Naval Aviation Documents


Subject: Squadron lineage and names

The Name's the Same

Barrett Tillman

(The Hook Magazine, Spr1999)

When Air Wing 15 was disestablished in 1995, the "going away" pamphlet noted the wing’s long record of contribution to Naval Aviation. However, CVW-15 claimed direct descent from Air Group 15, which had been established in September 1943 and folded after VJ-Day two years later. The 1995 air wing in truth was descended from the Korean War CVG, established in April 1951 and redesignated a CVW in 1963.

Of today’s surviving carrier air wings, Air Wings One, Two, Three, Five, Seven and Eleven trace direct descent from the World War II era or before. CVW-1, for instance, has been in existence since Ranger Air Group was formed in 1938, subsequently designated CVG-4 from 1943 to 1946. Similarly, Air Wing Three has evolved from the Saratoga Air Group, formed in April 1940. Air Wings Eight, Nine and Fourteen were established during the Korean War, while late-comer CVW-17 dates "only" from November 1966.

Defies Logic

Since WW II the United States Navy has not been much concerned with logic in designating squadrons or air wings. Every carrier squadron that survived the postwar slashes had three designations in as many years: Torpedo 17, for instance, went from VT-17 in 1945 to VA-6B in 1946 to VA-65 in 1948, and finally to VA-25 in 1959.

The Navy possesses a means of avoiding such confusion but seldom takes advantage of it: The Naval Aviation History Office at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., is a highly capable organization with the means and ability to keep squadron numbers straight. But it is seldom queried by the squadrons or wings themselves, resulting in decades of confusion and false claims as to "genealogy."

Even during WW Deuce, the Navy duplicated many squadron designations. For instance, the famous "Felix flop" when VF-3 and VF-6 exchanged numbers in 1943 resulted in two units bearing the same Felix the Cat emblem. Similarly, VF-1 Hellcats and VB-4 Helldivers bore identical top hat insignia, though the Fighting One High Hatters were named differently from the bombing Top Hatters (today’s VF-14). Overall, the Navy had some 160 fighting squadrons with at least 10 sets of duplicate numbers.

Duplication Causes Confusion

Confusion was set early on with disestablishment of many prewar squadrons and air groups in 1942. For instance, Hornet Air Group in CV-8 was disbanded that year, and the FitRon stood down after Midway. A second VF-8 was established in 1943, while similar examples existed for squadrons numbered Two (USS Lexington (CV-2)) and Five (Yorktown (CV-5)). The record for numerical duplication probably belonged to VF-52, with two day squadrons and a night fighter outfit sharing the same number.

The problem persisted well after the war. There were two VF-11s in 1959: the Sundowners from 1942 and, via VA-156, on to VF-111; and the Red Rippers (previously VF-5B, -4 and -41) of CVW-14, one of the Navy’s oldest squadrons today.

Names as well as numbers could be duplicated. Perhaps the best example is the VF-11/VF-86 Sundowners. Formed at Atlantic City in June 1944, VF-86 gained approval of the name in November, ignorant of the fact that VF-11 had carried the name and the emblem through two combat deployments. Finally somebody in BuAer caught the error, and VF-86 became the Wild Hares in June 1945 while embarked in Wasp (CV-18).

Similar Designators, Nicknames Add to the Turmoil

Postwar mission designators also complicated subsequent genealogy. VT switched from torpedo to training, and VS from scouting to ASW and, most recently, to sea control. Furthermore, "F" for ferry existed simultaneously with "F" for fighter, as in the VRF squadrons.

The situation was only compounded during the long Cold War. There were at least five Black Knight squadrons: VA-23 (disestablished 1970), VA-45 (disestablished 1950), VF-154, VMFA-314 and HS-4. The world came to know the Marine Hornet squadron that saved the human race in the movie "Independence Day," but the height of confusion surely arose during Ranger’s (CV-61) 1976 and 1979 cruises with VF-154’s F-4Js and HS-4’s SH-3Ds.

