View Full Version : Marine Corps Aviation The Early Years

08-08-04, 09:59 AM
Marine Corps Aviation <br />
The Early Years <br />
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Marine Aviation started on May 22, 1912, when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham, USMC, reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis. The Navy's...

08-08-04, 10:02 AM
Marine Corps Aviation soon found itself split between two separate missions. Cunningham's Aviation Company at Philadelphia, renamed the Marine Aeronautic Company, was assigned the mission of flying seaplanes on antisubmarine patrols. Maj. Gen. Barnett had secured Navy Department approval in the summer of 1917 for the formation of a Marine air unit of landplanes to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the brigade being sent to France. By October 14, the Marine Aeronautic Company had attained a strength of 34 officers and 330 enlisted men, and was divided into the two projected units. The 1st Marine Aeronautic Company of 10 officers and 93 men would prepare for seaplane missions, while the 1st Aviation Squadron of 24 officers and 237 enlisted would organize to support the Marine brigade in France.

Anti-Submarine Patrol in the Azores

The 1st Marine Aeronautic Company led the way into active service. In October the company, commanded by then-Captain Francis T. Evans, moved from Philadelphia to Naval Air Station (NAS), Cape May, N.J. On January 9, 1918, the company embarked at Philadelphia for duty in the Azores to begin antisubmarine operations. The unit's strength on deployment was 12 officers and 133 enlisted personnel, with equipment initially at 10 Curtiss R-6s and two N-9s. Later in the deployment, the company received six Curtiss HS-2Ls, which greatly enhanced its ability to carry out its basic mission.


Curtiss N-9

During 1918, the Aeronautic company operated from its base at Punta Delgada on the island of San Miguel. It flew regular patrols to deny enemy submarines ready access to the convoy routes and any kind of base activity in the Azores. It was not the stuff of which great heroes are made, but the First Aeronautic Company was the first American aviation unit to deploy with a specific mission.

So boring was this duty that one pilot had the temerity to write Major General Commandant Barnett, complaining of the "most unpleasant continued inactivity" and requesting to be detached to France. General Barnett wrote back that a Marine officer's paramount duty was to carry out his assignment, no matter how unpleasant. Furthermore, while orders relieving the bored young aviator had previously been dispatched, the General revoked them.

The First Marine Aviation Force

The deployment of the First Aviation Force, was a much more complex undertaking. The story begins with the Marine landplane unit, the 1st Aviation Squadron, commanded by Captain McIlvain. The squadron was to receive basic flight training at the Army Aviation School at Hazelhurst Field, Mineola, L.I., N.Y. It would then move to the Army Advanced Flying School at Houston, Texas, and upon completion of that syllabus would be deployed to combat. The squadron moved from Philadelphia to Mineola on October 17, 1917, to begin training. In November, the six officers in its balloon contingent were sent to Fort Omaha, Neb., for training as artillery observers. The rest of the story reveals Marine initiative, determination, flexibility and success.

At Mineola, the squadron flew JN-4B Jenny trainers with civilian instructors, and the main body of the squadron lived in tents. Training progressed reasonably well but, by December, temperatures were dropping rapidly and something had to be done. In the absence of any other orders, Capt. McIlvain packed his troops, equipment and aircraft on a train that he had requisitioned and headed south on January 1, 1918. They paused at Washington to request orders, resumed the journey, and somewhere en route they received orders to the Army's Gerstner Field at Lake Charles, La., where training continued in a more suitable climate.


