Forward Air Control (FAC)

Introduction

It wasn’t very long after the invention of the airplane that men began thinking about how this marvelous invention might be used in warfare.  The truth, however, is that the airplane went onto the drafting table in 1480 and stayed there until 1903.

By 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had begun preparing itself for flight.  An aeronautical division was created and staffed with three first lieutenants who agreed they had what it takes to try anything once.  In 1909, the Wright Brothers delivered its first aircraft to the Army Signal Corps.  No doubt, lieutenants drew straws to see who would go first.

The first conflict to extensively use aviation support for ground forces was the First World War when military and naval aviation was still in its infancy.  Aircraft then were small, flimsy, and slow, and the effect of rifle caliber machine guns (and light bombs) offered limited effectiveness.  Even so, military, and naval aviation psychologically affected ground troops, particularly those in static positions.  Unlike artillery, the airplane was a personal enemy; even the sound of an aircraft could make an infantryman’s blood run cold.

Although slow on the uptake, military ground officers learned that aviation support required careful planning and coordination and that the most successful attacks of the war were those where ground officers took air warfare very seriously.  To be fair, however, many of these ground officers were still thinking about the Indian wars and horse cavalry.

One significant challenge to everyone (aviator and ground officer alike) was air-to-ground communications — initially limited to using hand signals, dropping handwritten messages from the cockpit, or messenger pigeons.  The first use of air-to-ground electronic signals occurred at the Battle of Gorlice by Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg, an Austro-Hungarian pilot, who sent a morse code message to an artillery unit.

The term ground commanders use to describe aviation support provided to ground troops is “Close Air Support” (also, CAS).  The Great War began in 1914, but it was not until 1916 that the aviation community developed a specific air support doctrine.  British aviators developed two tactics that fell under the heading of CAS: trench strafing and ground strafing.  These early shapers of doctrine realized there could not be close air support without forward air controllers guiding it.

In response to the allied use of aviation close air support, the German enemy was quick to develop air combat elements of its own.  When they did — allied aviation casualties increased substantially.

Navy-Marine Corps Aviation

U.S. Naval aviation began with pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who contracted with the Navy to demonstrate whether aircraft could take off and land aboard ships at sea.  Pilot Eugene Ely accomplished this feat in 1910.  Eugene apparently drew the short straw.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham began duty “in a flight status” at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland.  Cunningham was the Marine Corps’ first aviator. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. Marines employed Curtiss Falcon aircraft and Vought Corsairs equipped with radios powered by airstream-driven generators — with a communications range of about 50 miles.  Another method of communication was for the pilot to drop messages in a weighted container and swoop in and pick up messages suspended from “clotheslines” between two high poles.  Under these circumstances, Marine aviation pilots functioned as FAC and strike pilots in operations against Nicaraguan Sandinistas.  In terms of combat aviation, the Marines excel when compared to the other services because of the support rendered to Marines by Marines.  Marine Corps Aviation is a “Marine Thing.” And while the Marines may not have “invented” CAS, they certainly deserve credit for perfecting it.

Now, about America’s Marines 

The U.S. Marine Corps is a unique organization within the Department of Defense.  Marines look different from other service personnel, and they think about warfare much differently than any of the other uniformed services.

The Marine Corps’ primary responsibility is to maintain an amphibious warfare capability.  To accomplish that mission, the Corps relies on ground forces that are relatively light and highly mobile.  Lacking a heavy footprint of forward-deployed forces (tanks, for example), the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) turns to its task-organized aviation components to provide heavy fire support to its maneuver elements.  

The primary link between ground and aviation forces is the Forward Air Controller (FAC).  FACs are Marine Corps aviators assigned to Battalion Landing Teams responsible for coordinating and controlling air assault support and close air support within their assigned ground units.  FACs also assist more senior air officers (AOs) within ground units in advising ground commanders on the tactical employment (and safety considerations) required for sound air combat operations.

The Marine Corps invests heavily in training its FACs — from initial officer training and naval flight school to completion of tactical air control party school.  This training (and lessons learned throughout previous campaigns and conflicts) continues to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of CAS.  The effectiveness of MAGTFs hasn’t changed in well over 100 years.  When enemy troops hear the sound of Marine Corps CAS aircraft, their blood turns cold because they know what is left of their miserable lives must be measured in seconds.

