MARINE AVIATION AT QUANTICO, 1918–1941
This superb book is the culmination of a 50-year project by one of the pre-eminent aviation historians in America. Major John M. “Jack” Elliott’s sources are impeccable, as he probably has some of the few remaining copies of Marine Corps muster rolls, aircraft history cards and official U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics files in one collection. Also, he literally has thousands of photographs of early aircraft and Marine aviation personalities. If you have a question about early Marine aviation, he has the answer. This publication is particularly well-timed to coincide with this year’s centennial of Marine Corps aviation.
The Marine Corps acquired the land at Quantico, Va., in 1917 as a training base. The first aeronautical activity began in 1918 with the establishment of a Balloon Company for the Heavy Artillery Force. The company later grew to include three seaplanes and two balloons and, in 1919, was re-designated the Marine Aeronautic Section. Maj Alfred A. Cunningham, the father of Marine aviation, recommended a site near the Potomac River for a Marine flying field that would accommodate the seaplanes and landplanes returning from World War I duties.
The closing of many military bases following the war freed up much building material, and Quantico took full advantage of this “free stuff,” something that would become standard USMC practice over the years.
Reporting in June 1919, the first true squadron to arrive was Squadron C. Many members had served with the Day Wing, Northern Bombing Group in France and the First Marine Aeronautic Company in the Azores during the war. With willing hands, free stuff and a do-it-yourself attitude, the Marines began constructing two airfields, a task they learned in France. To keep costs down, most of the work was done with borrowed Marines and tools. This could be considered the beginning of the current expeditionary airfield program. An example of true austerity was that no funds were available to build an office for the commander. So, one was constructed from aircraft crates and roofed with flattened gas cans.
During this time, Marine aviators were heavily involved in national air races, numerous airshows and demonstrations and lots of bombing practice. It is a little-known fact that they took part in Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s “Bombing of the Battleships” incident that eventually led to his court-martial.
Around Quantico they flew fire patrols over nearby counties for the Forest Service. On some of these patrols, illegal moonshine operations were spotted, and it was not unusual for the aircraft to be fired on. Sometimes it was reported, and sometimes the pilot would note the location and go back when off duty to make a “special purchase.”
The first thing the Marine had to do was convince the still operator that he wasn’t a Federal Revenue agent or he might get shot ... it was the Prohibition era, so risk was part of the cost.
Between the World Wars, the only aviators flying actual combat missions were Marines—specifically, between 1927 and 1932 in Nicaragua supporting the Marine brigade’s operations against bandits and insurgents. In those six years, Marine aviators flew more than 40,000 hours. The first time deployed troops were transported in combat was there, in 1927. What took 10 days on foot, Marine air accomplished in a little more than an hour. Nicaragua proved the value of Marine air. However, the first officially defined mission for Marine aviation wasn’t put in writing until January 1939. When not deployed, those squadrons called Quantico home.
Many of the Marines written about in this book were members of the First Marine Aviation Force, which was the first American military aviation force to see combat in WW I. They flew alongside the Royal Air Force and made up the Day Wing of the Northern Bombing Group in France. Because General John J. Pershing and the U.S. Army didn’t want Marines in Europe, they were not part of the American Expeditionary Force, and the veterans were denied membership in the American Legion. In true Marine fashion, they formed their own organization known as the First Marine Aviation Force Veterans Association.
The author knew many of these men, heard their stories, and later verified them through his collected sources.
In 1971, with the passing of many FMAFVA members, they asked the Commandant of the Marine Corps to find a way to continue their history. His response was the transfer of their traditions and records into what became the Marine Corps Aviation Association, incorporated in 1972. One of its members, noted in this book, is still with us and is the oldest naval aviator and world’s oldest living fighter ace, BGen Frederick R. Payne, USMC (Ret).
Each year, 1918-1941, has its own chapter, beginning with the type and number of aircraft assigned. The book not only includes a very interesting history of the early days of Marine air with many rare photos, but many interesting tidbits not generally known outside of a small circle of history buffs. This book is a must-have for any serious aviation history collection. I highly recommend it.
Editor’s note: Jim “Crash” Casey retired after 32 years of active service, all in Marine aviation, with the majority in Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting and Expeditionary Airfields. He currently is the deputy executive director of the Marine Corps Aviation Association.