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Chapter 31

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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Chapter 33
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p362  Chapter 32

Naval Air Transport Service

Railroad timetables and other travel schedules have always possessed a peculiar fascination for the American people. In peacetime no dream has been as persistent among both young and old as that conjured up concerning distant places. It is regrettable that wartime security prevented the arm‑chair explorer from reading the schedules set up by the Naval Air Transport Service, or as it was familiarly but not disrespectfully called, NATS. Without moving from his chair or shifting his pipe in his mouth, the vicarious traveler could have planned a trip from an airport outside Paris, France, to the east coast of the United States, across the continent to Oakland, and thence to such distant places as Okinawa or the Philippines. There were side trips that could be taken, perhaps a jaunt down through the Caribbean to Rio, possibly a trip to Australia by way of the Hawaiian Islands, or conceivably to the remote reaches of the Aleutian chain.

These schedules were there, it is true, but of course it is equally true that the trips were not pleasure cruises, as will be sworn to by anyone who has sat for hours on end, literally, in the uncompromising bucket seats of the navy transports. These flights were a vital part of the war effort. If aircraft could be used as a potent fighting weapon, it was found that it could also be employed as a reliable and speedy method of transportation for essential personnel and equipment.

The story of NATS in this war, like that of any other major development in naval aviation, is account of a hard‑won progress from small beginnings to a huge and highly organized system. In general, the development falls into three major categories — NATS in the Atlantic theater, NATS in the Pacific area, and the ferry service that took planes to the combat regions.

NATS in the Atlantic

Even prior to the entrance of the United States into the war, the experience of the British had demonstrated a need for an air transport  p363 service run by the military forces; yet in this country both the Army and the Navy were slow to realize the importance of aviation for the rapid distribution of men and supplies. The Navy, for example, in this period, depended upon a few utility squadrons to meet its requirement for air transport. There were no schedules, no established routes, when the acquisition of new bases as a result of the destroyers-for‑bases deal with England made it clear that utility squadrons, already flooded with other duties, were inadequate for the task of supplementing the slower movement of goods by sea through submarine-infested waters.

The Navy was the first major service in this country to take steps to fill this gap in transportation facilities. Some time in 1941 plans for a regular, scheduled air service began to take shape. The first proposals came from Mr. C. H. Schildauer, a civilian employed by the Glenn L. Martin Company as sales manager of marine equipment. As a graduate of the Naval Academy, as a former employee of Pan‑American Airways for whom he had helped investigate both transpacific and transatlantic routes, and finally as a man experienced in flying boats, Mr. Schildauer had both great technical capacity in questions relating to air transport and close connections with the Navy.

As a result of the work of Mr. Schildauer, it was decided to inaugurate an air division within the Naval Transportation Service, which was to function under the Chief of Naval Operations. Accordingly, on 1 December 1941, Mr. Schildauer was called into the service as a commander (later captain) to commence plans and studies for the establishment of such a service. The advent of war less than a week later speeded up the program, and on 12 December 1941 the President authorized the Naval Air Transport Service.

The early months were hectic. Personnel had to be secured, and like Captain Schildauer, other men were drawn from the commercial airlines. Not too many could be brought in from these lines, however, for fear of paralyzing the commercial air transport system. These men who joined NATS were trained and thoroughly schooled in airline procedures. This fact had its obvious advantages, but it also had disadvantages, for the airline procedures of maintenance and operation in many cases differed considerably from those of the Navy. The Navy was willing to compromise; from this nucleus of personnel the vast NATS organization was built up, pilots and maintenance crews assigned by the Navy were trained in approved airline methods, and NATS routes were pushed into areas where no commercial pilots had penetrated and under conditions that they had not faced before.

 p364  The beginning of operations was dependent upon the acquisition of planes as well as of personnel, and in this connection difficulties appeared immediately. In the first place only sixteen planes capable of the extended overwater flights contemplated by NATS existed in the United States, and they were in private hands. In the second place, new plane construction of the standard Douglas two‑engined transport, the DC‑3 (termed R4D by the Navy and C‑47 by the Army), and the four-engined transport made by the same company, the commercial DC‑4 (called R5D by the Navy and C‑54 by the Army) were both in that sector of the aircraft industry that came under army supervision. New land planes for NATS could, therefore, be obtained only through the Army, which was struggling with its own problems and, concentrating on heavy bomber development, was not inclined to encourage the building of transports. It was not until June, 1942, that the Army set up its own military transport service, the justly celebrated Air Transport Command.

