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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p70  Chapter 8

"Good Neighbors"
Win the Battle of the South Atlantic

The struggle against Nazi submarines and blockade runners in the South Atlantic continued throughout the course of the war against Germany. The diplomatic aspects of activity in this theater, coupled with the fact that this warfare came to a peak during 1943, make it desirable for purposes of clarity to deal with this phase of the war as a unit, rather than to break the story into chronological segments.

Naval aviation's development in Brazil for the immediate purpose of waging anti-submarine warfare in the South Atlantic was so tied up with long-range diplomatic objectives that any attempt to separate the two would lead to confusion. To the average observer, the winning of the war in the strategic waters between South America and Africa was an obvious triumph, but fighting U‑boats was neither the beginning nor the sole result of our efforts in that area.

Antecedents of U. S. naval aviation in South America, particularly in Brazil, go far back,​a but the first definite step toward obtaining air bases came in November, 1940, when the United States Government, through the War Department, negotiated a contract with the Pan‑American Airport Corporation (subsidiary of Pan‑American Airways) for the purpose of creating certain additional land airports and seaplane bases, improving existing bases, and providing other specified facilities.

For many years, developments in South America had been a matter of grave concern to those entrusted with our international relations and our national security. Fascist commercial, ideological, and political infiltration, too well known to require discussion here, presented a very real threat to the political integrity of the Latin American republics, and in turn to the safety of the United States itself. It was well recognized that if Fascism overran South America, we in the United States could bid farewell to security. It was recognized, too, that in the event  p71 of actual hostilities between the United States and the German-Italian Axis, Brazil would occupy a position of great strategic importance as a steppingstone for invasion of North America, or, if that did not develop, as a site for bases to be used by one belligerent or the other in the South Atlantic submarine war.

By 1940 the situation, from our point of view, had become critical. Our State and War departments increased their co‑operative efforts for the dual purpose of combating Fascist infiltration in South America (at the same time building up United States influence in that area) on the one hand, and securing bases for the operation of American armed forces in Brazil on the other. The contract with Pan American was the first and most important act in attaining the latter objective.

The first bases provided under the contract were built for the U. S. Army, actual construction being carried out by ADP (Airport Development Program, subsidiary of Pan‑American) under supervision of the U. S. Engineering Department. They were used, originally, for ferrying war planes to Africa and the Far East. In 1941 and 1942 bases for this purpose were established at 1 Amapá, 2 Belem, 3 Fortaleza, 4 Fernando de Noronha, Natal, and 5 Ibura Field (Recife). A glance at the map will indicate the strategic location of these bases in forming a chain of stopovers along the northeast coast of Brazil on the plane ferry route from the United States to war areas across the South Atlantic.

In the meantime, naval aviation was arriving in Brazil. In early 1941, Task Force 3 (later 23) under command of Rear Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, was assigned the duty of long-range patrol in the southernmost area covered by our Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic. As the area of the U‑boat depredations extended southward, Admiral Ingram's force moved south ahead of it, extending protection to shipping, and building up our  p72 naval and diplomatic relation­ships with Brazil. Based originally on San Juan and Guantanamo, Task Force 3 visited Recife in April, 1941, and shortly thereafter was using both Recife and Bahia as replenishing stations. At this time the only U. S. naval aviation units operating in this area were the ship-based scouting planes of Scouting Squadron 2, operating from cruisers of Cruiser Division 2 (Cruiser Division 2 comprised the major part of Task Force 3). Patrol squadrons of land-based planes, however, were soon to come into the picture.

Because obviously we could not establish military installations and activities within the territory of a friendly power without the consent of its government, the problem in its early stages was a diplomatic one in which the Navy was concerned only in so far as it could be of assistance to the State Department. Although relations between the United States and Brazil had usually been friendly and an American naval mission at Rio de Janeiro had fostered mutual confidence between the navies of the two countries, the Brazilian authorities can hardly be blamed for feeling a little hesitant about admitting our soldiers and sailors to their territory. As long as the war in Europe favored the Axis, the possibility existed that friendliness toward the United States and Britain might ultimately bring reprisals. Strong, carefully fostered German and Italian interests were there to remind the Brazilians of what might happen in case of an Allied defeat.