Some History

World War II

The Marine Corps reached its peak aviation capability with five air wings, 31 aircraft groups, and 145 flying squadrons.  Guadalcanal became an important defining point in the evolution of Marine Air.  Marines learned that they must achieve and then maintain air superiority, that transport ships were vital targets, and that the Marines must be prepared to create and defend expeditionary airfields.  But, for the first two years, Marines could not support the Fleet Marine Forces in the way it had trained; instead, Marine aviators flew in support of the fleet and land-based installations.

After the battle of Tarawa, Marines began flying CAS missions in support of the landing force.  The first real close air support mission provided to landing forces occurred during the New Georgia campaign, Bougainville, and the Philippines.  In these missions, Marine Corps air liaison officers coordinated air support with troops on the ground.  These measures were perfected during the Battle of Okinawa.

During World War II, Marine aviators accounted for 2,355 Japanese kills while losing 573 of their own aircraft.  Marines accounted for 120 aces and earned 11 medals of honor.  After the war, President Truman reduced Marine aviation organizations to three air wings and further reduced funding so that the Marine Corps could only afford a single air wing to fight in the Korean War.

The Korean War

The first major surprise of the post-World War II period arrived on 25 June 1950.  North Korea invaded South Korea — and they weren’t joking.  The United Nations Command in Tokyo, headed by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Defense Department in Washington, D.C., were completely surprised.  The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Cairo and Yalta that the Korean Peninsula should be temporarily and jointly occupied by U.S. and U.S.S.R. forces until Korea could learn to govern itself after many years of Japanese occupation.  The Americans never imagined that the Russians would launch a sneak attack to settle the issue militarily.

The expensive lesson learned by the Americans was that the USSR could not be trusted.  Ill-prepared UN and US forces were quickly overwhelmed by nine infantry divisions and one armored division of Soviet T-34 tanks.  The South Korean Army, barely a year old, only knew one tactic: run like hell.  South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, fell in three days.

In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, the 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade was dispatched to South Korea, arriving on 2 August 1950.  The Brigade included a reinforced Marine infantry regiment and a Marine aircraft group.

The air group included Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 214, VMF 323, VMF 513, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6, and Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 2.  Altogether, the air group consisted of 60 Vought F4U Corsairs, 8 Consolidated OY Sentinels, and 4 Sikorsky HO3S-1s.

General MacArthur didn’t ask for an air group, but he got one anyway — that’s how Marines prepare for war.  The fact was that despite the Marine Corps’ efforts toward convincing the Army of the value of close air support in World War II, there was no Army interest in developing such a capability.  This situation only got worse once the Air Force became a separate service.  The flyboys wanted the glamor of being fighter pilots and strategic bomber drivers.  At that time, no one in the Air Force was interested in providing close air support to ground troops.  Both Navy and Marine Corps aviators are trained to provide CAS, but of the two, the Marines are better at it.  The close air support provided by Marine Corps pilots saved U.S. forces from annihilation in the Pusan Perimeter.

After the 10th Corps’ withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War bogged down in a slightly modified rendition of trench warfare.  The effectiveness of Marine Corps CAS had taught the Chinese Communists that they had a better combat survival rate by conducting nighttime operations.  In any case, with no interest by the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force in close air support operations, most CAS missions performed in the U.S. 8th Army were conducted by the Royal Air Force, British Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, South African Air Force, Greek Air Force, and Royal Thailand Air Force.

Serving on call to Marine ground forces, Marine aviators continued to employ CAS during daylight operations but also began to develop radar-guided bombing techniques for night operations.  As previously mentioned, allied air forces began contributing to tactical air strike missions.  Assisting with tactical strike missions were Airborne Forward Air Controllers (also, Fast FAC), who (according to some statisticians) should be credited with 40,000 CAS sorties and air strikes that killed 184,000 enemy troops.

Despite having agreed on a common forward air control doctrine embodied in Field Manual 31 – 35 Air-Ground Operations, a turf war broke out between the Air Force and Army over FAC doctrine for the entire war.  The Marine Corps maintained its FAC operations in support of Marine ground forces.  The Navy and Air Force operated independently.  With no common doctrine agreed upon during the Korean war, forward air control systems were shut down in 1956.

