VMFA- 323 The Death Rattlers (a.k.a. The Snakes)

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The Second World War was still raging in Europe and the Pacific on August 1, 1943, when Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-323, the “Death Rattlers” were commissioned at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point in North Carolina.

Arriving at Marine Corps Air Stations El Centro and Camp Pendleton, both in Southern California, they commenced their training in the F4U Corsairs, before heading into the Pacific Theater of Operations in July of 1944. More training missions were conducted once arriving in the South Pacific.

VMF-323 arrived in Okinawa, a Japanese home island on April 9, 1945 flying the FG-1D variant of the Corsair, to participate in Operation Iceberg during the Battle of Okinawa. With war ending in August of 1945, the “Death Rattlers” were credited with the shooting down of 124 enemy aircraft without a single loss. From the squadron, 12 pilots became aces (shooting down 5 enemy aircraft).

The “Death Rattlers” participated in the Korean War still flying their Corsairs, and before leaving Korea, they were re-designated Marine Attack Squadron 323 (VMA) in June of 1952. Arriving back at MCAS El Toro, they flew the F9F Panther, followed by the F9F Cougar, a swept-winged version of the Panther. In 1956, the squadron began flying the FJ-4 Fury. In 1959, the F8U Crusader saw service with the “Rattlers”.

In 1964 the squadron returned to MCAS Cherry Point, where they received their present designation of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA-323). This same year, the squadron began flying the much beloved F-4 Phantom II. On October 25, 1965, the Rattlers flew into Da Nang, South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and 323 remained in Vietnam until 1969, flying combat sorties from Da Nang and Chui Lai.

On September 14, 1982, VMFA-323 transitioned to its current aircraft, the F/A-18 Hornet. The squadron has participated in several operations since, including sorties into Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of their most famous pilots was Colonel Jerry Coleman, who was “Rookie of the Year” and “All-Star” second baseman while playing for the professional baseball team, the New York Yankees during the second World War, and flew combat missions in WWII and the Korean War. Col. Coleman would later become a sports broadcaster on the radio, and was known as the Voice of the San Diego Padres of the Major Baseball League.

The “Death Rattlers” are currently stationed at MCAS Miramar in Southern California, with Lieutenant Colonel Brian Schenk of Anaheim, California as their current Commanding Officer.

The Lt. Colonel graduated from the University of California, San Diego, and is a 19 year veteran of the United States Marine Corps. After several different positions as a junior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Schenk was transferred back to MCAS Miramar in 2004 to serve with Marine Fighter Attach Squadron 232, 3d Marine Aircraft Wing, MCAS Miramar.  Here he served as the Assistant Operations Officer, Pilot Training Officer, Aircraft Maintenance Officer, and Executive Officer.  While with the Red Devils, he attended the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course and also deployed to the Middle East aboard the USS NIMITZ (CVN-68) where he participated in Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM.

In 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Schenk was ordered to instructor duty at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) in Yuma, Arizona.  There he served as an F/A-18 Instructor in the TACAIR department, the Department Head of Safety and Standardization and the TACAIR Department Head. Transferred in June 2013 to VMFA-323 after refresher training at VMFAT-101 in the F/A-18 as Executive Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Schenk has assumed his duties as the Commanding Officer of VMFA-323 on December 2013.

His personal decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal, 4 Air Medals, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and has over 2,200 flight hours.

 

We sat down with Colonel Schenk for a short interview.

PR: Did growing up in Orange County, CA, near MCAS El Toro (No longer a base), influence you at all with your decision to become an Marine aviator?

Schenk: “Of course, I worked at a Gun Club near the base, and a lot of F-18 pilots came into the club to shoot, so I got to know them really well, and I went to the Air Shows, so with them constantly flying overhead from El Toro, and seeing that everyday, it’s kind of hard to look at it and not be enamored with flight”. Going to the Air Shows and seeing the Blue Angels and movies like “Top Gun”, which came out when I was growing up also helped.

PR: What is next for you after serving as the Commanding Officer of VMFA-323?

Schenk: After this, If selected, I would probably go to a Command school, maybe the War College or something along those lines. I’ll then get my Masters Degree and then probably move to the Pentagon.

PR: How often as the Commanding Officer of the squadron do you get to fly?

Schenk: It really depends on what is happening at the time, but a few times a week on average.

PR: Were into our second year of the Sequestration, The former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Amos stated last year, that training would not be affected. How is it affecting the unit, if at all?

