Marine Corps

March 29, 2012

Marine Aviators: A Century of Service

2nd MAW Public Affairs
Courtesy of Defense Department, Marine Corps
First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. –  More than one hundred years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright took turns guiding their wood and fabric Flyer over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Just over five years later, the Navy had made the decision to acquire flying machines, and by 1912 had four aviators on its rolls.  Aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss began training these pilots who would later learn to drop bombs on ships and trenches, and to make daring carrier landings and take-offs. The operation of aircraft from Navy ships was a revolutionary step in U.S. military history which set the stage for the eventual inclusion of aviation in the combined-arms concept, the utilization of the helicopter for troop transport, and the development of an all-Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing aviation force.

Marine aviation officially began on May 22, 1912, when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to Naval Aviation Camp in Annapolis, Maryland, “for duty in connection with aviation.” He soloed after only two hours and 40 minutes of instruction (in a Wright Bros. Model B-1), and became Naval Aviator No. 5.

As the number of Marine aviators grew, so did the desire to separate from Naval Aviation, a dream realized on January 6, 1914, when First Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith was directed to Culebra, Puerto Rico, to establish the Marine Section of the Navy Flying School.

Two factors have continuously set Marine Aviation apart in the history of military flight. The first is the close relationship between Marine and Naval Aviation, and the second is the unchanging objective of Marine Aviation to provide direct support to Marine ground forces in combat.

In 1915, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Corps aviation company consisting of 10 officers and 40 enlisted men. The first official Marine flying unit arrived with the February 17, 1917, commissioning of the Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

When the United States joined World War I in 1917, the Marines Corps had just five aviators and 30 enlisted men, including Cunningham. At war’s end, Marine aviation included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men, with two Marine aviators having been awarded the Medal of Honor.

During the twenties and thirties, Marine Aviation units supported brigades in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, China and Nicaragua. The guerrilla-type warfare of the 1927 Nicaraguan deployment gave Marine aviation its first opportunity to provide a form of close air support to Marines in combat, precursors of what was to become the Marine air-ground team standard of future decades.

The sudden immersion of the United States in World War II found the Marines on the front lines, defending Wake Island against a better-equipped, more-experienced Japanese force. Marine aviators led the attack in the famous Battle of Midway, an American victory despite high losses to pilots and aircraft. Marines ended World War II with 125 aces and eight Medals of Honor. The Marines’ F4-U Corsair became famous as a symbol of Marine Corps ground support and air superiority in the Pacific.

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