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Marine Corps Aviation Centennial: A Century of Innovation

First Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham became the first Marine to enter the world of aeronautics when he arrived at the aviation camp at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on May 22, 1912, with orders to learn how to fly. Today, Cunningham’s reporting date is marked as the anniversary of Marine Corps aviation. The Navy’s first three aviators, Lieutenants T.G. “Spuds” Ellyson, John Rodgers, and J.H. Towers, oversaw the camp’s three aircraft and Cunningham’s initial efforts.

In the minds of many, airplanes were still newfangled gadgets with questionable utility. Within the Marine Corps, leaders differed as to whether the flying machine offered value for money.

Cunningham had no doubt. He believed from the first moment and for the rest of his life that aircraft had an essential role and that aviation suited the unique, expeditionary mission of the Marines. Cunningham embodied traits that have been part and parcel of Marine aviation over the years – a receptiveness to fresh ideas, a willingness to innovate, and a compelling urge to support the rifleman on the battlefield.

Cunningham was dispatched to the Burgess and Curtiss factory at Marblehead, Mass. In those days, only a manufacturer could train a new military pilot. Cunningham completed his first solo flight after less than three hours of instruction on Aug. 20, 1912. Over the year that followed, he made 400 sorties in the Curtiss Model B-1, training others and testing tactics and capabilities.

Raid on Thielt WW I

Two Marine aviators earned the Medal of Honor for their actions flying a de Havilland DH-4 during their very first bombing raid, on Thielt, Belgium, depicted here in “Raid on Thielt, 14 October 1918,” by James Butcher. Collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps

Two more Marines were soon assigned to Annapolis: 1st Lt. Bernard L. Smith and 2nd Lt. William M. McIlvain that year. First Lt. Francis T. Evans joined them in June 1915.

Cunningham was “an imperfect figure” who was “in and out of the aviation picture,” said Dr. Rowland P. Gill, a former curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in an interview. “He’d been a ground-pounder during the Spanish-American War and he was smitten by airplanes from the moment they appeared on the scene.” Cunningham “dropped out” briefly when his fiancée asked him to stop flying, said Gill, but when the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Cunningham went to France to help with an aviation buildup. He took with him an open mind, a spirit of innovation, and a kinship with Marines in combat on the ground.


Early Marine Flyers

Vought VE-7F

A Vought VE-7F (BuNo A5692) from U.S. Marine Corps Observation Squadron One (VO-1M) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, circa 1922. U.S. Marine Corps photo

It would be refreshing to think that everyone in the Marine Corps shared Cunningham’s vision from day one. In fact, it isn’t clear that most Marines initially saw aviation as an integral cog in a coordinated, well-oiled air-ground war machine. Early Marine flyers were swashbucklers and pioneers but not philosophers. They contributed little to any dialogue about strategy or doctrine. In 1917, the Pentagon building did not yet exist, the Marines were led by a two-star officer called the “major general commandant” – who did not sit with the Joint Chiefs of Staff – and the most powerful raison d’etre for Marine aircraft – aviation’s direct link to the Marines’ own troops on the ground – wasn’t yet being talked up in Washington deliberations. Despite their valor in the June 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood, Marines – intended to be light, fast, fleet amphibious troops – were beginning to look indistinguishable from Army soldiers. It was only two years after World War I that Cunningham uttered a famous quote. The “only excuse for aviation in any service,” Cunningham said, “is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their missions.” So it would be fair to say the vision took hold about 1920. For the rest of the 20th century, Marine leaders cited their need for organic air power when challenged not merely to keep their aviation branch but to justify the existence of the Marine Corps itself.

Even though they fell under the Department of the Navy, which purchased their equipment and shaped their budget, Marines sought to establish some distance from themselves and the Navy’s air component. When Smith went to Culebra, Puerto Rico, to establish the Marine section of the Navy Flying School, the facility became the first all-Marine airbase. In 1915, Maj. Gen. George Barnett, commandant of the Marine Corps, authorized creation of a Marine Corps aviation company of 10 officers and 40 enlisted men. The first Marine air squadron, called the Aviation Company, was formed on Feb. 17, 1917, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...