War in Indochina

When Forward Air Control was revived in 1961, it reemerged as a jumble of errors — unreliable radios, inadequately configured aircraft, differing concepts of close air support, and impeding jungle terrain.  Control of Marine Corps aviation in Vietnam became a very sensitive issue from the outset of the Marine Corps’ in-country operations.

Senior Marine aviators remembered their experience in Korea, where the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had been under the operational control of the U.S. Air Force.  They believed Air Force managers had unwisely employed Marine aircraft and aviation capabilities.  In particular, they deeply resented being denied “permission” to provide close air support to their Marine infantry brothers, which caused increased death and injury to Marines that would have otherwise been avoided.  In Vietnam, Marine aviation generals were determined not to allow a repeat of the Korean War experience.

In 1964, when air operations were undertaken over Laos and North Vietnam, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp[1] authorized General Westmoreland to designate the senior U. S. Air Force commander in Vietnam as coordinating authority since both Air Force and Navy air units were participating in these operations.  A year later, when the decision was made to “land the Marines” at Da Nang, it was natural for Admiral Sharp to direct that a similar arrangement be devised to coordinate fixed-wing aviation in support of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).

The Commanding General, 9thMEB reported to the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance/Advisory Command, Vietnam) (COMUSMACV).  Major General Joseph H. Moore, Commander, 7th U.S. Air Force, Vietnam, exercised coordinating authority over tactical air support and traffic control.  CINCPAC reaffirmed the Air Force’s authority just before assigning a Marine F-4 fighter squadron to 9thMEB — General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV intended to place the Marine squadron under the operational control of General Moore, but Admiral Sharp objected.  Thirty days later, Admiral Sharp published a directive governing the conduct and control of close air support.  Admiral Sharp stated that close air support was the chief mission of U.S. aviation in South Vietnam.

After receiving CINCPAC’s instructions, Westmoreland ordered revisions to his “air support” directive.  The new order reiterated CINCPAC’s appointment of General Moore.  The CG III MAF (LtGen Walt) retained operational control of Marine aviation, but to ensure maximum utilization of all US aircraft, Walt’s instructions were to notify General Moore (2nd Air Division) of any un-utilized USMC aircraft so that they could be used in support of non-Marine Corps MACV operations.

The CG 1stMAW, Major General McCutcheon, met with General Moore to coordinate air efforts relating to air defense operations.  Moore wanted operational control over all air defense assets — General McCutcheon demurred.  The F-4 aircraft was a dual-purpose airframe, capable of CAS and air-to-air operations.  To relinquish these aircraft to the USAF would deprive Marine ground commanders of their most important (and most lethal) supporting arm.

There was not a lot of love between the Air Force and Marine Corps Aviators.[2]  According to the former Chief of Staff of the 1stMarine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), Colonel Thomas J. O’Connor, “The arrival of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 531 (VMFA-531) and Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1) (in Vietnam) marked the end of a long period of planning, coaxing, cajoling, begging, and outright pressure to obtain space for the units to operate out of Da Nang Airbase.  During the early planning stages [for the deployment], high-level commands battled at the Pentagon, CINCPAC, and in the Far East over [the question of] who would conduct air operations out of Da Nang.  Navy and Marine Corps commands invoked the nebulous authority of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.  Events overtook the plans.  The Air Force was there [Da Nang] — and they invoked the military equivalent of “squatters rights” — they occupied the entire east side of the airfield.  The Air Force was unwilling to move around and vacate more space for the deploying Marine fixed-wing units.  Finally, under the weight of plans approved at high levels, and with Marines, deployment dates irrevocably approaching, the Air Force finally gave in.  Some promises about future construction to enlarge their area, commitments of Marine support of various projects, and a lot of sweet talks did the trick.”

This situation described by Colonel O’Connor would not change until the Marines constructed an expansion of airfield facilities at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Marble Mountain.

