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Chapter 16

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 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p186  Chapter XVII

The Bureau of Aeronautics

The activity of General Mitchell had one effect that had not been foreseen by the Navy and certainly had not been intended by the general himself. His attacks made the whole Navy realize that its internal differences of opinion were of trivial importance beside the necessity of saving Naval Aviation from extinction, and upon that necessity all hands could agree. This brought about a really concerted effort to establish the administration of aviation on a much sounder basis, and here again General Mitchell was an unwitting help.

The press had given wide publicity to the idea of a separate United States air force, but this had served to unite the thinking of all friends of the Navy with that of Representative Frederick Hicks of New York. Whereas that gentleman previously had found his long-held plan for establishing in the Navy Department a bureau of aeronautics on an equal footing with the other bureaus hampered by widely differing opinions, including those of the Navy itself, he now found these opinions all swinging into line with his own.

Captain Irwin, while still in office as director, had reminded the General Board that "now, when the move is for a united air service," the urgent thing was to go ahead with the development of aircraft with the Fleet. He held that the Navy's hand was strengthened "every time we can show that we are using them in that way." Implied in this statement was the captain's conviction that real integration of the air arm with the Fleet was impossible without greater authority and independence in the administration of aviation. General Mitchell gave wholly unintentional support to this conviction by violently criticizing the lack of proper organization in Naval Aviation.

Captain Craven had been coming to the same view, more and more rapidly since the "reorganization" of August, 1919, had left him without any real standing. Notwithstanding Admiral McKean's  p187 belittling references, Craven was determined to go down fighting for real authority and definite responsibility. He called upon a number of officers for comment on the situation, and among these Capt. David Hanrahan, former commander of the North Bombing Group, was particularly outspoken. Hanrahan condemned the existing organization as making "the outlook for the future of naval aviation . . . more or less hopeless." He found the director restricted to planning yet held responsible for many other aviation activities too widely scattered to permit proper, efficient, and economical administration. He was "firmly convinced that Naval Aviation will enlarge and grow far beyond its present restrictions and has to grow to keep up with the first‑class powers abroad." Under the existing organization it could never grow.

This type of comment was exactly what Representative Hicks wanted. He was, of course, involved in all the inquiries by a Republican House into the Democratic conduct of the war, and well aware that one result of these inquiries was a tendency toward the creation of a separate air force to include all Services — the Mitchell idea. He also knew that the Navy, specifically Rear Admiral Taylor through Hunsaker, as an expedient designed to head off the Mitchell faction had prepared the draft of a bill establishing both a bureau of aeronautics and a separate naval flying corps. This bill differed from earlier proposals, made in 1919 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, to the effect that the Army, the Navy, the Post Office, and the Department of Commerce should each have a separate bureau of aeronautics, all to be coordinated under a supreme aeronautical board of civilians. Admiral Taylor's objections to this were that federal control of civilian aviation should not be exercised through the military Services but through a civilian board with which these Services should cooperate; that greater cooperation between the Services themselves would be secured by legalizing and strengthening their joint aeronautical board; and that aviation in the Navy should be segregated under the control and direction of a corps formed by temporary detail from all branches of the Service. When the Secretary of the Navy's Council, a special group of advisers, proved to be in general agreement with Admiral Taylor, the Chief of Naval Operations called a conference for the purpose of deciding upon the draft of a bill to create a bureau of aeronautics.

 p188  In general, the points made in 1919 by Lieutenant Brush of the Reserve were revived for discussion. His remarks upon the good results which should be obtained from a compact organization, gradually combined under the chief of bureau, took on added significance from what had been happening since Brush's letter was written; and opposition from other bureaus was weakened by the threat from others the Navy. Hence the original plan proposed at the conference provided for both a bureau and a flying corps of 500 officers and 5,000 enlisted men, the officers to be given temporary commissions for terms of not over three years. When this composite draft found immediate disfavor in many quarters, the result was the assembly of a new group which included Rear Admirals Taylor and Griffin as well as the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Coontz. Ultimately, though a minority was still opposed, the draft sent to Congress for hearings was little changed. Mr. Hicks was prompt in commenting upon the "change of heart," because what he had proposed 18 months earlier, only to encounter strong naval opposition, was now brought forward as the right procedure. He then drafted his own bill, omitting any provision for a separate corps, but no action was taken at that session. During the next one, however, there were more hearings in February, 1921, and Admiral Fiske had his opportunity to say of the proposal for the new bureau that "if you can get that established to‑morrow it will be very much better than getting it established the next day; the quicker the better . . . You cannot do anything toward development of scientific naval aviation unless you have it."

Two months later President Harding called a special session of Congress and in his message to it recommended "enactment of legislation establishing a bureau of aeronautics in the Navy Department to centralize the control of naval activity in aeronautics and removing the restrictions on the personnel detailed to aviation in the Navy." To the aviators, this was encouraging, and of further great importance to them was the attitude of the new Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Edwin Denby, who, perhaps partly because he had himself served in the Marine Corps, came out strongly in his comment to the congressional committee. "You know probably quite as well as I," said he, "the importance of aviation, the new element that has been projected into warfare upon the sea. It has not received sufficient attention by the Congress, by the people, or by the Navy." He expressed the opinion that naval air activities must be "centralized under  p189 one chief, of the same rank as the other bureau chiefs," and added his earnest hopes that the bill might pass.

Admiral Coontz was heard to very much the same effect, his statement being unusual in that he said "this is one case where the Chief of Naval Operations is willing to give up something." He went on to point out that both economy and efficiency should result from a separate bureau able to act with authority and not merely as one among ten other divisions in the Office of Naval Operations. "Neither I," said he, "nor any other human can properly handle it as it stands now." He believed that the Navy had, in the officer who had succeeded Captain Craven as director in March of 1921, just the man to head the new bureau. This was a newcomer to Naval Aviation, Capt. William A. Moffett.