As the danger of open conflict between the United States and the Axis became more evident, the inadequacy of the program carried on by Pan American Airways through the Airport Development Program was revealed. This was one reason for sending Task Force 3 under Admiral Ingram to Belem in April, 1941; it indicated to the Brazilians both our desire and ability to help in their defense. At the same time our Embassy was instructed to obtain air bases in Brazil as an open governmental matter and to win permission for American military men to operate in the open rather than surreptitiously as the employees of a private company. Success in gaining the desired concessions was conclusive evidence of the friendly disposition of the Brazilian government and people, even in the days when things were not going so well for our side, and of the skill and tact of our diplomatic and military representatives. So well did the latter do their work that in 1942, when Brazil declared war, President Vargas delegated operational command of the Brazilian Army, Navy and Air Force to Admiral Ingram, giving him full authority and responsibility for the protection of Brazilian territorial and sea areas.

 p73  Aviation Bases

It has been noted that the first U. S. aviation bases established in Brazil were built for the use of the Army. At the outset, the Navy did not intend to use landplanes in this area, and as a consequence confined its recommendations to seaplane bases. In April, 1941, these recommendations were revised to include five seaplane bases. On one of these, the Natal seaplane base, construction was started in March, 1941, and the others followed at intervals. Since this work was being done by ADP under U. S. Army supervision, and since the Army had construction of its own going on at some of these places as well as at many others, the navy program was necessarily slow and irregular. The seaplane base at Belem, for example, was not begun until September, 1943, although it was one of the first authorized. In the meantime, naval planes used army bases and facilities at some points pending construction of their own.

Construction of U. S. naval bases in Brazil was under Admiral Ingram, who served successively under the titles of Commander, Task Force 3; Commander, Task Force 23; Commander, South Atlantic Force; and, beginning in March, 1943, Commander, Fourth Fleet. The setup at the outset was not too satisfactory because of the devious channels through which recommendations and requests had to be routed. Fourth Fleet made requests or recommendations to Naval Operations who, after approval, forwarded the request to the Bureau of Yards and Docks. The bureau then passed the word to the chief engineer in the War Department, and, after it passed from him to the division engineer, it finally reached the contractor who was to do the work.

In October, 1942, a fleet civil engineer and several Civil Engineer Corps officers were added to Admiral Ingram's staff to represent the Navy at construction locations, plan and supervise construction, and thus simplify and expedite the carrying through of the air base program. The result was salutary to a high degree, and to the Fourth Fleet and its Fleet Engineer Office belongs much of the credit for the rapid expansion of our air power in Brazil.

As war operations became more intense in the South Atlantic in the early days of 1943, it became apparent that the seaplane base program was inadequate. Naval land-based planes were using army fields and facilities as bases for convoy coverage and anti-submarine patrol, causing congestion of fields and personnel facilities. In the interest of efficiency, and in anticipation of further expansion, it was highly desirable that the  p74 Navy have landplane facilities of its own. Accordingly, Admiral Ingram, on 9 February 1943, recommended a program of landplane base construction for the Navy. This program, with increases recommended by Commander, Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, was approved by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations on 22 May 1943.

In the meantime, Commander-in‑Chief, U. S. Fleet, had recommended, on 26 February 1943, the diversion of two airship docks with facilities, and twelve operating blimps to northeastern Brazil. After approval by the secretary of the Navy, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations appointed a board to make recommendations for the lighter-than‑air program in Brazil, including location of the blimp bases. The board made its report on 8 April 1943, and on 17 May the Vice Chief of Naval Operations directed that the board's recommendations be acted upon. Accordingly, lighter-than‑air facilities were installed at ten sites along the Brazilian coast. The main overhaul base (for the operation and maintenance of twelve airships) was established at Santa Cruz, near Rio de Janeiro, where an old German hangar built for the Graf Zeppelin was made available for navy use.

