The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 (an event that crippled the United States Pacific Fleet), Japan intended to seize a number of Pacific atolls for their own use.  Doing so would increase their access to natural resources and locations suitable as advanced military and naval bases.  Advanced Pacific Rim bases would extend the defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands.  In addition to their successful attack against the US Fleet, the Japanese also seized control of Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle for Midway Island (June 1942) thwarted additional Japanese efforts to seize advance bases.  Both battles were significant because (1) the Allied forces [Note 1] demonstrated to the world that the Empire of Japan was not invincible, and (2) the battles enabled the Allies to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese.  The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand chose the Solomon Islands as their place, and August 1942 as their time.

Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had established a seaplane base in the Solomons.  They also discovered that the Japanese had embarked on the construction of an air base suitable for long-range bombers at Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal.  If the Allies failed to interdict Japan’s efforts, Japanese air forces would be in a position to disrupt allied lines of communication between Australia/New Zealand, and the United States.  Only one month earlier, in July, Australian reserve (territorial) battalions fought a stubborn action against Japanese advances in New Guinea.  Although victorious, Australian reserves were seriously depleted.  The arrival of the Second Imperial Force (Australia) in August (returning from the Mediterranean) allowed Australian forces to deny Japan’s seizure of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.  The Australian victory, with supporting American forces, was Japan’s first land defeat in World War II.

The author of the plan to attack the Solomon Islands was Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet.  The US Marines invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 [Note 2], capturing the partially completed airfield at Lunga Point, although the airfield required additional work before the allied forces could use it.

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

The Americans renamed the field after Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC [Note 3], who lost his life during the Battle of Midway while in command of VMSB-241.  The first allied aircraft to land on Henderson Field was a patrol bomber (designation PBY) on 12 August.  Eight days later, 31 Marine Corps Wildcat (F4F) fighters and Dauntless (SBD) dive bombers landed from the fast carrier USS Long Island.  Following them on 22 August was a squadron of U. S. Army Air-Cobra (P-39).  Additionally, B-17s began operations from Henderson Field (although the large bombers had an abysmal record against Japanese targets) [Note 4]. 

This ensemble of multi-service personnel and their dwindling collection of outdated, dilapidated, and inferior combat aircraft became known as the Cactus Air Force — “Cactus” being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal.  Henderson Field barely qualified as an airfield.  The Japanese designed it in an irregular shape, half of it sitting within a coconut grove, and its runway length was inadequate the wide range of for Allied aircraft.  Even after combat engineers began their work to improve the field, it remained in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as those lost in air combat.  Rain, which was ever present on Guadalcanal, transformed the field into muddy swamp.  Some of the allied aircraft were too heavy for the matting used for expeditionary airfields; takeoffs and landing also damaged the field.  Despite these on-going problems, Henderson Field was essential to the U.S. effort of confronting the Japanese, distributing critical combat resupply, and evacuating wounded personnel.  Henderson Field was also vital as an alternate airfield for Navy pilots whose carriers were too badly damaged to recover them.

In mid-August 1942, Guadalcanal was very likely one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Allied naval forces were under constant threat of attack by Japanese air and naval forces.  To safeguard carriers and their air groups from possible submarine or enemy carrier aircraft, once the amphibious force disembarked at Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy withdrew its carriers, transports, and resupply ships from the Solomon Islands.  This placed Allied ground forces at risk from Japanese naval artillery and air attack.  The Allies needed aircraft—badly.  Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-123 (flying F4Fs) began its operations at Henderson Field in mid-August.  One squadron was insufficient to demand, however.  The Allies needed more aircraft —sooner rather than later.  Higher headquarters scheduled the arrival VMF-223 and VMTB-232 on Guadalcanal around 16 August.  The pilots and aircraft arrived on 20 August, but because the demand for shipping exceeded available transport, ground crews became stranded in Hawaii; ground crews would not arrive on Guadalcanal until early September.  The formula was simple —no ground crews, no operational aircraft.

The delay of ground crew at a critical period prompted Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. [Note 5] to order Major Charles H. “Fog” Hayes, serving as the Executive Officer, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-251 to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 Seabees of the advance base force (operationally known as CUB-1) [Note 6] to assist the 1st Marine Division combat engineers in completing Henderson Field and then serve as ground crewmen for the Marine fighters and bombers presently en route.  Ensign George W. Polk, USN [Note 7] commanded the Seabee detachment.

