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Chapter 15

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.
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Chapter 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p176  Chapter XVI

Agitation for an Independent Air Force

It is often said that ordinary Americans, under the pressure of daily life, lack time to study problems that bear on large concerns of national policy and consequently tend to accept, ready-made, any strong opinion they see in print. Those who hold this belief might well cite, in support of it, the history of aviation in the United States in the years immediately following World War I. Certainly, during those years, average Americans were strongly influenced by what was spoken and written by Brig. Gen. William Mitchell of the Army Air Service.

By most of his contemporaries Mitchell was regarded as an able flier rather than as a profound student of war, especially war involving sea power. All knew that he had played a prominent part in the Army's air effort over France in 1918 and that he had been decorated for these services. His convictions as to the importance of air power to any plan for future national defense were unquestionably sound and they were shared by a nucleus of soldiers, sailors, and civilians among his contemporaries. Essentially, the difference between the general and a considerable number of these contemporaries lay in their views as to the best method of obtaining popular and congressional agreement with their fundamental conviction.

General Mitchell chose the first of the two alternatives suggested in his own pronouncement that "changes in military systems come through public opinion or disaster in war." Through dramatic headlines certain to catch the eye, he appealed to the average reader; through challenging statements from the platform, he appealed to any audience that would listen. In a race for which the prize was public opinion he was never overtaken.

After the armistice of 1918 but before General Mitchell returned from Europe, Representative Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota had introduced into Congress a bill to create a separate United States air force. At that time the Navy Department took  p177 no open notice of the bill beyond reissuing the conclusions reached in March of 1917, by the so‑called "Cognizance Board" of that period, accompanied by a word drawing attention to that board's definition of "the line of demarcation between the aviation activities of the Army and of the Navy." It is impossible, at this date, to say whether or not this action had any effect upon Congress, but the Lundeen Bill, duly referred to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, died there quietly before the end of that session. It was during the next session that much more significance came to be attached to the word of warning which the Navy, in March, 1919, received from Hunsaker.

Ass a fellow passenger of General Mitchell on the westbound Aquitania, Hunsaker's observations led him to write that the general was "fully prepared, with evidence, plans, data, propaganda posters and articles, to break things wide open" for air power as the sole requisite of national defense in the future. This warning very shortly proved well-timed when Generals Mitchell, Foulois, and Chandler, with others of the Army Air Service and with the strong backing of Representative La Guardia of New York and Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell, announced their intention of bringing about the creation of an air force entirely independent of control by either the Army or the Navy. Insisting that air power alone had won the recent war and would win all future wars unassisted, they grouped "ground-minded" officers of the Infantry or the Artillery with the "battleship admirals," dismissing the lot as of no importance and as quite incompetent to assist in solving current problems of development in the science of flying in the United States. To carry their point they were prepared to shoot at any head that dared raise itself in opposition, and since heads were raised from many directions this shooting continued for some seven years.

Many officers and men in all branches had learned from the war a great deal about aviation and the importance of aircraft. They could appreciate that both sea power and land power must each thereafter depend heavily upon the strength of its air arm. They strongly favored building up the air forces of the United States but they wanted these forces maintained as separate and distinct units: one part of the Army, the other part of the Navy. Except for the "Mitchell group," both Services clearly recognized a fundamental difference in missions and a correspondingly great difference in the required methods of organization, training, administration,  p178 and operation. From the Navy's viewpoint the air arm must be a real element of the Fleet, its personnel must be sailors trained to work with other sailormen in scouting, patrolling, and escorting; in clearing the air above the ships of enemy aircraft and in covering the landing of amphibious forces on beaches; in defending merchant ships from enemy attack by air and sea; and in all else that was essentially the Navy's job. This should have a familiar ring because in the intervening 28 years that have seen another world war and even the first use of an atomic bomb nothing occurred that altered the Navy's fundamental opinion. Even today the Navy still holds that the mere ability to control a plane in the air while firing a machine gun or dropping bombs is only the beginning of training for war on the sea. It still disagrees with the conclusion of General Mitchell in his articles and books that "aircraft carriers are useless weapons against first class powers," or that "an attempt to transport large bodies of troops, munitions and supplies across a great stretch of ocean, as was done during World War I from the United States to Europe, would [in a new war] be an impossibility." Writing in retrospect, Craven said that Mitchell's ideas "would have revolutionized our entire system of defense." He agreed that some, indeed most, of Mitchell's theories were correct but thought him wrong in arguing for a huge new organization in aeronautics which would deprive "sailors of scientific development, just as they were beginning to accept it as essential."