The next chapter in this account of a firm resolution to prepare for combat concerns Captain Geiger's Aeronautic Detachment at Philadelphia. This unit was organized on December 15, 1917, with four officers and 36 enlisted men, most of whom were detached from McIlvain's squadron. The unit's mission was not yet clearly defined, but it was planned to be a supporting element of the Advanced Base Force. However, on February 4, 1918, Geiger received orders to take his detachment, now 11 officers and 41 men, to NAS Miami, Fla. Soon after arriving, Geiger, seeking a base for the entire 1st Aviation Force, moved his command to a small airstrip on the edge of the Everglades, owned at the time by the Curtiss Flying School. To secure Marine training facilities independent of the Army, Geiger absorbed the entire School into the Marine Corps, arranging to commission the instructors in the reserves and requisition the school's Jennies. On April 1, McIlvain's squadron arrived at the field from Lake Charles and, for the first time, the nucleus of the 1st Aviation Force was consolidated at one location.

Capt. Cunningham launched a campaign to bring his squadrons to full strength in men and machines. He made repeated recruiting visits to the Officers' School at Quantico, Va., and collected other volunteers elsewhere. As long as they seemed willing, able and in possession of a reasonable set of credentials as potential pilots or mechanics, they got orders to Miami.

Even with this influx of strength, the two detachments could not furnish enough pilots for the planned four squadrons of the 1st Aviation Force. Realizing this, Cunningham toured the Navy air installations and recruited Naval Aviators, most of them young reservists who wanted to go to France. These officers, already qualified Navy seaplane pilots, transferred from the Navy to the Marine Corps, and reported to the Marine field at Miami for landplane training. Of 135 pilots who eventually flew in France with the 1st Aviation Force, 78 were transferred naval officers.

By June 16, the force was organized into a headquarters and four squadrons designated A, B, C and D. On July 13, the force, less Squadron D which was left behind temporarily, trained at Miami. On July 18, the 107 officers and 654 enlisted men of the three squadrons sailed for France in the transport USS De Kalb.

At Miami, the Marine Flying Field became a bustling military complex of hangars, warehouses, machine shops, and gunnery and bombing ranges. The completion of the manning and training of Squadron D was accomplished as a first priority, and then additional personnel were trained to provide air patrols off the Florida coast.

First Marine Aviation Force in France

The force disembarked at Brest on July 30, and found a full bag of administrative and supply problems. Foremost among them was the fact that no arrangements had been made to move them the 400 miles to their base locations near Calais. This was solved and the two-day trip accomplished with the requisition of a French train by Maj. Cunningham. Squadrons A and B were located at landing field sites in Calais and Dunkirk, with Squadron C occupying a field near the town of La Fresne. The force headquarters were established in the town of Bois en Ardres.


Curtiss HS-2L

The worst problem encountered was a delay in the arrival of the force's aircraft. Before leaving for France, Cunningham had made arrangements with the Army for the delivery of 72 DH-4 bombers. These British-designed aircraft were to be shipped to France, assembled there and issued to the Marine force. Due to delays in assembly, followed by an administrative error which sent most of the assembled aircraft to England, the first one did not reach the force until September. When it became clear that the delays were in the offing, Cunningham got the Navy's approval to make a deal with the British. For every three Liberties that Cunningham sent the RAF, they sent back one DH-9A with engine installed.

Unable to get his pilots into the air immediately in American machines, Maj. Cunningham again talked to the British and made arrangements for Marine pilots to fly bombing missions with RAF Squadrons 217 and 218 in DH-4s and 9s. Each pilot flew at least three missions under this cooperative agreement.


08-08-04, 10:04 AM
On October 5, Squadron D arrived at La Fresne bringing the strength of the force to 149 officers and 183 enlisted. At this point, the squadrons were redesignated 7, 8, 9 and 10, to conform to the Northern Bombing Group identification system. The Germans had evacuated their submarine bases on the Channel coast, eliminating the planned mission of the Marines. Instead the Marine force was placed in general support of the British and Belgian armies in their final assault on the crumbling German defenses.

Talbot & Robinson win Medal of Honor

By October 12, the Marines had received enough of their own DH-4s and 9As to begin flying missions independently of the British. Two days later, Captain Robert S. Lytle of Squadron Nine led the Marines' first mission in their own aircraft, bombing the German-held railyards at Thielt, Belgium. The bombing was without incident but, on the way back to base, the formation of eight DHs was jumped by 12 German fighters. The Germans succeeded in separating one aircraft from the rest of the formation and concentrated their attack on Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot, one of the Naval Reserve officers who had transferred to Marine Aviation.


