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A century ago, a lone U.S. Marine Corps aviator planted the seeds of a proud tradition.

By the end of 1908, events in Europe were alarming even casual observers around the world. First the German government authorized the construction of four modern battleships. Next Russia claimed ownership of part of Poland. Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire, as did Crete and Serbia. The stage was set for the first worldwide conflict of the 20th century, and the first in which airplanes would play a major role.

In the U.S., Alfred A. Cunningham saw the upheaval in Europe as a warning sign to America. Cunningham was no stranger to combat, having enlisted as a teen in a volunteer infantry regiment during the Spanish-American War. He mustered out shortly after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1898, taking up a career in real estate. Now he reenlisted— this time in the Marines, gaining a second lieutenant’s commission on January 25, 1909.

Also heeding the call were Bernard “Barney” Smith and Francis Evans, who received Marine Corps commissions in early 1909. Roy Geiger, who had enlisted as a Marine in 1907, was commissioned after completing Marine Officer School at Port Royal, S.C., in 1909. For the next two-plus years, all these young Marines served aboard naval warships and overseas. When war at last came to Europe, however, they would find new roles as Marine aviators, exploring the quickly developing potential of airplanes over battlefields worldwide.

In 1911 Cunningham was promoted to first lieutenant and ordered to the Advanced Marine Base School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Discovering that the Philadelphia Aero Club, one of the first such clubs in America, operated from a field nearby, he was quick to join. Many of the club’s members were influential citizens, who subsequently mentioned Cunningham’s interest in aviation to contacts in the military.

Cunningham didn’t learn to fly in Philadelphia, but he did rent a plane and spent many of his off-duty hours studying its construction. By May 16, 1912, he had requested and received orders to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Md. The day that he reported for duty there, May 22, 1912, is now regarded as the birth date of Marine aviation.

At the time the Navy was the proud owner of three Curtiss Golden Flyers. The Wright brothers had produced their Military Flyer in 1909, and sold it to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1910. That same year renowned pilot and designer Glenn H. Curtiss completed his Golden Flyer, just as the federal government was appropriating $125,000 for aircraft purchases. After Curtiss demonstrated his new plane, the Navy purchased three, stationing them in Annapolis.

The Golden Flyer’s pilot sat totally exposed atop its frame. If nothing else, Curtiss’ airplane was pretty, sporting golden-yellow silk wing coverings, and with orange shellac coating the wooden surfaces. Its wingspan stretched just under 29 feet, and it was 31½ feet long. Powered by a Curtiss 4-cylinder, 25- hp inline engine, its pusher prop propelled it to a top speed of 47 mph.

Though the Navy had three planes, none of its four pilots was qualified to instruct trainees: That was the sole responsibility of airplane manufacturers. Cunningham was therefore transferred to the Burgess and Curtiss factory at Marblehead, Mass., where he soloed in less than three hours. Returning to Annapolis, he logged more than 400 hours in Golden Flyers between October 1912 and July 1913.

By September 1912, Cunningham was joined by 1st Lt. Barney Smith and 2nd Lt. William McIlvain to form the initial group of Marine fliers—respectively designated Marine aviators one through three, as well as naval aviators five, six and 12. They had been preceded as Navy fliers by Lieutenants Theodore G. Ellyson, John Rodgers, Victor Herbster and John H. Tower.

For Cunningham, however, the coming year brought changes in his personal life that effectively clipped his wings. On August 11, 1913, he requested detachment from the flying service to marry his fiancée, Josephine Jefferies. His request was granted in the form of orders to report to the Washington Navy Yard as assistant quartermaster. While Cunningham was no longer officially an aviator, his experience and expertise led to his appointment to a board charged with organizing a naval aeronautical service. The board’s plan resulted in the establishment of the first Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, Fla., which was christened in 1914.

In early 1917, the primary aircraft at Pensacola was the Curtiss N-9, a naval version of the Army’s popular JN-4 “Jenny,” featuring extended wings, a large pontoon attached to the fuselage and wingtip floats. Although relatively stable in normal flight, it was generally considered a death trap in a stall or a spin. Even its manufacturer believed it was incapable of aerobatics. But Francis Evans, a pilot with more hours in the N-9 than anyone else, decided to find out if it could perform a loop.

