US Marine Corps Aviation in Rhode Island

Military aviation has been a major part of Rhode Island’s history, starting with James and Ezra Allen, who flew
observation balloons for the Union Army during the Civil War. Fixed wing involvement started when Gerald Hanley joined the Rhode Island National Guard in 1915. As a lieutenant in Battery A of the Coast Artillery, he used his own flying boat to support training of his unit, bringing the state’s militia into the aerial age.

Rhode Islanders have been involved with Marine Aviation since before World War I. In October 1916, Lt. Alfred A.
Cunningham, Marine Aviator #1 and Naval Aviator #5, was taught to fly the new Burgess-Wright landplane in nearby Marblehead, MA. His instructor was famed Rhode Island aviator Jack McGee.

And, while we do not know for certain who the first Marine pilot from Rhode Island was, we do know that Russell Stearns of Pawtucket, who flew in France with the Lafayette Flying Corps, received a direct commission in June 1918 and was assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force in Miami.

In October, 1928 RI Governor Norman S. Case presented a silver loving cup to Marine Lt. Lawson Sanderson, the pilot who developed the concept of dive-bombing. The cup was “engraved, [for the purpose of] adorning a cabinet at Marine US Marine Corps Aviation in Rhode Island.” Sanderson later became a Major General, and in 1945 he accepted the surrender of Wake Island.

With war clouds on the horizon, the Navy built a naval air station at Quonset Point, which opened in 1941. With the start of World War II, Rhode island also became a nexus for training Army Air Corps pilots at Hillsgrove Airport.
Perhaps the strongest link Marine Aviation has to Rhode Island is the fact that the radar for night fighting, as well as aerial night fighting techniques, were developed here during World War II. A unit at NAS Quonset Point, operating under the code name of “Project Affirm”, was the first night fighter development unit, and it developed and tested night fighter equipment for the Navy and the Marine Corps.

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