In 1919 the Navy would have had no quarrel with Mitchell had he proposed a separate air force such as has recently been established. What dragged the Navy into a fight was such statements of the general's as that made in September, 1919, to the House Military Affairs Committee, when he insisted that if he and his associates were "allowed to develop essential air weapons," they could "carry the war to such an extent . . . as almost to make navies useless on the surface of the water." He made the tactical error of backing the broad statement with the comment that "the General Board, I might say, agrees with me on that," a comment at variance with the truth. The board had invited the general to appear before it but it had not been impressed by his praise of the Royal Air Force. Most members of this board believed that the Admiralty had never ceased to regret consolidation because this had weakened the naval air arm — a view incidentally sustained between 1939 and 1945. Holding this belief, the General Board  p179 had been very far from agreeing with General Mitchell, and it immediately originated a Navy Department letter asking the War Department where the general had found grounds for his public statement. In reply the Secretary of War said that "a careful perusal" of the general's hearing before the board showed that he was "not justified in the conclusion." As was inevitable, however, very few of those who read the general's published statement ever saw that letter from Secretary Baker, and similar instances of this sort were not rare. Again and again he made the front page, whereas if a modification or even a flat refutation of what he had said appeared in print, it formed a small item at the bottom of an inside column.

In June, 1919, the Navy Department and the War Department, broadly in agreement and opposed to General Mitchell, took the step of reorganizing the Joint Army and Navy Board on Aeronautic Cognizance, renamed the Joint Army and Navy Board on Aeronautics. The board was given a broader precept to provide the closer cooperation clearly demanded by the experiences of war. Specifically it was directed to make recommendations on production, training, location of bases, purchase of material abroad, and the solution of all problems on aviation found in other departments of the government and among civilians, emphasis being laid upon the importance of reducing duplication to a minimum. Accordingly, in August, 1919, the board announced its policy:

Aircraft operated in conjunction with either military or naval forces shall be military or naval aircraft and under the command of the respective military or naval commanders.

Both the Army and the Navy shall confine the use of their aircraft to activities clearly connected with strictly military or naval functions as such are defined by existing laws and agreements.

To prevent duplication, and secure coordination, plans of new projects for the construction of aircraft, for experimental stations, for coastal stations, or for extensive additions thereto shall be submitted to this Board for recommendation.

In the interest of economy, heavier-than‑air craft shall be used instead of lighter-than‑air craft whenever the former can perform satisfactorily the required work.

Wherever possible, training and other facilities of either service shall be made available for use by the other.

Each service, before entering the market shall attempt to secure  p180 aircraft of the type desired from or through the other service.

As soon as any experimentation is inaugurated, all information pertaining thereto shall be exchanged between the Army and Navy Air Services.

All estimates for the Army and the Navy programs shall be presented to the Board for review and recommendation before submission to Congress.

Functions of Aircraft:

(a) For offensive and defensive work in the field in conjunction with the various arms of the Service.
(b) For the general purpose of fire control information in connection with the coast defense.
(a) For use from coastal stations for convoy, reconnaissance, and patrol.
(b) For use from war vessels, bases, and carriers for reconnaissance and spotting, and for offensive operations against enemy vessels and naval bases.

Since the policy did not give the Army the entire task of "independent air operations," unless this could be inferred from the phrase "for offensive and defensive work in the field," it was natural that Craven liked it much better than did General Mitchell. As it stood, it was approved by the Secretaries of War and the Navy, but the former sent it to The Joint Board for comment. That board took exception to what it considered "defective wording" and to a "confining" of the tasks and functions assigned to each Service. In 1920 the board issued its pamphlet on Joint Army and Navy Action in Coast Defense which embodied the principles of the earlier report just quoted. Much discussion and numerous investigation followed the publication of the pamphlet, resulting in compromise rather than in a final, definite resolving of differences of opinion.

