Ed “Whitey” Feightner, who in 1940 was a student at Findlay College in Ohio and already held a civilian pilot’s license, remembered, “The war was coming along, and it was pretty obvious that I was going to be drafted if I didn’t do something. I immediately signed up in the Army Air Corps because I wanted to fly. But there were so many people that I was going to have to wait about eight months. One day, an SNJ [Navy air trainer] landed at the airport. This guy gets out of it, goes into the hangar. And he comes out and he’s dressed in a Navy white uniform. A car comes, a convertible, and picks him up. This redhead is driving the car, and Mike Murphy [an instructor, barnstormer, oil company pilot, and reserve army officer] looks at this and says, ‘Good God! How about you and Red [a friend of Feightner] take a plane up to Grosse Ile and find out what this Navy program is all about.’
“We flew up there and the Navy treated us royally. They took us in and they showed us what the program was. They showed us Hell’s Angels [a spectacular movie featuring Navy pilots from the 1930s] and a little strip of this thing [Hell Divers] with Clark Gable and John Wayne.” The pitch sold Feightner, who immediately enlisted.
David C. Richardson, as a youth in Mississippi during the early 1930s, was already oriented toward the Navy by his father’s assurance that a naval officer had an easy life. “When I was about thirteen, William ‘Stick’ Sutherland, a naval aviator, came to an Easter party at our home. He was dressed in whites. He was a very good looking man. I took one look at him and said, ‘That’s for me.’ ”
Like so many young men of the 1930s and early ’40s, Feightner and Richardson were entranced by the excitement and the romance of flight. The memory of Charles Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, “Plucky, Lucky Lindy,” who in 1927 flew solo from New York to Paris, remained vibrant. Barnstormers, with white scarves, leather helmets, goggles (the precursor of the sunglass look), wing walkers, air shows, and air races exuded glamour and excitement. For five dollars, kids, like Feightner, bought rides in rickety relics from World War I at small airports or from cow pastures.
While films such as All Quiet on the Western Front depicted the trench warfare of World War I in all its deadly misery, Hollywood glamorized aerial combat in the 1927 classic Wings, followed by productions of The Dawn Patrol and, as Feightner noted, burnished the image of the naval aviator in Hell’s Angels. Magazines that spun tales of World War I dogfights circulated briskly, and boys built replicas of the earliest and latest airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper, powering them with twisted rubber bands or tiny, balky gasoline engines.
While the Army Air Corps attracted its share of recruits for a plunge into the wild blue yonder, the Navy, with its sparkling, brass-buttoned uniforms, aircraft carriers that promised seagoing adventures with voyages to exotic ports of call, and above all those golden wings, beckoned most seductively.
The Navy became interested in donning wings well before 1903, when at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers’ contraption lifted off the ground and wobbled through the air a few hundred feet. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, in 1898, had recommended to his superior that a pair of officers meet with inventor Samuel P. Langley to discuss his plans for a flying machine with an eye to its possibilities as a weapon of war. In April of that year, the officers so charged reported that there was definite potential in Langley’s ideas and suggested further investigation.
Ten years later, when the Wrights demonstrated their machine for the U.S. Army, observers from the Navy were on hand. That led to a recommendation that the Navy buy planes to be developed for the service’s particular needs. Glenn Curtiss, an early manufacturer, built several flying machines, and in 1910, stunt pilot Eugene B. Ely, an employee of Curtiss, proposed to take off from a ship. He heard many a discouraging word. Curtiss himself thought it a bad idea. Wilbur Wright decried the attempt as too dangerous. The secretary of the Navy refused to pay for such an experiment. It was noted that Ely could not even swim.
In spite of the naysayers, Captain Washington I. Chambers, the Navy’s first director of aviation, supported Ely. Private contributions paid for a sloping eighty-three-foot-long platform built on the scout cruiser Birmingham, anchored at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The engine for the pusher-type Curtiss Hudson Flyer arrived aboard the Birmingham only the morning of the appointed day. Ely and mechanics, however, managed to install the motor and ready the plane, which had been salvaged from the wrecks of two other Curtiss aircraft. “A strong wind was driving the rain in sheets,” reported the New York Times correspondent. “His biplane rushed along the runway and the test began. He failed to elevate his plane properly as the biplane left the runway and the rudder and propellers struck the water some yards from the ship. There was a heavy splash and Ely was drenched.”
