by Tommy H. Thomason

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Brief, F4U Corsair-oriented History of Navy Color Schemes and Markings

1 October 2022: Expanded the gray/white scheme discussion thanks to Tom Chee providing F4U/AU aircraft history card data.

One of the useful aspects of the Vought F4U Corsair's long career is that it can be used to illustrate three decades of U.S. Navy color schemes and markings. With the exception of two schemes, one arguably and the other definitely experimental, it lasted from the "yellow" wings of biplanes of the 1930s through to the change to gull gray and white in the mid 1950s.

n.b. Federal Standard 595 was first issued in March 1956 to provide a reference for "Colors Used in Government Procurement." The colors are identified by five-digit numbers but no names. Before that, there was Federal Specification TT-C-595 issued in January 1950 that identified colors by four-digit numbers. It was preceded by  an Army/Navy Aeronautics Bulletins that identified colors by three digit numbers and names. For some, this will be a gross oversimplification of aircraft color specification history but it's not my specialty.

The XF4U-1 flew for the first time on 29 May 1940. In conformance with the exterior color scheme at the time, metal surfaces were painted with aluminized lacquer and fabric surfaces were finished with alumininized dope except for the upper surface of the wings (including the ailerons), which was painted Orange Yellow so an airplane could be easily spotted if ditched in the ocean. (It would float because like most Navy airplanes of the era, it was equipped with flotation bags in the wing.)

Note that the national insignia is a blue circle with a white star encompassing a red circle and that the propeller tip has bands of blue, yellow, and red.

The first scheme that the F4U missed (the first production airplane did not fly until mid 1942 and the prototype doesn't appear to have been repainted) was an overall Light Gray scheme with white markings that marked the prewar change to low visibility in early 1941 as illustrated by this Grumman F4F Wildcat. It also added the national insignia to the sides of the fuselage and removed it from the upper right and lower left wings.

The single shade of gray approach was short-lived and replaced with a Blue Grey over Light Grey scheme for carrier-based airplanes on 20 August 1941. On 5 January 1942, the national insignia was reinstated on the upper right and lower left wings.

Note that the red centers have been removed from the national insignia as of 15 May 1942 in order to avoid confusion with the Japanese red rising-sun markings. (The original scheme, which did not appear on the first production Corsairs, also had red and white rudder stripes that somewhat detracted from the camouflage effect and were removed by the same directive.)

In January 1943, the U.S. Navy released a specification that replaced the simple Blue Gray over Light Gray camouflage scheme scheme with a complex one that employed counter-shading and counter-shadowing. Four colors were used: Semigloss Sea Blue on upper surfaces, non-specular Sea Blue on the wing leading edges, non-specular Intermediate Blue Sides, and non-specular Insignia White on the lower surfaces. Four-place national insignia were again decreed on 1 February 1943 in order to further minimize the likelihood of confusion with Japanese markings which were six place.

It took some time for the Navy to repaint delivered aircraft and probably a month or more for the contractors to develop and switch over to color schemes in accordance with the specification. For example, VF-17, which was working up for combat, was still flying Corsairs in two-tone gray scheme with six-place national insignia when carrier qualifying aboard Charger in March 1943.

However, by the time that Bunker Hill was available for shakedown of its air group in July 1943, VF-17 had F4U-1s that had been repainted by the Navy rework/repair facility at Norfolk, Virginia in their version of the new multi-color scheme. (Click HERE for background on it.)
(National Archives 80-G-205087 via Jim Sullivan)

The addition of white bars with a red surround of the national insignia was decreed on 28 June 1943. At least one VF-17 F4U-1 received the change in time to participate in the pilot qualifications and proficiency operations on Bunker Hill in July.

 In August, VF-17 reequipped with factory new (and factory painted) F4U-1As for their departure on Bunker Hill to the Pacific. In September 1943 the red surround was ordered to be replaced by blue, again due to reduce the potential for confusion with the Japanese markings. (It had already been deleted in the Pacific by an edict on 31 July 1943.) Note the difference in demarcation between the upper and side colors on the repainted airplanes above and this one.
This VF-17 Corsair, BuNo 17640, is marked with 1 and "Big Hog" for the squadron commander, Tom Blackburn, who is fourth from the left. (The dark patches behind the "1" are reportedly repairs of bullet holes made when one of his pilots mistook his airplane for a Japanese fighter.)