Early in 1919 the Secretary of War had appointed a commission to study European aviation. Headed by Assistant Secretary Crowell, it included Howard Coffin, wartime chairman of the Aircraft Production Board, Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Halsey Dunwoody of the Army Air Service, Lt. Col. J. G. Blair of the Army General Staff, G. H. Houston, president of the Wright-Martin Company, C. M. Keys, vice-president of Curtiss, S. S. Bradley, general manager of the  p181 Manufacturers' Aircraft Association, and, as sole representative of the Navy, Capt. Henry Mustin. Essentially the task assigned the Crowell Commission was a search for the best mention of keeping aircraft manufacture in the United States alive enough through peacetime to be able to meet military needs in wartime. After touring England, France, and Italy, however, the commission in its report plainly showed that its greater interest lay in promoting a single national air force.

The report advocated "concentration of air activities . . . military, naval, and civilian, within the direction of a single Government agency . . . co‑equal in importance with the Department of War, Navy and Commerce." It proposed a secretary and an assistant secretary of the new department, who would direct all types of flying, supply, research, and finance. If war emergency arose, this department would be expected to furnish the Army and Navy with whatever either might happen to need in the way of squadrons of aircraft. It was generally understood that the commission's "slate" put Mr. Crowell down for secretary, General Mitchell for secretary for the Army, with Captain Craven a similar assistant for the Navy.

This proposal was inspired by the army members and acceptable enough to industry, but it was to be expected that Mustin should file a minority report showing why the proposed organization must inevitably leave the Navy without any worthwhile air arm. Secretary of War Baker was even more outspoken than Mustin in condemning the whole plan; his comment upon the Crowell Commission's report dismissed the suggestion of a centralized air service as "going much too far." He described the pilots of the Army and Navy as "specialists . . . of a different type from those needed in civilian undertakings." Their efficiency, he declared, depended upon "the most intense and constant associated training," while their effectiveness rested upon "the concentration and singleness of authority, command, and purpose." He thus proved himself, in this debate, a good ally of the Navy. Indeed, it was with the cooperation of the Secretary of War that the Joint Army and Navy Board on Aeronautics, now renamed the Aeronautical Board, was strengthened by placing it under The Joint Board for the formulation of general policy.

During the autumn of 1919 several investigations of the state of American aviation were in progress simultaneously. In Congress proposals for a single national air force drew the support of those  p182 whose enthusiasm for economy was not combined with a sound grasp of military affairs. Before long Senator H. S. New of Indiana and Congressman Charles F. Curry of California introduced bills creating an air department, to administer all aviation in the armed services as well as all civilian flying. At the hearings on these bills before a House Subcommittee on Military Affairs, of which Congressman William F. James of Michigan was chairman and Congressman Fiorello H. La Guardia alternate chairman, the testimony sharply outlined the difference of opinion between the two departments on one side and the Mitchell group on the other. At the very moment when the general and his friends were pouring their ideas into the sympathetic ear of Mr. La Guardia, a War Department board under Maj. Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.C. T. Menoher, Chief of the Army Air Service, was reaching a very different conclusion. The board ultimately declared that "whatever may be the decision as to a separate Aeronautical Department, the military air force must remain under the direct control of the Army," thus following the views of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing and Wood and paralleling the Navy's opinion as to its own air arm.

At times the testimony presented to the James subcommittee was not strictly in accord with the facts. For example, General Foulois stated that it was only by accident that he had learned of the proposal to use the Navy's Northern Bombing Group over Belgium in 1918, yet the official files were crowded with documents showing that Army headquarters in France had been kept fully informed of every step. Again, although Callan was at hand to tell the exact story of the Capronis, Foulois repeated the old complaint that the Navy had cheated the Army out of these planes. Similarly General Chandler, complaining of the lack of inter-Service cooperation in lighter-than‑air flying, added the insinuation that the Navy had "only a very small dirigible." To make that statement he must either not have known, or have chosen to ignore, the fact that the Navy had supplied the Army with several dirigibles of various types and was even then engaged in training lighter-than‑air personnel for both Services.

