A giant of Marine aviation

26 Oct 2011 | Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki

The new headquarters building stands as a permanent reminder to all Marines of the example set by the Marine Aviator, Gen. Christian F. Schilt, for whom the building is now named. He was a pioneer in Marine Aviation who helped lay the foundation for modern Marine aviation through sheer flying skill and intimate knowledge of aircraft capabilities.

“General Davis, the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and I got together and decided to nominate Gen. Schilt for this building,” said Col. Philip J. Zimmerman, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

Zimmerman also mentioned Brie Lehew, Cherry Point historian, was instrumental in the decision to name the building after Schilt.

“Not only because of his tremendous contributions to Marine Aviation, but also because of his development of aviation in support of ground forces. Those same strategies and concepts are being used today in Afghanistan by II Marine Expeditionary Force and 2nd MAW.”

Schilt enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War I and was assigned to the 1st Marine Aeronautical Company at Ponta Delgada, Azores. The company patrolled the seas for German U-Boats and was the first American aviation unit to serve overseas. The young Schilt, impressed by the aircraft, entered flight training when he returned to the United States and earned his wings in 1919.

According to Lehew, between the World Wars, the Banana Wars were raging and Schilt was sent to provide air support for Marines fighting in Caribbean and Central American countries. Here, he helped develop dive bombing techniques, performed the first ever casualty evacuation and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

According to his citation, his action took almost superhuman skill to accomplish.

Marines were fighting rebels in the Nicaraguan town of Quilali and were taking casualties. Schilt flew in an O2U-1 Corsair biplane, landed on a rough street while the town was burning down and with enemy fire directed at his fragile aircraft. Once in, he unloaded needed supplies and replacements while wounded were loaded aboard the aircraft. Schilt repeated this feat ten times, evacuating 18 Marines, delivering 1,400 pounds of supplies and dropping off a new officer to take charge of the battle. At least three of the 18 Marines would have died not for Schilt.

With this feat and in flight competitions, Schilt proved himself an incredible pilot. He was named Chief Test Pilot at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pa. He helped develop the aircraft Naval and Marine Aviation would use for World War II. He would fly any aircraft, given the chance. According to official documents, Schilt flew at least 218 aircraft and helicopters throughout his 40-year career.

During World War II, he held several important positions. First, he was assigned to the American Embassy in England, observing the British Royal Air Force in battle. Afterward, he was assigned to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and sent to Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. His next home front tour was as the second commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. He oversaw the massive expansion of the then new air station which provided training for Marine pilots. Today, 81 buildings constructed during his tenure are still standing.

His tour at Cherry Point continued when he was promoted to brigadier general and served as chief of staff and commanding general of 9th MAW, a World War II unit that trained pilots for combat. At the time, 9th MAW had 20,000 or more Marines aboard Cherry Point and outlying fields. In February of 1945, he returned to the Pacific and took command of 2nd MAW in October, which was stationed on Okinawa at the time.

Schilt returned stateside after commanding 2nd MAW but was back at the front with 1st MAW when the Korean War broke out in 1951. There, he won the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal for providing United Nations forces with “outstanding tactical air support.” Schilt was credited with integrating 1st MAW into the “Far East Air Forces interdiction program by implementing highly efficient fighter bomber, night intruder and night interdiction operations against enemy support missions,” in addition to other important functions. To celebrate the Marine Corps birthday that year, he led an 85 aircraft strike against the North Koreans.

After fighting in Korea, Schilt became the director of aviation for the Marine Corps and retired from that position as a four star general in 1957.

“It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Kit Hart, the director of combat camera. “His was a career of firsts that established him as a legendary pilot in his own day and who, over the course of that career, did as much or more for Marine Aviation than anyone. Enlisting as a private and advancing to the rank of general, he was a true pioneer, instrumental in the development of the close air support tactics that are still the mission of Marine Corps Aviation today.”

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point