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Chapter 25

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of
United States Naval Aviation

Archibald D. Turnbull
and Clifford L. Lord

published by
Yale University Press
New Haven

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 27
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p284  Chapter XXVI

The Beginning of Expansion

In that spring of 1933 there can have been but few Americans who anticipated the entry of the United States into another world war. Even if such prophets existed, not one of them would have predicted that war would see the Navy's two top posts — Chief of Naval Operations, who must supervise both the Navy's plans for battle and its assembly of vast munitions, and Commander in Chief of the Fleet, who must direct the Navy's whole fighting effort — combined in a single individual, Ernest J. King. The Navy itself was not that farsighted, but at least the Navy had long known King as a most able seaman and aviator, as an officer of hard-driving incisiveness who would hold forever the courage of his convictions. He was only a rear admiral, with his preeminence still far ahead on May 3, 1933, when he became Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics; but all hands could be confident that he would maintain the high standards for Naval Aviation established by Moffett. In the next three years that confidence would be fully justified, and through a fortunate combination of circumstances expectations would be exceeded, because President Roosevelt added to his enthusiastic interest in the Navy a warm personal regard for King.

From the very outset King's efforts were materially helped by the President's seeing to it that liberal allocations from the huge sums appropriated from the National Recovery and the Public Works Administrations were made to the Navy. Thus the severe cuts in aviation's estimates inflicted by the Bureau of the Budget could be healed by money from these outside sources; a treatment so effective that the sum total for fiscal 1934 finally rose to about $30,000,000 or approximately what Moffett had at first recommended for that year. Moreover, this was in addition to other millions similarly allocated for the purpose of building carriers.

It was high time something was done about carriers. Of the five 23,000‑ton ships recommended by the General Board in the middle  p285 twenties not one had been built, and of the five 13,800‑tonners later called for only the Ranger had been authorized. Launched on February 25, 1933, she would be commissioned a year later on June 4, but good ship though she proved to be, she could hardly be sufficient support for the big Saratoga and Lexington. Even before she was finished the General Board had decided upon 20,000 tons as the most useful size carrier and two of these were recommended for the 1934 program. Thanks to money received from the Public Works Administration, it became possible to lay them both down — the Yorktown on May 21, 1934, the Enterprise a few weeks later, on July 16.

Meanwhile Congress had been considering the so‑called Vinson-Trammell bill, authorizing the building of a Navy truly commensurate with the provisions of the London Treaty of 1930. As originally written, the bill was not specific as to aircraft, but that staunch supporter of the Navy, Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia, at the last moment inserted a clause "to secure the necessary naval aircraft for vessels and for other purposes." The language was made general at the suggestion of Lewis D. Douglas, then Director of the Budget, who fortunately foresaw that to fix a definite figure, as had been done in the legislation establishing the 1,000‑plane program, might make the new law difficult to modify later. As finally passed, on March 27, 1934, the act permitted the Bureau of Aeronautics to add about 650 planes to the 1,000‑plane program without worry over an exact limit.

This was more helpful than a provision of the same act establishing 10 per cent as the top profit permitted manufacturers working under contract with the Navy, because it aroused in a few builders, such as Boeing, a tendency to prefer army contracts in which no such limit was fixed. Also, some difficulty resulted from another provision, that at least one tenth of all planes and all engines must be built at the Naval Air Factory, because the factory had neither adequate equipment nor trained personnel to build engines. Fortunately there was a clause giving the President discretion in this particular matter, and he shortly directed that the engine building be stopped. All these procedures being merely authorized by the Vinson-Trammell Act, the necessary funds were duly provided in the Emergency Appropriations Act of June 9, 1934.

When even the act did not cover the cost of all that the Bureau of Aeronautics needed, further allotments were made from NIRA, WPA, and PWA; the Aircraft Factory, for example, received an  p286 additional $3,000,000 with which to broaden its researches and experiments, as well as to accelerate building the N3N‑1 plane, then considered best for training purposes. Through the active help of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and through a steady exchange of ideas with the Army Air Corps, Army Ordnance, the Bureau of Standards, and all other department concerned, it became possible to make considerable progress in the study of aerodynamics and kindred subjects.

Consequently this was a period that saw the development of numerous planes destined to give valiant service after 1941. These types were provided with new airfoils, new engines that produced higher speeds, new high-lift devices, improved qualities for taking off and landing and, in carrier planes, with a longer cruising radius. The Bureau of Aeronautics, "considering that the striking power of scouting airplanes . . . on carriers must be increased," developed the VSB class, having all the virtues of the scout and also capable of carrying a 500‑pound bomb and launching it in a diving attack. Since flying boats were all given greater endurance and higher load capacity, and since there was contemporary improvement in instruments for all planes, progress during the period was distinct.

