Flying Sergeants

Aviation history began before there were airplanes and the first use of aviators actually began with lighter-than-air balloons.  In 1794, French observation balloons were used to monitor enemy troop movements.  Balloons were also employed during the American Civil War, as part of the Army Signal Corps, for observing enemy movements and artillery spotting, and this in turn necessitated the development of a system for communicating between aviators and ground personnel.

In 1906, the Commandant of the Army Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, began studying aeronautical theory and lectured student-officers on the Wright flying machine.  One of his fellow instructors was a captain by the name of Billy Mitchell, whose expertise included the use of balloons in reconnaissance missions.  Mitchell also became interested in aeronautical principles.

Major Squier later served as an executive assistant to the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, Brigadier General James Allen.  In 1907, at Squier’s urging, Allen created the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.  In December of that year, the Signal Corps requested bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine.  Not everyone in the Army agreed with this development, but ultimately, the Aeronautical Division became the world’s first military aviation organization[1] when it purchased the Wright Model A aircraft in 1909.

American naval interest in aviation followed the Royal Navy’s interests in developing aviation capabilities in 1908, when Prime Minister H. H. Asquith approved the formation of an Aerial Subcommittee within the Imperial Defense Committee.  At this time, the British were primarily interested in dirigible airships for over-water reconnaissance.

In 1910, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss contracted with the U. S. Navy to develop and demonstrate an aircraft utility for ships at sea.  One of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, took off from the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off the Virginia coast in late November 1910.  Then, in January 1911, Ely demonstrated the ability to land on a navy ship by setting down aboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay —efforts which validated Curtiss’ theory.  At the time, landing and takeoff platforms were crude temporary constructs.  On 27 January 1911, Curtiss further demonstrated the suitability of naval aviation by piloting the first sea plane from San Diego Bay.  The next day, Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson became the first Naval Aviator when he took off in a Curtiss grass cutter.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred Austell Cunningham[2] reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland “for duty in connection with aviation.”  Lieutenant Cunningham became the first Marine aviator in August of that year when he took off in a Burgess Model H aircraft, presented to him by the Burgess Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps had different concepts of naval aviation and they were substantial enough to lead Marine aviators to conclude that the Marines should have their own section within the Navy Flying School (created in 1914).  In the next year, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force.  The company, manned by ten officers and forty enlisted men, was assigned to the Navy Yard, Philadelphia.

A major expansion of the Marine air component came with America’s entry into World War I.  Wartime enlargements resulted in renaming organizations and a substantial increase in personnel.  In July 1918, Marine Aviation Company was divided and renamed First Aeronautic Company and First Marine Air Squadron.  The aeronautic company deployed to the Azores[3] to hunt for German submarines, while air squadrons were activated and assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force in France.

In France, Marine aviators in provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy’s Northern Bombing Group.  Within the short time span of America’s participation in World War I, Marine aviators recorded several aerial victories and credit for dropping in excess of fourteen tons of ordnance on enemy forces.  In total, the 1st Marine Aviation Force included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from eight squadrons.  Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot[4] was the first Marine Corps aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for action against the Luftstreitkräfte, the air contingent of the German Imperial Army.

By the end of the First World War, Marine aviators had gained aeronautical expertise in a wide range of air support roles, including air to air, air to ground, close air support for ground troops, and anti-submarine patrolling.  Congress authorized an aeronautical force of 1,020 men and permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island, and San Diego.  From that time forward, whenever and wherever Marines confronted an enemy, their aviation arm accompanied them —at the time, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and in Nicaragua.  It was during the Banana Wars that Marine Corps pilots expanded their unique application air air-ground tactics, resupply of ground forces in remote locations, and air-to-ground communications.

If there was one area where Marine aviation stood apart from the other services, it was in the number of enlisted men serving as pilots, especially in time of national emergency/war.  Enlisted pilots were not a “new” concept.  The French air services employed enlisted men as pilots, but if there was a general rule, it would have been that commissioned officers were the primary source for aviators[5].  The Navy implemented its (enlisted) Naval Aviation Pilot designation in 1919.  The Marines, as part of the Naval Services, also authorized enlisted men to serve as pilots.  First Sergeant Benjamin Belcher was the first Marine enlisted man to serve as a NAP in 1923.  Some of these men later received commissions, such as Marine Ace Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth A. Walsh[6], who scored 21 kills and earned the Medal of Honor during World War II.  Walsh served as an enlisted pilot in the 1930s until he was commissioned in 1942.  In that year, there were 132 enlisted pilots serving in front line (fighter/bomber) squadron.  In later years, enlisted pilots flew helicopters and jet aircraft.

Technical Sergeant Robert A. Hill, USMC performed 76 combat missions as the pilot of an OY aircraft.  Hill earned the moniker “Bulletproof” because he often returned to base after a combat mission with massive amounts of bullet holes in his bird.  Hill was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for evacuating wounded Marines near the Chosin Reservoir while under heavy enemy fire.  Enlisted pilots also flew R4D[7] transports, which were also used to medevac wounded men and the remains of men killed in action.