Curtiss R6

Talbot's gunner, Corporal Robert G. Robinson, quickly shot down one attacker, but two others closed in from below, spraying the DH with fire and wounding Robinson in the arm. In spite of his wounds, Robinson cleared a jam in his gun and continued to fire until hit twice more, while Talbot took frantic evasive action. With Robinson unconscious in the rear seat, Talbot brought down a second German with his fixed guns and then put the plane into a steep dive to escape the remaining German fighters. Crossing the German lines at an altitude of 50 feet, he landed safely at a Belgium airfield where Robinson was hospitalized. Robinson ultimately recovered and, for this mission, both he and Talbot were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Robinson and Talbot's MOH Citations:


Rank and organization: Gunnery Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps, 1st Marine Aviation Force
Place and date: Pittham, Belgium, 14 October 1918.
Entered service at: Chicago, Ill.
Born: 30 April 1896, New York, N.Y.

Citation: For extraordinary heroism as observer in the 1st Marine Aviation Force at the front in France. In company with planes from Squadron 218, Royal Air Force, conducting an air raid on 8 October 1918, G/Sgt. Robinson's plane was attacked by 9 enemy scouts. In the fight which followed, he shot down 1 of the enemy planes. In a later air raid over Pittham, Belgium, on 14 October 1918, his plane and 1 other became separated from their formation on account of motor trouble and were attacked by 12 enemy scouts.

Acting with conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in the fight which ensued, G/Sgt. Robinson, after shooting down 1 of the enemy planes, was struck by a bullet which carried away most of his elbow. At the same time his gun jammed. While his pilot maneuvered for position, he cleared the jam with one hand and returned to the fight. Although his left arm was useless, he fought off the enemy scouts until he collapsed after receiving 2 more bullet wounds, one in the stomach and one in the thigh.


Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps.
Born: 6 January 1897, South Weymouth, Mass.
Appointed from: Connecticut.

Citation: For exceptionally meritorious service and extraordinary heroism while attached to Squadron C, 1st Marine Aviation Force, in France. 2d Lt. Talbot participated in numerous air raids into enemy territory. On 8 October 1918, while on such a raid, he was attacked by 9 enemy scouts, and in the fight that followed shot down an enemy plane. Also, on 14 October 1918, while on a raid over Pittham, Belgium, 2d Lt. Talbot and another plane became detached from the formation on account of motor trouble and were attacked by 12 enemy scouts. During the severe fight that followed, his plane shot down 1 of the enemy scouts. His observer was shot through the elbow and his gun jammed.

2d Lt. Talbot maneuvered to gain time for his observer to clear the jam with one hand, and then returned to the fight. The observer fought until shot twice, once in the stomach and once in the hip and then collapsed, 2d Lt. Talbot attacked the nearest enemy scout with his front guns and shot him down. With his observer unconscious and his motor failing, he dived to escape the balance of the enemy and crossed the German trenches at an altitude of 50 feet, landing at the nearest hospital to leave his observer, and then returning to his aerodrome.

Additional Sources:
members.tripod.com/ ralphcooper0
members.shaw.ca/ flyingaces

Between October 14 and November 11, the Marines carried out a total of 14 bombing missions against railway yards, canals, supply dumps and airfields - always flying without fighter escort. During their tour in France from August 9 to November 11, Marines of the 1st Aviation Force participated in 57 missions. They dropped a total of 33,932 pounds of bombs, at a cost of four pilots killed, and one pilot and two gunners wounded. They scored confirmed kills of four German fighters and claimed eight more. During its brief period in combat, the force earned a total of 30 awards, including Talbot's and Robinson's Medals of Honor and four Distinguished Service Medals.