THUNDERBOLT HISTORY 1941-PRESENT
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron Two Five One (VMFA-251), was activated on 1 December 1941 at Naval Air Station North Island, California as Marine Observation Squadron 251 (VMO-251). While flying the Grumman F4F “Wildcat” during World War II, the squadron participated in numerous Pacific campaigns including Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Santa Cruz, Luzon, and the Southern Philippines.
In 1944, the squadron transitioned to the F-4U “Corsair”, and was re-designated Marine Fighter Squadron Two Five One (VMF-251) in February 1945. VMF-251 continued operations in the South Pacific until 1 May 1945 when it flew its last combat mission of World War II while supporting clean-up operations at Leyte. On 1 June 1945 VMF-251 was deactivated at Samar, Philippines Island. Thirteen months later on 1 July 1946, VMF-251 was reactivated at Gross Isle, Michigan as a Ready Reserve squadron.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, VMF-251 was recalled to active service, and transitioned to the AD-4 “Skyraider”. In late April 1951 the squadron was transferred to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, California. With the aircraft transition complete, the squadron was re-designated Marine Attack Squadron Two Five One (VMA-251) on 25 April 1951. VMA-251 deployed to Korea in June 1953. Although the squadron saw only limited action the last two weeks of the war, it flew 310 combat missions totaling more than 550 hours, and had the distinction of having the last Marine aircraft engaged in combat during the Korean War on 27 July 1953. VMA-251 remained in Korea for two and a half years providing air defense along the Demilitarized Zone.
In January 1956, the Thunderbolts relocated to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan and remained in the Far East for fifteen months. In 1957, VMA-251 was relocated to MCAS Miami, Florida and began flying the FJ-4 “Fury”. With the transition to the FJ-4 came the re-designation to VMF-251 on 20 April 1957.
In April 1958 VMF-251 returned to MCAS El Toro, and received its first supersonic fighter, the F-8U “Crusader”. Later, the Thunderbolts departed MCAS El Toro for the Western Pacific carrying with them the new motto “Custos Caelorum”, meaning “Guardians of the Sky”.
In early 1960, VMF-251 was re-assigned to Marine Aircraft Group Three One (MAG-31) at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina. VMF-251 was the first Marine F-8 squadron to deploy aboard an aircraft carrier. The squadron would deploy as part of Carrier Air Wing Ten (CVW-10) aboard the USS SHANGRI-LA (CVA-38). During the deployment, VMF-251 set a record for the most flight time in one month for a Sixth Fleet based F-8 squadron by flying over 500 hours.
During July 1963, VMF-251 received the 2D Marine Aircraft Wing, Commanding General’s Award by winning the overall competition and first place awards in air-to-air gunnery and Sidewinder missiles.
On 31 October 1964, the Thunderbolts became the first Marine squadron in 2D Marine Aircraft Wing to transition to the F-4B “Phantom II”. With the transition complete, the squadron was re-designated Marine Fighter Attack Squadron Two Five One. In 1969, VMFA-251 received the Robert M. Hanson Trophy as the “Marine Fighter Squadron of the Year”, and the Chief of Naval Operations Safety Award as the first Marine F-4 squadron to surpass 25,000 mishap-free flight hours. Later, the squadron won the Commandant’s Aviation Efficiency Trophy as the “Most Outstanding Marine Fighter Squadron of the Year”.
After twenty-one years and 85,000 flight hours, VMFA-251 flew its last F-4 in November 1985. In January 1986, the Thunderbolts transitioned to the F/A-18 “Hornet”. The squadron stood up as the sixth Marine F/A-18A squadron the following August, and reported full combat ready in March 1987. Over the next six years, the squadron participated in the Unit Deployment Program (UDP), completing three six-month deployments to Iwakuni, Japan flying the F/A-18A.
From January to April 1994, the Thunderbolts participated in combat missions while deployed to Aviano Airbase, Italy supporting Operation DENY FLIGHT in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These missions marked the first combat sorties for a Marine squadron in Europe since World War I.
In May 1994, VMFA-251 received the F/A-18C in preparation for assignment to Carrier Air Wing One (CVW-1) aboard the USS AMERICA (CV-66). The Thunderbolts successfully completed their first carrier deployment with the F/A-18C in February 1996, having supported Operations DENY FLIGHT and DELIBERATE FORCE. The Thunderbolts would deploy two additional times with CVW-1, aboard the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (CVN-73) in September 1997 and the USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67) in September 1999. Both deployments were to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH (OSW).
During the summer of 2001 the squadron deployed with CVW-1 aboard the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71). The deployment would take them to the Arabian Sea where they were the first Marine squadron to participate in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). The squadron returned to MCAS Beaufort in March 2002.
In September 2002, the Thunderbolts were presented the Robert M. Hanson Trophy as the “Marine Fighter Attack Squadron of the Year”. On 12 February 2003, the squadron deployed to Ahmed Al Jaber Airbase, Kuwait as part of Marine Aircraft Group Eleven, 3D Marine Aircraft Wing in support of OSW and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). On 20 February 2003, the squadron began flying combat missions in support of OSW, and transitioned to combat operations in support of OIF on 20 March 2003.
