Base represents past, present and future of Marine aviation

In the course of 75 years, fields and swamps along the Neuse River in Eastern North Carolina became the largest Marine Corps Air Station in the United States.

And as Cherry Point celebrates its 75th anniversary, the future may just be as bright as its historic past.

“I look forward to support for this base and for the Marines here for another 75 years,” said Col. Chris Pappas III, who last month relinquished command of the air station.

In a recent interview, Pappas made clear why Cherry Point has a bright future.

“Cherry point right now is at a strategic transition point,” he said. “This base was born out of World War II.”

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Cherry Point. It was on Aug. 18, 1941, that the commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, wrote a letter establishing “Air Facilities under Development at Cherry Point.” It was also on that date that Lt. Thomas J. Cushman, the base’s first commanding officer, reported for duty with four enlisted Marines.

With war waging in Europe in early 1941 — and months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — the Marine Corps was already planning an unprecedented expansion and needed a new, central location to train. A new aircraft facility was part of the plan.

The specifications required “an area at least 10 miles square, unobstructed by public roads, railroads, industries or habitations which would interfere with the firing of artillery weapons up to 6-inch, or with aircraft and anti-aircraft gunnery.” Furthermore, “a real necessity exits for a training area for the Fleet Marine Force units on the Atlantic coast.”

Soon it was apparent that eastern North Carolina was the most suitable geographic location for the air station and an even larger Marine Camp that would become Camp Lejeune.

Initially, military officials pointed to an area called Wilkinson Point and its vast undeveloped territory in rural Pamlico County as the best choice for a base. But the Marine Corps changed its mind and decided to put the station on the other side of the Neuse River between Slocum Creek and Hancock Creek in Craven County because of the presence of a railroad line that could bring in the enormous amount of building materials required for the endeavor.

On Feb. 18, 1941, Congress authorized $25 million for the air facility on the banks of the Neuse River.

More than 40 local land owners, some willingly and others through condemnation proceedings, had their property seized. Some 7,582 acres were taken to create space for the airfield and its proposed 16 squadrons of 310 planes. The purchase price was $104,869.

It was a monumental undertaking to clear forest lands and fill swamps, essentially by any means necessary, including use of dynamite to remove tree stumps and to create ditches for mosquito control.

The facility was originally named Cunningham Field after the first Marine Corps pilot, Alfred A. Cunningham, but on Dec. 1, 1941, it was renamed U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

Six days later, Japan made a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, war was declared and a new urgency was placed on completion of the air station.

Workers came from all across eastern North Carolina to earn good wages building the station.

About 60 million board feet of timber was milled during base construction. An asphalt plant using sand found at the site produced enough pavement “to pave an 18-foot highway 265 miles long” working at a rate of 50 tons per hour.

The base would need 1,320 housing units for the growing number of military personnel, which swelled from just four on Aug. 18, 1941 to 20,776 in Nov. 1943.

During that time, wave after wave of airmen flying F4U Corsairs and PBJ Bombers trained and deployed, mostly to the South Pacific to fight Japan island to island.

Some of the original hangars built at the base are still standing, along with many other structures from that era.

“This base has some of the oldest hangars in the Marine Corps, average about 57 years old,” said Pappas.

After World War II, Cherry Point became the site of a distinguished, cutting edge electronic warfare community that had important roles in the Korean War in the early 1950s. In 1962, reconnaissance aircraft provided President Kennedy with the photographic information he would use to prove the existence of long range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Aircraft from those same Cherry Point-based electronic warfare squadrons played a vital role in Vietnam.

The wide and varied types of aircraft that have called Cherry Point home are numerous, but a jet that could take off and land like a helicopter, the Harrier, has been a mainstay for four decades.

However, by the next decade, those AV-8B Harriers will begin to be replaced by the Marine Corps’ fifth-generation jet, the F-35B Lightning II.

For two years already, Fleet Readiness Center East, the base’s enormous aircraft rework and repair facility, has been receiving the new jets for early modifications, mostly from Beaufort, S.C., which is part of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing based at Cherry Point.

Beginning in 2022 and 2023, the first of seven squadrons of F-35s will activate at Cherry Point.

But to get ready for them, major upgrades will have to be undertaken. Hangars are going to be demolished and rebuilt. The air traffic control tower will be taken down and rebuilt in a new location. About $1.6 billion in renovations will be required to prepare for the jets.

“One of the things that the station gets an opportunity to do is all the planning and development so that we are ready to receive those new aircraft so Marines can work on them, they have got a place to repair them and so Marines also have an opportunity to deploy that new asset,” said Pappas.

Cherry Point will be transformed from a 20th century air station with propeller planes to a 21st century master jet base for fifth generation fighter aircraft.

“We have been laying the groundwork for that in years and years in planning,” said Pappas. “What’s going to come here in the next three years is the start of that construction, and so in 2023 when that first JSF squadron is active and operating out of Cherry Point, it is going to be a very exciting day not just for the base but for the legacy of all of the folks that have worked to get that here. That’s what I see that’s coming and it’s going to be a very, very impressive facility when it’s completed.”

James Norment, a member of the Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow lobby group, said the base has a strong future.

“As long as the Marine Corps serves this country, I think that Marine Corps aviation is going to be an essential part of their mission and Cherry Point is the master jet base on the East Coast for the Marine Corps,” he said.

He said that in addition to the main air station, Cherry Point operates training ranges used by the Navy and Air Force and also directs all air traffic in the area, adding to its value.

“We learned in the 2005 BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process that the Cherry Point facility itself and the training ranges together are probably the most valuable asset in Marine Corps aviation,” said Norment. “We’ll see a pivot to the West Coast at some point. We’ll see a pivot back to the East Coast, and I expect Cherry Point will be strong for the next 75 years.”

He said that the changes coming to the base over the next decade and a half with the arrival of the F-35B aircraft set Cherry Point up for a bright future.

“It is going to be a tremendous amount of change,” he said, “and I think that over the next 20 years you will see more (military construction) money spent on buildings at Cherry Point than on any 20-year period in its past, so I think it is a bright, strong future.”