Alfred Austell Cunningham

Alfred Austell Cunningham

Infobox Military Person
name= Alfred Austell Cunningham
born= birth date|1882|3|18
died= Death date and age|1939|5|27|1882|3|18
placeofbirth= Atlanta, Georgia
placeofdeath= Sarasota, Florida
placeofburial= Arlington National Cemetery

caption= 1st Marine Corps aviator 1st Director of Marine Corps Aviation
allegiance= flagicon|United States United States of America
branch= United States Marine Corps
serviceyears= 1909-1935
rank= Lieutenant Colonel
commands= Marine Corps Aviation
battles= Spanish-American War World War I The Banana Wars *Occupation of the Dom. Rep. *Occupation of Nicaragua
awards= Navy Cross
Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Austell Cunningham, (8 March, 1882 - 27 May, 1939) was a United States Marine Corps officer who became the first Marine Corps aviator [cite web
url= |accessdate=2006-12-22
title=The Early Years|work=History of Marine Corps Aviation|
] and the first Director of Marine Corps Aviation. [cite web
url= |accessdate=2006-12-22
title=Introduction |work=History of Marine Corps Aviation|
] His military career included service in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and U.S. operations in the Caribbean during the 1920s.

Early life and career

Cunningham was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His interest in aviation began in 1903 when he watched a balloon ascend one afternoon. The next time the balloon went up he was in it and from then on he was considered himself a "confirmed aeronautical enthusiast".cite book
last = De Chant
first = John A.
title = Devilbirds
publisher = Harper and Brothers Publishers
date = 1947
location = New York
] He enlisted in a volunteer infantry regiment during the Spanish-American War and served a tour of occupation duty in Cuba. He spent the next decade selling real estate in Atlanta. During this time evinced an interest in aeronautics, making a balloon ascent in 1903.

Commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps on 25 January, 1909, Cunningham served in the Marine guards of "New Jersey" (BB-16) and "North Dakota" (BB-29), and the receiving ship "Lancaster", over the next two years. Promoted to 1st lieutenant in September 1911, Cunningham received orders to the Advanced Base School, at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia, that November.

=Supporter of Marine Corps aviation=

Having retained an interest in aeronautics, he found at Philadelphia a likewise avid group of civilians and off-duty military men who harbored an interest in the same thing. He rented an airplane and gained permission from the commandant of the navy yard to use an open field at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for test flights. He also joined the Aero Club of Philadelphia, and commenced "selling" Marine Corps aviation to members of the Aero Club, who, through their Washington connections, began to pressure a number of officials, including Major General Commandant William P. Biddle, himself a member of a prominent Philadelphia family.

On 16 May, 1912, Cunningham received orders detaching him from the Marine Barracks, and ordering him to the United States Naval Academy, and its nearby aviation camp. He reported six days later, on 22 May, 1912. Expeditionary duty, however, intervened, and by the time the young lieutenant returned to Annapolis, there were no planes available to fly. Possessing boundless enthusiasm, Cunningham got orders to the Burgess Company, and Curtiss factory at Marblehead, Massachusetts; there, following two hours and 40 minutes of instruction, he soloed on 20 August, 1912.

Between October 1912 and July 1913, Cunningham made some 400 flights in the Curtiss B-1, conducting training and testing tactics and aircraft capabilities. In August 1913, Cunningham sought detachment from aviation duty, on the grounds that his fiancée would not marry him unless he gave up flying. Although assigned duty as assistant quartermaster at the Marine Barracks at the Washington Navy Yard, the first Marine aviator continued to advocate Marine Corps aviation and contribute significantly to its growth. In November 1913, he served on a board, headed by Captain Washington I. Chambers, USN, tasked with 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, Florida, was established in 1914.

The following February, Cunningham was assigned duty at the Washington Navy Yard, assisting Naval Constructor Holden C. Richardson in working on the D-2 flying boat. Ordered to Pensacola for instruction in April 1915 (his wife apparently having relented in allowing her husband to fly), Cunningham was designated Naval Aviator No. 5 on 17 September, 1915.

World War I service

After heading the motor erecting shop at Pensacola, he underwent instruction at the Army Signal Corps Aviation School at San Diego, whence he was assigned to the Commission on Navy Yards and Naval Stations. Cunningham received orders on 26 February, 1917, to organize the Aviation Company for the Advanced Base Force, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Designated as the commander of this unit, Cunningham soon emerged as de facto director of Marine Corps aviation. He sought, and got, enthusiastic volunteers to become pilots, and soon embarked on a determined campaign to define a mission for land-based marine air. In addition, he served on a joint Army-Navy board that selected sites for naval air stations in seven naval districts and on the east and gulf coasts.

Detailed to Europe to obtain information on British and French aviation practices, he participated in a variety of missions over German lines. Returning to the United States in January 1918, he presented a plan to use Marine aircraft to operate against submarines off the Belgian coast and against submarine bases at Zeebrugge, Ostend, and Bruges.

The Northern Bombing Group emerged from these plans—four landplane squadrons equipped and trained in five months' time. On 12 July 1918, 72 planes, 176 officers and 1,030 enlisted men sailed for France on board the transport "DeKalb", arriving at Brest on 30 July 1918. The Marines were sent to the fields at Oye, Le Fresne, and St. Pol, France; and at Hoondschoote, Ghietelles, Varsennaire and Knesselaere, Belgium. Despite shortages of planes, spare parts, and tools, the Marines participated in 43 raids with British and French units, as well as 14 independent raids, and shot down eight enemy aircraft. Planes of the group also dropped 52,000 pounds of bombs, and supplied 2,650 pounds of food in five food-dropping missions to encircled French troops. For his service in organizing and training the first Marine aviation force, Cunningham was awarded the Navy Cross.

Post-war activities

After World War I, Cunningham returned to the United States to become officer-in-charge of Marine Corps aviation, a billet in which he remained until 26 December 1920, when he was detailed to command the First Air Squadron in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Ordered thence to general duty at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Major Cunningham then served as assistant adjutant and inspector, and then division marine officer and aide on the staff of Commander, Battleship Division 3. On temporary detached duty in Nicaragua from June 1928, he served with the 2nd Brigade of Marines as executive officer of the Western Area at Leon, Nicaragua.

Retirement and last years

Subsequently, becoming executive officer and registrar of the Marine Corps Institute from 1929 to 1931, he finished up his career as assistant quartermaster at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia. His health failing, Cunningham was retired on 1 August, 1935; promoted to lieutenant colonel while on the retired list, he died at Sarasota, Florida, on 27 May 1939. Cunningham is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


The destroyer USS "Alfred A. Cunningham" (DD-752) is named in his honor.

In 1965, Cunningham was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. [cite web
title=Alfred Cunningham
publisher=National Aviation Hall of Fame

ee also

*United States Marine Corps Aviation
*List of Historically Important U.S. Marines



:Marine Corps:DANFS
* [ Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Austell Cunningham, USMC] , "Who's Who in Marine Corps History", History Division, United States Marine Corps.
*cite web|url=
title="History of Marine Corps Aviation"

*cite web|url= |accessdate=
title=USS "Alfred A. Cunningham"
work=Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships
publisher=Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy

*cite web|url= |accessdate=2006-12-22
title=Alfred Austell Cunningham, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Marine Corps
publisher=Arlington National Cemetery

Further reading

*cite book
title=Marine Flyer in France: The Diary of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham
publisher=History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps
location=Washington, D.C.

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