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Chapter 26

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 28
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p296  Chapter XXVII

The Approach to War

When King ended his tour in the Bureau of Aeronautics on June 12, 1936 his successor was a "destroyer man," energetic, fiery Rear Adm. Arthur B. Cook. Like Halsey and numerous others, Cook had waited until he was well along in his career before deciding to qualify as an aviator, but he carried into the air all the impulsive enthusiasm that had marked his years as a surface seaman. His service had included the command of various ships as well as staff and administrative posts before he became Moffett's Assistant Chief of Bureau in June, 1931. He was in that office when Moffett was lost and thus, for a month, he acted as chief and he remained with King until March, 1934. All this made him well fitted to head a bureau of daily increasing importance. This was fortunate because in his three-year administration he faced the continuation of many old problems and also the advent of many new ones; the latter resulting essentially from two causes, the development of the political and military situation throughout the world and the technical advances in aircraft which produced changes in plans for their tactical use.

It will be recalled that this period of the thirties was marked by events of great significance beginning with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931. In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor, and two years later Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. After Germany and Japan withdrew from the League of Nations, there was little used in continuing the League's permanent disarmament conference and this, although it was never officially dissolved, did not meet after 1934. In March, 1935, Hitler announced the resumption of conscription. In December of that year, when the powers signatory to the Washington Treaty of 1922 and the London Treaty of 1930 held a preliminary conference because both treaties were about to expire, Japan demanded full naval parity. When this was refused she indignantly withdrew. Ultimately the United States, Great Britain, and France reached agreements among themselves, but  p297 these were so full of "escape clauses" that they amounted to very little. In July, 1936, a month after Cook took office, the Spanish Revolution precipitated more international complications, and in 1937 the Japanese and Chinese were fighting over the incident at the Marco Polo Bridge. That autumn President Roosevelt made his "Quarantine" speech at Chicago, with its much debated implications of changes in United States foreign policy. Six months later Hitler seized Austria and six months more brought the Munich meeting. Not long after this all hope of peace in the world ended.

The threats of war discernible in these events had drawn the attention of many officers to the organization of the Navy. On January 1, 1923, the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets had been combined to form the United States Fleet, and this had been divided up on the basis of what would be expected of each of the several groups in war, into the Battle Fleet, the Scouting Fleet, and the Base Force, each with its own aviation component. As an organization primarily for fighting, this one did not take full account of the fact that each of the three divisions included ships of various types and that a ship of one type required equipment, supply, and training which often differed widely from those required by another type. By 1928 Adm. Pratt, then the Commander in Chief, suggested the introduction of a "type-command" system for administrative purposes, by which he intended that all ships of any one type should be grouped under a separate commander who would schedule their repair and overhaul periods, see that they were supplied with fuel, equipment, and all other requirements, and also supervise their training in type tactics and in the indoctrination of their crews. This would relieve the commander in chief of endless administrative detail and give him ships which, in their respective types, were as nearly alike in equipment and training as it was possible to make them. He would then be able to select from each type as many as he wanted, to form an operating group on any mission he might plan. Such a group would be styled a task force, and it would include the required kind and number of aircraft.

This plan was not immediately adopted but it came up again when Admiral Pratt became Chief of Naval Operations in 1930. The efforts he then made to compose the Navy's differences with the Army over land-based aircraft, as well as his efforts to give the Fleet greater flexibility and mobility, were mentioned in an earlier chapter; among them was a step toward the introduction of type commands. The Battle and Scouting Fleets were redesignated  p298 Forces, with a type commander named for each kind of ship, while aircraft, although still divided among the several forces, were all placed under the Commander Aircraft, Battle Force for "type" administrative purposes. Some officers who believed in the old organization thought Admiral Pratt's innovation revolutionary, but those who favored the task‑force-type‑command combination thought the admiral had not gone far enough.

After the exercises of 1932 one effect of the deteriorating situation in the Far East was the transfer of the Scouting Force from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to join the Battle Force, a move which revived the argument in favor of type commands throughout. In 1934 the then Commander in Chief, Adm. David Sellers, brought aviation into this picture by suggesting the creation of an air force, United States Fleet, its commander to operate directly under the commander in chief in assigning carriers and other units wherever they might be required and also to carry out the "type" administrative duties. To this proposal the aviators were favorably disposed but there were others who interpreted it as a move toward the dreaded separate air force.

