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Marine Attack Squadron-542 [VMA-542]

Marine Attack Squadron 542 was initially commissioned as Marine Night Fighter Squadron (VMF(N)) 542 on March 6, 1944, at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, NC. Upon commissioning, the squadron was assigned the F6F-3N "Hellcat". The Squadron was relocated to San Diego, CA in mid-summer, 1944 in preparation for a move to the combat zone. Late in October, the squadron arrived at Ulithi, in the Caroline Islands and immediately began flying combat air patrols.

Later in 1944, VMF(N)-542 deployed to the Western Pacific War Zone. By early April 1945, most of the squadron had deployed to Okinawa, Japan to take part in the campaign to seize the island. Night operations against the enemy began on April 15th with missions being flown from Yontan Airfield, Okinawa. While stationed at Yontan, the Tigers were credited with destroying eighteen Japanese airplanes and carrying out rocket attacks on the Ryukyu Island chain of Amami, O'Shima, Toluno Shima, Kakai Shima, Miyako Shima, and Amami Gunto. For these actions the Tigers were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Following a short tour of occupation duty at Yokosuka, Japan, VMF(N)-542 was transferred to MCAS, El Toro, CA, aboard the USS San Saba. In El Toro the Tigers were re-equipped with newer F6F-5N "Hellcats". The Tigers flew the "Hellcat" until the end of World War II. Training during this period was orientated towards night and all-weather fighter tactics and resulted in the squadron being redesignated Marine Night All-Weather Fighter Squadron VMF(AW)-542 in 1948.

After receiving the new twin-engine, radar upgraded F7F-3N "Tigercat", VMF(AW)-542 was ordered to Kimpo Airfield, Korea in September 1950. From Kimpo the Tigers flew a variety of missions including Close Air Support, Interdiction, and Reconnaissance missions against the enemy in Korea.

Returning to El Toro, CA in March 1951, VMF(AW)-542 transitioned into the jet age by acquiring the F3D-2 (F-10) "Skynight". The "Skynight" was the first carrier-borne jet night fighter. The F3D-2 incorporated the APQ-35 search and target acquisition radar for detecting enemy aircraft. The Tigers used the F3D-2 to train pilots and Radar Intercept Officers for duty in Korea. During the Korean War, more enemy aircraft were destroyed by F3D's than by all other Navy types. The Squadron remained at MCAS, El Toro, and in June 1958 accepted the supersonic, single engine, (16,00 lbs. of thrust) afterburning, F4D-1(F-6A) "Skyray" (affectionately known as the "Ford"). The "Skyray" set world time-to-climb records including a climb to 49,212 feet in 2 minutes, 36 seconds. On October 3, 1953 the F4D-1 became the first carrier capable aircraft to set the absolute world's speed record by traveling 753 mph. The "Skyray" became the first U.S. Marine fighter capable for Mach 1 performance in level flight. The F4D-1 was nicknamed the "ten minute killer" due to it's fast rate of climb, interception, and destruction of enemy bombers - the whole sortie lasting only a few minutes. Despite the aircraft's outstanding performance, the Tigers never fired the aircraft's guns in combat.

Between August 1959 and November 1963, VMF(AW)-542 made two extended deployments to Atsugi, Japan. On November 2, 1963, the Squadron was redesignated Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 542 and began training in the F-4B "Phantom" in place of the F-6A "Skyray". The Tigers enjoyed the venerable "Phantom" set new absolute world speed records including 1606.5 mph at 125 feet in 6 minutes, 11 seconds.

As a result of the build up of American involvement in the Vietnam War, VMFA-542 was ordered to Japan in April 1965, followed by redeployment to the Republic of Vietnam a few weeks later. The Squadron initially entered the country at Da Nang on July 10, 1965 and commenced air operations against the enemy shortly thereafter. It's primary mission at this time was to provide air support to Marine ground forces.

