Lieutenants (junior grade) Patrick N. L. Bellinger and Richard C. Saufley raced over to hydroaeroplane AH-3 and rose aloft in barely five minutes. The members of the naval aviation section assigned to the battleship USS Mississippi deployed to Vera Cruz, Mexico, answered their first call to action after receiving an urgent message at 0908 on 6 May 1914:
It is reported by natives that at a point known as Punta Gorda, consisting of one large stone building near the beach, about one mile north of Vera Cruz, a company of Mexican soldiers, about 100 men, is encamped. A report is requested. By order of Col. Waller McGill.
As the aviators headed northward along the coast toward Boca del Rio Antigua at an average altitude of 3,200 feet, they flew low over a group of Mexican Army stragglers, who opened fire with their rifles and hit the fragile plane. Bellinger immediately pulled up, and he and Saufley miraculously escaped unhurt. On returning to base, the men stepped out of AH-3 and grimly inspected the bullet holes in the wings-the first damage sustained by a U.S. aircraft from enemy fire.
The Pot Is Stirred
Revolution began ripping Mexico apart in 1910. Wealthy landowners had been exploiting impoverished peons, and the country's president, General Porfirio Diaz, had grown disconnected from social inequalities. One of his opponents, Francisco I. Madero, returned from exile in the United States to lead a revolt against Diaz in February 1911. In March the general was forced into exile, and Madero became president in November.
Victoriano Huerta, an ambitious general who amassed power among the government troops, known as the Federales, overthrew Madero during the Decena Tragica-Ten Tragic Days-from 9 to 18 February 1913. Huerta eliminated rivals and subsequently had Madero assassinated. Disparate groups-including the Conventionalists, led by charismatic men like Emiliano Zapata and former cattle rustler Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and the Constitutionalists, which included General Venustiano Carranza-lunged vengefully at each other during the ensuing fighting. The chaos endangered Americans caught in the midst of the war and pushed President Woodrow Wilson beyond forbearance. He called on U.S. warships to protect and if necessary to evacuate Americans.
In response, the dispatch boat USS Dolphin anchored in the port of Tampico on 6 April 1914. Her captain, Lieutenant Commander Ralph Earle, sent his paymaster and a boat crew ashore, but they landed in a "forbidden area" and were arrested by Federales, who paraded them through the streets. A few days later, the Mexicans jailed an orderly from the battleship Minnesota who had gone ashore at Vera Cruz, 250 miles to the south, for the mail.
Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, the commander of U.S. forces in the area, demanded a 21-gun salute in apology, and tempers flared during succeeding days as the two countries alternated between threatening and cajoling each other over the "Tampico Incident." Mexican intransigence prompted Wilson on the 14th to order the Atlantic Fleet to send an expedition. Four days later, as the lead ships arrived in Mexican waters, he sent President Huerta an ultimatum: The Mexicans would salute the U.S. flag before 1800 the next day or suffer the consequences. They dutifully apologized on 19 April but refused to render the salute.
Wilson's message to Congress the next day revealed his lingering outrage:
The incident cannot be regarded as a trivial one, especially as two of the men arrested were taken from the boat itself-that is to say, from the territory of the United States . . . . I therefore felt it my duty to sustain Admiral Mayo in the whole of his demand . . . . Such a salute Gen. Huerta has refused.
Wilson asked for forces to be deployed "in such ways and to such an extent as may be necessary to obtain from Gen. Huerta and his adherents the fullest recognition of the rights and dignity of the United States."
Rumors, meanwhile, circulated that the Germans were trying to slip 250 machine guns, 20,000 rifles, and 15 million rounds of ammunition into Vera Cruz on board the steamer Ypiranga. That led Wilson to order Atlantic Fleet and expedition commander Rear Admiral Charles J. Badger to seize the port's customhouse.
Into Vera Cruz
On the morning of the 19th, U.S. Consul William W. Canada notified General Gustavo Maas, who commanded the garrison at Vera Cruz, that the Americans intended to land, and the diplomat urged cooperation to avoid bloodshed. Huerta, however, had become quite aware of an international audience gathered in the outer harbor that included the British and French armored cruisers Essex and Conde, respectively, and the Spanish gunboat Carlos V. The president needed a show of force to save face. He pressured Maas, who responded that he could not cooperate.
