Tuesday, January 17, 2012

From Fighter Jets to Football: Origin of the Phrase "Ragin' Cajun"

As I've mentioned previously, I enjoy debunking myths.  One myth that came up recently is the claim that "UL Lafayette [the University of Louisiana at Lafayette] was the first [entity] to adopt the nickname Ragin’ Cajuns" (The [Lafayette] Independent, 17 January 2012).

Actually, according to archival documents U.S. Marine Corps Reserve fighter squadron VMF-143 adopted the nickname "Ragin' Cajun" as early as 1950. (Louisiana historian Carl A. Brasseaux made the discovery; I merely located a couple more documents that confirmed the finding.) Note that the squadron technically used the term in the singular tense; still, one sometimes finds the term applied to the squadron in the plural.

I found this Ragin' Cajun squadron logo in the National Archives;
note the date 1 December 1950 in the lower right corner.
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration,
Washington, D.C.)

In short, the U.S. Marines fighter squadron used the term over a decade before UL-Lafayette (known at the time as the University of Southwestern Louisiana, or USL, formerly Southwestern Louisiana Institute, SLI) informally adopted the nickname and about a quarter-century before the university formally adopted it.

Details from the back of the National Archives copy
of the Ragin' Cajun squadron logo, dated here 3 August 1956.
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration,
Washington, D.C.)

As I wrote in my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003):

South Louisianans who comprised Marine reserve squadron VMF-143 expressed ethnic pride by nicknaming themselves the Ragin' Cajuns, the earliest known use of this now familiar phrase. The squadron's emblem was a charging cartoon pelican (the Louisiana state bird) bedecked in boxing gloves and carrying a lighted bomb in its mouth. According to former squadron commander Carol Bernard, the Marine Corps activated several Ragin' Cajun pilots during wartime, transferred them to other squadrons, and sent them on combat missions over Korea in new jet fighters.

VMF-143, the Ragin' Cajun squadron, evidently posing somewhere
outside south Louisiana, given the hill in the background.  (Source: Carol Bernard, New Iberia, La.)

As for when UL-Lafayette began to use the "Ragin' Cajuns" nickname, I noted in The Cajuns:

During this same period [1974], USL officially renamed its football team the Ragin' Cajuns, a name it had informally adopted in 1963, when the school's student newspaper noted, "USL football fans are coining another nickname. . . . Instead of the official Battling Bulldogs, Southwestern boosters have started referring to Coach Russ Faulkinberry's squad as the Raging [sic] Cajuns" because nearly all the players were south Louisianians.  The school's other athletic teams soon were donning the name on their traditional red and white uniforms.

I date the official change of the team's name to 1974 because of the headline "Augie's Doggies Turn Cajun" appearing in the 1975 USL L'Acadien student yearbook.  The article featured the previous year's football season;  "Augie"  referred to then coach Augie Tammariello.

Although UL trademarked "Ragin' Cajuns," the Discovery Channel is now using the term as the title of a new "reality" program about Louisiana shrimpers.

A clearer version of the Ragin' Cajun fighter squadron logo (no date).
(Source: Carl A. Brasseaux Collection,
Southwestern Archives and Manuscripts Collection,
UL-Lafayette, Lafayette, La.)

Addendum of 11 April 2012:

I recently received an e-mail from John Hornung, a former member of the Ragin' Cajun squadron.  Mr. Hornung has written a memoir of his time in the Marine Corps, called Private 1543868 (available for purchase from Barnesandnoble.com by clicking here).  Below is an excerpt about the squadron from Mr. Hornung's book:
[O]n May 6, 1956, I enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve and joined VMF 143, the Ragin Cajuns. VMF 143 was a Marine Fighter Squadron stationed at Naval Air Station New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain. As you entered the front gate of the Naval Air Station you passed under a large sign proclaiming, The Home of the Ragin Cajuns. The air base was located one and a half miles from my home.

An F4U Corsair, the original fighter plane
of the Ragin' Cajun squadron.
(Source: NASA.gov)

Since I would be going off to boot camp in a few weeks, I was assigned jobs requiring short learning curves. One of those jobs was conducting aircraft preflight checks and engine tests while our pilots attended briefings in the ready room. The aircraft of VMF 143 was the famous F4U Corsair of WWII in the Pacific. It also served with distinction in Korea. The fun part for us mechanics was strapping into the pilot seat and starting up the massive engine. Once warmed up we put the engine through its paces and conducted tests to check the engine’s condition. We checked oil and hydraulic pressures, instrument readings, and placed a load on the engine by increasing the pitch of the prop under increasing levels of RPMs. Once we completed our check out and shut down, the Corsair was ready for its pilot. I’m sure we had a swagger in our walk as we returned to the flight shack. . . . 

An AD4 Skyraider, which the
Ragin' Cajun squadron flew beginning in late 1956.
(Source: NASA.gov)

After returning from boot camp in December 1956, VMF 143 was relieved of its F4U Corsairs and given AD4 Skyraiders. AD4s were the largest single prop driven aircraft ever built. They carried the largest load of arms of any single engine aircraft. They served in the Korean War and in the Vietnam War. One shot down two Russian MiG jets in Vietnam. These were wonderful birds. We mechanics enjoyed working on them and checking them out for our pilots before takeoff. In 1957, while stationed for two weeks training at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Base North Carolina, VMF 143 set a unit record for total flying time. In January 1958 VMF 143 became VMA 143 and we received our first jet aircraft, F9F Cougars. The fun in the pilot seat ended. The F9Fs didn’t require any warm up and cockpit check out. We strapped our pilots in their seats and they taxied off with us covering our ears from the loud wine of the engine.

An F9F Cougar, the jet fighter to which the
Ragin' Cajun squadron would graduate in 1958.
(Source: NASA.gov)

Source: John Hornung, Private 1543868 (Williamsburg, Va.: Jack be Nimble Publishing, 2010).  Thanks to Mr. Hornung for permission to publish this excerpt.

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