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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

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 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p142  Chapter XIII

The Record of Accomplishment

Toward the autumn of 1918 it had become evident that planning in Naval Aviation was well ahead of existing operational needs. A month later the obvious weakening of the enemy made it clear that these plans must be slowed down. In personnel, whereas the Navy had just agreed with the Selective Service Board that 15,000 drafted men should be allotted each month for all branches, it now appeared that it would be possible to end the war with volunteers and without drafting even one man. Pilot training, notably in the night-flying groups, was cut down in order to graduate not more than 200 pilots a month from all stations, while the ground school output was reduced by half, and no more officer candidates were enrolled. At the same time the material production program was slowed, especially in the manufacture of the HS‑2, the F‑5, and the trainer planes. Even so, there would be a very considerable final surplus in these types and also in the foreign planes owned by the Navy when the armistice was signed.

This "breather" allowed time for looking into some criticisms of the program, including comments made by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt after his visit to Europe in August, when he described as "scandalous" the lack of follow‑up from Washington and the evidence of improper inspection before material was shipped abroad. At the Navy Department's order Sims convened a board to "make a thorough investigation of past and present conditions as to the supply and shipment of all naval aircraft material and if unsatisfactory [determine] who or what is responsible." Accordingly Commanders Westervelt and Smead, with Lt. Comdr. Nelson Pickering, Lieut. J. S. Jones of the Pay Corps and Ens. Ralph S. Barnaby, met under instructions to visit all the bases in England, Ireland, and France. These officers had been serving as inspectors since August, 1918, but Sims now expanded their duties.

 p143  As the board very soon discovered, difficulties in carrying out the program had been legion and mistakes had been all too numerous. What might have been done more thoroughly, at less cost, under a long-view plan of preparedness, had been accomplished, to a greater or less degree, under the heavy pressure of emergency. Personnel had been rushed through training, and officers without any practical understanding of the Navy had found themselves, a few short weeks after they had been in civilian business not even within sight of the sea, pushed into responsible naval positions abroad. As the board would particularly note, the performance by these officers of their unfamiliar duties and the success with which they rose to their responsibilities were a very high tribute to their spirit and their adaptability. That a few made mistakes or failed in what was asked of them was no occasion for astonishment.

Very much the same comment applied with equal force to the enlisted personnel, thousands of whom found themselves lifted out of wheatfields in the center of the United States and landed on the edge of European towns whose inhabitants could not speak English but would do almost anything for an American dollar, a situation often demanding delicate handling. Other thousands who had known only enough about automobiles to drain a crankcase found themselves overhauling Liberty motors on which the lives of their shipmates might depend. Short handed and half trained as it had been, the enlisted personnel, too, had built up a fine record.

On the material side there had been vexatious delays, misunderstandings, and errors of omission and commission. Base construction, for example, had lagged because not enough civil engineers had been available as supervisors and because far less than enough skilled labor could be sent across the Atlantic. Any such careful planning as that which in World War II produced the highly effective construction battalions was almost wholly lacking in 1917. The best that could be done was a hurried muster of whatever talent was in sight at any given moment and an equally hurried dispatch of it overseas. The material was disorganized through hasty assembly at United States ports and over-rapid loading into vessels of which many were destined to be sunk by U‑boats and some to reach ports quite different from those to which their cargoes had been consigned. In the latter instances the material had then to be subjected to all the difficulties of European transportation systems disrupted by war.

This problem of delivering materials naturally applied particularly  p144 to all the spares required by Naval Aviation overseas. Crankshafts, propellers, starters, tachometers, and everything else went astray or, when delivered at their designed destination, proved to be unsuited to the planes and motors already there. Very often these planes and motors should have been on some other base at that moment. Even the bomb gear, finally delivered overseas in September, 1918, proved defective and had to be returned to the United States for rebuilding. Similar gears, on order in England, fell so far behind their delivery dates that American planes finally had to use French gear and French bombs.

Packaging, too, had been hurried and frequently marred by inexperience. Such an item, for example, as caustic soda, had been shipped in uncrated drums, causing frequent bursting with resulting loss of the soda and costly damage to other cargo. Storage facilities abroad had been inadequate, inventories had either been incomplete, or, because of the pressure of operations upon insufficient personnel, omitted altogether.