The Americans came ashore on the morning of 21 April, with Captain William R. Rush, the skipper of the battleship Florida, commanding the landing force. Major Smedley D. Butler led Marines ashore, and Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher, who commanded the fleet's First Division, shifted his flag to the transport Prairie to be nearer the action.
The Americans quickly seized the customhouse and nearby buildings without a shot fired and established blocking positions across the streets leading toward the Plaza de la Constitucion, the main square. By noon Maas recognized that his position was untenable, released the men under his command, and slipped out of the city with his family in a pair of carriages. Many officers melted into the surrounding populace, and the military chain of command collapsed. Huerta had compounded matters by releasing some convicts, who looted two stores for alcohol.
Sailors and Marines spied groups of menacing Mexican soldiers on the rooftops and streets around the square. After a tense standoff, shots rang out, and although the Americans were under strict orders not to return fire, the keyed-up men had stood about all they could take and returned fire, initiating a wild free-for-all.
The Mexicans turned several buildings into strongholds, and snipers shot at the invaders from vantage points such as the Benito Juarez Lighthouse and Naval Academy and from boxcars and warehouses along the waterfront. When Fletcher learned of the fighting he ordered the Prairie to open fire on the enemy. The rest of the squadron followed suit, and ships blasted enemy concentrations. Hundreds of women and children, however, were sheltered in the Dilgencia Hotel, which Mexican troops were using as a key defensive position. To avoid civilian casualties, the ships did not fire their heavy guns on targets in the area. Other noncombatants, meanwhile, came under fire at the U.S. Consulate, which was struck by bullets. "Several Americans, including some women," Consul Canada cryptically noted, "who refused to go aboard refugee ship are now marooned in hotels within firing line."
Nonetheless, the shooting from the rooftops, the most strongly held Mexican positions, slowly died down during the first dog watch as the enemy increasingly slipped away. The galling fire from the ships gradually drove the Mexicans toward the east, where they tried to rally. But the Prairie's gunners turned their weapons on them there, finally forcing them to retreat.
While the U.S. forces suffered four dead and 20 wounded, the Mexicans reportedly lost 150 to 200 men. The next day some Mexican troops returned, so Fletcher ordered the entire city occupied. Snipers again plied their deadly trade. As American forces passed the Naval Academy, heavy fire erupted from the building's roof and windows. Soon the cruiser Chester and Prairie were slamming rounds into the strongpoint. The enemy retreated, but the Americans paid for victory with another two dead and ten wounded. Appeals to city leaders to restore order met with repeated stalls and left Fletcher no alternative but to place Vera Cruz under martial law on the 26th.
Naval Air Deploys
Seven days before, the flotilla commander at the Naval Aeronautic Station at Pensacola, Florida, had received a radiogram: "Direct Commanding Officer aeronautic station report . . . for service one aeroplane section. . . " Lieutenant John H. Towers, commander of the section, accompanied by Marine First Lieutenant Bernard L. Smith, Ensign Godfrey de C. Chevalier, ten mechanics, a cook, and a mess attendant quickly embarked on board the cruiser Birmingham. The ship, however, had not been fitted for hoisting aircraft, so Sailors removed a lower boom from the aeronautic training ship Mississippi and installed it on the cruiser as a derrick to load their precious aircraft-hydroaeroplane AH-2 and flying boat AB-5. To protect the planes during heavy weather and make room in the overcrowded ship, wings were removed from the two aircraft. The disassembled flying boat AB-4 and hydroaeroplane AX-1 were loaded on board for spare parts.
Sailors also transferred special lumber for repairing flying boat hulls and pontoons to the Birmingham, which sailed on Monday morning. The Mississippi's skipper, Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin, noted in a letter to Captain Mark L. Bristol, officer in charge, Office of Aeronautics: "I hope we will be able to show ourselves of some use. Are we beating the Army to it?"
The Mississippi also received sailing orders and embarked a second aeronautic section. Led by Lieutenant Bellinger, it also included Lieutenant Saufley and Ensigns Melvin L. Stolz and Walter D. LaMont. They took hydroaeroplane AH-3 and flying boat AB-3, drew spare wings for AB-3 from stores, and took a damaged spare boat fuselage from the joiner shop.
