Close Air —Part I

Cunningham Alfred 001Marine Corps Aviation began with a few good men that really did want to fly air machines. One of the first of these was a first lieutenant whose name was Alfred A. Cunningham. He was not only the first Marine Corps naval aviator, he was also a visionary able to develop the concept of an expeditionary air force. He had a keen interest in the way Italian aviators used their machines against the Ottoman Turks in 1911, and it was he that urged Major General Commandant William Biddle to establish a flying program for Marines. The timing was right, for General Biddle was under a great deal of pressure to expedite the Marine Corps’ transition to an advanced naval base defense mission. Biddle regarded Cunningham’s proposal as an opportunity to move this mission forward and recommended the creation of a Marine aviation capability. The Navy accepted this as a commitment to modernization and the Marine Corps has been flying tactical aircraft ever since.

When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Imperial Germany in April 1917, the Marines were ready with fifty pilots and mechanics of the Aviation Detachment of the Marine Advanced Base Force. The War Department was happy to accept Marine ground troops—eventually increasing to 10,000 in strength, but it was somewhat less enthusiastic about accepting Marine Corps land-based air squadrons to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting. The Navy, however, did accept the Marine’s advanced based seaplane squadron for antisubmarine patrols in the Azores. Captain Cunningham commanded four bomber squadrons in 1918 —the 1st Marine Aviation Force— supporting the Allied naval bombing group in Northern France. At this time, the Marines were flying De Havilland DH-4 and DH-9 biplanes over German installations behind the lines.

DH-4Still, the General Board of the Navy had questions about Marine Corps aviation and it was up to Cunningham to flesh it all out. He testified in 1919, “The only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground.” He envisioned an air arm capable of providing direct support to battlefield infantry operations. He saw expeditionary air squadrons that could deploy by ship and fly from primitive fields in support of ground units, or in support of advanced naval bases. Remember, however, the Marines were not a very large organization; if they were to develop air support doctrine, they would have to do this on the move. They did this during the so-called Banana Wars in the Caribbean and in Central America. It was a challenging period for the Marines —the only military service engaged in combat during the interwar years (1919-1941). The lessons learned by the Marines during this period would prove invaluable during World War II.

Marine Brigades returned to the United States from Nicaragua and Haiti in 1933, just as the Marine Corps underwent a significant change in its primary mission —from static defense of advanced naval bases to one more suitable for a “likely war” with Japan. (See also: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, Major Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, USMC, 23 July 1921.) The Navy and Marines had been developing their Amphibious Warfare doctrine since the 1920s, which conceptually involved the forcible seizure of strategic islands in a naval campaign across the Pacific. One cannot help but wonder how it was that Marine officers could see the threat developing in Japan, while no one else in our nation’s government could. Nevertheless, encouraged by the development and tactical performance of Marine Corps aviation in Nicaragua, the Marine Corps incorporated the air-ground team concept in a series of landmark doctrinal initiatives. The new Fleet Marine Force (FMF) brigades formed in 1933 at Quantico, Virginia and at San Diego, California, contained an air group and an infantry regiment. Essentially, this same organizational structure would rescue South Korea and the Eighth US Army from complete destruction in June 1950.

In 1933, however, reliable air-ground radios were almost nonexistent. In 1933, the Marines still had not determined which air frame best suited a Marine Corps mission. Should they adopt dive-bombers, fighters, or some new ground-attack variant? The question would be answered in time, once aviation planners developed a proper construct for the mission, which ultimately was what it had always been: close air support.

To be continued