All the Factors of Victory: Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Airpower
Thomas Wildenberg. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2003. 326 pp. Photos. Bib. Index. $27.50.
Reviewed by Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired)
All the Factors of Victory is a biography of Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves, an officer instrumental in the development of U.S. carrier aviation. He was more than a carrier innovator and advocate, however. He also was a noted engineer, seaman, tactician, and leader, although these aspects are not well known because he believed in spoken words and practical work over the written word and extensive planning on paper. Consequently, even though much of his work led directly to victories in the Pacific in World War II, not much has been written about him and his contributions. To that extent, Thomas Wildenberg has contributed an important work of history and done the much deserved reputation of Reeves a great service. Without personal papers to explore, Reeves’s biographer had only one prior biographical effort on which to rely and was forced to search exhaustively through a wide range of official records and oral histories.
All the Factors of Victory begins with Reeves’s birth in Tampico, Illinois, and his years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a star football player and excelled in engineering. The book runs sequentially through his experiences as a junior engineer (including duty in the Oregon [BB-3] during the Spanish-American War), his transfer to the line where he served in a number of ships and became a gunnery expert, his time of teaching and coaching football at the Naval Academy, and his rise to command of a collier, cruisers, and two battleships. Then, after a tour at the Naval War College, he volunteered for and completed the naval aviation observer course for senior officers at Pensacola—becoming, in effect, one of the first naval flight officers.
From his completion of the Pensacola course in 1925 until his promotion to Commander of Battleships, Battle Force, in 1931, he was intimately involved with naval aviation, particularly in the development of carrier aviation. Despite the fact that Reeves later become a four-star admiral, retiring as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, in 1936, it is his years in aviation that are the heart of the book.
When Reeves first arrived in San Diego as Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, his command consisted of the experimental carrier Langley (CV-1) and five squadrons of aircraft. To his consternation, he found no evidence of any doctrine and no agreed-on plan for employment of aircraft forces. The Langley went to sea with no more than eight aircraft at once, spending most of that time on carrier qualifications. None of this seemed right, so Reeves began asking questions. He compiled his then-famous list of “A Thousand and One Questions,” to which he fully acknowledged he had no answers but that he knew had to be answered if carrier aviation ever were to be an effective factor in the success of the fleet in battle. He never demanded particular solutions; he merely asked the right questions.
Gradually and methodically the questions were answered, more questions were raised, and the small carrier force daily became more effective. The Langley learned how to operate with greater and greater numbers of aircraft. Launch and landing intervals were reduced and both air-to-air and air-to-ground tactics, including dive- bombing, were developed and practiced.
When the Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) arrived in the fleet, Reeves began development of multicarrier tactics, most of which were to be seen again during the war in the Pacific. More spectacularly, in 1929, in a now-well-known event, Reeves in the Saratoga launched a successful dawn attack on the Panama Canal during a fleet battle problem, catching the “defenders” completely by surprise.
This was only one of a large number of firsts in carrier aviation brought about by Reeves, firsts that have been grievously under-publicized. Wildenberg has taken a giant step toward remedying that oversight, and any student of history would do well to review what he has put together. His work is extremely well referenced and documented. The notes and bibliography are first rate, and they are wonderful keys to further study of the man and his times.
Unfortunately, the writing style sometimes can be rather dull. For example, the chapter entitled “Fleet Command” reads almost like a series of logbook entries. Except for some possible differences of opinion with other senior officers, there is not much meat in the chapters after Reeves left aviation. The author spends far too much time describing the various crossing-the-line ceremonies in Reeves’s career and other minutiae. For the busy reader who wants to get to the heart of the thing, I recommend picking up with Reeves’s time at the Naval War College in Chapter 9, then continuing with his time with aviation through Chapter 16. The chapters on either side will probably not be news to anyone apt to buy this book.
Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-42
Nathaniel Philbrick. New York: Viking, 2003. 416 pp. Bib. Index. $27.95.
Reviewed by Dr. Herman J. Viola
“Wilkes merits hanging, but he deserved impaling, long, long ago. God everlastingly damn him.” This condemnation of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, comes from the pen of William Reynolds, one of Wilkes’s junior officers. The conflict between them forms the core of Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick, winner of the National Book Award for his In the Heart of the Sea (New York: Viking, 2000), another seafaring epic.
Known today as the Wilkes Expedition after its colorful but troubled commander, the U.S. Exploring Expedition is considered one of the finest moments in the peacetime history of the U.S. Navy—a ’round-the-world voyage of adventure and drama by six gunboats in the Age of Sail. Along the way, the gallant squadron surveyed 280 islands and made 180 charts, some of which still were being used as late as World War II. The expedition also mapped 800 miles of the coast of the Oregon Territory, and it explored some 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coast, proving the existence of the seventh continent. Equally important, a corps of civilian scientists on board the vessels collected and described natural history specimens from across the globe—specimens that eventually came to the fledgling Smithsonian Institution. In a larger sense, the expedition led to the emergence of the United States as a naval and scientific power with worldwide interests, but at the time it was considered wasteful and unnecessary by many contemporaries. A cynical press derided it as the “U.S. Deplorable Expedition.” The officers and seamen who endured and survived every possible hardship the sea could offer cursed it as the “U.S. Everlasting Expedition.”