It is apparent that Adm. W. H. Standley, by this time Chief of Naval Operations, did not approve the type-command theory because, from the letter he wrote in this year 1934, he omitted all provision for such an organization. Instead, he stated that the commander in chief might direct that type duties be carried out by the senior officer present in each type. This immediately aroused opposition from the Commander Aircraft, Battle Force, who then controlled the carriers and the planes, and also from the Commander Aircraft, Base Force, who similarly controlled the patrol planes, the utility planes, and the tenders. By 1937, taking notice of this opposition, Admiral Standley asked the Secretary of the Navy to refer the whole question of fleet organization to the General Board. Among 17 high-ranking officers heard by that board 12 favored the task-force-type-command organization, while five believed that the existing organization, with a few minor changes, would be satisfactory. In the end the board accepted Admiral Standley's compromise, which retained the force organization but assigned all ships of a given kind to the same force, whose commander exercised the administrative functions. For battleships, cruisers, or destroyers, this was simple enough, but as the Admiral himself admitted, aircraft continued to "present a peculiar problem," because they all had certain things in common that must require  p299 "somewhere, unified administration — such matters as flying (as distinguished from operations), safety precautions, upkeep, routine overhaul." To fit them into his so‑called "combination organization," the patrol planes, but not the utility planes, were shifted from the Base Force to the Scouting Force and, for training and administrative purposes, all planes of the same kind were concentrated in the same force. Thus all the force components of the Fleet were left with a hand in administration but planes with the battleships or with the cruisers, as well as the utility planes, were left without any type commanders in the proper sense of the term. At no point short of the Bureau of Aeronautics was there any really unified administration of aircraft and time would show that this was a mistake. Improvements did not come until too late to be a help to the bureau and its chief, Rear Adm. Cook.

To be sure, in attacking most of his problems, old and new, Cook had the advantage that the clouds of war, drawing ever closer, had the silver lining formed by increases in available funds. There were some efforts by the executive branch to force the various departments of the government to economize, but in an era so marked by lavish spending in all directions these efforts were hardly more than sporadic. It followed that the Navy in general and the Bureau of Aeronautics in particular continued to escape serious suffering from cuts in estimates, made by the Bureau of the Budget or by Congress, by finding an opening into the bulging moneybags of NIRA, WPA, PWA, and several other of the government agencies. Through the years leading to war the amounts appropriated in the regular way were greatly augmented by allocations from these sources, and since the appropriations themselves increased, the total received by Naval Aviation was very substantial. Who would have dared to predict in 1928 that in 1938 the Navy would be spending $21,000,000 on a single contract, the record established when the Consolidated Corporation was selected to build the PBY Catalina flying boats?

This did not mean that the Bureau of Aeronautics received all that it wanted, at any given moment; it did not. For example, estimates made in 1936 set the number of planes needed for 1938 at 468, divided into groups of 113 of new design, 260 as replacements for aging planes, 22 for the reserve program, and 73 to allow for an expansion of the aviation cadet program. The Navy's own budget officer, over Cook's vigorous protest, reduced these by 11 of the new planes and by approximately one half of those wanted for  p300 the cadets; the Bureau of the Budget went even further by eliminating all the cadet planes. Similarly, the airship men were regularly disappointed by the lukewarm attitude of Congress toward even the nonrigids. When Admiral Standley — whose position as Chief of Naval Operations often made him acting Secretary of the Navy because of the illness of Mr. Swanson — proposed to spend as much as $270,000 of the appropriation for new construction on nonrigids, this relatively small amount was so heatedly disapproved that it evaporated. Planning the weapons of the future and their possible use is never easy, but if there is doubt about the availability of means of paying for them planning becomes little more than guessing.

In January, 1938, all planning was greatly changed by President Roosevelt's call for a naval expansion act which would increase the whole naval building program by 20 per cent; a call answered by the introduction into Congress of a bill subjected in its early draft to hearings made noisy by the outcries of those who always oppose any increase in the Army or the Navy for adequate national defense. The bill also revived old disputes over the results of the bombing tests carried out against the captured German ships of World War I, arousing all those who insisted that capital ships were no longer worth the money it cost to build them, inciting all the inventors and manufacturers of the country to reiterate their charges that both Army and Navy were neglecting what private efforts had produced in new designs and technical operation. For the Bureau of Aeronautics chief interest centered upon a clause put into the bill just before it became law on May 17, 1938, authorizing the President "to acquire or construct additional naval airplanes including patrol planes, and spare parts and equipment, so as to bring the number of useful naval airplanes to a total not less than 3,000" — a clause which immediately presented very obvious new problems. It was one thing to estimate that 428 of those new aircraft should be patrol planes for the Pacific; it was quite another thing to determine how that number could be maintained without providing considerably greater facilities at shore air stations. Moreover, to keep so many more planes actually flying would obviously mean that many more pilots must be put under instruction; something that could not be accomplished without finding students who would make pilots, or without building and equipping more planes in which to train them.

