28 April, 2016

Profile 118: FINISHED—"Yessir" as flown by Joe McPhail, VMF-214

The advice of an old boss has paid-off a thousand times—"Listen to people and listen hard.  Whether they're lying or telling the truth, they're telling you everything you need to know about them."

It takes practice.  It also takes a lot of energy.  Don't get me wrong—I'm not analyzing the pleasantries of the grocery store clerk as a character study!  However, when I think of the pressures required to make a diamond I wonder, what if the forces of life have the same effect on words?

Ok - hold that thought. The Corsair above would like a bit of your attention.

Firstly, have a look at the red bars on the fuselage insignia. That means the airplane is depicted post-1947.  That’s the year the bars were included to ensure standardized aircraft markings for all branches of the military services.  In this case, you're looking at a Korean War-era F4U-4B Corsair, circa 1951.

Next, have a look at the subtle, pout-like lip on the lower engine cowl.  That indicates that this Corsair is a dash-4 and arguably, the greatest piston-engined combat aircraft to ever see mass production.  We can debate this assertion later.  In the meantime, the dash-4 climbed quicker, flew faster and was stronger than the F-51.  So there.

Now, look at the “WE” on the tail.  It might look like a statement of teamwork but it's practically the squadron identifier for Marine fighter squadron VMF-214.  “214” has a terrific legacy attached to it; in WWII it was also known as The Black Sheep Squadron. Lead by the iconoclastic Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the unit racked up a record that warranted its own TV show in the 1970s.  The authentic history is pretty interesting while the TV show is spectacularly dumb.  I recommend looking into both.

Ok, draw your attention to the rockets slung beneath the wings. See the one poking out? That's no mistake.  This dash-4 is also a “b-model subvariant" and that means that instead of the more-common gun armament of six .50 caliber machine guns (3 per wing), it was equipped with four 20mm cannon (2 per wing). Since cannon take up more room than machine guns, the second-inboard rocket mount had to be moved forward and attached to the inboard cannon barrel. 

#7 prepares to take off from the USS Sicily, circa Fall, 1950.  Note the guns/missile arrangement.
Source:  US Navy archive

But to me, the standout aspect of this airplane is the title. 

"Mornin' Joe. Got some time for a few more questions?”


"Joe, can you walk me through a typical mission in Korea?”


"Hey Joe, would you mind doing me a favor and see if you've got your…"


"Joe, is this Yessir stuff just a Texas thing?”


Thankfully, the man’s got a great sense of humor as well as pride in his state.  Fortunately, he knew what I was getting at, too.

"John, when I first got to Samoa (in WWII), I was getting paid $220 month to fly fighters. And you know I would have gladly paid that to fly those airplanes! I just loved to fly. And I said so much to one of the old hands. But you know what he said to me?”

“Uh, Nosir.…”

Ok, Hold THAT  thought for a moment.

Have another look at Joe’s Corsair.   It’s the one he used to fly off the USS Sicily on 7 January, 1951 during the Korean War.   Though the conflict had been going on for barely 6 months (cease-fire wouldn’t come for two and a half more years), a lot had happened.  Pro-Communist and Pro-Democracy forces pushed-pulled with such velocity, the entire country changed hands twice during the period.  The war was also the searing flash of what would later become, “The Cold War.”

A VMF-214 F4U-4 takes off from Pusan (K-1) circa Spring, 1951.  Is that Joe?  Dunno.
Source:  No idea.  Wish I knew as it's a pretty awesome photo.

It was Joe’s first and only combat-carrier launch, too.  The rest of his 102 missions were from inland bases, first from Sasebo, Japan, then from “K-1” on the Korean mainland at Pusan. The work wasn’t glamorous, especially for a fighter pilot.  Instead of aerial elan or dramatic dogfights, the Corsairs of VMF-214 were tasked with tactical support missions that were soberingly routine.

“Ground pounding” is hard work and psychologically challenging.  It’s one thing to master the physics of flight and another to accept the capricious fate of flying against an enemy that fires back, often from sites unseen.  I imagine how I would have done in similar situations—some times, I think I’d do well.  But there are other times when I’m not so sure. In those moments, my apprehension exceeds any confidence conjured otherwise.   According to Joe, that’s way most from his era thought as well. 

Joe circa 1951.  It had to be taken between 1 and 7 Jan as after that, Joe flew his Korean War missions from either Sasebo, Japan or Pusan, Korea.  He wrote the text on the bottom for me.

This is a good time to let you in on a strange quirk of my work—when I started interviewing these guys nearly 20 years ago, I had them on a pedestal, believing them to be made of an alien stuff with herculean qualities.  In time, however—meeting ‘the family,’ going over old photo albums, talking about life-at-hand—I began to see that these old guys are indeed ordinary people, just like you, just like me, just like them...with one difference - the people who achieve a measure of greatness (ok, I’ll evoke the H word, Hero) are those who can put self aside and pursue a greater good.

How do I know?  Joe told me so.  Not directly of course.  I had to listen.

So, back to that conversation…


“I’ll tell you!  He said, 'you just wait until you get a few bullets in your ass. You'll see how much you'd pay for this privilege then!’”

"So, what did you say back?”

"Nothing. But later on I understood what he was talking about. I (then) realized that I had a job I had to do. It could be hard. I could get killed. But when you’ve made the commitment, you’ve got to follow it.”

You can’t just let a statement like that go unexamined!  So, I asked, “Have you followed your commitments in your life?”


“Your commitments.  Did you keep them?”



And thus the title of the print—as subtle of a definition of Hero as I've ever heard.

Joe McPhail today, as seen by photographer Karie Hubnik.  Sweet jiminy this woman "gets" a camera! Her website (and musings) will not disappoint.  Click here

PS - Joe McPhail flew 140 combat missions in WWII as part of the storied squadron, VMF-323 “The Death Rattlers.”  He was credited with two confirmed victories over Japanese fighters.  During the Korean War, Joe flew 102 missions and was awarded his second DFC.  After his service, Joe logged 17,000 hours as a corporate pilot, shuttling executives all over the world.  

PSS - If you're interested in owning "Yessir" signed by Joe, click here.

Joe signs prints of my artwork.
This is too cool...