Additions were made from time to time to the programs outlined above, with the result that by late 1943 an unbroken chain of naval air bases extended from French Guiana in the north, 2,500 air miles along the Brazilian coast to Santa Cruz, near Rio de Janeiro, in the south. Beginning at Amapá, near the French Guiana border, and extending to Rio de Janeiro, the bases supported landplanes, seaplanes, and blimps for a complete coverage of adjacent waters in convoy escort and anti-submarine patrol.

In 1944, the United States extended aid to the government of Uruguay in constructing a landplane base on Laguna del Sauce, also in the general area of Montevideo. This marked the most southerly limit of the base support for land-based naval planes in the Western Hemisphere.

Land-based Operations

The first squadron of naval patrol planes to come to Brazil was Patrol Squadron 52, which arrived in Catalinas at Natal in December, 1941, as a part of the Neutrality Patrol. These planes used the Pan American facilities at Natal, and their work consisted largely of patrol flights, since no submarines had appeared in the Brazilian area up to that time, and Brazil was still at peace with Germany and Italy. The pilots and crews  p75 lived ashore in the town or in tents and other makeshift facilities near the Pan American ramp. They remained at Natal until relieved by Patrol Squadron 83.

On 7 April 1942, six Catalinas of Patrol Squadron 83 landed at Natal, to be followed, on 13 June 1942 by the other six planes of the squadron. On the night of the arrival of the first planes, the men were surprised to hear the story of their arrival on the German nightly news broadcast. The news, it was later established, had been radioed to the Nazis by personnel of the German Condor Air Line quartered near by.

With the coming of Patrol Squadron 83, naval aviation's part in the war in the South Atlantic began in earnest. The first attack on a submarine was made on 2 May 1942 off the island of Fernando de Noronha. While submarines in great numbers had not yet begun operations in Brazilian waters, sinkings had become alarming in the Trinidad area, and it was expected that the undersea boats would soon move south in force to attack shipping along the entire coast of Brazil. Accordingly, a convoy system for important shipping was established between Trinidad and Bahia starting in June, 1942, and Patrol Squadron 83 started protective convoy sweeps at that time. By the year's end all important shipping was convoyed south of Trinidad as far as Bahia.

It is interesting to note the manner in which the squadron, with no base facilities to speak of, and little equipment beyond its twelve planes, managed to cover convoys over the 2200‑mile line from Cape Orange to Bahia. It must be remembered that Patrol Squadron 83 was at that time the only naval squadron in Brazil, and that practically the only bases available outside of Natal were Pan‑American fields or partially completed army bases consisting mainly of runways, and having absolutely no facilities for quartering or messing naval personnel.

When word came from Fourth Fleet that a convoy was due to come into the squadron's area (a Trinidad-Bahia convoy for example) the squadron, based at Natal, would send a detachment of two or three planes north to Belem and Amapá. On arrival at one of these sites, a camp of tents for the plane crew would be set up adjacent to the runways (or the landing area, if a water landing had been made), and all hands would cook their own meals and spend the night. The following day one or two planes would go out and cover the convoy, while the crew of the third plane broke camp, packed up the tents and mess gear and proceeded to the next night's stopping point where they would have the camp established in time for the return of the crews of the two planes out covering the convoy. The following day the plane that had  p76 made the camp would take the coverage, and the process would be repeated until the convoy had reached Bahia. When day and night coverage was required, four planes instead of the usual two or three would be sent.

Patrol Squadron 83 carried the entire burden as the sole U. S. naval plane squadron in Brazil until 7 November 1942, when Patrol Squadron 74 arrived at the Natal seaplane ramp and joined in the work. The next to arrive was Patrol Squadron 94, the first detachment of which landed at Natal on 7 January 1943. These three squadrons were the only ones operating in Brazil up until the forming and reporting of Fleet Air Wing 16, and they became the original three squadrons of the wing.

