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Destined to Fly

Archie Donahue - Marine Corsair pilot and ace

by Herschel Whittington

Copyright 1996 by the Confederate Air Force and Herschel Whittington. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 1996 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

There was nothing spectacular about the birth, in Casper, Wyo., on the 14th day of October, 1917, of Archie Glen Donahue - nothing except that winter's first serious blizzard suspended outdoor activities. Fierce winters, with frequent snows and blizzards, dictate a different lifestyle in Wyoming. It makes for long hours indoors daily. Perhaps that's why Archie Donahue learned to read when he was only three years old. And much of young Donahue's early reading was of pulp-magazine stories retelling aerial combat adventures during World War I, and describing the undaunted aircraft of that war, along with the jaunty, heroic, gallant young men who flew their Spads, Fokkers and La Parres on daring missions over enemy territory.

To say these readings influenced the life of Archie Donahue would be a classic understatement.

"By the time I was five, I'd set my life's goal. I was going to grow up to be a fighter pilot."

And it was those stories about such pilots as Edward Vernon "Eddie" Rikenbacker, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ernst von Schoenbeck, Ben Foulois, and the "father to be" of American airpower, Harold "Hap" Arnold, who fired young Donahue's passion.

It was those stories read on frigid Wyoming winter days that set him on a course that would put him on the single seat of one of America's historic fighters. And it was that consuming passion that cast him in the role of one of America's legendary Marine Corps fighter pilots - one confirmed kill shy of the Triple Ace designation.

But Donahue's first heroics came on the football gridiron of Texas City High School where he was known as "The Boy with the Educated Toe," a sobriquet earned by his prowess in drop-kicking, game-winning field goals for Texas City High School. Donahue went on to the University of Texas at Austin to study engineering while vying for an opportunity to undergo flight training with a branch of the U.S. military - a chance that would finally come early in l941, with the Navy.

Donahue was commissioned second lieutenant and assigned to VFM-112, posted in Norfolk, Va., after a year in the Navy, which had included extensive flight training, hard work, some trepidation and a transfer to the Marine Corps.

VFM- 112 arrived on Guadalcanal in September 1942, flying Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters. Between his arrival and June 1943, Donahue shot down nine Japanese A6M Zero fighters. Donahue shot down one Zero while flying an F4F-4 and eight Zeros while flying an F4U-1 Corsair. On May 13, 1942, he destroyed five Zero fighters in a single engagement. A month later he was back in the United States, assigned to VFM-451, with responsibility for making the unit carrier-qualified.

In early February 1945, VFM-451 began combat operations from USS Bunker Hill by carrying out a fighter sweep over Tokyo. For the next three months, VFM-451 took part in continuous bombing, strafing and close-support missions for the landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and in operations against the Japanese mainland.

On April 12,1945, Donahue again achieved five victories in a single engagement over Okinawa.

In May, the Bunker Hill sustained severe damage in a kamikaze attack and was forced to retire from combat. Once again, Donahue felt his round-trip ticket had been validated.

"We'd been flying an orbit, protecting the fleet, and had gathered immediately following the mission in the ready rooms - 16 of us in Ready Room A and 16 in B, plus an intelligence officer in each - to be debriefed," Donahue said.

"A ritual followed every mission. This time, however, after some flak from the intelligence officer, I dismissed my 16 pilots without the debriefing. We'd seen nothing but ocean all day. Seconds after we walked out of the room, a kamikaze Zero carrying a 500-pound bomb annihilated both ready rooms. My pilots lived to fly again another day. Those 16 pilots who'd remained behind in the other ready room and many more good men in the aft decks of the Bunker Hill were killed by the kamikaze, and many more by a second kamikaze that struck the same area of the carrier shortly thereafter."

In all, Donahue flew about 2,500 combat hours in the Corsair, and was credited with 14 confirmed aerial victories. He was decorated with the Navy Cross, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, five Air Medals and numerous citations.

Donahue compared the Corsair to its competitor, the Japanese A6M Zero. In discussing the altitudes at which each plane could fly, he said the Zero was able to fly at higher altitudes than the Corsair.

"My personal best in the Corsair was about 42,900 (feet above sea level)," Donahue said. "One of our pilots set out the next day to hit 43,000 - we never saw him again. As for the Zero's best operating altitude, I don't know, maybe 27,000. Ours was about 21,000. But they couldn't fight us unless they came down to us.

He went on to say that the Corsair could climb faster than any other aircraft of its time.

"With the big 2,000 horsepower radial and long three-bladed prop biting through the air at full pitch, the Corsair could get upstairs like nothing else the world ever saw until the jets came along. No, the Zero couldn't come close to the Corsair's climbing gait."

"I came out of a cloud one day to find myself all by myself at about 21,000," Donahue said. "A mile ahead of me, on the same course, but at about 25,000, I saw "Fearless" Fraiser and his eight Corsairs. Above them, coming toward us, were nine Zeros. They dove on "Fearless" head on. Not much damage was done, and the Zero pilots decided to pull around and go at them again. So there they were. They hadn't seen me. Their tails were to me. And I figured 'I've got myself nine Zeros cornered.' I easily overtook 'Tail-End Charlie' and those six .50s blew him away. I came up behind the second one, and he was a goner too. By that time, though, the other seven had hightailed it. But I'm sure I could have caught them if I could have found them."

He said there was no comparison between the Corsair and the Zero when it came to dive speed. "No contest," he said. "I've 'lost feathers' in an all-out dive. The Corsair's ailerons, flaps and rudder were covered with fabric, and near Mach 1 speeds could rip shreds off them."

Donahue said durability was one reason the Corsair could out-maneuver the Zero. "The Zero could turn inside us if the Zero pilot didn't mind snapping the wings off his plane," he said. "The Zero just wasn't built ruggedly enough to take a lot of hard turns. Also, they tended to pull heavy (lose speed) in a turn, so the Corsair had a faster gait through a turn than did the Zero."

He said the Corsair bettered the Zero in firepower as well. "Even the F4F-4 Grumman we started with, with its six .50-caliber machine guns, could destroy an enemy craft if the pilot pointed his nose at it and squeezed the trigger," Donahue said. "And those six .50s could do a lot of damage. The Corsair definitely overmatched the Zero in firepower."

When it came to pilot protection, Donahue said the Corsair was safer than the Zero. "The Corsair had self-sealing fuel tanks, armor plate around the pilot and critical parts of the engine and was built like a brick (out)house - strong, to bring itself and its pilot home," Donahue said. "By comparison, the Zero was fragile - a box kite. The Corsair allowed its pilot to believe he could win every face-off with a Zero, and go home when the war was over. The Japanese pilots were justifiably afraid of it."

Donahue's adoration and appreciation of this uniquely designed fighter can be summed up in its World War II combat record: in 64,051 sorties, Corsairs destroyed 2,140 Japanese aircraft, with a loss of only 189 Corsairs to enemy action.

USMC Col. Archie Glen Donahue resigned from the Marine Corps active reserve May 1, 1958, but his veneration of the fighter plane that gave him his two "round-trip tickets" to and safely home from the Pacific war zone remains secure and active.

"If I had to fight the same war over again, I'd sure want to fight it from the cockpit of a Corsair."

Donahue, CAF Life Member, and former sponsor of the CAF FG-1D Corsair, served as CAF Flight Operations Director until 1991. He and wife Mary live in Harlingen, Texas.

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