At the same time, for the very plausible reason that many naval air stations lay in areas where the relief of local unemployment was of particular importance, there began an expenditure upon these long-neglected spots of various sums from the Public Works Administration. Over the year ahead, extending as far as 1939, a total of about $36,000,000 from this source would go into longer runways with improved floodlighting, larger hangars, better living quarters, more adequate shops with newer machinery. Upon which of 30 stations appear to have benefited, those at which expenditure reached over a million dollars including Lakehurst, Pensacola, Seattle, San Pedro, San Diego, and the Naval Aircraft Factory.

While these improvements were in progress some change in air stations resulted from a new study, made in 1933, of the old question of duplication in the Navy's fields and the Army's, often side by side. Examples were Anacostia and Bolling, San Diego and Rockwell, Pearl Harbor and Luke, Coco Solo and France, where facilities on adjoining properties had never been sufficient for either and where each was ready to encroach upon the other. Each of these pairs was studied independently but the reports on all agreed that the collaboration which already existed in certain operations  p287 should be extended to all, without however combining the operations. Not satisfied that the reports constituted a solution of the duplication problem, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy submitted to the President a joint proposal which he approved in an executive order dated October 26, 1935. Under this order the Army gave the Navy Rockwell Field in exchange for Sunnyvale, where it agreed not to erect any buildings that might interfere with the Navy's airships. Further, the Army was directed to vacate the area it was occupying on Ford Island as soon as space could be found elsewhere. Finally, the order specified that the Bolling-Anacostia area should be given new "metes and bounds acceptable to the Army and the Navy," whereupon the premises should be occupied by the Navy. Such changes in allocation, coupled with the improvements carried on, gave the air stations what amounted to a new lease on life, especially as they began receiving impressive increases in their allowances of planes as the old, slow building program was replaced by one which would rise steadily to an annual figure of over 700 planes.

This extensive building was not accomplished without a revival of the debate over the various kinds of naval contracts, chiefly as to the legality of a "negotiated" contract made with some particular firm without competitive bidding, originally to cover experimental work but later to apply to mass production. An example was the Navy's contract with the Great Lakes Company, which called for experimenting with a new design and then building it in quantity, a provision which aroused the Comptroller General to issue a manifesto on May 21, 1934. When he declared that "no similar purchasing procedure" would thereafter be recognized by him as an obligation against the public fund, the Secretary of the Navy issued an order closely restricting future contracts to competitive bidding. This precipitated a series of dissenting statements, beginning with a strong protest from King to the effect that rapid changes in design, as well as the shortness of the average plane's life, made the negotiation of "proprietary" contracts necessary, and to the further effect that the Secretary's new order would create "administrative difficulties" out of proportion to the "intangible advantages" that might be gained. These dissents evidently continued as long as the order remained in force, because a year and a half later we find the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, purchasing agent for the Navy, making a protest similar to King's, and as far along as 1941 we find Towers, then Chief of  p288 the Bureau of Aeronautics, describing that order as an "obstruction to the expeditious conduct of business." There the order stood, however, until the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor altered the procurement problem in a day and resulted in the subsequent handling of contracts under the far more liberal War Powers Act.

Given funds to provide more stations with better equipment, the Bureau of Aeronautics was able to make sounder plans for the employment and training of personnel. For example Byrd's expedition to the Poles, from which much had been learned, could be supplemented by other cold-weather operations, in a foretaste of what aircraft are doing in that way as this is written. As early as 1931 the Langley and her pilots have shown that carrier operations were entirely practicable during the New England winter, and in the succeeding three years naval aircraft cooperated with the Weather Bureau in studying the climate of the Aleutian Islands. Squadrons of planes from the Ranger had similar winter experience out of Buffalo, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, in preparation for their work in Alaskan waters during January and February, 1936. Meanwhile, more information about the weather was drawn from studies of typhoons off Shanghai, from flights off an especially equipped weather ship at Guam, the Gold Star, from searches into the upper strata of the air by planes from San Diego, and by balloons based on battleships and cruisers. The information gleaned from all these efforts was combined profitably with what came of a study of wind-gust velocities conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under a contract with the Bureau of Aeronautics.

Naval aviators continued to supply the Navy's Hydrographic Office, the Geological Survey, the Treasury, and other governmental agencies with the data drawn from photographic reconnaissances and from aerial mapping, even while they themselves were getting invaluable experience in the special techniques required and also in the proper methods of establishing and maintaining advanced bases for aircraft. Similarly good results followed from their studies, in collaboration with the Army Air Corps, the Bureau of Air Commerce, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of that perennial problem for the aviator, fog and its possible dispersion.