Climbing to 3,500 feet, Evans nosed over to gain speed and began the maneuver. Before he reached the apex, the wings stalled and he entered a spin. Releasing back pressure on the stick and applying aggressive opposite rudder stopped the rotation and put the plane into a normal dive, from which Evans recovered. Undaunted, he tried two more times to complete a loop—with the same results. Finally on his fourth attempt, alone over the Gulf of Mexico, he succeeded. Knowing that no one would believe his story, he flew back to the Pensacola airfield and did it one more time for all to see. At the time Evans believed that flying the loop was a great feat, but it was actually his spin recovery technique, which is still used today, that was his real accomplishment. Twenty years later, in 1936, Evans would receive a Distinguished Flying Cross for his achievement.

While Cunningham was on nonflight status, the task of selling aviation as a military tool fell to Smith and McIlvain, both of whom received seaplane and landplane pilot certificates between 1913 and 1914. Smith was sent to the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 1914, with orders to learn as much as possible about what the British, French and German militaries were doing with their aircraft. In France he visited multiple French squadrons, and at one point talked a French pilot into taking him on a flight over German lines.

When Smith returned to the States, he described to his superiors how the Europeans were employing airplanes for reconnaissance, bombing and pursuit. Most of the U.S. brass remained unconvinced, however. During joint operations in Puerto Rico in 1914, Smith and McIlvain seized every opportunity to escort senior officers on flights in Curtiss C-3 flying boats, demonstrating their value as scouts. Essentially a large pontoon with a cockpit, wings and a pusher prop, the C-3 was powered by a 100-hp Curtiss OXX-3 V-8 engine and had a top speed of 69 mph. It boasted an endurance time of 5½ hours and a ceiling of 4,500 feet.

Smith’s and McIlvain’s hands-on style— coupled with Cunningham’s tireless lobbying efforts in Washington, arguing that naval aviation should play an integral part in the war— eventually bore fruit. On February 26, 1917, Cunningham was ordered to establish, equip and command an aviation company for a Marine Corps advance base force at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Five weeks later, on April 6, when the U.S. formally declared war on Germany, the Marine Aviation Section had seven qualified pilots and 43 enlisted men stationed at Pensacola, forming the basis for the Philadelphia operation. In addition to his organizational duties, Cunningham was assigned as a member of the joint Army-Navy board for the selection of sites for air stations in the seven naval districts.

With Lieutenants Francis Evans and Roy Geiger on board as newly appointed Marine aviators four and five (and naval aviators 26 and 49), the Marine Aeronautic Company was divided into two units, designated the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company and the 1st Aviation Squadron. The former, consisting of 10 officers and 93 enlisted men, was commanded by Evans; the latter, with 24 officers and 237 enlisted, by McIlvain. Another unit, the Aeronautic Detachment, with four officers and 36 enlisted personnel, was formed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard under Geiger.

On November 3, 1917, Cunningham was ordered to Paris on much the same assignment Smith had undertaken. When he returned in January 1918, he presented a plan to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels for a bomber/fighter group to patrol the waters off Belgium’s coast. That plan resulted in the formation of the 1st Marine Aviation Force, to serve as a component of the Navy’s Northern Bombing Group, at Curtiss Field west of Miami. The expanded force consisted of four squadrons—A, B, C and D—led by Smith, McIlvain, Evans and Geiger.

On July 30 the force, minus squadron D, arrived at Brest, France, only to learn that no arrangements had been made to transport the men and equipment to their areas of operation at Calais-Dunkirk. After wasting three days bivouacked outside Brest, Cunningham commandeered a French freight train, loaded their equipment and headed to Calais.

The Marines would be flying the de Havilland DH-4, an American-built version of the British design, powered by a 400-hp Liberty engine. It was judged the best choice primarily due to its availability. The DH-4 and later the DH-9 were equipped with two forward-firing, synchronized .30-caliber Vickers machine guns and two rear-facing .303-inch Lewis machine guns mounted on a Scarff ring. In addition, they could also carry up to 400 pounds of bombs.