It should be noted at this point that Patrol Squadron 83 made important contributions to the technique of anti-submarine warfare during its pioneer months in South America. The whole game was new, and the squadron, through trial and error, built up its methods and passed them on to the squadrons which came later and were assigned to Natal for familiarization.

In March, 1943, the Germans began to intensify their submarine operations in the South Atlantic. In anticipation of this development, Fleet Air Wing 16 had been commissioned at Norfolk on 16 February under command of Captain R. D. Lyon, USN. Its function was to control and co‑ordinate under the Fourth Fleet all air operations and training of U. S. Navy squadrons and other aircraft assigned to the Fourth Fleet. Captain Lyon reported to Commander, Fourth Fleet, on 14 April 1943, and wing headquarters were set up in Natal.

At this time Patrol Squadrons 83 and 94, with Catalina amphibian planes, were based at Parnamirin Field, Natal, using the field jointly with the U. S. Army; and Patrol Squadron 74, with Martin Mariner seaplanes, was located at the Natal seaplane ramp. Detachments of planes from these squadrons were kept at the Pan‑American and army fields and seaplane landing areas at six other spots along the Brazilian coast.

The arrival of the wing in Brazil was a part of the expansion program designed to combat the greatly increased operations of submarines in the area, and occurred at the time when approval was being granted for construction of extensive landplane base facilities. The coming intensification of the anti-submarine effort, entailing as it would the assignment of many additional squadrons and the carrying out of co‑ordinated surface, land-based and carrier-based air attacks, made necessary a co‑ordinating command such as the wing would afford.

The task force principle was applied in this as well as in other  p77 theaters of war. The operational phase of Fleet Air Wing 16 was, therefore, designated as Task Force 44 and assigned a basic mission. This mission included a patrol of the seas off the coast of Brazil, air coverage for convoys as needed, intensive anti-submarine operations in conjunction with surface vessels or independently when needed, and co‑operation with surface vessels in attacks on blockade runners or raiders. At a later date, the training of Brazilian squadrons and detachments was included as an additional duty.

From the date of the arrival of the wing, the anti-submarine warfare was stepped up in the South Atlantic in opposition to the submarine offensive which developed as expected. New squadrons were thrown into the fight as they arrived. Bombing Squadrons 127 and 129, flying new Venturas, arrived on 14 May and 1 June 1943 respectively, both in time to participate in the battle which reached its peak in July. During that month at least fifteen submarines were operating along the east coast of South America, nearly six times the average number that had appeared there in the preceding four months. Of these, eight were probably sunk, for a ratio of one submarine probably destroyed for every 1.75 ships lost. This is in comparison with a record of one submarine sunk for every 3.3 ships lost in all areas during the first half of 1943. U. S. Navy planes made twenty-four sightings, leading to sixteen attacks, which in turn resulted in the probable destruction of eight submarines.

On 27 September 1943, aid in the submarine war arrived in a new form when a navy blimp landed at Fortaleza. It was the first unit of Fleet Air Wing 4, whose commander, Captain W. E. Zimmerman, USN, had arrived and reported on 2 August. The blimps concentrated on convoy coverage and rescue work, and in the latter category, particularly, they distinguished themselves by the record they made. Beginning in September, 1943, they took a sizable portion of the daily convoy coverage load off the backs of the heavier-than‑air squadrons.

New squadrons continued to arrive, from August, 1943, to February, 1945. These squadrons operated from the various bases along the Brazilian coast, being shifted from one to another, or splitting into detachments as the tactical situation required. Fourteen squadrons in all were assigned to the Fourth Fleet, but at no time were there more than nine squadrons in the area simultaneously.

In addition to its own planes, Fleet Air Wing 16 had assigned to it for training and operation, three Brazilian squadrons. It should be noted that throughout its stay in Brazil, the wing engaged in training Brazilian pilots and teaching them the necessity and techniques of plane  p78 care and maintenance. In this task, particularly in the maintenance phase, the Americas had to start practically from scratch. It is to their credit as well as to that of the Brazilians that the latter developed into effective units which fought efficiently in co‑operation with United States forces.