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

The men from CUB-1 embarked aboard ship and departed Espiritu Santo on the evening of 13 August, taking with them 400 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, 32 55-gallon drums of lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounds), belted ammunition, tools, and critically needed aviation spare parts.  They arrived on Guadalcanal on 15 August and began assisting Marine engineers with their task of enlarging the airstrip.  Despite daily assaults by Japanese aircraft, Marine engineers and Seabees completed the field on 19 August.  CUB-1 technicians installed, tested, and operated an air-raid warning system in the Japanese-built field control tower.

VMF-223 with 19-aircraft and VMSB-232 with 12 planes arrived on 20 August; all aircraft arrived safely at Henderson Field and the pilots immediately began combat operations against Japanese aircraft over Guadalcanal.  As immediately, the Sailors of CUB-1 began servicing these aircraft with the tools and equipment at their disposal.  Aircraft refueling was by hand crank pumps when they were available but otherwise tipped over on the wings and funneled into the gasoline tanks.  Loading bombs was particularly difficult because hoists were rare; bombs had to be raised by hand … 100-500-pound bombs.  Belting ammunition was also accomplished by hand.  The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same laborious method.

CUB-1 personnel performed these tasks for twelve days before the arrival of Marine ground crews.  As with all military personnel on Guadalcanal, CUB-1 crews suffered from malaria, dengue fever, fungus infections, sleepless nights, shortages of food, clothing, and supplies.  Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marines.  Pilots and ground crews lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called Mosquito Grove.  Everyone on Guadalcanal was subjected to mortal danger.  Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the airfield nearly every day.  On the night of 13-14 October 1942, two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into Henderson Field.  Ensign Polk’s men remained on the island until 15 February 1943.

For the first five days after the arrival of the Marine aviators, there was no “commander” of the air component; instead, the senior aviator reported directly to Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division.  Technically, the Cactus Air Force was under the authority of Rear Admiral McCain, but as the local senior-most commander, Vandegrift and his operational staff exercised direct authority over all air assets, whether Army, Navy, or Marine.

Colonel William W. Wallace served temporarily as the first air group commander.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger [Note 8] arrived to assume command as Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (also, COMAIRCACTUS) and of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.  By the time of Geiger’s arrival, air squadrons had already suffered significant losses.  The pilots were sick, undernourished, and demoralized.  Geiger changed that.  By his personality, energy, and positive attitude, General Geiger raised the collective spirits of squadron survivors.  The cost to Geiger, in the short-term, was that within a few months, the 57-year-old Geiger became seriously fatigued.  Eventually, General Vandegrift relieved Geiger of his duties and replaced him with Geiger’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods [Note 9], who was one of the Marine Corps’ outstanding aviators.

Ground Combat Interface

As previously mentioned, the Japanese started construction of the airfield at Lunga Point in May 1942.  The landings of 11,000 Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands on 7-8 August 1942 was a complete surprise to the Japanese—and they weren’t too happy about it.  As a response to the Allied landings, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 17th Army (a corps-sized command under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake), to retake Guadalcanal.  His advance force began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.  Allied planes operating from Henderson Field challenged Japan’s slow-moving transport ships, which had the effect of impeding Hyakutake’s efforts.  On 21 August, General Hyakutake ordered a force of just under a thousand men to seize the airfield.  Known as the Battle of Tenaru, Marines soundly defeated the IJA’s first attempt.

The IJA made a second attempt on 12-14 September, this time with a brigade-size force of 6,000 men.  Known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines repelled that attack, as well.  Convinced that the Japanese were not through with their attempts to reclaim Lunga Point, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding all Allied land forces in the Solomon Islands [Note 10], ordered the strengthening of defenses at Henderson Field.  He additionally ordered his Marines to increase combat patrolling in the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau River.  IJA forces repulsed three different company-sized patrols operating near the Matanikau River between 23-27 September.  Between 6-9 October, a battalion of Marines crossed the Matanikau and inflicted heavy losses on the IJA 4th Infantry Regiment, forcing a Japanese withdrawal [Note 11].  

By 17 October, IJA forces on Guadalcanal numbered 17,000 troops, which included the 2nd Infantry Division (under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama), one regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and artillery and tank units.  The IJN ordered heavy and light cruisers to support Hyakutake and conduct bombardments of Allied positions, including Henderson Field, warranted because the Cactus Air Force posed significant threats to Japanese transports ferrying replacements and supplies from Rabaul [Note 12].  On 13 October, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto dispatched a naval force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to bombard Henderson Field.  Kurita’s force included two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.  Beginning at 01:33, the Japanese Navy fired just under 1,000 rounds into the Lunga Point perimeter.  The Japanese attack destroyed most of the aviation fuel, 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft, and killed 41 men —of which were six CAF ground crewmen.  As devastating as this attack was, Seabees restored the airfield to operating conditions within a few hours.

