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Naval Aviation Through the Decades: A Towering Figure

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narratives: Part 3

With air ace David S. Ingalls (a naval aviation pioneer who followed Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson) away at law school and involved in Ohio politics and air pioneer Ellyson pulling sea duty, Lt. John Henry “Jack” Towers remained a leading light in naval aviation: “His fixed idea on the importance of aviation won him few friends among the top brass,” Time magazine would later write of Towers. “To his seniors on the quarterdeck he was a baleful-looking, bulldog-stubborn revolutionist, a man to be viewed with suspicion.”

In 1919, then-Cmdr. Towers proposed, planned, and led the first crossing of the Atlantic by aircraft. Towers had conceived the plan long before the United States entered the Great War, foreseeing the threat posed to Allied shipping by German U-boats, but was unable to make it reality until the postwar era. The flying expedition began on May 8, 1919, when three Curtiss NC Flying Boats, designated NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4, left Naval Air Station Rockaway, N.Y.

In the years after World War I, Towers was one of many American leaders who was trying to convince his bosses that naval power no longer revolved around the battleship. Towers was among the first to envision a warship designed to carry and deploy aircraft. He devoted much of his obstinacy to arguing that the aircraft carrier was the capital ship of the future.

“Towers had a single-mindedness about naval aviation needing a higher priority in the nation’s business,” said Arthur Pearcy, an author and analyst. “He was anything but a renegade. Still, he was willing to express unpopular opinion to almost anyone who would listen.”

In 1919, then-Cmdr. Towers proposed, planned, and led the first crossing of the Atlantic by aircraft. Towers had conceived the plan long before the United States entered the Great War, foreseeing the threat posed to Allied shipping by German U-boats, but was unable to make it reality until the postwar era. The flying expedition began on May 8, 1919, when three Curtiss NC Flying Boats, designated NC-1, NC-3, and NC-4, left Naval Air Station Rockaway, N.Y.

The aircraft made intermediate stops in Cape Cod, Mass., Chatham, Mass., and Halifax, Nova Scotia, before reaching Trepassey, Newfoundland, on May 15, 1919. On May 16, they left for the longest leg of their journey, to the Azores. NC-1 and the NC-3 (piloted by Towers) were both forced to land in heavy seas due to dense fog, and neither could take off again. NC-1 subsequently began taking on water and the Greek freighter Ionia rescued the crew.

The crew of the NC-3, including Towers, kept NC-3 afloat for 52 hours, water taxiing the craft more than 200 miles to Punta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island. NC-4 went on to complete the transatlantic crossing, arriving at Lisbon, Portugal, on May 27. For his leadership in the operation, Towers was awarded the Navy Cross.

1st Lt. Christian F. Schilt beside his Vought O2U-1 Corsair aircraft. Schilt received the Medal of Honor for repeated flights into besieged Quilali, Nicaragua, delivering supplies and evacuating wounded Marines. In Nicaragua and elsewhere the Marine Corps pioneered close air support. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Towers pulled sea and attache duty but continued to lobby for naval aviation and for the aircraft carrier. While he was acting as a champion for the Navy, the Coast Guard was struggling. Capt. William P. Wishar, commander of the first Coast Guard Air Station at Morehead City, N.C., wrote in 1920 that his air station was operating “on a shoestring.” The previous year, Wishar had borrowed six Curtiss HS-2L Flying Boats from the Navy. Soon after his urgent plea, the station ceased operating altogether.

Coast Guard aviation, indeed possibly the Coast Guard itself, might have gone out of business but for Prohibition. The Treasury Department was assigned to enforce Prohibition laws, and the Coast Guard was charged with stopping the illegal flow before it reached American shores, in part by interdicting “rum runner” boats. The smugglers were resourceful, and America’s defenses against alcohol were like Swiss cheese, but the sea service’s effort was very real.

