Sailor of the Air: The 1917-1919 Letters and Diary of CMM/A Irving Edward Sheely
Lawrence D. Sheely (ed.), Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993. 221 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. $29.95 ($26.96).
Reviewed by Dwight R. Messimer
U.S. naval aviation during World War 1 has received little attention from historians; only a few books have been devoted exclusively to the subject. That would be reason enough to make Sailor of the Air welcome.
But this book differs from the others because it reports the war from an enlisted man’s view point. As such, it makes an excellent companion to Geoffrey L. Rossano’s The Price of Honor: The World War One Letters of Naval Aviator Kenneth MacLeish (Naval Institute Press, 1991)—more so, because Irving Sheely often flew as Lieutenant MacLeish’s observer.
From a historian’s point of view, this book is particularly valuable because Irving Sheely’s diary entries and letters home are presented uncut. The editing—done by his nephew—consists of explanations that help the reader place the events in their historical context. The editor also explains terms and identifies people named in the diary and letters.
Irving Sheely enlisted in the Navy about a week before the United States declared war on Germany. Because of his experience with engines and mechanics at the American Locomotive Company, he was ideally suited for training as a machinist’s mate (aviation). But he arrived in Pensacola to find that the Navy was not fully ready to deal with the logistics of a rapidly expanding aviation section.
The first thing he discovered was that there were no uniforms available for the recently arrived recruits. He wrote home asking his youngest brother to send him:
[M]y khaki pants. The pair on top, if they are as 1 left them. If not, the best pair I’ve got. . . . Then I want my khaki hat, the one with the wide rim. . . . Then send me one of my best brown shirts, largest size. . . .
Other necessary items ordered from home included most of his drafting equipment and, when he reached Europe, a flying helmet and goggles. But the delay receiving things from home was so long that he had to buy a set locally.
I bought a pair of goggles so you needn’t bother sending those I asked for. I used to fly without any but my eyes bothered me so after I came down that I decided to cut it out. I wish the helmet was four times as heavy. . . . Ada made me one which is on the way. I hope it’s good and heavy.
Anyone who has spent time in the military knows the importance of mail from home. In that department, Irving experienced no shortage; in fact, he had the opposite problem—too much. It was a measure of the fervor of wartime patriotism that people often wrote to servicemen whose names they read in their newspapers. At one point Irving believed that about 100 people had written to him, many of whom he did not know.
Irving had another problem with the mail that any veteran will appreciate. He could not get his family to answer his specific questions or acknowledge the receipt of things he sent home. It took months— and repeated asking—to find out if the checks, allotment, and insurance policy he had sent home had been received.
Sailor of the Air offers an interesting view of two fascinating, but usually overlooked aspects of the war. The first is training, something that Irving spent most of his time doing. (Included in the appendices are pages from his training notebook.) He was trained to maintain and repair a variety of engines; rig the airplanes he flew in; navigate; communicate by flag, light, and radio; observe and report ground activity seen from the air; and be an aerial gunner. As one man bitterly commented, “all the pilot has to do is fly the plane.”
This book also deals with the lack of an identifying badge for enlisted air crewmen. In terms of recognition in this respect, during World War I, the Navy badly neglected its air crewmen. Army observers were awarded a distinctive qualification device, the half wing—and were commissioned officers. In the Navy, the guy in the back seat was an enlisted man, and he did not rate even a half wing.
After finishing training in England, Irving was awarded a set of Royal Naval Air Service observer’s wings. He wore them until ordered to take them off because they were unauthorized. Of all the aviation services on both sides during World War I, only the U.S. Navy refused to award its non-pilot aircrew some sort of distinctive device.
They should have been given a set of wings simply because in addition to being specially trained, the job they were doing was very dangerous. Whenever an engine failed, a wing folded up, or the plane inexplicably dove into the sea, the enlisted mechanic went right in with the pilot. And this book describes many instances of those things happening.
