Over the past 100 years, Marine Aviation has grown in both numbers and variety of missions. During this blog, we’ll trace the history of USMC aviation from its inception to the many roles it plays in defense of our nation today.
The beginnings of Marine Aviation date back to 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported for aviation duty at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland. The camp was composed of two officers, six mechanics, and three aircraft. Cunningham soloed on August 20. 1912 after a mere two hours and forty minutes of instruction. During the next four years, Lts. Bernard L. Smith, William M. Mcllvain, Francis T. Evans and Roy S. Geiger were assigned to the school. Each pilot had his own concept of how this new arm could enhance Marine Corps. operations. This resulted in two rival concepts of Marine Aviation, one in which the sole mission of the air arm was combat support of ground forces, while the other emphasized combined operations in which Marine Aviation supported the Navy. A training exercise in 1914 proved the value of USMC aviation. This exercise was a test of the ability of a Marine force to occupy, fortify and defend an advanced base and hold it against hostile attack. The air contingent was composed of two officers with ten mechanics, one flying boat and one amphibian. As the exercise progressed, two pilots took brigade commanders on reconnaissance flights over the battle area. The brigade officers were impressed with the speed and field of vision of the aircraft and recommended doubling the size of both the pilots and ground crew.
With the US declaration of war against Germany in 1917, Marine Aviation entered a period of rapid growth in both manpower and equipment. The Marine Corps entered the war with 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted. By wars end the Corps. commitment totaled 2,400 officers and 70,000 enlisted. While the initial concept of Marine deployment to France was to send a brigade to fight alongside the Army, Marine Aviation began to assert itself to ensure that the new arm got its share of Corps. manpower, additionally providing air support for the brigade. However, Marine Corps. Aviation found itself split between two competing missions. Land-based planes provided artillery spotting and reconnaissance for the brigade deployed to France, as well as a seaplane unit flying antisubmarine patrols. In addition to flying cover for ground forces, Marine Air units carried out fourteen bombing missions against railway yards, canals, and supply dumps, resulting in the destruction of four German aircraft.
After World War I ended, the Marine Corps., along with the other services, began a desperate struggle to persuade Congress to maintain prewar levels of bases, personnel, and equipment. As a sidebar to the overall battle for military appropriations, Lt. (now Maj.) Cunningham fought for a permanent status for Marine Aviation. He appeared before a number of military organizations, in addition to Congressional Committees. Cunningham also wrote a number of articles emphasizing the role of aviation in future military conflicts. As a result of his efforts and those of other military leaders, Marine Aviation had survived with Congress authorizing Marine Corps. strength at twenty percent of total Navy strength in 1920. The Corps. found it necessary to conduct a number of well-publicized exercises in order to garner further support from both Congress and the American public. One such exercise was conducted in 1922 in which a force of 4,000 Marines marched from Quantico, Va. to Gettysburg, Pa. Three heavy Martin MTB bombers were assigned to support the march. The Marine aviators flew a total of 500 hours and 40,000 air miles, carrying passengers and freight, as well as executing simulated attack missions. Marine aviators tested both new equipment and techniques, with the first successful dive-bombing conducted in 1919. They also made several long-distance flights, in addition to participating in a number of key air races. Overseas deployments to the Carribean, China, and the Western Pacific in the 1930s proved the flexibility of Marine Air.
Marine Aviation experienced a phenomenal growth during World War II. In 1936 there were only 145 Marine pilots on active duty with a gradual increase to 245 by mid-1940. By the end of that year, it had swelled to 425, augmented by the Marine Corps. Aviation Reserve. At the time of Pearl Harbor, Marine Aviation was composed of 13 squadrons and 204 aircraft. By the end of the war, its strength had increased to 145 squadrons and approximately 3,000 aircraft. To support this expansion, new bases were required in the continental United States. New and larger bases such as Cherry Point, NC replaced the original base at Quantico Virginia, while El Toro, CA replaced the older base at San Diego on the West Coast. The location of both bases was in close proximity to the major Marine ground bases at Camp Lejune, North Carolina and Camp Pendleton, California. The location of these bases facilitated the doctrine of close air support of Marine ground units by Marine Aviation. Though outnumbered, Marine pilots performed admirably in the defense of Wake Island, sinking the destroyer Kisaragi and shooting down seven Japanese aircraft. While sustaining heavy losses at Midway, Marine aviators nevertheless played a vital role in the victory there. They plowed their way up the Solomons from Henderson Field at Guadalcanal to Okinawa, providing dedicated ground support. Marine aviation ended the war with 2,335 aircraft destroyed, producing 121 aces.
After World War II, Marine aviation began to emphasize operations from aircraft carriers, which actually began late in that war. The development of the helicopter also broadened the horizons of Marine Aviation. When the Korean War began in 1950, Marine Aviation units were alerted for combat duty. Within six weeks, a carrier-based squadron was flying ground attack missions. Marine air gave a good account of itself flying ground support missions for UN forces in the Pusan Perimeter, as well as providing valuable close air support for the Inchon landing from carriers and later Kimpo Airfield. Along with the Navy and Air Force, Marine aircraft supplied the 1st Marine Division and evacuated more than 5,000 casualties during the withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir. By the end of the war in July 1953, Marine aircraft flew more than 118,000 sorties, of which 29,500 were close support missions. Marine helicopter squadrons evacuated approximately 10,000 ground troops during the course of the war.
Marine Aviation was at the forefront during the Viet Nam War, and both Gulf Wars. It has a long tradition of providing close air support and material support of ground forces. Though its missions have changed in recent years, it remains a force of readiness for the nation.