Giants Of The Corps: "Rugged Roy" Geiger And The Northern Bombing Group

By Dick Camp - Originally Published May 2006

A somber President Woodrow Wilson slipped into a side room off the main lobby of the White House, took pen in hand and scribbled his signature on the document that lay on the highly polished walnut table. A buzzer sounded in the executive office and a Navy aide, lieutenant Byron McCandless, ran out onto the White House lawn and semaphored to a fellow officer across the street. The signal was immediately flashed to every ship and shore installation: "WAR!"

First to Fight
The Major General Commandant, George Barnett, moved heaven and earth to get the Corps involved in the fight, despite the Army's strenuous objections. Barnett, a socially prominent Washington insider, enlisted the aid of the President, who signed an executive order directing the Secretary of War "to organize a force of Marines ... for service with the Army ... to proceed to France in the near future."

The Marines had their foot in the door, but the Army had one last ploy-they pleaded a paucity of ships-"utterly impossible to furnish transportation." However, Barnett outsmarted them. His friend Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, just happened to have three naval transports available-Henderson, Hancock and DeKalb-enough for the Fifth Marine Regiment.

The Commandant took great pleasure in responding to the Army by way of a note, "Please give yourself no further trouble in this matter, as transportation for the Marines has been arranged on board naval ships." The Corps' recruiting slogan "First to Fight" became a statement of fact.

With the Marine infantry on the way to France, the Commandant turned his attention to winning approval for the Corps' fledging air service to join them. By mid-summer of 1918, he convinced the Navy Department to approve the formation of a Marine air unit of "landplanes" to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting. The new unit was designated the 1st Aviation Squadron. However, one major problem existed; the entire Marine aviation component consisted of just five officers and 30 enlisted men.

The Corps needed a "few good pilots," and Captain Roy S. "Rugged Roy" Geiger hit upon a novel recruiting approach. He located a small, sandy airstrip owned by the Curtiss Flying School on the edge of the Florida Everglades and took it over, lock, stock and barrel, after convincing the instructors to join the Marine Corps as Reserve officers. As a bonus, they brought with them the school's entire complement of Curtiss JN-4B Jennys.

"Rugged Roy" Geiger
Roy Geiger was a mean go-getter, a man noted for making things happen without fanfare or flamboyance. His father died when he was 7 years old. Four years later, he stowed away on a train and spent two months riding the rails around the country. He paid his way through college. At 20, Geiger became the principal of a school and at 22, a lawyer. Doors were opening, and a bright future was in the offing, but something seemed to be missing in his life-adventure, a sense of purpose. He applied to be a Marine officer, but was rejected promptly for flat feet, a heart murmur, acute eyestrain and for being underweight.

"I guess the Corps considered me more dead than alive," he exclaimed. Undaunted, he enlisted as a private on 2 Nov. 1907. A year later he was promoted to corporal and selected to attend the Marine Officers School, U.S. Naval Station, Port Royal, S.C. On 3 Feb. 1909, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, proving that when there's a will, there's a way.

Geiger earned a reputation as a funloving, cocky, energetic officer early in his career. His contemporaries nicknamed him Rugged Roy for his rough and tumble spirit. However, at times he pushed the envelope. While in officer's training, he was caught out of bounds and placed on restriction. To add insult to injury, a senior officer caught him having a few "belts" with two enlisted friends. Geiger was given 10 days "arrest in quarters," but escaped relatively unscathed, for in those days young officers were allowed a certain degree of latitude.

During an official visit to a Royal Navy ship, he made the mistake of trying to outdrink a group of British Marines. Geiger was observed to strip down, leap into the water and swim back to his own ship, carrying his folded uniform over his head. Upon reaching the accommodation ladder platform, Geiger dressed, climbed up to the quarterdeck and coolly rendered a hand salute to the Officer of the Deck.

His commander was not impressed with his sangfroid and gave him a bad evaluation, citing Geiger as "unfit for duty from the effects of drink." Geiger again squeaked by without serious consequences because several respected seniors noted his excellent overall performance.

Geiger went on to serve in a variety of infantry assignments before applying for his first love-flight school. He was accepted into the program and, in March 1916, reported to Pensacola. The syllabus consisted of two phases, aircraft qualification and ballooning-both of which he found to be dangerous. The first time Geiger took over the aircraft controls, he ended up in Pensacola Bay. The plane was total wreck, although he escaped serious injury.

However, ballooning almost killed him. At the end of one flight, he selected a cornfield to land in and began to unload ballast. Unknown to him, one of the sandbags dropped dead center through the roof of an outhouse. An enraged farmer rushed out, spotted the flying menace and ran for his shotgun. Geiger, realizing that discretion was the better part of valor, heaved sandbags out as fast as he could. The balloon was just out of range when the irate farmer blasted away.

