Admiral With Wings

By Thomas Wildenberg

How and why the foremost battleship tactician of his day came to be appointed to such a command remains a mystery. Regrettably, Reeves left no personal papers, and surviving documents make no mention of the reasons behind his selection.

Admiral Edward W. Eberle, the incumbent Chief of Naval Operations, likely played a key role in selecting Reeves for what was then considered a controversial assignment. Aviation was still in its infancy, and many organizational issues remained to be solved. Eberle certainly was aware of these problems, having just chaired a board of high-ranking officers that examined aviation's place within the Navy. The two men had served together on board the Oregon (BB-3) during the Spanish American War when Reeves, then an engineering officer, received a commendation and was advanced four numbers on the promotion list for his stellar performance.

A full-scale brouhaha that spring did nothing to advance aviation's acceptance within the fleet. The Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, and the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral William R. Shoemaker, went head-to-head over the issue of where aviation officers were to serve and who had cognizance over their assignments. The two men failed to get along, fueling what was fast becoming a de rigueur feud between naval aviators and their brethren in the "Gun Club."

Under these circumstances, Reeves, who "had been an engineer, a gun man, [and] a BuNav man," was the ideal choice for this command. As head of the Tactics Department at the Naval War College, he already was reputed to be a forward-looking officer. Eberle quite probably discussed the appointment with Reeves as the latter visited Washington in spring 1925. By June, Reeves was directed to report to Pensacola for the aviation observer's course, which commenced on the third day of that month.

A law passed in July 1921 mandated that all aviation units within the Navy, both at sea and on shore, be commanded by naval aviators. This created somewhat of a dilemma for the newly formed Bureau of Aeronautics, since none of the Navy's pilots had enough seniority to qualify. The most senior of these, Commander John H. Towers, would not attain the rank of captain until 1931! To make up for this lack of ranking aviators, a special program—the Naval Observer Course—was set up to train senior officers destined for aviation commands. Reeves joined this select group on 3 September 1925.

He remained in Pensacola for a week after graduation, taking notes and asking zealous questions, then traveled to Washington to confer with Admiral Moffett and other officials at the Navy Department. At the end of September Reeves set out for Naval Air Station San Diego with orders to proceed to the aircraft carrier Langley and his new command.

This could not have been a more critical time for naval aviation. Only a few weeks before, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, the Army's contentious airman, had charged the Navy Department with "incompetence and criminal negligence" in the events surrounding the loss of the airship Shenandoah (ZR-1) in a severe storm over Ohio.

Whatever the merits of the accusations, the command Reeves inherited probably was a lackadaisical outfit. But that soon gave way to a hard-driving emphasis on more operational considerations. Reeves, who as "type" commander was entitled to be addressed as commodore, recast the Langley into a combat-conscious command by the same methods he had used in the other ships under his command.

Upon his arrival in San Diego, Reeves was surprised to learn that the Langley was operating only eight planes, an absurdly small number, it seemed. But he kept silent for the first six weeks, doing little more than observing flight operations. Then, one day early in November 1925, he delivered a lecture to his officers that was, in effect, a statement of the principles on which the air force was to be developed.

The lack of coordinated aircraft tactics had shown him that his command had "no conception of either the capabilities or limitations of the air force." He followed this blunt appraisal with a series of pointed questions. "What is the most efficient method of launching planes from the Langley , and of handling them after they have landed?" he asked. How should the fighters attack other aircraft? What formations should be used in aerial spotting? How should an aircraft torpedo attack be made? What is the maximum interval between the planes in a scouting screen?

Then, he startled his audience with a bold and unexpected declaration:

I do not know the answer to these questions and dozens like them any more than you do, but until we can answer them, we will be very little use to the fleet. That means that we must become a school before we can become an air force.

The "school" would have startled even the most enthusiastic naval aviation supporters. Aviators learned their lessons on the fight deck of the Langley or in the cockpit of a plane; the textbook was a set of mimeographed sheets called "A Thousand and One Questions." Gradually, after lengthy practice and experimentation, the answers to these and other related questions began to unfold.

