Photo Information

An F/A-18C Hornet takes off into skies on its way to support Marines and troops on the ground at Al Asad, Iraq, Sept. 22.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Nikki M. Fleming

Thunderbolts add to their rich history

12 Oct 2006 | Lance Cpl. Nikki M. Fleming

Prior to the United States involvement in World War II, a Marine aviation squadron was born, marking the birth of another aircraft carrier based squadron. It continues to operate to this day under the name Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251, while making its mark in the history books.

On December 1, 1941, VMFA-251, Carrier Air Wing One, Carrier Strike Group Twelve, was activated as Marine Observation Squadron 251 with the Grumman F4F Wildcat as their primary aircraft. The Thunderbolts transitioned to a Marine Fighter Squadron while the squadron took part in several campaigns during World War II.

Throughout the next 17 years, the squadron moved from several different locations and was re-designated several times between a Marine Fighter Squadron and a Marine Attack Squadron.

While stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., in April of 1958, the Thunderbolts received their first supersonic fighter, the F-8U Crusader. Shortly afterwards, they left for the Pacific, keeping true to their Latin motto, “Custos Caelorum,” meaning “Guardians of the sky.”

During the same time the Thunderbolts were relocated to Marine Aircraft Group 31 at MCAS Beaufort, S.C., VMF-251 became the first F-8 squadron to deploy on an aircraft carrier as part of Carrier Air Wing Ten in 1960. The Thunderbolts set a record for having the most hours of flight in one month for a Sixth Fleet based F-8 squadron, flying more than 500 hours while deployed.

As the Thunderbolts established their current appellation as VMFA-251, they also became the first Marine squadron in 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing to transition to the F-4B Phantom II on Oct. 31, 1964.

The Thunderbolts switched to the F/A-18 Hornet -- which the squadron continues to fly -- after 21 years of flying the Phantom II.

The squadron’s missions were marked as the first combat flights for a Marine squadron in Europe since World War I, supporting Operation Deny Flight in Bosnia and Herzegovina from January to April of 1994.

VMFA-251 received the F/A-18C prior to its orders to CVW-1 aboard the USS America the following May. In February 1996, the Thunderbolts fulfilled their first carrier deployment with the F/A-18C.

During the summer of 2001, the squadron accomplished another workup cycle with CVW-1.

“I was a lance corporal at the time, new to the squadron and getting ready to go on deployment,” said Cpl. Joseph Brozek, fixed-wing aircraft airframes mechanic, VMFA-251, CVW-1, Carrier Strike Group Twelve. “The night before September 11, (2001), the squadron was at the base theater receiving a pre-deployment brief about terrorism awareness. The next day, the commanding officer called everyone up to the ready room, which was when we actually witnessed the second plane hit the towers. Just eight days later, we left for deployment.”

The Thunderbolts deployed onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt to the Arabian Sea where they became the first Marine squadron to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom.

“It felt really good,” said Brozek. “I felt like we were doing something, especially since one of the staff sergeants in the squadron, at the time, had a brother who was lost in the World Trade Center attack on September 11. A lot of people joined to protect their country. When the time came to be called up, it was great knowing our squadron was getting the chance. First to go, last to know.”

The squadron not only delivered the Marine Corps’ opening blows against terrorism, but it set a new flight-time record for an F/A-18C squadron, flying 1,285 hours in November 2001.  During the operations against the Taliban in OEF, the squadron flew 3,596 combat hours in 754 flights, dropping 445,000 pounds of ordnance on enemy targets in Afghanistan.

Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Thunderbolts broke another record by staying out to sea for 159 consecutive days without hitting a single port. Despite the demanding and intense operational tempo, there were no mishaps in VMFA-251.

“It's great just knowing you are part of a long tradition of fellow T-Bolts who have taken this squadron from the Pacific in World War II to our present war on terrorism in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Sgt. Maj. Michael Gonzales, sergeant major, VMFA-251.

Since then, the Thunderbolts have participated in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It wasn’t until recently that the Thunderbolts made another first in Marine Corps history.

“We are the first Marine F/A-18 squadron ever to be detached from an aircraft carrier,” said Brozek.

In April, the Thunderbolts deployed aboard the USS Enterprise and after four months were called upon to leave the aircraft carrier to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, but this time it was from the ground at Al Asad Air Base.

“Being able to come off a carrier and work in Iraq is awesome, because it shows how much more lethal an aircraft carrier can be,” said Brozek. “This squadron seems to be put in adverse situations with every deployment we go on, and we always come out on top. The Marines come together and do what needs to be done. Everyone in the squadron should be proud to know we are part of this squadron’s history.”

Gonzales expressed that he would like the squadron to continue its success in the years to come, and he knows that the Marines will definitely continue to uphold its proud tradition and heritage for eternity.

Editor’s Note: The information was compiled from VMFA-251’s History page at