The Number of Planes

Marine Corps aviation units also increased as the number of ground units increased within the III MAF.  In March 1965, two F-4 squadrons supported 9thMAB.  In April, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16) (initially a composite helicopter air group) arrived to absorb the fixed-wing squadrons.  In May, advance elements of the 1stMAW headquarters arrived in Vietnam.  In June, MAG-12 arrived at Chu Lai; in July, MAG-11 joined the fight by assuming operational control over all fixed wing squadrons at Da Nang (from MAG-16), including VMCJ-1 VMFA-513, VMFA-542.  At the end of July, another helicopter air group arrived (MAG-36), along with a missile battalion (2d LAAM Bn).  In September, MAG-36 began operating out of Chu Lai with squadrons HMM-362, HMM-364, VMO-6, H&MS-36, and MABS-36.  HMM-363 operated at Qui Nhon.  MAG-16 at Da Nang operated with HMM-261, HMM-361, VMO-2, and two support squadrons (H&MS-16 & MABS-16); HMM-161 operated from Phu Bai.  HMH-462 arrived in Vietnam in late September 1965 and joined MAG-16.  Helicopter squadrons rotated between South Vietnam, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Marine Corps Air Stations on Okinawa.

The Control Factor    

General McCutcheon did not intend to deprive Marines of their aircraft, but he did understand the necessity of having one overall air defense commander.  A memorandum of agreement between the USAF and Marines highlighted the basic policies, procedures, and air defense responsibilities.  The Air Force had overall air defense responsibility.  McCutcheon designated Marine units to support the general air defense effort.

The system of CAS employed by Marines in South Vietnam was the product of innovative thinking during the island campaigns of World War II.  By 1965, the Marine air support doctrine had been continuously modified to keep pace with technological advances.  Marine attack aircraft were required to fly close air support missions against enemy troops within fifteen meters of friendly lines.  To reduce the risk to allied infantry, CAS was a controlled event by tactical air controllers (airborne) (also, TAC (A)) in high-performance aircraft, a forward air controller (airborne) (FAC (A)), or a forward air controller (ground) (FAC (G)).

Most III MAF aerial observers (AOs) performed their missions in light observation aircraft.  The AOs were also air controllers qualified to direct air strikes, artillery, and naval gunfire support.  Airborne controllers (familiar with the tactical situation on the ground) remained “on station” for extended periods.  AOs established and maintained contact with supported infantry units on Frequency Modulated (FM) tactical radios while directing attack aircraft over an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) net.  Communications for air support control was a “flexible” arrangement that depended on the circumstances and availability of ground radios.  FM radios of ground forces were incompatible with UHF radios of jet aircraft.  Moreover, UHF radios in ground units, usually at the battalion level or higher, were unavailable to company or platoon size units — where the fighting usually took place.

After the air controller relayed pertinent targeting information and mission requirements to the attack pilots on station, he then marked the target with a white phosphorus rocket or a colored smoke grenade.  Once the AO was certain the attack pilot had identified the intended target, he cleared the attack aircraft to make their firing run.  Once cleared, the lead pilot rolled in toward the target marker and dropped his ordnance.  Using the lead pilot’s “hits” as a reference, the controller furnished the second plane in the flight with whatever corrections were necessary and cleared the aircraft to make its run.  The above procedure continued until all attack aircraft had completed their mission.

The two types of CAS missions flown by Marines in Vietnam were preplanned and on-call.  The preplanned mission was a complex process.  First, a battalion commander would submit a request for fixed-wing aircraft through the air liaison officer — usually the day before his battalion began an operation.  The request would go to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and the Tactical Air Direction Center (TADC) of the air wing headquarters at Da Nang.  All CAS requests were assimilated at that level, and orders were issued to fixed-wing air groups (MAG-11 and MAG-12).

On-call missions could be processed and executed almost instantaneously — they were flown either in support of troops in contact with the enemy or against targets of opportunity located by airborne or ground controllers.  Once the air groups received their orders, they scheduled flights and issued mission requirements to the individual squadrons.  This procedure required approximately 20 hours from the initial time of request to deliver the ordnance to the target.

In the case of an emergency (on-call) mission, the TADC or DASG could divert in-flight aircraft from their original missions to a new target.  The TADG could also call on aircraft, which each air group maintained “on call” around the clock for just such contingencies.  Marine air also provided this combat support for other than Marine Corps units.  During the battle of Ba Gia in June 1965, the A-4s of Colonel Noble’s MAG-12 took off on their first night launch from Chu Lai to support the embattled outpost 20 miles to the south.