Schenk: It’s affected everyone at some level, but we were able to move money around from different coffers to keep us at ready levels. We have had to offset money from one area to another area, but the training hasn’t been affected. One of the reason’s was the DOD laid off a lot of the civilian maintenance workforce at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, California. So those guys got laid off temporarily for awhile, and what did those guys do?, they still had to provide for their families, so they went out and got other jobs, and when the government asked them to come on back, they (the employees) said “No thanks”. They found out that their jobs with the government wasn’t as secured and safe as they once thought, and those were guys who had 20, 30, even 40 years of experience working on jets like the F/A-18. We have lost all of that experience.

PR: You mentioned North Island, how are the planes doing?

Schenk: I’ve seen better, You know, I’ve been flying this plane in 1998, so 15 or 16 years now. Believe it or not, a lot of the planes in this squadron were here when I was here, flying as a Captain.

PR: This squadron is flying the “C” model correct?

Schenk: Yes, the “C” model was still new coming off of the factory lines in 1999, and I don’t think they’ve made any since then.

PR: So as there is attrition with these planes, how are they being replaced?

Schenk: When I was at the Pentagon, this was one of my jobs, With squadrons being shut down, our core structure when it comes to the F/A-18 community is growing a lot smaller. With 5 or 6 squadrons being decommissioned in the last few years, and as the F/A-18’s squadrons keep dwindling, this is a way we manage the attrition. On occasion, we’ll see the “A++” models come into the squadrons, and they are comparable to a “C” model from a system standpoint.

PR: Who does most of the maintenance on these planes?

Schenk: My Marines do, but every plane has a maintenance plan where every 5 to 6 years, they will go to North Island and their expertise, and sometimes even to Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida for a periodic overhaul.

PR: Is your maintenance crew here able to keep up with all of the work?

Schenk: It’s a struggle, it really is. In times of dwindling budgets, in times of manpower crunches and all of those pressures on everything, along with everything else. It’s difficult to balance. One week, we do really well, the next week, the work load is off the charts, and we do not have enough manpower in order to accomplished the work. It’s a fine tuned balance between everything.

PR: When the squadron last deployed, were you the C.O. at the time, and how did the deployment go?

Schenk: It was in 2013, and no, I was the X.O. (Executive Officer). the deployment went well, It was originally scheduled to be a 6 month deployment onboard the USS NIMITZ ((The Death Rattler’s are currently the only West Coast, Aircraft Carrier deployable fighter unit for the Marine Corps). We were actually headed home, but because of Syria and the chemical weapons issue, we got turned around to support any operations they we were called upon, so we got extended another 3 months. We supported combat missions in Afghanistan for the bulk of it, as well as contingency plans for Syria.

PR: I understand that during your deployment, your squadron developed a close relationship with an Infantry unit, the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines, while supporting them, as they were receiving heavy causalities in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan?

Schenk: Yes, that’s the unique culture of the Marine squadrons, as you well know, all Marine officers go through the Basic School (a Marine Officer’s version of Boot Camp), so every Marine is a rifleman, we’ve all done that side of things, and we take it very seriously as a badge of honor. We know how to support the Marine Infantryman, far out better than anyone else.

PR: You brought up a “Badge of Honor”, something I’ve heard other Marine Pilots speak of, what is it that makes those ties of the Marine Air/Ground support team so tight?

Schenk: We (the pilots) all started at the Basic School, and we all sat and we all did ground offense and defense, we dug in, we suffered just as much, slept in the mud. We know exactly what it feels like to be on the ground, and the pain and anguish that those guys are going through down there, so if we can support them, we can make their lives easier.

PR: What moment during your career, made you proud to be a Marine?

Schenk: Probably the memory or moments that stand out was during the early phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom and all of the flying we did. All of the training we did came together and being able to come home safely. It built a lot of confidence in me. Until your in a combat situation, you are constantly questioning yourself, but the training we are put through made all of the difference. I’m also very proud of my Marines.

At this time, the Death Rattlers are deployed on a WestPac Tour and we wish them success in their ongoing mission. I want to Thank Lt. Colonel Schenk for his time in providing for this interview and the Public Affairs Office of the 3rd MAW and MCAS Miramar for making this all possible.

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Douglas Aguillard

Douglas (Doug) Aguillard is a Freelance Photojournalist who specializes in the Military & Aviation fields. Based in San Diego, CA, he is a Marine veteran., He currently is a photojournalist for the Military Press Newspaper, the Historical / Archival Dept. photographer for the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum at MCAS Miramar, and a very proud member of Photo Recon, and has been published in various magazines and books such as "Combat Aircraft Monthly" magazine, "Vertical " magazine, "Wings of Gold" magazine, Sikorsky Frontlines newsletter, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum's Book: "Celebrating the San Diego Air & Space Museum: A History of the Museum and it's collections".

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