Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121)
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (All Weather) 121 (VMFA(AW)-121)
The storm clouds of World War II were building as Major S. S. Jack received command of Marine Fighter Squadron 121 (VMF-121) on 24 June 1941 at Quantico, Virginia when the unit was commissioned. It would be less than one year before the new squadron began combat operations from Guadalcanal against the Japanese in the dark days of early World War II.
During World War II, the Squadron operated F4F Wildcats and later F4U Corsairs as charter members of the Cactus Air Force, fighting alongside the Army Air Corps and Navy counterparts in defense of Guadalcanal. Marine Fighter Squadron 121 (VMF-121) flew countless bomber escort and close air support missions. As the battle for the Solomon Islands raged, the strategic value of the area became increasingly apparent. The only supply and communication lines between American forces and Australia and New Zealand were in danger of being severed if the islands were lost. Instead, the tenacious air war waged by VMF-121 and other units, secured the Solomon's as a "toe hold" in the Pacific setting the stage for the eventual defeat of the Empire of Japan. Throughout, the Squadron fought from legendary forward air bases of Espirito Santo Island, Turtle Bay, Bougainville, and Emirau. During World War II, VMF-121 produced 14 fighter aces, more than any other squadron, including Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Captain (later Major) Joseph J. Foss. Throughout the war, VMF-121 downed 209 Japanese aircraft (165 flying Wildcats and another 44 flying Corsairs) in aerial combat.
After the Japanese surrender marked the end of World War II, VMF-121 returned to the United States. Now stationed at Naval Air Station, Glenview, Illinois, the Squadron's designation was changed to Marine Attack Squadron 121 (VMA-121). The Squadron, composed mainly of reservists, flew a variety of aircraft including F4U Corsairs and F8F Bearcats.
In mid 1951, VMA-121 received orders to activate its reserve members and depart Glenview for Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California. The Squadron subsequently transitioned to the new Douglas AD Skyraider, and another chapter in Squadron history was begun. After completion of training in the single engine attack aircraft, the Squadron was transported aboard the carrier USS Sikko Bay to Yokosuka, Japan to begin final preparations for a combat deployment to the Republic of Korea.
By this time in the Korean War, the Skyraider had already earned a reputation as an extremely reliable, accurate bombing platform. The Skyraider could operate from carrier or land bases, but was primarily deployed from airfields to utilize it's tremendous ordnance capabilities to their fullest extent. Accordingly, VMA-121 was deployed to K-6 Airfield at Pyongtaek in the Republic of Korea to conduct strike missions in support of infantry operations. Flying missions as long as 14 hours, the AD Skyraider could carry 9,000 pounds of ordnance, a load that rivaled the destructive power of a seagoing World War II destroyer. Not surprisingly, VMA-121 soon became known as "Heavy Haulers." The Squadron dropped more bomb tonnage during the Korean War than any other Navy or Marine Corps squadron, devastating enemy airfields, supply dumps, bridges, and railroad yards. The AD Skyraider also enabled pilots to accurately place firepower within fifty yards of advancing friendly troops.
During the Korean War, the Squadron insignia depicted Al Capp's "Wolf Girl" from the comic strip "L'il Abner." The feared "Wolfraiders" of VMA-121 (operating the AD-4, AD-4NA, and AD-6 versions of the famed "Able Dog") remained in South Korea for several years after the cease-fire in 1953. Returning to MCAS El Toro in 1957, the Squadron assumed its role in the Unit Deployment Program (UDP) with scheduled squadron rotations to Japan. By this time VMA-121 had traded in its AD Skyraider aircraft and joined the jet age with the F9F-8B version of Grumman's Cougar. The Cougar, equipped with the Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) for loft bombing, was the first aircraft flown by the squadron capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
In late 1958, the Squadron traded the Cougars for brand new A-4 Skyhawks. Spending most of the next year at the likes of Fallon, Nevada; Yuma, Arizona; and China Lake, California, the "Green Knights" became the first squadron to complete the entire special weapons delivery syllabus. In November 1959, the Squadron carrier qualified aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14). In January 1960, the Squadron deployed to Iwakuni, Japan for a scheduled 6 month UDP deployment. However, after a 2 month deployment to Kangshan, Tiawan, the Green Knights requalified aboard the USS Ranger (CVA-61), and in July 1960 were embarked onboard the USS Ticonderoga. In October 1960, the Squadron was transferred to the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43), which became their home for the next 6 months. Finally ending their 15 month odyssey, the Squadron returned home to MCAS El Toro, California. During November 1962, the Green Knights deployed their new A-4s to NAS Cecil Field on the coast of Florida in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After several more years at MCAS El Toro, including routine deployments to Japan, the Green Knights were once again called to battle. In August 1966, VMA-121 ferried their Skyhawks across the Pacific to Iwakuni and ultimately, Chu-Lai Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. After 6 months of combat operations, the Squadron rotated back to Iwakuni, Japan and Naha Air Base, Okinawa. Continuing their rotation cycle, the Green Knights returned to Chu Lai for another combat tour in 1968. During the first 6 months of that deployment, VMA-121 supported 118 major operations, providing the eagerly sought "Marine brand" of close air support to all allied units.