Personnel procurement would be a long-standing problem; but  p301 a step toward providing greater facilities ashore was taken the end of 1938 when a board was convened to make recommendations for air stations. This board, called the Hepburn Board because it was headed by Adm. A. J. Hepburn who had formerly been the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, recognized the sudden demands that would have to be met if the approach of war should precipitate a great expansion of personnel and prepared its conclusion accordingly. It recommended the enlargement of 11 existing stations and the erection of 16 new ones to include Quonset, Jacksonville, Banana River, Corpus Christi, San Juan, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Kaneohe, Midway, Wake, Guam, and five other Pacific islands. Although these, with the older stations, would comprise what the board said was the "indispensable necessity of peacetime operation," they were not all undertaken immediately. Some very helpful funds were appropriated, but not until months later, when no one could any longer pretend that war was not imminent, did it become possible to build a naval air station almost anywhere and almost overnight, regardless of cost.

Under the provisions for further ship building, the Expansion Act made it possible to establish a program for building tenders which would be much more stable than the already noted makeshift of using the Langley and converted destroyers. The plans made called for laying down one large tender and four small ones in 1938, to be followed the next year by another small one, and in the year after that by a large one and a small one. This was a much simpler question than that of carrier building, for which the act also provided by disregarding the old treaty limit of 135,000 tons and going up to 175,000, and by directing the immediate construction of one ship.

This last requirement was disconcerting to both the Bureau of Aeronautics and the General Board in their common plans for building carriers. Under these the Saratoga and Lexington were to undergo some immediate modernization and, when they became over age within the meaning of the Washington Treaty of 1922, to be replaced by new ships of the same size: one in 1941, two in 1945, and one more in 1946. Drawings for these new ships had already been begun, but because many change in design might come before the dates set for keel laying, they were hardly more than sketches and in no sense final enough for immediate use. The General Board was not inclined to recommend building a smaller carrier because not enough had yet been learned from the Yorktown and  p302 the Enterprise, commissioned respectively on September 30, 1937, and May 12, 1938, and therefore not yet sufficiently "shaken down" to furnish suggestions for modifying their design for use that same year for a new ship. Eventually, therefore, the ship laid down under the Naval Expansion Act was built on the plans of the Ranger and commissioned as the Wasp; a good instance of the Navy's perforce taking what it could get rather than what it wanted. Notwithstanding her small size, however, the Wasp lived to fight a fine account of herself before three Japanese torpedoes finally sank her off Guadalcanal.

In Cook's administration much was learned from a study of the Fleet exercises. The 1936 games had subjected aerial scouting to an exhaustive test which threw strong light upon current methods of training patrol squadrons for extended operations. For the first time the automatic pilot, so many years before an object of Captain Chambers' interested attention, was given a real trial in long-range planes, with very instructive results. Its use was found to afford the pilots great relief from mental and physical strain, leaving them at their best to meet an emergency even if this should come after long hours in the air. In consequence, the Bureau of Aeronautics recommended the installation of this device on all patrol planes beginning with the P2Y, which had again added to its reputation for sturdy efficiency. Given this mechanical advantage and enough tenders to maintain their mobility, the patrols could do vastly better scouting and reporting, although the war games had made it increasingly evident that their type was of doubtful value for bombing attacks. In searching for an enemy they were likely to become dispersed into such small groups that they would be ineffective against good antiaircraft fire and practically helpless against enemy fighters sent up to intercept them.