Of the six ships that set sail so boldly from Norfolk in 1838, only two completed the cruise. Wilkes sent one ship home early because she was too slow. Another went down with all hands rounding Cape Horn. A third survived a collision with an iceberg in Antarctic waters only to founder crossing the bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. Still another, leaking at every seam, was sold to an opium smuggler in the Philippines. “If only the United States had a national museum,” lamented one brokenhearted crew member, “that gallant vessel would forever have its place of honor.”
Shipwrecks, hand-to-hand combat with Fijians, scorching equatorial heat, frost-bitten hands, faces, and feet in Antarctica, and wholesale desertion in Tahiti and Hawaii would have been challenges enough, but the suffering was made only worse by an arrogant, insensitive, and driven commander whom Herman Melville later used as a prototype for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. This was Wilkes, a brilliant but flawed officer whose predictions of conspiracies and cabals designed to rob him of his place in history became self-fulfilling prophecies as the initial enthusiasm and love of crew and officers were turned to hatred by a martinet later court-martialed for excessive use of the lash. Only a last-second qualm of conscience kept one crewman from killing him. Wilkes, in turn, charged Reynolds and other junior officers with being petty, carping slackers who put personal ambitions above duty to their service and country.
Wilkes, a 40-year-old career naval officer when the expedition set sail, was court- martialed three times, yet he rose to admiral. Driven, egotistical, and possibly manic-depressive, he was described at his expedition court-martial as “violent,” “rude,” “offensive,” and prone to “taxing forbearance to the last degree.” His antagonist Reynolds began the expedition as a 23-year-old passed midshipman full of enthusiasm and hero worship. “Hurrah for the Exploring Expedition!” he wrote. “My profession above any other in the world.” Of Wilkes, he first wrote, “1 like Captain Wilkes very much; he is a most wonderful man, possesses a great deal of knowledge and has a talent for everything.” Four years later, Reynolds would be calling for Wilkes’s hanging. Reynolds kept a secret diary during the four-year ordeal, and he wrote some 20 lengthy letters home—one is more than 40 pages long—that detail the expedition’s adventures and mishaps.
Wilkes, too, wrote voluminously; the letters to his wife Jane were especially revealing of his hopes, doubts, and paranoia. Wilkes also wrote the five-volume official history of the expedition and his memoirs. Philbrick has used this extensive literary trove to weave a fascinating story of an amazing sea adventure that is all but forgotten today, despite the fact that the Smithsonian featured it in 1986 in a major exhibition entitled “Magnificent Voyagers,” and that Wilkes was honored with a U.S. postage stamp two years later.
Philbrick has done a masterful job of telling the story of Wilkes, Reynolds, and the highlights of the voyage, but the civilian scientists and artists who accompanied the expedition deserve more attention than they receive in this book. They suffered for their science because Wilkes resented their presence. Nonetheless, for those who want a compelling read, a page-turning adventure story that proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction, then Sea of Glory is for you.
A Rage For Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USN
James Tertius De Kay. New York: Free Press, 2004. 256 pp. Index. $25.00.
Reviewed by Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U.S. Navy (Retired)
News that a new biography of Stephen Decatur was about to appear was received with anticipation. So much of what is available is the product of early 19th- century myth making; it is high time a serious modern effort comes to fruition. Dr. W. M. R Dunne had been engaged in such an effort when death stepped in. James Tertius de Kay, the author of this new book, wrote an earlier gem, The Battle of Stonington (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990). Unfortunately, the current work is little more than a rehash of all that has gone before, evidently produced to capitalize on a famous name.
Little seems to be known about Decatur’s pre-Navy early years. As a result, the author has engaged in considerable fictionalizing to flesh out the story and make connections between events. He writes that, as a result of young Decatur’s employment by the firm of Gurney & Smith, the naval agent at Philadelphia, he was in their shipyard every day for a year-and-a- half and so became very familiar with the then-building frigate United States long before he was ordered to her as a midshipman. This early association, he says, may well have been the factor that led him on the path to a naval career. The firm was a naval agent right enough, but the ship was built in the yard of its designer, Joshua Humphreys.
Decatur’s Barbary War activities have been made fabulous by many writers, and De Kay has steered an uncritical course through most of them in arriving at his version. Little attention seems to have been paid to existing contemporary observations from our hero’s peers. Dr. Dunne, at a naval history symposium in Annapolis some years ago, presented a paper detailing Decatur’s lack of consistency in his own reporting of signal events throughout his life and how he almost invariably “enhanced” the details. De Kay seems to accept everything at face value.
