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PROFILE: Major General Keith B. McCutcheon

Here’s another face virtually unknown to aviation history but nevertheless, very important: Marine Corps Major General Keith B. McCutcheon, the architect of modern close air support as we know it today.

During World War II, most air strikes against targets on the battlefield were called ‘direct air support’ or ‘DAS’ against pre-planned targets with no guidance from the boots on the ground. Even the air strikes in support of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, were DAS-type missions.

In 1942 the Marine Corps began experimenting with ALPs (Air Liaison Parties), specially trained Marines who used radios and smoke markers to direct pilots to targets. In 1943, they made their combat debut on the island of Bougainville during the Solomon Islands campaign. But their use was limited and they faced strong operational opposition from the Army. In fact, the Army’s operational manual at the time recommended against close air support for fear of friendly fire casualties.

U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal, 1942

Army resistance to CAS doctrine eased in 1944 when Lieutenant Colonel Keith McCutcheon formalized the training of the Marine Corps ALPs. He pulled together all that had been written about the use of the ALPs in Bougainville and developed a formal curriculum and training plan.

Any Marine aviator that was performing CAS missions had to prove their abilities through intensive training under McCutcheon’s close eye. At the time, the Marines were working with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division clearing Luzon of Japanese forces. His commanding officer, Colonel Clayton Jerome, asked him to come up with a way of using close air support to cover the 1st Cavalry Division’s left flank.

His operational experience at that point, was flying combat missions in the Dauntless dive bomber in support of Marines during the liberation of the Philippines. Despite what appeared to be limited experience, McCutcheon had a keen sense of the needs of the infantryman. He considered the pilots in his charge Marines first and aviators second.

In a short period of time, McCutcheon and his staff wrote five training manuals and eleven supplements for pilots on close air support doctrine; the training even applied to ground personnel attached to the ALPs.

McCutcheon wanted everyone from the pilot in the cockpit to the radioman on the ground to thoroughly understand each other’s jobs and abilities before going to combat. In just two months, from October to December 1944 in the midst of the Philippine campaign, over 500 men from Marine Air Group 24 and the Army’s 37th Division were trained. The improved ALPs went into operational use for the first time during Marine Corps action on the main Philippine island of Luzon in February 1945. 

McCutcheon himself, as head of Marine Air Group 24, flew combat missions in the Douglas SBD Dauntless who had their targets called in by ALPs in radio-equipped Jeeps moving with ground units. As a result, during the battles on Luzon, McCutcheon’s SBD pilots quickly gained a reputation for lethal accuracy in the battlefield. McCutcheon’s methods were further refined during the Korean War with not just ALPs but also with the airborne ALPs we now know as FACs (Forward Air Controllers).

In Korea, the FACs were usually North American T-6 Texans. By the time of the arrival, in the spring and summer of 1965, of Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom units in Vietnam, the squadrons were organized into Marine Air Groups (MAGs).

A MAG was usually made up of one type of aircraft and was tasked to fight at least 90 days in support of a Marine brigade. Several MAGs formed a Marine Air Wing (MAW). In Vietnam in 1965, MAW-1 was headquartered at Da Nang AB and led by none other than Keith McCutcheon himself.

As the commanding general of Marine Air Wing 1, McCutcheon protected his air assets with zeal to keep them from being subordinated to the USAF and US Navy. Despite numerous ‘official’ moves to strip the Marine Corps of their autonomy, in practice, 70% of Marine CAS missions in Vietnam were in support of Marines and controlled by Marines.

In 1970 McCutcheon was to get his fourth star but due to ill health was unable to assume his final post as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. In recognition of his distinguished career and what he did for Marine aviation, Congress passed special legislation to have McCutcheon listed as a retired full four star general anyway. He got his fourth star on 1 July 1971 and passed away from cancer less than two weeks later. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Further Reading:

To learn more about U.S. Navy and Marine Corps activities at Da Nang AB, download,Naval Support Activities: Da Nang 1965-1969″ here.

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