As commander of the 1st Aviation Force, Cunningham was responsible for recruiting and training its officers and enlisted personnel. Realizing that this task would take far too long through normal means, he found a way to fill his roster much more expeditiously. Pensacola had a group of fully trained Navy pilots who were concerned that they might never get to participate in the war; these men were receptive to Cunningham’s offer to convert them to Marines and ship them to France. In all, 80 Navy pilots would transfer services to fill the Marine Corps void. The new contingent arrived at Brest in July 1918.

Deployed to airfields at Oye and La Fresne, the Marines discovered no preparations had been made for them. They lived in pup tents, and used picks and shovels along with a borrowed Navy steamroller to carve out the first two Marine air bases. Meanwhile, Liberty engines were supposed to have been shipped to Eastleigh, England, attached to airframes and flown to the new Marine bases. But that process proved to be slow and fraught with delays. The first bomber didn’t arrive until September 7. Assembly bases received shipments of engines but no fuselages, and a nearby British squadron had fuselages but no engines. Eventually a compromise was struck whereby the Marines received one bomber for every three engines they supplied. By mid-October 1918, the Marine force, with its full complement of 20 DH-9s and 16 DH-4s, was at last ready for action. The airmen hadn’t been idle during the buildup period, however; 63 Marines had been rotated into RAF squadrons and flown combat missions, serving as pilots, observers and aerial gunners.

While flying a DH-9 with No. 218 Squadron, RAF, on September 28, 1st Lt. Everett R. Brewer and his observer, Gunnery Sgt. Harry B. Wershiner, had become the first Marines to shoot down an enemy plane in aerial combat. Both were seriously wounded during that engagement. The following day, 2nd Lt. Chapin Barr became the first Marine pilot to die in enemy action. On October 2, Captain F. Patrick Mulcahy led a three-plane flight to resupply French forces near Stadenburg, Belgium, making 10 low-level passes under intense groundfire.

Aerial attacks by the U.S. Marines and RAF led to the Germans’ evacuating their submarine bases that fall and terminating the Northern Bombing Group’s mission. General John Pershing then assigned the Marines to support British operations in Belgium.

From La Fresne aerodrome the first all-Marine air combat action began on October 14, when five DH-4s and three DH-9s were ordered to bomb a German position near Pittham, Belgium. On the return leg, 12 Fokker D.VIIs and Pfalz D.IIIs jumped the flight. Second Lt. Ralph Talbot and Gunnery Sgt. Robert Robinson became separated from the formation and were attacked by enemy fighters. Robinson claimed one attacker before his Lewis gun jammed, but while trying to clear his weapon he was wounded multiple times. Talbot managed to maneuver their DH-4 so he could fire his Vickers, downing a second German. Diving to avoid more enemies, Talbot leveled off at 50 feet above the ground and flew back across the front lines, landing at the nearest medical facility to drop off Robinson before returning to base. Talbot (one of the Navy men who had heeded Cunningham’s call to transfer into the Marines) and Robinson became the first Marine airmen to receive the Medal of Honor. Sadly, Talbot’s medal had to be awarded posthumously; he was killed on October 25 when he crashed during a test flight.

By the time the armistice was signed on November 11, the 1st Aviation Force had spent three months in combat. In the course of that time Marine aviators carried out 57 bombing raids, dropped 33,932 pounds of bombs and made five supply drops. Three officers were killed and one officer and two enlisted men were wounded in aerial combat. In addition to the Medals of Honor awarded to Talbot and Robinson, Marines earned four Distinguished Service Medals and 30 Navy Crosses. By any measure, the contributions these early aviators made to the war effort in so short a time were significant. But for the Marine Corps, it was only the beginning.


Freelance writer and pilot Walter Knapp writes from Roswell, Ga. Further reading: U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Since 1912, by Peter B. Mersky; and Marine Corps Aviation: The Early Years, 1912-1940, by Edward C. Johnson.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.