As a result of catching a little sleep during the 'Loot's' lectures on Navy Regulations, I was entirely at a loss when it came to the finer points, such as how to report to Admiral Griffin, Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, upon my arrival in Washington. Although I had passed my flying tests and had been recommended for promotion to the rank of Ensign, the actual ceremony of being sworn in had not yet taken place. I had a suit of 'whites' and a sword and finally decided to report in these without shoulder straps or insignia. After waiting for some time outside the Admiral's office and being gazed upon by many three and four stripers passing by, I was finally ushered in to present my credentials.
The Admiral, whose hair and beard were as white as his uniform, was sitting at a long mahogany desk in his office in the State, War and Navy Building, with windows looking down upon the White House across the street. On the walls were oil paintings of former Chiefs of Bureau; one of these, by the way, was Captain Cone, at that time in charge of Naval Aviation in European waters. There were models of battleships and destroyers, turbines and reciprocating engines, pumps and propellers and all kinds p272of units that comprised the power plants of past and present fighting craft.
There was an air of stern dignity in that office that made a deep impression on me, and no less dignified and distinguished was the man in charge. He looked at me with a rather kindly smile that made me feel much better, and asked me to sit down. After answering a few general questions, I was instructed to report to Commander A. K. Atkins in charge of the Aviation Division. The Admiral then proceeded to tell me that black shoes were never worn with 'whites'; that I was dressed as an officer who had been dishonorably discharged, all my insignia being removed, and that my first assignment was to become clothed in accordance with the Regulations of the United States Navy.
That afternoon I reported with white shoes, shoulder straps, etc., to Commander Atkins, who took me around the Navy Department and introduced me to various officers of the Aviation of the other Bureaus. By the end of the day I had discovered that the Navy Department was organized on a functional basis, there being six Bureaus reporting to a staff organization called the Office of Chief of Naval Operations. There were so many members of our Unit who were not familiar with the internal functions of the Navy Department, that it may be of interest for those men to know something of it. The Bureaus and their particular functions were as follows:
Navigation — Supervision over all personnel and nautical matters including navigation charts, the Naval Observatory and nautical instruments.
Construction and Repair — Design construction; maintenance of hulls of vessels and aircraft, the management of Navy Yards; the model basin and wind-tunnel laboratories.
Steam Engineering — Design, construction and maintenance of all power plant apparatus afloat and ashore; p273supervision of the power plant testing laboratories and experimental stations.
Ordnance — Design, construction and maintenance of armament and ammunition and supervision over proving grounds.
Yards and Docks — Design, construction and maintenance of all buildings, yards, docks, hangars, etc.
Supplies and Accounts — Supervision over finances, purchase orders, contracts, payrolls, Naval Stores, etc.
The office of the Chief of Naval Operations planned the work to be done by the various Bureaus, the positioning of the fleet and air stations and the carrying out of a program from a purely administrative viewpoint.
Each Bureau in turn was comprised of divisions and at the time of my arrival in Washington, Naval Aviation had assumed enough importance for two Bureaus and Naval Operations to organize Aviation Divisions. What little work the other Bureaus had in connection with aviation was being done by the regular staff in addition to their customary duties. The personnel of these aviation divisions was as follows: Operations had three naval officers, Captain Irwin, Commander Towers and Lieutenant Commander Johnson and two reserve officers, 'Tobey' Balch and 'Les' Jacobs. Construction and Repair had two naval officers, Commanders Westervelt and Hunsacker, and two civilians (later commissioned), Carl Lohman and Howard Luther. Steam Engineering had one officer, Commander Atkins. A good many of the men in our Unit at one time or another came in contact with all of these men who were endeavoring at that time to formulate and carry out a program for Naval Aviation which, at the beginning of September, 1917, consisted of training several hundred aviators, organizing training stations, supplying equipment, etc.
The Navy at that time had completed or had under contract, about 150 planes and 250 engines, with little p274hope of any further expansion for lack of financial appropriation by Congress. There were two official stations, Pensacola and Bay Shore, and three semi-official, Hampton Roads, Buffalo, and Huntington, the latter two about to close. Bay Shore was just beginning and several men of our Unit were assigned there for duty as instructors. Construction of hangars at Miami was just begun and plans were under way for the ground school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Naval Aviation was waiting on the General Board of the Navy (a sort of Board of Directors composed of retired Naval Officers) to determine what part in the War we were to play. It was common knowledge that the General Board was very badly divided as to the value of aircraft at that time. One member, I was informed from a reliable source, even went so far as to state that the lighthouse service was more important!
