Alfred Austell Cunningham
Lieutenant Colonel, United States Marine Corps
Alfred Austell Cunningham, the Marine Corps' first aviator, was born 8 March 1882 in Atlanta, Georgia. He accepted a commission as second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in January 1909 when he was 27 years old. The year before Cunningham entered the Marine Corps, the United States Navy had first taken official notice of the aeroplane as a possible weapon for use in the Fleet when in 1908, Orville Wright demonstrated his plane to Government officials and Naval officers at Fort Myer, Virginia.
In 1911, Lieutenant Cunningham, was stationed at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia. He had become imbued with a fervent desire to fly when he ascended in a balloon eight years before, and was by now experimenting with an airplane, the famous "Noisy Nan." He had leased it for $25 a month from a civilian aviator, risking his neck if not his career in his aerial activities. "Aerial", perhaps, is a misnomer, because Noisy Nan never actually became airborne but Cunningham's enthusiasm continued to soar even as he hoped she would. His profound faith in the airplane and his love of flying finally was rewarded. On 16 May 1912, Cunningham was detached from duty at the Navy Yard, Philadelphia, and ordered to the aviation camp the Navy had set up at Annapolis, to learn to fly. He reported 22 May 1912 which is recognized as the birthday of Marine Corps aviation. Actual flight training was given at the Burgess Plant at Marblehead, Massachusetts, because only the builders of planes could fly in those days and after two hours and forty minutes of instruction, Cunningham soloed on 20 August 1912.
Thus the Marine Corps had its first pilot, the Navy its fifth, as John Rodgers, John H. Towers and Victor Herbster had qualified after Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson, the first Navy officer to be designated a naval aviator.
For the next fifteen months, Cunningham's assignments involved flying. From the camp at Annapolis, he was ordered to Hammondsport, New York, to consult with Glenn Curtiss about the Curtiss hydroplane; a few weeks later he conferred with the Burgess Company and Mr. Curtiss concerning a new Navy aeroplane. When he was not involved in such conference, he was at the aviation camp at Annapolis experimenting on the crude planes the Navy then had, and taking weekly training flights across Chesapeake Bay to Kent Island seven miles away, a thrilling and daring flight in those early days and the reward for the hard work of the week.
But Miss Josephine Jefferies, his fiancée, did not share either his enthusiasm for or his faith in the aeroplane. On 11 August 1913, Lt Cunningham requested detachment from duty involving flying "because my fiancée will not consent to marry me unless I give up flying." The request was approved by Secretary of the Navy Daniels and a few weeks later he was detached from the camp at Annapolis and ordered to the Navy Yard at Washington where he relieved Captain Russell H. Davis, USMC, as Assistant Quartermaster.
Even though he was not actually piloting planes, he was not entirely divorced from aviation because while he served as Assistant Quartermaster, he was assigned additional duty in aviation. In November 1913, he served on a Board, of which Captain Chambers was the senior member, to convene at the Navy Department for the purpose of drawing up a comprehensive plan for the organization of a naval aeronautical service. It was upon the recommendation of that board that the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola was established in 1914. The following February, he was authorized to assist Naval Constructor Holden C. Richardson, USN, in experimental flying of the D-2, then undergoing alterations at the Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
Sometime between September 1913 and April 1915, Mrs. Cunningham must have relented because on 27 April 1915, he was ordered to Pensacola for instruction in and assignment to aviation duty again. Aviation had grown apace in the year and a half he had been separated from it and improvement in planes and flying made it necessary to take a refresher course. Cunningham was not only redesignated a naval aviator but was ordered to duty at the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola which had been established only a year before.
While Cunningham was still attending the Signal Corps Aviation School, Admiral Helm recommended him as "particularly well qualified to assist as an expert aviator to help in the selection of aviation bases on the Pacific Coast"; so he was detailed to the Commission on Navy Yards and Naval Stations. He received a letter of commendation from the Major General Commandant, General John A. Lejeune, for his outstanding and valuable service while with the Commission.
By now, Europe had been at war for more than two years and now-Captain Cunningham recognized that naval aviation should have an important role in the war then ravaging Europe. His tireless efforts and sincere convictions about naval aviation were rewarded on the establishment of an Aeronautic Advance Base Unit at Philadelphia. In February 1917, he was detailed to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to establish, equip and command an Aviation Company for a Marine Corps Advance Base Force. In addition to that important assignment, he was made a member of the Army and Navy Board for the selection of sites for air stations in seven Naval Districts and was also detailed to choose sites for air stations on the East and Gulf Coasts. Captain Cunningham was commended for his "zeal and attention to duty" while thus assigned.
