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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p96  Chapter IX

Under Pressure of War

It is not astonishing that the Navy, even as late as April, 1917, gave little space to the air arm in its plans for war. Why should those plans have given space to six flying boats, 45 seaplanes designed only for training, three landplanes, two kite balloons, and one very unsatisfactory dirigible? What value as a striking force could be attached to these, manned by only 43 officers and just over 200 enlisted men of the Navy, with five officers and 30 men of the Marine Corps? To be sure, the Helm Board had recommended the construction of some air stations in the United States but none of these had been completed and when they were built they would be merely defensive. Moreover, when the early plans were being laid, the Navy Department knew little or nothing of what might be expected of the United States in the Allied efforts to fight an air war. Finally, the latest program outlined by the General Board had not been a war program but a long-range, peacetime program, by no means adapted to the probable needs of an air force on active combat service.

As soon as it became plain that entry into World War I was inevitable, some attention was immediately focused upon United States aviation. The earliest attention was not, however, particularly helpful, because it took the form of a bill, introduced into Congress by the always air-minded Representative Hulbert of New York, to create a separate national department of the air under its own Cabinet member. When this bill was brought upon the floor of the House, it was strongly opposed by both Services as well as by many civilians, and it was ultimately "tabled for the duration." In one form or another, through the years, it would appear again, usually sponsored and supported by persons not too well informed of the essential differences between war upon the land and war upon the sea. For the moment it was dead.

Before April, 1917, was out, however, changes in all United States planning were precipitated by the visits to Washington  p97 of the Joffre and the Balfour missions. To listen to the blunt language used by these missions was to realize that the German Army had beaten France almost to her knees, while the U‑boats had drawn England's belt close to the starvation hole. Seven million five hundred thousand tons of Allied shipping had been lost, and against this loss U‑boats were being built faster than they were being sunk. Anything these missions left unsaid was told to Adm. William S. Sims, who went to London in that month as the prospective commander, United States Naval Forces in Europe.

Sims lost no time in echoing the urgent call of the Allies for ships and planes. He put ships first because no system of convoys could be effective unless small, fast vessels to serve as escorts were so plenti­ful that any U‑boat must risk her own life to launch a torpedo. Aircraft as used by the British, French, and Italians were helpful in protecting convoys, but they could not do it all. No program of plane building, wrote Sims to the Navy Department, should be allowed to interfere with the building of small craft to fight submarines. He nevertheless urged building planes to reinforce the British patrols over the coastlines and over the English Channel; to pick up the flash of a periscope reflecting a sunbeam; to peer down, through fog that shrouded friend and foe alike, upon a surfaced U‑boat comfortably charging her batteries. He declared that the United States must eventually send innumerable planes to cover the battlefields as well as the oceans, to spot, to photograph, to rain down bombs. The sooner these planes got overseas the sooner the U‑boats could be stopped.

To push what Admiral Sims described as "aeronautic developments" on this side of the Atlantic, the Navy Department had one good man in exactly the right place. John Towers, veteran of six years' flying, including a tour in London as assistant naval attaché for air, was now a lieutenant commander and in the previous fall, after Bronson had been killed, it had been Towers who took over the aviation desk in the Office of Naval Operations. By the spring of 1917 he had established much better understanding and cooperation in all the bureaus and had gone far to bring about the very thing for which Chambers and Bristol had struggled so long against misunderstanding, inertia, and bureaucracy — the centralized supervision of all aviation activities. In May, 1917, when Capt. Noble E. Irwin, a two‑fisted sailor with no great enthusiasm for aviation, was ordered into the office over Towers' head, it naturally followed that there were some divergences of  p98 opinion between the two. In the main, however, because Irwin had boundless enthusiasm for winning the war, as well as the experienced judgment to recognize a thoroughly capable subordinate, he supported Towers as the directing spirit. This linking of the expert with the officer of rank made it possible for Naval Aviation to do its share in the combined effort of all hands, an effort that before long pushed petty differences out of the office windows in order to let common sense enter the office door.