Co‑ordinated Air‑Surface Operations

In addition to its routine duties of covering convoys, conducting regular anti-submarine patrols, and training Brazilian fliers, Fleet Air Wing 16 engaged upon occasion in special operations involving co‑ordination with other forces. Chief among these were barrier sweeps against submarines or surface blockade runners conducted in co‑operation with surface ships and in some cases with U. S. Army planes.

The technique of barrier operations was fairly simple. When the plotted position, course, and speed of an enemy vessel, together with intelligence as to its destination, indicated that it would necessarily pass over a given line or through a given area within a certain time period, a plan was drawn up whereby the area would be covered by air and surface craft in such a manner that the enemy could not make its passage and escape detection. Aircraft, in most cases, developed the contacts, and their reports brought patrolling surface craft to the scene. The attack might be made by aircraft, surface craft, or both, depending upon the tactical situation.

The barrier operations against German blockade runners in December, 1943, and January, 1944, provide a typical example. During these two months, five German blockade runners — Osorno, Weserland, Rio Grande, Burgenland, and Alsterufer — attempted to pass through the Atlantic, returning to Europe from the Far East with important cargoes of rubber, tin, and other strategic war materials. When Commander, Fourth Fleet received intelligence that the ships were to pass through his area, he immediately drew up plans for an air and surface barrier to extend across the South Atlantic Narrows from 1 Natal, at the point of the bulge of Brazil, east to 2 Ascension Island, thence north-northeast to within four hundred miles of the coast of Africa, which was as far as available ships and planes could extend an effective barrier line. Allied patrols from Africa partially closed the remaining gap near the African coast.

The longest and most important sector of the barrier line, from Natal to Ascension Island, was assigned to planes of Fleet Air Wing 16 for air patrol. Regular patrols would fly east from Natal and west from Ascension  p79 Island, meeting in mid‑ocean (within radar observation distance, that is) before turning back to base. These flights were so timed that the blockade runners, with their known maximum speeds, could not traverse the belt covered by the planes' radar in the interval between patrols. At the same time, cruisers and destroyers patrolled the area, ready to rush to the scene when a plane reported sighting a ship. The effect was like that of a vast net stretched across the ocean, in which the enemy was almost sure to become entangled.

The result of this far‑flung hunt was that three of the five blockade runners — Weserland, Rio Grande, and Burgenland — were caught and sunk by planes and ships of the Fourth Fleet. The Alsterufer was subsequently sunk by aircraft in the North Atlantic. Only one ship, the Osorno, succeeded in reaching the French coast, and even this one had to be beached because of previous damage.

Such was the story of land-based U. S. aviation in the South Atlantic. Hundreds of tales of individual heroism could be told, of attacks pressed home by slow patrol planes in the face of devastating antiaircraft fire from surfaced subs, of plane crews downed at sea and rescued by their comrades, of men dying in operations too prosaic ever to achieve even the brief fame of newspaper mention. A good yarn can be made of "hold down" operations, in which planes watched over submerged U‑boats, like a cat watching a rat hole, forcing them to remain under water until they could stand it no longer, and then destroying them when they came up for air. Tales could be told of the opposite "baiting" tactics in which the planes left the area, lulling the sub into a sense of security, only to return and pounce upon him when he came unsuspectingly to the surface. Incidents such as these, in infinite variation, will make good fireside stories for years to come.

Between the moments or days of excitement, however, came the weeks and months of tedious and fatiguing routine — patrol and convoy canvas, a duty which, while never free of danger, was absolutely lacking in glamour. The historian of Fleet Air Wing 16 sums it up in these words:

"Mock heroics have not been engaged in down in this area but, as the record shows, the aviation personnel has been willing to accept death in action when the chips were down and a job had to be done. Many of these unsung heroes have not received medals, but they have all done their bit. In this area it has been a war where patience and steadiness have counted for as much as brilliance and dash in other theatres where there has been more shooting."