Lt. Cmdr. C.G. von Paulsen borrowed a Vought UO-1 seaplane from the Navy to demonstrate how aviation might combat the scourge of liquor smuggling. Operating from Squantum, Mass., von Paulsen made daily patrol flights that reduced smuggling in his area.

Even after March 20, 1922, when the USS Langley (CV 1), converted from the collier Jupiter (AC 3), became the first carrier in the Navy, battleship admirals still wielded enormous clout and the carrier still seemed to many to be a modest experiment. Towers felt otherwise. In 1925, he was assigned to the Bureau of Aeronautics and served as a member of the court of inquiry that investigated the loss of dirigible Shenandoah while wangling the assignment he really wanted: executive officer of the Langley, with the immediate prospect of becoming the ship’s skipper.

In 1928, Towers became head of the plans division in the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C. – among many other things, the source of the “bureau numbers” that adorn Navy aircraft even today – and became its assistant chief the following year. From his office in the State-War-Navy Building, Towers was a vocal advocate for aircraft and aircraft carriers, but those who believed in a future for naval aviation were still fighting an uphill battle.

In December 1927, after he’d become commander of the Langley, Towers was credited with “coolness and courage in the face of danger” when a gasoline line caught fire and burned on board the carrier. Towers led the aggressive effort to suppress the flames. His leadership clearly averted a catastrophe.

1920s and ’30s carrier aviation was exemplified by the big, beautiful sisters USS Lexington (CV 2) and USS Saratoga (CV 3, shown here), easily identifiable by the vertical black stripe on her funnel structure. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The previous month, the USS Saratoga (CV 3), was commissioned. Her sister Lexington (CV 2) was commissioned early in 1928. Ellyson had helped get the ship fitted out, eventually becoming her executive officer. The Washington Naval Treaty, which restricted capital ship tonnage, dictated that the United States either break up two building battlecruisers on the ways, or convert them to aircraft carriers. The resulting sisters were the largest, fastest, most powerful ships of their day, and provided the means to develop the technologies, tactics, and techniques that made naval aviation a war-winner in World War II.

On Feb. 27, 1928 – his 43rd birthday – the first naval aviator, who had worked closely with Towers, received a telegram that his 11-year-old daughter, Mildred, was ill and near death. Ellyson, now a commander, received permission to borrow the Hampton Roads, Va., naval station’s Loening OL-7 amphibian and two crew members to fly home. Symbolic of a generation of naval aircraft that could have existed only in the imagination when Ellyson was doing his early flying (and of a growing aircraft industry on Long Island), the single-engine, float-equipped Loening biplane was called a “high performance” aircraft in Navy documents. It served the Navy and Coast Guard brilliantly as a predecessor to the even more advanced Grumman J2F Duck. But that night something went wrong. The Loening crashed in Chesapeake Bay and all aboard perished.

Towers spoke of his sorrow over the loss, but pressed on. In 1928, Towers became head of the plans division in the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C. – among many other things, the source of the “bureau numbers” that adorn Navy aircraft even today – and became its assistant chief the following year. From his office in the State-War-Navy Building, Towers was a vocal advocate for aircraft and aircraft carriers, but those who believed in a future for naval aviation were still fighting an uphill battle.

Another proponent of naval air, along with Towers, was the Navy’s first air ace. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed Ingalls assistant secretary of the Navy for aeronautics.

Ingalls helped to triple the number of Navy aircraft and the hours flown by Navy pilots, all without a single fatality. Ingalls sang the praises of a highly mobile carrier task force and pushed construction of the Navy’s fourth carrier, USS Ranger (CV 4).

As for Towers, he joined the staff of the Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force, under Rear Adm. Harry E. Yarnell, in June 1931. He helped plan a strike on Pearl Harbor during a joint Army-Navy exercise in the Hawaiian Islands the following year. The decade of the 1930s was the time of the Great Depression, and not many people outside Towers’ small circle of Navy colleagues noticed that an attack on Pearl Harbor had been proven to be a real possibility.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...