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BOOK REVIEW – The U.S. Naval Institute on Marine Corps Aviation

Thomas J. Cutler, Series Ed., Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2016)

Reviewed by: Robert P. Largess

The U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings has been a pillar of intelligent discourse on naval science, events, technology and history since its first issue in 1874. Always imaginative, open, thoughtful, Proceedings is a goldmine of high-quality material for the naval historian, full of many-sided critical analyses of the crucial topics of the moment, as well as promising ideas that fell by the wayside. It tells of the experiences of those men, famous or forgotten, who brought the successful ideas to fruition and implemented them in peace and war.

But how does one access this wonderful resource? I would guess there are something like 18,000 major articles there from 133 years of publication – forget the short pieces! Sitting down with a bound volume of the Proceedings in a library that has a set is like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – the temptation to look at the amazing great stuff can be a major distraction from research! The Institute published a cumulative index in one volume covering 1874 to 1977, which is most useful, and the articles from more recent years are available online. The staff at the Naval Institute’s  library in Annapolis are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and unfailingly helpful in tracking down and copying articles for researchers.

However, a new means of browsing this treasure trove is “The Naval Institute Chronicles” series, said to “help readers navigate through this intellectual labyrinth,” as its editor Thomas J. Cutler, noted author and director of professional publications at Naval Institute Press, puts it. This collection of selected articles on eleven (so far) topics including Marine aviation, coastal and riverine warfare in Vietnam, the Naval Academy, women in the Navy, and the Panama Canal.

Mr. Cutler brings a breadth of view and incisive perception to his choice of nine articles that makes this first book of the series truly fascinating to the student of military history, even to a newcomer to this particular topic of Marine Air. It touches all the crucial bases in time and place, yet possesses an overarching unity of theme that makes it a thorough education in itself on the subject. These themes, of course, are close air support for ground troops and the need for aircraft as an integral part of a single organizational command including both troops and their supporting aircraft.  The articles give us a remarkably comprehensive history of Marine air and the development of the ground support mission in theory and practice, as well as the battle to keep it alive – in spite of its many impressive successes – against competing air missions and theories of air power.

The articles start with Smedley Butler’s determination to bring an air contingent to China in 1927 with his 3rd Marine Brigade expeditionary force, during Chiang Kai-Shek’s drive to retake the country from the warlords. Its aircraft operated heavily and provided valuable intelligence; Butler gave them credit for his ability to avoid hostilities with the prickly Nationalists. The second article describes the Marines learning the practice of troop support, including dive bombing, in the 1927-1932 fight to suppress the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. But where in China experiments were made using Morse radio to communicate between aircraft and the ground, the Marines had no such thing in Nicaragua and were forced to rely on visual signaling, message drops, and landing to talk face-to-face with the troops.

Next is a brief article by Cutler himself telling the story of Joe Foss, flying an F4F at Guadalcanal in 1942. He became an ace, with five kills, in nine days. With five kills on Oct. 25, he became the Corps’ first “ace in a day,” and his total of 26 kills was a Corps record.

The next, from 1949, deals with the war for the existence of naval and marine air against the newly independent Air Force, within a unified Dept. of Defense. Its author gives a tightly reasoned defense of the ground support mission, against the then-prevalent view that with the advent of nuclear weapons, strategic bombing was all that counted. This idea goes back to Giulio Douhet, writing in 1921, and his student Billy Mitchell among others, who predicted that all future wars would be total wars, in which the direct bombing of enemy civilian populations by an independent air force would decide the issue, rendering armies and navies irrelevant. These ideas inspired strategic bombing campaigns against China, then Britain, then Germany and Japan; Max Hastings says both Hap Arnold and RAF chief Tedder protested against the Normandy landings as unnecessary since the bombing of German cities had the War practically won already. The power and terror of the atomic bomb seemed to reinforce this view; yet since Hiroshima, war has not ceased to fester and rage throughout the world, yet it has not yet progressed again to nuclear war.

The first real shock to this view came in 1950 in Korea, with the inability of atomic weapons and strategic bombing to handle reality, and the near-disaster that befell our poorly equipped and supported ground troops. Article five is by Adm. John Thach, who took the USS Sicily to Korea in Aug. 1950 as a dedicated ground support carrier operating 24 Marine F4U’s. He describes the intensive development of their techniques, based on close cooperation with ground controllers, as the Sicily ranged up and down the Korean coast in response to calls for support. Meanwhile, USAF F-80’s from Japan were flying at the limits of their range, with small bomb loads and little time over the target.

The lessons learned were not enough to bring success in Vietnam, and perhaps the most interesting piece is the 65-page “Marine Aviation in Vietnam, 1962-1970”, by Lt. Gen. Keith McCutcheon, from the 1971 “Naval Review” issue. This detailed history is fascinating for what it takes for granted. Its narrative concentrates on the build up of numbers and advances in technology including electronics, communications, computers, and the use of helicopters. It is a testimony to the extent in which faith in management techniques and advanced technology took the place of tactical and strategic thinking in those years – with little strategy except attrition, little tactics except reaction to those of the enemy. No actual battles are mentioned until the introduction of North Vietnamese Regular Army units in 1967, and the first concerted effort to topple the South Vietnamese government with the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Other articles include a 1979 description of plans to use a Marine Air-Ground force to intervene in Scandinavia in the event of the outbreak of war, and problems with integrating it into NATO command structures; a rebuttal by a USAF pilot, who cogently responds to Marine criticisms of his service’s doctrines; and a 1992 revisiting of the continuing importance of a highly mobile expeditionary force with its own air arm. Again, this book provides a thorough, many-sided education on this subject. Also, Proceedings articles tend to share a clear, straightforward, rational style which makes reading easy.

In short, if this first volume of the “Naval Institute Chronicles” is any indication, the series should be of exceptional value and interest to every reasonably sophisticated student of military history.

Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future”, articles on the USS Triton, the SS United States, the origin of the towed sonar array, and the history of Lighter-Than-Air.

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