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100th Anniversary of Marine Corps Aviation

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, Washington D.C., Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thank you, thank you very much.  General Robling, thank you for that very kind introduction and for your dedicated service to our nation and to the United States Marine Corps.

I’d also like to acknowledge and thank General Amos.  Jim, your leadership as Commandant has been exceptional.  I’m grateful every day for the support I get every day from this man, because he provides support not only to me, but to the entire Department of Defense, and in particular to the nation.  We are all truly fortunate to have such a skilled and visionary aviator in the role of Commandant at a critical time in our nation’s history.   “Tamer,” thank you for your leadership, thank you for your support, and thank you for your friendship.

Distinguished guests, and Marines from generations past and present, it’s truly an honor and truly a privilege for me to be here and pay tribute to 100 years of Marine Corps Aviation. 

It is also a great privilege to be able to do so at the foot of the Iwo Jima Memorial, where this nation honors the service and sacrifice of more than two centuries of Marines.

Tonight we celebrate a rich legacy, a story that began 100 years ago this month when First Lieutenant Alfred Cunningham, became the first Marine detailed to aviation.

In 1912, Cunningham flew the B-1.  I’m not talking about the bomber, it was the first plane the Navy purchased from the Wright Brothers. 

With all due respect to this first Marine plane, it was pretty bad, even by the standards of the time, this machine was a real clunker.  I have a feeling my kids’ model planes held together better than this plane.

It repeatedly crashed and had been rebuilt even before Cunningham started flying it.  Parts would vibrate loose.  The propeller shaft did not fit.  The engine never delivered enough power to fly safely in anything but smooth weather.  It eventually became impossible to climb over a few hundred feet with a passenger.  Nevertheless, like a good Marine, Cunningham flew that piece of junk nearly 400 times. 

Only a Marine would love to fly that plane.  Actually, Marines were the only ones even willing to leave the ground in it, which says a lot about the Marines. 

Hap Arnold, the future Commanding General of U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, took one look at the plane and bluntly told Cunningham that no Army flier would take off in it.

It turns out that Arnold wasn’t the only person to express concern.  In August 1913, Cunningham requested to be detached from flight duty for one simple reason.  As he put it, “My fiancé will not consent to marry me unless I give up flying.”

Sure enough, Cunningham detached from flight duty.  But after they were married, his wife relented to his appeals and let him return to flying.  Bless those tolerating spouses.

That story reminds all of us that Marine aviators could not do their job without the love and support of family.  Even with better equipment and more advanced technologies than that clunker I talked about a century ago, our aviators still take incredible risks in order to defend our country.  Let me thank all the family members who are here and who are around the world.  All of them make it possible for Marine Aviation to continue to perform its essential mission for our country.  Your love, your support, your incredible loyalty.  All of that is so critical to our ability to keep America safe.

From the very beginning, the spirit of courage and determination exemplified by Alfred Cunningham has been the legacy of Marine Aviation.  It is a spirit driven by a mission to project power from ship to shore and support Marines on the ground.  It is a spirit that has guided Marine pilots to achieve the unthinkable and dare the impossible with their aircraft. 

That has been true from the raids at the end of World War I, to the Marine aces taking out Zeros and conducting strafing runs across the Pacific in World War II, to night defenses in Korea, to enemy assaults and daring rescues in Vietnam, to the present days in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We thank God for the Marine pilots from Camp Leatherneck who support our troops on the ground and deal the enemy a heavy blow.

From one generation to the next, Marine pilots pass down their legendary fighting spirit from one pilot to another, telling them:  “If you are not getting mud on your windshield, you’re flying too high!” 

Today’s pilots not only carry forward that fighting spirit, but also a legacy of innovation to ensure our military can adapt to any situation, anytime, anywhere. 

We all know that Marine Air provides an agile and flexible forward presence, but there’s nothing like seeing all of that up close.     

In the new defense strategy that we established for our Defense Department and our force of the 21st century, that kind of agility is absolutely critical to succeed and to win.  In March, I had the opportunity to visit the historic amphibious ship USS Peleliu and watch operations of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.  Peleliu has deployed time and time again across the globe, supporting Marines ready to engage any adversary.    

During the first insertion of conventional forces into Afghanistan in November 2001, it was Marines from Peleliu launched in Super Cobra and Huey helicopters and conducted one of the longest and most dramatic amphibious landings in the history of the Marine Corps. 

During my visit about USS Peleliu, I had the opportunity to personally clear a Harrier for take-off and communicate with the pilots, and nearly get blown off the deck.  That experience reinforced for me the need for this unique vertical take-off and landing capability in the future, because it gives us the ability to take the fight to the enemy on short notice and with overwhelming firepower. 

That’s the reason the Department is pushing ahead with the development of the world’s first supersonic stealth aircraft with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.  Earlier this year, I took the STOVL off probation – because the STOVL was meeting its requirements.  The Marines need a 5th generation fighter for the future and they will have it.       

Since becoming Secretary of Defense, I have also had the opportunity to take multiple MV-22 Osprey rides.  In Ospreys, I’ve landed on the shores of Camp Pendleton in California, near Ground Zero in Manhattan on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and on the dusty plains of Helmand Province.  That unique aircraft embodies the agility, flexibility, and innovation that are at the heart of Marine Aviation.  And I have to tell you that you haven’t lived until you’ve flown with Marine pilots who tell you not to worry when there are flashing lights appearing on the instrument panel.

     For all of these reasons, Marine Air is what we need for the future.  It is about agility.  It is about moving quickly.  It is about being flexible.  And it is about adapting for the future. 

The future – for our military and for Marine Air – depends on innovative leaders.  It depends upon our ability to think creatively and to maintain our decisive technological edge.  

There is simply no force in the world that can match the Marine Corps’ ability to conduct agile and flexible expeditionary operations.  There are no pilots anywhere that can match the relentless determination of Marine Aviators to take the fight to the enemy on the ground and in the air.  That has been true for the past 100 years, and it will be true for the next 100 years as well. 

In the movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” the Admiral watches the pilots taking off for dangerous missions over Korea and asks, “Where do we get such men?”  They come from the heart and soul and guts of America.

To the entire Marine Aviation family, my deepest congratulations on a century of unequaled success and sacrifice.  In the last 100 years, we’ve gone from the B-1 clunker I talked about to Harriers and Ospreys, and Hornets and Snakes and Hueys and 53’s and the veritable Battle Frog.  In the next 100 years, I have no idea what kind of planes or rockets or space ships or fighters we’ll be flying.  But what I do know is that whatever the hell we’re flying in these next 100 years, at the end, there will be one tough son of a bitch of a Marine flying it.

May God bless you, may God bless our Marine Corp Aviation and our Marine Corps aviators on this 100th anniversary.  And may God bless the United States of America. 

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