The first squadron to receive the F8U-1 was VX-3, which received its first planes in December of 1956. The first fleet squadron to get the Crusader was VF-32 based at NAS Cecil Field, which got its first planes in March of 1957. It was followed shortly thereafter by VF-154 and VF(AW)-3, then VF-211, VF-142, and VF-143. The Marine Corps squadron VMF-122 took their first Crusaders on strength in December of 1957. It was soon followed by VMF-312, 333, and 334.
The first carrier deployment of the Crusader was aboard the USS Hancock (CVA-19) with VF-154 in the Pacific. The first Atlantic deployment was with VF-32 aboard the USS Saratoga. The first operational deployment of the Crusader was during the Marine amphibious landing in Lebanon in July of 1958. VF-32 flew its new F8U-2s from the carrier USS Saratoga patrolling over the eastern Mediterranean. There was no opposition, and the Crusaders had no need to fire their weapons in anger. The Forrestal, with the F8U-2s of VMF-333 aboard, relieved the Saratoga in September.
The first Navy squadron to deploy with the F8U-1P was VFP-61, which first received its planes in September of 1957. They deployed aboard the USS Midway (CVA-41) later that year.
The RF-8A flew many dangerous reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the Missile Crisis of October 1962. These missions were carried out by Navy squadron VFP-62 and Marine squadron VMCJ-2 which were stationed at NAS Cecil Field near Jacksonville, Florida. These planes provided key evidence of the presence of missiles in Cuba. The RF-8As flew two flights daily from NAS Key West with low-level, high speed dashes over Cuba, then landing at NAS Jacksonville.
Even before the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964, RF-8As of VFP-62 began flying low-level reconnaissance runs over Laos. On the morning of May 21, 1964, two RF-8As flying off the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) were fired on by antiaircraft gunners, and one plane was hit. However, this plane (flown by Lt Charles F. Klusmann) was able to return safely to its carrier. The Bonhomme Richard (CVA-31) with three more RF-8As plus four Marine RF-8As later joined the cruise. On June 6, Lt Klusmann's plane was hit again by ground fire, but this time the damage was so severe that he was forced to eject, his plane being the first Crusader lost to enemy action. Lt Klusmann was captured by the Pathet Lao, but was able to escape three months later.
On June 6, the same day that Klusmann was shot down, another mission was flown over Laos in which two RF-8As were provided with fighter escorts. On June 7, a single RF-8A from the USS Constellation (CVA-64) was escorted by four F-8Ds from VF-111 based on the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63). They were fired upon by heavy flak, and the F-8D escorts responded with cannon fire and rockets, firing the first US shots of what was become America's longest war. A second mission that day over central Laos involved one RF-8A and three F-8 fighter escorts. Commander Foyle W. Linn's escorting Crusader was hit by flak and he was forced to eject. He was picked up by helicopter the next day.
American involvement in the Vietnam war rapidly escalated after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 1964. On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats while cruising near the North Vietnamese island of Hon Me. The USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) sent four F-8Es from VF-51 and VF-53 in response to the call for help. The F-8Es were armed with Zuni rockets and cannon. The North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired back, hitting one Crusader and forcing it to make an emergency landing at Da Nang. The VF-51 F-8Es led by Commander James Stockdale attacked two PT boats and the two VF-53 Crusaders hit a single PT boat and set it on fire.
A year later, Commander Stockdale was shot down in an A-4 in a mission over North Vietnam. He was taken prisoner and spent over 7 years in captivity. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic resistance during his incarceration. Stockdale later became Ross Perot's running mate during the 1992 Presidential campaign.
A second North Vietnamese torpedo boat attack supposedly took place on the night of August 4, 1964, this time against both the Maddox and the Turner Joy. This incident is still controversial to this day, and it is not at all certain that it actually took place. Nevertheless, it led to a massive American involvement in Vietnam which was to last nine years and was to cost 50,000 American lives.