Recalled one veteran of the ’76 cruise, "It got real confusing when the 5MC blasted, ‘Black Knights to the ready room!’"

A few squadrons retained "pure" identities and fairly consistent designations throughout long careers. Probably the best example is the Black Panthers of honored memory. Established as VB-3B in 1934, the Panthers became VB-4 in 1937, VB-3 in 1939 and, since 1950, remained VA-35 until callously disbanded in 1995. Thus was lost to the Navy, if not to history, the senior carrier attack squadron in the world. This loss was inflicted despite the fact that VA squadrons with far less history than the Black Panthers became VFAs.

Not only have there been four VF-41s over the years — there were two VF-41 Black Aces in the same year! The first (established as VF-5 in 1927) lasted until 1959. The second was an escort carrier unit that died in 1948. But the third, established as VB-75 in 1945, became the Black Aces and was disestablished shortly before the Korean War broke out in 1950. Three months later, that September, the second VF-41 Black Aces stood up, and are still with us in CVW-8 flying from the deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).

One Designation, Two Squadrons

Surely one of the more bizarre changes occurred at NAS Oceana during VA-86’s establishment ceremony on 2 July 1955. Before salutes were exchanged, bands played, or certainly before anybody adjourned to the O’ Club, the squadron had become VF-84 Jolly Rogers! The sudden swap was in accordance with an AirLant directive of the previous month, as simultaneously the existing VF-84 became VA-86, which today flies F/A-18 Hornets from John F. Kennedy (CV-67).

Just to keep things sufficiently confusing, the first VF-84 was a WW II squadron called the Wolf Gang, composed in large part of former VF-17 Jolly Roger aviators. More recently, the VF-103 Sluggers were directed to assume the name and traditions (as well as "the bones") of VF-84, thus maintaining the Jolly Roger identity.

Though the Navy specifically avoided tradition as a "core value," some residue of tradition has emerged. In March 1987 the second VA-36 was established and assumed the honors and traditions of the A-4 squadron that stood down in 1970. The latter-day Roadrunners in turn were disestablished in March 1994.

Other Services More Systematic

In contrast, the Marine Corps and Air Force have managed their unit designations far more systematically than the Navy. The leathernecks, who have always placed great store in unit identity and cohesion, "deactivates" squadrons rather than "disestablishes" them. Consequently, the same historic numbers tend to survive for several decades, even if only to reappear from Reserve or limbo status.

Meanwhile, the Air Force maintains honored numerals even if the mission changes. A case in point is the 55th Fighter Group of WW II that now is an aerial refueler wing.

What, then, are we to make of so many Navy duplicate names and designations? In truth, they matter little in the grand scheme of things, as ships still sail and squadrons still fly, even if the carriers are named for Navy partisans such as Carl Vinson or, on the opposite end of the scale, Harry S. Truman, a president not known for his advocacy of the Navy or Marine Corps. But to the aircrews who spend their careers in these machines, names and numbers do matter, whether they’re in an SBD Dauntless VS (scouting) unit in 1942 or an S-3A Viking VS (sea control) squadron almost 60 years later.

The thing the Navy might keep in mind — tradition or no, core values or no — is that it doesn’t cost much more to do it right.

Ed. Note: Naval Aviation, recognizing the need to make the system of numbering its squadrons more orderly, recently implemented new direction in its OPNAVINST 5030.4E. This instruction, in essence, states that existing squadrons will "freeze" their legacy, and the numbers of active squadrons and the numbers of the squadrons they evolved from shall not be used again. Also, the Navy has, in essence, adopted the Marine method — a squadron is "activated" and "deactivated" rather than "established" and "disestablished."

Though too late to correct the confusion over the years, the Navy’s new method will simplify the task for historians in the years to come. The Tailhook Association applauds the Navy’s decision.