The Thunderbolts departed Al Jaber and began their journey home on 9 May 2003. During their stint in the desert, the squadron flew 560 sorties, accounting for 1,242.9 flight hours. Their efforts directly influenced the rapid advance of Coalition Forces, and the swift defeat of the Iraqi regime. The Thunderbolts would deploy again from 14 January to 30 June 2004 as part of UDP. While overseas, VMFA-251 participated in Exercises COPE TIGER, FOAL EAGLE and COBRA GOLD.
Early 2005 would find the Thunderbolts preparing for a 2006 cruise aboard the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65). Even though this was a non-deploying year, the squadron would spend a majority of its time away from MCAS Beaufort, honing their skills in preparation for cruise. Throughout the period, the squadron would have zero mishaps and drop over 385,000 pounds of various types of ordnance.
On 3 May 2006, twelve Marine F/A-18C’s from VMFA-251 recovered aboard USS ENTERPRISE, marking the beginning of the 2006 cruise. The ship immediately transited the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea enroute the North Arabian Gulf in order to support OIF. Within five weeks of leaving MCAS Beaufort, the Thunderbolts found themselves conducting combat operations. During their brief stint in the gulf, the squadron flew 120 sorties, totaling 669 flight hours. In addition, the Thunderbolts flew 53 sorties, totaling 80.4 flight hours in support of Operation SEA DRAGON.
On 24 August, 2006, the Thunderbolts began a historic re-deployment from the USS ENTERPRISE into Al Asad Air Base, Iraq. This would mark the first time in recent history a squadron forward deployed from an aircraft carrier to a forward air base. Over the next month and a half, the Thunderbolts would simultaneously support OIF and OEF. During the 67 days at Al Asad Air Base, the Thunderbolts flew 49 consecutive days while supporting Coalition Forces. Remarkably, the squadron maintained a 100% sortie completion rate, flying 450 combat sorties, totaling 2,014.7 flight hours in support of OIF. In addition, the squadron flew 187 sorties, totaling 493.5 hours in support of OEF. At no other time in history has a squadron supported two campaigns simultaneously, let alone with the success of the Thunderbolts.
The last Thunderbolt aircraft returned to the ship on 25 October 2006 marking an end to the squadron’s support of combat operations. The USS ENTERPRISE would steam west, pulling into port on 18 November 2006.
In early 2007, VMFA-251 began workups as part of CVW-1 in preparation for a sustainment deployment aboard the USS ENTERPRISE. The squadron would complete two at-sea periods and an Air Wing Fallon detachment as part of this preparation. On 9 July 2007, the Thunderbolts embarked aboard USS ENTERPRISE and began their second combat deployment in a little over a year. The USS ENTERPRISE would conduct flight operations off the Eastern Coast of the United States for a week, and then steam west, crossing into the Mediterranean Sea, transiting the Suez Canal on 1 August 2007. On 15 August 2007, VMFA-251 was once again providing Close Air Support (CAS) for Coalition forces in OIF. For the next 3 months, the Thunderbolts would support both Operations Iraqi Freedom and Sea Dragon, a presence over the Persian Gulf shipping routes. The squadron a massed 1779.5 combat hours in 308 sorties while providing necessary CAS support for Coalition Forces on the ground.
On 4 November 2007, while still flying missions over Iraq, Carrier Air Wing One (CVW-1) and USS ENTERPRISE received word that they would suspend combat operations in OIF and move to support combat operations in OEF. On 6 November 2007, within 36 hours of the last CVW-1 aircraft trapping aboard CVN-65, the Thunderbolts were flying combat missions in Afghanistan. CVW-1 and the Thunderbolts would support OEF for a total of ten days, flying 277.3 combat hours in 42 sorties. Upon completion of this task, CVN-65 once again returned to the Persian Gulf to support OIF for the remainder of its time in the Middle East. On 1 December 2007, USS ENTERPRISE transited the Suez Canal, bringing an end to combat support for the 2007 cruise. The Thunderbolts would get a few fly days in December for some much needed Air to Air training. On 16 December 2007, VMFA-251 disembarked USS ENTERPRISE in Mayport, FL, marking the official end to the 2007 cruise. During the cruise, VMFA-251 flew 3145.6 hours in 1136 sorties, with 2056.8 hours and 350 sorties being combat support. The cruise was a successful one for the squadron, with a 95.9% sortie completion rate and accomplishing the ultimate goal of bringing all aircraft and Marines home. The squadron would enjoy some much needed time off over the holidays with family and friends before returning to work in January 2008.
From January to April 2008, the Thunderbolts focused on rebuilding. The squadron would experience a significant turnover of personnel, approximately 40%, while at the same time training the next wave of flight leads and instructors. VMFA-251 would successfully work up and certify two Air Combat Tactics Instructors in addition to beginning and continuing the training of five new section leads.