with the chaplain, Father Delaney, who was giving last rites. As it turned out, though, the only member of VMF-451 I lost was the pilot who stayed to write a letter to his wife. All the others survived.”
As Phil Wilmot remembered it, VMF-451’s duty officer, 1st Lt. Petersen, and another pilot, 1st Lt. Hugh J. McConville, stayed in the ready room. “‘Alvin’ McConville was a big teddy bear, a slow-talking guy from Oklahoma City,” Wilmot said. “Petersen was killed when the kamikaze hit, but McConville went out the door to the gun gallery and jumped over the side. He survived with a very burned hand.”
While the light cruiser Wilkes-Barre and three destroyers fought Bunker Hill’s fires, Mitscher transferred his flag to the carrier Enterprise. Bunker Hill was saved after a 24-hour struggle, but its temporary loss ended the war for Air Group 84, whose personnel were shipped home. The casualties totaled 396 killed or missing and 288 wounded, including one Marine pilot—Petersen—and 28 enlisted Marines.
VMF-451 received a Presidential Unit Citation for its work aboard Bunker Hill. The squadron was deactivated on September 10, 1945. Archie Donahue had flown 215 combat missions in the course of his two overseas deployments and was officially credited with 14 enemy planes. In addition to the Navy Cross, he received three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals. Returning to command a squadron at El Toro NAS, he later transferred to Quantico, Va., retiring as a full colonel in the Marine Reserves on May 1, 1958.
Donahue worked as a licensed real estate broker for 50 years and also remained active in aviation, building the Texas City Airport and a government-funded flight school. Between 1981 and 1991, he served as flight operations officer for the Confederate Air Force (later renamed the Commemorative Air Force), a Texas-based organization devoted to restoring, maintaining and flying World War II aircraft.
In April 1990, Donahue had a unique encounter with a former enemy when he flew a Douglas SBD Dauntless with 64-victory Zero ace Saburo Sakai in the observer’s pit. On August 7, 1942, Sakai had been severely wounded over Guadalcanal after mistaking a flight of SBD-3s for F4F-4s and flying right into the sights of their waiting gunners. The Japanese ace reportedly enjoyed the opportunity to relive that near-fatal incident from his opponents’ position.
Now retired with his wife Mary in Texas, Donahue still keeps in touch with his old squadron mates, both from VMF-112 and VMF-451. The culmination of his aviation career came at Galveston on October 9, 2003, when he was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame. He is also being honored by the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison, Texas, which after repairing its damaged FG-1D Corsair refinished it in the markings of the VMF-112 F4U-1 that Donahue flew in May 1943.
On October 14, 2004, Archie Donahue penned a few words of wisdom for future generations in his University of Texas engineering book: “The more you learn about mankind the more you marvel at the patience of God. The fighter pilot’s last resort: Hope.
“What we have learned in our time is history. It must be passed on so that it will not be relived.”
Aviation History research director Jon Guttman wishes to thank Archie and Mary Donahue, VMF-112 ace John B. Maas Jr. and VMF-451 veterans Charles H. Hodson and Philip S. Wilmot for their help in researching this story. For further reading, try: The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign, by John B. Lundstrom; and Corsairs and Flattops: Marine Carrier Air Warfare, 1944-1945, by John Pomeroy Condon.
This article by Jon Guttman was originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!