The complex multi-color scheme was eventually replaced by an overall gloss Sea Blue one by a directive issued on 26 June 1944.
(F4U-1D on Essex July 1945 via Jim Sullivan)

It was eventually suggested, probably by Grumman, that the Insignia Blue surround of the national insignia was redundant and should be eliminated on all-blue airplanes. It was reportedly deleted well before the official authorization to do so was issued in June 1946. A red bar was added in January 1947 to reinstate all the colors of the U.S. flag.

Although no Corsairs were involved in the experimental (and again short-lived) unpainted approach of the early 1950s (click HERE for a brief discussion), there was an F4U-1A created from various wrecked Corsairs by Service Squadron 11 of Marine Aircraft Group 11 based at Espiritu Santos (Vanuatu). However, it appears to be not unpainted but instead have been given an aluminum paint finish. "Sally" was marked on the cowling.
Photo provided by Jim Sullivan.

 Some Corsairs lasted long enough in service to be repainted light gull gray (36440) and white in accordance with the change introduced on 23 February 1955 following the failed "unpainted" exterior experiment. It was first introduced, to an extent, with some replacements for F4U-4s assigned to the Navy Reserve squadrons at Olathe, Kansas and Seattle, Washington. The last of these in overhaul retained their blue outboard wing panels and rudders but the fuselage and inboard wings were gray/white and the elevators, flaps, and ailerons were white. My guess is that the antiglare panel was nonspecular dark blue but it could have been black.

These were overhauled at San Diego and delivered in September/October 1955 to augment the remaining all-blue Corsairs in those units. My guess is that stripping and repainting the fabric-covered outer wing panels and rudder was deemed to be too much trouble given the likelihood of early retirement of these airplanes. The Olathe Corsairs, for example, went into storage at Litchfield Park in June/July 1956; at least two of the Seattle Corsairs left for Arizona in September 1956.

A handful of AU-1s received the complete paint scheme. At least three—BuNos 129378, 129403, and 129411—were overhauled at San Diego in 1955 and delivered to Aircraft Engineering Squadron-12 at Quantico, Virginia between March and June 1956 to provide training for ground-based close-air-support controllers. Again, this last service tour was over in little more than a year with one being ferried to NAS Norfolk, Virginia in June 1957 and two at the end of August, where all three were stricken in October 1957.

New soft-cover Corsair books well worth your consideration have been published recently: Jim Sullivan has completely rewritten and re-illustrated his F4U Corsair In Action published by  Squadron/Signal Publications. Is is a very good summary of the various versions with many previously unpublished photos.

Rafe Morrissey and Joe Hegedus have authored The Vought F4U Corsair: A Comprehensive Guide, SAM Publications. As you might guess from the title, it provides more detail (and more than twice as many pages) as Jim's monograph, including coverage of the kits and decals that had been produced at the book's publication.


  1. If interested in corrections, additional details, enhanced info on colors, will provide.

    Examples: red and white rudder stripes (13 total) added in Jan 1942, to help distinguish US from Japanese aircraft but, by May 1942, realized to be revealing at sea. F4Fs on USS ENTERPRISE, escorting Hornet for Doolittle raid are seen with dark "sock" over rudder to hide them from view at distance.

    Star-and-bar changes in 1943 created because round insignia were difficult to distinguish at distance, no matter the color or design. Dates for addition and deletion of red and then Insignia Blue surrounds do officially take effect on the dates of various memos but, in practical application, the changes often took weeks, or even months, to be incorporated on aircraft operating "in the field." The red surround was rescinded in September 1943 but could be seen on some Pacific-theater aircraft as late as Feb-Mar 1944, even though pilots in that area of operations were most vehement in their objection to ANY red in the national markings. As for markings on top and bottom of wings, and proper sizes, there were a lot of non0standard variations.

