Editor’s note: October marks the 100th anniversary of First Aviation Squadron.
On April 6, 1917, the day on which the United States entered World War I, Marine Corps Aviation consisted of only seven qualified pilots and 43 enlisted men. Designated the “Marine Aviation Section” at the U.S. Aeronautical Station, Pensacola, Fla., the organization operated HS-2L Curtiss hydroaeroplanes.
The Marine Air arm began its growth and expansion on April 27, 1917, with the forming of the Marine Aeronautic Company at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from a nucleus supplied by the Marine aviation section. Its initial aeronautical equipment included two Curtiss R-6 seaplanes and one old Farman land plane. The site was on the shore of the Delaware River so that operations by both land planes and seaplanes would be possible. The hangar was built with openings at each end—one with wooden ramps into the water and the other facing the airfield. During the next six months the company trained and expanded to 34 officers and 330 enlisted. Captain Alfred A.Cunningham, considered the father of Marine Corps aviation, was in command.
On Oct. 14, 1917, the Marine Aeronautic Company was divided into two units, thereafter designated the First Marine Aeronautic Company and the First Aviation Squadron. The former unit, commanded by Captain Francis T. Evans, consisting of 10 officers and 93 enlisted men, moved immediately to the Navy Coastal Air Station at Cape May, N.J., for seaplane training and coastal patrol.
The latter unit, the First Aviation Squadron, commanded by Capt William M. McIlvain, consisting of 24 officers and 237 enlisted men, moved on Oct. 17, 1917, to the Army’s Hazelburst Field at Mineola, Long Island, N.Y., for instruction and training in land planes. Flying activities were restricted by severe weather. In 1918, the First Aviation Squadron moved from Mineola to Lake Charles, La., where flight training was resumed with land planes at the Army’s Gerstner Field.
On Jan. 9, 1918, the First Marine Aeronautic Company, then consisting of 12 officers and 133 enlisted men, departed from the Philadelphia Navy Yard aboard USS Hancock for Ponta Delgada in the Azores. Its planes included 10 Curtiss R-6 seaplanes, two N-9 seaplanes, and later, six Curtiss HS-2L flying boats. From there they maintained a constant daylight patrol throughout the war period. Theirs was the first flying unit in the U.S. military to go overseas completely trained and fully equipped.
A fifth aviation unit, designated the Aeronautic Detachment, was organized at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on Dec. 15, 1917, under the command of Capt Roy S. Geiger, with four officers and 36 enlisted men.
Meanwhile, Capt Cunningham had been sent to France to visit the front as an observer and make recommendations for the employment of Marine aviation. On his return in January 1918, he recommended the organization of four Marine fighter squadrons to protect British bombers flying anti-submarine patrols over the North Sea and English Channel. The project was approved and orders were issued to organize four Marine land squadrons as quickly as possible.
The First Marine Aviation Force, commanded by Capt Cunningham, was formed on April 15, 1918, at the Curtiss Field on the edge of the Everglades outside Miami. It was made up from personnel of the First Aviation Squadron and the Aeronautic Detachment, both of which had disbanded the day before. The four squadrons of this Force, designated “A,” “B,” “C” and “D,” rapidly trained for combat, flying Curtiss JN-4s and Thomas-Morse Scouts. They were augmented by some 80 Navy pilots who transferred to the Marine Corps in anticipation of a more rapid deployment to the war zone.
On July 30, 1918, the Force, less Squadron D, arrived at Brest, France, aboard USS DeKalb. Upon landing at Brest, Cunningham found that no arrangements had been made to move his squadrons the 400 miles to their selected bases in the Calais-Dunkirk area. After two days in bivouac on the outskirts of Brest, Cunningham commandeered a French freight train, loaded his three squadrons into the boxcars, and headed northward for Calais.
Squadrons A and B were located at Oye, a town between Calais and Dunkirk. Squadron C occupied a site at Le Fresne, 12 kilometers southwest of Calais, while Cunningham established his headquarters at Bois-en Ardres, nearby. On Oct. 5, 1918, Squadron D arrived at Le Fresne to complete the First Marine Aviation Force.
