News: Marines, New Bern Airport, entwined by history
Story by Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki
CHERRY POINT, N.C. - Thousands of Marines pass through the New Bern Airport every year without realizing its Marine history. Before Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point was even built, Marines shaped the future of the airport and local community.
In November 1931, Marine Fighting Squadron 9-M, from MCAS Quantico, Va., flew in a three-day air meet where young military and civilian daredevils impressed crowds with aerial acrobatics in flimsy looking biplanes, according to the Nov. 24, 1931 issue of The New Bernian newspaper. During the meet, officials planned to name the field after Furnifold M. Simmons, a career politician from the local area with 30 years of service in the United States Senate.
Disaster struck Nov. 21 when 2nd Lt. Joel B. Nott, a Marine pilot, crashed and died. Later that day when the airport was to be dedicated, Simmons directed it be named in memory of Nott as well, and the field was dedicated as Simmons-Nott Airport.
The Marines returned to Simmons-Nott Airport during the military’s build up prior to World War II. Ten days before Cherry Point was commissioned in August 1941, the Navy leased the airport for its own use. Camp Mitchell, located at Simmons-Nott Airport, became the primary training facility for Marine pilots until the Cherry Point infrastructure could host the necessary numbers of squadrons and troops.
The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing was commissioned at Cherry Point in November 1942, and served as the Marine Corps’ main pilot-training organization until it was moved to MCAS Ewa, Hawaii, in April 1944. The 9th Marine Aircraft Wing took over training until the end of the war.
According to the “History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II” by Robert Sherrod, on Dec. 6, 1941, the Marine Corps had a grand total of 204 aircraft in 13 squadrons. In August, 1945, there were 103 tactical squadrons, more than 10,000 pilots, and more than 115,000 aviation personnel, many of whom trained at Cherry Point and Camp Mitchell.
The Navy returned Simmons-Nott Airport to New Bern authorities after the war, but the relationship did not end there. The airport often lends Cherry Point a helping hand.
“They’ve flown in and out for a long time; we still get C-130’s that come up there sometimes,” said retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Braaten, the current director of the airport and former commanding general of Cherry Point. “If Cherry Point is going to be closed for whatever reason they come up and stay overnight at our place, fly over the weekend and then go back to Cherry Point when it reopens. We’re an airport and we have a little affinity for the Marines. I love having them come in.”
Because of its close proximity with Cherry Point, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Air Force Base Seymour Johnson, the New Bern Airport enjoys a large number of military fliers traveling for leave or long weekends; as well as Marines coming in for training or checking in to duty stations. When the travelers need a hand, the airport helps out.
“Yesterday we had a group that came in and was headed to Camp Lejeune for [the School of Infantry], and they were all in civilian clothes and had to change, so we just closed the blinds in our conference room and gave it to them,” Braaten said. “We had about 15 guys in there, and some of them weren’t picked up for a while, so they had some place to relax in the lounge while they were waiting.”
Cherry Point reciprocates the good will of the airport. In 2011, the airport hosted three Honor Flights, where veterans of World War II flew at no expense to visit memorials in Washington, D.C. Weather forced the return flight to be delayed for several hours due to the slick runway in New Bern. When the rain didn’t let up, airport authorities diverted the flight to Wilmington, N.C., which would add hours to the veterans’ travel.
Braaten looked for a way to help the veterans, and found it in Cherry Point. He placed a phone call and Cherry Point officials approved the flight to land on their airfield, cutting off hours of travel time and discomfort for the veterans.
Cherry Point and the New Bern Airport will continue working together as one performs the mission of protecting America, and the other provides regional commercial flights, in a relationship that is mutually beneficial.
“I think it’s important for the whole community to have a good relationship and I think it does,” said Braaten. “It’s important because we don’t want to ever do anything that would upset Cherry Point’s ability to carry out its mission, and if we can do something to help, we do that.”
Editors note: This article was written with support from the Headquarters Marine Corps History Division, especially Annette Amerman, a senior reference historian; and the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, especially retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Braaten, the director of the airport.