In preparation for fleet exercises scheduled for January 1926, Reeves ordered six additional aircraft for the Langley , increasing the number to 14. This incited protest from the air staff and pilots, who argued that it could not be done because it never had been done before. Nevertheless, the order stood. On the first day out, Lieutenant Spig Wead, one of the Navy's celebrated racing pilots and the skipper of Fighting Two, led six fighters of VF-2 off the deck to intercept an imaginary bombing raid; a second launch of equal strength followed quickly.

In the months ahead, Reeves concentrated on increasing operating tempo and number of aircraft. Dividing his time between an office at North Field, San Diego and the carrier, Reeves worked the ship relentlessly. Frequently, he took charge of flight operations while standing on the ladder leading from the flight deck to the bridge.

By spring 1926 the "Covered Wagon" was operating up to 20 aircraft. One real danger came when aircraft were landing: high speed was necessary to move a recovered plane out of the way of the next plane waiting to land. Before Reeves took command, the custom had been to let each plane land in the arresting gear, fold its wings, then lower it to the hangar deck, a time-consuming process that slowed the landing interval greatly. Under Reeves, a newly installed midship barrier shielded parked aircraft on the flight deck from planes that missed the arresting gear.

With the help of Towers, the Langley's executive officer at the time, Reeves organized the deck handling crews into small groups of specialists. Each group was assigned responsibility for one aspect of flight operations and wore specifically colored shirts: blue for plane pushers, brown for crew chiefs, purple for fuelers, and so on. Most important were the yellow-shirted directors, who were responsible for moving the planes safely. The introduction of a flight-control officer expedited launchings by sending planes racing quickly down the deck with each dip of his checkered flag.

Thus far, Reeves had developed tactics only for aircraft squadrons stationed on board the Langley . Aware that the fleet normally would be ordered to Puget Sound and knowing of the poor flying weather there, Reeves requested that his entire force be gathered in San Diego. With approval in hand, he began to formulate a program that would be employed during the first summer concentration period scheduled from 12 June to 11 September 1926.

Reeves ordered all aircraft squadrons to North Field. Included were planes and personnel from VF-1, VF-2, VO-1, VO-4, VJ-1, VT-2, plus those from the Langley and the aircraft tender Aroostook (CM-3). The Langley usually put to sea early in the morning, four days a week, to conduct carrier qualifications for the pilots returning to harbor late in the day. Reeves hoped to increase launch and recovery speeds still further.

Early in August, the Langley took on dozens of airplanes, tons of stores, and hundreds of men for a cruise to Seattle, where she would rejoin the battle fleet. Two of the planes were brand-new Curtiss Hawks, the fastest fighters in the Navy's inventory. These F6C-2s were the first Hawks equipped for carrier use, having been fitted with arrester hooks and strengthened landing gear. In the words of Towers, the ship was "a perfect mass of men and aeroplanes. It is almost impossible to walk about the decks, on account of the congestion."

Air operations began on 7 August. Launch intervals were beginning to average 15 seconds, the landings 90—longer than hoped for but still admirable. Delighted with the Langley's performance, Reeves recommended that her status as an experimental ship be changed to that of a full-fledged combatant.

On 17 February 1927 the Langley sortied with the Battle Fleet, bound for the Caribbean to participate in Fleet Problem VII. As she approached the Panama Canal in the early morning of 3 March, Reeves launched a full deck load of planes for a coordinated attack on the Pacific entrance to the canal before Army defenders could intercept. Though the Langley's part in the actual problem was limited, the operational restrictions placed on the carrier led Reeves to recommend that she be allowed greater latitude in maneuvering and wider action in employing aircraft.