The squadrons showed up at their designated sites without a single aircraft. There, behind the lines, within the sound of guns on the Flanders front, the men set up pup tents among the trees in nearby orchards.
In the days that followed, trucks arrived with tents, gear and supplies, and the Marines were occupied in getting their camp established. At the same time, they began the construction of two flying fields, one at Oye and the other at Le Fresne.
In short order, fields of sugar beets were transformed by pick and shovel into the first two combat airfields in the history of the Marine Corps, complete with canvas hangars, living quarters, storehouses, mess halls and dispensaries. Roads and runways were flattened with the help of a “borrowed” Navy steamroller.
Upon arrival in France, the First Marine Aviation Force became the Marine Day Wing of the U.S. Navy Northern Bombing Group. The four Marine squadrons were redesignated, respectively, as the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th Squadrons of the Northern Bombing Group. Major Roy S. Geiger commanded Squadron No. 7, while Maj William M. McIlvain had Squadron No. 8. Maj Douglas B. Roben was the first commanding officer of Squadron No. 9 and Capt Robert S. Lytle was the second. Marine Squadron No. 10 was headed by Capt Russell A. Presley.
The strength of Marine Day Wing was 164 officers and 846 enlisted Marines. In addition to the foregoing figures, there were 14 Navy officers and 66 sailors attached to the organization for duty. Flying personnel included 135 Marine officers (naval aviators), 30 enlisted Marine observers and 14 enlisted Marine aerial gunners. Included in attached Navy personnel were six Navy officers (naval aviators) and six enlisted Navy observers.
Capt David Hanrahan, U.S. Navy, was in charge of the Northern Bombing Group, with headquarters at Auntingues, France. The Group mission was the destruction of the German submarine bases at Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges by aerial bombing. These bases, along the Belgian coast, were to be subjected to continuous day and night bombing by Marine and Navy squadrons. Upon the German evacuation of the bases, the Group mission was changed to supporting British ground units in Flanders.
The plane assigned to the Marine squadrons was the American-built DH-4 bomber, powered by the 400 h.p. Liberty engine. Seventy-two DH-4s were ordered for the First Marine Aviation Force before the Marines left stateside. Naval aircraft and engine assembly bases were established at Pauillac, France, and Eastleigh, England, to accept and erect DH-4s shipped from the United States. The machines were assembled, tested and flown to the Marine squadrons at Oye and Le Fresne.
Much delay was experienced in getting delivery of the DH-4s. The first one arrived at Le Fresne on Sept. 7, 1918. It was slowly followed by others from Pauillac and Eastleigh. It looked as though the Marines would have to wait some time for delivery of their full complement of American-built DH-4s.
The Marines soon found a way to expedite matters. The assembly bases began to receive considerable numbers of Liberty engines, but no fuselages arrived in which to mount them. On the other hand, the Royal Air Force had hundreds of DH-9 air frames, but they were without the necessary power plants.
The British were approached with the scheme to swap Liberty engines for British DH-9 air frames and they approved. For every three Liberty engines delivered to the British, they returned one mounted in a DH-9A. The Marine Day Wing then began to receive DH-9As for which the Marines, in turn, delivered Liberty engines to England. Under this arrangement, the Marine Day Wing was finally equipped with 20 DH-9As and 16 DH-4s—a total of 36 operational De Havilland bombers.
Pending the arrival of their combat aircraft, arrangements were made to have Marine pilots and observers operate with certain squadrons of the Royal Air Force. Commencing on Aug. 9, 1918, nine days after the Marine squadrons had landed in France, selected pilots were transferred temporarily to Royal Air Force Squadrons No. 217 (equipped with DH-4s) and No. 218 (equipped with DH-9s) for combat training and service. Using the DH-4s and DH-9s borrowed from British aviation, the Marine pilots were rotated in temporary duty assignments in order to fly three or more combat missions over German lines as members of one of the Royal Air Force squadrons.
In addition, six Marine pilots were maintained continually at the British pilots’ pool at Audembert, France, for practice flights. After successful qualification, they were transferred as needed to RAF squadrons for actual bombing experience and then returned to their own units.
