The Panther it was transferred to VF-837 (Grand Slammers) after the unit had deployed to the west coast starting 1 April 1951. The Panther was accepted at Bethpage on 14 May 1951 and flown to NAS Alameda on 8 June 1951. In a matter of days, the aircraft was transferred to VF-837.
The Panther was assigned to Lt. Donald Van Gordon (later LCDR), a World War II carrier pilot, who was in the post-war reserves. At the time of his return to active duty, Van Gordon had over 525 hours in SBDs, over 240 hours in F6Fs, and over 340 hours in F4Us (more than 16,000 hours of flying time in all). His aircraft was given the code letters H/403—as Squadron Operations Officer, it would have been customary to receive a low number. Van Gordon flew the Panther for the first time on 28 June 1951.
VF-837 and another all jet squadron, VF-831 (coded with H/300s), were to be part of Carrier Air Group 15 (CAG-15) aboard the USS Antietam (CV-36). Assuming that VF-837 trained with VF-831 on the west coast, the Panther would have flown Field Carrier Landing Practice at Naval Auxiliary Field Crows Landing in the early part of July followed by live firing exercises at Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) El Centro in the latter part of the month. Van Gordon flew 127147 four times in July (the most of any month while he had the aircraft), although a fuel contamination issue sidelined the Panthers during the final week of practice at El Centro.
Next, it was back north to Alameda for more carrier landing practice before all Panthers were loaded on the Antietam on 18 August 1951 for a practice cruise to San Diego. The Antietam returned to the Bay Area (Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard) were some of the Panthers were repaired and/or replaced due to deck landing accidents during the cruise south. On 8 September 1951, the Antietam with CAG-15 sailed for Pearl Harbor on the first leg of the deployment to Korea.
The stay at Pearl lasted from 12 to 26 September 1951 after which the Antietam reached Yokosuka, Japan on 4 October. The Panther’s combat history began when the Antietam left Japan on 11 October 1951 and joined Carrier Task Force 77 (CTF 77) off the east coast of Korea on 15 October. VF-837 included 16 Panthers and 22 pilots and was commanded by LCDR R.H. Kenton.
The mission of CAG-15 (comprised of Panthers, Corsairs, and Skyraiders) was to perform:
- interdiction flights – “strikes, armed reconnaissance flights, and heckler flights directed primarily against North Korean supply routes including railroad track and equipment, bridges, highways, and lower case supply areas;”
- close air support missions; and
- combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrol.
Van Gordon’s first combat flight in the Panther was on an armed reconnaissance mission on 25 October 1951. He records that he got “three boxcars” during the mission.
This first combat period of the deployment lasted until 16 November 1951 when the Antietam returned to Yokosuka. The major problem experienced with the Panthers during this period was 20-mm stoppages caused by failures in the hydraulic charging system. A typical ordnance load was six 5-in High-velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVAR) and two 100 lb bombs.
The Antietam returned to sea on 26 November 1951 for the second combat period lasting until 31 December when she arrived back at Yokosuka. The Panther sustained damage to the port horizontal stabilizer due to small arms fire on 18 December 1951 when “[R]ails were cut, buildings destroyed, boxcars damaged, troops killed, two trucks destroyed by the two jet squadrons.” The CAG-15 report noted that the group encountered more anti-aircraft and small arms fire due to an increase in North Korean weapons deployed in the attack areas during this period.
The ordnance load changed to four 250 lb bombs, as the interdiction mission changed from general armed reconnaissance to specific “rail cuts.” The Panthers began operating in four-plane divisions versus three-plane divisions in the previous period. Both changes were declared to be improvements. In addition, the F9Fs were flown on Target Combat Air Patrol (TARCAP) missions where they covered piston-powered aircraft attacking rail lines.
Van Gordon flew the Panther on 14 December 1951 in a mission he recorded as a “rail strike.”
Problems with 20mm stoppages continued and a new problem appeared with bombs either releasing during the catapult shot or failing to release during attacks, but releasing during the subsequent arrested landings.
The Antietam left Japan on 16 January 1952 for the third combat period lasting until 6 February 1952. The focus was almost exclusively on interdiction, however attacks were now concentrated to break rail lines in hard to repair locations rather than randomly throughout the combat zone. In areas with heavy defenses, the Panthers and Corsairs flew flak suppression for the Skyraiders.
As evidence that carrier jet operations were still evolving, there was no provision on the World War II era carriers for both aviation gas and jet fuel (the latter having some lubrication capabilities), so only the former was carried. The deck crews were left to add oil by hand during this third combat period in order to reduce high pressure pump and Turbo Jet Control failures. Interestingly, crewman were required to mount a special ladder with a hook that fit over the tip tank in order to fuel Panthers with wings folded on the deck. This could be very “exciting” when the aircraft was parked on the perimeter of the deck since this put the crewman over the edge looking down at the water some 80 feet below.
There is photographic evidence that the nose gear on the Panther failed during a landing in February 1952. There were no injuries to pilot or deck crew, and the aircraft was back in action within a day or two. Van Gordon does not show a flight in 127147 in the month of February.