In April, Reeves was ordered to Washington to participate in the second Taylor Board, convened at the request of the Secretary of the Navy to re-examine the Navy's aviation policy. Of the recommendations contained in the board's report of 3 May, the "need for additional carriers" to protect the battle line (i.e., the battleships) was first in importance. Though the board members endorsed the continued development of airships, they were unequivocal in a desire to develop aircraft that would operate from U.S. ships; scouting and patrol from shore- or tender-based aircraft were to be secondary.

At this point, the Bureau of Navigation informed Reeves that he had been appointed a delegate to Geneva for the three-power conference on the limitations of naval armaments. Once negotiations started, Reeves, who had been sent to advise on "all matters of naval aviation," soon was embroiled in the heated discussion of cruiser tonnage, which consumed the negotiators. The ensuing deadlock between Great Britain and the United States could not be overcome, and the conference broke up without reaching an agreement. On 9 August, Reeves left for home.

Among the many letters and telegrams awaiting his arrival in New York was his promotion to Rear Admiral. When his flag was hoisted over the Langley two weeks later, Reeves became the first aviation officer of flag rank in the fleet. Secure in the knowledge that his previous efforts had received tacit approval, Reeves again set out to increase the number of planes that could operate from the Langley . And he was determined to increase the size of the flight deck. Instead of the 12 planes "officially" authorized, Reeves—to the horror of the senior flyers on board—insisted that the ship embark 42 aircraft, enough for two, full 18-plane fighting squadrons and six scouts.

During the winter of 1927 to 1928, the Langley was busy training pilots and handling crews for the new aircraft carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3), which were expected to join the fleet in the spring. Unlike the Langley , with a paltry maximum speed of 14 knots, the new carriers would be among the fastest ships in the fleet. What was more, their combined air complement—each was scheduled to handle 72 aircraft—quadrupled the number of aircraft under Reeves's command. Though he already had accomplished a great deal in 18 months, Reeves saw another unique opportunity for experimentation and innovation. Unwilling to relinquish command of this powerful force, Reeves wrote to Moffett, seeking approval for an extended tour as commander of the Aircraft Squadrons Battle Fleet. Believing that Reeves could "make more progress and accomplish more than anyone else," Moffett took up the matter with Admiral Charles F. Hughes, the incumbent Chief of Naval Operations, and Rear Admiral Richard H. (Reddy) Leigh, Chief of the Bureau of Personnel.

In mid-April, the Langley sortied from San Francisco to Fleet Problem VIII, scheduled to take place in the waters around Hawaii. The objective was Honolulu, which was being defended by the Scouting Force beefed up with air units based in the islands. The Langley's singular mission during this exercise was to provide airborne scouts in advance of the main force. She was ordered to take station 6,000 yards astern of the battleships, an order that irked Reeves, since this required the Langley to leave her station and head into the wind every time she wanted to launch or receive aircraft.

The Langley reached Oahu on 29 April. As she steamed toward Pearl Harbor, a group of Army pursuit planes dived on a six-plane division from VF-1 patrolling above the ship. On previous cruises to Hawaii, the Navy had been cursed with planes decidedly inferior to those used by the Army. This time, as the other pilots on the Langley's deck watched with glee, the F2Bs of VF-1 outmaneuvered the Army planes.

During one training exercise, Reeves was asked to attack Pearl Harbor so the Army could practice air defense. To fulfill this request, the Langley sortied from Pearl Harbor with other elements of the fleet late on the evening of 16 May. By 0305 she was steaming toward Oahu at 10 knots and could see the searchlights of Diamond Head. At 0437 she turned into the wind and began launching airplanes. In seven minutes, 35 planes were on their way to Pearl Harbor. Arriving over Honolulu at daybreak, they attacked Wheeler Field and other Army installations with simulated machinegun fire and bomb dropping, using the strafing and light bombing maneuvers they that had been practicing for months. Though the Army had been forewarned, the Navy pilots caught their Army contemporaries "flat on their backs in bed," just as their successors were destined to be caught some 13 years later. Though Reeves and his chief of staff at the time, Commander Eugene Wilson, left accounts of this notable event, both failed to mention that the Langley did not go unscathed. At 0551 three planes simulated a torpedo attack on the vulnerable carrier.