The second section's naval aviators noted that a torpedo flotilla had snatched up all the provisions in the area "like a flock of locusts," so the Mississippi had to wait an extra day to load food and supplies. Sailors, meanwhile, obtained spare wing panels for AH-3 by dismounting flying boat AB-1's wings and stripped the station of its entire reserve of four complete engines.
As the battleship arrived off Vera Cruz at 2100 on Friday the 24th, men on board hooked on to the hoist and tested AH-3's and AB-3's engines for flight. Reports placed a possible mine just east of the breakwater, and Mustin suggested to Admiral Badger that the planes could make an aerial search for the deadly device. The admiral ordered Mustin to report to the fleet's First Division commander, Admiral Fletcher, first thing the next morning, however, and the Mississippi's captain dutifully went ashore during the morning watch. He explained to Fletcher that en route to Vera Cruz the air unit's mechanics had built a land chassis for the AH-3 so that the aircraft could be converted with an hour's notice for deployment inland, and improvised their own bombs using warhead noses from ship torpedoes as detonators.
Mustin convinced the admiral of the threat the mine posed, and Fletcher in turn, directed the commander to consult with Marine Colonel John A. Lejeune, commander of the Second Advance Base Regiment. Back on board the Mississippi, Mustin ordered Bellinger to lift off in AB-3. The aviator almost failed to make it through the heavy swells but rose to a height of about 3,000 feet for a 28-minute flight around the harbor. Returning, he embarked Stolz, but they failed to spot the mine and the weather forced them to land on the smoother water inside the breakwater. With Fletcher's blessing, the men transferred both of their aircraft to the bathing pavilion inside the outer harbor, where they were beached.
The Americans did not erect hangars because the aircraft could more safely survive a storm anchored tail to wind in the open. Mechanics would take turns remaining on the beach with the aircraft at night, while the rest of the aeronautical section returned to the Mississippi at taps. Three "A" tents were raised, one each for the mechanics, stores, and officer in charge of the guard.
In response to a request from Colonel Lejeune for a reconnaissance flight, Bellinger went aloft in AH-3 with Saufley as observer on the 26th. They flew 15 miles north of the city and discovered that, although a railroad bridge there appeared intact, the Federales had torn up the tracks about 200 yards on either end. No Mexican troops were present there, however. On their 12-mile southward leg, Bellinger and Saufley noted fires at a number of points along the rail lines, including the bridge at Boca del Rio. They could not discern the reasons for the blazes without dropping below 750 feet-a risky proposition.
During flights to the south the next day they found that the Boca del Rio fire was out, which would give American ground forces the opportunity to use the bridge to pursue straggling enemy soldiers. The fliers also had their first glimpse of organized bodies of enemy soldiers when they spotted two squads of 12 and 15 Federales. Many of them wore bright red shirts, and the Americans also noted some soldaderas (female soldiers). The discovery surprised the aviators, who did not know that Mexican women served as nurses and camp followers and sometimes even took up arms alongside men. On their fourth flight of the day their plane's engine suddenly stopped because of a gas leak in the pressure tank, forcing them to make an emergency landing on rough water.
The Daily Spectacle
Word rapidly spread of the aviators' flights, and Mexicans would gather to watch them from the crest of a hill near the harbor. Operating in the crowded body of water, however, could be dangerous. "I made my first flight here last week," Mustin recorded on 25 May, "and did not really appreciate the restricted landing space until I started my glide and found three steam launches in place where I wanted to land in."
In addition, the Americans had to negotiate treacherous reefs and islands that girded the entrance to the bay, and steer clear of the old Spanish island-fortress of San Juan de Ulua. American officers believed that several hundred Mexicans manned three 10-inch and some smaller guns in the citadel, and others occupied an outpost at Baluarte de Santiago. The Mexican warships Bravos, Morelos, and Zaragoza were also in the vicinity, but a broken chain of command and potential U.S. firepower neutralized these threats.
