U.S. MARINE CORPS AVIATION SINCE 1912
By Peter B. Mersky
Naval Institute Press, $49.95, 320 pages
Reviewed by David A. Ballentine
Peter Mersky’s “U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Since 1912,” fourth edition, published by the Naval Institute Press, is both an end for the reader who wishes a single-volume treatment of nearly 100 years of Marine aviation and an exceptional beginning for any who wish a solid foundation for research before the trip to the Navy Department for Marine Corps aircraft acquisition data, then on to Quantico for personal papers, command chronologies and monographic literature. This new edition is both expanded and updated, and it is replete with illustrative photographs.
The book tracks the development and transition of aircraft, and to a lesser degree the associated tactics and employment, and changes in prevailing attitudes, but it is also about the men who flew them in war and peace.
This aspect makes the book not just informative, but enjoyable. What might have been a tedious compendium of descriptions from one aircraft to the next, is given breath of life through biographical sketches of personalities, quotes from the men who lived it and anecdotes about situations, especially in the wars they fought.
For instance, I read interesting snipits from and about “Pappy” Boyington, part of which was a bit sad; I discovered Charles Lindbergh, though a civilian, went to the Pacific theater in World War II to suggest some F4U “Corsair” techniques to Marine fighter pilots. While there, he shot down a Japanese plane. And I now know that one of my Vietnam squadron mates, Steve Pless, carried a swagger stick while on his next, tragically his last, assignment at Pensacola.
The interspersion of this sort of information humanizes the book, making it about people as much as about aircraft the Marine Corps procured and why it procured them. The result is an infinitely more readable, more interesting book.
Mr. Mersky’s book starts in 1912 with 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham and the Curtis “Jenny” and, as he must, introduces Marine helicopters (HO3S, HTL-4, HRS-1) around the Korean war. His chronological discussion of fixed wing aircraft ends with the projected inauguration of the STOVL F-35B “Lightning” and the inevitable termination of the F/A-18 “Hornet” and AV-8 “Harrier.”
On the helicopter side, he discusses the retention and upgrade of new AH-1Z “Cobras” and UH-1Y “Iroquois,” the introduction/employment of the MV-22 “Osprey,” and the eventual acquisition of the CH-53K to replace the Echo model now flown. So Mr. Mersky’s effort is not just history; it is a “now” book, and he brings his reader into current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among his comments are brief discussions of the integration of women pilots in Marine aviation and of Reserve squadrons in the war on terror.
The book is not coffee table size, but larger than a piece of printer paper, and, since the book has numerous illustrative photographs, large is good. Photographs are on virtually every page and sync well with the narrative.
The reader need only glance across the page or to the next to view the aircraft and often the Marines discussed, and, although the earlier photographs are understandably more likely of statically displayed aircraft, those later are regularly in flight, and some are shown in tactical situation.
The photographs are well-captioned and meaty, not simple one-liners that leave the reader hungry. I mention book size because one of smaller dimension would have precluded good photographic display.
The font is also responsibly large. Business-driven modern publishers save money by reducing print size; some is shrunk to Carolingian Minuscule. This drives recliner jockeys, such as me, to ever-increasing magnification. Not so with Mr. Mersky’s new book. The Naval Institute gets an “A” here.
Another satisfying aspect is Mr. Mersky’s writing style; it is easy, straightforward, does not waffle, nor is he floral - perfect for an audience of guys like me who prefer few adjectives and direct statements that get a reader to the bottom line. Perhaps Mr. Mersky’s long association with the military has aided in this; he is a retired Navy Reserve commander and the longtime editor of Approach magazine, naval aviation’s safety periodical.
I also like the book’s linear balance and its reasonably even treatment, which is suggestive in that Vietnam falls about midpoint in a narrative that starts with the Marine’s first aviator, 1st Lt. Cunningham, in 1912 and ends with the Corps’ projected acquisitions as the first decade of the 20th century comes to a close. It is also well indexed and has a good table of contents.
So, for people who like to bounce around in reading and nose into special nooks, the book has good instruments to facilitate particular interests. Two appendices are added; the first provides the names of the first 100 Marine aviators; the second the sequence and names of the various directors, deputy chiefs of staff, and, as they are currently titled, deputy commandants for Marine Corps aviation. These may satisfy curiosity more than anything.
Mr. Mersky offers no substantial bibliography, but he includes an annotated list of recommended reading. This might serve as a starting place for additional inquiry, but a serious scholar would have to turn elsewhere. The book has end notes, rather than footnotes, and a number of empty pages in the rear for note taking and remark making. I’ve already scribbled in mine.
This history is not just for former, current, or wanna-be Marine aviators. It is for anyone with curiosity about things militaire for aficionados. It’s for libraries, public, private and military. I expect to return to my copy repeatedly and have already nosed in it with satisfaction on several occasions. It sits next to my Burrows photographic coverage of ‘Nam.
I like the book because it is a single-source, reasonably thorough document; it is well illustrated, clearly written; and because it includes quotes, comments and asides from and about the Marines who flew the aircraft. It is truly about Marine aviation, not just the aircraft.
David A. Ballentine, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is the author of “Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam.”