Immediately the need for considerable expansion of the aviation office became obvious. Accordingly, sections for administration were established, with a section for training under Lieut. E. F. Johnson, and these were soon followed by others. Capt. B. L. Smith of the Marines headed the section for information and planning, while the new lighter-than‑air section was at first headed by Lieut. J. P. Norfleet, later by that noted expert in this branch, Lieut. Zachary Lansdowne. All this expansion had been begun even before the arrival of letters from the Navy in Europe telling Irwin and Towers it would be "absolutely necessary for you to build up a large organization, even larger than some of the Bureaus, well fortified with numbers of technical men in all branches of the aircraft business." Eventually, when not even the conservatism of the Chief of Naval Operations could remain proof against the imperative demand for a separate aviation office, the Secretary of the Navy's order of March 7, 1918, made Irwin Director of Naval Aviation, enabling him to "draw enough water" in the administrative ocean of the Navy Department. Thus it became possible to hold well-organized weekly conferences with all the bureaus, and, as a means of stimulating inter-Allied cooperation, Flight Comdr. H. B. Hobbs, representing the Royal Air Force, could be invited to appear at the conferences in his official capacity. All this, however, was not fully accomplished until the nation had been nearly a year at war.

Such conferences were essential because the aviation activities of the bureaus were expanding rapidly in all directions. In Construction and Repair Hunsaker was now head of a much larger aviation section concerned with design, specification, material supply, construction, and service. In Steam Engineering Lt. Comdr. A. K. Atkins headed an aviation division with the three sections of engineering, production, and operations maintenance, a division which began with Atkins and one typist but soon grew to 40 officers, 60 clerks, and well over 100 inspectors. In the Bureau  p99 of Ordnance a new desk marked "Aviation" took over machine guns, bombs, and sights for aircraft, through three sections known as experimental, technical, and production distribution, besides a special storehouse in Philadelphia where materials were tested and inspected for distribution. Still another bureau, Yards and Docks, established its aviation section under Civil Engineer (later Rear Adm.) Kirby Smith, a section destined to experience its first real naval activity in the construction of air bases overseas, as groups of trained workmen became the forerunners of today's familiar Seabees. Even the Bureau of Navigation, because it was responsible for the Naval Observatory, found itself under pressure for all types of precision instruments for aircraft. Because the Office of Naval Aviation had to deal with so many broad activities, it was vital that it be given a new, fully recognized status as supervisor and coordinator of them all.

In addition, the office had to face the all‑important matter of greatly increasing aviation personnel in the Navy. To attack this problem, Towers was promptly made supervisor of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, which was to be the main source of aviators, volunteers to the last man, in keeping with the Navy's tradition of needing no conscription. Normally this assignment, technically under the Bureau of Navigation, would have meant great complications for Towers but fortunately the Chief of Navigation was the able and distinguished Rear Adm. Leigh C. Palmer. These two made a private agreement under which Towers, without leaving his desk in aviation, could handle his end of all the intricacies of deciding what officers and what enlisted men were needed, where they were to be sought, and how they were to be trained.

Enrollments began at once. Civilians already qualified as aviators were urged to report at headquarters in their respective naval districts where it could be determined whether they met the Navy's educational and physical requirements and where their general reputation as citizens could be learned. Others who met the same requirements except for the lack of training as aviators were also urged to present themselves, and these were to be inducted into training which had three phases: ground school, elementary flight instruction, and advanced work in both of these. Skilled mechanics, carpenters, and engineers were invited to join the Reserve Flying Corps for a term of four years. The unskilled could enlist in a group known as Class 5, but this class filled most slowly because everyone wanted to fly rather than be left on the ground.  p100 Moreover, one rating provided in the class was that of quartermaster, most ambiguous because normally this rating was considered distinctly seagoing. Unlike the army connotation of a man connected with supplies and stores, a quartermaster in the Navy is a man whose regular duties are carried out on the bridge of his ship, as expert helmsman, as assistant to the navigator, or as supervisor of the signalmen. Many of those who enrolled in the confident expectation of being taught to fly found themselves rated as quartermasters and intended to stay on the ground. Mistakes of this kind were numerous in the early days and it took months to correct them.

Machinists, meaning by that term mechanics of all sorts, were naturally in great demand, and their recruiting was pressed from the start. Behind them came the long column of specialists, some as commissioned officers, others as enlisted men to be trained to become officers, administrators, and machinery inspectors; aerographers, balloonists, pigeon fanciers, and groups for instruction in aviation intelligence. Since they all insisted that they had "joined the Navy to fight in the air," the problem of classifying and distributing them to appropriate training stations was as difficult as it was pressing, but at the outset all steps taken to solve the problem were supervised by Naval Aviation. Early in 1918, however, the entire training program was taken over by the Bureau of Navigation.