At one point, after so many of his friends had been killed, Irving believes that he probably will die in the war. His letters home reflect that fatalism.
You may well imagine how hazardous this work is. I have watched the English time and again go over . . . flying to some objective in Germany .... Can you imagine such a sight? Then think and wonder how many will never return.
Irving’s last diary entry is dated 22 February 1918, but his letters continue until 5 January 1919. He survived the war; his friend Lieutenant MacLeish did not.
For anyone who is interested in the early days of naval aviation, particularly its expansion in World War I, Sailor of the Air is required reading.
The Marine Corps’ Search for a Mission, 1880-1898
Jack Shulimson. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993. 274 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Notes. $35.00 ($31.50).
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
The U.S. Marine Corps performed marginally during the Civil War, only in part because of inherent institutional inadequacies. Union naval leaders failed to realize the potential of amphibious operations; therefore, the Leathernecks largely performed their traditional duties in the ships of the fleet. A battalion that took to the field for the First Battle of Bull Run fled with the rest of the Union Army, a disgrace that prompted an apologist to suggest that: “surely, they [the Marines] were among the last to run.” Another battalion surrendered without firing a shot when a Confederate raider overtook the ship transporting it to California. In the decades after the war, the professionalism of the Marine Corps spiraled downward: few men enlisted and, for the most part, those who did were riffraff from the seaports; recalcitrants fleeing debts, wives, or the law; and recent immigrants. A scandalous desertion rate resulted. Congressmen and Navy officers alike looked askance; some spoke of disbanding the Corps, some of transferring it outright either to the Army’s Coast Artillery or to the Navy.
Dr. Shulimson’s study (a dissertation completed at the University of Maryland, College Park) is a penetrating, lively, and interesting examination of the reforms attempted by the Marine Corps between 1880-1898 in order to get its professional act together. Much of the uneven reform effort focused on the sorry state of the officer corps. Many officers were lethargic, aged, and undistinguished. Although several commandants had pleaded for a better source of new and better-educated officers—perhaps from the U.S. Military Academy —the untoward situation of commissioning young men who had little higher education or military training directly from civilian life continued as it had since the founding of the Marine Corps. The sorry performance of the second lieutenants prompted one wag to suggest that “USMC” meant “useless sons made comfortable.” Nevertheless, Congress, Presidents, and the Department of the Navy remained unmoved by what was considered a minor administrative dilemma.
But an abundance of graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy—approaching stupefying and outrageous numbers by the 1880s—prompted legislation that limited the number of cadets commissioned in the Navy upon graduation; however, a caveat to the Act of 1882 allowed the excess to fill the vacancies in the Marine Corps. Thus, between 1883 and 1897, all 52 new second lieutenants came from Annapolis. Much of Dr. Shulimson’s study focuses on the contributions—or lack of them—by this purportedly better-educated, usually politically well-connected, and sometimes hard-drinking coterie.
As Dr. Shulimson’s notes somewhat ruefully, the Marine Corps’ fixation on the accession of better-qualified officers skewed attempts at reform. While improving general professionalism, some new officers lacked an inclination for full-service careers; others performed no better or worse than officers commissioned directly from civil life. Everyone is familiar with the luminaries and icons among this group of Annapolitans—especially future commandants such as George Barnett, John A. Lejeune, Wendell C. Neville, and Ben H. Fuller. Most, however, are equally as unfamiliar with Charles A. Doyen and James E. Mahoney (both court-martialled for drunkenness) or Lincoln Karmany (“You say he’s a good officer? And he doesn’t drink? You’ll have to prove it to me!”). The Marine Corps desperately needed a mission consistent with the new Navy of the 20th century. Providing sentries in the ships of the fleet or at naval stations and forming an occasional composite battalion for expeditionary duty smacked more of the Age of Sail than of the Age of Mahan.
