A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ORIGINS OF MCAS NEW RIVER

by LtCol Lynn Kimball, USMC (Ret)

MCAS New River traces its origins to the early 1940s when the U.S. military began an unprecedented expansion to meet the rapidly growing threat of the Axis powers to our national survival. War plans projected a strategic situation that would initially require two Marine divisions to spearhead a simultaneous war against Germany and Japan. Prior to February 1941, however, the U.S. Marine Corps had never formed a division and the Fleet Marine Forces consisted of only two under-strength brigades. Immediate priority was given by the Marine Corps to create two divisions, one on each coast, and establish suitable training areas where units could be formed and their Marines trained to conduct amphibious operations. Onslow County was selected as the site of the east coast division training center, subsequently named Camp Lejeune, and the first elements of the 1st Marine Division (MarDiv) began to arrive during September 1941.1

Essential to the success of a MarDiv in amphibious operations is the support provided by its assigned aircraft units. This was no less true in 1941 and a site within Craven County called Cherry Point, approximately 28 miles northeast of the training center, was chosen for the construction of the airbase that was to provide the air assets needed for training the division as well as to train its own fledging aircraft wing. Aircraft support, now as then, requires prudent safety considerations and an emergency landing field within Camp Lejeune was a necessity. After discarding two sites as unsuitable, a third site aboard the base located between Peterfield Point and Southwest Creek on the western side of the New River, designated as Emergency Landing Field (ELF) #3, was selected. This was the genesis of MCAS New River.2

Early training of the 1st MarDiv was envisioned to include two specialized capabilities requiring aircraft that involved the use of parachutes and gliders to insert airborne-trained Marine units into combat. HQMC saw in ELF #3 a suitable site for this training and further designated the field at Peterfield Point as a Parachute Landing Field, which was utilized by the base’s Parachute School at Hadnot Point following establishment in June 1942. The field, which had been opened for air operations by May 1942, and probably earlier, also was initially identified as a Glider Training Base, and consisted of three 5000-ft runways, glider repair shops, and a seaplane ramp by the summer of that year. A search for suitable locations for bases by the Marine Corps’ newly organized glider group, MLG-71, however, found four other sites more acceptable and no glider training was ever conducted at the field. HQMC terminated the glider program in June 1943, followed shortly thereafter by the closure of the Parachute School in July 1943. Efforts to establish Peterfield Point as a Lighter-Than-Air Facility were likewise contemplated but failed to come to fruition.3

Peterfield Point Airfield was one of several satellite fields to MCAS Cherry Point, which used the field extensively for the training of paratroopers and other ground units and additionally supported Camp Lejeune in the provision of transportation, liaison and target towing. With the departure of the 1st MarDiv, general progression of the war and vastly expanding requirements for air combat capability, Peterfield Point’s principal mission was redirected to coincide with that of Cherry Point’s other auxiliaries to train, equip and prepare aviation units for combat and operational control of the field passed from Camp Lejeune to MCAS Cherry Point.  Typically, a squadron would be organized within the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point and subsequently assigned to one or more outlying fields or auxiliary facilities to complete training. In this manner Peterfield Point’s first squadron, VMSB-331, arrived in March of 1943. This new mission necessitated an upgrade to the prior existing austere facilities and by July of 1943 the airfield could boast of at least ten buildings and structures to include the operations building and control tower, the administration building, a crash-truck building and a nose hanger.4

During September 1943 the airfield received the first of three PBJ-the naval equivalent of the B-25 medium bomber-squadrons, VMB-433, followed in October by VMB-443 and VMB-612, which pioneered night-radar operations against Japanese shipping, in January of 1944. An Air Warning Squadron, ASW (AT)-10, was also stationed here during February and March of 1944. The field expanded correspondingly and seven new buildings were added by June 1944. Among these were buildings for a Gun-Air Instructor, a Link Trainer and classrooms. As was the case with Camp Lejeune, focus had shifted from the training of operational units to the training of replacement personnel. This was reflected at Cherry Point by the departure of the 3rd MAW to the Pacific Theater and the activation of the 9th MAW in April 1944. On 26 April, Peterfield Point’s enhanced capabilities and training role resulted in the airfield being commissioned a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility (MCAAF) and approximately 2700 acres in the northwest corner of Camp Lejeune circumscribing Peterfield Point were set aside to define the new facility. This date is recognized as the founding date for the New River air station. In a further adjustment of command relationships, a new command, Marine Corps Air Bases Cherry Point, was established in September to administer all the facilities and outlying fields within the Cherry Point area. Operational control of MCAAF, Camp Lejeune, New River changed to MCABs Cherry Point on 26 September.5

