Oorah! A Century of Flying Leathernecks

“For nearly 100 years, Marine Aviation has demonstrated the adaptability, agility, and unique ethos that come with the title ‘Marine.’ Supporting our ground and logistics brothers and sisters, Marine Aviation has forged a lasting legacy of professionalism, innovation, and transformation. The centennial of Marine Aviation provides us a unique opportunity to reflect on this legacy of success as we turn our eyes to the future.”
~Gen. James F. Amos, USMC~

“Fly with the U.S. Marines,” by Howard Chandler Christy, 1920
Christy, a leading American artist and illustrator of the period, produced this Marine recruiting poster in the early 1920s. (Gift of Sgt. Maj. R.F. England)

On 22 May 1912, Marine 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham reported for duty at the U.S. Navy’s aviation camp at Annapolis, Md. His arrival for flight instruction marks the official birthday of Marine Corps Aviation. In the 100 years that has followed, Marine Aviation has grown from a fledgling collection of frail aircraft into a powerful multimission force that is a key element to the success of the Marine air-ground task force structure.

Marine Aviation has but one primary role—supporting warfighters on the ground. This unbreakable bond between aviator and infantryman is unique. Marine Aviation has nurtured innovative technologies, learned to maximize their limited resources, and exhibited unparalleled determination in meeting the challenges of the past 100 years.

“Raid on Thielt,” by James Butcher, 1985
On 14 October 1918, eight Marine de Havilland DH-4 and DH-9A light bombers from the 1st Marine Aviation Force struck a railroad yard in Thielt, Belgium—the first all-Marine combat mission. This action also resulted in the first Medals of Honor awarded to Marine aviators. (Gift of British Aerospace Inc.)

Birth and Growth: 1912-1940
In the years leading up to America’s entry into World War I, the Marine Corps had experimented little with the airplane. By 1917, Cunningham and his fellow Marine aviators had created an “Aeronautic Company” of 10 officers and 40 men. When the Marine Corps commandant offered a brigade of Marines to fight in France, Cunningham pushed to have his aviators join the battle.

The growth of Marine Aviation during World War I was remarkable. The 1st Marine Aeronautic Company, stationed in the Azores, flew Curtiss float planes and flying boats to search for German submarines. The four squadrons of the 1st Marine Aviation Force, which had trained at the newly created Marine flying field near Miami, Fla., flew their de Havilland light bombers as part of the Navy’s Northern Bombing Force in France. By war’s end, Marine pilots had defeated German fighters, dropped supplies to surrounded Allied troops, and engaged in both day and night bombing missions. Marine Aviation had proved it could successfully fly and fight.

Marine Aviation struggled through the interwar years. Funding was limited, and two-thirds of all Marine squadrons existed only on paper. The small fleet of Marine aircraft was heavily committed domestically and overseas, as deployments to Haiti, Nicaragua, and China strained the force to the breaking point. Still, the Corps found new and innovative uses for attack and transport aircraft, while forging the foundations of the Marine air-ground team that remains in place today. Newer aircraft slowly replaced World War I aircraft. Through service in the field, record long-distance flights, aerial demonstrations, and air race victories, Marine aviators proved that, through their professionalism and “do-more-with-less” attitude, they could achieve great things.

“Marine Bomber over Emirau,” by Robert T. Horvath, 1987 A Marine North American PBJ-1D from VMB-611 overflies the island of Emirau in January 1944. The Corps operated eight squadrons of PBJs (a navalized B-25), some specially outfitted with radar to hunt Japanese ships at night. (Gift of the Artist)

A Force Forged by War: 1941-1945
As America’s entry into World War II loomed, Marine Corps Aviation rapidly expanded and modernized. Fledgling pilots flooded into newly created squadrons and modern aircraft designs replaced older types. This transformation was not yet complete when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, sending the Marines into war with what they had on hand. Defending a string of island outposts across the Pacific, Marine aviators did their best to blunt the Japanese advance. Capt. Henry T. Elrod and Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 211 became America’s first aerial heroes of the war for their valiant but hopeless effort to defend Wake Island. During the Battle of Midway in June 1942, Marine air crews threw themselves against better trained and equipped Japanese naval pilots. The sacrifices made by these Marine aviators helped set the stage for the stunning American victory at Midway that marked a turning point in the war.

A handful of Marine fighters and dive-bombers formed the core of the famous “Cactus Air Force,” which fought valiantly against superior numbers on Guadalcanal. Aces Joe Foss, Marion Carl, and Gregory “Pappy” Boyington earned fame for their exploits in the Pacific. Other Marine aviators, such as the brilliant tactician Keith McKutcheon, worked without fanfare to perfect the art of close air support—Marine Aviation’s most potent weapon. Slowly, they helped turn the tide against the Japanese.

In the Philippines, Marine aviators pounded the Japanese and secured the flank of the Army as it swept across the central islands. Marine squadrons operating from Navy carriers struck the Japanese mainland and provided crucial support during the brutal fights for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Marines flew aircraft ranging from single-engine observation planes to four-engine strategic bombers and undertook thousands of logistical, reconnaissance, and liaison missions. Marine Aviation grew rapidly during World War II and proved its value on the battlefield.

As the 1950s progressed, the Marine Corps fielded newer and more capable jet fighters. In 1954, North American FJ-2 Furies from VMF-235 participated in the sea trials of the newly re-commissioned USS Hancock (CVA 19), the first American aircraft carrier to be fitted with steam-powered catapults.

