Giants Of The Corps: Christian F. Schilt
By Larry James - Originally Published February 1975
President Calvin Coolidge stood squarely at attention, wearing a fashionable straw hat of the '2Os as the Major General Commandant, MajGen John A. Lejeune, began to read: "The President takes pleasure in presenting the Congressional Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Christian Frank Schilt, United States Marine Corps...."
For 1stLt Schilt, this 1928 ceremony in which he received the nation's highest honor, was an early milestone in a Marine career that endured through nearly 40 years of heroism and dedication.
Schilt spent his first two years as an enlisted man before becoming one of the Corps' pioneer Naval Aviators.
He was a member of the first organized American air unit of any service to go overseas during World War I. Later, Re earned the Medal of Honor flying a bi-plane in the "Banana War" clashes. In the Pacific Theater during World War II he was Assistant Chief of Staff, 1st MAW, on Guadalcanal and eventually served on Peleliu and Okinawa. In Korea, he commanded the 1st MAW. In 1955 he became Director of Aviation, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps for Air, and Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Marine Aviation before being retired as a four-star general on April 1, 1957.
When President Coolidge pinned the Medal of Honor above Lt Schilt's gold aviator wings and Marine Corps shooting badges on the South Lawn of the White House it marked the first such ceremony held there.
A native of Richland County, Ill., Schilt enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 23, 1917, as a buck private at 22 years of age. He had attended Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Ind.
His first assignment was at Ponta Delgada in the Azores with the 1st Marine Aeronautical Company, a seaplane squadron assigned to anti-submarine patrols. He returned to the United States wearing corporal's stripes and entered flight training at the Marine Flying Field, Miami, Fla. On June 5, 1919, he became the 41st man designated as a Naval Aviator. Five days later he became a second Lieutenant.
Between October 1919 and September 1922, he served with three different expeditionary aviation units in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. During a six-month break from overseas duty he completed the Marine Officers' Training School at Quantico, Va.
For the next five years, Lt Schilt was stationed primarily at Quantico as he began to collect a variety of aviation honors before returning to Nicaragua.
A three-month leave from the Corps to pilot a Sikorsky flying boat for PanAmerican Airways resulted in a minor accident. The general, now living in retirement with his wife in Norfolk, Va., has a stubby left index finger as a reminder of those Pan-Am days.
There were no sophisticated and complicated cockpits in that era. His flying boat had a propellered generator about six inches in diameter, mounted under the overhead wing near the cockpit. Schilt tangled with the generator when he attempted to point out something to a crew member.
In 1925 he was one of a group of Marine "seat of the pants" aviators who took off from Brown Field at Quantico in an attempt to better a "Dawn-to-Dusk" cross-country record. Weather, directions and forced landings plagued the Marine pioneers-they saw 21 dawns and 21 dusks before they reached California, far behind the record.
Twice that year, Schilt captured runner-up places in national air races. With these came other honors. In mid-1926, he was commended by both the Secretary of War and the Commandant of the Marine Corps for his gunnery and bombing scores during training at Langley, Va. MajGen Lejeune again commended him in December for a second-place finish in the Schneider International Seaplane Race at Norfolk, Va., in which he piloted a special Curtiss racer at 231.3 miles per hour around a triangular course.
In early 1927, he was recognized by the Secretary of War and the Commandant for his air evacuation work and delivery of vitally needed supplies during a Mississippi River flood.
This proved to be a warm-up for his combat exploits. The Governor of Louisiana and the Commandant further commended him for his flood flights. Finally, MajGen Lejeune and the Navy Department honored him for aerial photo work in the West Indies.
In November 1927, he was ordered to Managua, Nicaragua, to join Observation Squadron 7-M with the 2nd Brigade Marines. The squadron had just received the first of a long line of Corsairs (the O2U) that would provide outstanding service to the Corps for nearly 50 years. The first version packed a 425-horsepower Pratt and Whitney engine. It was less than 25 feet long and had a wingspan of less than 35 feet.
Two Marine patrols had been ambushed near the village of Quilali in the mountainous northern part of Nicaragua. The Marines had been dispatched to capture the legendary Sandino and storm his hidden fortress of El Chipote. The bandits wounded 28 Marines, including the troop commander and the second in charge, in an ambush. It would take rescue patrols on foot days to reach the Marines. Help was requested from the air detachment.
1stLt Christian Frank Schilt volunteered.
Quilali sat in a tight ravine. A rutted country road led through the small village which was surrounded on either side by mountains rising several thousand feet.
The wounded Marine patrol commander knew their only immediate hope was Lt Schilt. After the village huts strung along one side of the road were leveled, the Marines used picks and shovels to fashion a 300-yard runway. Schilt was finally able to attempt the first landing after flying through the bandits' gunfire from the surrounding hills. He took the most seriously wounded Marine on the first flight out of Quilali and rendezvoused with a waiting transport plane at Ocotal, 30 miles away. On the second flight into the village airstrip, the aviator brought in a relief commander.
In three days, Schilt voluntarily risked his life to make 10 flights into the besieged village. He evacuated 18 casualties and took in 1,400 pounds of medical supplies and provisions.
His citation, accompanying the Medal of Honor, credited him with "...saving three lives."
The flights were made through hostile fire on landings and take-offs, plus low-hanging clouds, mountains and treacherous air currents. The landings were accomplished with no brakes on the O2U. Ground Marines had to rush out and grab the wings to help slow the Corsair to prevent it from plunging over a cliff beyond the landing strip.
The Medal of Honor citation described the January 6-8, 1928, heroics by Schilt as feats of "almost superhuman skill combined with personal courage of the highest order."
After completing his Central American tour in August 1929, Schilt returned to the United States as Chief Test Pilot at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pa.
He was on Guadalcanal in September 1942 with the First Marine Aircraft Wing. Later he was commanding officer of MAG-11 and the Strike and Search Patrol Commands, Solomon Islands. When Col Schilt replaced Col L.H.M. Sanderson as MAG-11 CO, it marked a change of command between Marine aviation greats. Schilt returned to the U.S. to command MCAS, Cherry Point, N.C., from September 1943 until March 1944. he then headed the Ninth Marine Aircraft Wing during its organization before returning to the Pacific Theater in February 1945.
When he came back from Okinawa in March 1946, BGen Schilt began more than three years as CG of the Marine Air Reserve program. It was during this time he took his first jet flight.
He was Chief of Staff for FMFLant in Norfolk when the Korean Conflict began. In July 1951, MajGen Schilt was in Korea as Commanding General, First Marine Aircraft Wing.
Following tours in Hawaii and at MCAS1 El Toro, Calif., he reported to Headquarters Marine Corps and was promoted to lieutenant general on August 1, 1955. He held the Corps' top aviation posts until his retirement in 1957. He was promoted to general by reason of having been specially commended for heroism in combat.
Among his more than 20 awards are: the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal with Gold Stars in lieu of four additional awards...and the enlisted Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.
In nearly 40 years as a Marine, Christian Frank Schilt, a corporal, pioneer Naval Aviator, and a veteran of conflicts spanning 35 years, earned not only the Medal of Honor but a well-deserved place among the Giants of the Corps.