Viewed from a really critical angle the whole picture was not a pretty one, and the board did not hesitate to note all its dark shadows, easily discernible by hindsight when the pressure of a night raid or a dawn change of base had been removed. Nevertheless there stood out, at the center of the picture on which the eye must inevitably fall, the essential fact that Naval Aviation had made a very considerable contribution to the American effort to help win the war. Its 1,147 officers and 18,308 men in service overseas had taken part in and produced 22,000 flights. From its 20 patrol bases it had patrolled a total of 791,398 sea miles, not including the distances flown by United States pilots as part of Allied units. Finally, of the three men from his whole command recommended by Admiral Sims for the Congressional Medal of Honor two were naval aviators — Lt. Comdr. Artemus Gates, for a gallant rescue under fire of several British aviators shot down off Ostend;​a and Ens. C. H. Hamilton for a similar rescue of a fellow pilot shot down off Pola.

When the board's report was submitted to Admiral Sims, he forwarded it with comments which so fairly summarize all these matters that they seem worth quoting in full:

The Force Commander is strongly of the opinion that the organization of the U. S. Naval Aviation Force in Europe for which no precedent  p145 existed, was accomplished in a most efficient, energetic and expenditure manner. Organization on entirely new lines from those which had hitherto existed was required and promptly created. At every stage of this work definite plans were drawn up, submitted and carried out to the Force Commander's entire satisfaction insofar as was possible with the inadequate material and personnel at hand.

The Force Commander feels it incumbent upon himself to call attention to certain difficulties encountered in the organization of Naval Aviation in Europe and the following points are, therefore, set down, not in the spirit of criticism, but in order that future undertakings of a similar nature may not suffer from like causes:—

(a) Lack of a definite, pre‑arranged plan for the establishment of a Naval Aviation Force on Foreign Service.

(b) Lack of adequate personnel with special reference to commissioned officers in the early stage of organization. The number of regular officers in Europe was exceedingly small and, for this reason, but very few could be diverted from their regular stations and duties to assist those charged with the organization of the Naval Aviation Force. It was necessary to place inexperienced officers in positions of great responsibility. Many Reserve Officers were of inestimable value and brought to the work a zeal and intelligent interest which contributed largely to the results accomplished, and in many instances these officers were seriously handicapped by their exceedingly junior rank which made it difficult for them to engage success­fully with Foreign Officers of high rank with whom they found themselves officially associated. Every effort was made to have these officers promoted, but in the majority of cases our recommendations were not acted upon.

(c) Shortage of officers with business experience in the Supply Department, which was of paramount importance, both in shipping the materials from the United States and in the execution of the work in Europe. Experienced, qualified officers of previous training in Supply Department work should have been detailed for duty in handling Aviation material or capable men should have been selected from export shipping and trading business, enrolled as Reserve Officers, and put in charge of the following: contracts, tracing and receipt of railroad shipments, loading of vessels in the United States and of the corresponding duties in Europe.

(d) Transportation difficulties abroad which were accentuated by the enemy drive in 1918 to an unexpected and unavoidable degree.

 p146  (e) Insufficient training of the flying personnel sent from the United States, which imposed upon Naval Aviation, Foreign Service, the additional duty of further training this personnel in order to make them available for war flights.

In summation, the Force Commander desires to emphasize his appreciation of the valuable duty performed by Captain H. I. Cone, U. S. Navy, in having organized and operated the U. S. Naval Aviation Force, Foreign Service.

Completed by this endorsement of the admiral's, the report was handed to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in December, 1918. Through some mishap this original was lost and the carbon copy then sent from Europe did not reach the Secretary of the Navy until March, 1919. It then bore the further forwarding endorsement of Captain McKean, still the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, who remarked that Admiral Sims' comment applied equally well "to the work that had to be accomplished in the Department under the Director of Naval Aviation in the way of new organization for which there was no precedent," adding that "it was due in a great measure to the organization at home that the Foreign Service was able to accomplish what it did." For the lack of prewar planning for Naval Aviation the captain gave the highly interesting explanation that "in view of the fact that the Navy Department . . . had never expected to extend its activities to European territory in case of war and that Aviation was such a new activity, it is hardly to be expected that the Department would have pre‑arranged plans for Naval Aviation Forces on Foreign Service, prior to the present war." As to the shortages of personnel and delivery, the captain explained that "the exigencies" had required that much that had been intended for Naval Aviation be diverted to other branches of the Navy and he thought great credit was due the office for having sent overseas what could be thus diverted! Altogether, Captain McKean's defense of the whole establishment of Naval Aviation appears to have been decidedly more spirited than his support of it at the time when he joined the Office of Naval Operations.

There were some grounds for satisfaction over what had been accomplished on this side of the Atlantic. On the Atlantic coast 12 patrol stations had been established with 13 rest and refueling points at intervals. In August, 1918, work began on a base at Halifax and on another at North Sydney, Nova Scotia. By September  p147 flights had been made from both places by planes escorting convoys. A base at Cape Broyle Harbor, Newfoundland, was contemplated but never built.

