The U.S. Navy’s first documented interest in aviation came in March 1898, when a 39-year-old named Theodore Roosevelt—at the time the assistant secretary of the Navy—called for the creation of a four-officer board to examine Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s “flying machine.” His unpiloted “aeroplane” had been successfully demonstrated as early as 6 May 1896, just off Chopawamsic Island near Quantico, Virginia.
But despite Roosevelt’s assertion that “the machine has worked,” Langley’s creation was not a successful manned platform. Soon overshadowed by Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first manned flight at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903, it faded into history.
The Navy would wait seven more years before committing to the unproven allure of heavier-than-air flying machines. While the overriding view at the time held that aviation was dangerous and of little value, bold visionaries held out hope. In 1908 a pair of naval officers witnessed a Wright demonstration at Fort Myer, Virginia, and waxed enthusiastic: “The navy must have that! It will be important to us.”1 Two years later the Navy officially started an air department, assigning Captain Washington Irving Chambers to oversee aviation.
The ensuing 14 months saw the first takeoff from, and landing aboard, a Navy ship—though not as part of the same flight. In the same period the Navy accepted aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss’ offer of free flying lessons, sending submarine Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson to North Island in San Diego, California, for instruction.
On what today is commemorated as the birth of naval aviation—8 May 1911—the Navy officially purchased two aircraft from Curtiss. Ellyson continued learned the business of flying and in 1914 was officially designated Naval Aviator No. 1.
The Midwife to Marine Air
The Marine Corps was not far behind its Navy cousins. In 1903, the year the brothers Wright made headlines, a 21-year-old civilian named Alfred Austell Cunningham had made a balloon ascent. No stranger to excitement, he had enlisted in the U.S. Army at 16 and fought in the Spanish-American War. That ride aloft kindled a deep and abiding interest in aviation, even though it appears to have lain fallow for a time. The young man next spent almost six years in the real estate business before accepting a commission as a second lieutenant of Marines on 25 January 1909.
Cunningham served in succession on board the USS New Jersey (BB-16), North Dakota (BB-29), and Lancaster, a 19th-century screw sloop-of-war that by then was the receiving ship at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In 1911 he was transferred to the Marine Barracks on the yard. However dormant his interest in aviation may have been up to that point, it now sprang to life, and he spent much of his time getting to know local pilots and aviation entrepreneurs. From one such acquaintance Cunningham leased a kit airplane for $25 per month with the intention of teaching himself to fly. On an open field on the Navy Yard, the determined Marine struggled frequently with the contraption that he soon began calling “Noisy Nan” for all its rattling and rumbling. But Nan would never agree to actually fly. Lamented Cunningham: “I called her everything in God’s name to go up. I pleaded with her. I caressed her, I prayed to her, and I cursed that flighty old maid to lift up her skirts and hike, but she never would.”2
The aviator-to-be also joined the Aero Club of Philadelphia, and soon thereafter Pennsylvania congressmen were being pressured by club VIPs to create a Marine Corps aviation detachment in Philadelphia. Major General Commandant William P. Biddle ordered Cunningham to cease such instigation, but also directed him to report to Annapolis, Maryland, for flight training at the Aviation Camp that had been established there. Cunningham arrived in Annapolis on 22 May 1912, the date now officially recognized as the birthday of Marine Corps aviation. After a temporary stint at sea, Cunningham returned to flying, soloing for the first time on 20 August. He had become the Marine Corps’ first pilot. Officially designated Naval Aviator No. 5 in March 1913, he was given the distinction of becoming Marine Corps Aviator No. 1 two years later.
A Growing Aviation Cadre
Shortly after Cunningham soloed, Sergeant James Maguire—an eager Marine who had helped cajole Noisy Nan in Philadelphia—was given temporary orders to learn aviation mechanics, earning a place in history as the first enlisted Marine assigned to aviation duty. The Marine Corps’ second pilot, First Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith, joined Cunningham and Maguire at the Annapolis Aviation Camp in September 1912.
While Cunningham loved flying, his fiancée, Josephine, refused to marry him if he continued to pursue his risky passion. Thus the frustrated-but-in-love Marine requested—and received—detachment from flight duty. In time, however, Josephine yielded, and Cunningham returned to the air in early 1915. During his absence, First Lieutenant Smith had taken command of an aviation section of the Marines’ Advance Base Force and led them on a detachment to the Caribbean in January 1914—the first Marine aviation deployment. First Lieutenant Roy Geiger, who later as a general officer played a vital role in prompting the Marine Corps’ acquisition of helicopters, was appointed student aviator on 31 March 1916 as the Marine Corps’ fifth pilot (and eventually Naval Aviator No. 49).
Early in 1917, with war raging in Europe, Cunningham was ordered to return to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to prepare for an Aeronautic Advanced Base Unit. When the United States entered the Great War on 6 April, Marine aviation comprised just 7 officers and 43 enlisted men. By war’s end a year and a half later, air strength had grown to 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted.3
A Flying Force for Europe
During the war Marine air left a favorable mark, even though prewar organizing had been limited and preparing for deployment had been a scramble. In mid-June 1917, Marine Squadron C (commanded by Major David C. S. Brewster) arrived at Quantico, Virginia—the first Marine aviation unit to be stationed there.4 Then the Marine Aeronautical Company from the Philadelphia Advanced Base Force split into two units in October 1917: the First Aviation Squadron—land-based aircraft—and the First Aeronautical Squadron, which had seaplanes that would be used for antisubmarine flights in the Azores. The Corps’ aviation forces were consolidated at the Marine Flying Field in Miami, Florida, in June 1918 to form the First Marine Aviation Force. This unit—composed of Squadrons A, B, C, and D—was sent to France to fight the Germans.