Naval Aviation continued in this state until December, 1917. During the first few months in Washington I found myself busy learning the ropes, following up contracts, corresponding with the stations as to their requirements for supplies and spare parts, getting out forms for the stations to use in reporting conditions of the engines, propellers, radiators, tanks, pumps, instruments, so as to keep advised of the changes in designs which were required and what quantity of parts should be on hand. My greatest problem at that time was the supply of spare parts. The manufacturers of engines and other units were busy turning out completed planes under their contracts. Spare parts were left to one side. This trouble continued to be serious throughout the whole War. The only solution which I could find was to contract with an independent manufacturer for the production of spare parts. This was tried out on a small scale and proved to be very successful. At the end of the War the Navy Department p275had a complete automobile manufacturing concern doing nothing but making spare parts. This required a good deal of attention and when one stops to realize that there were over one thousand different parts in an aeronautical engine, most of which required extremely accurate machine work, some idea may be obtained of the task. At the same time it was necessary to find trained inspectors.
It soon became evident that we needed assistance in our office. From this time until the end of the War not only our office, but all of the other Divisions, including the other Bureaus, which subsequently established Aviation Divisions, grew by leaps and bounds. In November, 1918, there were over fifty officers in the Aviation Division of the Bureau of Steam Engineering. My immediate superior, Commander Atkins, was made a member of the Aircraft Production Board and the Army and Navy Technical Board. These two organizations played a very important part in connection with aviation during the War.
The first mentioned Board was organized to standardize production of aircraft. For instance, the spars and struts of an airplane are made of spruce of the very best grade. The Army at that time was planning a tremendous production of airplanes and it was thought possible that the Navy might do likewise. Spruce, therefore, was required in unheard‑of quantities. It was the duty of the Aircraft Production Board to arrange for the supply. This resulted in a most elaborate organization called Forestry Service which handled the purchase, cutting, drying and transportation of the spruce from the standing timber in Oregon and Canada to the aircraft factories in the East. There were many other materials required in a similar manner. Another duty of the Board was to select various industrial shops for the manufacture of the different units or parts of aircraft and to allocate to these shops orders for the particular part for which they were best fitted.
p276 The greatest problem as far as aviation was concerned at the time we entered the war, was that of the engine. We were untrained in all phases of design and construction. The European nations were three or four years ahead of us — three or four years of bitter experience and hard work. To copy the planes of the British, French or Italian design was not a difficult task in itself. These could be produced by us, if the materials could be supplied. In other words, it did not require great skill to build a good plane from a structural standpoint, given the design to work on. The problem of production was the engine. The only successful aircraft engine which this country had produced was the Curtiss 100 horse-power OXX type used almost entirely by the Army and Navy in the training planes. Engines for fighting planes varied according to the type of plane, from 180 to 400 horse-power.
There were two courses which we could pursue; to pick out several of the best European engines and endeavor to produce them in large quantities, or design a new engine and risk the troublesome period of perfecting. The European engines were not very numerous, only a comparatively small number of each design having been produced. Each engine was a mechanism in itself, a hand-made instrument without the advantage of interchanging of parts with another engine of the same make.
The skilled labor in this country was of a different type. In our automobile factories, for instance, a man becomes an expert in turning out piston pins, but that man cannot be classed as a master mechanic, nor could he be given responsibility in assembling an entire aeronautical engine. Whereas hundreds of men in this country had worked on an assembled engine, in Europe very few men are used, the variety of their work being much broader. With this in mind the Aircraft Board decided that it would be wiser to attempt to build an engine fitted to American production p277methods. The problem was placed before Mr. Vincent and Mr. Hall, and several other well-known automotive engineers who worked day and night on the design of an entirely new engine. In an attempt to materially reduce the weight per horse-power, many radical departures were made from the so‑called standard practices. Cylinders which were usually machined from gray-iron castings were made up of bulldozed steel tubing, the magneto being discarded for the generator-battery type ignition.