New Challenges, New Capabilities: 1946-1961
Thanks to its great success in World War II, the Marine Corps seemed to have a secure future. The spread of atomic weapons, however, made large-scale amphibious landings such as those at Iwo Jima no longer possible against a nuclear-armed foe. In response, the Marines embraced a new technology, the helicopter, and created the doctrine of “vertical envelopment”—moving Marines ashore by air. The Korean War provided Marine Aviation the chance to highlight the potential of both its new doctrine and helicopters.

In Korea, the Marine air-ground team reached its full combat potential for the first time. Operating from austere air fields and small escort carriers, Marine fighters, helicopters, and transports provided round-the-clock support to Marines fighting to repel North Korean and Chinese forces. During the march to and from the Chosin Reservoir in the winter of 1950, Marine aviators served as a lifeline to thousands of Marines, soldiers, and civilians fighting their way through overwhelming numbers of Communist Chinese. At no point had the bond between Marine aviators and their fellow Leathernecks on the ground been stronger.

Marine Aviation underwent a great transformation between 1946 and 1962. The vertical envelopment doctrine led to the restructuring of the entire Marine Corps into a force that was lighter, more airmobile on the battlefield, and more dependent on air power. It discarded many fixed-wing aircraft in favor of helicopters, and beloved propeller-driven fighters such as the Corsair gave way to newer jet-powered aircraft.

VMCJ-1 conducted nearly continuous photo aerial reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions over Vietnam and Laos from 1964 through the evacuation of Saigon in the spring of 1975. This VMCJ-1 RF-4B is seen in a reinforced concrete revetment at Da Nang.

The Long War in Vietnam: 1962-1975
The Vietnam War proved the value of the Marines’ vertical envelopment doctrine and the helicopter. Marine aviators engaged in action over Vietnam from Operation Shufly in April 1962 through the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. Because of the nature of this sustained conflict, Marine Aviation focused less on air superiority missions and more on the direct application of air power in support of Marines and allied ground forces. Places such as Da Nang, Chu Lai, Marble Mountain, and Khe Sanh became irrevocably linked to Marine Aviation.

By 1967, half of all Marine air units were supporting operations in Vietnam. During their 13-month tours, Marine helicopter pilots averaged more than 1,000 sorties and often flew more than 15 hours a day. The never-ending need for fresh helicopter pilots led to extended combat tours, quicker rotations back to Vietnam, and even the forced transition of fixed-wing pilots to helicopters. Marines had to find creative solutions to the ongoing maintenance and logistical challenges of sustained round-the-clock flight operations. Ordnance shortages led to using bombs left over from previous wars. Training units were stripped of every available aircraft to replace combat losses. Marine electronic warfare and all-weather attack aircraft supported Air Force and Navy operations over the heavily defended skies of North Vietnam, but the bulk of Marine Aviation’s contribution went to the fighting in South Vietnam. Marine fighters and attack aircraft flew thousands of close air support missions, sometimes delivering ordnance just yards from friendly troops.

Marine helicopters moved troops, supplies, and equipment across South Vietnam and, for a brief time, into Laos. Crews routinely flew during horrendous weather and into heavy enemy fire. The Marines developed innovative flight formations and deployed fixed-wing and helicopter gunships to suppress antiaircraft fire and cover transport helicopters into and out of landing zones. In the end, Marine helicopters lifted the last remaining American forces out of South Vietnam.

“Helo Relief,” by Col. Peter Gish, 1993
Marine CH-46Es bring desperately needed supplies to a Kurdish refugee camp on the Turkish border of Iraq during Operation Provide Comfort.

“No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”: 1976-2012
Marine Aviation emerged from Vietnam to face a tumultuous period of budget cuts and technological change, while their missions became increasingly diverse. Whether rescuing American citizens and dependents, enforcing U.N. mandates, or providing emergency relief to disaster victims, Marine Aviation became a vital component of American foreign policy. Marines responded to numerous crises, both manmade and natural, in California, Haiti, Grenada, Beirut, Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

In the summer of 1990, more than half of the Marine Corps deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield. As coalition forces repelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait, Marine helicopters closely supported the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s drive to Kuwait City, while Marine attack aircraft struck Iraqi units behind the line of battle.
Since October 2001, Marine Aviation has supported operations against the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan, where Marine units operate across large distances, often without mutual support and at the end of long and tenuous supply lines. The unique capability of Marine Aviation to provide aerial support day and night for extended periods, while operating from basic forward bases, has proven crucial.

In Iraq, as American-led forces removed Saddam Hussein from power, Marine Aviation covered the 1st Marine Division (Reinforced) as it advanced into Baghdad in the spring of 2003. It then found innovative ways to utilize aviation assets to face the challenges posed by the Iraqi insurgency. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Marine Aviation’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid and enable local government officials to reach distant villages has been an effective weapon against terrorist forces.

For the past 100 years, whenever and wherever the Marine Corps has been ordered into action, Marine aviators and ground crews have stood ready to support their brother and sister Marines on the ground. As Marine Aviation marks its centennial, it faces the daunting challenge of supporting an ongoing war coupled with shrinking funding while continuing to meet routine training and operational needs. Longer and more frequent deployments are consuming aircraft at rates faster than planned, and placing great emotional strain on Marines and their families. But Marine Aviation’s proven ability to embrace new ideas, to find innovative uses for new technologies, and to adapt to new situations has assured its success through the long fight.