A possible source for seaplanes existed in the patrol boats already being used by the Navy or under development. Although these had not been designed with the thought of use as transports, it was found that they could be adapted for such use by making changes in fittings and equipment. The Martin Mariner (PBM) and the Consolidated Coronado (PB2Y), therefore, came to be widely used by NATS.

Another possible source of planes was to use the craft of commercial airlines. In this case, however, instead of commandeering these planes, in actuality, the Navy reached a two‑way arrangement whereby NATS used commercial planes, and the commercial lines used some navy seaplanes in connection with their contract work with NATS.

With a minimum of personnel, much of it inexperienced, and what planes it could obtain from the airlines, adapt from combat types, and beg from the Army, NATS began operations. On 29 January 1942, the first plane, an R4D was received at Norfolk, and on 3 February the first flight was undertaken. For a month, pilots and crews were given their initial training for the great event, and on 2 March 1942, the first regular flight took off from Norfolk for Squantum, Massachusetts. A couple of days later another flight set out from Norfolk for Jacksonville, Florida. One week after the first R4D took to the air, the first NATS squadron was formally commissioned, and it might be said that NATS was really under way.

During 1942 the main emphasis was on development on the North American continent. In April, operations were commenced on the Pacific coast, and a squadron was set up at Kansas City to make possible  p365 more co‑ordinated transcontinental flights. New Squadrons were needed and commissioned, with the emphasis on the Caribbean during the first year of operation. One seaplane squadron was established at Dinner Key, Florida, and served the dual purpose by carrying men and materials to the Caribbean and of being a training center for new pilots. Another squadron, using land planes, operated out of Miami to points in the Caribbean and ultimately as far south in Latin America as Montevideo.

Despite the rise in importance of the Caribbean area, the pressure became increasingly heavy on Norfolk, which was burdened by other aviation and naval problems. Consequently, much of the NATS activity was transferred to Patuxent, Maryland. This was a new station, devoted primarily to testing, but it had a great deal of available space, and Patuxent became important for NATS, both from the standpoint of operations and of maintenance.

Transatlantic Schedules

Until December, 1943, NATS did not attempt direct transatlantic flights, but left this phase of operations to contract operators Pan‑American Airways, and American Export Airlines. These lines maintained services to the United Kingdom by way of Newfoundland and Ireland, and from the latter point connections were maintained to Port Lyautey in French Morocco and to Lisbon. Pan‑American also operated south of Port Lyautey as far as Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo. At times, also, both lines operated shuttle services from North Africa to Natal, Brazil, from which point it was possible to transfer to planes operating south from Florida.

Although with the assignment of a Skymaster (R5D) to a NATS squadron a trial flight was made to Scotland as early as May, 1943, no regular service was initiated until the end of the year. On 20 December 1943 the first R5D began flying the route from Patuxent River to Port Lyautey. By May, 1944, these big planes had added to their itinerary a run from the United States to Scotland.

With the great increase of equipment and personnel during 1944, it became advisable to release the commercial airlines from their contracts and permit them to return to their more usual tasks of providing commercial transportation for representatives of nonmilitary departments of government, of Allied and neutral nations, and of civilians having legitimate reasons to travel in wartime. The two airlines had contributed heavily to the Navy's war effort not only by maintaining essential routes  p366 when NATS possessed neither the equipment nor the personnel but also by showing the infant NATS the way in many phases of operation. By late 1944, however, the child had outgrown its teachers and was able to go it alone.

Atlantic operations reached their peak during 1944. During that year NATS maintained routes all the way from the United Kingdom to Uruguay, and over these routes flowed a steady stream of high-priority mail, cargo, and personnel. No matter how frequent the flights or how large the planes, there never seemed to be quite enough service to met the demand. Unlike much combat flying, air transport was at its best when it was least exciting — when schedules were maintained, accidents nonexistent, and routine flight uninterrupted.