As Japanese infantry under Lieutenant General Maruyama began their march toward Lunga Point, aircraft of the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul attacked Henderson Field with 11 G4M2 bombers and 28 A6M2 Zero fighters.  The Cactus Air Force responded with 24 F4F Wildcats and 4 P-39s.  A large and complex air battle ensured.  Allied aviators could not determine how many losses they imposed on the Japanese, but on F4F received extensive battle damage with no loss of its pilot.   

Just after nightfall on 23 October, two battalions of Japanese infantry (supported by tanks) attacked Marine positions behind a barrage of artillery.  Marines quickly destroyed all nine tanks and responded with devastating artillery fire.  Forty Marine howitzers fired 6,000 rounds into the attacking Japanese.  The Japanese broke off their attack shortly after 01:00 hours.  Partly in response to this attack, 2/7 (under LtCol Hanneken) redeployed to the Matanikau and assumed advanced defensive positions.  LtCol Louis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1/7 (with around 700 men) was the only battalion left to defend Henderson Field, a 2,500-yard perimeter on the southern face of Lunga Point.  Puller’s outposts reported enemy movement at around 21:00 hours.

Heavy rain began falling an hour or so before, the torrential downpour inhibiting the advance of a Japanese infantry regiment.  In the dark of night under a pouring rain, a Japanese battalion more or less stumbled into Puller’s defensive line at around 22:00.  The Marines repulsed the Japanese advance, but the Japanese commander believed that his battalion had taken Lunga Point.  At around 00:15, the IJA’s 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion assaulted the perimeter held by Marines from Alpha Company.  Within thirty minutes, the Marines destroyed the 11th Company.

Further west, at around 01:15, the 9th Company charged into positions held by Charlie 1/7.  Within around five minutes, a machine-gun section led by Sergeant John A. Basilone, killed nearly every member of the 9th Company.  Ten minutes after that, Marine artillery had a murderous effect on the IJA regiment’s assembly area.  Puller requested reinforcement at 03:30.   The 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry rushed forward and quickly reinforced Puller’s perimeter.  Just before dawn, the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry penetrated Allied artillery and assaulted the Marine position.  1/7 Marines killed most of these men, but about one-hundred Japanese broke through the American defense and created a bulging salient in the center of Puller’s line.

With daybreak on 24 October, the Japanese 2nd Battalion joined the assault, but the Marines soon defeated them, and they withdrew almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Puller ordered his Marines to attack and eradicate the 100-or-so enemy soldiers within the salient, and to search and destroy any Japanese remaining alive forward of the battalion’s perimeter.  Marines performing these tasks ended up killing around 400 additional enemy troops.  But the battle was far from over.  IJN platforms began to pummel the Marines just after midnight.  A destroyer assault force chased away to US minesweepers, destroyed the US tugboat Seminole and an American Patrol Torpedo Boat.  Just after 10:00, Marine shore batteries hit and damaged one Japanese destroyer.  Cactus Air Force dive bombers attacked a second Japanese navy assault force which caused the sinking of a Japanese cruiser.  While this was going on, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet attacked Henderson Field in six separate waves throughout the day.  The Cactus Air Force also attacked Japanese Aircraft, inflicting the loss of 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft.  The Allies lost two aircraft, but recovered the crews.

After completing mop-up operations, ground Marines began improving their defense works and redeploying troops to strengthen the line.  In the West, Colonel Hanneken tied in with the 5th Marines; Puller’s Marines and the soldiers of 3/164 disentangled and repositioned themselves to form unit cohesive defenses.  The 1st Marine Division reserve force, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) moved in behind 1/7 and 3/164.  The IJA still had more to say to the Allied forces at Lunga Point.

