MCAS Cherry Point
A visit to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., in 2018 in some ways feels like taking a step back in time.
On the walls of hangars, diagrams instructing pilots how to properly park seaplanes are reminiscent of a bygone era. The railroad tracks which enabled the transportation of building materials to the remote site in Eastern North Carolina as the U.S. entered World War II still run alongside Roosevelt Boulevard, which stretches from the main gate in the small town of Havelock all the way to the banks of the Neuse River. Despite the constant din of jet noise and the lines of traffic entering and exiting the base at peak hours, there’s a feeling of quaintness—a slower pace of life—that mirrors what you find if you explore the close-knit communities that surround it. And while buildings have been repurposed or renovated along the way, for the most part the “bones” of the installation remain unchanged as Cherry Point celebrates its 77th anniversary this month.
But as the air station, the largest in the Corps and home to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and Fleet Readiness Center (FRC) East, braces itself for more than $1 billion in construction and infrastructure improvements over the next decade, change, it seems, is inevitable.
“Cherry Point’s been waiting,” said Colonel Todd Ferry, the commanding officer of MCAS Cherry Point. “We have old buildings out there, and the Marines have been doing a phenomenal job, but when you come here in six to eight years, people won’t recognize the place.”
With the first F-35B Lightning II aircraft scheduled to arrive at Cherry Point in 2022, the need for modernization to accommodate the advanced stealth jet is imminent. According to the 2018 Marine Aviation Plan, by the end of the transition, 94 F-35s will fill the air station’s flight line, making it the largest F-35 base in the Marine Corps.
“What you can’t do is take this amazing aircraft, this fifth-generation fighter, and plug it into a 1950s hangar,” said Ferry, adding that as the last of the Marine Corps air stations to receive funding for new hangars—with a budget of around $130 million each—Cherry Point’s team of engineers will benefit from the lessons learned during recent hangar construction at other installations. “I anticipate having the best hangars of them all, just because of the timing,” Ferry said.
While MCAS Cherry Point may be the last to overhaul its flight line, timing is everything—and the time is right. In 2019, the air station will house the smallest number of squadrons and aircraft it has had in decades. With three EA-6B Prowler squadrons already deactivated and the fourth and last one, Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VMAQ) 2, scheduled to deactivate next year, the flight line now has a considerable portion of unoccupied space on which construction of the air station’s first state-of-the-art F-35 hangars will commence. At the end of 2017, Marine Transport Squadron (VMR) One transitioned to 4th Marine Aircraft Wing and moved from Cherry Point to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas. With a smaller number of Marines to house for the near future, barracks renovations have begun and will continue in the coming years.
The air traffic control tower will be moved from its current location, which will open more room for the new aircraft to park and improve the security of the flight line. Other projects will include construction of an F-35B simulator building and an update to the utility infrastructure surrounding the flight line to meet the demands of modern hangars and squadron spaces.
Meanwhile, Cherry Point will remain fully operational as the only Marine Corps air station open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; and will continue to serve as the primary strategic air mobility facility and point of embarkation and debarkation for II Marine Expeditionary Force, transporting people and cargo all over the world each day. With a unique airfield layout, where all four runways meet in the center mat to form an X-shaped pattern, Cherry Point easily accommodates the frequent comings and goings of the AV-8B Harriers—which will be phased out of operation as the F-35 is phased in—and the KC-130J Super Hercules that call the air station home. Since each portion of the “X” is essentially made up of two runways, the airfield is a prime spot for 737s contracted for troop transport, Air Force C-5s and other large aircraft, and even was designated as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle. The air station is also home to one of the few ranges on the East Coast that allows for live-fire training from the water.
Formerly a remote, undeveloped swampland, thick with pine trees and home to deer, bears, alligators and a few families who lived along the Slocum and Hancock Creeks, tributaries of the Neuse River, Cherry Point today is preparing to undergo changes that those who oversaw the air station’s initial establishment would find hard to believe.
In August 1941, as war raged overseas and the U.S. prepared for potential involvement, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, called for the establishment of air facilities in Eastern North Carolina near the site that had been chosen for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Located between naval installations at Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C., the area bridged the gap between the two, said Bill Sidoran, the air station’s training and historical specialist.
The land was selected—8,000 acres along the Neuse River with an existing railroad running through it, which would allow for easy supply of building materials and other necessities. Its proximity to the port of Morehead City, N.C., was also a factor.