Despite these minor setbacks, Geiger graduated in June 1917, becoming only the fifth Marine aviator. He cut a dashing figure, with highly polished knee-high boots, leather flying jacket and riding breeches-a true knight of the air.

First Marine Aviation Force
After additional training, Geiger joined the newly formed Aeronautic Detachment, Marine Barracks, Philadelphia. In early February 1918, the detachment was ordered to Miami, where the First Aviation Squadron soon joined it. Both units were reorganixed into the First Marine Aviation Force under the command of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham, the Corps' first aviator.

Cunningham pushed to get the Force overseas against strong Army objections. He proposed a bombing campaign to destroy the German submarine support bases. His plan was approved. The First Marine Aviation Force was designated the Day Wing of the U.S. Navy's Northern Bombing Group. Geiger was given command of Squadron A (redesignated 7th Squadron in France).

"Flaming Coffin"
In late May, Cunningham's unit finally received the bomber it would take to France. Gruesomely nicknamed the Flaming Coffin, the De Havilland DH-4 was a British-designed two-seat biplane. The DH-4 earned its nickname because fire was a constant hazard.

The pilot and gunner, seated in tandem, were separated by a 60-gallon unarmored gasoline tank. In addition, a 30-gallon auxiliary container was installed in the upper wing above the pilot's head. The exhaust manifolds extended along both sides of the fuselage. A mere teaspoon of gasoline hitting this red hot metal would instantly ignite, setting fire to the plane's highly flammable, dope-covered fabric covering. One well-aimed tracer into the fuel tanks could literally explode the plane in flight. Even a nasty jolt or a sudden dip or turn during an aerial dogfight could cause the gravity feed to slop over and set the aircraft on fire. Despite the dangers, the DH-4 became the standard American bomber.

Geiger set the example by flying dozens of hours in an attempt to dispel any fears his men might have had. For a man of his physique, the DH-4 was a difficult aircraft to fly. Its 15,000-foot ceiling required the crew to wear bulky high-altitude clothing, which greatly restricted movement.

Geiger, who had grown to be a bear of a man, almost had to be a contortionist just to get into the cockpit. Bundled up to his ears in a sheepskin flight suit and bound in a tightly cinched parachute harness, he had to squeeze into the impossibly small cockpit, which was located under the center portion of the upper wing. It would have been impossible for him to get out in an emergency.

His observer-gunner was not much better off. Upon takeoff, the gunner raised his jump seat and stood erect, half out of the cockpit, exposed to the icy blast of the slipstream. Leather straps attached to the cockpit ring mount kept him in the aircraft.

Unlike many who considered air combat as chivalrous, Geiger looked upon the airplane as a weapon, to be used to destroy the enemy. He liked the DH-4's formidable array of weaponry. It had fixed, forward-firing, twin .30-caliber Marlin machine guns that fired between the propeller blades. The observer-gunner manned dual .30-caliber Lewis machine guns that were mounted on a ring, allowing a 360-degree traverse-but, "Don't shoot up the tail assembly, please!" Racks for 25-, 50- or 112-pound bombs were attached to the underside of the lower wing and could be released by either the pilot or the observer.

"Over the Seas, Left Go Men"
By mid-June 1918, Geiger was in France with the advance party. He immediately wrangled an assignment "for training and combat indoctrination purposes" with the Dunkirk-based 5th Group, Royal Air Force, an agreement that suited both parties. The British were plane rich but pilot poor after years of combat losses, and Geiger's men needed the experience. The accord authorized the temporary transfer of Marine pilots and observers to the group's two bombing squadrons, which flew the British version of the DH-4. After completing three missions, the Marines were rotated out and replacement crews continued the cycle.

One Marine pilot described the grim realities of their combat indoctrination. "They [British pilots] put us newcomers in the most hazardous position-last plane on the right of the 'V,' because if you got shot down, they hadn't lost anything."

One of Geiger's pilots is credited with the first Marine victory. First Lieutenant Everett S. Brewer and observer Gunnery Sergeant Harry B. Wersheiner shot down a German Fokker on 28 Sept. after being attacked by a mix of 15 Fokker triplancs and biplanes. Both men were wounded severely in the engagement.

Another squadron aircraft, piloted by Captain Francis P. Mulcahy, was jumped by eight Fokkers. His observer fired 25 rounds into the first machine. "Enemy aircraft was seen going down, slowly rolling from side to side, out of control."

Mulcahy also led the first recorded combat food drop, an ingenious and daring experiment for the time. His flight of three planes made 10 low-level passes in the face of intense ground fire, dropping 2,600 pounds of food and supplies to a beleaguered French regiment.

The main body arrived in France at the end of July and found, to their dismay, that the planes they had ordered prior to leaving the States had not arrived. The rush to mass-produce the British-designed aircraft with the American-built Liberty engine was beyond the physical and technical expertise of the manufacturers, and it was not until late September that the first DH-4 arrived. The rest dribbled in, and it was not until mid-October that enough aircraft were available for the Day Wing to launch its first independent raid.

