I had the honor and pleasure of visiting the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum near
San Diego a
short time ago. This museum, like so many military museums I have visited,
has its own theme and local flavor combination that makes it so great.
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, near San Diego, is the U.S. Marine Corps' premier West Coast Aviation Base and Home of the only museum in the world dedicated to Marine Corps Aviation, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum.
The museum currently houses over 45 aircraft with approximately 30-35 aircraft on display at any one time in addition to hundreds of artifacts from WWI to the present day. The museum includes a research library consisting of thousands of books and photos for the research and one of the world's finest collections of Marine Aviation patches.
The Museum tells the story of Marine Aviation and the part it played in defending America.
Marine Aviation History
Marine aviation officially began on 22 May 1912, when First Lieutenant Alfred Austell Cunningham reported to Naval Aviation Camp in Annapolis, Maryland, "for duty in connection with aviation." On 20 August of that year, he became the first Marine aviator, as he took off in a Burgess Model H given to him by the Burgess Company in Marblehead Harbor in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
As the number of Marine Aviators grew, so did the desire to separate from Naval Aviation, a dream realized on 6 January 1914, when First Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith was directed to Culebra, Puerto Rico, to establish the Marine Section of the Navy Flying School.
In 1915, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Corps aviation company consisting of 10 officers and 40 enlisted men. The first official Marine flying unit arrived with the 17 February 1917, commissioning of the Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
The first major expansion of the Marine Corps' air component came with America's entrance into World War I in 1917. Wartime expansion saw the Aviation Company split into the First Aeronautic Company which deployed to the Azores to hunt U-boats in January 1918 and the First Marine Air Squadron which deployed to France as the newly renamed 1st Marine Aviation Force in July 1918 and provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy's Day Wing, Northern Bombing Group. By the end of the war, several Marine Aviators had recorded air-to-air kills collectively dropping over fourteen tons of bombs. Their number totals included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from 8 squadrons. In 1919 the 1st Division/Squadron 1 was formed from these units, and exists as VMA-231.
By the end of World War I Congress had authorized 1,020 men for Marine aviation and the establishment of permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island and San Diego. The United States also embraced its role of global power and the Marine Corps became the preferred force for military intervention; where the Marines went, so went Marine aviation. During the Banana Wars, while fighting bandits and insurgents in places like Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, Marine aviators began to experiment with air-ground tactics and making the support of their fellow Marines on the ground their primary mission. It was in Haiti that Marines began to develop the tactic of dive bombing and in Nicaragua where they began to perfect it. While other nations and services had tried variations of this technique, Marine Aviators were the first to embrace it and make it part of their tactical doctrine.
World War II would see the Marine Corps' air arm expand rapidly and extensively reaching their peak number of units with 5 air wings, 31 aircraft groups and 145 flying squadrons. During the war, and for the next fifty years, the Guadalcanal Campaign would become a defining point for Marine Aviation. The great takeaways were the debilitating effects of not having air superiority, the vulnerability of targets such as transport shipping and the vital importance of quickly acquiring expeditionary airfields during amphibious operations. Because of the way the Pacific War unfolded, Marine Aviation was not able to achieve its 1939 mission of supporting the Fleet Marine Force at first. For the first two years of the war, the air arm spent most of its time protecting the fleet and land-based installations from attacks by enemy ships and aircraft. This began to change after the Battle of Tarawa as the air support for ground troops flown by Navy pilots left much to be desired.
After the battle, General Holland Smith recommended, "Marine aviators, thoroughly schooled in the principles of direct air support," should do the job. The New Georgia Campaign saw the first real close air support provided to Marine ground forces by Marine Air, the Bougainville Campaign and the campaign to retake the Philippines saw the establishment of air liaison parties to coordinate air support with the Marines fighting on the ground, and the Battle of Okinawa brought most of it together with the establishment of aviation command and control in the form of Landing Force Air Support Control Units.
During the course of the war, Marine Aviators were credited with shooting down 2,355 Japanese aircraft while losing 573 of their own aircraft in combat, they had 120 aces and earned 11 Medals of Honor. Immediately following the war, the strength of the Marine Corps flying arm was drastically cut as part of the post war drawdown of forces. Their active strength fell from 116,628 personnel and 103 squadrons on 31 August 1945 to 14,163 personnel and 21 squadrons on 30 June 1948. They also maintained another 30 squadrons in the Marine Air Reserve. Also during this time, the Secretary of Defense for then President Harry S. Truman, Louis A. Johnson, attempted to eliminate Marine Corps aviation by transferring its air assets to other services, and even proposed to progressively eliminate the Marine Corps altogether in a series of budget cutbacks and decommissioning of forces.
After World War II, propeller aircraft were gradually phased out as jet aircraft improved and helicopters were developed for use in amphibious operations. The first Marine jet squadron came in November 1947 when VMF-122 fielded the FH Phantom, and four years later VMF-311 would be the first Marine jet squadron to be used in combat providing close air support for the Marines and soldiers on the ground in December 1950 flying the F9F Panther. HMX-1, the first Marine helicopter squadron, stood up in November 1947. Marine helicopters-VMO-6 flying the HO3S1 helicopter-made their combat debut in August 1950's Battle of Pusan Perimeter. January 1951 saw the activation of HMR-161, the world's first helicopter transport squadron. In February 1957, VMA-214 became the first Marine squadron to be certified for "special weapons delivery": dropping nuclear weapons, several other would receive certification though eventually all nuclear weapons were turned over to Navy and Air Force responsibility.
The Korean and Vietnam Wars saw the size of Marine Aviation rebound from its post-WWII lows, emerging as the force that exists today, consisting of four air wings, 20 aircraft groups and 78 flying squadrons. By the end of the Vietnam War, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force had grown dependent on its multi-mission inventory of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, which could operate from land or sea bases to support Marines on the ground.
Marine Aviators deployed to the Middle East for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, then to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. 2006 saw Marine Aviation at its highest operational level since the Vietnam War, flying more than 120,000 combat hours in to support operations in and near Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite their aging aircraft and high operating tempo, Marine Aviation maintained a 74.5-percent mission-capable rate higher than the 62 percent of the USAF's F-22 Raptor. As of 2010, the aircraft fleet is undergoing another transformation.
Tue - Sun 9am - 3:30pm
Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
4203T Anderson Avenue
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar
San Diego, California