Marine Attack Squadron-311 [VMA-311]
Marine Attack Squadron (VMA)-311 was initially commissioned a fighter squadron on Dec. 1, 1942, at Cherry Point, NC, flying the SNJ Texan trainers. The Tomcats deployed in support of the WWII island hopping campaign, and flew the first Marine jet combat mission in 1950 during the Korean Conflict. VMA-311 was named Marine Corps Aviator Association's Attack Squadron of the Year in 1988 and 1991, and became the first Marine squadron to employ the AV-8B Harrier in combat during Operation Desert Shield. VMA-311’s Harriers were the first to fly combat missions in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and participated in the first combat sortie of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. With a longstanding tradition of aviation firsts, VMA-311 remained an integral force in the nation’s forward presence around the globe.
In April 1943, they received the new Vought F4U-1 Corsair and entered the Pacific Theater where they served with distinction until the end of World War II. On Oct. 6, 1943, the squadron catapulted from the deck of the USS Nassau to Samoa Naval Air Station, in one of the earliest catapult operations of the F4U. Two days later, VMF-311 flew to Wallis Island and remained there until January 1944. During America's "Island Hopping" campaign across the Pacific, the squadron's mission was to isolate Japanese forces on the bypassed islands, deny their escape and prevent their use of airstrips. The squadron continued strafing and bombing missions until moving to Okinawa in March 1945, and was the first Marine squadron to use fighter aircraft for dive bombing missions. The squadron, now flying the F4U-1C (a modification which include four 20mm cannons and pylons for 5-inch rockets), downed its first aircraft on April 7, 1945. Combat air patrols were the predominant mission until the war ended.
After the war, VMF-311 moved to Yokosuka, Japan, as part of the occupational forces. The nickname "Hell's Belles" was adopted by the squadron during World War II but was seldom used. In April 1948, '311 received the first jet aircraft to be introduced to Marine aviation, the Shooting Star, followed in September by the F9F2 Panther. It was during this time that the squadron acquired the letters "WL" as its tail designator, leading to the nickname Willy Lovers. The evidence suggests that it was this nickname which inspired the heart on the squadron insignia.
With the outbreak of war in Korea, the squadron moved to Pusan, where it flew the first Marine jet combat mission on Dec. 10, 1950, providing close air support for 8th Army units near the Chosin Reservoir. Similar missions were flown despite inclement weather, maintenance problems, and enemy antiaircraft fire. In two and a half years, the squadron amassed 18,851 combat sorties. Even after the armistice was signed, VMF-311 continued to fly training missions to maintain readiness. It was early in 1957 that VMF-311 began to be referred to as the "Tomcats." This period also brought the new Grumman F9F-8 Cougar, thus upgrading the squadron's capabilities. On June 1, 1957, the unit was redesignated Marine Attack Squadron-311. This didn't create any organizational problems as the emphasis was simply placed on a mission the squadron had so aptly performed during World War II and Korea. In the summer of 1958, VMA-311 began receiving the Douglas A4D2 Skyhawks, later redesignated the A-4B. The Tomcats began receiving the new A-4Es in mid-1963 and in March 1965 deployed to Japan with 20 A-4Es.
During April 1965, VMA-311 was alerted to prepare to deploy to the Republic of Vietnam. In Vietnam the tempo of operations was intense. Operating from the air base at Chu Lai, the squadron flew 240 sorties flown from May 5-8, 1968, and by September the Tomcats had logged 25,000 combat sorties and were the undisputed pacesetter in what was believed to be a record number of combat sorties for any fixed wing squadron in a single conflict of war. The squadron relocated to Da Nang air base in the summer of 1970. For VMA-311 the war ended on Jan. 29, 1973, with a total of 54,625 combat sorties flown and 105,000 tons of ordnance dropped in support of troops throughout Southeast Asia.
The squadron flew the A-4 aircraft until its return from Iwakuni, Japan, in June of 1988, and was moved to MCAS Yuma along with other MAG-13 squadrons. Prior to its transition into the new AV-8B aircraft, VMA-311 was the recipient of the Lawson H.M. Sanderson Award, qualifying the squadron for the 1988 Marine Attack Squadron of the Year by the Marine Corps Aviation Association.
On Aug. 11, 1990, the Tomcats were ordered to Saudi Arabia in support of I Marine Expeditionary Force units deployed for Operation Desert Shield. Operating from the King Abdul Aziz naval air base, VMA-311 was the forward-most fixed wing aircraft unit in theater. On Jan. 17, the Tomcats became the first Marine squadron to employ the AV-8B Harrier in combat, striking Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait in preparation for the coalition ground offensive. During the Persian Gulf War, the squadron flew 1,017 combat sorties and dropping 8,000 tons of ordnance on enemy targets. Returning to Yuma in April 1991, the squadron was awarded the MCAA's Attack Squadron of the Year for 1991. On April 9, 1992, the Tomcats received their first Night Attack AV-8B and was formally assigned as a night attack squadron.
Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 311 conducts a sundown ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, October 15, 2020. In spring 2022, VMA-311 will reactivate as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 311 operating the F-35C Lightning II at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Similarly, VMA-214 will begin flying the F-35B as VMFA-214 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
“The reputable Tomcats have an exceptional level of esprit de corps representing 78 years of superior performance,” said Sgt. Maj. Colin Barry, VMA-311 sergeant major. “The Tomcats imbued a level of morale within each other that was unmatched, but I have no doubt the newly adopted VMA-214 Black Sheep identity will be embraced, and they will continue performing remarkably.”
While VMA-311 is proud to have employed the Harrier in support of numerous military conflicts, the Marine Corps’ transition to the F-35 marks one of the many advancements that the Marine Corps is taking to maintain air-superiority and ensure mission readiness. Though the F-35B and the AV-8B both offer vertical lift and takeoff capabilities, the F-35 is unmatched in terms of versatility, lethality, and reduced pilot fatigue. The F-35 represents the future of Marine Corps tactical aviation, and will deliver strategic agility, operational flexibility, and tactical supremacy to the Marine Air Ground Task Force.