North Island Naval Air Station still dominates the northern end of Coronado Island. The legendary Hotel del Coronado anchors the southern end, where it fronts on the white sand beach. This 114-year-old grande dame still flourishes. She is an American treasure.
When we were at Coronado, a few of us were intrigued by the rickety charm and Victorian splendor of the old wooden structure. We spent a liberty day exploring the place, riding up and down in its ornate cage elevator, wandering through its great salons and its gardens, running along the surf, and lying around the pool in the late afternoon, drinking Stingers and goofing off with lonely Navy wives.
This was 16 years before Billy Wilder used the same location for his classic movie comedy, Some Like it Hot,with Marilyn Monroe.
A Marine fighter squadron, VMF-122, also was based at El Centro during our six-month bivouac in the desert. In the final weeks of our training, we practiced with VMF-122 on various inter-squadron tactics.
We would make diving runs against Salton Sea targets with a few of the fighters acting as cover while others tried to intercept. The fighters also made camera gunnery runs on our TBF formations, which gave our own aircrews good free gunnery practice.
VMF-122 pilots were flying the new F4U Corsair.
Old-time aviation buffs and legions of young model-makers consider Chance-Vought’s gull-wing F4U Corsair the hottest, most awesome fighter plane of the WW II era. I go along with that. In the air, it was a dream machine. But on the ground—on takeoffs, landings and on taxiways—it was a devil to control. It restricted your visibility from the cockpit because of its long, nose-high, three-point attitude. And the rigid landing gear strut caused a potentially disastrous bounce in anything but a smooth touchdown.
The Navy’s first squadron to get Corsairs suffered a rash of fatal training accidents, followed by serious problems in landing its new fighters on carrier flight decks. As a result, the Navy gave up on the F4U program and turned the flashy Corsair over to the Marine Corps, where it became eventually the Marines’ most effective fighter ever, replacing the valiant F4F Wildcat.