21 June 2015

Captain Joseph M. Reeves: Leading Carrier Aviation From Experiment to Fighting Force

Captain Joseph Mason "Bull" Reeves, USN
In writing this particular article for TAILS THROUGH TIME, I had wrestled with how best to title the subject on Captain Joseph Reeves as the father of carrier aviation. He certainly wasn't the first, and he most certainly wasn't the only pioneer in the field. Anything I came up with sounded to complicated from "Father of the Modern Carrier Flight Deck" to more esoteric things I'm too embarrassed to share here on this blog. When he assumed command of the US Navy's sole aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1) on October 1925, he wasn't there to break new ground, but to learn more about what aviation could contribute to naval operations and in the process, forged carrier aviation into a fighting force that shaped military operations in the Second World War and beyond. On that day in 1925 when he set foot aboard the Langley, there was no dispute as to carrier aviation being part of naval operations as it had been so in various capacities going back to the First World War. I think what is interesting about Captain Reeves' role in the development of carrier aviation stems from the fact that in those days, he was one of the foremost battleship tacticians of the day. Nicknamed "Bull" from his days playing football as a midshipman at the US Naval Academy, Reeves' appointment to command the Langley and by extension, all of naval aviation in the 1920s, comes from a background based on two factors. The first one was his own time as the head of the Tactics Department of the Naval War College. It was there he came to be known for his innovative tactics and being uncharacteristically forward-thinking for an officer of his stature. His time working on naval tactics exposed him to the potential of aviation in future naval operations and he himself once did admit that despite having a "Big Gun" battleship background, he saw the submarine and the airplane as possibly being decisive in the next war, he just didn't know which one. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Edward Eberle, had served with Reeves on the battleship USS Oregon and was well aware of his innovative thinking when he selected Reeves to command the Langley. Perhaps the CNO wanted someone in charge of aviation who could creatively make something of the whole enterprise. 

That same year Reeves assumed command of the USS Langley, a very public dispute had broken out between Rear Admiral William Moffett, the chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), and Rear Admiral William Shoemaker, the head of the Bureau of Navigation (BuNav). At the time, BuNav was in charge of personnel matters for the entire Navy. Moffett, taking it as his personal mission to nurture and grow naval aviation, felt that aviation personnel should be the responsibility of BuAer rather than BuNav. After all, in Moffett's eyes, only aviators knew what was best for other aviators. While this important administrative dispute was going on within the halls of power of the Navy, the CNO's selection of Captain Reeves was one of careful selection to avoid ruffling any feathers at either BuAer or BuNav- after all, Reeves had a respected reputation as a tactician, he was a trained engineer, and he came from the battleship side of the Navy. Commanding the Langley as a politically sensitive post and it probably helped Reeves that he was seen by BuNav as an acceptable choice. A law, however, passed in 1921, stipulated that all aviation units of the US Navy, including aircraft carriers (of which there was only one, the USS Langley) had to be commanded by naval aviators. Reeves wasn't a pilot and naval aviation was so new to the Navy that there weren't any senior officers in aviation with the qualifications, time served, and rank to fill aviation command billets. The most senior naval aviator, Commander John Towers, didn't have the qualifications to command the Langley- in fact, Towers wouldn't make captain for another ten years! So BuAer created a special course for naval aviation observers at NAS Pensacola to train senior officers in the basics of flight for postings to aviation units until there were enough senior aviation officers in the ranks. As a prerequisite to Reeves getting to command the Langley, he had to complete the naval aviation observer course at Pensacola, which he did the month prior to assuming command of the Langley in San Diego. 

The Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1)
When he took command of the USS Langley, the pace of operations on the converted carrier (it was once the collier USS Jupiter before a flight deck was built atop the hull, giving the Langley its nickname "Covered Wagon") reflected the experimental nature of carrier operations. For a whole month, Reeves observed shipboard operations both below decks and on the flight deck. He was rather surprised that the Langley's air wing was composed of only eight aircraft. But he took notes, made observations and then in November 1925, he gathered the officers of the carrier and its air wing to a meeting at NAS North Island and bluntly told all of them "They had no conception of either the capabilities or limitations of the air force". He fired off a long series of questions to his officers about carrier operations like "What is the most efficient way of launching planes?" or "What is the maximum interval between planes in a scouting screen?". He then told his men to their surprise he didn't know the answers either "But unless we can answer them, we are of little use to the fleet." Reeves' questions came to be called "A Thousand and One Questions" and his men sought to figure out each one. As each one was answered, it went into what would become the textbook of naval aviation. It was Reeves' mission statement- the USS Langley and her air wing would become a school before becoming an air force of use to the fleet.

From his time as a tactician at the Naval War College, Reeves was quite familiar with English engineer Frederick Lanchester's N-Square Law when it came to defining the relative power of opposing forces- the combat effectiveness of a military force is proportional to the square of its numerical strength multiplied by the fighting value of its individual units. The fighting value was determined by training and Reeves would relentless drill the Langley's crew and air wing and make sure the ship participated in as many fleet exercises as possible. The numerical strength aspect was solved by getting as many aircraft as possible on the Langley. If the crew could launch and recover aircraft quickly and efficiently, then the carrier could support a much bigger air wing than its current paltry complement of eight aircraft. His first order of business was to increase the Langley's air wing to fourteen. No one thought it was possible, but Reeves' order stood and on the first day of fleet exercises, VF-2 managed to launch six aircraft quickly and get a second group of six airborne right after that- after all, the day would come that a carrier would have to defend itself against air attack and its aircraft were its own best defense. 