In twenty-seven days the first Liberty engine made a test run at the Bureau of Standards in Washington. Its performance was remarkable, its weight a little over two pounds per horse-power, considerably less than any other water cooled engine which had been built up to that time. It produced 400 horse-power at 1600 revolutions per minute. By the process of perfection during the War, the horse-power was finally increased to about 440.
Several days after this first test, cards of admission were issued to various Army officers, several British, French, Italian engineers who were in this country to assist in carrying out the aircraft program and Commander Atkins and myself. Among the men present was the Chief Engineer of the Rolls-Royce Company, and of all the witnesses, he was the most enthusiastic. This was particularly gratifying, as, at that time, and in fact for the duration of the War, the Rolls-Royce Aircraft engine, with the exception of the Liberty, was undoubtedly by far the best engine turned out.
The fault of the Rolls-Royce lay in its inadaptability to production methods. Its parts were so accurately fitted that the British Air Ministry did not permit any repairs to be made on these engines at the flying-fields. Every engine was sent back to the Rolls-Royce shops in England for overhauling.
p278 The Liberty engine was running its first tests in the early fall of 1917, and by the end of 1918 was a serious competitor of the Rolls-Royce for first honors. In my office there were statistics of performances of over eight thousand engines. These two designs were far ahead of any other in reliability, the Rolls-Royce having a somewhat better record. I mention this because I have heard criticisms of the Liberty engine from many sources, principally Army men, which were entirely unjustified.
From the time this first engine was produced to the end of the War, I was constantly in touch with its developments. As was anticipated, faults appeared in design and construction. First there was trouble with the crankshaft; failures next occurred in the weakest link after previous defects had been corrected.
The first flight of the Liberty engine was made by President Theodore Roosevelt at Mineola with Liberty engine No. 3. Liberty engine No. 2 at that time was being installed in an H‑S‑1 in Buffalo for the Navy and I believe that Dave McCulloch and I made the second flight with a Liberty, which, by the way, ended in breaking a crankshaft somewhere out over Lake Erie. In looking over my orders I find I was in Buffalo October 10, 1917, which I believe to be the date of this flight.
Fortunately there were very few alterations necessary to adapt the Liberty engine for Navy use, the main change being the use of the lower compression pistons. Therefore, as far as the Navy was concerned, we depended on the Aircraft Production Board to apportion sufficient engines from their program for our use. This materially reduced the work and responsibility of our Division.
There were many other parts of the power plant to be considered, however. We were not only unskilled in the manufacture of engines, but also of propellers, radiators, etc. During the fall of 1917 and 1918 many tests were p279made. A good many of these were performed in the Aeronautical Engine Testing Laboratory at the Navy Yard, under our supervision. Commander Atkins put me in charge of this work which at that time had just begun. The great problem of the engine being eliminated, we concentrated on the smaller units of the power plant. The design and construction of these various parts for the small training planes were fairly well known to us, but when we increased the horse-power of the engines from 100 to 400, a new and very extensive study of the requirements was necessary. The propellers, for instance, were being made of mahogany. The supply of this wood was limited and it was necessary, therefore, to ascertain the values of other woods and processes of manufacture, such as kiln-drying, methods of lamination, properties of glues, hub construction, the fitting of copper tips and endless details.
The heaviest unit of the power plant, other than the engine, was the radiator. During our training at Palm Beach and Huntington, we had had very little trouble with radiators. For the 100 horse-power engines there was no particular need to save weight. If we had adopted the old design for the Liberty engine, the radiator would have weighed •three or four hundred pounds. The radiator which we finally adopted for the big boats was approximately the same size and weight we used in our training planes at Palm Beach.
To this laboratory were submitted test models — everything connected with the power plant from luminous dials for instruments to leak‑proof gasoline tanks. In December, 1917, I was relieved from this additional duty and the laboratory was turned over to 'Fay' Taylor, Yale 1916S. I was fortunate in having a man whom I knew could be relied upon to take over this work. The good results of his efforts, however, like those of many others p280who spent their time in the early part of the War perfecting devices for use at the front, never manifested themselves in the field, because of the Armistice.
