Flying Leathernecks at 100

by Arthur Herman

On a day in late May 1912, Marine Lieutenant Alfred Cunningham cranked up his rickety Wright B-1 biplane nicknamed “Noisy Nan” and took her into the air for the first time — and Marine Corps aviation was born. One hundred years later, defense cuts cloud the future of one of the most successful — and most unsung — commands in the history of American arms. Marine aviation’s centenary is a good time to reflect on its achievements, and why it deserves a second hundred years.

Marine aviators’ most important job is providing what’s called “close air support” for the Marine infantryman on the ground. It is incredibly dangerous work. It requires coming in at low altitude and exposed to enemy fire, in order to put a cluster of munitions on target — a target sometimes so close to the action that the slightest miscalculation can result in every Marine pilot’s nightmare, killing fellow leathernecks with “friendly fire.”

For that reason, Marine pilots are taught to think like Marines first, and aviators second. What they forego in the glory of being a Navy or Air Force fighter jock (although there have been more than a few of those in Marine aviation, including John Glenn), they gain by knowing that the most reassuring sight any Marine will ever see in battle is that jet marked MARINES swooping in to pound an enemy position.

World War I brought the first of the Medals of Honor that Marine aviators would earn over the years. But the service arm really came into its own in World War II, when airplane makers Roy Grumman and Chance Vought gave Marines two planes as tough and rugged as the Corps itself: the F4U Corsair and F4F Wildcat.

In August 1942, Lieutenant Harold William Bauer, “Coach” to his pilots, brought his squadron of Wildcats to Guadalcanal. Sometimes outnumbered ten to one by Japanese Zeros, Bauer’s boys took off from bomb-pitted fields covered in the rainy season by six inches of mud to hurl themselves aloft to help win the decisive campaign of the Pacific war — a victory that cost Bauer his life but earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.

#more#Marine aviators went on to earn eleven Medals of Honor in World War II. Later they flew Grumman Panthers and McDonnell Banshees in Korea, and the ungainly but sturdy F4 Phantom in Vietnam. Still later, Marine pilots swept the skies in Desert Storm. In 2006, over Iraq and Afghanistan they flew their heaviest number of missions since World War II — more than 120,000 combat hours’ worth. 

Now their days may be numbered. Obama Pentagon budgets cuts have already forced the Corps to scrap twelve of its 70 air squadrons. Some question why Marines should have their separate air force at all, when the other air services desperately need planes and pilots and maintenance crews. Others wonder why they can’t all be replaced by unmanned drones. 

But Marine aviators don’t just fly close air and assault support. They pilot vital helicopter missions such as med evacuation — often in the hottest of hot combat zones — and hoist long-distance supplies to Marines and civilians alike. In 1991, round-the-clock Marine airlifts helped to keep 700,000 Kurdish refugees alive after they had to flee the wrath of Saddam Hussein.

What ultimately drives Marine aviation is the same spirit that animates the Corps itself, a sense of dedication and pride that’s almost unearthly in its power — as a 1946 photograph of “Coach” Bauer’s widow and her ten-year-old son William receiving her husband’s posthumous Medal of Honor reveals.  

The widow, and the Marine general doing the presenting, look drawn and somber. But young Bill Bauer smiles as he holds his father’s medal. It’s a shy, proud smile — a smile that’s also a pledge. Because Bill Bauer would go on to graduate from the Naval Academy’s Class of ’58 — the same class as future senator John McCain — and to become a Marine pilot himself in Vietnam. He would even serve in his father’s old squadron, VMFA-212.

Marine aviation spirit. It belongs on the list of our nation’s most hallowed institutions, not on its list of endangered species. Happy anniversary, Marine aviation. Semper Fi. 

— Arthur Herman’s latest book is Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.            

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