General Maruyama regrouped his beleaguered forces, adding the 16th Infantry Regiment from his force reserve.  At around 20:00 on 25 October and extending into the early morning hours of the 26th, the Japanese made numerous frontal assaults against the Marine/Army line (Puller/Colonel Hall).  The Marines employed well-aimed small arms, automatic weapons, artillery, and canister fire from 37-mm guns directly into the attacking force with devastating effect.  Marines completely wiped out the headquarters element of the 16th Infantry Regiment, including the regimental commander and four of the regiment’s battalion commanders.  Another attack came at 03:00 on 26 October.  Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s 124th Infantry Regiment hit the Matanikau defenses manned by LtCol Hanneken’s 2/7.  Fox Company received the brunt of Oka’s attack.  Machine-gun section leader Mitchell Paige destroyed many of his attackers, but the Japanese managed to kill all of the Marines except for Paige and an assistant gunner in their assault.  By 05:00, Oka’s 3rd Battalion managed to push the remains of Fox Company out of their defensive positions.  Major Odell M. Conoley, Hanneken’s executive officer, quickly organized a counter-attack, leading the survivors of Fox Company and elements of Golf and Charlie companies to retake the ridge line.  Within an hour, the Japanese pushed the Japanese back, which ended Colonel Oka’s assault.  2/7’s casualties included 14 killed and 32 wounded.  Oka’s losses exceeded 300 dead.

Aftermath

Six Marine aviators in the Cactus Air Force received the Medal of Honor: Major John L. Smith, USMC, CO VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, USMC, CO VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss, USMC, XO VMF-121 (Former Governor of South Dakota); Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, USMC, CO VMF-212; First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, USMC, VMF-112; and First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMC, VMF-221.

Medals of honor awarded other personnel included Major Kenneth D. Bailey, USMC (KIA), Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, Corporal Anthony Casamento, USMC, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, USMC [Note 13], Major Charles W. Davis, USA, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC, Sergeant William G. Fournier, USA, Specialist Lewis Hall, USA (KIA), Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, USCG, (KIA), Rear Admiral Normal Scott, USN (KIA), and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.  

In all, 20 Marine Corps aviation squadrons served on Guadalcanal.  Joining them, at various times, were ten U. S. Navy air squadrons (5 operating from USS Enterprise), two USAAF squadrons, and one Royal New Zealand air squadron.   

Sources:

  1. 1.Braun, S. M.  The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969.
  2. 2.Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: The First Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. 3.De Chant, J. A.  Devilbirds.  New York: Harper Bros., 1947.
  4. 4.Mersky, P. B.  U.S. Marine Corps Aviation—1912 to the Present.  Nautical Publishing, 1983.
  5. 5.Paige, M.  My Story, A Marine Named Mitch: The Autobiography of Mitchell Paige, Colonel, United States Marine Corps (Retired).  Palo Alto: Bradford Adams & Company, 1975.
  6. 6.Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  7. 7.Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1]The Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II were the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Soviet Union, and China.  As a practical matter, given the requirements of global war at other locations in the world, and limitations of certain Allied countries to participate in the conflict, the US played the largest role in the Pacific War.

[2] The Guadalcanal campaign lasted through 9 February 1943.

[3] Initially identified by the Japanese as simply Code RXI, the incomplete airfield became the focus of one of the great battles of the Pacific war in World War II.  Major Henderson (1903-1942) was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1926) and served in China, various Caribbean stations, and aboard the carriers Langley, Ranger, and Saratoga.

 [4] B-17 aircraft were unsuitable for use against Japanese ships at sea.  High altitude bombing of moving targets could hardly yield the results of Torpedo/Dive Bomber aircraft.  Moreover, B-17 crews were young, inexperienced airmen who, while doing their level best, could not engage enemy ships with precision.

 [5] At the time, Admiral McCain served as Commander, Aircraft South Pacific (1941-42).  He was the grandfather of John S. McCain III, former Navy aviator POW and US Senator from Arizona.

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

[7] George W. Polk enlisted with the Naval Construction Battalion at the beginning of World War II.  He also served as a “volunteer” dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, receiving combat wounds and suffering from malaria, which required nearly a year of hospitalization.  After the war, Polk joined CBS news as a journalist.  Communist insurgents murdered him while he was covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

[8] Roy Stanley Geiger (1885-1947) was a native of Florida who completed university and law school before enlisting in the US Marine Corps.  While serving as a corporal in 1909, Geiger completed a series of professional examinations to obtain a commission to second lieutenant on 5 February 1909.  After ten years of ground service, Geiger reported for aviation training in 1917 and subsequently became Naval Aviator #49 on 9 June.  Geiger was variously described as curt, cold, ruthless, and determined.  Geiger became the first Marine Corps general to command a United States Army during the Battle of Okinawa. 

[9] Lieutenant General Woods later commanded the tactical air forces under the 10th U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa.

[10] The 7th Marine Regiment arrived on Guadalcanal on 18 September, adding an additional 4,157 men to Vandegrift’s ground combat element.