Prior to the dispatch of Marine aviation units abroad, Cunningham toured French and British aviation components in late 1917, and even flew combat missions with French pilots just one week before Christmas. Cunningham colorfully recounted in his diary:
Got up frozen stiff. The weather was fairly clear. Persuaded a French pilot of a biplane fighting Spad to take me over the lines. We went up like an elevator and talk about speed! We were over the lines in no time and I was all eyes. The archies [antiaircraft fire] bursting near us worried me some and made it hard to look all the time for boches [Germans]. I saw something to one side that looked like a fountain of red ink. Found it was the machine gun tracer bullets from the ground. After a few minutes we sighted a boche two-seater just below us. We made for him. It was the finest excitement I ever had. I got my machine gun ready. Before we got to him he dived and headed for home. On one of our rolls I let loose of six at him but it was too far for good shooting. After following him a ways over the lines we turned to look for another. None were out so we came home. Finest trip I ever had. . . . There is certainly no lack of excitement around here.5
That excitement about aviation would sustain the Marine air leader through some difficult times ahead, for despite undeniably impressive wartime credentials, after the war Marine aviation forces were slashed drastically.
The Marine Corps had approximately 5,400 men at the turn of the century, almost 11,000 by mid-1916, and more than 75,000 when the war ended in November 1918. Post-conflict budget cuts—which would become a U.S. standard—reduced the number of Marine aviators from almost 400 to fewer than 50. Adding insult to injury, Marine pilots evoked a certain antipathy from their non-flying brethren. Some months later—in September 1920—Cunningham vented his frustration in the Marine Corps Gazette: “One of the greatest handicaps which Marine Corps Aviation must now overcome is a combination of doubt as to usefulness, lack of sympathy, and a feeling on the part of some line officers that aviators and aviation men are not real Marines.”6
Major Cunningham, who served as the first officer in charge of Marine Corps Aviation, was replaced by Marine Aviator No. 73, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas C. Turner, on 24 November 1920. (Turner Field at Quantico is named in his honor; he tragically died when he walked into the spinning propeller of his Sikorsky RS-1 aircraft during an inspection of Marine aviation forces in Haiti). The Marines struggled initially to preserve their new-found aviation capabilities, but Congress eventually came to their aid, approving a postwar structure that included more than 1,000 Marines for aviation and allowed for permanent air bases at Quantico; Parris Island, South Carolina; and San Diego.
The Navy established the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) in July 1921, giving control to the “father of naval aviation,” Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, who would die a dozen years later in the 1933 crash of the airship Akron off the coast of New Jersey. BuAer’s creation is noteworthy because it would acquire significant authority and oversight for naval aviation, specifically of policies and decisions that ultimately would result in the Marine Corps’ transition into the leading helicopter force—including approval for the first USMC helicopter squadron in 1947 (HMX-1).
Birth of Marine Air’s Hallmarks
Both Navy and Marine air took a big step forward in 1922 when the USS Jupiter (AC-3), a collier, was converted into the first U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1). The remainder of that decade and the 1930s were punctuated by a number of remarkable achievements in both civilian and military aviation, and the Marines achieved their share of the limelight across the globe. Legendary Marine Smedley D. Butler, while commanding the 3d Marine Brigade in China in the late 1920s, said of Marine air support: “I have always believed that had it not been for the splendidly efficient air force attached to the 3d Brigade in China, we could not have avoided bloodshed. The [Marine] air force was of more value to me than a regiment.”7
Recognizing that such value was not so readily apparent to most Americans, the Marine Corps engaged in aggressive and continuous salesmanship in the decades between world wars, intent on shoring up public and government support for its aviation arm. The art of close-air support began to emerge in the Marine Corps’ small-unit actions of the 1920s, becoming a trademark in the Pacific war and spilling over into Korea in 1950. It was there that the pioneering spirit of Marine aviation saw the potential for helicopters in combat roles—from supply to envelopment—an air-ground matchup that reached full bloom in Vietnam. Today, in the year of the Marine aviation centennial, facing the emerging challenges of another postwar era, the “A” in MAGTF—Marine Air-Ground Task Force—remains as strong and vital to our nation as ever.
2. LTCOL Edward C. Johnson, Marine Corps Aviation: The Early Years (1912–1940), Graham A. Cosmas, ed. (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1977), p. 2.
3. Boggs, “Marine Aviation,” p. 71.
4. “Marine Aviation, A Record of Achievement,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 1930, p. 18.
5. Marine Flyer in France: The Diary of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham, November 1917–January 1918, Graham A. Cosmas, ed. (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1974), http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/memoir/marines/cunning/flyer.html.
6. Boggs, “Marine Aviation,” p. 73.
7. Ibid., p. 74.