On 28 April, meanwhile, Bellinger and LaMont flew AB-3 over the city at an average altitude of barely 200 feet to take some of the Navy's first aerial photographs during wartime, though they had to cut their flight short because the plane's engine "worked poorly." Over the next several days they continued to fly along the coast in both directions and over the harbor in search of the still-unlocated mine. Each time they flew overland they spotted Mexican stragglers who quickly melted away. Because of continual problems with AH-3's engine, however, mechanics were barely able to keep the aircraft in the air; they had to grind the valves, replace the No. 1 exhaust, and retime the magneto. On the 29th, the fliers finally spotted their first large body of troops, which they estimated at more than 100 mounted men, in the vicinity of Laguna, and then another detachment of 20 near Antigua Bridge.
Commanders surmised that the Mexicans had gathered to counterattack but needed confirmation. So the next morning Bellinger flew AB-3 in for a closer look with Army Second Lieutenant George E. Arneman as observer. The engine choked and stopped in midair, however, forcing the pilot to land on a rough sea. He got it restarted, taxied into the inner harbor, and took off for another try. After porpoising up and down on the still-heavy waves several times, he finally got AB-3 aloft. Bellinger's persistence did not pay off, however, as the engine failed to deliver adequate power and again died. Not a man to quit, Bellinger tried once more to get it going but broke the starting crankshaft.
At 1054 on 2 May an urgent order jolted the Mississippi's section into action: "Aviation: Major Russell at Tejar pumping station is being attacked. Get information as soon as possible and send to Headquarters Army. Sgd McGill, Adjutant, Marine Brigade." In ten minutes Bellinger and LaMont were up in AH-3 on the first naval air mission in direct support of troops on the ground. Flying along the coast to Boca del Rio and up the river to Tejar, they failed to spot Mexican soldiers, though they did sight a number of fires. The pair took off again that afternoon at Fletcher's behest to reconnoiter outposts around Vera Cruz; they noted that the city seemed suspiciously quiet. On the 6th Bellinger and Saufley flew toward Boca del Rio Antigua but returned frustrated by their inability to identify the phantom company referred to in the message-and with AH-3 bearing the first marks of battle damage on an American aircraft.
A subsequent flight with Saufley on board, which also came under fire, frustrated Bellinger. The lieutenant wrote in his memoirs, "I wanted to return the favor, but we were under orders not to use our revolvers offensively." While looking for something with which to "bomb" the enemy, one of the mechanics handed Bellinger a bar of Octagon soap. On his next mission as an observer, Saufley threw the soap-the first ordnance dropped from a U.S. plane on an enemy-at the Mexicans.
Meanwhile, the aeronautical section on board the Birmingham had cooled their heels at Tampico. They had yet to fly a mission. Ever since arriving with one aircraft ready and another almost ready, the unit had waited patiently only to be told it was not needed after all and to remove the plane's wings because they blocked the cruiser's deck. The Army Aero Division was preparing to embark at Galveston, Texas, to reinforce the expedition, and planners thought they would not need additional naval fliers. When first section commander Lieutenant Towers learned of this on 6 May, he sent a message to Captain Bristol at the Office of Aeronautics repeating the observations of Navy Lieutenant John V. Babcock, who had just returned from Vera Cruz, and passed on Mustin's plea for the Birmingham section's transfer to that port to relieve the exhausted second section.
The news surprised Bristol, who replied, "I wish you had given me more particulars regarding your inability to do any flying off Tampico." With the fall of Tampico to the Constitutionalists, some officers believed that the Birmingham could enter the harbor to enable the men and aircraft of the first section to work inland to gain experience. In the interim, they had to await the Army's arrival before returning to Pensacola.
Back at Vera Cruz on the 12th, the second section received orders to locate a wreck that might pose a hazard to navigation. Bellinger and Stolz took AH-3 up at 1505, circled out over the U.S. fleet at an altitude of 1,200 feet, and flew over Sacrificios Island, where they spotted a sunken barge on the west side of the island, about 25 feet from the landing.
. . . the flying boat with the long C type hull [AB-3] is of no use for our purposes. On the other hand the hydro [AH-3], for our present needs here, is eminently satisfactory. It will climb high enough for scouting and it will get off the water in a bigger sea than the flying boat. About the only thing it won't do is ride out a gale of wind when on the water, and this last cannot be done by the flying boat either.