In August 1965, VMFA-542 supported the 7th Marines in Operations STARLITE - the first major American operation of the war. The Squadron's first tour in South Vietnam ended in early December 1965 when it redeployed to Iwakuni, Japan. VMA-542 spent three more tours in Southeast Asia. The Tigers returned to South Vietnam late in the winter of 1966 and remained until mid-summer the following year when they again moved to Japan. Beginning that fall, the Tigers began a thirteen month deployment in the war zone. The Tigers' last combat tour in Southeast Asia started on May 10, 1968.

While serving in Vietnam, the Tigers furnished air support to ground forces in some of the largest land operations of the war. Included in these operations were: (1966) UTAH, TEXAS, (1967) PRAIRIE, UNION, KINGFISHER, FREMONT, (1968) ALLEN BROOK, NAPOLEON-SALINE, LANCASTER, SCOTLAND, (1969) NEVADA EAGLE, and IDAHO CANYON. Air support missions were not only flown on behalf of Marine ground personnel but also for American Army units and at times for South Vietnamese forces and for elements of the South Korean Marine Corps. In addition, the Tigers flew bombing missions in both Laos and North Vietnam. After the November 1968 bombing halt of North Vietnam, the Tigers flew escort for reconnaissance missions over that area. Strikes against enemy targets in Laos, on the other hand, were increased after the targets in Laos, on the other hand, were increased after the bombing halt. Enemy supply lines in Laos were hit especially hard throughout 1969. VMFA-542 dropped over 20,000 tons of ordnance in Southeast Asia from May 1968 to January 1970. The last mission flown by the squadron was a night interdiction flight over Laos on January 13, 1970. The rest of the month was spent in preparing to leave South Vietnam. On January 30, the first echelon took off from Da Nang; the second echelon left the next day. Included in this flight to the United States were thirty-five tactical jet aircraft. Code name for this major relocation of Marine F-4's was KEY WALLOP II. The route taken was as follows: Da Nang, Cubi Point, Republic of the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and finally El Toro, CA. The squadron's arrival at it's destination came on February 10 and 11.

After the Tiger's return to California, VMFA-542 was placed in a cadre status. In April, the strength of the unit was down to one officer. Deactivation eventually came on June 30, 1970. The squadron's deactivation was of a short duration as it was reinstated as an active organization a year and a half later. Rebirth occurred at MCAS, Beaufort, SC on January 12,1972. The squadron at this time received the designation of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 542. Upon reactivation, the Tigers were assigned the new AV-8A and set an impressive record for combat readiness and reliability. During the period of July 1, 1977 through June 30, 1979, VA-542 was selected as the "Marine V/STOL Squadron of the Year" for two consecutive years.

In support of Allied Forces in the Western Pacific, a six plane detachment deployed to Kadena Air Force Base in August 1978. Upon return to the United States VMA-542 participated in Operation SOLID SHIELD-79. On May 19, 1979 during Operation SOLID SHIELD, VMA-542 was directed to conduct "surge" operations over a two hour period. In that short time, six AV-8A's flew an unprecedented 42 sorties from MCALF Bogue expending 162 Mk81 "Snakeye" bombs on the G-10 impact area at Camp Lejeune. During this evolution, the Tigers broke the previously held world record for turn around time (Israel-7 min.) by averaging 6.4 minutes per aircraft for recovery, refuel, rearm and takeoff.

April 1986 saw the end of the AV-8A and C models for VMA-542 as the Tigers transitioned to the AV-8B - the Marine Corps' new light attack "Harrier". Even more capable in V/STOL operations, the AV-8B extends the range and payload and incorporates state of the transition was complete by May 1986. December 1989 saw the full squadron deployed for six months to Iwakuni, Japan, in support of the Unit Deployment Program (UDP). They returned to Cherry Point in May 1990.

In August 1990, the Tigers deployed to the Island Emirate of Bahrain in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. After three months at that location, the squadron deployed to King Abdul Aziz Naval Base, Jubail, Saudi Arabia as part of the most forward deployed fixed wing group in theather.

Within twelve hours of arrival in Bahrain, Tiger pilots were standing 24 hour combat alerts. The alert status lasted until five hours after the commencement of Operation DESERT STORM on January 17, 1991, when the first division of VMA-542 "Harriers" launched to suppress Iraqi artillery positions in Southern Kuwait. From that day forward, Tiger "Harriers" flew a sustained combat sortie rate until the end of hostilities on February 27, 1991.

A Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) briefing was given to all pilots on February 17th which detailed the ground scheme of Maneuver as well as the Wing plan for Close Air Support and Battlefield Air Interdiction. On February 22nd, two days prior to the initiation of the ground offensive, the Tigers of VMA-542 surged to a schedule of 58 sorties per day as the final battlefield preparation was initiated. These final prep fires included Mk77 Napalm delivered on trench lines in the are where the MEF breaching operation would occur. In addition, the Tigers continued targeting of enemy artillery and armor which could be brought to bear against the Allies during their breaching operations.

Throughout these forty-two days of conflict the Tigers of VMA-542 flew more than 1000 combat sorties amassing over 1200 flight hours while delivering over one thousand tons of ordnance on the enemy. When the war commenced, VMA-542 responded by delivering more ordnance, flying more sorties, and accruing more combat hours than any other V/STOL squadron in theater.

The Tigers returned to MCAS Cherry Point in April 1991. Shortly thereafter the squadron faced its next major challenge as it was selected to introduce the new Radar/Night Attack AV-8B Harrier II Plus to the fleet in 1993. VMA-542 developed the Radar syllabus and trained the Marine Corps' very first Radar Harrier pilots.

The operational tempo of the squadron remained high as they participated in various deployments and exercises. Among these were a weapons deployment to NAS Fallon for Close Air Support training as well as live ordnance delivery. In February of 1995, while the squadron deployed to Twentynine Palms for Combined Arms Exercise (CAX) 3-95, a six plane detachment sailed for Norway in support of Operation STRONG RESOLVE. Upon the return of the detachment in late March, 1995, the squadron quickly began preparations for its deployment to Iwakuni, Japan in early May, 1995. While deployed in Iwakuni the Tigers continued to train in support of MAG -12. During the deployment VMA-542 deployed to Kadena Air Base to accomplish valuable training in OAS, including live ordnance delivery. While in Kadena the Tigers supported the Special Marine Air Ground Task Force operation staged in Pohang, Republic of Korea. This included training all pilots in ACM and heavy Live Ordnance delivery. During one week of surge operations the Tigers dropped more than 300,000 pounds of ordnance which was more than any other time in the squadrons history except for times during the Operation Desert Storm. The Tigers upon returning to Iwakuni continued to train and support MAG-12 while preparing to return to Cherry Point.

VMA-542 returned to Cherry Point in November 1996. With the last of the Tigers arriving home on the 22nd. January and February found the Tigers aggressively pursuing Night System Instructor qualifications, Radar Transitions in the AV8B II+ and FCLP's in preparations to chop the boat det in March 1996. In February VMA-542 deployed 4 Harriers to Roosevelt Roads in support of tenth Marines. The det returned on 10 February and the squadron prepared to deploy to El Centro, Ca. On 22 February 96 the Tigers deployed to El Centro, Ca. with 6 AV8B II+ and 2 AV8B II's to continue Night systems and Radar qualifications. At Cherry Point Det "A" continued to prepare for the upcoming deployment to the Mediterranean. On 15 March the squadron departed El Centro for Hill AFB to support Operation Mighty Thunder 96. After a demanding and rewarding trip to the western United States VMA-542 returned home from Hill AFB on 24 March 1996.

April and May found the Tigers deploying to Canada with VMAQ-1 and VMGR-252 to support the Canadian Artillery school and Navy in Operation Roving Fire. During this deployment the Tigers conducted CAS with live and Inert oranance as well as a War at Sea exercise. Returning to Cherry Point VMA-542 continued to pass on their expertise in the AV8B II+ working up 6 pilots in the Radar Transistion program. June the Tigers once again headed West, this time to Roswell, NM to support Operation Roving Sands. While there VMA-542 showed the unique ability to operate at any time of the night or day. Returning home to North Carolina the Tigers found themselves preparing to get on the road west in support of CAX 9/10 96 while continuing to preparations for the upcoming CGI scheduled in the 4th quarter of 96.




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