Marine Fighting Squadron 323 was commissioned Aug. 1, 1943 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. Three hard-charging fighter pilots killed a 6 foot rattlesnake, and hung its diamond-backed skin in the squadron ready room, giving rise to our 50 year-old unit the nickname of "Death Rattlers." VMF-323 immediately began training for combat in the Pacific theater with their Chance-Vought F4U Corsairs. Often hailed as the best all-around fighter of World War II, the "bent-wing bird" was armed with six .50-caliber machine guns and a lethal warload of bombs, rockets, and Napalm. In preparation for deployment overseas, VMF-323 moved west in January 1944, flying training missions from fields at El Centro and Camp Pendleton, Calif. In July 1944 the Death Rattlers departed for the Pacific aboard the escort carrier USS Long Island. For the next nine months, VMF-323 flew training missions from secure island bases in the South Pacific, perfecting their tactics in aerial combat, dive bombing, rocketry, and close air support.
April 9, 1945 the Death Rattlers flew from an escort carrier into Kadena airfield to fly missions in support of Operation Iceberg, the campaign for Okinawa. Combat operations commenced the following day. Between April and the surrender of Japanese forces in August, the Death Rattlers shot down 124 Japanese planes in aerial combat without a single loss to an enemy pilot. Twelve VMF-323 fighter pilots became Aces - three of them in a single day. The deadly, effective close air support (CAS) the Death Rattlers gave the Leathernecks on the ground was just as important as the squadron's tremendous accomplishments in air combat. To the Marine riflemen engaged in the bloodiest close-quarter fighting of the war, Marine Corsairs became the "Sweethearts of Okinawa."
March 1946 found the Death Rattlers based at MCAS El Toro, Calif., and engaged in a rigorous peacetime training program. Operating from land and sea, VMF-323 participated in exercises throughout the western U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii. The squadron also provided Hollywood, Calif., with Marine airpower for the 1949 classic, Sands of Iwo Jima.
June 25, 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea. Within a month, VMF-323 began combat operations from the escort carrier USS Badoeng Strait, in support of ground forces in the Pusan perimeter. Again proving the effectiveness of Marine close air support during heavy fighting at Pusan, the Inchon landing, the breakout of the 1st Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir, and every major campaign of the war, the Death Rattlers further built on the combat reputation of the Marine Air-Ground Team. Flying alternately from Navy carriers and austere airfields ashore, VMF-323 flew primarily air-to-ground missions such as CAS, interdiction, and armed reconnaissance. Reflecting this change in its primary mission, the squadron was re-designated Marine Attack Squadron 323 (VMA-323) in June 1952. The Death Rattlers departed Korea in July 1953 after accumulating 48,000 hours of flight time, and once again serving with distinction in combat.
After returning to the United States, VMA-323 flew the Grumman F9F-2 Panther and later the F9F-8 Cougar, a swept-wing version of the combat-proven Panther. From late 1953 through August 1956 the Death Rattlers flew in numerous training exercises from both land bases and aircraft carriers. In September 1956 VMA-323 transitioned to yet another aircraft, the supersonic, single-engine North American FJ-4 Fury and shortly thereafter was re-designated VMF-323 once again. As the first Marine squadron to operate the Fury, VMF-323 deployed to the Western Pacific in 1957. In August, the Death Rattlers flew armed patrol missions over Quemoy and Matsu Islands in support of the resupply of Chinese Nationalist forces during the Taiwan Straits crisis.
On their return to MCAS El Toro, Calif., in 1959 the squadron received the Vought F8U-1 Crusader. Assigned to Carrier Air Group 14 aboard the USS Lexington in 1961, VMF-323 was the first Marine F-8 squadron to go on cruise with the Crusader. When VMF-323 returned from the Western Pacific they were outfitted with the improved F8U-2 version of the Crusader. In July 1963 the unit was re-designated VMF(AW)-323 to reflect the enhanced "all-weather" capabilities of the new fighters. While deployed to NAS Atsugi, Japan in 1963, the "Snakes" twice supported operations in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Taiwan from the decks of Navy carriers.
In 1964 the squadron returned to Cherry Point, where they received the present designation of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA-323) and began the transition to flying the F-4B Phantom II. While deployed to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico in March 1965, the Dominican Crisis erupted. VMFA-323 provided air cover during the evacuation of American citizens, and flew armed reconnaissance missions with their dual-role Phantoms.
As the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam escalated, VMFA-323 deployed to Da Nang Air Base and commenced combat operations the day after their arrival in Vietnam. This marked the Death Rattlers' third combat tour of duty in the Pacific, spanning two decades and three wars. VMFA-323 served in Vietnam almost continuously from December 1965 until March 1969, flying over 17,000 combat sorties from Da Nang and Chu Lai in support of I Corps ground operations and against targets north of the demiliterized zone.
Upon return to MCAS El Toro,Calif., the Phantom drivers began a demanding and rigorous training schedule, setting the standard for other F-4 units. From 1969 until their transition to the F/A-18 Hornet, VMFA-323 participated in a long list of exercises and deployments on land and sea. One notable deployment was aboard the USS Coral Sea, when VMFA-323 and its F-4N's stood ready for combat in the Gulf of Oman during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980.
Sept. 14, 1982, VMFA-323 turned in its last F-4 Phantom and officially began the transition to the world's foremost strike fighter, the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet. Death Rattler fighter pilots employed their new jets in an intense series of air-to-air and air-to-ground training exercises, as well as several live missile firings. In October 1985 VMFA-323 deployed again aboard the Coral Sea, this time to the Mediterranean Sea. The squadron distinguished itself in the winter and spring of 1986 during Freedom of Navigation exercises held in international waters and airspace off the coast of Libya. April 15, 1986 the Snakes provided SAM suppression and fighter Combat Air Patrol (CAP) sorties during the overland strikes on Libyan targets in support of the national policy to deter terrorism. As a result of this effective protection, no U.S. Navy or Marine Corps aircraft were lost.
From October 1988 through April 1989, VMFA-323 deployed to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, participating in the six-month USMC Unit Deployment Program (UDP) for the first time. Following a short year in MCAS El Toro, Calif., the Death Rattlers again found themselves in Iwakuni on UDP. Due to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, this trip was extended to almost 11 months away from home and family as the Snakes remained forward-deployed in Japan so other Marine squadrons could deploy to the Persian Gulf and help kick Iraq out of Kuwait.
In April 1993 the Snakes took delivery of their first LOT XV F/A-18C aircraft, the newest model of the combat-tested Hornet that VMFA-323 would twice deploy with aboard the USS Constellation. During two six-month cruises (fall 1994 - spring 1995, and summer 1997) the Snakes flew missions from Connie's flight deck in support of Operation Southern Watch. In the brutal summer heat of the Persian Gulf, our Marines kept the Snake Hornets perfectly maintained and fully armed for enforcing the United Nations sanctions against Iraq and patrolling the No-Fly Zone south of Baghdad.
The Marine Corps has recognized the Death Rattlers as the outstanding Marine fighter squadron by presenting VMFA-323 the coveted Hanson Award in 1975, 1976, 1980, and 1986. The tactical call sign "Snake" has become synonymous with professionalism, sound tactics, and aggressive maintenance Marines. Death Rattler ground crews have consistently provided the pilots with superbly maintained aircraft.
VMFA-323 continues to eagerly and realistically prepare to meet any challenges the future may present. Always striving to add to our proud heritage and untarnished reputation we will forever live by our motto:
"COME TO FIGHT - COME TO WIN"