Phantom with US Marine Corps

Last revised December 30, 1999

The Marine Corps received its first F4H-1s in June of 1962 when VMF(AW)-314 based at MCAS Cherry Point traded in its F4D Skyrays for the Phantom.

By the summer of 1964, the Marine Corps had six squadrons equipped with F-4Bs. The first to reach the war zone were the F-4Bs of VMFA-531, which reached Da Nang AB on April 11, 1965. They flew their first combat missions over South Vietnam two days later. Beginning in April of 1965, Marine Corps F-4Bs were based at airfields in Vietnam and Thailand (as well as aboard the USS (CVA-66). They took an active part in the Vietnam war, mainly flying ground attack missions in support of Marine ground forces in South Vietnam However they did fly Tally Ho offensive strikes in the North Vietnamese panhandle and Steel Tiger/Tiger Hound interdiction missions over Laos.

The F-4B served with the following Marine Corps squadrons:

VMFA-115, VMFA-151, VMFA-312, VMFA-314, VMFA-321, VMFA-323, VMFA-513, VMFA-531, VMFA-541, and VMFAT-201.

Most F-4Bs were operated by the Navy and Marine Corps until they were converted to F-4N configuration, struck off the rolls or transferred to storage at the Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. The last Marine Corps unit to use the F-4B, VMFA-323, finally traded in its planes for later-model F-4Ns in 1979, bringing the service life of the F-4B to a close.

The RF-4B was the unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the F-4B. It was used exclusively by the Marine Corps. The fighter's radar-equipped nose was replaced with a special nose specifically designed for reconnaissance applications. The first RF-4B flew on March 12, 1965, and deliveries of 46 examples took place between May 1965 and December 1970.

The RF-4B was first delivered to VMCJ-3 based at MCAS El Toro in May of 1965, and soon after to VMCJ-2 at MCAS Cherry Point and to VMCJ-1 at Iwakuni in Japan. VMCJ-1 based at Iwakuni in Japan took its RF-4Bs to Da Nang in October of 1966. During the Southeast Asia conflict, three RF-4Bs were lost to ground fire and one was destroyed in an operational accident.

In 1975, two years after combat in Southeast Asia had ended, the surviving RF-4Bs were regrouped into a new squadron, VMFP-3, based at MCAS El Toro. VMFP-3 stood down in August of 1990, bringing Marine Corps operations of the RF-4B to an end.

The F-4J was the final version of the Phantom to be placed in production for the US Navy and US Marine Corps. A total of 522 F-4Js were built for the Navy and Marine Corps between December 1966 and January 1972. The first Marine Corps unit to receive the F-4J was VMFA-334, which began to receive the type in June of 1967.

The following Marine Corps units operated the F-4J:

VMFA-112, VMFA-115, VMFA-122, VMFA-212, VMFA-232, VMFA-235, VMFA-312, VMFA-333, VMFA-334, VMFA-451, and VMFAT-101.

Marine Corps F-4Js were used extensively in Vietnam during the latter stages of Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from March 2, 1965 until October 31, 1968. They returned to Vietnam in April of 1972 in response to the North Vietnamese offensive to participate in Operation Linebacker. In May, Marine Corps Phantoms moved to bases in Thailand, from which they flew strikes against targets in Laos and North Vietnam.

No air-to-air combat victories were claimed by Marine Corps F-4 units flying out of bases in Vietnam or Thailand. However, on September 11, 1972, Major Thomas Lasseter and Captain John D. Commings flying F-4J BuNo 155526 of VFMA-333 from the USS *America* (CV-66) shot down a MiG-21 over North Vietnam, scoring the only Marine air-to-air kill in the Southeast Asia conflict. The F-4J was the last US aircraft in operation in Southeast Asia, with Marine F-4Js of VMFA-232 finally leaving the base at Nam Phong in Thailand in August of 1973.

During the Vietnam conflict, 72 Marine F-4Bs were lost in combat (one to a MiG, 65 to AAA, and six to mortar or sapper attacks on their bases) and 23 others were destroyed in operational accidents.

The F-4J began to leave Marine Corps service in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the surviving Marine Corps F-4Js were upgraded to F-4S status and were returned to service, where they soldiered on into the late 1980s and even into the early 1990s.

By 1970, the Navy was beginning to be concerned about the condition of its fleet of F-4Bs, many of which were over ten years old and showing signs of old age and fatigue. In that year, a program named Bee Line was initiated in which F-4Bs were refurbished and modernized. Ultimately, 228 Navy F-4Bs went through the Bee Line program. These refurbished planes were redesignated F-4N.

The F-4N was issued to the the following Marine Corps squadrons:

VFMA-112, VFMA-134, VFMA-314, VFMA-321, VFMA-323, VFMA-351, VFMA-531, VFMAT-101.

The F-4N remained with Marine Corps reserve units until being replaced by either the F-4S (a conversion of the F-4J) or by the F/A-18 Hornet during the early 1980s. The last Marine Corps unit to fly the F-4N was VFMA-134, which relinquished the type in 1985.

F-4S was the designation applied to 265 (some sources say 248) F-4Js which were upgraded in the mid 1970s. This program was analogous to the Bee Line project which had upgraded Navy F-4Bs to F-4N standards. The major goal of the upgrade was to prolong the life of the F-4J so that it could remain in service until replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet in Marine Corps service and by the F-14 Tomcat in Navy service.

First to get the F-4S was VMFA-451, which began to receive their first planes in June of 1978.

The following Marine Corps units operated the F-4S:

VFMA-112, VFMA-115, VFMA-111, VFMA-134, VFMA-212, VFMA-232, VFMA-235, VFMA-251, VFMA-312, VFMA-321, VFMA-333, VFMA-451, and VFMAT-101.

In the late 1980s, Marine Corps units began to phase out its F-4Ss in favor of F/A-18As. In January of 1992, the reserve unit VMFA-112 retired the last F-4S from the US Sea Service inventory. They completed their transition to the F/A-18A shortly thereafter. This was the last Marine Corps unit to operate the Phantom, and was, incidentally, also the last naval aviation Phantom to serve on active duty, apart from drones.


  1. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920: Volume II, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  2. McDonnell F-4 Phantom: Spirit in the Skies. Airtime Publishing, 1992.

  3. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  4. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  5. The World's Great Attack Aircraft, Gallery, 1988.