For three days, MAG-12’s Skyhawks and (F-4B) Phantoms bombed and strafed the enemy positions around the clock.  Four months later, F4Bs from Colonel Anglin’s MAG-11 and the A-4s from Colonel Brown’s MAG-12 flew 59 sorties in support of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops at the Plei Me outpost (20 miles southwest of Pleiku in northwestern II Corps).  The air assault against the outpost resulted in a significant engagement, the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in which the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) killed 1,238 enemies in 12 days.  In the third quarter of 1965, MAG-11 and MAG-12 flew 4,614 sorties in support of Marine units and 1,656 sorties for the ARVN units.

Marine attack aircraft performed several other missions besides their primary task of close air support.  Both the F-4 and A-4 communities flew direct air support missions.  Similar to close air support, these strikes were not conducted near friendly lines and did not require integration with the ground unit’s fire support plan, although coordination did take place at an echelon of command above that of the maneuver unit.  The aim of the direct air support strikes was to isolate the enemy from the battlefield and destroy his troops and support mechanism.  The two fixed-wing groups also played a vital role in protecting the MAG-36 and MAG-16 helicopters.

During the Vietnam War, the United States introduced several fixed and rotary wing gunships, including several cargo aircraft modified to support gun platforms.  These performed as CAS and interdiction aircraft.  The first of these was the C-47 (Spooky) — converted from the Douglas C-47 airframe (DC-3).  It was highly effective in the CAS role.  The troops loved it.  The USAF also developed the Fairchild AC-119 and the Lockheed AC-130 gunship.  The AC-130 has been around for a long time; it is one of the finest airframes ever produced for defense purposes.  Multiple variants of the AC-130 exist and continues to undergo modernization.

Usually, close support is thought to be only carried out by Fighter-bombers or dedicated ground-attack aircraft, such as the A-10 — but even high-altitude bombers capable of high-precision guided munitions are useful in a CAS role.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, the scarcity of fighter aircraft forced military planners to rely on B1B aircraft relying on GPS-guided munitions and laser-guided JDAMS.  One benefit of the high-altitude airframe, aircraft can be utilized on 12-hour in-flight missions.  The USAF employed many of these airframes in Afghanistan.  International CAS missions were flown by Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway (F-16s), the U.K. (Harriers, Tornados), and several U.S. aircraft.

Finally, using information technology to direct and coordinate precision air support has increased the importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in using CAS, laser, and GPS to communicate battlefield data.  Recent doctrine reflects the use of electronic and optical technology to direct targeted fires for CAS.  Air platforms communicating with ground forces can also provide additional aerial-to-ground visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of command and control (C2), which can be particularly important in low-intensity conflicts.

For an interesting first-hand account of the Fast FAC mission, see The Playboy Club.

Sources:

  1. Blair, C.  The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953.  Random House, 1987.
  2. Corum, J. S.  Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting insurgents and terrorists.  Kansas University Press, 2003.
  3. Dorr, R. F.  Vietnam Air War Debrief.  London Aerospace Publishing, 1996.
  4. House, J. M.  Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century.  Kansas University Press, 2001.
  5. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Naval Institute Press, 1984
  6. Tenenbaum, E.  The Battle over Fire Support: The CAS Challenge and the Future of Artillery.  PDF, Focus Strategique, Institute Français, 2012. 

Endnotes:

[1] U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., USN (1906 – 2001) served as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (1963 – 1964) and Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command (1964 – 1968).  

[2] Despite their carnal relationships since 1947, there remains no true love between the USAF and USMC aviation community.


Digging Graves

Background

Kǒng Fūzǐ, otherwise known in the western world as Confucius (551-479 BC), was a paragon of Chinese philosophers and sages and, perhaps, one of the most influential individuals in all human history.  His teachings emphasized personal morality, justice, kindness, and sincerity — but his school of thought was only one of a hundred philosophical and legalistic academies during China’s Qin dynasty.  He once warned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Charlie Wilson

Operation Cyclone was the brainchild of Texas Congressman Charles Nesbit Wilson (also known as Charlie Wilson).[1]  It was the codename for a Central Intelligence Agency program to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen (1979-1989) during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  It was one of the most protracted and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.