Pensacola was the only training station in operation at the moment of entry into the war. Its capacity was 64 pilots and the same number of mechanics, but this was ridiculously inadequate for the emergency. The courses were hastily expanded to accommodate the many recruits sent there immediately, in order to give them elementary instruction in naval practice, navigation, seaman­ship, and gunnery, all subjects in which the regulars of prewar years had been instructed at the Naval Academy. Temporary stations were established as soon as possible at East Greenwich, Miami, Key West, and San Diego. The Curtiss Exhibition School at Newport News, Virginia, was taken over for a group to be trained under Bellinger, and the Curtiss plant at Buffalo was occupied by another group under Lieut. W. Capehart with Naval Constructor E. L. Gayhart supervising the course for those who would become inspectors of machinery. James Knapp, president of the American Lithograph Company gave his private seaplane base at Mastic, Long Island, to the Navy, and by the end of May a patrol  p101 unit was in training there. Meantime, New York's militia station at Bay Shore and Massachusetts' militia station at Squantum were commandeered. At the Goodyear plant in Akron, Ohio, a school was opened to train recruits in kite and free balloons.

Many of these stations would be occupied only for limited periods, lasting until the bases which had been permanently selected could be constructed. Work on these bases was started very shortly, notably at Montauk and at Rockaway, the former being pushed along so rapidly that it could be commissioned in August, 1917, its first head being a young man whose name would rise very high in the history of the Navy — Lieut. Marc A. Mitscher. Meanwhile, the First Yale Unit, which had begun training at Palm Beach under Lt. (jg) E. O. McDonnell at a flying school owned by Rodman Wanamaker, soon moved up to Huntington, Long Island. In addition to Trubee Davison, its original organizer, who would eventually be Assistant Secretary of War for Air, this unit included Artemus Gates, who would become Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air and thereafter Undersecretary of the Navy; Robert Lovett, another future Assistant Secretary of War for Air; and David Ingalls, who would become not only the Navy's only ace in World War I but also, in his turn, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air. As another expedient, through an agreement made by Towers with the Royal Flying Corps, United States student officers and flying cadets began their training as pilots, observers, and gunners under qualified Canadian instructors. Under an agreement made with the Canadian Government, Toronto was used in the summer and certain army fields in Texas in the winter for this work, designed to train ten United States squadrons. Eventually the program produced 37 officers and 80 observers. Among groups taking that training was the Princeton Unit, with which James Forrestal, destined to be Secretary of the Navy in World War II and later Secretary of Defense, was enrolled.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the general charge of Lieut. E. H. McKittrick, a ground school was started. Begun to handle only student pilots, the courses were rapidly expanded to include a large number of those enrolled for nonflying duties such as those of inspection, an expansion which was the means of relieving Pensacola of some of its heavy burden. This Massachusetts school would carry on a good deal of the training until the Navy's large station at Great Lakes, Illinois, could get into full operation, a period of about a year. Long before that,  p102 however, the Great Lakes station would be in partial operation, and by December of 1917 it would be handling large numbers of both officers and enlisted men, its program gradually absorbing a number of the small, temporary schools and stations. This absorption would involve the overhauling of courses of instruction to standardize the curriculum, a work in which the services of Dr. Charles E. Lucke of Colombia University, commissioned a lieutenant commander in the Reserve, and his staff have always been described as of the greatest possible assistance.

Other training activities established included a course for balloon winchmen, 20 of them at a time, at the Pelham Bay Training Camp; a gunnery school at Miami; and a special radio school at the same place. One small detachment of marines was sent to the Army balloon school at St. Louis and from there to another school at Omaha; a detachment, incidentally, which would have the bad luck never to get overseas. Still another, a radio unit, was organized at Harvard University, its students supplementing their classroom instruction with practical training by periods spent in radio rooms aboard ship.

By the end of 1917 some of the confusion in enlisted ratings was cleared. Men who had been originally enrolled in such ratings in the regular Navy as quartermaster were given their discharges, immediately re‑enrolled in the Reserve Flying Corps, and reassigned to learn to be what they had always wanted to be — fliers. Similarly when the Secretary of the Navy at this time called for 8,000 more men in the technical ratings, it was clearly specified that they were wanted for work on assembly and repair, not as ultimate pilots or observers. They were enrolled either in the regular Navy for the duration of the war or in the Reserve Corps. To augment the numbers answering this call special examinations were conducted at six different training stations, to hunt out personnel in other assignments who might meet the aviation standards, and in these examinations requirements for aviation ratings were modified to apply specifically to such duties as radio, gunnery, photography, and the like. Some 400 men were picked up in this way.