With knowledge gained in so many ways it became possible to take service models of the constantly improving planes on longer and longer flights. In 1934 two squadrons flew nonstop from San  p289 Diego to Coco Solo, and from there made one hop of it to Guantánamo. VP-10F picked up new P2Y-1 planes in Norfolk and ferried them to Pearl Harbor by way of Coco Solo, San Diego, and San Francisco; a demonstration of mobility not lost on those in the Navy Department who were studying war plans. In these years the emphasis was laid on distances flown on regular missions rather than on what might be accomplished by special types such as those that had been produced in the twenties.

Every bit of what was learned in these various ways found its application in that most important of the work of the pilots, flying with the Fleet during exercises and war games, when every day had its lesson for those who wore the wings, for those who bore a hand in maintaining and launching the planes, and for those who watched them from the bridges of ships. It was these exercises that brought out the inability of existing carrier aircraft, because the range was too short and their load capacity too small, to do all that would be expected of them in the near future as bombs grew heavier. Again, through demonstrations of the difficulties experienced by both battleships and cruisers in expeditiously handling their planes, these exercises emphasized the need for more small carriers. Particularly, as the use of patrol planes became wider, it was in the exercises that the lack of proper tenders became glaring, but even as late as 1936 this lack had been met only by converting the Langley into a tender and, a little later, converting a few destroyers of World War I type. What was needed and recommended by the General Board was a special type of 20‑knot ship of about 5,000 tons, but of relatively light draft, equipped with large gas tanks and ample magazines and supplied with boats able to leave the ship and repair planes as they lay upon the water.

Still another conclusion drawn from the Fleet exercises applied to airships and struck what amounted to their death blow. The Macon, sister of the Akron and commissioned on June 23, 1933, not long after the latter was lost, did a little scouting with the Fleet and some excellent reporting of weather conditions. In contact with the "enemy," however, she was invariably "destroyed" by air attacks which her defending planes were unable to repel, and this was duly noted by Adm. David F. Sellers, Commander in Chief during that year and the next. Summarizing her efforts, the admiral described himself as "unaware of any conditions based either upon the record . . . of the Macon," or upon any other experience with airships, justifying further expenditure for them, an opinion  p290 fully confirming that of Schofield and others. King, for the Bureau of Aeronautics, suggested that the metal-clad airships then in the design stage, if stepped up to a speed of 100 knots and equipped to use gas fuel, would prove more useful, and he recommended that six of these be built. The General Board, in its turn, amended earlier pronouncements upon naval policy on rigids by recommending their development with an eye to their value for commercial purposes, while nonrigids were employed to train personnel. A proposal that the Macon, in the meantime, be used for long-range patrol flights came to little because before she had been in service for two years altogether a structural failure brought her down off Point Sur, California where she sank on February 12, 1935, and was lost. Fortunately all but two of her crew were saved.

After this disaster the Secretary of the Navy requested a new study of dirigibles, which was completed in January, 1936, by a group of distinguished scientists headed by Dr. W. F. Durand and including R. A. Millikan, Theodor von Karman, William Hovgaard, Stephen Timoshenko, Alfred V. de Forest, Frank B. Jewett, and Charles F. Kettering. These gentlemen did not pause to decide whether or not a rigid airship had military value; they assumed that value and then expressed "the unanimous opinion . . . that the best interest of the services . . . both commercial and naval, requires a continuing program of construction and use." This led to plans for all sizes up to 10,000,000‑cubic‑foot capacity, some prepared in the Bureau of Aeronautics, some under naval contracts with the Daniel Guggenheim Airship Institute at Akron. Notwithstanding the adverse reports of four successive commanders in chief, the General Board then presented its own report, noting all the possibilities of scouting by airships able to make far higher speed than carriers and able to carry and launch their own planes, but also admitting their vulnerability. For commercial use in peacetime and for conversion to war purposes, the board recommended building another rigid of 3,000,000 cubic feet, and for this Congress eventually appropriated $500,000. Her plans and specifications were duly prepared, but since she was never built it remained for the Los Angeles, recommissioned after the loss of the Akron, to play a lone hand in rigids. Other progress in the lighter-than‑air was limited to the nonrigids, one of these being the Defender, bought from Goodyear in 1935, redesignated the G‑1, and used for training with such success that seven others like her were built for World War II. Similarly, the TC-13 and TC-14, nonrigids  p291 taken over from the Army in 1937, became the nucleus of a war squadron, while two other types, bought "as is" from Goodyear and modified, became the L‑1 and the K‑3. The latter is of particular interest because she included all the improvements since World War I that had stood the test of time. Her car, suspended internally, was a frame of welded steel, thinly covered with aluminum alloy and streamlined, as were the outriggers and the cells. Her fuel tanks were built into the car above the control tanks and her bombs, carried beneath the car floor, could be released through bay doors like those on planes. With all these improvements, and a retractable landing gear, she became the model for a whole fleet of nonrigids that would see active war service.