Nevertheless, the pilot recovered and the Hudson Flyer lifted into the air. Originally, he had planned to travel fifty miles to the Norfolk Navy Yard, but the squall interfered. He initially lost his bearings and appeared headed out to sea before he changed course to land on the beach.
The triumphant Ely, despite a bent propeller blade caused by the near crash on takeoff, had demonstrated feasibility of airplanes in the service of the Navy. Captain Chambers remarked that the feat would have been easier had the Birmingham been moving. The authorities allowed that a plane might be used for “scouting purposes.” While some of the brass scorned the “stunt,” which required dismantling of some of the cruiser’s guns, the Navy hedged its bets. A month later, Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson became the first naval officer assigned to undergo flight training at the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Camp.
Meanwhile, Ely, with the backing of Chambers, pushed the envelope further. He volunteered to land aboard a ship, the cruiser Pennsylvania, moored in San Francisco Bay. On January 18, 1911, Ely took off from an Army airfield thirteen miles off and headed for the cruiser. About fifty feet from the vessel, he cut his throttle and glided toward the specially constructed platform on the stern. The 1,000-pound plane touched down. As it rolled forward, hooks mounted on the undercarriage grabbed at a series of twenty-two ropes anchored by 500-pound sandbags. The final dozen lines snagged the hooks and Ely stopped, using only 60 feet of the 120-foot ramp. He did not require the use of a large canvas barrier erected at the end to prevent a slide into the sea, nor did he need the pontoons attached to the aircraft to stay afloat.
The Pennsylvania skipper became an instant convert, burbling about “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.” Following lunch, Ely took off from the ship and returned to the airfield. The San Francisco Examiner immediately grasped the significance of the round-trip. Its headline read, “Eugene Ely Revises World’s Naval Tactics.” And in England, a British aviator, Lieutenant Charles R. Samson, added to the possibilities when he launched himself from a moving ship, showing that planes could be carried to battle sites. Samson also innovated the first folding-wing aircraft, opening the way for convenient storage where space was always at a premium.
By 1912, a primitive catapult made it possible to launch a plane from a ship without a takeoff platform and in 1914 the Navy had created its own flying school at Pensacola. Navy flyers performed reconnaissance for Marine operations in Mexico near Vera Cruz during that country’s revolution. World War I introduced the airplane as a serious weapon. While the land-based airmen specialized in reconnaissance and raids on ground forces, the naval service, relying on seaplanes, concentrated on antisubmarine campaigns, striking at U-boats and their bases. Occasionally, German pilots confronted the small American contingent. In the U.S. Navy’s first air-to-air victory, Ensign Stephen Potter and his gunner shot down an enemy seaplane off the German coast in April 1918, but six weeks later his lone ship was jumped by seven foes over the North Sea and Pot- ter was lost. Subsequently, Lieutenant David Ingalls, in a Sopwith Camel, a British-manufactured plane, became the Navy’s first ace. In 1917, the British introduced HMS Furious, the first aircraft carrier, whose planes carried out a successful raid on a Zeppelin base in northern Germany. Unfortunately, the Furious lacked the means to recover its aircraft on board. It was a one-shot weapon, which reduced its contribution considerably.
A year after World War I ended, the Navy drew plans to convert a collier into its first aircraft carrier, named in honor of the prophet of the 1890s, USS Langley. At the same time, the Army’s most fervent advocate of airpower, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, had already begun his campaign to base American military strategy upon the airplane. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt even invited Mitchell to meet with the Navy General Board to discuss future policy. Initially, the officers responded favorably, but those in the upper echelons dampened the enthusiasm. There was a growing suspicion that Mitchell intended to build an air force independent of both the Army and the Navy.
In 1921, Billy Mitchell sought to demonstrate the airplane’s supremacy by bombing some captured German warships. The honors for the first attack went to the Navy, whose two waves of planes blew a German submarine to bits. The success raised some eyebrows, but old-line military salts noted that a thin-hulled U-boat on the surface could not compare with a thickly armored capital ship. The next test, to find and sink the obsolete battlewagon Iowa, reddened Navy faces. Seaplanes could not locate the radio-controlled ship before Army blimps found her. And then the flying boats dumped eighty dummy bombs but scored a paltry two hits. While that discomfited the supporters of naval aviation, the seagoing traditionalists insisted it proved that their ships were invulnerable to any bombing attack.
