“I’ve never been intimidated;” Seeing combat in Vietnam, flying Presidents in helicopters and singing in front of Billy Graham – George Cumpston was up for “whatever the Marine Corps” needed him to do

Published 4:05 pm Thursday, October 12, 2023

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Intimidated – an adjective never used to describe George Cumpston, 87, of Chocowinity. As a Marine in the 1960’s serving in Vietnam, he lived for the thrill of piloting helicopters through warfare, and later, wasn’t the least bit nervous piloting former U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon on Marine Helicopter Squadron One (also known as “Marine 


“I’ve never been intimidated,” Cumpson said. 

Cumpston never intended on joining the military. In fact, how he joined the U.S. The Navy – and later the U.S. Marine Corps – started by chance and a game of table tennis. 

A student at Indiana State Teachers College (now called Indiana University of Pennsylvania) in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Cumpston planned to become a high school band teacher. During his sophomore year in the mid-1950’s, a Navy recruiter came to campus to entice students to join a Naval flight training program. As it happened, the recruiter was an excellent table tennis player like Cumpston. 

Cumpston, confident he could beat the recruiter who quickly gained a reputation for winning the most matches, was “crushed” when the recruiter beat him, too. 

The recruiter, Cumpston shared, then invited him on a trip to pick up two pilots in Johnstown, Pennsylvania who were interested in a Naval flight program. They were going to fly to Akron, Ohio. The recruiter promised Cumpston they would play another table tennis match. They did, but this time Cumpston won. 

“He might have let me win. I always wondered afterward. Did I really beat him or did he just go easy on me,” Cumpston said. 

But back then, it didn’t matter, because Cumpston was “hooked” on the idea of becoming a jet pilot for the Navy. It was an exciting prospect to travel to Pensacola, Florida and learn how to fly. Upon completion of Aviation Officer Candidate School, cadets could either become Ensigns in the Navy or Second Lieutenants in the Marine Corps. 

Cumpston, still not intending  to have a career in the military, decided becoming a helicopter pilot for the Marine Corps was a better choice than becoming a jet pilot in the Navy. The Marine Corps promised he could fly “whatever he wanted.” 

In 1965, he moved to New Bern, because Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point had the first helicopter squadron getting new Boeing Vertol CH46 Sea Knights helicopters. 

“We were the first CH46 squadron to go to Vietnam in 1966,” Cumpston shared. Helicopters and planes traveled on the USS Boxer for 23 days. 

Then Captain Cumpston, in Vietnam, exemplified true bravery which was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross. Per a newspaper article from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania that quoted a portion of Cumpston’ award citation, “‘On Jan. 14, 1967, Capt. Cumpston was serving as a pilot with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265, Marine Air Group 6. On this day, Capt. Cumpston was launched as a pilot of a CH46A helicopter in a flight of six aircraft assigned the mission of transporting 160 Marines… on a company sized attack against a Viet Cong force near Ban Lanh.’” 

The article continued, “when Cumpston reached the target area, his copter came under heavy fire. However, he managed to land and return fire until the troops disembarked.” 

Capt. Cumpston returned to the same area that day and again came under heavy fire and escaped without serious damage or injury. Two more times he would return that day to pick up wounded and survivors of the attack despite his helicopter receiving damage. 

Per the quoted citation, “He displayed outstanding professional skill in calmly maneuvering his helicopter out of the area through heavy enemy fire and rapidly deteriorating weather conditions.” 

For this he was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross. According to the U.S. Air Force, “this medal is awarded to any officer or enlisted person of the armed forces of the United States for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. Both heroism and achievement must be entirely distinctive, involving operations that are not routine.” 

Throughout his time with the Marine Corps, Cumpston was awarded 14 air medals and completed more than 280 missions. 

While traveling to Vietnam before seeing combat, Cumpston used his musical talent to help form a glee club whose 34-men membership consisted mostly of pilots that rehearsed every night. In about two weeks, the club had six songs they could sing well. Keeping them on pitch, an accordion player used chords that supported the melodies. 

When they arrived at Marble Mountains in Da Nang, Vietnam, the club gave a concert at an outdoor movie theater and stage on the beach. 

“I’m sure that we were the first Marine aviation squadron that ever went to Vietnam that had its own glee club,” Cumpston laughed. “I can’t imagine anyone else ever doing that.” 