The Lexington arrived on the West Coast while the Langley still was engaged in the Hawaii exercises. Instead of allowing her leisurely to await the fleet's return, Reeves ordered the new ship to make a high-speed—and what turned out to be record-setting—run from San Francisco to Oahu. After she arrived, Reeves shifted his flag and the Langley's planes to the Lexington for the return voyage. On the way home he used the big flight deck to test full scale flight and dive-bombing operations.

The following year, Reeves orchestrated another startling air attack, using planes launched from the deck of the Saratoga to bombard the locks at the western end of the Panama Canal. The attackers showered the locks with dummy bombs, supposedly leaving the canal in ruin. As Reeves pointed out later, "this was a purely offensive air attack conducted several thousand miles from the home base and launched during the darkness at a great distance from the objective to be attacked."

At the conclusion of the problem, Reeves received orders to report to the office of the Secretary of the Navy for special duty. He left on 3 May 1929, three years and seven months after assuming command of the Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet. Following a trying year in Washington, where he was forced to contend with President Herbert Hoover's pacifist policies, Reeves had a choice, offered by Leigh, of going to Newport as President of the War College, or returning to sea with the title of Commander Carrier Divisions, Battle Fleet. He chose the latter and in May 1930 was once again head of the fleet's most important aviation command.

During Fleet Problem XII in February 1931, Reeves was designated commander of the Blue forces composed of the two big carriers and their supporting forces. His assignment was a tough one, involving the defense of two canals: the Panama Canal and a second, hypothetical one in Nicaragua. He undertook the defense of the latter with his flagship, the Saratoga , and assigned Captain Ernest J. King, in command of the Lexington , to defend the other. Both carriers narrowly avoided being sunk by the gunfire of approaching battleships, which would have caught them had they not escaped by means of superior speed. By the end of the problem, both flattops were low on fuel, had nearly exhausted their ammunition, and had seen their complement of aircraft theoretically depleted by half. Though the exercise had been instructional for the airmen, Admiral William V. Pratt, then Chief of Naval Operations, believed that it had devalued air attack as a defense against approaching fleets. Reeves admitted that the air force could not stop the advance of battleships, but he argued for their mutual dependence, claiming that only air power could extend the maximum range of gunfire by way of spotting from the air. A test of wills must have ensued, for Reeves wrote a "strong and carefully worded report" to the Navy Department, thus saving aviation from severe budget cuts the next year.

This was to be Reeves's last major act in naval aviation. Upon his return to San Diego, he received orders to report for shore duty after the normal rotation in commands at midyear. Reeves preferred to stay on the West Coast near his home in the San Francisco Bay area and was appointed temporarily as senior member of the Pacific Coast Section of the Board of Inspection and Survey before becoming Commandant of the Mare Island Navy Yard while he awaited his return to sea duty. On 10 June 1933 Reeves was named as Commander, Battleships, Battle Force, a full admiral's billet, which he assumed 20 days later. His dedication was rewarded a year later when he was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet, the first naval aviation officer to achieve this distinction.

Reeves's contribution to carrier aviation has, for the most part, remained unappreciated, although he did more to shape its future role in the U.S. Fleet than any other officer in the interwar period.

Editor’s Note: Footnotes available upon request.

Mr. Wildenberg is the newly appointed Ramsey Fellow for Naval Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum and is currently at work on a biography of Admiral Reeves. He is the author of Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Air Power , scheduled for November release by the Naval Institute Press, and Gray Steel and Black Oil: Fast Tankers and the Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1992 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).


Thomas Wildenberg is an independent historian and scholar with special interests in aviators, naval aviation, and technological innovation in the military. He has written extensively about the U.S. Navy during the interwar period, and his writings have appeared in a variety of scholarly journals including the Naval War College Review, Proceedings, and Air Power History. His books on naval history include, Destined for Glory, All the Factors of Victory, Grey Steel and Black Oil, Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy, and Ship Killer.

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