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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

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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please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p15  Chapter 2


When the bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor, naval aviation had over thirty years of experience behind it. Starting in 1908, when a few naval observers witnessed a demonstration put on by the Wright Brothers for the Army, it had developed slowly until World War I. As a result of that conflict, the value of aviation to the Navy had been recognized and, in 1920, air commands were created within the fleet. Even more significant was the establishment the following year of Aeronautics as one of the co‑ordinate bureaus of the Navy Department. Although aviation, like other branches of the service, was hampered throughout the twenties and early thirties by lack of funds, the first chief of the new bureau, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, by careful handling of the monies at his disposal, was able to carry on considerable experimentation. From this period dated the power catapult used for launching planes from battle­ships and cruisers, the aircraft carrier, and considerable work with large, rigid airships. Of these developments the carrier was easily the most important. In 1922, the Langley,​a converted from the collier Jupiter, joined the fleet and was used largely for experimental purposes in working out the equipment and techniques for efficient carrier operation. The next two carriers, the Lexington and Saratoga, converted from battle-cruiser hulls upon which construction had been halted as a result of the Washington Treaty, were commissioned in 1927.​b The Ranger was the first American ship designed as a carrier from the keel up and was ready in 1933.

The same year that saw the Ranger commissioned also represented the low ebb of aviation during the postwar period. The number of students  p16 at the great training station at Pensacola sank to thirty in May, but the turn was already in sight. First, the Navy benefited from funds available for public works to commence construction on existing air stations and even to begin work on new installations at San Pedro, California, and Sitka, Alaska. With the deterioration of the international situation, it was decided to build upon our defenses and, in 1934, the Vinson-Trammel Act provided a five‑year expansion program for the Navy in which aviation was granted 1,910 additional planes. To obtain pilots for the growing air force, Congress passed the Aviation Cadet Act of 1935. Because the inadequacy of this legislation soon became apparent, further expansion of the Navy was called for in 1936 and 1938. The rapid increase in the size of naval aviation and the constantly changing nature of the program gave rise to numerous problems. Each jump in the number of planes meant that more pilots would be required, and the need for greater pilot recruitment taxed the existing training facilities. By April, 1938, there were 605 students at Pensacola compared to the 30 of some five years before, and one of the ever-present boards was recommending that pilot personnel be doubled. The Naval Aviation Reserve Act of June, 1939, fixed the maximum number of reserve pilots at 6,000. In the meantime, another board, meeting under the chairman­ship of Admiral Hepburn, had studied shore station development and recommended among other things the construction of the giant training base at Corpus Christi, Texas. Late in 1939 the Horne Board investigated the relation­ship between the various phases of the expansion in naval aviation and worked out a percentage system whereby the training program could be expanded to keep pace with plane production.

For the regular officer who entered aviation, training had been based on the theory that he should be proficient in flying all plane types used by the Navy. With the rapid increase in personnel after 1935, such all‑around training gradually gave way to specialization in a particular type. Late in 1938, the President allocated certain emergency funds to the Civilian Pilot Training Program to be administered by the Civil Aeronautics Administration and to be expended in giving preliminary ground and flight training to college students. Both the Army and Navy shared in this program that was given formal sanction by Congress in June of the following year when it was provided that 10,000 students in 460 colleges should be given instruction at a cost of $4,000,000. At the other end of the program was operational training given to pilots after they had gained their wings and joined the fleet. In July, 1941, this phase of the training program was set up independently so that pilots  p17 would henceforth receive, at shore establishments, instruction in such subjects as advanced fighter tactics, additional gunnery, carrier qualification, and advanced training in the particular type of plane in which they were specializing. The purpose of these innovations was to save time and to insure that pilots reporting to the fleet would be ready for immediate employment.

An augmented air force required not only fliers but also a large number of enlisted men for air and ground crews. The Navy had always trained its own mechanics, ordnance, and radiomen largely by the apprentice­ship system at air stations. Under the stress of expansion some quicker method had to be found, and by 1941 there were two large schools for aviation ratings, one at Chicago and the other at Jacksonville, with a capacity of 10,500. Another 4,600 were under instruction at the air stations at Norfolk, Pensacola, San Diego, Alameda, and Seattle. These were in addition to specialized schools for aerographers' mates at Lakehurst, photographers' mates at Pensacola, and parachute riggers at San Diego, Corpus Christi, and Lakehurst. Even with these prodigious efforts, the supply was running behind actual needs, partly because the program was constantly being stepped up and partly because each new plane type proved more complicated than its predecessor and hence required more specialists to care for it.

On 1 February 1941, a course for nonflying aeronautical engineers drawn from civilian life was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After three months of indoctrination the students were sent out to air stations to relieve pilots as engineering officers. This commissioning of civilian specialists recalled a practice of World War I and was to be greatly expanded after Pearl Harbor. By 7 December 1941, the main lines of the training program had been laid down and the necessary techniques learned for the even more rapid expansion that lay ahead.

