When Marine Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the U.S. Naval Academy for flight training on May 22, 1912, the date celebrated as the birth of Marine aviation, he didn’t start out with the idea that airplanes could be useful to ground troops. But after flying missions with British and French units during World War I and organizing the first Marine aviation group, that’s the conclusion he came to. After the war, in the September 1920 Marine Corps Gazette, he wrote that “the only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their operations.” Marine aviators ever since have been trained with that single purpose in mind.
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Alone among the flying services, the Marine Corps requires pilots to begin their training with six months of infantry school. After that, says Fred Allison, a Marine Corps historian and former F-4 Phantom radar intercept officer, “it’s a matter of learning what an airplane can do to help ground troops accomplish their missions.” The support of ground forces is more than a doctrine for Marines, says Allison; it’s part of their culture. “What’s happening on the ground is being done by the same service,” he says. In other words, sometimes those are fellow Marines down there. Moreover, he continues, in the Marines, forward air controllers—the ones who direct aircraft to targets—are always pilots. “They’re on the ground,” he says, “but they’re talking to their buddies flying above. You know how it is between friends who know each other: Immediately you’re on the same page of music.” One pilot told him, “It’s like putting on your favorite old sweatshirt. It just feels good when you’re talking to a Marine FAC on the ground as opposed to an Air Force FAC.”
The 10 aircraft we’ve selected to highlight in this anthology on Marine Corps aviation have rarely strayed far from the doctrine that Alfred Cunningham developed: The mission of a Marine in the air is to help the Marine on the ground.
F4U Corsair: Blue Meanie
Between 1941 and 1952, the Chance Vought Corporation hammered out 12,500 handsome fighters with powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radials driving Hamilton Standard propellers with a span so great—more than 13 feet—the fighter’s wing had to be bent into an inverted gull to afford the props ground clearance. (The landing gear descended from the low point of the wing.) At the time, the engine-propeller combination was the largest ever flown on a fighter, and it gave the Corsair a speed of 400 mph, which delighted Vought’s customer, the Navy. Poor pilot visibility, however, made the aircraft almost impossible to land on a carrier. And that’s how the Corsair came to join the Marines. Initially land-based, it went on to become the most ferocious and famous Marine fighter of World War II.
Most people were introduced to the lovely deep blue of the Corsair by a 1970s television series, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which loosely dramatized the exploits of the best-known Corsair ace: Between September 1943 and January 1944, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington shot down 26 Japanese aircraft. But students of aviation history know that the Corsair was also a danger to Japanese ground troops; it won the nickname “Angel of Okinawa” for the role it played in supporting ground forces in the battle for that island, a mission it continued to fly in the Korean War.
In one of the most famous actions in Korea, the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, Marine air groups flew 154 sorties in one day, November 30, 1950, to help their brothers on the ground escape Chinese soldiers, who heavily outnumbered the Americans. Aided by the air strikes, the Marines began fighting their way to the coast. Marine rifleman John Cole, recorded on a CD accompanying the book 100 Years of Marine Corps Aviation, recalls what it was like to have Corsairs on his side during the desperate march to safety:
“The Corsairs would come in and help drive the Chinese off when they had roadblocks set up [to impede the retreat]. They’d gone up the valley just about dusk and were gone for a while and when it got a little closer to dark, here came three of them back down the valley, and the Chinese knew, ‘Okay it’s getting dark and they have to get back home and so that’s the end of their air support.’ And all along this ridge, you could see the fires light up because they were in the trees where they could get wood to burn. And they just got their fires going good, and everybody was getting around them to do whatever, with their rice and what have you, and here came that fourth Corsair down the valley. And you could hear his guns just a hammering. And he went right down that ridge, and boy, you talk about the lights going out. Of course all of the guys that were walking—and most of the wounded, all the guys that could walk, walked; you needed space for all the dead and those that couldn’t walk on the trucks; we were several miles long with that convoy getting out of there—and you could hear the guys yelling and screaming, ‘Hey! Way to go, flyboys!’ ”
Sikorsky HRS-1: The First Combat Troop Transport Helicopter
Of the three world-changing inventions that emerged from World War II, only two were credited with inaugurating new eras: the jet engine and the atomic bomb. But it can be argued that the third, the helicopter, had as big an impact on how wars would be fought as the other two. For the Army and Marine Corps, the period between the Korean War and today could be thought of as the Helicopter Age, and the machine that ushered it in was the Sikorsky HRS-1.
On September 2, 1951, Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (HMR) 161 arrived in Korea with 15 HRS-1 helicopters. The first practical utility helicopter, the HRS-1 was built to carry eight troops or 1,500 pounds of equipment and cruised at 100 mph. “That, of course is under perfect sea-level conditions,” says Roger Connor, curator of rotary wing aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum. “On a good day in Korea [when lift was not degraded by low air density]‚ HMR-161 was lifting four, maybe five, guys at a time. In the summer it was three.”