[11] Meanwhile, Major General Millard F. Harmon, Commander, U. S. Army Forces, South Pacific, convinced Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Allied Forces, South Pacific, to reinforce the Marines immediately; one division of Marines, he argued, was insufficient to defend an island the size of Guadalcanal.  Subsequently, the U. S. 164th Infantry Regiment (North Dakota Army National Guard) arrived on Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942.

[12] Allied naval forces intercepted one of these Japanese bombardment missions on the night of 11 October, resulting in a Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. 

[13] Colonel Paige died on 15 November 2003, aged 85 years.  He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Air Balloons and Such

Every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is a rifleman.  There are specialists in the Marine Corps, of course —people trained to perform a specialized task, which, when combined with all other specialties, form the Marine Corps Team.  The Marine team has but one purpose: winning battles.  In contrast to the United States Army, which consists of several corps (three infantry divisions and supporting elements form a single corps, three such corps form a field army), the Marines are a single corps (three divisions, three air wings, and supporting elements).

Because the Marine Corps is a much smaller organization, which is the way we like it, Marines do not have the luxury of employing cooks or communicators that only cook and communicate.  Every Marine is a rifleman, including combat pilots, administrators, supply pogues, truck drivers, field engineers, and computer technologists.  Whether a general or a private, the Corps trains every Marine to pick up a rifle and kill an enemy.  The notion that every Marine is a rifleman makes the Marine Corps unique among all U.S. Armed Services.  The Corps’ distinctive training creates a common bond between Marines: officer and enlisted, men and women, whether ground, air, or logistics combat elements.  Marine aviators, for example, are hell on wings; they are also a lethal force on the ground should it become necessary.  Every Marine earns the title, Marine.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, for duty under instruction.  He was the nucleus of what would become the Marine Corps’ air combat element.  A few short years later, Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, and the United States entered the First World War.  This event became the catalyst for the Navy and Marine Corps air arm, and a greatly accelerated growth in both Navy and Marine Corps manpower and combat technologies.

In those days, responsibility for procuring aircraft fell under the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (Also, BuAer).  Marine graduates of the U.S. Navy Flight School, Pensacola, Florida, became Naval Aviators.  Since those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps have developed aviation equipment, strategies, and tactics common to their unique “naval” mission of protecting the fleet through air superiority and projecting naval power ashore.  Marine pilots, however, provide close air support to ground forces —and this they do better than any other aerial arm of the Department of Defense.

At the beginning of the First World War, the entire Marine Corps consisted of a mere 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted men.  At the end of the “war to end all wars,” 2,400 officers and 70,000 men served as Marines.  Initially, HQMC assigned Captain Cunningham to command the Marine Aviation Company at Philadelphia.  Since there was only one aviation company, this simple designation was enough.  These early aviators’ mission was traditional, which is to say, attack and destroy enemy aircraft and provide intelligence on enemy forces’ location and movement.  Suddenly, the Marine Corps incurred a separate mission requiring different equipment types and a different aeronautical skill set.

With the expansion of Marine aviation, Captain Cunningham’s Aviation Company became the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (1stMAC) with a workforce ceiling of ten officers and 93 men. 1stMAC’s mission was flying anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes.  HQMC approved a new aviation unit, designated as 1st Aviation Squadron (AS-1), to support the Marine Brigade in France. AS-1’s mission was to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.  The strength of the 1st Aviation Squadron was 24 officers and 237 enlisted men.

Following the war in Europe, Navy and Marine Corps planners distributed aviation personnel and equipment to Naval stations to support operating forces throughout the east coast of the United States and those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In the post-war environment, with less money available to sustain air combat forces, the Marine Corps began its desperate struggle to convince Congress that it should maintain, as a minimum, prewar levels of aviation personnel, bases, and equipment.  Leading the charge in this endeavor was Major Cunningham, who strenuously argued for Marine Corps aviation’s permanent adoption.

Congress officially limited the Marine Corps’ strength to one-fifth that of the U. S. Navy, in total, approximately 27,000 Marines.  Due in no small measure to Cunningham’s efforts, Congress approved an additional 1,100 Marines for aviation units.  Congress also approved permanent Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Virginia, Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.  On 30 October 1920, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune approved an aviation table of organization[1] for four squadrons, each consisting of two flights. Simultaneously, the 1st and 4th Aviation Squadrons supported combat operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd and 3rd Aviation Squadrons trained at Quantico, Virginia.  By 1924, the Marine Corps had two air groups, each consisting of two squadrons.  The second air group took up station in San Diego, California.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Corps petitioned Congress for funds to maintain its air arm.  Part of this effort involved demonstrating to Congress and the American public the utility and worthiness of Marine Corps aviation.  To this end, the Marine aviators found it necessary to combine tactics and air strategy with headline-hunting public exhibitions.  One of these involved a march of 4,000 Marines from Quantico, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In this demonstration, the ground combat element maintained constant contact with aircraft along the route of march and provided air resupply of the men on the ground.