Schools in operation included three ground schools, five elementary flight schools, and two advanced flight schools, with numerous facilities for practice in aerial navigation, gunnery, and bombing. About 4,000 pilots had been trained by November, 1918, while 30,000 enlisted men had passed through technical training. On the material side, 24 manufacturers, employing 175,000 persons, were equipped to build 21,000 aircraft a year and the record of actual delivery had reached 16,000 planes and 25,000 motors. The latter, in November, 1918, were coming off the assembly lines at the rate of 4,000 a month with the expectation that by March, 1919, this output figure could be raised to 10,000. Considering the very great difference between the position of aviation inspector general in 1917 and its position in 1941, the accomplishments of World War I compare very favorably with those of World War II. In the earlier war it required a year after the United States began hostilities to get the air program fully underway; in the later war, it was eight months after Pearl Harbor before Naval Aviation was ready for Guadalcanal and many more months before the air drive across the Pacific could be launched.

Demobilization after the armistice was rapid — as much too rapid as it always will be in democracies. Except for certain specialists needed for the roll up abroad, no further personnel was sent overseas, and while those already under flight training were temporarily permitted to continue in service, no further enrollments were made as the routine of discharging began. Construction on stations abroad was stopped; on stations in the United States it was suspended. No more material was shipped, contracts for plane building were canceled, and arrangements for the sale of surplus planes were made. Signatures upon the armistice were scarcely dry when the Secretary of the Navy issued his first order requiring rigid curtailment and economy. The official copy of the armistice had hardly reached Washington when the House Appropriations Committee began talking of hearings on a bill to turn all surplus funds back into the Treasury.

Naturally this precipitated something of a crisis. The Navy Department's plans provided for spending about $123,000,000 on aviation in the remainder of the fiscal year 1919, more than half of this sum being allotted to the settling of claims and contracts.  p148 The balance was to have been used for completing and maintaining nine air patrol stations and 25 rest stations on the Pacific Coast, in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Philippines, to supplement the proposed 20 patrol and training stations and 34 rest stations on the Atlantic coast, as well as for the lighter-than‑air experiments and the general training program. Inevitably all these plans would have to be changed to meet the idea expressed in the slogan, "The war is over. Let's get out of it and forget it!"

As to personnel, this would be especially true after such orders as that of the Secretary of the Navy dated November 15, 1919, opened the way for so many enlisted men to secure their discharges. Family problems, private business, or a desire to continue one's civilian education could be advanced as legitimate, acceptable reasons for getting out of uniform. Under one head or the other almost any man could leave the Navy and a great many did. By January 1 prospective cuts by the Congress in the Navy's personnel made it necessary for the Navy Department to direct the substitution of as many civilians as possible for enlisted men in the administrative offices in order to increase the use that might be made of such enlisted men elsewhere. Meanwhile, liquidation of naval property left in Europe proceeded slowly, through the inevitable complications of determining what was and what was not worth bringing back, of finding shipping space, of protecting what was to be left overseas, and finally of disposing of what was salable at anything like fair prices. What with rent charges, claims for losses of every possible description, transportation of material from "somewhere in France" to a shipping port, and all the hundred details involved, the work was clumsy and costly. The French, making the most of their "buyers' market," drove such hard bargains that, in many instances, huge properties were practically given away. Portable buildings, construction materials, trucks, and the like, for which the Navy had expended a total of nearly $750,000,000, were sold much below cost to the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, to be used in that country in the devastated regions of France. As late as October, 1919, French claims covering aviation material of various kind delivered to the United States Navy at one time or another were still being received. Indemnities for "damage" to French property had not been paid in full and the stations at Arcachon and Moutchic were still unsold. Official French objection to the sale of buildings and materials to private individuals was a stumbling block in the path toward settlements and many months  p149 would elapse before the books could be closed. In England, on the other hand, because there was no objection to private sales, progress was more rapid. The air stations were all closed very rapidly and by the middle of August, 1919, more than half of the outstanding bills and claims were paid. The Canadian problem was readily solved by giving Canada all the equipment which the United States Navy had supplied to Halifax and North Sydney. In Italy a similar procedure was followed but at Ponta Delgada in the Azores all equipment was disassembled and brought home. Altogether, material demobilization was very costly but no one had ever imagined that it would be anything else. At least the loss could be measured in dollars to be written off the national ledger, whereas the effect of rapid demobilization upon the position of the United States as a world power is less easily determined.

Thayer's Note:

a Paine, First Yale Unit, pp314‑319.

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