From the moment when it became apparent that the Vinson-Trammell Bill was likely to become law, it had been clear that the material expansion to be authorized by the bill must greatly intensify the shortage of aviation personnel. Under existing law, the limit on commissioned officers of the whole Navy was so low that it did not permit the commissioning of more than one half of the class graduating at the Academy in 1933, leaving the other half to be discharged and sent home. With all branches of the Navy inadequately supplied with officers, it would be harder than ever to get candidates for aviation training, as Moffett not long before his death had taken pains to point out to the Bureau of Navigation. A board, duly convened in that Bureau, had recommended legislation to permit commissioning an entire graduating class and at the same time to make subsequent classes larger by increasing congressional appointments from 4 to 5. Failing such legislation, said the board, there should at least be such as would allow midshipmen due to be discharged on graduation to accept commissions in the reserve provided they volunteered for aviation. This was considered better than bringing other reserves back to active duty, a step opposed by the board on the ground that it might result in a whole corps of specialists in flying who were untrained in other naval duties, and on the further ground that too many reserves might exert political pressure to keep themselves on active duty indefinitely. Finally, the board's recommendations included one that many of the naval aviators then on duty as observers aboard battleships and cruisers could be returned to pilot duties if more officers, to the number of about 70, were trained to replace them as observers.

In general agreement with this board, Moffett had added some  p292 recommendations of his own. Remarking that numerous graduates of the Naval Academy assigned to aviation had been found to be below the physical standards of the Bureau of Aeronautics, he had proposed that the Academy's standards be raised. Next, he had suggested that all ensigns and lieutenants, junior grade, in the Navy, who could meet the physical requirements, be "urged, but not compelled" to take flight training. Finally, he had asked for the establishment of a training status for student aviators from the Naval Reserve which would put them on a par with the Army's flying cadets and would allow for three years' active duty with the Fleet instead of only one. He had proposed a three-year limit because he held the longer service might stimulate agitation for transfer to the regular Navy, new arguments for a naval air corps or fresh outcries for an entirely separate air force.

The Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, in his turn, had proposed modifying Moffett's three years of active duty for reserves to two years, but after consulting the superintendent of the Naval Academy he had disapproved any raising of the physical requirements for midshipmen. With these modifications the matter had been submitted to Congress, with the result that the Vinson-Trammell Act had authorized the recall as ensigns of any of the class of 1933 who wanted to come back after their discharge and who proved to be still physically qualified, and also authorized commissioning the entire class of 1934. Upon this the Bureau of Navigation requested appropriations to cover the training during the school year of 1936, of 328 reserve pilots in addition to those already provided for by law.

A particular reason why remedial legislation was needed could be found in the depressing effect of a recent modification in the laws governing selection for promotion in the regular Navy. By this change selection was carried down into both grades of lieutenant, with the provision that officers not promoted in these grades might be involuntarily retired after 30 years of service, including those at the Naval Academy, totaled anything from 8 to 14 years. This made young men who were thinking of going into aviation uneasy lest they find themselves, after winning their wings as pilots, regarded by selection boards as not fully qualified in seagoing duties, unfit for promotion, and therefore facing involuntary retirement. Even when these laws were amended to give those not selected an additional period of six years and each of the lieutenant grades, not enough lift in morale resulted among those who had the  p293 commendable ambition of one day reaching a high command. They looked upon the act of June 5, 1935, which established "Aeronautical Engineering Duty Only" to supplement the "Engineering Duty Only" provided by earlier laws, with suspicion and many preferred to cling to "the Line" rather than go into aviation and sacrifice all chance of becoming battleship captains or admirals. As added discouragement Naval Aviation, at the very moment when it needed more officers, was actually losing them through another action by the Bureau of Navigation, taken for reasons which are now not altogether clear. This was the transfer to other duties of a number of warrant officers who had been in aviation for years, many of them as naval aviators, many of them as aviation pilots, all of them of great value because of their solid background of practical, technical knowledge. This was just as upsetting to plans for proper administration as was the continuing problem of getting officers assigned to higher aviation posts; a complicated matter because those fully qualified by flying experience were frequently regarded by the Bureau of Navigation as of insufficient seniority in their grades to justify their assignment. Since the Bureau of Navigation issued all orders to officers, that bureau invariably had the last word.