In the months that followed, Reeves trained the Langley crew and air wing hard. He pushed them endlessly to increase the tempo of flight deck operations as a carrier was useless if its planes weren't in the air. He steadily increased the air wing of the Langley as well and frequently took charge of flight operations himself, acting as the "Air Boss". In less than six months, he had twenty aircraft operating routinely off the Langley's small deck, quite a feat given that prior to his command, there were only eight aircraft in the air wing. Before he took command, it was customary to let a plane land and then lower it to the hangar deck before allowing the next plane to land. This was time consuming and Reeves pushed his men to orchestrate their movements on the flight deck. As each plane landed, it was disengaged from the arresting gear and pushed forward to the bow to make way for the next aircraft. A collapsible barrier was used at the midpoint of the flight deck to protect the parked aircraft forward. Working with his executive officer (XO), Commander John Towers, Reeves worked out a system of specialized groups of deck crew- each group was assigned a specific task on the flight deck- arresting gear, releasing tail hooks, fueling aircraft, arming aircraft, and more. To delineate their roles to each other, Reeves and Towers had each group wear colored shirts. The blue shirts moved aircraft forward, the brown shirts were crew chiefs, the purple shirts were in charge of refueling, and so on. The yellow shirts were the plane directors, the elite of the flight deck crew. The yellow shirts orchestrated all the action of the other groups and movement of aircraft on the deck. Hand signals were developed to make communication clear and concise over the roar of aircraft engines. Once all the aircraft landed, they were all pushed aft for fueling and rearming to prepare for the next launch cycle. A subset of the plane directors were assigned the role of flight control officers who used a checkered flag to signal each pilot to firewall the throttles and race down the deck for takeoff. By increasing the speed of the launch and recovery cycle, the Langley made more use of its air wing- it was a force multiplier. 

A Curtiss F6C Hawk of VF-2 embarked on the USS Langley
In preparation for the fleet exercises in the summer of 1926, Reeves had all the squadrons under his command (two fighter squadrons, three observation squadrons, one utility squadron and one torpedo/bombing squadron) train together as an integrated air wing. Changes and improvements to operating tactics were to be shared amongst all the squadrons as it was important that each unit know the strengths and limitations of the other squadrons of the air wing. Befitting his nickname of "Bull", Reeves pushed his men to turn around aircraft faster on the deck and further reduce launch and recovery times. By this point, it wasn't unusual for the Langley's air wing to have 24 to 30 aircraft, quite a feat compared to just a year prior. Reeves would stand on the deck during each launch and recovery cycle with a stopwatch. Only 15 seconds were to elapse between each launch and only 90 seconds were to elapse between each landing. And even that was too long for him! By the time of the summer fleet exercises, VF-1 had conducted 127 takeoffs and landings in a single day. Just a year prior that might have been VF-1's sum total of takeoffs and landings for an entire month! As far as Reeves was concerned, he was abiding by the old adage "Fight like you train, train like you fight". The increased pace of operations increased the proficiency of his men from the pilots and deck crew to the crew in engineering spaces that kept the ship operating. 

When the USS Langley and her air wing set sail for the fleet exercises in the summer of 1926, many of Captain Reeves' "A Thousand and One Questions" had been answered and formulated into naval air doctrine. But one question nagged him that summer and that was how to sink ships. He had seen level bombing in action during his naval aviation observer course in Pensacola and he felt that was a useless endeavor as bombsights were inaccurate, targets had to be more or less stationary and they definitely shouldn't be shooting back. Torpedo bombers were still limited in their carrying capacity and no one was keen on the idea of a low, slow approach to an enemy warship for a torpedo launch. 

The solution of course, would be dive bombing and it came from one of Reeves' officers, Lt. Commander Frank Wagner, the skipper of VF-2. But that's going to be a topic for a future blog posting- so stay tuned! 

*As a historical aside, in 1893 when Joseph Reeves played football at US Naval Academy, he was advised by a physician he had to give up football or risk a kick to the head which could kill him. Reeves then went to a local shoemaker and had a protective helmet made out of leather and mole skin so he could play in the Army-Navy game. He is considered one of the inventors of the football helmet.

Source: Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Air Power by Thomas Wildenberg. Naval Institute Press, 1998, pp 24-36. Photos: Wikipedia, US Navy

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, about a man who definitely deserves remembering, for the contributions he made to our country!

    I've learned quite a bit about his early career, as a result of speculation, on some pictures posted on Shorpy.com, about which young man in a picture was Reeves. The photos were identified as having been of his class, although that didn't turn out to be the case.

    I found that the very first USNA annual, the Lucky Bag, was published by his class, the class of 1894. There were no individual photos, yet, or any identifications made of who was in the group photos. However, because of his participation in sports, especially a group photo with him wearing the famous football helmet, I was able to recognize him.

    It turns out that he wasn't in two pictures, taken in 1894, which were captioned as being the class of 1894. That's because the subjects in those were members of the class of 1892. I learned that things were done differently, then. They were known as Naval Cadets, during their years at the academy. Upon graduation, they became Midshipmen. That was followed by a two-year cruise. When that was over, they would return to Annapolis, to take their final exams, and it was only after passing those, in all fields, that they were commissioned as Ensigns.

    There is also a picture on Shorpy of the class of 1894, taken in 1892. Picking out a young and beardless Reeves was a bit of a challenge, but I did it! I'm posting a link to the photo. Reeves is at the left, third row from the bottom, next to the young man who was moving when it was shot.


    One more you might be interested in, is a picture of the interclass football champions. Reeves was the captain and is seen holding the ball, and wearing his football helmut.


    He returned to USNA, apparently in the Fall of 1906, as an assistant football coach. By two years later, he was the head coach, and the 1909 Lucky Bag was dedicated to him. Here is a link to the photo and dedication.


    I hope you found some of this interesting!