Author’s note: special thanks to “The three Daves”: David Dollarhide, David Page and David Weber for their invaluable assistance with this story. This article is respectfully dedicated to all members of VA-46, and especially those lost aboard USS Forrestal, July 1967.
US Navy Attack Squadron FORTY SIX (VA-46) was established on 24 May, 1955. Besides combat operations in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, as well as deployments to other trouble spots around the World (including the Suez Canal in 1956 and Libya), VA-46 also saw firsthand the fire that broke out aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59) in July, 1967. VA-46 lost 9 officers and enlisted men, and seven A4-E Skyhawks in that terrible tragedy. Among the squadron members at the time of the Forrestal fire was Lt. Commander John McCain, who currently serves as a US Senator from Arizona and was the Republican candidate for President in 2008.
In November 1960, CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) approved the squadron insignia. The Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons describes the insignia as a:
…blue field outlined by concentric black lines; the McDougal clan tartan, drawn from the heritage of the squadron’s first commanding officer, had dark blue and white lines on a red background, interspaced with green squares; the [McDougal] crest was white, outlined in black with the Latin words Vincere Vel Mori, meaning to conquer or die; a white stylized aircraft outlined in black; and the banner was white with the designation VA 46 in black. (79)
Befitting the squadron’s use of Scottish symbols, its nickname was “The Clansmen”. The squadron’s Scottish identity was chosen by its first commander, Clifford A. McDougal.
Besides the squadron’s insignia, the aircraft of VA-46 also bore the McDougal tartan. The Skyhawk Association, an organization for Skyhawk pilots and others “with an affinity for the A-4 Skyhawk”, notes that:
The painting of tartan on the Clansmen aircraft was complicated and time consuming, requiring several layers of masking tape and colors of paint. Unlike the squadron insignia, which remained the same, aircraft tartan was subject to the interpretations of many squadron painters over the years. It was an evolutionary process. (http://a4skyhawk.org/3e/va46/va46.htm)
Interestingly, the McDougal tartan became a variant of the Mackenzie tartan when in 1963, Commander R.P. McKenzie became the squadron commander. In 1966, as the squadron was being deployed for action in Vietnam, the McDougal tartan would be used on new aircraft, although, the Association’s article notes that “without the ‘corporate knowledge’ of the previous painters, it took on its own unique look, with much more red and green displayed.”
A photo from the collection of Captain David Dollarhide, who served with VA-46, shows former Squadron Commander Fred Dunning wearing a kilt and tam o’shanter while speaking to squadron members at NAS (Naval Air Station) Cecil Field, located near Jacksonville, Florida, in 1967, after the fire aboard Forrestal that destroyed the majority of VA-46’s aircraft.
We'd lost all of our newer A-4Es as a result of the accident on the ship [USS Forrestal] and began flying the older A-4B as we waited for transition to the Corsair II. We flew the "Bravos" for nine months before the squadron as a whole, began training for the A-7. It was during this time of recovering from the tragedy of the fire and our wait to train that Skipper Dunning was giving a pep talk to the troops in the hangar. (Dollarhide correspondence)
When the squadron switched from the A-4 to the new A-7 Corsair aircraft in 1968, the 3M Corporation actually provided decals of the MacDougall tartan. During the last 8 years before the squadron was disbanded in June, 1991, the tartan was not used at all on VA-46 aircraft, although the MacDougall badge was displayed on the aircraft, as per Navy directive that all colors save Navy approved camouflage gray, be removed.
Squadron members enthusiastically adopted the tartan for other purposes, including O2 (Oxygen) mask covers, flight helmets and even MacDougall tartan glengarries; literature from the Clan MacDougall Society noted that in Autumn, 1976, the Chief of the Clan, Madame Coline MacDougall of MacDougall, was received aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, anchored in the Firth of Forth, by an honor guard wearing the glengarries. (Dollarhide correspondence) Captain David Page noted, “We often wore the Glengarry with our working khaki uniforms, despite it not being ‘truly blessed’ by USN authorities.” When Madame MacDougall made her visit to John F. Kennedy, Page noted that the “honor guard” was made up of officers in “dress blue” uniforms wearing the glengarry. Page noted that displays of the tartan “waxed and waned” according to the interest of the various Commanding Officers. “A junior officer, who served as Mess Treasurer, was responsible for selling newly arrived members of the squadron their glengarries - and it was not an option to buy one, “ noted Page. MacDougall tartan material was also obtained for table runners and a VA-46 Clansmen banner that was used at official ceremonies, and is now displayed in a mockup of the squadron ready room in the Cold War Gallery of the National Museum of the US Navy. The display also includes the glengarry of Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, USN Retired, the last Commanding Officer of the squadron before its disbandment.
Page also mentioned the kilt worn by Dunning, which was passed down from CO to CO - “I wore it once (much to the amusement of junior officers) for a reception at my Orange Park, Florida home,” although he noted not with full regalia. Page then passed the kilt to his successor, who was “glad it was too small to fit his large frame.” Page also noted that the squadron regularly hired a piper to be a part of formal ceremonies, such as a change-of-command. (Page correspondence).
Page, who served with VA-46 as its Executive Officer at the time of the visit to Scotland, was inspired to invite Madame MacDougall (a former Women’s Royal Navy Officer during the Second World War who supervised a bombing range) aboard the John F. Kennedy when it made its port call in Scotland. Page had written The MacDougall after attending the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in the Summer of 1976.
Page and his late wife, Shirley, later visited The MacDougall at Dunollie Castle in Oban, and exchanged cards and letters until The Chief passed away in May, 1990. (Page correspondence; http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/031807/met_8589249.shtml )
While tartan is traditionally associated with Scottish regiments, particularly in the armed forces of the British Commonwealth nations, the VA-46 “Clansmen” are somewhat unique in the adoption of a tartan by an American naval aviation squadron. This symbolism produced a strong sense of esprit de corps in the “Clansmen”, as noted by Dollarhide:
Our identity as the "VA-46 Clansmen," and our connection with the MacDougall clan, was a point of unit pride that made the squadron unique. Even though our squadron has long since been decommissioned, the legacy of the "Clansmen" and the MacDougall family tartan is alive in our memories and in museums around the country.
Today there are commemorative A-4 Skyhawks that bear the colors VA-46 at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon; the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida; The Empire State Aerosciences Museum in Schenectady, New York; “Heritage Row” at NAS Jacksonville, Florida and the National Vietnam War Museum in Orlando, Florida.