By this point the fatigue on men and equipment began to tell, and Mustin noted, "AH-3 cannot go on working very much longer without collapsing in the air."
The Marines ashore transferred from Navy to Army operational command under Major General Frederick Funston on 1 May. Although Admiral Badger agreed to allow the Army to operate aircraft inland, he expressed concern over an international confrontation if additional foreign ships reinforced those gathered nearby. He also inadvertently admitted how dependent the fleet had become on the planes. Mustin sent a message, however, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels eight days later: "For any further military operations the Navy aeroplanes are not properly fitted."
Naval Aviation: A Proven Necessity
The second section nevertheless continued to fly every day regardless of weather. "The Navy Aviation Corps on board Mississippi," Badger wrote Daniels on 20 May, "have performed all their duties well and their observations when in flight have been of service to the land forces." Mustin separately noted, "I want to call your attention to the necessity of developing at once and without delay, an aeroplane that can alight on the water and get up from the water in all conditions of weather, or at least under average conditions."
The Vera Cruz intervention finally ended with the return to the United States of the Navy air sections on 25 May and the remaining forces on 23 November. The operation cost 15 American lives, another 56 were wounded, and more than 300 treated for ills ranging from malaria to dysentery. Although the German steamer Ypiranga had been temporarily detained by U.S. forces, the arms on board her eventually reached Huerta. And, after the Americans returned home, valuable stores, including 632 rolls of barbed wire were left behind and eagerly put to use by Mexican troops.
Wilson shrewdly allowed the Constitutionalists also to receive supplies, which permitted them to snatch control from Heurta, who resigned on 17 July and fled into exile. General Alvaro Obregon led Carranza's troops into Mexico City the next month. Villa's further depredations along the borders forced President Wilson to order Brigadier General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing to punish the Villistas. Although he never caught the elusive Villa, Pershing resolutely pursued him until the war in Europe and growing public discontent with the expedition tipped Wilson's hand and he pulled the troops back.
One by one Zapata, Carranza, Villa, and Obregon fell, until only General Plutarco E. Calles, one of Carranza's ablest officers, survived to seize power as Jefe Maximo (Big Boss) during the 1920s. Mexicans emerged from the fighting weary and destitute and spent years recovering from the destructive revolution.
First Aviators to Face the Enemy
Born on 8 October 1885 in Cheraw, South Carolina, Patrick N. L. Bellinger graduated from the Naval Academy in 1907. He served on board ships and submarines before reporting for aviation duty in November 1912, and made history even before Vera Cruz when he achieved the American seaplane record by attaining an altitude of 6,200 feet on 13 June 1913.
After Vera Cruz, he became Naval Aviator No. 8 and continued to break records. Bellinger earned the Navy Cross for his command of the Curtiss seaplane NC-1 in May 1919 during the grueling first aircraft crossing of the Atlantic. Between the wars he commanded the USS Wright (AV-1), the U.S. Navy's first seaplane tender, and the Langley (CV-1), the Fleet's first carrier, and led Patrol Wing 2 in the Hawaiian Islands when the Japanese attacked on 7 December 1941. He reached the rank of vice admiral and was commander Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, by the end of World War II. Bellinger retired two years after the war and died at Clifton Forge, Virginia, on 29 May 1962.
Richard C. Saufley was born on 1 September 1884 in Stanford, Kentucky. Commissioned an ensign in 1910, he was subsequently designated Naval Aviator No. 14. He accomplished a great deal of flying in a short time, but died in a hydroaeroplane crash on 9 June 1916 at Pensacola.
Born on 6 February 1874 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Henry C. "Rum" Mustin graduated from the Naval Academy in 1896. He saw action in the Philippine Insurrection three years later and became Naval Aviator No. 11. Appointed as an "actual flyer" of heavier-than-air craft on 20 January 1914 just before the Mexican intervention, his courage, leadership, and respect for his men earned him their admiration. Afterward Mustin continued to play a crucial role in the early development of naval aviation until his death by aortic aneurysm on 23 August 1923 at the Naval Hospital at Newport, Rhode Island. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Mustin (DDG-89) was commissioned on 26 July 2003 in honor of the four members of the Mustin family who served in the Navy.
