Corps Oldest Squadron Commemorates 75 Years
By LCpl Rick Jakubowski
JPAO, MCAS, Cherry Point, NC
Marines September 1994
Submitted by: Norris Gwin
MCAS Cherry Point, NC
From dropping hand grenades from the cockpits of bi-planes to the precision bombing of the AV-8B Harrier II, Marine Attack Squadron 231 has come a long way in its close-air support role.
Through three-quarters of a century, the Corps’ oldest squadron has developed a rich tradition of courage and spirit, sentiments reflected in the faces of the retired Marine Corps pilots who were here to celebrate the squadron’s 75th Anniversary in June.
The squadron’s journey began in 1919, under the command of Capt. Walter McCaughtry. The squadron’s six Curtiss JN Jennys, stationed at Marine Flying Field, Miami, Fla., flew in support of ground Marines stationed in Santo Domingo.
Maj. Alfred A. Cunningham, known as the father of Marine Aviation, took command of the squadron in December 1920. Soon after, the squadron which had been designated Flight A, 1st Air Squadron, become the “Ace of Spades,” and adopted a design that includes the face of a playing card inside a black circle. The upper “A” is for air and the lower “S” for squadron. It was the first insignia ever used by a Marine aviation unit.
The “Ace of Spades” continued to meet the constantly changing demands of the Marine Corps. In 1922, as Division 1, Observation Squadron 1, assigned to Marine 2d Brigade in Santo Domingo City, Capt. Francis Evans designed a way to quickly evacuate Marines in need of medical attention. Evans modified the DeHaviland DH-4Bs, which replaced the Curtiss Jennys, into ambulance planes. The new configuration according to squadron history, cut evacuation time from three days by mule cart, to two hours by air.
When Sandinista rebels threatened U.S. forces in Nicaragua, the “Ace of Spades,” commanded by Maj. Ross Rowell, traveled to Managua forming the first Marine Air Ground Task Force with the 2d Brigade. While attached to 2d Brigade, the squadron made the first aerial dive bombing attack in the history of war, devastating a force of rebels that was overwhelming a Marine garrison.
Reorganized into Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 in 1942, the “Ace of Spades” fought the Japanese during the Battle of Midway. Outclassed in every aspect except valor and courage, the Marines fought the well-equipped Japanese Air Force in obsolete Vought SB2U-3 Vindicators and Douglas SBD-2 Dauntlesses.
According to squadron history, Capt. Richard Fleming, who was hit by enemy anti-aircraft guns, continued his attack on the Japanese cruiser “Mikuma” by crashing his Vindicator into the ship crippling it. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Reverting to VMSF-231 that same year, the “Ace of Spades” dive-bombed Japanese air bases on Guadalcanal in F4U Corsairs. Retired LtCol. Cecil Alexander, a guest at ‘231’s reunion, remembers his flights with the Corsair. “We dive-bombed runways and gun emplacements from 11,000 feet. The Corsair was a beautiful plane, ahead of its time, but it was hard to handle.”
From 1946 through 1973, the squadron went through several phases of deactivation and reactivation.
On July 31, 1973, the “Ace of Spades” reactivated as one of three Marine Harrier squadrons. When introduced, the Harrier’s ability to take off and land vertically represented a revolutionary modernization of the Corps’ highly flexible, rapid response, light attack force.
The “Ace of Spades” demonstrated its abilities again in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As the war intensified, ‘231 set a gun squadron record of just over 966 flight hours in one month. During the war, ‘231 tallied 987 combat sorties and accumulated 1,195.8 flight hours.
The “Ace of Spades” have now added the new Harrier II Plus to its already formidable arsenal giving it all-weather capability and enhanced night fighting ability.