On August 5, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a retaliatory strike against North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases. Aircraft from the Constellation (CVA-64) and the Ticonderoga (CVA-14) took part in the action. The strike package was made up of A-4 and A-1 bombers, F-8 escorts, and RF-8As. No Crusaders were lost, but two bombers were destroyed.
As the buildup of American forces progressed, F-8s served on every carrier in the South China Sea at least in the reconnaissance role. On the smaller 27C-class and Midway-class carriers (Midway (CVA-41), Coral Sea (CVA-43), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42)), they served in the fighter role as well. Following a Viet Cong attack on American and South Vietnamese facilities in February of 1965, a program of regular bombing raids against North Vietnam - known as Operation Rolling Thunder - began in earnest. During the early phase of the Vietnam war, the primarily role of the Crusader was that of reconnaissance, with fighters going along for escort. The fighters would occasionally deliver Zuni rockets against selected ground targets. VFP-63 detachments, along with Marine Corp RF-8s of VMCJ-1 performed the greatest service. As North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses became more intense and effective, F-8 fighters flew frequent flak suppression missions. They would fly in partnership with A-4 Skyhawks. The A-4s would attack SAM sites with AGM-45A Shrike missiles, and the F-8s would follow the Shrikes to the target, wait for missile impact, then open up with Zunis and cannon fire. However, this technique did not always work, since the North Vietnamese soon learned how to spoof the Shrike missile by simply turning off their radar sets
During the war, 42 Navy F-8s and 20 RF-8s and 12 Marine F-8s were lost to flak and small arms fire over Vietnam. SAMs accounted for 10 Navy Crusaders. All twenty of the reconnaissance Crusaders from VFP-63 and all twelve of the reconnaissance Crusaders from VMCJ-1 lost in action were downed by flak or by SAMs, with none being lost to MiGs. At least three Navy Crusaders were lost to MiGs, all of them being the F-8E fighter version.
It was to be in air-to-air combat against North Vietnamese fighters that the Crusader was to gain its reputation as "MiG Master". The first encounter with North Vietnamese MiGs took place in early April of 1965. On that occasion, the MiGs only damaged one F-8, but they shot down two F-105s the next day. The first confirmed Navy kills came on July 17, 1965, when two F-4Bs from VF-21 shot down a pair of MiG-17s. The Crusader got its first MiG kill on June 12, 1966, when Cmdr Harold L. Marr of VF-211 shot down a MiG-17 while escorting an A-4 strike against targets in the North.
On October 9, 1966, Commander Dick Bellinger, skipper of VF-162, shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21, scoring the first Navy victory over the newer, more advanced MiG. At that time, Cmdr Bellinger was 42 years old, and had fought in both World War 2 and Korea. He had also been shot down once before himself, as indicated below. May of 1967 was a particularly busy month for the Crusader crews. They participated in a number of large raids, and the MiGs were up in strength and active. On May 1, LtCdr M. O. Wright of VF-211 shot down one of three MiG-17s that were attacking an A-4. On May 19, an A-4/F-8 "Iron Hand" strike against SAM and flak positions encountered stiff MiG opposition. Pilots from VF-24 and VF-211 got four MiGs that day, as against one F-8E from VF-211 being downed by a SAM.
Four MiG-17s were downed by VF-24 and VF-211 Crusaders on July 21, 1967. On June 26, 1968, an F-8H flown by Cmdr L. R. Myers, skipper of VF-51, shot down a MiG-21, scoring the first kill for the H-version of the Crusader.
For a time, the Crusader was the leading MiG-killer over Vietnam, accounting for a total of 18 confirmed victories. All of them occurred within a two-year span (1966-1968), and after that all Navy MiG kills were by Phantoms. The last Crusader MiG kill took place on September 19, 1968, when Lt Anthony Nargi of VF-111's Det II destroyed a MiG-21.