The Squadron left Vietnam in early 1969 and was reconstituted at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. At Cherry Point, VMA-121 was newly designated Marine All Weather Attack Squadron 121 (VMA(AW)-121) to reflect the Squadron's challenging assignment to the all-weather attack mission. With the Grumman A-6A Intruder, VMA(AW)-121 joined a new era in Marine attack aviation. With the new aircraft, the Green Knights were then capable of acquiring and destroying surface targets in any weather, day or night, with a wide variety of heavy ordnance.
For the next 7 years the Green Knights remained based at MCAS Cherry Point North Carolina. After a 12 month deployment to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, during 1977-1978, the Squadron was reassigned to MCAS El Toro, California. During this period, numerous updates and modifications to the A-6, constantly enhancing its capabilities, as the Green Knights operated from air bases in Sardinia, Spain, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Korea. Resuming their role in the UDP program, the Squadron also supported various Marine Corps commitment's with regular Western Pacific deployments. When the Target Recognition and Attack Multi-sensor (TRAM) version of the A-6 aircraft was developed, VMA(AW)-121 was proud to be the first Marine Corps A-6 squadron to receive it.
In November 1985, operational control of VMA(AW)-121 was transferred to Commander, Carrier Air Wing Two (CVW-2), attached to the USS Ranger (CV-61). Once again based aboard an aircraft carrier, the Green Knights brought expertise to CVW-2 in close air support, while rising to new challenges in areas such as war at sea, integrated service warfare, and tanker support.
Upon return to El Toro in January 1988, the Squadron was returned to the operational control of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW). This support of 3rd MAW was to be short lived, as operational control of the Green Knights was transferred once again to CVW-2 during July 1988. The Squadron deployed on their second Western Pacific and Indian Ocean deployment with CVW-2 onboard USS Ranger during February 1989, returning to El Toro from this highly successful deployment during August 1989.
On 8 December 1989, the Squadron was redesignated as Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA(AW)-121), becoming the first Marine Corps F/A-18D Night Attack Hornet squadron. Slightly over one year later, the Squadron deployed to Southwest Asia as part of the United States commitment to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During the Desert Storm air campaign, the Squadron flew 557 sorties and 1,655.5 combat hours (more than any other Navy/Marine Corps tactical jet squadron) in support of the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions liberating Kuwait.
Returning to El Toro following the cessation of hostilities, the Green Knights returned to the UDP rotation. As a result of the Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) decisions during 1993, the Squadron relocated to Naval Air Station Miramar, California, which subsequently became MCAS Miramar, during August 1994. Between 1960 and 2000, the Green Knights' colors had received 2 Presidential Unit Citations, 5 Navy Unit Commendations, 4 Meritorious Unit Citations and 10 Battle streamers. The Squadron had also received numerous awards to include; the Chief of Naval Operation's Safety Award for 1960, 1977, 1981, 1982 and 1989, the Commandant's Aviation Efficiency Trophy in 1960, and Marine Attack Squadron Of The Year in 1979.
The Green Knights made 3 deployments to Western Pacific before returning to combat over Iraq in March 2000. The Squadron flew 287 sorties in support of Operation Southern Watch while based at Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait.
Following the events of 11 September 2001, VMFA(AW)-121 was placed on a 96-hour "prepare to deploy" tether and remained on alert until called into action in April 2002. The Squadron deployed with 6 aircraft to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, followed by the remaining 6 aircraft and personnel a month later. The Squadron flew more than 900 combat sorties over Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, returning to MCAS Miramar in October 2002.
Aircraft of VMFA(AW)-121, the last active duty FA-18D Hornet squadron, left Miramar on 7 February 2003 in support of operations in Southwest Asia. Though they had only been back in the United States for 3 months, the Green Knights were nevertheless deploying to the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations. From February to May 2003, the Squadron flew more than 750 combat sorties over Iraq in support of Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom. The Squadron returned to MCAS Miramar on 12 May 2003.
The Squadron was eventually redesignated as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) and became the first operational Marine Corps squadron to receive the F-35B Lightning II aircraft. The unit was also transfered from Marine Aircraft Group 11 (MAG-11) to Marine Aircraft Group 13 (MAG-13), remaining within 3rd MAW. Elements of VMFA(AW)-121 had been involved with the F-35 program since at least January 2004, when Lockheed-Martin called upon ordnance technicians from the Squadron to assist with fine-tuning the F-35's ordnance loading system. VMFA-121 conducted its first Short Take Off, Vertical Landing operations aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona with the F-35B on 21 March 2013. At that time, VMFA-121 was expected to be home to approximately 300 Marines and was expected to receive additional F-35s during 2013 and 2014, with a total of 16 aircraft scheduled to arrive by late 2013.
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