As I recall, it was early in December, 1917, that Admiral Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, at that time on an inspection trip abroad, cabled to the Department to begin at once on an extensive program of Naval Aviation. As it later developed, he and Admiral Sims had practically agreed to take over from the Allies and to increase materially the aircraft patrol around the British Isles and along the coast of France. This required the establishment of twenty-four Naval Air Stations to be in operation by August 1, 1918. Two of these stations, Queenstown and Pauillac, were assembly bases for the rest which were located principally on the coast of France and Ireland.
The experience of the British and French in the use of aircraft for submarine patrol had eliminated the pontoon type of plane. The British had obtained the best results with a large twin engine flying-boat originally designed by Curtiss, whereas the French had used a single engine boat almost exclusively. Fortunately the Navy had used in the experimental stages both single and double engine flying-boats which, when finally perfected, were called the HS‑2 and the H‑16. For these two types orders were placed with various manufacturers for about six thousand planes, to be delivered in the early summer of 1918. This was extremely short time to get into production on new types of aircraft in such quantities.
During the winter months of 1917 the Allies and the War and Navy Departments were evidently very much disturbed at the tremendous loss to shipping inflicted by German submarines. There were several million men to be transported with all the necessary equipment and it was considered advisable to give precedence in all matters of apportionment to those branches of the service which were p281to combat the submarine warfare. As a result, Naval Aviation was overnight given a program to carry out requiring many thousands of men and great quantities of material with priority over all other War matters.
It soon became evident that the Aviation Divisions of the various bureaus could not function properly through the regular channels of Navy Department organization. The system was too cumbersome to obtain quick action. As a result, weekly meetings were held by Captain Irwin, head of the Aviation Divisions of Naval Operations, at which all important matters were discussed between the heads of the Aviation Divisions and their immediate assistants. I recall several meetings with particular interest. The subject under discussion was the type of training planes to be used. Up to that time all the training planes of the Navy had been pontoon planes and unfortunately all of the regular Navy men in the Aviation Service had learned to fly on this type of machine. They were naturally somewhat prejudiced against the flying-boat as the type of plane to be adopted in training the Reserve Officers. The program, however, for Naval Aviation required the use of large flying-boats, which brought up this question whether it would not be better to train pilots in the smaller boats such as the 'F' boat which we had used at Palm Beach and Huntington.
Another objection to the adoption of the small boats was made by the Bureau of Construction and Repair which had never designed a flying-boat and had no drawings available to turn over to the manufacturers for the commencement of a production program. The Curtiss Company had manufactured very few of the so‑called 'F' type flying-boats, each one being somewhat different from the one preceding, and, therefore, had no complete set of drawings. This made the problem quite difficult, as training planes were needed far in advance of the big p282boats for patrol duty and we were really further along with the design of patrol planes than we were with our training program.
Among the various Aviation Divisions I was the only officer who had learned to fly in a boat, and therefore considered it my duty to argue for the training of pilots for overseas duties in this type of plane. The various officers with flying experience agreed that it was more logical, but in view of the many obstructions and objections they were hesitant about attempting to build this type of plane for training purposes. The Bureau of Construction and Repair was very strongly opposed to small boats for training and used as one of their arguments for dropping the idea that it would take three months to make drawings and another three months to get into production, which of course, if true, precluded the use of this type of seaplane. I insisted that the Bureau of Construction and Repair was mistaken in their estimate of time and stated that it would require only sixty days to turn out complete 'F' boats. The meeting was forthwith adjourned with instructions to every one from Captain Irwin to report further and with particular instructions to me to show how these planes could be turned out in sixty days.
It was my plan to employ a number of draftsmen and photographers, disassemble one of the best 'F' boats which we had used at Huntington and make drawings and scaled photographs of the various parts. This would require about two weeks, but during that time boat-builders such as Hereshoff, Jacobs, and others of that class could be lined up for the building of the hulls; woodworking shops near the location of a general assembly plant for such work as spars, struts, etc., sailmakers for the fabric parts.