Additionally, Marine pilots continually tested new equipment and flying techniques, including record-breaking long-distance flights and air show competitions.  In the 1920s, air races became an American institution.  Marines sometimes flew navy aircraft in these competitions. Sometimes, they flew their own squadron’s aircraft. They occasionally flew experimental planes, testing not only their endurance but also the reliability of aircraft prototypes.  During this period, Notable pilots included First Lieutenant Ford O. Rogers, Major Charles A. Lutz, and Captain Arthur H. Page, Jr.

Arthur Hallet Page, Jr. was the first Naval Academy graduate to enter the Marine Corps Aviation program.  He may have been typical of aviators in his day, or at least he seems to have been the sort of fellow popularized in Hollywood films of that period —the flamboyant devil-may-care fellow.  From available sources at the USNA, we believe Captain Page had a colorful personality, a remarkable character, and was the embodiment of mature judgment.  He was good looking; a natty dresser had a good singing voice, possessed a near-professional dancing ability, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women.

Page was also a daring, foolhardy risk-taker —but a man others might describe as lucky as hell.  He graduated from the USNA, Class of 1918 (one of fourteen graduates) a year early due to the emerging European War.  Second Lieutenant Arthur H. Page, Jr., became a Naval Aviator (No. 536) on 14 March 1918.  His aviator number tells us how many Navy and Marine Corps pilots preceded him.

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

Today, we have few details about Page’s military career.  For the most part, early assignments appear typical of young officers.  He received his wings at the NAS Pensacola (1918). He then served several tours of duty attached to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia —which may not have had anything to do with base security or operations (1919-20, 1923-24), service with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Haiti —likely duties involving flight operations (1920-21), assignment as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola (1924-25), as a student at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico (1925-26), service with the 3rd Marine Brigade in China (1926-28), an assignment at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California (1928), and duty with the East Coast Expeditionary Force (1929).  His final assignment was at Headquarters Marine Corps (1929-30), during which time he engaged in flying exhibitions (previously discussed).

We also know that the Marine Corps established its first balloon detachment on 28 June 1918 under Captain Page’s command, very likely at Quantico.  The detachment’s mission artillery spotting in support of the 10th Marine Regiment (artillery), which in 1918 trained at Quantico for service with the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the Armistice on 11 November 1918, there being no need for the 10th Marines in France, HQMC deactivated the regiment in April 1919.

An aside:  Change within the Navy and War Departments, particularly involving aviation, was never easy.  Senior officers within both departments were simply the product of their training and experience and somewhat intractable in their national defense views.  Even following the First World War, Army and Navy leaders remained unconvinced that aviation should assume a more significant national defense role.  They may have maintained this view had it not been for the relentless efforts of William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), an Army aviator.  Mitchell believed that “floating bases” was necessary to defend U.S. territories against naval threats, but the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, dissolved navy aeronautics in 1919 (a decision later reversed by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt).  It was a bit of service rivalry that senior navy aviators argued that land-based pilots no more understood naval aviation demands than ground commanders understood airpower capabilities.  They resisted any alliance with Mitchell.  Despite these attitudes, Mitchell urged the development of naval air service, arguing that air-delivered bombs would become a serious threat to enemy ships.  Not even Roosevelt agreed with Mitchell’s proposals in 1919.

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

Convinced that he was right on this issue, Mitchell became publicly critical of the Army and Navy’s senior leadership, judging them as “insufficiently far-sighted” regarding airpower.  Despite their misgivings, the secretaries of War and the Navy agreed to a series of joint Army/Navy exercises that incorporated captured or decommissioned ships as targets.  Mitchell believed that the nation’s spending on battleship fleets was a waste of money; he intended to demonstrate how easily aircraft could defeat the Navy’s dreadnaughts.  Mitchell received public support for the joint exercise when the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy had cheated on its test results.

Despite his popularity with the press, Mitchell’s criticism of Army/Navy leadership made him a pariah in both departments.  Nevertheless, the joint exercise proceeded with bombing attacks on a former German battleship by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots armed with 230, 550, and 600-pound bombs.  Air-delivered bombs’ success and the German ship’s sinking caused the Navy to suspend shipbuilding and focus more on the possibilities of naval air power, but there were also political ramifications.  For starters, the Navy’s perceived weaknesses embarrassed President Harding —the blame of which fell at Mitchell’s feet.