During the transition from propeller to jet aircraft, enlisted pilots trained in the Lockheed P-80 (also, TO-1) but only after 1949 and not without some objection by a few squadron commanders who did not want enlisted men flying high performance aircraft.  It was a bit confusing and difficult.  Some of the enlisted pilots in the Korean War had been commissioned during World War II and then reverted to their enlisted ranks in the post-war demobilization period.  Some of these temporarily commissioned pilots left the Marine Corps after World War II and then later regretted doing so.  It was possible for these men to re-join the Marine Corps, but only as enlisted men.  Reenlistment within 90 days entitled these men to rejoin at the rank of Master Sergeant (in those days, E-7[8]), and if beyond 90 days, they could be accepted as Technical Sergeant (E-6).

VMF-311 was ordered into the Korea War with its F9F Panthers and several NAP pilots.  Master Sergeant Avery C. Snow was the first NAP to complete 100 combat missions in a jet aircraft.  Snow achieved the rank of captain during World War II while serving with VMSB-232.

In 1952, Master Sergeant Lowell T. Truex was ordered to fly over an area near the Yalu River.  During his pre-flight briefing, Truex was told that Air Force F-86s would fly escort for his mission.  He was not at all happy to learn that he had no escort and he was flying alone in Indian Country.  When Truex spotted several MiG-15s taking off, he started sweating.  He hurriedly completed his photo-reconnaissance mission and returned to base.  Truex had a few unkind things to say about the Air Force during his post-Op debrief, but he was reassured that the Air Force birds were on station and had kept a close eye on the MiG’s.  The problem was service-rivalry; Air Force pilots had little regard for Marine Corps enlisted pilots, so they occasionally went out of their way to make the flying sergeants feel uncomfortable.

Master Sergeant James R. Todd completed 101 combat missions before rotating back to the States.  He flew 51 missions in Banshees, 10 in the F9F, 23 in the F7F, 13 in F4U-5Ps, and four escort missions in F4U-4Bs.  The F4U-4B was an armed aircraft, but in all the others, Todd had only his sidearm for self-defense —and a high-performance engine.  Like many of his contemporaries, Todd had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in World War II.  He was mustered out in September 1946 but returned to active duty in November of the same year.  He resigned his commission as a first lieutenant and then enlisted as a private.  After the ceremony, he was advanced to the rank of master sergeant.  He received photo reconnaissance training at NAS Pensacola, Florida so that by the time the Korean War broke out, he was well-experienced recon pilot.  It was a skill that would come in handy in the Korean conflict.

Note that in addition to their flying duties, NAPs also shared responsibility for supervising their squadron’s various divisions (flight line, powerplant, airframes, avionics, tool shed, and supply sections).

Enlisted Marines also flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, but by this time there were only a few remaining NAPs.  In 1973, there were only 4 NAPs on active duty;  all four of these men retired on 1 February 1973: Master Gunnery Sergeant Joseph A. Conroy, Master Gunnery Sergeant Leslie T. Ericson, Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert M. Lurie, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Patrick J. O’Neil.

A colorful era in Marine Corps aviation ended with the retirement of these flying sergeants.

Endnotes:

[1] The progenitor of the US Air Force.

[2] Cunningham (1882-1939) from Atlanta, Georgia, served in the 3rd Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  Following his voluntary service, he worked as a real estate agent in Atlanta for ten years until 1903.  In 1909, he received a commission to second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His enthusiasm for aviation was contagious and he soon convinced the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General William P. Biddle, that aviation was well-suited to the concept of the advanced base concept.

[3] An autonomous region of Portugal, an archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic.

[4] Ralph Talbot (1897-1918) from South Weymouth, Massachusetts, joined the U. S. Navy in 1917.  Owing to his participation in college level artillery reserve training, the Navy appointed him as a Seaman 2nd Class.  After ground training and flight training, he was appointed Naval Aviator #456.  At the time, the Marine Corps was having problems recruiting aviators so Talbot (and a number of other Navy pilots), in realizing that he would be in a better position to receive a combat assignment in the Marine Corps, resigned his navy commission and accepted a commission in the USMC.  He was assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force for duty with “C” Squadron.  Talbot was killed in an accident during takeoff at La Fresne aerodrome, France.

[5] At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force would have been even worse off during the Battle of Britain were it not for their enlisted pilots.

[6] See also: A Damned Fine Pilot.

[7] This aircraft became a workhorse for America.  From its first design, the aircraft had several service and mission designations, including DC-3, R4D, C-47, Skytrain, Dakota, RC-47, SC-47, Spooky, EC-47, C-53, C-117, and C-129.

[8] In 1949, the highest enlisted grade was Master Sergeant (E-7).

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Flying Sergeants”

  1. I was fortunate enough to have met and flown with Bob Laurie and have his name in my logbook flying T-39.at (now closed) NAS Glynco, GA. Somebody “liberated” his leather jacket at an Air Force base, and he was upset over that for the rest of his life.

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