    The key thing to remember, for modelers, is NEVER to assume that just because a regulation is published, that the orders within that reg are carried out strictly and immediately.

    R. Lewis

  2. Re F4U BuNo 17640,'Big Hog, three things of note: 1) the national insignia is supposed to have a 2"-wide band of (first) Insignia Red, later changed to Insignia Blue. The band was supposed to completely surround the circle with the star and the flanking rectangular "bars." In this case, the white points of the star go right to the very edge of the blue background. Because there is no tonal difference between the border on the flanking bars and the blue background, it would APPEAR that the marking is all blue, which appeared after Sep 43. This is just one more example of the non-standard application found throughout the operational theaters of that time, while the markings were in flux.
    2) Note the white "markings" around the panel on the top of the nose. They are not markings but tape used to seal the edges of the panel covering the engine oil tank and fuselage fuel tank, to prevent fluids from smearing the windscreen. The tape is often applied so cleanly that it appears to be a painted-on marking but it is actually tape. Surgical tape was often used to repair fabric on planes of this era and the pure white color seems to match that of surgical tape, rather than duct tape.
    3) Also note several photos where the gun barrels on the wings of the Corsair are covered. This was done to prevent both humidity-laden tropical air--on board ships and on land bases--as well as corrosive coral dust from land bases--from getting into the guns. The moisture would condense with colder temps at higher altitudes and freeze, jamming the guns. The coral dust, mixed with the moisture, was both highly abrasive and corrosive.

    R. Lewis

  3. Regarding Grumman's deletion of Insignia Blue as the background color for its "star-and-bar" insignia, it's a very interesting story. Grumman was the first to do this but Ryan Aircraft (FR-1 Fireball, for example) was the only other company to do this--and get away with what was technically unauthorized. Grumman did it on their F6F Hellcats. The FM-2 Wildcats and TBMs were, by then, being made by General Motors, and had the full Insignia Blue backing. The story goes that a Navy inspector noticed the deviation and objected but, when he was told that Grumman was able to crank out an additional six desperately-needed Hellcats per week just by saving the time masking and painting the nearly-invisible blue, the inspector backed off and allowed the deviation. It continued through the rest of the war, until officially approved, as noted in the article above, in 1946.

    R. Lewis

  4. Regarding the light gray-over-white Corsair, one thing may not be readily apparent from the included photo. Take a close look at the flaps, ailerons and elevators. The Feb 55 change from overall Glossy Sea Blue to non-specular [flat] gray over glossy Insignia White mandated that the upper sides of all "airfoil" surfaces, such as the wing and horizontal stabilizers would be gray but all lower surfaces of the airfoil devices, and both the top and bottom of "control surfaces," such as the flaps, ailerons and elevators would be gloss white.

    In the mid 1950s, US military aircraft now had to worry about survivability in the nuclear arena. B-52 bombers had their bellies painted white to reflect nuclear flash from their own ordnance. The A-3 and A-4 were the Navy's first dedicated nuclear strike aircraft. Not only were their horizontal surfaces painted white, but their rudders, as well. Heat from the flash of a nuclear explosion could easily warp and buckle sheet metal. Although many aircraft of the era were not nuclear strike aircraft or even fast enough to escape a nearby nuke strike, the standard for white control surfaces seems to have been applied primarily as an anti-flash mechanism. On the bottom surfaces of aircraft, the gloss also helped to prevent heavy stains and weathering from oil and hydraulic fluids. Landing gear bays during this period were also painted gloss white, principally so that hydraulic leaks could be more easily spotted.

    R. Lewis

  5. For some reason, the rudder was to be grey when the light gull gray and white scheme was directed in February 1955. My guess is that it was believed that only the horizontal control surfaces (which were generally thinner material than the wing skins) needed to be protected from the thermal effects and a white rudder would reduce the camouflage benefit. However, rudders began to be painted white even before the officially change to white issued in June 1960.

  6. There's another thing I've noticed about the national insignia when it is rendered by an artist or illustrator. They (many) have a hard time with it. A few; size of the side blocks, location of blocks in relation to the points on the star, position of the star in the circle (roundel), width of the blue outline, and others.