As for Mitchell, his prickly personality left him with few friends in the Army hierarchy, a condition that only grew worse after Mitchell appeared before a Congressional committee and criticized his superiors and senior Navy officers.  In 1925, a tragic accident involving the airship Shenandoah prompted Mitchell to accuse senior Army/Navy leaders of gross incompetence and treasonable administration.  As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Coolidge ordered Mitchell court-martialed.  The court-martial proceeding was more on the order of a media circus. Mitchell’s defense attorney was a sitting congressman.  Of the thirteen officers detailed as judges, which included Major Douglas A. MacArthur, none had an aviation background.  In its deliberations, the court ruled that the truth or falsity of Mitchell’s accusations were immaterial to the charge against him: Violation of the 96th Article of War, “Bringing disgrace and reproach upon the military services,” which included six specifications.  When the court found General Mitchell guilty of the charge and all specifications, he resigned his commission.

Despite Mitchell’s pissing-contest with Army/Navy leaders, the Marine Corps continued its experimentation with aviation platforms and aerial balloons.  Between 1924-29, the Marine Corps established a balloon observation squadron (designated ZK-1M).  Captain Page, meanwhile, continued evaluating experimental aircraft while challenging his aeronautical skills.  He flew the Curtiss F6C-3 plane to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, defeating a field of mostly Navy pilots.  The F6C-3 was a member of the Hawk family of biplane fighters that, because of its performance evaluations by Navy/Marine Corps aviators, went through a series of design modifications to make it suitable for naval service.  Captain Page lost his life while participating in the Thompson Air Race in 1930.  There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; there are no old bold pilots.

By the spring of 1940, planners at HQMC were acutely aware of the problems associated with defending advanced bases against enemy air attack.  To address these issues, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) convened a board of senior officers to study air defense aspects.  It became the duty of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board to formulate policies suitable to both the Navy and War Departments.  One agreement concerned the division of responsibility for barrage balloons and kite defenses protecting U.S. military installations.  Under this agreement, the Army assumed air defense responsibility for permanent naval bases. Simultaneously, the Navy would develop shipboard defenses and “at such advanced bases as are not defended by the Army.”

On 27 December 1940, the Secretary of the Navy assigned responsibility for anti-air defenses (not defended by the Army) to the Fleet Marine Forces.  From that point forward, Marine advanced base battalions assumed responsibility for the anti-aircraft defense mission at Guantanamo, Midway, Johnson Island, Palmyra, Samoa, Wake, Guam, and “any future location seized by American forces.” The CNO subsequently asked various bureaus and offices to comment or offer suggestions on the extent to which the Marine Corps should enter the barrage balloon field.  There were two views:

  1. The Director, Navy War Plans Division opined that balloons were unreliable anti-air defense mechanisms and noted that the small size of several advanced base locations (islands) meant that balloon defenses would be ineffective except against dive bombers. Moreover, the placement of such balloons would have to be so as not to interfere with friendly air operations, which would require moveable barge platforms.  At no time did the War Plans Division mention any reliance on carrier-based attack aircraft.
  2. The Director, Fleet Training Division expressed confidence in the efficiency of balloon defenses. He relied on the United Kingdom’s experience in London’s defense; it appeared to him that 50-100 balloons would provide adequate anti-air defenses.  Based on this one assumption, the Director envisioned that the Marine Corps would require two to four squadrons of 24 balloons each and around 200 men per squadron.  There was also the problem of availability because requisitions for Army balloon equipment strained industrial production capacities.

Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

The CMC took immediate steps to procure balloons, not only for the initial issue but also for replacement balloons.  HQMC also recalled to active service retired Major Bernard L. Smith[2] and placed him in charge of the Corps’ barrage balloon development.  During World War I, while serving as an assistant naval attaché in France, Major Smith’s study of lighter-than-air craft made him an “expert” in the field of balloon defense mechanisms.

In late April 1941, Major Smith (assisted by Captain Aquillo J. Dyess and Captain Robert S. Fairweather) established a training school at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Smith led his officers and ten enlisted men to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a two-week course of instruction in the art of flying British-made Mark-5 and Mark-6 balloons.  Returning to Quantico, Smith and his Marines prepared course curriculum and liaised with balloon manufacturers.  When, more than a year later, Smith and his staff had yet to receive their first student, HQMC directed Smith to move his cadre to New River, North Carolina, where it became part of the Marine Corps Training Center, Camp Lejeune.