Wilson’s idea was to funnel black money through the CIA to financially support radical Islamists who more or less worked under the control of Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988).  We don’t know how much of this money Zia diverted to his atomic weapons project, but it may have been substantial.  Between 1980-1986, the CIA sent between $20-40 million to Afghanistan annually; in 1987, this amount increased to $640 million annually.  CIA funding continued after the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan in 1989 to support the Afghan Civil War (1989-1992).  Before Zia’s death, he successfully wooed both the United States and China into a ménage à trois — which was “just fine” with Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, who leaned in that direction anyway.

The CIA’s arms deal included the state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon that cost around $38,000 each.  We sent thousands of these to Afghanistan to help the Islamists rid themselves of the Soviet MI-24 (Hind) helicopter.  Once CIA operatives instructed the Islamists how to employ these weapons, no Russian helicopter was safe.  How many of these Stinger missiles remained in Afghanistan after the CIA withdrew its support is unknown.  Still, at some point, the supplies diminished — driving Islamists to employ a much cheaper and easier to obtain weapon: the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG).

The RPG fires a shaped charge explosive warhead.  There are various warheads, but the most common is the high explosive (HE) round and high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round.  Either of these is devastating to helicopters.

As it turned out, the Americans instructing mujahideen on fighting a sophisticated enemy combat force did an extraordinary job.  Radical Islamists later turned these skills toward the Americans once the United States decided to replace the Russian invaders in 2003.  Americans in Afghanistan have been digging graves ever since.

Extortion One Seven

CH-47D by LCPL D. NICHOLS/USMC

Members of the U. S. Navy’s Seal Team Six assaulted a Pakistani compound on 2 May 2011, killing the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.  It was a CIA-led operation with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) codenamed Operation Neptune Spear.  Operating alongside the Navy’s special warfare group was an element of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (Night Stalkers).  This operation ended a nearly ten-year search for bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack upon the United States.

One month earlier, the US Tenth Mountain Division turned control of Combat Outpost Tangi over to Afghan government forces.  It was an interesting “turnover” since the Afghan Defense Force (ADF) never actually occupied the base, so Taliban forces took the initiative to seize it for their use.  There could be a connection here, but I hesitate to judge.  In any event, US forces continued to operate in the Tangi area.  By 2011, the number of Taliban in Tangi was significant.  On 8 June, Taliban ground forces engaged a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter from five or six different locations with 14 separate RPG attacks forcing the overwhelmed helicopter to abandon its mission.

At about this same time, US intelligence determined that senior Taliban leader Qari Tahir might have operated from within the Tangi Valley.  Thus, the International Security Force (ISF) command group ordered American/Coalition forces working within Wardak Province to locate Tahir and capture or kill him.

Beginning around 22:30 hours (local time) on 5 August, a platoon of 47 Army Rangers departed their forward operating base in Logar Province aboard two CH-47D aircraft.  After a thirty-minute flight, the two helicopters landed near a compound believed to be the location of Tahir.  After disembarking the Rangers, the helicopters departed the area.  It was a high-risk operation.  Two AH-64 Apache gunships and an AC-130 gunship remained on station to provide intelligence, surveillance, and aerial reconnaissance of the area.  Seventeen SEALS served as a reserve force.

As the Rangers approached the designated compound, ISR aircraft observed numerous individuals leaving the compound, but the Rangers did not engage these people.  Apache aircraft did engage a different group of around eight insurgents, reporting six of these insurgents killed in action.  Meanwhile, ISR assets continued to observe the disengaged group, estimating between 9-11 fighters.  The on-site commander believed that these individuals might include Tahir.  At 0100, the task force commander directed the SEALS to engage these suspected insurgents.  The Aviation Brigade Commander took nearly an hour to approve a new landing zone for the SEAL infiltration.  At 02:00, the task force commander decided to increase the size of the SEAL Team from 17 to 33 warriors and then, to reduce transportation time, command authority loaded SEAL reinforcements into a single CH-47D; another aircraft served as a decoy that would land at a separate landing site.