The air station’s first commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Cushman, arrived before the end of August with a small cohort of Marines to scout the area and act as a liaison with the naval engineers who had been assigned to clear it so construction could commence.
Briefly known as Cunningham Field, named for the first Marine Corps aviator, LtCol A.A. Cunningham, the facility was renamed Cherry Point, reportedly for the cherry trees that grew on the banks of the Neuse River—an uncommon sight in North Carolina—and a small jut of land where the Neuse forms a boundary on one side of the station.
Construction of the runways began only weeks prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; afterwards, a new sense of urgency kicked the project into overdrive, with crews working 10 hours each day, seven days a week to make the installation operational in a matter of months. Early in 1942, LtCol Cushman landed the first aircraft on the runway, and in May 1942 the air station was commissioned. By that time, 22 barracks, an administrative building, an exchange, two mess halls and two hangars had turned the once-remote swamp into its own little “city.”
Seemingly overnight, Cherry Point became a bustling center for Marine aviation as the Corps ramped up for action in the Pacific theater.
A May 1962 Leatherneck article quoted LtCol William Kellum, USMC (Ret), who had been one of the few Marines assigned to the air station prior to the commissioning. “It was fantastic. Marines poured through the gate like water out of a sluice. Whole platoons of graduated recruits checked in. Pilots right out of Pensacola came aboard in droves. And aviation materiel was pouring in just as rapidly,” recalled Kellum of Cherry Point’s earliest days.
Faced with the demands of wartime expansion, the Marine Corps was forced to provide abbreviated training for both the officer and enlisted ranks. In an effort to bridge the gap, a four-week curriculum designed to provide ground combat training for aviators was established at Cherry Point’s Camp Larkin which became known as “Boys Town.” A 1945 article in The Windsock, the air station’s newspaper, was headlined “Officers Try Roughing It,” and detailed the happenings at Boys Town—including training in close and open order drill; knowledge of weapons; hand-to-hand fighting; scouting and patrolling; and amphibious landings. The training not only enabled newly winged pilots to understand the maneuvers of the Marines on the ground, but also provided them with the combat tactics that would be vital if they ever found themselves grounded in enemy territory.
The establishment of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing made Cherry Point fully operational as its elements were outfitted, trained and deployed to the Pacific. In their absence, the 9th Marine Aircraft Wing was established, but the war came to an end before they were dispatched to join the fight and the wing was subsequently disbanded.
“Construction never ended during WW II,” wrote Leatherneck staffer Gunnery Sergeant Mel Jones in an article commemorating Cherry Point’s 20th anniversary. “During the base’s first three years, more than 50 million board feet of lumber and 20 million bricks were hammered or cemented into place. An average of four buildings were finished daily.”
At the height of the war, more than 20,000 Marines were assigned to the air station. After its end, more than 1,000 Marines were separated each week until only 12,000 were left. As Cherry Point phased out of its wartime state, the base underwent some improvements—temporary buildings were demolished, new barracks were built and landscaping projects helped beautify the air station.
In 1946, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing took the place of the disbanded 9th MAW and remains headquartered at Cherry Point today. In the years since WW II, the air station has remained a strong supporting establishment for the 2nd MAW through periods of wartime and peace and the accompanying changes that have ensued.
“We’re good at ramping up, deploying people out, coming back and then downsizing,” said Sidoran. “We do it all the time. You see it through the years, and again after 9/11.”
The 2nd MAW is what Col Ferry describes as the “heart” of the air station. As the headquarters for the command and control and logistics elements of the wing, which is divided among Marine Corps Air Stations Cherry Point, New River, N.C., and Beaufort, S.C., Cherry Point is integral to the success of Marine aviation on the East Coast. But there’s something else, he says, that makes Cherry Point unique and different from any other installation around the Corps: its relationship with the surrounding community.
“If 2nd MAW is the heart, the soul is the community,” said Ferry. “The community ties here are unlike any that I’ve seen, as far as just a community that surrounds this base and just really loves it and the history—and their lives are intertwined.”
Cherry Point and the community around it both benefit from a unique symbiotic relationship. The air station provides economic stability—about $2 billion dollars annually in active-duty pay salaries and civilian contract salaries—to the surrounding areas, and in turn, the community’s support of Cherry Point is unrivaled. In a region where the primary industries are agriculture and tourism, the jobs and revenue the air station provides are unparalleled.