In addition, however, to the regular schedules that formed the backbone of the work, NATS was frequently called upon for emergency deliveries. In May, 1943, it was learned that a carrier, badly needed in the Pacific, was being held at the Canal Zone pending the arrival of droppable gas tanks for its planes. A NATS plane took off from Norfolk, despite the fact that the field was closed by weather, went to Chicago and picked up the tanks. From Chicago it went to Long Island for fittings for the tanks and then proceeded by way of Miami to Panama, arriving about noon on the day following the receipt of the order.

The following February, a French destroyer was desperately short of ammunition unobtainable in the Mediterranean area. Two R5D's arrived in Bizerte, each carrying about 10,000 pounds of the needed material only 34 hours and 40 minutes after leaving Floyd Bennett Field, and one of the planes performed the added service of spotting and reporting a German submarine en route.

The most important of these special missions occurred in connection with the Normandy invasion, when, on 14 May 1944, the order came to move approximately 112 tons of special equipment which according to the official report "was of the most urgent nature and one of factors upon which the success of the operation hinged." NATS employed eight R5D's to transport 165,250 pounds of cargo in sixteen round trips between 15 and 23 May, while the Air Transport Command moved the remaining 57,205 pounds in eleven trips.

The success­ful prosecution of the war in Europe enabled NATS to turn its attention more and more to the Pacific. One after another, Atlantic operations were curtailed and then canceled. On 12 February, even the central command of NATS moved west as Rear Admiral J. W.  p367 Reeves, Jr., took up his post at Alameda, California, as head of a fleet command.

NATS in the Pacific

Because of the vast distances involved, a naval air transport service was even more vital to the prosecution of the war in the Pacific area than in Europe. The early problems were much the same. As one of the NATS pioneers phrased it, "We started with a headful of ideas and a handful of equipment and personnel." Fortunately, in the Pacific as well as in the Atlantic, there was the Pan‑American Airways to fall back on. Prior to the war, the Pacific Division of Pan‑American Airways had maintained a flying boat service from San Francisco to Honolulu, and on to the Far East. This service had been terminated by the outbreak of war, but within a week the shuttle service to Honolulu had been resumed, with Pan‑American's planes under navy owner­ship and operated by Pan‑American pending a formal contract with the Navy Department.

These contract operations with the Pan‑American Airways were the beginning and foundation of naval air transport in the Pacific. As the pressure for an increase in the shuttle service became greater, the Navy and the airlines company at first worked in co‑operation to meet the demand. Operations by the Navy itself began on 1 April 1942 with the establishment at Alameda of a NATS squadron. By the middle of May routes had been opened to Corpus Christi, Texas, the great naval air training base, and to Seattle to link with the Alaskan Division of Pan‑American. With one exception the planes flown were land planes. The exception was a seaplane, an XPBS‑1, that was used on the flight to Hawaii. During the spring and early summer, this plane shuttled between San Francisco and Hawaii, but at the end of that period it crashed, killing one of the copilots. One of the passengers, who was uninjured, was Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

By the end of the summer, not one but many seaplanes appeared to replace the XPBS‑1. Coronados were used for the trip to Hawaii, and Mariners were used for island hopping in the South Pacific.

The opening of scheduled flights to the far Pacific was preceded by survey flights. One of these was made late in August and left small groups of key personnel to welcome a larger survey flight that followed the first. As a result of these flights, bases were established from Palmyra to Brisbane, Australia, and by the end of 1942, NATS service to Australia was in full swing.

The following year saw a great rise in the NATS activity and organization  p368 in the Pacific. Young NATS officers were sent out practically single-handed to obtain a seaplane anchorage and secure necessary equipment. One of the most commonly told yarns is of Lieutenant Dobbins, whose special assignment was to find and procure a boat to meet incoming planes at Espiritu Santo. The naval officer found a man who had an extra boat, but would release it only for some wire. Lieutenant Dobbins scurried about and found another man who had some extra wire, plus an insatiable thirst. The officer found a means with which to quench the thirst, received the wire in exchange, bartered it for the boat, and the planes were met at Espiritu Santo.