Subsequent exercises yielded further valuable experience in planning and executing fast-carrier strikes against shore defenses and, in opposition, the use of shore defense against such strikes. For protection by gunfire against air attack the carriers operated inside a screen of heavy cruisers, close aboard, with an outer screen of light cruisers for security against surface attack. Visual signals directed these particular moves, in order that radio silence might be maintained, but in other operations the successful use, at distances of more than 100 miles, of radio bearings to direct planes on the proper course for an attack demonstrated that ship and plane communication were steadily improving. Still other exercises  p303 indicated that the obvious need of more large carriers for major operations was no greater than the need of many small carriers to escort troop transports and support minor operations. A 10,000‑ton vessel for such purposes had been under discussion during the last 20 years, and Capt. J. S. McCain, commanding the Ranger in the 1939 exercises, brought new life into that discussion from a different point of view. At that time it was expected that the large carriers would have to operate 35 or 40 miles from the battle line, whereas McCain suggested that all small carriers could dart out from that line itself, launch planes in five or ten minutes, and return before the enemy could attack. If fitted with an armored deck, he contended, these small carriers would have considerable protection even if they were attacked while out of the battle line. However, it would be some years before this idea would come to fruition.

Other lessons were learned from two special types of exercises which were features of this period. One was the importance of training patrol pilots in detecting submarines soon enough to "keep 'em down" if not actually to destroy them. The other was the vital role of aircraft in landing operations, as simulated by the Fleet Marine Force, a separate entity established in 1933 to operate directly under the commander in chief and by 1939 highly efficient. Most of the planes it used were flown by pilots of the corps but the Navy's aviators very often took part. Performance of all air tasks in landings became measurably better, one well worthy of mention being the advance of aerial photography to a point where negatives were developed and prints made in the air, the latter to be dropped either aboard the flagship of a force supporting the landing or at the headquarters of a shore force opposing it. With the disciplined efficiency and the inspired morale that have always characterized it, the Marine Corps wrote into the reports of these sham battles the preface to the brilliant history it would compile a few years later on the islands of the Pacific. Throughout all these increasingly intricate air maneuvers it was apparent that the competitive spirit — carrier against carrier, squadron against squadron, almost plane against plane — was aroused to a higher pitch than ever before and the fact that even this enthusiasm did not result in more than a relatively unimportant number of casualties was good proof of general efficiency. Unquestionably the quality of the flying personnel was very good, but still there remained the problem of how to get the personnel in sufficient quantity.

This was as true of enlisted men as it was of officers. Among the  p304 former, the special squadron of aviation pilots assembled for service with the Fleet continued to give an excellent account of itself, but that was only one squadron. Otherwise, it remained true of the broad average that the planes did best when piloted by naval aviators, with aviation pilots in subordinate command, and as greater number of planes were built the shortage of commissioned pilots consequently became more and more marked. This led to continuous requests from the Fleet for the assignment to aviation of greater numbers of officers, until Adm. Claude C. Bloch, as Commander in Chief, was asking for 150 annually. Even that many would mean that five out of each six pilots required must come from the Reserve, a situation likely to be marked by a lowering in all‑around efficiency through shortened training at a moment when war was drawing nearer every day.

Vice Admiral Andrews, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, told Congress that plans for personnel called for a total of 700 aviation cadets, but by this time the enthusiasm of the cadets themselves was lessening. To begin with, they considered their title misleading, as indeed it was, in view of the advanced flying they were doing with the Fleet. Next, to the cadets, it seemed belittling that they should be outranked by younger men fresh from the Naval Academy, a situation that might exist even after they had been naval aviators on active duty for several years. Their pay, especially when it was compared with what they might earn by leaving the Navy to enter commercial flying or join some aircraft building firm, was certainly not high. If they went off active duty while in good standing, the Navy was required by law to give them a bonus of $1,500 as a grubstake and, if they did well in some civilian billet, promotion was likely to be much more rapid than appeared probable in the Navy. Altogether, the pull to stay in uniform was growing steadily weaker.

All this was fully recognized by the Bureau of Aeronautics, and Cook had already made strong recommendations for new legislation. He contended that if these "splendid youngsters" were not fairly treated by that Navy, they could hardly be reproached for seizing the first opportunity to return to civil life or for accepting commissions — with promotion — as fliers with the Army, at that moment very much on the watch to snap up just such promising men, to form "a reservoir of trained, seasoned military pilots." Cook's view was fully supported by King, at sea as Commander Aircraft, Battle Force, and he urged, as one way to encourage the cadets,  p305 their being given commissions when they finished training, without serving for several years afloat. Adm. E. C. Kalbfus, at that time commanding the Battle Force, commented that the term "cadet" was "neither fitting nor, in any sense, descriptive of the duties performed in the Fleet by individuals of this group." He approved King's recommendation and also that of the Commander Battleships, Vice Adm. John W. Greenslade, asking that the cadets be given more training in the general duties of officers. Admiral Bloch, Commander in Chief, did not go quite as far as these high-ranking subordinates but he did consider that one year at sea, before commissioning, would be ample. Even with all this backing, however, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation unfortunately decided that the current session of Congress was "an inopportune moment" to ask for remedial legislation, and since such a step was distinctly his to take, the whole matter marked time. The chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee nevertheless suggested to Cook that he prepare a plan which would do the cadets justice, and what Cook accordingly submitted eventually led to appropriate provisions in the Naval Aviation Reserve Act of 1939.

