F7F-3N Tigercat Pilot & Hero (DFC)
Korea, April 1953. The Panmunjon peace talks that began in October 1951 continue but remain conflicted by the Communists’ demand that each prisoner of war be returned to his military regardless the desires of the prisoner. Absent any agreement, the war continues as each antagonist attempts to gain negotiation leverage by using its respective power advantage to wreak greater punishment on the enemy than received.
Leverage for the UN forces is largely dependent upon air power. With the Communists it is their massive Chinese army.
Lt Col Charles (Chuck) L. Schroeder, USMC, enters the HQ staff room to find it filled. General Taylor exclaims, “Gentlemen, I want you to meet the Marine pilot who stopped the war last night at the Marine outposts.”
This is his story.
"Great history, Semper Fi" 5 stars by RayJing
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Korea, April 1953.
The Panmunjon peace talks that began in October 1951 continue, but remain conflicted by the Communists’ demand that each prisoner of war be returned to his military regardless the desires of the prisoner.
Absent any agreement, the war continues as each antagonist attempts to gain negotiation leverage by using its respective power advantage to wreak greater punishment on the enemy than received.
Leverage for the UN forces is largely dependent upon air power. With the Communists it is their massive Chinese army.
Lt Col Charles L. Schroeder, USMC (Ret)
The UN forces effectively control the air war enabling destruction of the North Korean industrial area identified with MiG Alley, while still providing the smaller UN ground forces with air support against Chinese army advances.
The Communists attempt to force their will by pushing the UN ground forces south to shrink South Korea below the original 38th parallel Korean border. Because of UN air superiority the enemy often marshals their forces and attack at night attempting to minimize the impact of UN air support.
Marine Aviation fighter squadron VMF(N)-513 stationed at Kunsan employ both the piston engined F7F-3N Tigercat and the first operational purpose designed jet night fighter the F3D-2 Skynight.
The squadron provides night fighter support for ground troops with the Tigercat and night fighter escort to Air Force B-29 bombing missions over North Korea with the Skynight. Squadron member Major Charles L. Schroeder (Chuck), a WWII night fighter veteran flies both aircraft.
VMF(N)-513 is part of Marine Aircraft Group 12, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, under operational control of the Far East Air Force’s 5th Air Force, 3rd Bomb Wing.
The squadron is a shore-based Marine Corps Squadron with the red "WF" designator on the tail and red numerals on the nose of their flat black colored aircraft. The squadron carries the preponderance of night road reconnaissance for the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
Marine ground forces have a series of outposts only about 10 miles northeast of Panmunjom along the main line of resistance (MLR). Known as the Nevada Cities complex and coded, Vegas, Reno, Carson and Elko they are just below the 38th parallel. For over a month these outposts have been attacked from all sides. Hand to hand fighting occurs as some are lost to the Chinese, and then reclaimed by the Marines.
An F7F-3N Tigercat assigned to VMF(N)-513 at Puongtaek (K-6), South Korea in 1952.
With the Chinese continuing their attempts to permanently take control of the outposts, the Marines devise a new plan to improve the effectiveness of their night time close air support.
The plan involves two or more 24 inch searchlights mounted on high ground, trained across enemy held areas that intersect on the desired targets often only a few hundred yards distance.
To hit the designated targets Tigercat aircraft toting napalm bombs will have to maneuver at low altitude and low airspeed through “precipitous” terrain and “intense hostile antiaircraft fire”; all this while pilots strain against night blindness from the intense light of the targeting searchlights.
Describing the planned Tigercat mission as dangerous is a considerable understatement. Volunteers are solicited.
Major Charles (Chuck) L. Schroeder and Lieutenant Thomas F. St. Denis raise their hands. Chuck will lead a two ship mission.
Graduating from high school in Russell, Kansas in 1941 and influenced by a veteran Marine Corps uncle, Chuck attempted to enlist in the corps. He was rejected as being too young, but soon enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center.
By November 1941 the demands of the military for aviation cadets caused a change in the Federal Law to reduce the two years of college requirement for enlistment as a naval aviation cadet to only a high school diploma.
U. S. N. T. C. Great Lakes, Illinois
The Service School Barracks at U. S. N. T. C. Great Lakes, Illinois.
Official U. S. Navy photograph. Courtesy F. P. Clyde
The Worst Airplane
Chuck applied and was accepted for naval cadet flight training. He soloed on January 31, 1943 after 11 hours in the Stearman PT-17.
Later that year, concomitant with earning his wings, he took advantage of an available option and chose a commission in the Marine Corps. Moving on to Operational Training, he flew Brewster Buffaloes.
The Buffalo had been removed from operational use subsequent to the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Chuck claims it was the worst airplane of any that he flew.
With operational training completed, he found he had been "volunteered" for assignment to the Marine Corps’ fledgling night fighter service.
With the first Marine Corps night fighter squadron VMF(N)-531 activated in November 1942 and entering combat in September 1943 flying PV-1 Ventura aircraft, Chuck’s night fighter story lags the beginning of operational Marine night fighter squadrons by only a few months.
The second and third Marine night fighter squadrons were activated in October 1943, VFM(N)-533 and 534. Chuck was assigned to ‘533’ and first flew a squadron PV-1 on October 20.
A U.S. Navy Lockheed PV-1 Ventura patrol bomber in flight, circa 1943.
Marine night fighter squadrons whose original command cadre trained with the RAF in twin engine aircraft such as the Bristol Beaufighter were converting to single engine fighters.
