The Diary of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham

November 1917 -- January 1918



This diary recounts the experiences and impressions of Captain Alfred Austell Cunningham, the first Marine aviator, during his tour of British and French aviation facilities in November and December 1917. The document reveals much about the character and personality of a notable Marine and gives a view of wartime England and France as seen through his eyes.

Dr. Graham A. Cosmas, the editor, joined the staff of the Division of History and Museums in December 1973 after teaching history at the University of Texas and the University of Guam. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Texas and has published several articles en United States military history, as well as a book on the U. S. Army in the Spanish-American War.

The Cunningham diary, is presented here by itself as a preview of a larger collection of Cunningham materials from World War I which will be edited by Dr. Cosmas and published next year by the History and Museums Division.


During November and December 1917, Captain Alfred A. Cunningham, the first Marine Corps aviator, travelling under orders from Major General Commandant George Barnett, toured the battlefronts and flying fields of France to observe Allied air operations and training.

In 1917, Cunningham was the Marine Corps's de facto director of aviation. He had joined the Corps in 1909 and as a first lieutenant stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard made his first experimental flights in a crude airplane which he rented at his own expense. In May 1912, the Marine Corps sent Cunningham to Annapolis for Navy pilot training. He soloed early in August of that same year and on 5 March 1913 was designated a naval aviator. During the next four years, as Marine aviation slowly grew, Cunningham, joined by a few other far-sighted Marines, continually worked and argued to promote its interests. On 26 February 1917, Cunningham received orders to organize at the Philadelphia Navy Yard the Marines' first tactical aviation unit, called initially the Marine Corps Aeronautic Company. At this time, Marine aviation muster rolls carried the names of seven aviators and 43 ground personnel.

With the declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, Marine aviation, with Aeronautic Company as its nucleus, joined the rest of the Corps in rapid expansion. Cunningham began looking for a way to get his force of men and machines into front-line combat. To this end, he made his trip to France. He brought back from his tour a proposal for the creation of a Northern Bombing Group composed of squadrons of Navy and Marine land planes with the mission of attacking German U-boat bases on the Belgian coast. This plan won the backing of the General Board of the Navy, and on 11 March 1918 Cunningham received instructions to organize the First Marine Aviation Force -- the first Marine air organization ever to fly in combat.

During his tour of the war front in 1917, Captain Cunningham kept this diary, which was acquired by the Manuscript Collection of the Marine Corps Museum in November 1973 as part of a gift of Cunningham materials made by Mrs. Alexander H. Jefferies, sister-in-law of the late Mrs. Alfred A. Cunningham. The original of the diary is now located in the Alfred A. Cunningham Papers (PC 459) in the Marine Corps Museum Collections Unit, Building 198, Washington Navy Yard.

The diary, kept in tiny, neat handwriting in a small pocket notebook, begins on 3 November 1917 with Cunningham's sailing from New York on board the S. S. St. Paul. After a description of a rough winter passage through the North Atlantic U-boat zone, the entries record the confusion, inconveniences, and hardships of wartime London and Paris and contain repeated expressions of homesickness, along with sometimes acid comment on the French people and culture.

Beginning with the entry of 23 November, Cunningham records his visits to the French flying schools south of Paris at Tours, Avord, Pau, and Cazaux. Here he conferred with French aviators and flew in aircraft of many types. He was impressed with the skill of many of the Allied pilots he met but sometimes appalled by their recklessness and by the accident rate among the student fliers. Throughout these passages, also, Cunningham expresses straight-laced moral indignation at the fondness of many off-duty American officers for liquor and women.

After another stop in Paris, the diary then follows Cunningham to a visit to the AEF Headquarters at Chaumont on 12 December, then to the Marine billets near Bourmont and Damblain and to front-line French airbases near Soissons. In these visits, he encounters American fliers of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille. The entries for 18-22 December, the most dramatic of the diary, tell of Cunningham's participation in combat missions with French pilots and a brief but vivid experience of trench warfare and artillery bombardment.

The final section of the diary recounts visits to British bomber fields and seaplane bases in northern France and Belgium and a tour of the RNAF and RFC aerial gunnery schools at Eastchurch and Hythe, England. The last entries leave Cunningham on board S. S. St. Louis at sea on the voyage home.

The diary is transcribed exactly as Cunningham wrote it, retaining his errors and idiosyncrasies of spelling and punctuation. The original diary was checked and prepared for reproduction by Mr. Charles A. Wood, Curator, Collections Unit, Marine Corps Museums. It was typed in its original draft by Mrs. Joyce Blackman, and edited and prepared for printing by Dr. Graham A. Cosmas.

The photographs with which the diary is illustrated are from a scrapbook assembled by Cunningham during his tour of France which is now part oŁ the Cunningham Papers.

Mr. Rowland P. Gill, Curator of Photographs, Collections Unit, Marine Corps Museums, assisted in captioning these pictures, many of which may be published here for the first time.