Such an act was considerably overdue, especially because the shortage of aviators in the regular Navy made it imperative to keep the cadets on active duty instead of returning them, as originally planned, to the Reserve. Moreover, congressional appropriations for reserve training had been very small during the years immediately preceding, thus slowing up the recruiting program, besides lowering the general efficiency of those who were enrolled. In September, 1938, the Fleet Aviation Reserve, composed of men from the regular Navy whose length of service permitted them to transfer to it, numbered only 222 officers with about 1,000 men for ground duties. Theoretically this reserve, paid a nominal sum for a stipulated number of drills and given full pay for 15 days' yearly active duty, was considered trained and ready for service.

Actually, considering the rapidity of technical advances, this could not be true, but the Fleet Reserve was much better trained than the Volunteer Aviation Reserve which at the same moment numbered only 127 officers and a few hundred men. These volunteers, divided into the two categories of those for general service and those for technical specialties, got their training when and as they could, wholly without compensation even for their time. Among them, to be sure, were a number of men who were eligible, by  p306 reason of previous naval service, for the Fleet Reserve but who were living either in an area where the quota was already filled or at some point that made it impossible for them to travel the necessary distance to attend drills. Taking both together, these units could not be considered in any sense adequate to the need but they represented almost all the help then in sight.

The Plans Division of the Bureau of Aeronautics had long been disturbed by the situation and had expressed its conviction that victory in any war — with Japan, for example — would depend more upon the production of enough pilots than upon the production of enough planes. The matter had also been studied by the Federal Aviation Commission, and its report of January, 1935, contained the comment that both Army and Navy appeared to be handling reserves upon a scale so small "as scarcely to constitute more than a working model." This commission, however, praised the paper organization prepared in the Bureau of Aeronautics to provide for 31 reserve squadrons with 251 pilots, "to fly as a unit for some 45 hours a year and to undergo substantial periods of supplementary training." For this unit, and for other steps in reserve training, the commission recommended that more funds be appropriated and that the personnel be at least doubled. Up to this time the funds available had been barely enough to train reserves already enrolled, and for an increase to a strength of 7,500, then estimated as necessary to carry out all aviation duties, much more money was needed.

A little help in training had been obtained when numerous officers of the Fleet Aviation Reserve were called to active duty as instructors of cadets, because the 15‑day period of active duty to which these officers would otherwise have been entitled could be assigned, instead, to officers of the Volunteer Reserve. On the other hand, this had meant that Fleet Reserve — or, as it was soon to be christened, Organized Reserve — had only 138 officers not on active duty; a mere handful to meet a call for mobilization. By the spring of 1939 the enrollment of reserve aviators amounted to only about 12 per cent of the contemplated strength, and after cuts by the Navy's own budget officer and by the Bureau of the Budget, training funds for the Volunteer Reserve were reduced until they provided for the training of only one officer out of every 25. Capt. Felix Gygax of the Bureau of Navigation, in a report that should stand high among understatements, suggested that two weeks' training every 25 years might fairly be called inadequate. It should be noted, however, that this lack of funds could not with justice be attributed  p307 to Congress, but rather to those who had cut the Navy's original requests and estimates before they ever reached Capitol Hill.

Some other help was in sight as a result of the establishment, under the Civil Aeronautics Authority, of the Civilian Pilot Training Program announced by President Roosevelt at the end of December, 1938. The ostensible purpose of the program was the encouragement of general civilian flying, but behind this lay the hope of providing men who could quickly develop into military pilots. With $100,000 allotted from the National Youth Administration, experimental classes were organized at 13 educational institutions from New York to California, and these were so successful that broader plans designed to provide for training 20,000 pilots a year were drawn. This matter, like those already mentioned, was one that would be taken up in the new naval reserve act.

This was the general situation at the end of Cook's administration. With the help of all hands he had presented the needs of Naval Aviation at the congressional hearings, but before the resulting bill reached final action it became time for him to go to sea again.

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