VMSB-944 was the last squadron to report to MCAAF, Camp Lejeune, New River and that in June. With its departure in October 1944 and that of VMB-612 earlier in August, and particularly as a result of the favorable progress of the war, all aspects of training at the air facility began to wind down, as would happen later with those of its adjacent ground training facility, Tent Camp (Camp Geiger). The relative remoteness of the air facility and diminishing activity recommended its use as an ammunition resupply point for close air support training, particularly with rockets. This use and the minor role of providing transportation support to a Camp Lejeune whose mission now focused extensively on supporting demobilization carried the facility to 31 March 1945 and its deactivation. Following that date, shorn of its temporary huts and tents, the former MCAAF was reduced to caretaker status although it still existed as an outlying field to Cherry Point. The large, open areas of the field and its runways now lie dormant, awaiting another war, only five years distant, which would bring the facility back to life.6

 

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1 Allan R. Millet, Semper Fidelis: A History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: Free Press, 2nd ed., rev. and enl., 1991), pp. 344-348. U.S. Navy, Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, 1940-1946, 2 vols. (Washington: U.S. Navy, 1947), vol. 1, pp. 179, 281-282, hereafter BNB. Frank 0. Hough, LtCol, USMCR, et al., Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal-Histo,y of US. Marine Corps Operations in WW II, vol. 1 (Washington: HistBr, G-3 Div, HQMC, 1958), pp. 48-52. “Marines to Begin Moving into Area,” The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), 9Sep4l.

2 M.L. Shettle, Jr., United States Marine Corps Air Stations in World War II (Bowersville: Schaertel Publishing Co, 2001), pp. 19, 27, hereafter USMC Air Stations. G.W. Carr, Architect, and J.E. Greiner Co, Engineers, Completion Report Covering the Design of Camp Lejeune US. Marine Barracks New River, NC, for the US. Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks Contract NOy 4751, April 15, 1941-September 30, 1942, 2 vols. (Durham, NC and Baltimore, MD: Carr and J.E. Greiner Co, 1943), vol. 1, pp. 17, hereafter Completion Rpt NOy 4751. Camp Lejeune had been divided into 15 separate areas to facilitate survey and acquisition. Area “B,” which was to contain Tent Camp and the 1st MarDiv, and coincidentally ELF #3, was the first priority and ordered vacated by l June 1941. Area “B” consisted of 47 tracts of land encompassing 5,173.5 acres and was acquired at the cost of $119,245. Camp Lejeune totaled 111,155 acres. Acquisition records, Technical Records Section, Public Works Division, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune. At the time of acquisition of Area “B,” there was no tract owner named Peter, Peters, or Peterfield. The tract identified as “Peter Field” was owned by the Phillips family as far back as 1841 There were no land owners identified by the name of Peter, Peters, or Peterfield in either the Grantor or Grantee Indices of Onslow County dating back to 1734. There was no land owner named Peter, Peters, or Peterfield listed among the early settlers of the county. Onslow County Deeds, Office of the Register of Deeds, Onslow County Courthouse, Jacksonville. Joseph Brown, The Commonwealth of Onslow: A History (New Bern: Owen G. Dunn Co, 1960), pp. 377-386.