Meanwhile the Federal Aviation Commission, created by the Air Mail Act of June 12, 1934, had been directed by Congress to survey the national situation in aviation, including the state of both the Army and the Navy. In its findings that commission did not recommend any merger of all air forces but proposed that reserves for the armed forces be increased in numbers and be ordered to active duty for periods of three years. Even had existing laws permitted this, however, there would have been no great enthusiasm for it among the reserves themselves. The Naval Reserve at that moment was nursing a grudge based upon the fact that, among all of its former members who had transferred to the regular Navy after World War I, only 19 had been advanced by the most recent Selection Board. This grudge was not removed when King pointed out that the percentage of former reserves advanced in Naval Aviation had been greater than the percentage in any other branch; instead, it merely added to the grumbling over the lack of recognition of reserves on inactive duty, as indicated by the lack of appropriations for their proper peacetime training.

At the end of 1934 King again brought forward the proposal that aviation cadets be authorized. This time he secured the support  p294 of President Roosevelt, and early in 1935 Congress passed the authorizing act. Under it, graduates of recognized universities and colleges between the ages of 18 and 28 became eligible for one year of training followed by three years of active duty, with a rank just above that of warrant officer, just below that of ensign in the Navy or second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. During training they were to be paid $75 a month, with a subsistence allowance of one dollar a day, insurance of $10,000 on which the Navy paid the premium, and free uniforms. On active duty their monthly pay was raised to $125, with one grant of $250 for uniforms; and upon discharge they were to receive a bonus of $1500. In return, they must remain single during the four years, and although they were not required on discharge to accept commissions as ensigns in the Naval Reserve, it was expected that they would do so.

Under this law it became the established policy to seek out those who had been members of some unit of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, or those who had completed a recognized course in aeronautical engineering, but anyone who had attended an army or naval flying school and failed to qualify was not considered acceptable. As recruiting began, it was soon apparent that 18 years was too young and the minimum age was accordingly raised to 20 years. All those chosen were enrolled as seamen, second class, under the so‑called V‑5 program for the Reserve, and put through an elimination course in‑flight training after which the successful men were appointed cadets and sent to Pensacola for about one year of intensive instruction before going out to the Fleet. When the commandant of each Naval District was given his quota and begin recruiting, it was soon discovered that the best material was to be found among men of about 25. By July, 1935, 55 had been enrolled and of these, within another year, 50 were at sea.

On the whole they were enthusiastically welcomed afloat. Some of the top commanders were inclined to deplore their lack of general training, especially because unfamiliarity with gunnery made them less able observers than the regulars who had grown up in the Navy; but it is difficult to see how anything else could be expected of such a high pressure system, and they did meet the essential requirements that they be good pilots. To make up deficiencies in general seagoing knowledge, courses of study and training were carried on aboard ship in gunnery, engineering, and other branches; courses so successful that the commander in chief, well pleased with the performance of the cadets, recommended their assignment to  p295 battleships and cruisers as well as to all other aviation billets. Thus, although the V‑5 program had originally been intended merely as a temporary step on the way to building up a flying arm of regular officers, within a year the Bureau of Aeronautics put itself on record as ready to "accept the Aviation Cadet as a permanent fixture . . . to compose about 45 per cent of the Naval Aviators," because there appeared to be "little prospect of meeting . . . requirements from regular service sources." The continued increase in the number of planes and the amount of equipment combined to make it more than ever necessary to spread the regulars very thinly through the squadrons attached to the Fleet.

In the fall of 1936 the Bureau of Navigation proposed that the tour of active duty for a cadet be reduced from four years to two, with the privilege of volunteering to serve the other two years. The Bureau of Aeronautics was at first in favor of this change on the ground that it would stimulate enthusiasm for the corps among young civilians, but as it became apparent that authority for expanding the annual enrollment was not likely to be obtained, the bureau reversed its stand and Navigation accordingly did not press for the change.

This was about the time when King completed his tour as chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and went back to the fleet as Commander Aircraft, Base Force. Once afloat, he could see at first hand what an important part the cadets were playing and feel satisfied that he had made no mistakes in pushing their organization. Presently he would discover how much could be done both for the Navy and for the cadets themselves by modifications of the original plan, and he prepared to cooperate fully with those who followed him in Washington to bring about these changes.

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