-Mark L. Evans
The Earliest U.S. Naval Aircraft
Five years before the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903, the Navy assigned officers to an interservice board to investigate the military possibilities of Samuel P. Langley's experimental flying machine. Naval observers subsequently attended air meets, and Captain Washington I. Chambers, an officer designated to review aviation matters, arranged a series of tests in which aircraft designer Glenn H. Curtiss and exhibition stunt pilot Eugene B. Ely showed a skeptical Fleet that aviation could go to sea.
Ely made the first shipboard takeoff at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 14 November 1910 in a 50-hp Curtiss pusher from a wooden platform built onto the bow of the cruiser Birmingham.
Flying the same aircraft on 18 January 1911, Ely landed on a platform on board the armored cruiser Pennsylvania at anchor in San Francisco Bay. He then took off and returned to nearby Selfridge Field.
Chambers prepared requisitions for two Curtiss biplanes on 8 May 1911. One, the Triad, would be equipped for flying from or landing on land or water, be designed for a speed of at least 45 miles per hour, accomodate a passenger alongside the pilot, and feature controls that either the pilot or passenger could operate. The machine described became the Navy's first airplane, Curtiss hydroaeroplane A-1 (AH-1).
Although the requisitions did not have the signature of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, which was necessary to direct the General Storekeeper to contract with the Curtiss Company, the Navy considers 8 May the date on which the service ordered its first airplane and the birthday of Naval Aviation.
Meanwhile, Curtiss and Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson took off in A-1 and alighted on Keuka Lake at Hammondsport, New York, during three separate flights on 1 July. In the longest of the flights, Ellyson was in the air for 15 minutes and achieved an altitude of 300 feet.
Curtiss and Ellyson set up and flew the Navy's second aircraft, A-2, in two separate flights at Hammondsport on 13 July 1911. Ellyson tested C-1, the Navy's first flying boat, at Hammondsport on 30 November 1912.
-Mark L. Evans
Correspondence includes: Aeroplanes; detailed reports re: work accomplished. Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, 20 May 1914; LCDR Henry C. Mustin to CAPT Mark L. Bristol, 20 Apr 1914; LCDR Henry C. Mustin to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, 20 Apr 1914; LCDR Henry C. Mustin to CAPT Mark L. Bristol, 29 Apr 1914; LT John H. Towers to CAPT Mark L. Bristol, 29 Apr 1914; LCDR Henry C. Mustin to CAPT Mark L. Bristol, 14 May 1914; CAPT Mark L. Bristol to LT John H. Towers, 14 May 1914; CAPT Mark L. Bristol to LT John H. Towers, 23 May 1914; LCDR Henry C. Mustin to CAPT Mark L. Bristol, 25 May 1914; and CAPT Mark L. Bristol to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, 29 May 1914.
Telegrams from: A. B. Lambert to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, 20 Apr 1914 and H. Roy Waite to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, 20 Apr 1914.
Biographical files of: Charles J. Badger, Patrick N. L. Bellinger, Mark L. Bristol, Smedley D. Butler, William A. Moffett, Henry C. Mustin, William R. Rush, Richard C. Saufley, Melvin L. Stolz, and John H. Towers.
Books and articles: James B. Connolly. "The Seagoing Flyers." Collier's, 20 Jun 1914; Reginald Wright Arthur. Contact! Naval Aviator Careers 1-2000. (Washington, DC: Naval Aviator Register, 1967); Henry Woodhouse. Textbook of Naval Aeronautics, 1917 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, reprint 1991); Roy A. Grossnick. United States Naval Aviation 1910-2010. Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1997; and Gordon Swanborough & Peter M. Bowers. United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Second Edition. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1968).
Other sources include: Navy Department Bulletin No. 20, 22 Apr 1914; Op 5 517-14 Weekly report of flying school, 25 Apr 1914; C.O. USS Mississippi Report of Operations at Vera Cruz, 19 May 1914; and M. C. Wellborn. Notes taken from the originals, Aviation History Unit, 1948.