Still without students, Smith’s “school” essentially became a balloon research/development center; the Navy’s Anti-Aircraft Defense Board provided Smith with several varieties of British prototypes.  Smith was also involved in the study of rockets and fuses suspended from aloft balloons.  By late 1941, the arrival of balloon equipment allowed Smith to commence teaching balloon defense’s art and science.  Concurrently, HQMC directed the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Barrage Balloon squadrons to further order that defense battalions incorporate these squadrons into training and operations.  Typically, HQMC wanted to review the defense battalion’s evaluations of the practicality of barrage squadrons.  By early December, Smith advised HQMC that the 1st Barrage Balloon Squadron (designation ZMQ-1) was ready for deployment. In late December, Smith’s report was timely because the Army requested the Marines provide a squadron to defend the Panama Canal Zone.  Administratively, ZMQ-1 fell under the Fifteenth Naval District; operationally, the squadron supported the Army’s artillery command. ZMQ-1’s “temporary” assignment lasted through mid-September 1942.

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

Meanwhile, ZMQ-2, under Captain Henry D. Strunk, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa.  War with Japan led the Marine Corps to activate six additional Barrage Balloon Squadrons, although planners estimated a need for as many as twenty squadrons by 1944.  To meet this demand, HQMC increased Smith’s training unit’s size to five officers and 43 enlisted men.  In April 1942, HQMC assigned ZMQ-3 to the Pacific command; by September, the squadron was operating on the island of Tulagi —but with significant restrictions.  Concerned that deployed balloons would attract enemy aircraft to vital airfields and logistics storage areas, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers curtailed the use of balloons at Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Instead, squadron personnel performed ground defense (infantry) duties.  ZMQ-3 departed Tulagi for Noumea, where it joined with ZMQ-1, ZMQ-5, and ZMQ-6.  HQMC ordered the deactivation of ZMQ-4, serving in Samoa, on 20 February 1943.  The unavailability of helium at forward bases hindered squadrons’ performance, as in Noumea’s case, forcing unit officers to alter their tactics: they only launched their balloons when an enemy attack was imminent.

Shortages of helium wasn’t the only problem plaguing ZMQ squadrons.  The task of logistical resupply in the Pacific was incredibly difficult.  Since senior commanders in the Pacific questioned barrage balloons’ utility, balloon squadrons had a lower priority for resupply than did the most-forward units.  Army logisticians paid scant attention to the needs of the attached Marines.  Back in Washington, the demands placed on BuAer to prioritize the resupply of aircraft squadrons similarly left the balloon squadrons only marginally effective.  For example, each balloon squadron required 4,000 high-pressure hydrogen cylinders.  The Marine’s demand for 14,500 cylinders per month fell considerably short, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  To help coordinate balloon activities and address logistical shortfalls, HQMC ordered Major Charles W. May to assume command of the Marine Barrage Balloon Group on 10 January 1943.

One wartime epiphany was the Marine Corps’ realization that anti-aircraft guns had a greater effect on the enemy than the barrage balloons did.  In the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps’ Commandant asked the U.S. Army to assume full responsibility for aerial balloon activities.  The Commandant’s decision made perfect sense because, at that time, all Marine balloon squadrons served under the operational control of the U.S. Army.  In June, the Army agreed to absorb the balloon mission, making 60 officers and 1,200 enlisted Marines available to serve in other (more critical) combat units.  Beginning in March 1943, Marines of ZMQ-5 began training with 90mm anti-aircraft guns; ZMQ-6 followed suit.  By August, manning anti-aircraft guns became the primary focus of training and operations.  ZMQ-2 disbanded on 21 August, with all its Marines joining the 2nd Defense Battalion.

All barrage balloon squadrons ceased to exist by December 1943, and all Marines assigned to them transferred to the Marine Corps’ defense battalions.  Luckily, these Marines were not only skilled balloonists; they were also deadly as hell in their new assignment as anti-aircraft gun crewmen and as a rifleman, the essential role of every Marine.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  2. Barrage Balloons, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1989.
  3. 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, online.
  4. Hillson, F. J. When the Balloon Goes Up: Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Defense.  Maxwell AFB: U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The purpose of military tables of organization (and equipment) (also, T/O and T/O&E) is to standardize the personnel staffing of military units according to their mission and includes the numbers and types of weapons and accoutrements required by such organizations to complete their mission.

[2] Major Smith was the 6th Marine officer designated as a naval aviator.