An eight-plane sortie dropped a ton of bombs on the German-held rail yards at Thielt, Belgium. On their return, eight German Fokker D-VIIs and four Pfalz D-IIIs separated Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot's aircraft from the formation.

As the Germans attacked, Corporal Robert G. Robinson, a crack aerial gunner, shot down one. Two others attacked from below. A bullet hit Robinson in the elbow, carrying most of it away, and jammed his machine gun. Despite the injury, Robinson cleared the jam and continued to fire until he fell unconscious from two other wounds.

Talbot maneuvered his plane as the Germans bored in, shooting down one with his fixed machine guns. Then, seeing an opening, he put the battered DH into a steep dive and escaped.

Both Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor.

"The Marines Have Landed"
Geiger was a man of action. On the spur of the moment, he decided to take a newly delivered DH-9A for a lone bombing mission. He enlisted the aid of Lieutenant Commander Harold B. Grow, USN to fly with him as observer/gunner. The two flew the brand-new plane to a nearby British field and loaded four 112-lb. bombs. As Geiger taxied to the runway, he observed several off-duty English pilots watching. In a momentary lapse of judgment, he could not resist the urge to show off.

Grow described the scene. "The major advanced the throttle to full power and took off with a deafening roar. The moment his wheels cleared the surface, he pulled back hard on the stick and forced the aeroplane into a steep, climbing flipper turn, momentarily forgetting the important fact that the DH was a good 500 pounds heavier. ... At the top of the turn, and at an elevation not exceeding 350 feet, the machine commenced to slip rapidly.

"Belatedly realizing what had happened, Geiger managed to level it off just before the scout-bomber hit the ground. Miraculously, the DH bounced, leaving behind the entire landing gear assembly, the two lower wing sections, the bombs and both wooden blades of the propeller."

The impact threw the wreck another 100 yards before it plummeted to the ground a second time, right side up, with the engine on fire. The badly shaken pair threw off their seat belts and scrambled out of the furiously burning wreckage. An ambulance roared up, expecting to find, at the least, two badly hurt victims. Instead, the sheepish survivors asked for a ride back to the hangars.

The two made their way to the officer's club and, with studied nonchalance, downed several stiff drinks. An appreciative crowd gathered to congratulate them on their narrow escape. Somehow it just did not seem appropriate to them to announce, "The Marines have landed!"

Cunningham was furious. In a disciplinary letter he stated, "While it may not be the fault of Major Geiger that DH-9A crashed, and fully rccognixing that he is a competent pilot, I must nevertheless restrict his use of day machines at this time." Geiger objected too vociferously and was placed on suspension for "talking back."

Shortly thereafter, on 11 Nov. 1918 at 1435, Cunningham received a message, "Armistice with Germany signed. Hostilities to cease at once." The end of the war also marked the end of Geiger's brief restriction. He was restored as the squadron commander in time to attend its demobilization. Geiger himself arrived back in the States on the last day of January 1919.

In its brief three-month combat appearance, the First Marine Aviation Force participated in 57 bombing raids, dropping 52,000 pounds of bombs on enemy railway yards, canals and supply dumps. They scored 12 confirmed German planes. Four Marine pilots were killed in action, and one pilot and two gunners were wounded.

The Force earned 30 decorations. Roy Geiger was awarded the Navy Cross "for distinguished service in the line of his profession as commanding officer of Airplane Squadron No. 7 in which capacity he trained and led this squadron on bombing raids against the enemy."

Roy Geiger is considered to be one of the Corps' greats, not only as an aviator in the 1920s and '30s, but also as an "airground" commander in World War II. He served as the commander of the First Marine Aircraft Wing and "Cactus Air Force" on Guadalcanal and commanding general of an amphibious corps in four amphibious operations-Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Okinawa-more than any other Marine general. For his extraordinary heroism and leadership as the commander of all aircraft on Guadalcanal from 3 Sept. to 4 Nov. 1942, he was awarded a gold star in lieu of a second Navy Cross.

Lastly, Geiger is the only Marine to command a field army. He commanded the Tenth Army for a brief period during the battle for Okinawa. He was promoted to lieutenant general and became Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific in July 1945 and remained in command until transferred to Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps in late 1945.

LtGen Geiger passed away in January 1947. Congress recognized his valor in combat by a posthumous promotion to general effective the date of his death, 23 Jan. 1947. General Roy Stanley Geiger remains a giant of the Corps.

Editor's note: Retired Col Dick Camp, a frequent contributor to Leatherneck and Eric Hammel coauthored "Lima-6," a book about a Marine company commander in Vietnam. Camp's latest book, "Legends of the Corps," is pending publication. He is the deputy director of the Marine Corps History Division, Marine Corps University, MCB Quantico, Va.

Leatherneck appreciates the technical editing assistance of  Maj John Elliott, USMCR (Ret.).