All of the Crusader MiG kills (with the possible exception of two or three) were made by the Sidewinder air-to-air missile. There were only two "guns-only" MiG kills by Crusader pilots. The cannon armament of the Crusader proved to be somewhat troublesome, and the guns would frequently jam. During rapid turns and high accelerations, the ammunition belts would often develop kinks, causing the ammunition feed to be disrupted and the guns to jam. There were three Crusader losses to MiGs. All three of them were F-8E fighters. The first loss was on June 21, 1966, when F-8E BuNo 149152 flown by by Lt. Cole Black VF-211 was shot down by a MiG. Lt. Black ejected and was taken prisoner. A VF-162 F-8E (BuNo 150908) flown by the squadron's skipper, Commander Dick Bellinger was hit by MiGs on July 14, 1966. Cmdr Bellinger attempted to divert to Da Nang, but exhausted his fuel and was forced to eject. An F-8E (BuNo 150896) from VF-111 was lost to MiGs on September 5, 1966. The pilot, Captain W. K. Abbot on exchange from the USAF, ejected and became a POW. Overall, the Crusader achieved a six-to-one kill-loss ratio during the Vietnam war.
The Navy photo reconnaissance unit VFP-62 was decommissioned on January 5, 1968. VFP-63 now assumed sole responsibility for providing RF-8 detachments to all the Navy's carriers. In 1971, the squadron was restructured to include a permanent shore command and five numbered detachments (two in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific). On September 1, 1972, VFP-63 also assumed responsibility for all F-8 training in the Navy. It had received F-8Hs in 1969, with the goal being to provide the RF-8s with their own escorts. However, the F-8Hs had to be redistributed to fighter squadrons. The RF-8As began to give way to the RF-8Gs in the late 1960s.
In 1972, combat was renewed in response to the invasion of the South on Easter weekend. This time, the Phantom was the primary MiG-killer of the Navy, and the Crusader was destined to achieve no further victories over MiGs. Most F-8 fighters flew escort missions for photographic reconnaissance flights and participated in air-to-ground strikes.
There were five US Marine Corps squadrons which saw combat in Vietnam. VMF(AW)-212 was the second fighter squadron during CVW-16's 1965 cruise aboard the Oriskany (CVA-34). One of the Marine carrier-based Crusaders was shot down and the pilot was captured. However, most Marine Corps Crusader units in Vietnam served from shore bases at Da Nang and Chu Lai. This included VMF(AW)-235 and VMF(AW)-232. VMF(AW)-235 flew close support actions against North Vietnamese forces laying siege to Khe Sanh. VMCJ-1 flew the RF-8A, and many were detached to carriers to fly reconnaissance missions. By October 1966, the RF-8A had been supplanted by the RF-4B Phantom, leaving only the F-8Es of VMF(AW)-232 and VMF(AW)-235 to carry on with the Marines. The Marines lost 12 F-8Es to flak in Vietnam, plus two more during enemy rocket attacks on Marine bases.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Crusaders began to be replaced by F-4 Phantoms, especially aboard the larger aircraft carriers. By 1972, F-8s had disappeared from most carrier based fighter squadrons, having been relegated to the reserves or placed in storage. By the last year of the Vietnam war, only four fighter squadrons flew the F-8: VF-24 and VF-211 from the Hancock and VF-191 and VF-194 from the Oriskany. All of them flew the F-8J upgrade of the F-8E. VFP-63's detachments still continued to operate the RF-8G. Most of the smaller 27C carriers had been retired by this time, leaving only the Oriskany and the Hancock still in service. Most of the Atlantic Fleet Crusader squadrons had already been decommissioned.
Following the end of the Vietnam conflict, the USS Hancock remained on duty in the Gulf of Tonkin. In October of 1973, with the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East under way, she was suddenly ordered to the southern end of the Red Sea so that her complement of A-4 Skyhawks and F-8 Crusaders could be turned over to the hard-pressed Israel Defense Forces/Air Force if necessary. These planes were to supplement the A-4s being delivered to Israel through transoceanic flights from the USA. However, in the meantime, the Israelis began to get the upper hand in the war and the Hancock was sent back to the United States without delivering its complement of aircraft.