At the next meeting this scheme was laid before Captain p283Irwin, but during the intervening period the Bureau of Construction and Repair had succeeded in inducing the Curtiss Company with their new plant at Garden City to build the 'F' boats, with a promised delivery in sixty days. My work, however, along these lines was not altogether wasted, for it started a new thought in connection with the manufacturing in large quantities of the flying-boats to be used abroad. A few months later ground was broken at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for the Naval Aircraft factory, a purely assembly plant. In this shop the various parts which were manufactured by concerns all over the country were assembled into H‑16s and later F‑5‑Ls. It might be of interest to those who were not familiar with this part of the work to know that companies like the Victor Talking Machine Co. turned out the struts and spars for these large planes.
An F‑5 L
The entire program for Naval Aviation was in full swing by the spring of 1918 with 6000 planes and 9000 power plants ordered. New training schools were being added on the Atlantic coast and several on Pacific, finally reaching a total of twenty-four in the United States. Progress in manufacturing was fairly satisfactory, considering the many handicaps of the first months of the War and it seemed to us in Washington that we would have most of the stations operating with a few planes at least, by August 1st.
A new idea which involved somewhat of a change in program was rapidly gaining ground in Aviation circles abroad in the spring of 1918 and Lieutenant E. O. McDonnell was ordered to Washington by Admiral Sims to lay out this additional work for the Navy. The first program for twenty-four patrol stations was very much of a defensive measure against submarine warfare. The new plan, however, was offensive. Twelve squadrons of bombing planes were to be concentrated at the front to p284carry on continuous bombing — day and night — of the submarine bases at Ostend, Bruges and Zeebrugge.
Practically all the German activity was concentrated at these three bases and the results of one British Handley-Page squadron had fully justified the extension of this offensive campaign. 'Eddie' McDonnell, who was picked to do the missionary work, succeeded in convincing the authorities in Washington of the advisability of proceeding along these new lines in addition to the old program and was put in charge of the organization to assemble in the United States, pilots and planes.
I was assigned to an additional duty in the spring of 1918 as a member of the 'Heavier-than‑Air' Test Board. Our duties consisted of flying various types of planes and reporting the results of the various tests which we gave such as climb, speed, maneuverability, carrying capacity, consumption, etc. This work was very interesting and fortunately I had good company on the Board in Dave McCulloch, and our many trips over various week-ends broke up the monotony of office routine in Washington and helped keep my hand at flying.
In July, 1918, when our many patrol stations were assembling men and material to commence operations the Assistant Secretary, Mr. F. D. Roosevelt, and several Congressmen were making an inspection trip through Europe. It was not long before they recognized that Naval Aviation was far behind its schedule. A great mass of aeronautical material had arrived, but to assemble it into useful planes was a different matter. Every one at the stations was anxious to get started on patrol work and sink submarines. The enthusiasm was at the peak, but we back in Washington had failed to deliver the goods.
Out of the complement of twenty-four planes for patrol with the requisite number of spares each station had only two or three in operation on August first. Cables began p285to arrive complaining of the situation. As the days went by and matters remained chaotic Naval Aviation as a whole became discouraged. There was 'passing the buck' all around, not only in Washington, but in Europe too. The situation became critical and finally Mr. Roosevelt called a Board of Inquiry.
In the latter part of August I sailed on the Mauretania together with Commanders Smeed, Westervelt and Lieutenant-Commander Pickering to make a survey of the situation for the purpose of correcting the faults and locating the guilty parties.
Arriving in London we reported to Captain Cone, Chief of Naval Aviation in European Waters. He explained the situation to us from his standpoint and then sent us on our way. Our first stop was Killingholme, England, where Commander Whiting was getting ready to do some long distance bombing in the North Sea. Here we found the great difficulty to be with the radiators, for which my own office was responsible. The solder was 'no good.' Next stop was Queenstown, then Bantry Bay, Wexford, and Loch Foyle. The difficulties at these stations seemed to be in the structure of the planes. The shipments were evidently handled in transit very badly and arrived in a deplorable state. From here we crossed the Channel into France and visited Brest. Propellers were a bugaboo here. I found in the course of the investigation that the consignment of propellers was aboard a lighter which sank and was later raised. As a result the propellers would not stay together.
The next station complained of the bombs. They would not go off. Nothing that they could do would make the bombs explode. We found that a large shipment of condemned bombs were sent over — how it happened the Armistice prevented us from finding out. So we went from station to station, locating a new trouble at every stop.
p286 I was fortunate in having friends. At each new station I visited I found one of the Unit to tell me the truth. It was not very nice to hear about, but at least I could depend on my information and was not misled by the bureaucratic politics which exist at all Navy stations whether on land or at sea.