It has been noted that the peak of the submarine attacks on shipping  p80 in the South Atlantic came in July, 1943. They never again presented a threat of equal seriousness. The wholesale destruction of U‑boats during that month by our air and sea forces, plus the continued building up of our air strength during the remainder of the year (five squadrons were attached, two detached, and two blimp squadrons added) ushered in a decline in submarine activity which continued except for occasional flare‑ups, until the end of the war. The vigilance of our fliers was not relaxed in any degree and, indeed, sinkings by submarines continued in lesser numbers until the end of the war. But the Battle of the South Atlantic had been won. In May, 1944, Fleet Air Wing 16 was reduced by two squadrons, and by the end of the year, plans were well advanced toward closing out aviation activities in Brazil. The wing was decommissioned in June 1945, its mission completed, and its few remaining squadrons returned to the United States.

Carrier Operations

Carriers did not take part in Fourth Fleet operations in the South Atlantic until the spring of 1944. On 31 March 1944 the USS Solomons, an escort carrier, with Composite Squadron 9, embarked, together with assigned destroyer escorts, became Task Group 41.6, and carried on long-range submarine hunts until 15 August, on which date the Solomons departed Recife for Norfolk.

Two days before the departure of the Solomons, USS Tripoli with Composite Squadron 6, embarked, and later arrived at Recife in company with a screen of destroyer escorts. The Tripoli and her escorts became Task Group 41.7, and operated in the South Atlantic until 15 November 1944.

On 21 September 1944, the USS Mission Bay, carrying Composite Squadron 36, departed from Dakar, French West Africa with five destroyer escorts for anti-submarine operations southwest of Cape Verde Islands. From 28 September to 2 October the Mission Bay engaged in joint operations with the Tripoli. On 15 November 1944, both the Tripoli and the Mission Bay departed Recife for Norfolk, ending carrier operations in the Fourth Fleet area.

Estimate of Achievement

Any final estimate of the accomplishments of naval aviation in the South Atlantic during this war must take into account both military and political objectives.

 p81  From a military point of view, the purposes of the South Atlantic campaign were to protect the Western Hemisphere from attack, protect shipping, insure the delivery of war material to Europe, Africa, and the Far East, and accomplish the final defeat of the U‑boat in the South Atlantic area. These purposes were achieved in full. Beginning with relatively untrained personnel, planes poorly equipped and too few in number, no tried and proved doctrine for anti-submarine warfare, and practically no base facilities, Commander, Fourth Fleet, and his aviation forces established air bases from one end of the Brazilian coast line to the other, developed an organization of skillful and seasoned airmen with a complete combat doctrine based on experience, and finally reduced the U‑boat to impotence in the South Atlantic.

In the political field, to the continuing policy of fostering amicable relation­ships with Brazil was added, in the early days of the war, the immediate and urgent objective of obtaining bases in Brazil and permission to operate them, as well as that of obtaining the full co‑operation of the Brazilian government in the active effort against the enemy. These objectives were attained in full measure. But this achievement does not tell the whole story of our diplomatic success in that area. The mutual confidence, good will, and reconciliation of basic interests engendered during our wartime operations will have salutary effects upon hemisphere solidarity long outlasting the achievement of the immediate objectives of this war.

To what extent naval aviation was responsible for our diplomatic success is open to debate. It can be safely stated, however, that the reassuring presence of American naval air might in the skies over Brazil, protecting Brazilian shipping and coastal areas, the co‑operation of our Navy in training Brazilian fliers and furnishing them with planes, and the fair and statesmanlike attitude of Commander, Fourth Fleet, in negotiations over the establishment of the air bases, all played their part in sealing the friendship between Brazil and the United States. In the South Atlantic, naval aviation's mission was accomplished, and more.

Thayer's Note:

a Naval aviation contacts between Brazil and the United States go back to the First World War, when the first Brazilian naval pilots were trained by a (very small) American unit: see Ralph D. Paine, The First Yale Unit, Chapter 26, "The Mission to Brazil".

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