Before the year ended he would also be checked out in both the Douglas Dauntless and the F6F-3N Hellcat.
Chuck, flying an F6F-3N, launched from the USS Long Island on May 10, 1944 to land on Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. The islands would be his home for the next year.
Anticipated enemy attacks by long ranging Japanese Betty bombers did not materialize so the year was one of intense training under the command of Lt. Col. Marion ‘Black Mac’ Magruder, one of the original Royal Air Force trained night fighter pilots in England, and the first Marine to fly a night fighter combat mission.
Occasionally a wayward B-24 Liberator or Privateer needed help getting home.
They would be instructed by ground control to fly a racetrack pattern and a Marine Hellcat would be vectored on a very cautious intercept to locate and guide it home.
Returning stateside, Chuck first flew the F7F Tigercat in October 1945. After flying Hellcats, Bearcats, Corsairs, and Skyraiders before Grumman jets, the Tigercat became his favorite aircraft.
Chuck enjoyed finding other piston-engined fighters such as the P-51 Mustang willing to join up for a tussel only to find the big cat could not only manouver with them, but accelerated faster and enjoyed a much greater rate of climb.
Chuck with an F6F-3N Hellcat
Holding Its Own
His enthusiasm was corroborated by Capt. Fred M. Trapnell, one of the Navy's premier test pilots who said about the Tigercat, "It's the best damn fighter I've ever flown."
Trapnell, the first Navy pilot to fly a jet aircraft, was considered the best, most experienced naval test aviator of his generation.
Although both airplanes just missed the war, with its twin Pratt and Whitney R-2800-34W Double Wasp engines capable of producing 5600 horse power (hp) and slim fuselage it could hold its own against the F8F Bearcat, reputed to be the hottest piston-engined fighter plane by the end of WW II.
One of the enduring tributes to the F7F came from then Lieutenant Alexander Vraciu, a leading Navy ace evaluating new fighter types at Patuxent River in 1945.
[Vraciu was the first operational naval aviator to fly the Bearcat] “He recalls, “I was flying an F8F, when I spotted a Tigercat below me. Naturally, I dived on it, and then I did a slow roll around it, just showing off. But the F7F turned into me, and I had a real fight on my hands. We chased each other down to ground level before we broke off. Neither of us could get an advantage, though you’d think I had had the edge in a Bearcat. When I landed, I called Tactical Test and asked who was flying the F7. It turned out to be Marion Carl!”
(Major General Marion Carl was the Marine Corps’ first Ace on August 26, 1942. At Guadalcanal he shot down 10 Japanese aircraft and finshed WWII with 18 total. He is one of the Marine Corps most famous aviators.)
Thoughts Of Home
Chuck in the Marshall Islands during WWII with an F6F-3N Hellcat named after his wife
Arguably the Tigercat may have been the best piston-engined production fighter of the World War II era,but it became best known for making the Korean night a very dangerous place for Communist trucks and trains.
While preparing for their attack on the Chinese army threatening the Nevada Cities’ outposts, Chuck and Lieutenant St. Denis fly daylight and nighttime practice missions on April 7 and 9. On April 11 they make an ordnance run flight to pick up Air Force napalm bombs. Chuck is advised that these bombs will ensure maximum effectiveness for the planned mission.
(Accurately knowing the temperature of the chemicals usually stored outside is essential in properly mixing the components for the napalm bombs to maximize their affect and the necessary technical equipment was available at Seoul’s K-16 Air Force facilities. This equipment was apparently not available at Kunsan)
On April12, 1953 piloting F7F-3N, Bureau Number 80589, Chuck leads a pioneer mission to eliminate the Communist threat to the Marine outposts.
That night Chuck logs three hours inbound and outbound in successfully navigating the hazardous terrain, surviving enemy anti aircraft fire and perilous conditions created by the artificial lights at minimum altitude to score direct bomb hits and strafe the target.
The next morning Chuck is awakened by a Marine orderly and advised that Lt. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, 8th Army Commander to which the 1st Marine Division was attached wants to see him immediately and was sending a staff car to bring him to his headquarters. There is no advisement as to the purpose. Chuck is anxious about the meeting wondering what went wrong. Did he mistakenly hit Marines?
A Grumman F7F-3N Tigercat night fighter of Marine night fighter squadron VMF(N)-513 Flying Nightmares at Wonsan, Korea, in 1952.
Distinguished Flying Cross
Chuck enters the HQ staff room to find it filled. General Taylor exclaims, “Gentlemen, I want you to meet the Marine pilot who stopped the war last night at the Marine outposts.”
He then tells Chuck that he will receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for the mission and asks him if he will do it again that night. For seven straight nights flying either Tigercat Bureau Number 80584 or 80589, Chuck flies night missions that completely neutralize the enemy’s outpost attacks.
On May 4, 1953 Chuck flew his last combat mission in the Tigercat. His remaining Korean War combat missions would be in the Douglas F3D, Skynight.
One unmodified F7F-3N Tigercat is known to exist, Bureau Number 80382.
It is at the Planes of Fame Museum, Chino, California. Chuck flew that airplane in Korea on January 22, 1953.
After 20 years of military service flying 200 night fighter combat missions in two wars and with 3,225 hours in 24 aircraft types, the preponderance in fighters, Lt Col Charles L. Schroeder retired from the Marine Corps in October 1961 to a successful banking career in New York City.