Mitchell’s crews, however, demolished a German destroyer and then the combined services, including the Marines, blasted a light cruiser. But the key test was the battleship Ostfriesland at 27,000 tons, as heavy as any warship then afloat. In increasingly poor flying weather, Navy and Marine flyers dropped 250-pounders that did little damage. Mitchell’s people, with 600-pound bombs, scored a number of direct hits but apparently caused no critical destruction. On the following day, a return visit with 1,100-pound bombs, observers saw that the Ostfriesland had, in fact, taken on considerable water due to the previous attack. The renewed assault wrought further injury. For the coup de grâce Mitchell led a flight of eight bomb- ers, each of which packed a 2,000-pound wallop. A series of near misses plus a direct blow on the point of the bow doomed the ship, and it turned on its side, then settled below the sea before the stunned eyes of a number of admirals and civilian Navy officials.
The surface-ship establishment recovered enough to dismiss the show, arguing that aircraft could never effectively target moving ships that would fire back in their own defense. The seeds of a rivalry, if not an internecine war, within the Navy between the aviation adherents and the big-gun, battleship-oriented were sown.
However, Admiral William A. Moffett, in charge of naval aviation but a determined opponent of an independent air force à la Mitchell, said, “The lesson is that we must put planes on battleships and get aircraft carriers quickly. We should have a minimum of eight carriers. The department has recommended only two.” With military appropriations curtailed, the service, in 1922, decided to redesign a pair of unfinished cruisers into the carriers Saratoga and Lexington.
In 1923, Mitchell was granted a second opportunity to conduct tests against naval vessels. The targets were the obsolete battleships New Jersey and Virginia. Some three hundred military and civilian leaders, including the acting secretary of war, Dwight Davis; the Army chief of staff, General John J. Pershing; Admiral William E. Shoemaker; and the manufacturer and inventor of a new bombsight, Alexander De Seversky, boarded a naval transport, the St. Mihiel, to watch flights of heavily laden bombers pummeled the pair of ships, and within minutes both disappeared under the water.
According to Mitchell’s biographer Burke Davis, when Shoemaker read a report on the test he objected strenuously, “It’s true, every bit of it, but my God, we can’t let this get out or it would ruin the Navy.” Others downgraded the experiment, noting again that the ships had been stationary and had offered no resistance, and that their watertightness had been compromised by removal of compartment sealing doors. The traditionalists, sometimes known as the black-shoe Navy (airmen wore brown ones) or the gun club, dominated Navy policy and strategic concepts. They did not entirely dismiss the value of aircraft but believed true strength lay in sea- going tonnage and inches of gun. The same sort of conflict wracked the Army. Mitchell’s intemperate lobbying for his point of view forced his retirement from active duty.
Gerald Bogan, born in 1894 on Michigan’s Mackinac Island and a graduate of a Chicago high school, was a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1916. During World War I he did convoy duty, assigned posts in engineering and gunnery. “I never saw a submarine or destroyer,” he remarked. He volunteered for aviation duty in 1925 because he found battleships “uninteresting” and “aviation seemed the wave of the future.” Bogan recalled, “When I first went into aviation, the black shoes had an adjective to describe aviators, just as the southerner had to describe Yankees—Goddamned Yankees, Goddamed-aviators.”
Alfred M. Pride became one of the few early naval aviators who never attended the academy. An engineering student at Tufts University in 1917, Pride had joined the naval reserve because of the imminence of war. Facing a chemistry test on April 7, 1917, the day after the United States declared war on Germany, and certain he would fail, Pride rode a trolley to the Charleston Navy Yard and volunteered for active duty. He remembered, “It never occurred to me that I would be an aviator. But while on antisubmarine patrol in the harbor around Miami I saw airplanes flying about. It seemed like a good business to be in. I sat down at my father’s typewriter and typed a letter from A. M. Pride, machinist’s mate, second class, to somebody I’d heard about, the Chief of Naval Operations. I requested I be ordered to aviation duty.” To his astonishment, a reply directed him to resubmit through the proper channels, and his request for flight training carried a stamp: “Approved.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wings of Gold by Gerald Astor. Copyright © 2004 by Gerald Astor. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.