Sadly, the club never sang again as a full group because pilots were divided into smaller squadrons to manage aircraft. By Christmas time, Cumpston had a quartet who was asked to sing at a dedication for a new chapel at Marble Mountains. The guest speaker coming to dedicate the chapel was prominent Christian evangelist, Billy Graham. 

“On Christmas morning, there I was with three other Marines singing and he was right there in the front row, Billy Graham was,” Cumpston said. 

Cumpston’s tour in Vietnam was just the start of many experiences interacting with prominent and powerful people. He joined the presidential helicopter squadron when he returned from Vietnam and flew VH-3 helicopters. He flew former Presidents Johnson and Nixon in addition to Vice President Spiro Agnew and Secretary of State Dean Rusk from 1967 to 1970. 

Cumpston shared about a bet people in his squadron made about President Johnson. Johnson liked to return to D.C. from his ranch in Texas at night; however, he would usually return intoxicated, Cumpston said. To ensure no one could see that the President needed assistance leaving Air Force One to get on Marine One, “all the lights on the tarmac, on the ramp would go off and it would be total darkness…Most of the time, the lights went dark. We would take bets to see if the lights are going to stay on tonight.” 

Cumpston flew President Nixon often from his residence at the Pierre Hotel in New York City to Washington, D.C. so Nixon could work with his transition group after he was elected. Cumpston and his crew would fly to New York City from Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. 

“When he was ready to go to D.C., we would fly in and pick him up in Central Park because the Pierre Hotel is right next to Central Park,” Cumpston said, adding there was once a Floyd-Bennett airfield at Central Park from where they would fly. “Take him to JFK, there would be an Air Force plane there that would take him down to Andrews Air Force base (in Maryland). He’d stay the day in D.C. We would go back to Floyd Bennett Field and sit there all day long, waiting and waiting. Finally, we would hear that he was coming back so we would fly out to JFK, the Air Force plane would land, he would get out and get in the helicopter.” 

These trips typically occurred at night, which was somewhat of a challenge, because Central Park was like a “black hole” with buildings lit up around it, Cumpston described. A fire truck and cars with lights would illuminate a grassy area where Marine One would land. Cumpston and his crew would fly back  to Quantico – arriving at 4 a.m. “just beat.” 

Cumpston also flew Nixon to Camp David in Maryland. The first time Cumpston flew to Camp David, he was excited to see it, he said. He and other pilots stayed in cabins for the weekend. At first it was fun, but he said it “got old in a hurry,” because he wanted those weekends free to spend with his wife and two sons. 

“You’re just stuck there,” Cumpston said. “You’re just waiting like we’d wait all day in New York for him to come back. You’d wait there all weekend until he was ready to go back to D.C. Sometimes it would be two nights. Sometimes it would only be one night. After a while, you’d look for somebody – ‘wouldn’t you like to go to Camp David? I’d like to spend a weekend with my family.’” 

Cumpston said as a pilot, it was rare to have direct contact with Presidents and dignitaries. “LBJ or Nixon – neither were friendly guys who would say ‘hey, good flight,’ but Agnew was. Agnew would always come up, slap you on the shoulders and say, ‘great flight!’” 

“The Presidents themselves, they never paid any attention to you. You were just like a driver of their limousine,” Cumpston said. 

Cumpston took pride in knowing he was someone entrusted to fly Presidents and members of their cabinets. The sheer amount of hours he flew helped to promote Cumpston to Marine One.  Where most helicopter pilots have about 300 hours of air time, Cumpston had more than 6,000 hours when he retired. In his squadron, Cumptson was one of six pilots who could fly the President. There were other pilots in his squadron who did not have that special designation. 

“I don’t think anybody in the Marine Corps in 1984 when I retired had as much helicopter flight time as I did. I had always been someone who flew and flew and flew,” Cumpston said. 

He left the presidential helicopter squadron in 1970 and completed a tour in Okinawa, Japan. He then returned to Cherry Point and became an executive officer of a depot there. He remained in the military until 1984 when he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving 28 years. He then worked at Raleigh-Durham International Airport until he retired in 2001. 

When asked if he would do it all again, Cumpston said “absolutely.” 

“I enjoyed it. Absolutely. I would not do anything different. I really enjoyed it…I was up for whatever the Marine Corps needed me to do,” Cumpston said.  

Today, he enjoys playing with bands and is an accomplished baritone horn musician. He continues to play table tennis saying the only person he has yet to beat is his good friend, Brownie Futrell.