The U.S. Marine pilots and observers who served with the Royal Air Force were to create, not inherit, a tradition which later generations of Marine aviators would embellish with matchless gallantry. Almost everything they did during that period was a “first.”
Second Lieutenant Chapin Barr was the first Marine aviator to lose his life as a result of enemy action. On Sept. 29, 1918, he died after being wounded in aerial combat the previous day during a raid over enemy territory.
First Lieutenant Everett R. Brewer and his observer, Gunnery Sergeant Harry B. Wershiner, were the first Marines to shoot down an enemy aircraft in aerial combat. Flying a DH-9 bomber with the Royal Air Force, they brought down a German aircraft over Cortemarcke, Belgium, on Sept. 28, 1918. Both Brewer and Wershiner were seriously wounded in the encounter.
The first recorded combat food drop by American aviators was conducted on Oct. 2, 1918, during a flight led by Capt F. Patrick Mulcahy. The three planes made 10 low-level runs in the face of intense enemy ground fire, dropping 2,600 pounds of food and supplies to a beleaguered French unit near Stadenburg, Belgium.
A total of 63 Marine flying personnel served on the Flanders front in British squadrons. Of these, 50 were pilots, 11 were enlisted observers and two were enlisted aerial gunners.
In mid-October 1918, the Germans evacuated their submarine bases in Flanders, thereby terminating the mission of the U.S. Navy Northern Bombing Group. Its services were subsequently offered to General John H. Pershing, commander in chief of American Expeditionary Forces. At his suggestion, the bombing group supported British operations in the Belgium area from then until the armistice.
The first all-Marine air combat operation was a raid carried out on Oct. 14, 1918, by Marine Squadron No. 9 from Le Fresne flying field. A composite flight of five DH-4s and three DH-A9s, led by Capt Robert S. Lytle, bombed the German-held railway junction and yards at Thielt, Belgium, and dropped 2,210 pounds of bombs. On the return flight, the Marine bombers were intercepted by a mixed formation of 12 enemy scouts made up of eight Fokker D-VIIs and four Pfalz D-111s. In the ensuing air battle the DH-4 piloted by second Lt Ralph Talbot, with Gunnery Sergeant Robert G. Robinson as observer, shot down two enemy aircraft and Gunnery Sergeant Robinson was severely wounded.
From the Thielt attack forward, air raids were continued with the objectives being railway centers, canals, supply dumps and hostile aerodromes at Steenbrugge, Eecloo, Ghent, Deynze and Lokeron. Marine Day Wing carried out 14 independent raids. The Marine squadrons were to have the distinction of flying their bombers all the way to and from German targets without fighter escort or protection.
The Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918 found Marine Squadron No. 8 operating from an advanced airfield at Knesselaere, Belgium.
Casualties in the Marine air combat operations were as follows: GySgt Robinson survived his wounds received in the raid on Thielt. 2dLts Harvey C. Norman and Caleb W. Taylor were killed Oct. 22, 1918, when their aircraft was shot down in action against enemy aircraft near Bruges, Belgium. Lieutenant Talbot was killed on Oct. 25, 1918, in an airplane crash at Le Fresne field, France. 2dLt Colgate W. Darden Jr., who occupied the observer’s cockpit, was thrown clear of the plane and survived. On Oct. 27, 1918, the DH-4 flown by 2dLts Frank Nelms Jr. and John F. Gibbs was struck by antiaircraft fire and made a forced landing in Holland, where the pilots were interned.
In all, the Marine Day Wing participated “actively and creditably” in the Ypres-Lys offensive and in both the first and second Belgian offensives. In their three-month operation from bases in France and Belgium, Marines took part in a total of 57 bombing raids, dropped 52,000 pounds of bombs and made five food drops. Three officers were killed or died of combat wounds. One officer and two enlisted were wounded in aerial combat. Four officers and 21 enlisted died of influenza.
Marine Day Wing members were awarded two Medals of Honor, four Distinguished Service Medals and 30 Navy Crosses. Second Lieutenant Talbot and Gunnery Sergeant Robinson, of U.S. Marine Squadron No. 9, were awarded the Medal of Honor.