Coverage of Decatur’s victory over HMS Macedonian while commanding the United States early in the War of 1812 likewise is based on others’ work. Two things about it are striking. First, the author did not make use of Captain John Carden’s court-martial record. Had he done so, he might have seen that the board, while acquitting Carden because of the unequal strength of the two combatants, evinced a feeling that he had been less aggressive than what had become the norm for Royal Navy commanders. Second, De Kay writes that Decatur pulled away and paused in the battle to give Carden an opportunity to surrender. Both Isaac Hull, before Decatur, and William Bainbridge, later, pulled away from their opponents late in their battles, but it was because they wished to make some emergency repairs while their enemies were obviously in greater distress, and not to give them the chance to surrender. This also seems to have been the situation relative to the Macedonian. The author provides no support for his statement.
This book is at its best when covering Decatur’s duel with James Barron, perhaps because it benefits from the work done by Spencer Tucker and Frank Reuter in Injured Honor (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996) and the late David Lord’s Bainbridge biography, Ready to Hazard (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1981). The tragic business is told in considerable detail and especially underscores the dastardly role of Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott in the business.
Two statements summarize the author’s view of his subject: the first is that Decatur was a “glory hound”—of that there can be no doubt—and the second is that he was an indifferent seaman—for which no proof is given. Readers should pass on this one.
Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution through the Twentieth Century
Col. H. Avery Chenoweth, USMCR (Ret.). New York: Michael Friedman, 2002. 384 pp. Illus. $50.00.
Reviewed by Thomas B. Allen
Imagine a history of U.S. wars presented not in words but in an art gallery—room after room filled with portrayals of moments of battle, such as Paul Revere’s version of the Boston Massacre, the widely printed engraving that helped launch a revolution. Or General Winfield Scott’s troops wading ashore in a daring amphibious operation during the Mexican- American War. Or Marines at an airfield captured in Afghanistan. And on and on, through every U.S. war to the beginning of the 21st century.
This gallery is Art of War, which brings together for the first time on such a scale the combat art of U.S. wars. In more than 300 full-color and black-and-white paintings, sketches, and drawings, retired Marine Colonel Avery Chenoweth introduces the “unsung heroes of an under-recognized but valid branch of art history.” Chenoweth was one of them. He began sketching during the Korean War, when he led a Marine rifle platoon. He was a combat artist in Vietnam and came out of retirement for the Persian Gulf War in 1990, painting, sketching, and serving as the Marine Corps’ field coordinator for combat art.
All the artists in this book were in the middle of the action. By Chenoweth’s strict definition of combat art, it must have been produced by artists who saw and experienced what they drew or painted. Only the work of someone who was there could produce what he calls the “spark of authenticity.”
There are some well-known artists here. Winslow Homer came upon three new Confederate prisoners and found in each face a different mood of war: fear, despair, and arrogance. French impressionist Edouard Manet, in the harbor of Cherbourg, watched and then painted the sinking of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama by the USS Kearsarge. Frederic Remington captured the look of the dead in an unforgettable painting of a forgotten battle of the Plains Wars against the Indians. John Singer Sargent, who went off to World War I at the age of 62, produced a masterpiece: a painting 7 1/2 feet high and 20 feet long titled Gassed. Stumbling men, blindfolded and in a ragged line, are being led to a dressing station in a field covered with the dead and wounded. The painting says more about the horrors of war than any words ever written or any photographs ever taken.
Combat art, like war, is not all horror. The art of war, Chenoweth writes, “tends less to portray gore and death than it does . . . the serendipitous periods of beauty between ghastly events.” Another Sargent painting shows two soldiers swiping fruit from a French orchard. World War II yielded some other quiet moments: sailors watching an on-deck boxing match somewhere in the Pacific; a GI picking wild- flowers somewhere in Europe; Bill Mauldin’s Willy and Joe wondering if “retreatin’ blisters hurt as much as advancin’ blisters”; a staring child standing by a sign that says “Welcome to Mogadishu”; and soldiers taking a break in Bosnia and looking like every soldier who has ever taken a break.
But every quiet moment limned by a combat artist is a moment that can be followed by death or devastation. So when looking at some of these paintings, one wonders what happened next. This is particularly true of depictions of the war in the skies. A B-17 Flying Fortress, trailing smoke, drops flares as it comes in for a landing at a base in England. The flares mean there are wounded on board. Will the plane land safely? Who is wounded? Will they survive?
We sometimes call a photograph a snapshot—a time-freezing image of what we see but do not always feel. In the haunting paintings and sketches of this fine book, we find enduring reality. Those who go to war or send others to war should be told to look through this book and feel that reality.
Other Books Received
Hunting Pirate Heaven: In Search of the Lost Pirate Utopias of the Indian Ocean
Kevin Rushby. New York: Walker & Co., 2003. 304 pp. Maps. Index. $25.00.
Unconditional Defeat: Japan, America, and the End of World War II
Thomas W. Zeiler. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2004. 223 pp. Maps. Photos. Notes. Bib. Index. $65.00 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).
Flattop Fighting in World War II: The Battles between American and Japanese Aircraft Carriers
Patrick Degan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003. 324 pp. Maps. Photos. Chron. Bib. Index. $35.00.