The final combat period for the Panther with VF-837 lasted from 18 February to 22 March 1952. James Michener came aboard at one point in late February while doing research for The Bridges at Toko-ri.
On 12 March 1952, the Panther took small arms fire leading to damage to the starboard wing and port inboard flap while “[T]he usual interdiction program was carried out with fifty-three (53) rail cuts, thirteen (13) railcars destroyed, fifteen (15) damaged, eleven (11) trucks destroyed, three (3) damaged, and eight (8) oxcarts destroyed.” As George Schnitzer, who flew with VF-831, has written in his memoir: “I think everyone in North Korea had a gun and fired it at the passing aircraft.”
Van Gordon flew the Panther on 15 March 1952 on a “photo escort” mission. Although not flying the Panther, Van Gordon was mentioned in the CAG-15 report for 16 March 1952 where he was credited with leading a flight of Panthers that destroyed “two (2) spans of a by-pass bridge.”
As the Antietam, CAG-15, and the Panther left the war zone for the last time during this deployment and returned to Yokosuka, the crew received a congratulatory message from the Commander of Carrier Division FIVE:
WE WILL MISS ANTIETAM AND AIR GROUP 15 ON THE LINE WHERE THE REDS HAVE FELT THE POWER OF YOUR PERSISTENT AND ACCURATE STRIKES X ENJOY YOUR WELL DESERVED REST.
The Panther accumulated 202 hours with VF-837, the majority of which came during the deployment to Korea. VF-837 pilots had 2,040.9 flight hours during the Korean deployment averaging 100.2 hours per pilot, so it is clear that multiple pilots flew the Panther. Half of CAG-15 aircraft sustained damage from small arms fire with the Panther being hit twice.
All operational aircraft from the Antietam, including the Panther, were flown to NAS Atsugi and transferred to Fleet Air Service Squadron (FASRON) 11 on 16 April 1952. The next assignment would be with the Marines in Korea.
The Panther became a replacement aircraft when all of VMF-115s F9F-4s were grounded due to compressor failures in April 1952. VMF-115 pilots flew their -4s to NAS Kisarazu and picked up -2s at Atsugi for the flight back to Korea via Itami. The Panther is listed as transferring to VMF-115 on 9 May 1952, and remained with the Marine squadron until 1 September 1952 when the F9F-4s returned. At that point, the Panther was transferred back to FASRON 11 at Atsugi. The last F9F-2 to be made ready for operations by the VMF-115 maintenance crew is described as having been in “a shipboard crash and had a new nose gear installed.” The repair had been done incorrectly and had to be redone in Korea – could this have been this Panther?
VMF-115 and VMF-311 were operating out of Pohang (K-3), Korea. Both squadrons flew Panthers in Marine Air Group (MAG) 33, part of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, supporting ground operations in Korea. Marine close air support practices were probably the best in the world and the Panther would have been involved in many such missions under the direction of a Forward Air Controller in the Tactical Air Control Party close to the front lines. Most missions started with the “Frag order,” or “the frag,” which was the daily operation order. Interdiction and close air support made up the majority of missions with the rest being night interdiction and photo reconnaissance, although the Panther would have done very little if any of the latter.
The Panther probably participated in the following “maximum effort missions” by the two jet squadrons during this period:
- 23 and 24 June 1952 – Chosin Reservoir hydroelectric facilities;
- 11 July 1952 – three attacks on Pyongyang described as flak suppression;
- 29 August 1952 – attacks on the Munitions Bureau, Ministry of Finance, and a locomotive repair yard all in Pyongyang.
By 1 September 1952, the Panther was back at Atsugi with FASRON-11. It was transferred to Headquarters & Headquarters Squadron (HHSS) 1 on 18 September and to VMF-311 at Pohang on 2 October 1952. The Panther would have been utilized in the same way with VMF-311 as with VMF-115. Key missions included:
- 5 December 1952 – squadron mission against supply dumps northeast of Seoul;
- 16 February 1953 – joint mission with VMF-115 to hit supply concentrations on Highway 1 near Pyongyang.
It was on this latter mission that Captain Ted Williams, the Red Sox star, nursed a damaged aircraft to a belly landing at an alternate airfield. Both Williams and John Glenn, the future astronaut and U.S. Senator, were pilots in VMF-311. It is not known if either flew the Panther at anytime during their tours.
The Panther is called out in the November 1952 Engineering Section Report: “The aircraft accumulating the most time is WL-8 Bu. No. 127147 for a total of 55 flight hours.” In January 1953, 20 Panthers from VMF-311 moved to Suwon (K-13) where three missions were flown before the detachment returned to Pohang. It is not known if the Panther was among the aircraft at Suwon.
By 4 March 1953, the Panther was back at Atsugi with FASRON-11 and its combat days (some 756 hours) were over. The aircraft was transferred back to Alameda on 22 April 1953 and was reworked and overhauled during the summer. It left Alameda on 18 September, spent time at NAS Corpus Christi beginning on 19 September, and was assigned to NAS Kingsville in Texas on 8 October 1953.