The last Crusader cruise took place in 1976 with VF-191 and VF-194 aboard the Oriskany. Following the completion of that cruise, the Oriskany was decommissioned and the last Crusader fighters were retired from the fleet. As Crusaders left the fleet, they were transferred to the storage facility at Davis Monthan AFB.
After 1976, the only Crusaders remaining with the Navy were the RF-8Gs of VFP-63. The RA-5C Vigilante was retired in 1979, leaving the RF-8G as the only carrier-based reconnaissance aircraft serving with the US Navy. Detachments from VFP-63 served aboard carriers in the Persian Gulf during the Iranian hostage crisis. The last RF-8G cruise took place aboard the USS Coral Sea in March of 1982. In June of that year, VFP-63 stood down and the last RF-8G was retired.
The F-8A and B Crusaders began serving with the reserves in 1965. Originally, the squadrons shared the planes and flight time between the Navy and Marine Air Reservists, and the planes carried a joint NAVY/MARINE marking on their fuselages.
In response to the 1968 North Korean seizure of the Pueblo intelligence ship, the Navy mobilized six reserve squadrons, including three F-8 reserve squadrons--VF-703, VF-661, and VF-931. These units were equipped with older F-8A and F-8B Crusaders, and problems encountered in training, maintenance, and availability were so great that after nearly a year the units were still not fully operational.
In 1970, in response to the problems encountered during the Pueblo callups, there was a major reorganization of the reserves, with the squadrons being reorganized as members of two reserve carrier air wings, CVWR-20 and CVWR-30 which would be part of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets respectively. They were to be given current state-of-the-art aircraft so that things would go more smoothly should their reactivation ever become necessary. Each CVWR had eight squadrons--two fighter, three attack, one early warning, one tanker, and one light photo. At that time, Crusaders equipped three of the squadrons--the two fighter and the one light photo. VF-201 and VF-202 at Dallas, Texas and VF-301 and VF-302 based at NAS Miramar flew the F-8H and later the F-8J, whereas VFP-206 and VFP-306 based at Andrews AFB near Washington DC flew the RF-8G. The composite squadron VC-13 flew F-8Hs when it was formed in 1973 at New Orleans, but it exchanged its F-8Hs for A-4Ls after only a year. The RF-8Gs of VFP-206 and 306 had the interesting job of carrying out pre-show photography missions in support of the Blue Angels flight demonstration team.
By 1975, both the Naval and Marine air reserve units had transitioned to F-4Bs, leaving only the photographic RF-8Gs still with the Reserves. The RF-8G was destined to serve with the reserves for another ten years. On March 29, 1987, the last Crusader reserve squadron (VFP-206) finally retired its last RF-8G (146860) in a formal ceremony in which the plane was handed over to the Smithsonian Institution. VFP-206 was deactivated the next day.
VF(AW)-3, VF-11, VF-13, VF-24, VF-32, VF-33, VF-51, VF-53, VF-62, VF-84, VF-91, VF-103, VF-111, VF-124, VF-132, VF-141, VF-142, VF-143, VF-154, VF-162, VF-174, VF-191, VF-194, VF-211, VF-214, VF-661, VF0703, VF-931, VF-201, VF-202, VF-301, VF-302, VFP-62, VFP-63, VFP-206, VFP-306, VFS-76, VSF-86, VC-13, VCP-61, VMF-112, VMF-122, VMF(AW)-212, VMF-215, VMF(AW)-232, VMF(AW)-235, VMF-251, VMF-312, VMF-321, VMF-323, VMF-333, VMF-334, VMF-451, VMCJ-1, VMCJ-2, VMCJ-3, VMF-351, VMF-511, VMJ-4, VU/VC-1, VU/VC-2, VU/VC-4, VU/VC-5, VU/VC-7, VU/VC-8, VU/VC-10, VC-3, VX-3, VX-4 H&MS-13.