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The U.S. Naval Institute on Marine Corps Aviation

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The U.S. Naval Institute on Marine Corps Aviation edited by Thomas J. Cutler. Naval Institute Press, 2016, 176 pp.

Long before today’s US Air Force (USAF) ever came to be, the other services had airpower components that contributed to their victories in multiple campaigns. Today’s military members, of course, know that each service has its elements of airpower. But what some of today’s members may forget is how military weapons developed and the subsequent challenges that arose once air capabilities were introduced into the armed services. The U.S. Naval Institute on Marine Corps Aviation is one of a two-book series about the US Marine Corps (USMC) with nine chapters, written and published at various times throughout the twentieth century that expose different aspects of the development of USMC airpower. From explaining the people and units who paved the way in the early years of Marine air support to exploring the future of air expeditionary units, this succinct anthology delivers a brief introduction to the history of Marine Corps aviation.

This collection of essays presents a variety of authors’, writing styles, and subjects—not a dry, technical history as one may expect with such a title. The authors are primarily military officers, and one wrote about himself in the third person as he gave a very detailed account of Marine Corps aviation in the Vietnam War. Lt Gen Keith B. McCutcheon, USMC, assumed command of the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW) in Vietnam in 1965. His chapter, “Marine Aviation in Vietnam,” constitutes more than half of the book, making this a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning about the specific details of the USMC air capabilities in the Vietnam War. Though it may interest those craving a thorough history of the 1st MAW, it is a lengthy, acronym-laden section that may deter more casual readers.

Other authors contribute significantly shorter and more easily accessible pieces, some with incredible stories of inventing new ways to employ aircraft just a few years after the Wright Brothers’ invention. The first chapter focuses on the earliest utilization of aircraft by the Marine Corps in China in 1926, which was the first time the USMC had a combined “air-ground force” (pp. 19). This 17-page exposé, which is an excellent start to the book, abounds in colorful stories about how having aviation units gave newfound advantages to ground troops. One of these new advantages was a radio station traveling with the ground troops that could use Morse code to communicate with friendly airplanes up to 15 miles away, allowing for intelligence transmissions and the option of aerial support if needed (p. 15).

Several of the articles reveal the authors’ stances on the utility and significance of Marine airpower. Most notably, in the chapter “An Infantryman’s Opinion,” the author, Maj J. N. Rentz, USMC Reserve, boldly states, “The Marines on the ground . . . will insist on close-in air support by Marines for Marines . . . [the Marine commander] cannot afford misunderstandings which may arise as a result of inter-Service differences (p. 51).” This piece, written just two years after the birth of the USAF, advocates USMC control over the airpower for what was then known as “close-in air support” (CAS). He asserts that Marines understood Marine tactics and jargon better than a member of a different service and could, therefore, provide faster, more accurate support.

Though Major Rentz has an understandable concern in 1949, the modern American military has come to see that CAS can be reliably provided by Air Force pilots; these air warriors have worked hand-in-hand with Marine ground force commanders to aid them countless times in the decades since. Major Rentz’s arguments that USMC commanders would desire only Marine-operated CAS are antiquated in a world where the Air Force’s contributions have been immeasurable and indispensable; today, the USAF has at least 10 air platforms with CAS-providing capabilities, ranging from the A-10 to the MQ-9. However, the reminder of the significance of interservice collaboration and how far the military has come in this partnership would serve well any enthusiasts craving more exposure to the Marine Corps side of military aviation history.

This book, detailed and specific, engages those curious about the backstory of USMC aviation. While it is certainly not all-encompassing, it provides a wide range of perspectives that, although slightly dated, vivify the growth of aviation as a Marine Corps asset. From the use of biplanes in China to supporting the Second Nicaraguan Campaign in 1927 to F/A-18s dropping ordinance in the Persian Gulf War, the Marine Corps’ airpower has come a long way, and the compendious collection of these stories and analyses in 176 pages rewards the time investment.

 2nd Lt Briana N. Dutcher, USAF
Joint Base San Antonio–Randolph, Texas

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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