When first-year midshipmen enter the U.S. Naval Academy now, they have been thoroughly tested, profiled, and scrutinized on “whole-person” attributes. A century ago, the two important requirements were congressional appointments and passing a comprehensive series of entrance examinations.
John L. McCrea, born in 1891, many years ago dictated a charming memoir of his life; his stepdaughter Judy Tobey is now editing it for possible publication. McCrea grew up in the town of Marlette, Michigan, in the “thumb” area of the state. He recalled the first automobile in town, a car with no reverse gear. To go in another direction, the driver either had to make a U-turn or get a helping hand to swing the lightweight vehicle in the desired heading.
To enter the Academy, McCrea had to pass the entrance exams no later than his 20th birthday in May 1911. To that end, he spent the preceding year in Annapolis at a “cram school” that used old entrance exams as guides in preparing candidates for the ones they would face. In April he took the exams and learned a while later that he had passed. He was admitted with a month to spare before his birthday.
The Navy, of course, is perpetually in a state of transition, but 1911 was notable because it was the year U.S. naval aviation began. The change in technology was dramatically illustrated for McCrea because part of his training was on board the three-masted square-rigged wooden sailing ship Hartford, originally commissioned in 1859. During the Civil War, she was Rear Admiral David Farragut’s flagship at the Battle of Mobile Bay, a noteworthy Union victory.
Nearly half a century later, the Hartford was again in commission and now was the site of drills for the new midshipmen. Though the ship didn’t get under way when McCrea was on board, he and his fellow plebes still got plenty of exercise alongside the dock. Time after time, they responded to the shrill sound of the boatswain’s pipe and the orders: “All hands aloft. Feet on the rat lines, hands on the shrouds.” They clambered up, ran out on the footropes that were suspended from the horizontal yardarms, and shook out the sails.
James Cheevers, the curator of the Naval Academy Museum, has records on the advent of aviation in Annapolis. The first aircraft to fly there was the B-1, a frail-looking biplane built by the Wright brothers, who had pioneered heavier-than-air flight only eight years earlier. It arrived in crates, delivered to the Academy armory, now known as Dahlgren Hall, in September 1911. Lieutenant John Rodgers worked with a group of midshipmen to unpack the crates and assemble the primitive plane on the evening of 6 September. It was the first airplane many of them had ever seen.
The next day, Rodgers and his contingent of midshipmen hauled the plane to Farragut Field, on the Chesapeake Bay side of the armory and the recently built dormitory, Bancroft Hall. The B-1’s engine produced only about 60 horsepower, an amount sufficient for maneuvering in the air but not for takeoffs. The solution was to attach lines to the left and right struts between the upper and lower wings. As McCrea recalled, 10 or 12 midshipmen took hold of the lines on each side.
When Lieutenant Rodgers was ready to go, he revved the puny engine, and the mids holding the lines began running as fast as they could down the parade ground. They were instructed to wait till they heard the pilot yell, “Cut,” then all except the outside man on each side would let go of the lines. The outer men, of whom McCrea was one, were directed to wait a bit before letting go to make sure the lines didn’t foul the propellers. McCrea decided he would hit the ground as soon as he heard “Cut” so the passing lower wing wouldn’t take his head off.
As he explained wryly in his memoir: “When I heard ‘cut,’ I put my thought into execution with a vengeance. Unfortunately, my mouth hit the heel of the man ahead of me. As a result, for the rest of the summer I had black and blue lips. I’ve often thought that the Purple Heart has been awarded for less.”
Rodgers did become airborne, buzzed the Academy’s seamanship building, and then landed after about 15 minutes of flight. Once the aircraft was refueled, Rodgers flew to Washington, D.C., and landed on the Mall. There he reported to Captain Washington Irving Chambers, who had been directed to set up the first U.S. naval air station at Greenbury Point, across the Severn River from the Academy.
As for McCrea, he opted not to go into flying. Three years after his 1915 graduation from the Academy, he was officer of the deck of the battleship New York (BB-34) when the German High Seas Fleet surrendered off Scotland at the end of World War I. During World War II, he was naval aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then the first commanding officer of the battleship Iowa (BB-61). He eventually retired as a vice admiral in 1953, more than 40 years after he literally helped naval aviation get off the ground.