At the same time the Bureau of Aeronautics was struggling with the problems of procurement. It was one thing to obtain authorization for ever-increasing numbers of aircraft, but it was quite another to obtain delivery. The following figures will give some idea of the disparity between the two:

Authorizations Usable Planes on Hand
17 May 1938 3,000 planes 4 July 1940 1,700 planes
14 June 1940 4,500 31 December 1940 2,199
15 June 1940 10,000 30 June 1941 3,600
19 July 1940​1 15,000 31 December 1941 5,000

 p18  Some of the explanation lay, of course, in the difficulties inherent in planning and in operating the mechanics of procurement. Much more serious were the small size of the aircraft industry and the competition between Army, Navy, and foreign buyers for the limited output. The first was in part outcome by providing government funds for plant expansion. The second problem — that of competition — led to the establishment of the National Advisory Committee under Mr. William S. Knudsen in the summer of 1940 to co‑ordinate the entire aircraft production program. At the same time every effort was made within the Navy Department to improve and speed up planning and procurement methods. The rapidity of the expansion, including sums for new plants, is reflected in appropriations for naval aviation; for the fiscal year 1940, (i.e., 1 July 1939 to 30 June 1940), $131,459,000; for the fiscal year 1941, $982,320,200; and appropriated prior to 7 December 1941 for the fiscal year 1942, $1,016,596,500.

Not only was the number of aircraft increased but also new types were introduced. By the summer of 1941, although the Brewster Buffalo (F2A) was still in use, both navy and marine squadrons were being equipped with the improved Grumman Wildcat (F4F). The Douglass Dauntless (SBD) dive bomber was in use throughout the fleet, and, even though a top‑notch torpedo plane was not yet available, one was under development. For patrol planes the Navy had the Consolidated Catalina (PBY), while the Martin Mariner (PBM) and Consolidated Coronado (PB2Y) were already in production. The old SOC, a Curtiss float plane used on battle­ships and cruisers, was giving way to the Vought-Sikorsky Kingfisher (OS2U). The latter plane was also used widely both for operational training and, in the early part of the war, for anti-submarine patrols. In addition plans were well advanced for the Grumman Avenger (TBF), the Curtiss Helldiver (SB2C), and the Chance-Vought Corsair (F4U).

Along with development of new plane types went the construction of additional ships. In 1936, the Langley, which had been frankly experimental, was retired as a carrier and converted to a seaplane tender. Before Pearl Harbor four other carriers — the Yorktown, Enterprise, Wasp, Hornet — were added to the fleet, and in June, 1941, a merchant vessel was converted with the idea of using it for an auxiliary carrier, especially to escort convoys. This ship, the Long Island, proved to be the  p19 forerunner of over a hundred similar vessels built and converted in American yards for the United States and British navies. As it became obvious that war was drawing closer, the prospect of advanced base operations became more and more certain and the need increased for tenders for patrol planes. Again there was some resort to conversion both of merchant vessels and of old four-stacker destroyers laid up since the First World War. Because the latter were regarded as makeshifts to meet an emergency, work was also begun on a new class of small, especially designed tenders, the first of which — the Barnegat — was commissioned on 3 July 1941.

The steady addition of operating planes created a problem of adequate shore bases. Such older stations as the one at Norfolk began early to suffer from overcrowding and, as naval aviation expanded, there appeared the danger of reduced efficiency from lack of space and repair facilities. Ever since 1923, the Navy had possessed reserve air bases near leading cities for the purpose of giving reserve aviators the opportunity to fly planes whenever possible. Although most of these were relatively little developed beyond the barest essentials for the relatively primitive flying of the twenties and the early thirties, they were capable of development. More important was the great air station at Alameda, California, authorized in 1937. Earlier air stations had grown in a rather hit or miss fashion as aviation developed, but Alameda was designed from the start to serve as a model station, and, although many of its standards were later modified in the light of experience, basic principles of construction and certain other problems of aviation shore establishments were first worked out there. By 1 July 1940 there were already 26 naval and marine air facilities in operation and by 7 December 1941 there were 41 air stations in the continental United States, not including bases in Alaska, overseas or on sites acquired from the British in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and the West Indies.

While the situation was far from ideal when hostilities began at Pearl Harbor, naval aviation had already made great strides in men, equipment, and bases. Even more important, plans had been made to continue expansion at an accelerating rate. When war came, the groundwork had been laid for the rapid building of the most power­ful naval air force in history as an integral part of the most power­ful Navy in history.

The Editor's Note:

1 The act authorizing the 15,000‑plane program further provided that "if in the judgment of the Secretary of the Navy, the total number of airplanes authorized is not sufficient to meet the needs of the national defense, he may, with the approval of the President, make such plans for procurement as the situation may demand." All increases after July, 1940, were made by virtue of this authority.

Thayer's Notes:

a Details of the conversion are given in T. P. Magruder, The United States Navy, p157 f.

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b See Gerald E. Wheeler, Prelude to Pearl Harbor, p55; rather relevantly to our topic, p78 f.; and even more so, p177 and especially note 40.

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