As aviation mushroomed under wartime stimulation, Captain Cunningham's responsibilities and duties increased. He had to interview applicants for aviation duty, he was given command of the First Aviation Squadron of the Marine Corps and, in addition, ordered to Paris to obtain information concerning French and British aviation activities, all in the course of three months! He sailed from New York on 3 November 1917 and was back in the States by 15 January 1918, but he had investigated virtually every aviation activity at the front. In pursuit, photographic, and bombing planes, he had participated in flights over the German lines and not only did he survey French aviation bases but also studied British air schools at Eastchurch and Huthe. He had worked assiduously at home and in Europe to "sell" aviation. He presented a plan to the Secretary of the Navy and the General Board for an aircraft offensive against submarines off the Belgian Coast and the submarine bases at Zeebrugge, Burges and Ostend.
The Northern Bombing Group was Captain Cunningham's idea and he not only secured the authority to organize and equip the four squadrons that comprised its day wing, but, with a modicum of pilots and enlisted men, and no available flying field, he not only secured a field but erected the necessary buildings, obtained planes and equipment, recruited and organized the entire project with the help of Lieutenants Bernard L. Smith, William M. McIlvain, Francis T. Evans and Roy S. Geiger, who were the only Marine officers besides Captain Cunningham who had been designated naval aviators when the United States entered World War I.
The plan approved, four Marine Corps squadrons were authorized, each to consist of eighteen landplanes and were to proceed to France when formed and equipped. In five months, the squadrons and headquarters detachment were organized, trained and equipped at the old Curtiss Flying Field at Miami, Florida, and Captain Cunningham was ordered to command the 1st Marine Aviation Force.
On 12 July 1918, 72 landplanes, 176 officers and 1030 enlisted men sailed on the USS de Kalb from New York and arrived at Brest 30 July 1918. After its arrival in France, it was designated the Northern Bombing Group and in the three months it was stationed in Europe, the Group operated at Oye, Le Fresne, St. Pol in France, and at Hoondschoote, Ghietelles, Varsennaire and Knesselaere, Belgium. Despite shortages in planes, spares and tools, it performed forty-three raids with the British and French as well as fourteen independent raids and shot down eight enemy aircraft. The Group also dropped 52,000 pounds of bombs and supplied 2600 pounds of food in five food-dropping missions in which it participated. Two years later, Captain Cunningham received the Navy Cross for his services with the Northern Bombing Group.
When he returned to the States, he was ordered to Headquarters, USMC. There, in the office of Operations and Training, now Plans and Policies, an aviation desk was set up and Captain Cunningham became officer-in-charge of Marine Corps aviation. During his incumbency, he worked untiringly for the growth of aviation and traveled all over the continent in surveying proposed aviation sites and facilities. He served as Officer-in-Charge of Marine Aviation until 26 December 1920 when he was detailed to command the First Air Squadron in Santo Domingo and in that command received two letters of commendation for his work with the squadron.
The early policy of the Marine Corps was to detail an officer to five years of aviation duty at the end of which time his flight orders were revoked and he was assigned again to general duty. Now a Major, when his tour of aviation duty expired in July 1922, he was ordered to the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico and was graduated number two in the class of May 1923. From then till June 1926, he was Assistant Adjutant and Inspector, after which he was ordered as Division Marine Officer and as aide on the Staff of Commander, Battleship Division Three. In June 1928, he was detailed to temporary detached duty at Nicaragua and served with the 2d Brigade Marines ad Executive Officer of the Western Area at Leon, Nicaragua. When that tour of duty expired, he became executive officer and registrar of the Marine Corps Institute from 1929 to 1931 and then was detailed as an Assistant Quartermaster at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia, where he served from April 1931 to March 1935.
About this time, Major Cunningham's health began to fail and he spent several months in the hospital. On 10 May 1935, he appeared before a Naval Retiring Board at the Marine Barracks, Washington, D. C., which found him to be incapacitated for active service and ten days later he was ordered home to await retirement on the first of August of that year. While on the retired list, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel with rank from 16 January 1936 and on 27 May 1939 he died at Sarasota, Florida.
LtCol Cunningham's contribution to naval aviation
and the Marine Corps cannot be measured. He pioneered in aviation when
aviation was recognized only by a few men of broad vision like himself.
He gave the very best years of his life pioneering in flying and risked
his life and health when few appreciated the risk, the discouragements,
and frustrations the early aviator faced. Though Colonel Cunningham's was
the unsung role of the pioneer and brought little glory when he lived,
the toll of Japanese aircraft blasted from the Pacific skies by Marine
planes and other spectacular accomplishments of Marine aviators in World
War II and subsequent conflicts of the 20th century are his monument.