At the conclusion of our trip to all the air stations I had made up my mind very thoroughly of one thing, that there was no one bureau or division responsible for the troubles. We had attempted to accomplish in eight months a feat which under the best of circumstances would require a year. All of us were at fault in one sense, the bureaus in Washington, the Division Commanders, the Commanding Officers and all their subordinates. We all made mistakes and those mistakes were due to ignorance and inexperience. In looking back in calm reflection it is inconceivable to me now how those men at those little French Air Stations had any planes in commission before the end of the war. And it is just as inconceivable to realize that beginning in December, 1917, with no accepted engine design, no determined type of aircraft, no experience in building either power plant or plane, with manufacturing conditions the worst we have ever known, we had practically one full complement of planes in Europe by September, 1918.
When I arrived at Dunkirk 'Di' Gates was there conducting his special tours to the front. Ken Smith, George Moseley and myself persuaded him to let us steal the station Ford when he was not looking. We finally landed in the first line trenches out in front of Ypres, much to the surprise of a Scottish regiment who didn't know whether we were German prisoners dolled up or Portuguese Marines. They finally got the Colonel, who sized us up for what we were and then turned to and showed us the p287works. We had a great day and saw what we had all read about, but to which no author could do justice.
Just before leaving we were told that an offensive was to start the next morning. Going home that night after dark we thought all Europe was moving to the front. As it turned out it was the beginning of the drive that ended in the evacuation of Belgium by the Germans.
About a week later I had another opportunity to go to the front; it was then at Ghent, many miles east. In going up I stopped at Ostend and saw the submarine bases and the defenses which the Germans had built up. The Vindictive was lying in the channel riddled with shells. Some weeks later I had the good fortune to return to the States on the ship with Captain Carpenter, her commander, and heard in a personal way his experiences in blowing up the mole at Zeebrugge.
A few miles further we came to Bruges and Zeebrugge and again had a wonderful opportunity to see the objectives of the Northern Bombing Group.
We had just completed our tour and had returned to London when the Armistice was signed and our work came to an end. It was a great personal disappointment to me to have our objective wiped out almost overnight after slaving for months and months with every bit of energy and brains that I had and with our program other than on the very surface really coming through. But personal pride was swallowed in a lump and I returned home to clean up on my work in Washington, rejoicing of course that the War was over.
I had seen a good deal and learned a good deal. One thing stood out above everything else as a lesson — Naval Aviation would never be efficient under the functional system of the Navy Department. Having seen the operation of the British Air Force and the not too encouraging results of combining the Army and Navy Air Services, I p288made up my mind that I was going to draw up a plan of organization of the Naval Air Service. Before leaving the service I submitted my plan for a Bureau of Aeronautics. Admiral Griffin was away at the time and it was forwarded by his Assistant, Captain Koester. Again I had the opportunity to see Navy politics in the raw. I did not intend to start anything by suggesting the combination of various Aviation Divisions in the Bureaus, but unfortunately for me at the moment my innocent report with argument and reasons for the change upset several of the elderly officers of the United States Navy. Lieutenant R. E. Byrd was largely responsible for the passage of the bill creating the Bureau of Aeronautics, and for this he has my deepest admiration.
In leaving the Navy Department I had many calls to make to pay my respects to the men with whom I had been in close contact since August, 1917. Eight of the ten original men in the Department were still there. In particular I was anxious to say good‑bye to Commander Towers. He gave me a message that day to the members of the Unit which I delivered at our first annual dinner. I think it should be recorded again: 'Please tell the men in your Unit that they have been the very back-bone of Naval Aviation. They have been assigned to every branch of our Aviation Service and every man has left a record that we regular Navy men are proud of.'
1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:
(Ensign Graham Mauvel Brush.)
Period from 1 October, 1917, to 9 January, 1918:
Ensign Brush is an excellent officer, and is recommended for promotion to Lieutenant.
R. S. Griffin, R. Adm., U. S. N.,
Chief of Bureau of Steam Engineering
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 26 Feb 17