While this part of the operation was unfolding, the Taliban force split into two sections.  At around 02:15, one team of three insurgents went to a stand of trees; the other group entered a building located 1.2 miles from the original compound.  Since the Apache helicopters were involved in tracking these two groups of insurgents, they could not offer security or fire support to either of the two in-bound CH-47Ds.

Six minutes out, the decoy CH-47D split off and returned to base.  The remaining helicopter, callsign Extortion One Seven, proceeded to the earlier landing zone.  One minute out, Extortion One Seven descended to an altitude of 100 feet and reduced its airspeed to around 58 knots.  A third group of Taliban previously undetected by the Americans fired 2-3 RPGs from a two-story building.  The second round fired struck Extortion One Seven’s aft rotor assembly.  Within five seconds, the CH-47D crashed and exploded, killing everyone on board.  It took the Apache aircraft another thirty seconds to report the 47’s destruction.

The official determination in the after-action report was “wrong place/wrong time.”  Such things do happen in war.  People die.  Suddenly.  But former Navy JAG Officer, Lieutenant Commander Don Brown,[2] disagrees.  He claims the US military intentionally concealed what happened to Extortion One Seven, much in the way the Army lied about the circumstances of Patrick Tillman’s death in 2004.

After reviewing all the evidence available to him (unclassified material), Brown concluded that military command sacrificed the SEAL Team through gross negligence during mission planning and covering up what happened.  As Brown understood the facts, seven ADF personnel slipped aboard Extortion One Seven without authority (a significant security breach), men who had no role in the operation.  Moreover, the rules of engagement (ROE) precluded pre-landing suppression fire within the CH-47D’s designated landing zone.  Brown argued that a pre-landing suppression fire would have saved Extortion One Seven from destruction.

On the issue of the seven ADF personnel, Brown contends that the remains of these men were flown to the United States and cremated, as reported in the Washington Times, leading Brown to conclude, “Something went terribly wrong inside that helicopter, and whatever went wrong was most likely beyond the pilot’s control.”  Brown also raises the question about a so-called helicopter black box, which the Army contends does not exist in that model aircraft.  But Commander Brown was adamant, asking why the Brigade commander sent Rangers back to the crash site looking for something that doesn’t exist.

Brown additionally claimed that the AC-130 gunship circling above the LZ spotted suspected Taliban insurgents moving on the ground toward Extortion One Seven’s designated landing site and requested permission to engage those insurgents.  According to Brown’s investigation, the task force commander denied the gunship permission to engage.  US Air Force Captain Joni Marquez, assigned to the AC-130 gunship at the time as firing officer, confirmed Brown’s assertions, and agreed with his conclusion that denying the gunship permission to engage sealed the fate of the CH-47D.

Conclusion

The cost in American lives from the US teaching a potential enemy how to kill our sons and daughters has been too high.  It is incomprehensible that any official of the US government would plant the seeds for a lethal future conflict for no other reason than to engage in an illicit relationship with a socialite.  Worse, Wilson soon had the full cooperation of the White House, CIA, and House of Representatives.

How many graves have we dug so far in the war on terror — graves that a US Congressman helped to dig?

Sources:

  1. Bergen, P.  Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden.  Crown Publishing, 2012.
  2. Bowden, M.  The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.
  3. Carter, S.  “Retired Air Force Captain says Pentagon covered up the real cause of deadly chopper crash.”  On-air broadcast, 18 April 2017.
  4. Herring, J. K.  Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield.  Center Street Publications, 2011.

Footnotes:

[1] Wilson’s motivation for starting the so-called Charlie Wilson War was his infatuation with Joanne Herring, a quite-wealthy anti-Communist crusader.  Herring, appalled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, employed her feminine wiles in convincing Wilson to take up her cause of revenge against the Soviet Union.  Joanne Herring is also believed to have had an intimate relationship with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq while serving as “Honorary Consul” at the Pakistani Consulate in Houston, Texas.  Osama bin-Laden may have been the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, but it may have been Joanne Herring who started it.  Treason, anyone?  Anyone?

[2] Brown served as legal counsel to Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was charged and convicted for war crimes.  Brown’s subsequent book Travesty of Justice: The Shocking Persecution of Lt. Clint Lorance was a major factor in Lorance’s pardon by President Donald J. Trump in 2019. 


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.