In May, 1918, partly because the prospect of enemy submarine attacks upon the Atlantic coast laid heavier demands upon the general defense facilities of coastal stations, the training program was again revised. For this reason and also because a year of experiment suggested many improvements and the need of further expansion,  p103 greater use of the inland training stations was sought. While ground school training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was continued with enlarged classes, a second such school was established at Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis and a third one at the University of Washington, Seattle. An expansion followed in the study of aerology, the importance of which became more fully recognized with each passing day. Notwithstanding the early urgings of Captain Chambers and others, aviators had been inclined to classify the weather either as "good," when they could fly, or as "bad," when they were grounded, quite over­looking the many degrees between these two extremes. When they found themselves in war service, flying in Europe with the Allies, they discovered that such duties as escorting a convoy forced the aviator himself to be a judge of weather able to interpret by signs around him the advice of weather experts miles away. Consequently, in February, 1918, Dr. A. G. McAdie, director of Harvard's Blue Hill Observatory, was enrolled as a lieutenant commander to establish appropriate courses. After he had done this at home he was sent abroad to reorganize the United States Aerology Service at foreign stations where Americans were serving, a forerunner of the very much larger service established in World War II.

There were advantages and disadvantages in the use of civilian instructors and of colleges and their campuses for the training of officers and men. While it was of great assistance to be able to use buildings and equipment that already existed, it was inevitable that the civilian student body should be inclined to regard these facilities as its own and to resent "intruders." Also there was a distinct difference between the points of view of civilian and military instructors, the latter regarding the former as too theoretical, the former holding the latter to be both too practical and too concerned with military forms and procedures. One experiment tried was that of using chief petty officers as instructors; it was only a partial success because while these men were usually well informed upon their subjects they inevitably had difficulty in controlling student officers. Ultimately differences with civilians were largely reconciled and better teaching was made possible by using as instructors officers who had been through flight training and who had also learned something of the art of teaching from academic boards like that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On the other hand, a difficulty never fully overcome resulted from delay in the receipt of necessary equipment for instruction. Technical  p104 advance in aviation being relatively so rapid during these war months, instructors were almost always aware that they were without the latest devices, and students came to think they were being taught what was obsolescent if not already obsolete. This was particularly true in classes which included students coming from the Fleet with a little experience.

As more was learned of Allied needs for support along special lines and as strategic and tactical plans were amended, corresponding modifications had to be made in the training programs. Thus the project for using towed lighters as seaplane carriers and the later project for bombing enemy bases with landplanes manned by the Navy both affected the training courses in the United States and changed the requirements for pilots to be sent overseas. Almost month by month the importance of keeping the home training program flexible became more and more apparent, especially because criticism by officers on duty abroad was often very sharp. Some of these critics insisted that aviators should have been taught much more of the mechanics of their motors, instruments, and planes. Others said that a pilot's having a "signed card" in his pocket was no real proof of his qualifications because he had probably been taught all the wrong things. Still others declared that only one "bomber" in ten had any adequate idea of the principles and the technique of bombing.

In retrospect it appears clear that great urgency combined with a swiftly changing technical situation to make it practically impossible for the United States to deliver pilots, observers, bombardiers, and mechanics trained to the minute. Unquestionably there was confusion and some unfortunate fumbling, especially in the early days, but there was no more of both than was inevitable in a nation plunging into a war for which it was in every mental and physical, not to say moral, respect totally unprepared.

In practice much that was lacking in the training of those going overseas was supplied during a few crowded weeks or even days at foreign stations, partly by Americans who had landed a little earlier, largely by Allied instructors. Where and for how long this final training could be given was left entirely to the discretion of Admiral Sims and his senior aid for aviation, Capt. Hutch I. Cone. The number of those who received such training, in all more than one quarter of the United States Naval Forces in Europe, together with the number of those who enrolled to go abroad but did not get there, appears in the table below:

 p105  Officers sent overseas 1,237
Officers serving in the United States 5,479
Enlisted men sent overseas 16,287
Enlisted men in the United States 14,406
Total at home and abroad, all ranks and ratings 37,409

The record made by these men, eventually dressed in the forest green uniform and (when they had earned it) wearing the prized gold-wing badge, will stand comparison with the record they and their successors would build with the far more advanced weapons and the much wider opportunities of World War II.

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