, Gloucester, MA

August 2, 2012

Town marks 100 years of Marine Corps aviation

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — MARBLEHEAD — It might sound like an invasion tomorrow as four military helicopters are scheduled to swoop into Marblehead and come to Earth at Village School.

But all it means is that the U.S. Marines have landed and the situation is well in hand.

The arrival of four choppers is part of the celebration of 100 years of Marine Corps aviation, a story that began right here on Marblehead Harbor in the shadow of the Starling Burgess aircraft factory.

Lt. Alfred Cunningham came to Marblehead when he was unable to find a plane to fly in Annapolis, Md., explains organizer Don Humphries, who is a Marine veteran of World War II. In Marblehead, Cunningham was given flying lessons before taking off in a Burgess seaplane on Aug. 20, 1912, and becoming the first Marine in the air.

“One hundred years of Marine aviation,” Humphries says, “that’s kind of a big thing.”

Four U.S. Marine helicopters will land at Village School at noon and remain there for public viewing. These will include the “heavy lift” H-53 and a restored H-34, the helicopter famed from the Vietnam War.

“They’re going to be open for inspection,” Humphries says.

On Saturday, parades are planned, one starting at 8:30 a.m. and moving from Seaside Park to Hammond Park to the Old Town House. At 10:30 a.m., a parade will proceed from the Town House up Pleasant Street to Memorial Park and a reviewing stand before moving on to Village School.

The school will continue to display the four helicopters, as well as Humvees and other exhibits inside the cafeteria from noon to 6 p.m. A second flyover, this time of fixed-wing aircraft, is scheduled from noon to 1:30 p.m. Included is the Corsair fighter, a staple of the war in the Pacific against Japan. The Corsair’s wings could be folded, allowing more of them to fit aboard aircraft carriers.

Some members of the modern Marines seemed surprised to hear of the service’s link to Marblehead, Humphries says. Some already knew the history. But all reacted with enthusiasm over the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of Marine aviation.

“In a time of tight budgets,” Humphries says, “to get these helicopters to come up and land shows what this means.”

Brig. Gen. Mark Wise, who will speak at an invitation-only event at the Boston Yacht Club, is one of several high-ranking officers expected to be here. Sen. Scott Brown was forced to cancel his appearance at the weekend event, but his wife, television reporter Gail Huff, will stand in for him.

Marbleheader and U.S. Marine Sgt. Harold Pierce, a winner of the Navy Cross for actions at the Battle of Iwo Jima, expects to attend.

“It’s great for the Marine air corps,” he noted.

Pierce was among those Marines assigned to take Mount Suribachi in one of the bloodiest engagements in Marine history. His job was to assault Japanese troops secured in mountainside caves. Progress was slow and expensive; three of his comrades were killed, Pierce himself wounded. It might have been a lot worse, however, except for the Marine fliers.

“What they did was bomb constantly,” he remembers. “All day and all night. The mountain was lit up like a candle. And it kept the enemy from firing back at us.”

Cunningham’s historic flight came less than a decade after the Wright Brothers first got off the ground in 1903. Burgess, who began building yachts, had moved on to produce seaplanes. But, says Humphries, a veteran pilot, aircraft hadn’t progressed all that much in the interim. Thus, in typical Marine fashion, that first flight was powered as much by courage as by gasoline.