At Kingsville, the Panther was assigned to Advanced Training Unit (ATU) 102/202 to replace F6F-5 Hellcats and for use in instrument training for jet pilots. Less than a year later, on 1 July 1954, Kingsville changed to a NAAS and the Panther became part of the Naval Air Advanced Training Command.
Midway through the following year, on 10 June 1955, the Panther went into rework and overhaul at Corpus Christi. This was completed by 30 November 1955 and the aircraft was assigned to ATU 206 at NAS Forrest Sherman Field in Pensacola on 7 December 1955. The Panther remained active at Sherman Field until going into storage at Pensacola on 25 June 1958.
Only one foreign military flew the Panther and the Panther was one of those aircraft transferred to the Argentine Navy – Armada Argentina. The aircraft was classified for the Mutual Defense Assistance Program on 31 August 1958 and stricken from the USN on 28 February 1959 after having been flown a total of 2,384 hours.
Altogether, 28 F9F Panthers were sold to Argentina with four aircraft being used for spare parts. The contract was reported to be worth $10,716,000 and included training. The Panthers were sent in several shipments with the first shipment arriving in August 1958 and the first aircraft going into active service on 27 November 1958 with Primera Escuadrilla Aeronaval de Ataque (Naval Attack Squadron No. 1) at Puerto Belgrano.
It is not known when the Panther reached Argentina, however it received the 21st serial number (0455) and the aircraft code 3-A-114. The latter indicates that the Panther was assigned at the time when all of the Panthers were moved to the Escuadra Aeronaval No. 3 (Naval Air Squadron No. 3) at Punta del Indio.
These aircraft were involved in an internal political fight between the “Blues” (Army and Air Force) and the “Colorados” (Navy) in April 1963. A Navy reconnaissance aircraft took fire from an armored cavalry regiment on 2 April and this led to a retaliatory attack of Corsairs, Texans, and Panthers with the resulting loss of two Panthers. An Air Force attack on Punta del Indio the next day caused the loss of four more Panthers and damage to two others. This left 17 Panthers in service after repairs to one of the two damaged aircraft.
By 1967, there were eight Panthers in service with the Argentine Navy and they clearly needed to be replaced with newer aircraft. The Navy chose Aermacchi MB-326GBs that began arriving in April 1968. The last Panther flight occurred on 3 March 1970 and the remaining Panthers (including this Panther) were retired on 9 June 1971. Of the 24 Panthers that flew in the Argentine Navy, all that remain are four that are on display in Argentina and one that was shipped to the U.S. – this Panther.
It is believed that the Panther was used to train mechanics at some point, because it was at the Escuela de Suboficiales de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA or Naval Mechanics School) that the aircraft was delivered for sale to the U.S. buyer.
In 1995, Ernesto A. Morales engineered a deal with the Argentine Navy to trade a Bell 47D helicopter for the Panther. The exchange was approved to facilitate the growth of the Argentine Museum of Naval Aviation with the Panther deemed surplus. Morales operated through a company called North American Aircraft based in Pearland, TX and an apartment in Buenos Aires.
In typical bureaucratic fashion, the approval documents were drafted to substantiate that Argentina was receiving an aircraft of equal or greater value. The Panther was appraised based on the values of a MiG-21 and a T-6 that were for sale at that time. The Panther was described as “lacking in instruments, communications and navigational equipment, electrical cable sets, hydraulic circuits, and fuel, and the engine is incomplete, technically counting with 50% of what an airworthy aircraft possesses.” Thus, the $35,000 value put on the Bell helicopter more than justified the $14,000 to $19,000 value (at 50% reduction) of the values of the MiG and T-6.
The contract between Morales’ company and the National Argentine State—Ministry of Defense – General Staff of the Navy was signed on 20 June 1995 and an FAA Bill of Sale was dated 4 August 1995. There is no documentation covering the importation of the aircraft, however Morales registered it as N91867 on 21 December 1995 using a Pearland, TX address. The aircraft was sold quickly to Clyde E. Barton of Angleton, TX on 9 January 1996 making it appear as though Morales had acquired the aircraft for Barton. Barton registered it in his name on 17 April 1996.
There is no definite information concerning what Barton did with the aircraft. Copies of letters from the Department of the Navy and the Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library suggest he sought the Aircraft History Card, information on the sale to Argentina, any combat and squadron histories, and appropriate paint schemes/markings soon after purchasing the Panther. Interestingly, there is a reference to Barton being “in the advanced stages of restoring a Grumman F9F-2 Panther” in a reply from the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. If Barton was contemplating a restoration, he must have dropped the idea before ever starting given the present condition of the aircraft.
Barton notified the FAA on 25 October 2004 that he had sold the Panther to Aerocrafters of Santa Rosa, CA, however there is no bill of sale or updated registration in the FAA file. Barton must have moved it to California at some point in 2002 or early 2003.
The Panther was sold to Morales with a “J-48-P-4” engine (serial number 401.567). Aerocrafters refers to the engine as a “J42P6,” a 2006 appraisal lists a “J-42-P-8” engine that was not inspected, and a 2009 appraisal mentions a “J48” core and specifies a “J42-P-6” engine that is missing. The Panther was built most likely with a J42-P-8 engine, although it may have received a newer engine during one of several overhauls, or while in Argentina.