Unfortunately, as Dr. Shulimson notes, most Marine Corps officers of the era focused their attentions and energies on the lineal list, stagnant promotions, the perennial line vs. staff feud, and other internecine concerns. The Marine Corps’ new mission—defending advanced bases in support of the fleet—evolved through the initiatives and imperatives of the Navy as it transformed itself into a modern force—and not necessarily from the luminaries populating the higher ranks of the Marine Corps. The Navy officer corps might have been in an intellectual ferment during this era but, as Dr. Shulimson suggests, few of their counterparts in the Marine Corps displayed such professional zeal.
This seminal work is for serious scholars of naval history. Buffs content to accept, without question, shopworn accounts of Marine Corps heroism or colorful eccentricities of that era will not find Dr. Shulimson’s scholarly vivisection an easy read. The endnotes are lengthy, and demonstrate a thorough and consummate search through Department of the Navy and Marine Corps records at the National Archives and Records Administration, in addition to a multitude of other rarely- tapped primary sources. The prose is pristine and crisp, as befits a prolific historian who writes professionally for the Marine Corps Historical Center.
The era studied in this fine monograph ends on an ironic note. Despite decades of uneven reform, the Marine Corps that took to the field in the Spanish-American War performed superbly and garnered much praise in the press. Later, when the United States embarked upon its era of imperialism the Marine Corps became its naval constabulary. Leathernecks seemed ideally suited to be instruments of the country’s new, expansionist foreign policy. In the decades between the end of the Spanish-American War and beginning of World War II, Marines served in various foreign climes—always buoyed the altruistic rhetoric of successive administrations.
But in 1900, the Navy’s General Board ordained the advance base mission for the smaller of the naval services; in 1927, the amphibious assault mission became codified. The architects of that latter mission— the Marine Corps’ raison d’etre even today—constitute much of the study in this monograph. The enthusiastic endorsement of it by just those same officers, mostly graduates of the Naval Academy, provides the centerfold for this thoughtful study; as the author notes, despite their occasional imperfections and infelicities they brought the Marine Corps reluctantly and fitfully into the 20th century.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Forged in War: The Naval-Industrial Complex and American Submarine Construction, 1940-1961
Gary Weir. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1993. 314 pp. Bib. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Notes. Photos. $14.00 ($13.30).
With the current downsizing of the U.S. military and its consequent effect on the Navy’s submarine force, this book provides useful insights into the historical development of that force. Dr. Weir analyzes the roles of the various elements—industry, science, and the military—that came together in the years during and immediately following World War II. What resulted from this merger were remarkable tactical and strategic technological advances in nuclear propulsion, underwater acoustics, and weapons.
Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History
Ernest Volkman. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. 304 pp. Gloss. Ind. Photos. $24.95 ($23.70).
Dispelling some of the popular myths and assumptions about some famous spies and revealing the exploits of some lesser known agents and a few “dabblers,” Volkman sheds new light on the world of espionage. He includes stories of Ernest Hemingway’s amateur spy ring in Havana and Pope Paul Vi’s involvement with the CIA as well as a less glamorous look at Mata Hari.
Cordon of Steel: The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Curtis A. Utz. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1993. 50 pp. Maps. Photos. $5.50 ($5.50) Paper.
This is the first of a new series from the Naval Historical Center—The U.S. Navy in the Modern World. In an attractive and easy-to-read format, this monograph focuses on one of the great dramas of the Cold War Navy when U.S. ships and sailors—many of them reservists—sailed to the very brink of war. Numerous photographs and several maps enhance this highly informative publication.
Origins of the American Navy: Sea Power in the Colonies and the New Nation
Raymond G. O’Connor. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994. 134 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. $34.50 ($32.78).
In four concise but information-packed chapters entitled “The European and Colonial Background,” “The First American Navy,” “Formulating a Naval Policy, 1783-1801,” and “The Barbary Wars,” Professor Emeritus O’Connor—a former Navy man with wardroom and mess deck experience—explains the political, economic, and ideological factors that led to the establishment of the U.S. Navy and directed its early development.