While the air station makes it home in Craven County, its outlying ranges and auxiliary fields extend its reach into three additional counties: Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field Bogue in Carteret County, Oak Grove Marine Corps Outer Landing Field in Jones County, and Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic in Pamlico County.
“They all have an interest, and they all feel like they’re a piece of Cherry Point,” said Ferry. “The community is so protective, because their lives are intertwined. There’s memories, there’s lives there, there are economics that are associated with it.”
Ferry attributes this to the fact that the population in Eastern North Carolina is far less transient than the communities surrounding other Marine Corps installations. He’s spoken with local individuals whose grandfathers cut down the pine trees to clear the way for the base; whose parents lived on the land prior to 1941 and were forcibly moved when construction began; or whose families have worked on the base for generations as civilians.
As such, many locals feel a sense of responsibility to protect the air station, which they see as synonymous with protecting their own community. In the 1990s, when Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) first became a threat to military installations across the globe, a group of civic and business leaders in the local community formed Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow (ACT), an advocacy group that works with federal, state and local policy makers to help ensure the air station’s viability.
One significant economic engine aboard Cherry Point is the tenant command of the Fleet Readiness Center (FRC) East, which provides jobs to roughly 3,600 civilians in the local community. As a repair and overhaul facility for U.S. Navy aircraft, engines, components and support equipment, which falls under Naval Air Systems Command, FRC East is North Carolina’s largest industrial employer east of Interstate 95 and the only one of eight FRCs worldwide located on a Marine Corps installation.
The FRC has been at Cherry Point since World War II and was formerly known as the Assembly & Repair department and later as the Naval Air Rework Facility, among several other names. During World War II, Corsair fighters, Mitchell B-25 and Marauder B-26 bombers were reworked there; later, it became one of the most advanced aviation rework facilities in the country.
The jobs the FRC provides in the area are so vital that high schools, community colleges and even NC State University in Raleigh have special programs designed to equip students with the specific skillsets the FRC’s engineers and other employees must possess.
“The community has risen up to support that,” said Ferry. “You used to just have to use metal and machinery and welding … now they’re doing high composite material, they’re [3-D] printing aircraft parts over there. The education level continues to just grow leaps and bounds. They realize this is an important thing for our community, so they really energize the local schools.”
As much as Cherry Point benefits from the support of the local community outside the gate—and vice versa—it also thrives as its own community, which Ferry describes as a “33,000-person city.”
In addition to the squadrons and aircraft of Marine Aircraft Group 14, which include not only Prowlers, Harriers and Super Hercules but also unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and the headquarters of 2nd MAW and FRC East, Cherry Point also is home to the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training (CNATT), which provides aviation maintenance specialized training.
For Marines and Sailors stationed there, recreation opportunities are plentiful both on and off the installation. The air station provides camping facilities, a marina on Hancock Creek, a “Devil Dog Dare” challenge course, outdoor equipment rentals and a golf course. The beaches of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast are just a short drive away.
Most importantly, the air station strives for excellence as a supporting establishment for the operating forces and as an extension of the Marine Corps within the local community.
“We continue to do good things every day. It’s everything from supporting the MAW, training and getting ready to deploy, deploying them out there, receiving them, taking care of their families,” said Ferry. “But also our Marines go outside the installation—our greatest resource here is sending our Marines and Sailors outside into the community.”
Cherry Point’s Single Marine Program consistently has been rated as the top of its kind across all Marine Corps installations. Not only does it provide trips and other recreational opportunities for those assigned to the air station, but it focuses on promoting volunteerism within the local community, sending its Marines to local schools to help or assisting local nonprofit organizations.
Every two years, Cherry Point welcomes the community inside the gates at the biennial Cherry Point Air Show, which in 2016 was recognized as the Blue Angels’ Air Show of the Year—an accolade rarely given to a military installation.
“There is an energy about Cherry Point, about the professionalism, the hospitality and the community that comes out,” said Ferry. “I get to see the joy and the appreciation of the community … I get the benefit of hearing all the stories because of my unique position, and those are the things that make me proud.”
With a rich history, deep roots in Eastern North Carolina and a decade of change on the horizon, Cherry Point likely will remain an essential hub for Marine aviation for many years to come. While the air station may look different a few years from now, the small town feel and community spirit will surely prevail, and life will continue to move a little more slowly. It’s safe to say that for any Marine who’s spent time there, it will still feel like “home.”