Chandler's representations, admirably fitted to those of General Mitchell, were perhaps part of a wider design to take over all lighter-than‑air flying. It is of record that Mitchell on October 7, 1919, the day before the Menoher Board made its report, stated to the subcommittee that "one thing we have not done is to develop any . . . rigid dirigibles . . . and we have attempted very  p183 strenuously lately with the help of the War Department to get the L‑72, which is in Germany." It seems probable that Mitchell and Chandler were hoping that the publicity given to what they said before the committee would influence The Joint Board as well as the public. This was important to them because when the Army-Navy Airship Board established in 1917 was abolished after hostilities ceased, it was The Joint Board that had taken up the study of lighter-than‑air development. However, any such hopes were doomed to disappointment when The Joint Board, on February 16, 1920, flatly recommended: "that the development of rigid dirigibles, including the incidental acquisition of dirigibles in foreign countries, be assigned to and carried on exclusively by the Navy and that the Army lend to the Navy any personnel particularly qualified in this work."

Under this policy the Army would transfer to the Navy all sites, such as the base at Lakehurst, which might be useful for dirigible experiment or for training. Thus the development of lighter-than‑air craft was made the clear responsibility of the Navy, with the Army in a position to profit by everything that was learned.

With such a multiplicity of boards and committees debating the many aspects of the aviation problem there were bound to be many opportunities for fishing in troubled waters, and of these opportunities General Mitchell and his supporters were quick to take advantage. They had failed in the matter of airships, but a line cast in some other direction might easily bring up a prize catch, in spite of frequently drawing sharp retorts from the Navy Department. Most of these retorts were based upon a long, carefully prepared memorandum from Rear Admiral Taylor, reviewing cooperation between the two Services since the founding of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915 and deploring existing dissension. Summing up, the Navy Department wrote that "in plain words . . . a few subordinate officers in the Army Air Service are determined to make friction and cause duplication, and then represent this as the normal condition." Under all the circumstances it was inevitable that the good in General Mitchell's ideas about aviation should be buried under the opposition aroused by his methods of advancing those ideas and by his use of personalities in argument.

Senator New's bill for a separate air force reached the floor of Congress but it did not pass. Its failure, however, did not deter the  p184 "separationists" from slipping into the draft of the Army Appropriation Bill for 1922 a clause directing that "hereafter the Army Air Service shall control all aerial operations from land bases, and . . . Naval Aviation shall have control of all aerial operations attached to a fleet." When Senator Page brought this clause to the attention of the Navy, the Navy Department pointed out, among other things wrong with the clause, the "impropriety of including in an appropriation bill for one branch of Government, anything involving the policies of other branches." Captain Craven described the clause as outlining "the policy for coast defense of the United States, not as recommended by the War Department but [by] the aviation section of the Army." With Senator Wadsworth of New York the captain worked out a substitute clause which would leave the Navy undisturbed in its air stations, and this amendment, since it had the approval of both Secretaries, was finally included in the act as passed. Even then the safeguards were not strong enough, because the failure of the Wadsworth-Craven clause to define defensive patrols as "operations with the Fleet" left the "Mitchell group" an opening through which to claim jurisdiction over these patrols. Accordingly General Mitchell's next proposal was that the Army take over some 13 naval air stations, and in support of that proposal he presented a great many figures which were quite inaccurate. Moreover, as the Secretary of the Navy commented, the general continued to ignore the facts and to belittle all the work that the Army, the Navy, and the Aeronautical Board had accomplished together.

In a letter to the Secretary of War written in May, 1920, the Secretary of the Navy said it was

most unfortunate that the efforts of the War and Navy Departments and of the great majority of officers of the Army and Navy to coordinate the work of our Departments and to continue the cooperation which has existed in the past should be interfered with by an individual or by individuals. It would seem particularly unhappy at this time when there is so much constructive work confronting both the Army and the Navy on aeronautical matters.

To this Mr. Baker replied that new instructions had been issued to restrain army officers appearing before committees. While these instructions recognized the need for freedom of speech, they did "not contemplate nor permit the making of statements, especially with reference to the other coordinate Executive Departments,  p185 which may reasonably serve to discredit or reflect upon these . . . departments." These corrective steps, said Mr. Baker, would "insure that the policy of the Department . . . will be conformed with hereafter by officers of the Army who may have occasion to testify before the Senate Committees relative to Aviation matters." While the new instructions were plainly intended to curb such remarks as those of General Mitchell, they did so only for the few remaining months of the Wilson administration. When President Harding, on April 12, 1921, told Congress that aviation was "inseparable from either the Army or the Navy," the controversy on a separate air department might have been supposed to be at an end. In fact, however, the attention which was presently concentrated on bombing tests would revive the whole discussion and make it more acrimonious than ever.

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