Here was the very last man in the Navy who would willingly accept a vague responsibility or any such "weathercock authority" as that which had so long irked Craven. Moreover, he was a suave and polished negotiator, with Benjamin Franklin's ability to plant his own ideas in the minds of other men so delicately that the seeds would presently come to bloom as luxuriantly as though they had been indigenous. During his distinguished career in the Navy his critics would sometimes call him a publicity seeker, but the fact is that whenever a paragraph on Moffett appeared in print it would be followed by at least a column favoring the Navy. Highly qualified professionally, he was something of a genius at public relations. A diplomat being required to present the Navy's position, there could have been no better choice.

Moffett expounded before Congress his conviction that no organization can ever accomplish anything if its authority is not commensurate with its responsibility. He emphasized the vital importance of the effect a separate bureau would have on the morale and enthusiasm of the flying personnel. Civilian employee or naval man, airman or groundman, everyone in aviation must be able to feel that he belonged to something really alive and progressive. It would be better not to create any separate naval flying corps, for this might bring in aviators who were not seamen, but even at that cost there must be a separate bureau on a par with all others in the department.

Lt. Comdr. Richard Byrd was still the link between Congress and the Navy Department on such questions, and there is no doubt that he, with such support as that of Mr. Hicks, was able to accomplish much in the way of enlightening those who were either not  p190 fully informed or else awed by what they had heard from General Mitchell. When Moffett swung into action behind all the other efforts, the result became certain and, on July 12, 1921, the bill to create the separate bureau was made law. A month later Moffett, as Rear Admiral, found himself the first Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.

He was ready with his plan of organization, which he presented to the Secretary of the Navy. Although criticism of the plan came from the older bureaus when they realized that the sponsors of the new one did not intend that it be merely a material bureau, by August 10, the date of formal "inauguration," almost everything that Moffett wanted was approved by the Secretary. The Chief of Aeronautics was named adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations on aviation and was required to keep that officer informed on "all aeronautic planning, operation, and administration." On personnel, the new bureau was authorized to recommend the detail of officers to flying duties and the distribution of aviation ratings, as well as to recommend methods of training. Other bureaus were specifically required by the Secretary's order to perform their work in connection with aviation in a manner satisfactory to the Bureau of Aeronautics and to accept that bureau's recommendations as to the priority to be given the development of various types of aviation equipment. Within the limitations imposed by Congress, policy on the upkeep and operation of aircraft factories, experimental plants, and helium plants was similarly to be established by the new bureau. Altogether, this plan represented another long step forward for Naval Aviation.

When Moffett sent a draft of the new bureau's first circular letter through the department for comment and suggestion, the most constructive criticism came from Hunsaker. He correctly predicted that difficulty would certainly result from the confusion of authority over procurement between the Plans Division and the Material Division, a confusion which was to continue for 20 years until a Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air was established in 1943. Since in his view the new bureau was to be primarily a material bureau, Hunsaker held that the organization "should be such that these material activities can be handled direct and with strict accountability." He was driving at the old conflict between the flier and the engineer, at the conviction of leading aviators that they should be both planners and developers, both manufacturers  p191 and operators. Whereas Captain Chambers and Bristol, as well as their successors, had always demanded a say in design of planes and accessories, the two technical bureaus, Construction and Repair, and Engineering, had been just as convinced that aviators could not tell them how to run their own business. Both sides being entirely sincere in these convictions, friction and delay were inevitable. As Hunsaker saw the matter, the Plans Division might properly lay down the military characteristics required of new aircraft, but it should then leave it to the constructors to produce what was wanted. To make actual designs, Plans would have to have better aeronautical engineers than those in the Material Division, and the latter would consequently be robbed of any incentive to keep abreast of the newest and best in the field. In this conception of the problem Hunsaker was sticking closely to the Navy's long-standing theory of command. The top officers should tell their subordinates "what, when and where," then hold these subordinates responsible for the "how." Most wars have been won on that theory.

As finally promulgated, Aviation Circular No. 1 established four divisions: Plans, Administration, Material, and Flight. Notwithstanding Hunsaker's protest, Plans continued to have split jurisdiction over aircraft production, as well as over the trials which were to determine the fighting value of the designs as completed. Administration, in addition to office routine, was to handle financial and legal details, as well as the bureau's relation with the public. Material, the largest of the four, was divided into three sections: design, procurement, and maintenance; while Flight was to be concerned with training and operations in general.

Inevitably there were some flaws in the new plan; flaws, that is, when viewed in retrospect and from the standpoint of those who favored the fastest of progress in aviation. Most of these, however, were caused by the retention in various older bureaus of certain work which must now meet the approval of the new one. Thus the factory at Philadelphia, now required to build whatever Aeronautics wanted, was still to be run by the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Vital items of equipment, rapidly becoming highly specialized, such as ordnance, radio, flying instruments, while also requiring the approval of Aeronautics, were still to be produced or procured, respectively, by the Bureaus of Ordnance, Engineering, and Navigation, the last-named also continuing to handle the training of personnel. It is possible that  p192 progress might have been more rapid had the new bureau immediately assumed these various functions and also taken over the experts that administered them, but at the time this would probably have meant too much of an upheaval and as matters stood what had been accomplished was a very great gain. A solid foundation had been laid for the much more extensive structure which would eventually be erected in World War II. The wider recognition of aircraft as an element of sea power was an indication that, whatever might be the subsequent appropriations of Congress for aviation, progress in the art and science of flying in the Navy would be along proper lines. With this in mind the new bureau stood upon its collective toes, ready to combat any attempt, by anyone, to strip the Navy of its flying arm.

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