A difficult portion of the Pacific venture of NATS was the Alaskan theater. Planes were valuable in evacuating wounded from Attu. In addition, a listing of the cargoes of NATS planes in the Alaskan area would include refrigerated whole blood, Russian fliers, penicillin, the Truman Committee, and a 4,844‑pound pump for a submarine.

Meanwhile, the expansion of NATS in the whole Pacific area was phenomenal. A few figures will demonstrate the point. In the last half of 1944, NATS Pacific flew 18,323,409 plane miles as compared with 5,030,829 plane miles in the first half of 1943. Total ton‑miles show an even greater growth, with 68,329,587 flown in the last half of 1944 as compared with 14,153,182 in the first half of 1943.

It was one of the anomalies of NATS operations that the facilities were rarely adequate until after the operational peak had passed. Thus the South Pacific bases had no sooner been improved to a point at which they provided reasonable facilities and living accommodations than the war moved ahead toward Japan, and these accommodations had been left for more primitive conditions farther along the road to victory.

One of the outstanding developments of NATS in the Pacific was the inauguration of a service, described elsewhere, to evacuate wounded from the advanced area.

Two new planes were designed for NATS use. One, the Conestoga (RB‑1) a stainless-steel plane that was developed during a period when aluminum was critical, proved unsatisfactory for naval use. The other, however, was the huge Mars (JRM‑1) originally designed as a patrol plane but found much more adaptable to transport work. The original Mars did yeoman work in the Pacific from November 1943 until the spring of 1945.

NATS Ferry Service

Before the outbreak of hostilities, planes had been constructed at the factory and picked up there by pilots from the squadron to which they  p369 had been assigned. Under war conditions, it would have been impossible to continue this practice that would have created bottlenecks at the plants and delayed prompt delivery to combat units.

In order to meet this problem, commissioning units were set up to install special equipment and armament. This action still did not solve the problem of getting the planes to the operating units. At first the burden fell upon the naval air stations in New York and San Diego and the naval air facility at Columbus, Ohio, since they were situated near the principal manufacturers of naval combat planes. At these locations aircraft delivery units were established as part of the air‑station organization. Originally, these units relied for fliers upon pilots with civilian experience whose age prohibited their use in combat. All sorts of fliers, amateurs, ex‑stunt pilots, crop-dusters, former combat airmen with the Navy and the RAF, were enrolled and set to work. Training consisted mainly of beginning with ferrying primary trainers and progressing through more advanced trainers to combat types. Because no regular routes existed, ferry pilots chose their own, obtaining gas and service from army, navy, or civilian fields along the way, keeping in touch with the home unit by sending a telegram indicating where they intended to spend the night. It was rough and rugged but it kept planes moving.

By autumn of 1943, however, it became apparent that such a haphazard method of ferrying vital war planes needed to be junked for something more appropriate to the demands. The net result was the commissioning, on 1 December 1943, of the Naval Air Ferry Command, with Captain John W. King at the head. Organized as part of NATS, the Ferry Command underwent few organizational changes, but did undergo remarkable development.

The most important features of the new command were the establishment of definite ferry routes with competent service units along the line. Formerly, if a plane broke down along the line, parts and repairmen had to be dispatched from either New York or San Diego.

The setting up of an organization, of course, did not solve all problems. The question of personnel was a critical one. Some of the old‑timers objected to the somewhat binding rules of the new schedules and controlled conditions of flight. For a time, pilots from operational squadrons were assigned to ferrying duties, but this worked with indifferent success. Eventually, special schools were set up to train ferry pilots, and this eased the situation. All in all, the ferry service performed well a vital function in the work of the Naval Air Transport Service.

 p370  The termination of the war did not bring to an end the work of NATS, and in fact in the Far East the routes were extended for the use of the occupation forces. The work of NATS will live in another way. Starting with a heavy debt to commercial airlines, after the war these airlines will in turn profit immeasurably by the wartime experiences of NATS.

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