3 Completion Rpt NOy 4751, pp. 4, 5, 17, 34, 22. BNB, pp. 284. USMC Air Stations, pp. 19, 28, 49, 59, 121. Charles L. Updegraph, Jr., Special Marine Corps Units of World War II (Washington: HistDiv, HQMC, 1972), pp. 37-39, 46, 50-53, hereafter Updegraph. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Major General Commandant Holcomb landed at Peterfield Point aboard a R50 from Anacostia NAS on 26 May. This may have been the first flight operations at the field. The first paratroopers from the Parachute School were dropped over Peterfield Point Airfield on 16 January 1943 by R4Ds from AES-46 at Cherry Point. “Hail to the Marines,” The News and Observer, 10Nov42. Capt. Barnnett Robinson’s favorable evaluation of the existing Glider Training Base did not seem to be shared by LtCol. Vernon Guymon, the MLG-71 CO. Ongoing balloon barrage and paratrooper training, at a minimum, did not create a suitable operational environment for gliders. Marine Corps gliders were designed to be amphibious so a seaplane ramp was a functional necessity, not a precursor to establishing a Seaplane Base. Edenton was the local site selected for the construction of a glider base but Eagle Mountain Lake, TX, was the only air base actually used by the Marine Corps for glider training. Paolo E. Coletta, ed., US Navy and USMC Bases, Domestic (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 193. “New River air station’s history characterized by steady growth,” Rotovue, 21Apr94. There were at least two paratroopers that were known to have died in jumps conducted at Peterfield Point. Ken Haney, US. Marine Corps Paratroopers, 1940-1945 (Jackson: Ken Haney, 1990), pp. 50, 70, 129. G.W. Can·, Architect, and J.E. Greiner Co, Engineers, Completion Report Covering the Design of Camp Lejeune US. Marine Barracks New River, NC for the US. Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks Contracts NOy 6006 andNOy 7795, October 1, 1942-December 18, 1943, pp. 871, 881, 887, 1068.

4 USMC Air Stations, pp. 19, 21, 25, 28, 29. Updegraph, pp. 39, 46. Tracy Cunning and Martha H. Bowers, National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form: World War II Construction at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, 1941-1945 (Richmond: Louis Berger and Associates, Inc., 1998), p. E- 53, hereafter WW II Construction. Robert Sherrod, History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II (Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952), p. 439, hereafter Sherrod. War Diary, MCAS Cherry Point, NC, April 1944 and File Cards, Outlying Field Peterfield Point, Camp Lejeune, NC, 1944 (Ref Sec, Hist Br, Hist and Mus Div, HQMC), hereafter War Diary. HQMC Apr 22 1943 No. 2385/70-5000 over AO-278-nsh, Subj: Organization of Camp Lejeune, New River, NC. Prior to Cherry Point assuming operational control of the Peterfield Point airfield, the alternatives for which organization controlled the field are Headquarters, Camp Lejeune; the Training Center; and assigned Fleet Marine Force units. In the absence of further information, it appears that control would fall within the mission of Camp Lejeune headquarters.

5 USMC Air Stations, pp. 19, 25, 29. WW II Construction, p. E-53. Sherrod, pp. 438,439,454,470,471, War Diary. “Post of the Corps: New River,” Leatherneck, May60, p. 17. VMSB-33 l operated the SBD “Dauntless;” VMB-433, 443, and 612 operated the PBJ-1 “Mitchell;” and VMSB-944 likewise operated the SBD. Gordon L. Rottman, US. Marine Corps Order of Battle: Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939-1945 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), pp. 444,446,447. VMB-612 operated a conspicuously unique modification of the Mitchell, the PBJ-lD, which was characterized by a front mounted APS-3 radar unofficially called the “Jimmy Durante Nose.” This, with an associated radar bomb sight, under-wing zero length rocket launchers, and other electronics gear created a formidable night attack aircraft. VMB-612 also suffered more casualties and aircraft lost than any other PBJ squadron as a result of night operations. Peter B. Mersky, US. Marine Corps Aviation, 1912 to the Present (Annapolis: Nautical and Aviation Publishing Co of America, 1983), p. 99. The 29th Marines was the last infantry regiment formed by the Marine Corps during the war, being activated at Camp Lejeune in May 1944. Bevan G. Cass, ed., History of the Sixth Marine Division (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1948), p. 11.

6 USMC Air Stations, p. 19. Sherrod, p. 477. “Post of the Corps: MCAF New River,” Leatherneck, May67. Tent Camp was the home of the Infantry Training Regiment, where tens of thousands of boots from Parris Island were sent to learn necessary combat skills during the war. Tent Camp was closed and placed in caretaker status in September 1945. “Tent Camp Revisited,” Leatherneck,” May46. Camp Lejeune ComdC, 1 Sep 45-1 Oct 46, Command Narrative, Trng and Opns Dept, MCB, Camp Lejeune. At deactivation, MCAAF Camp Lejeune had a total airplane parking area of 17,973 square-yards, which consisted of the concrete warm-up platform, apron, and the seaplane parking area and ramp. Public Works Dept, Camp Lejeune, NC, document dtd 22 February 1945, Subj: Camp Lejeune-General Information as to Naval Shore Establishments.

Posted on: March 31st, 2022
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