The Interwar Transformation
In an era often referred to as the “Golden Age of Aviation”—one marked by the thrilling spectacle of air races, record-setting flights, and larger-than-life personalities—naval aviation was a primary player. Sea Service accomplishments included the first aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, by the NC-4; the polar explorations of Commander Richard E. Byrd; and the soaring altitude records of the mythically named aviator Lieutenant Apollo Soucek. Yet beneath the headline-grabbing feats, naval aviation spent the decades between the world wars engaged in the very serious business of developing an air arm that was an integral part of Fleet operations.
Perhaps the most important step in the evolution of post–World War I naval aviation occurred not on the sea or in the air but rather in the halls of Congress with the creation of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in 1921. Rear Admiral William A. Moffett was named its first chief, a post he was destined to hold for the ensuing 12 years. Politically savvy and embracing the philosophy that aviation and the Fleet were inseparable, Moffett proved a tireless champion of naval air power. He thwarted efforts led by Army Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell to form an independent air force that would encompass naval aviation, and helped secure legislation that in 1926 instituted a building program of 1,000 aircraft with which to advance naval air’s capabilities.
A number of these aircraft would fly from floating airfields, the Navy having commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Langley (CV-1), in 1922. Ironically, the service owed the commissioning of the Langley’s two successors to international postwar efforts to limit naval armaments. Still novelties, carriers were viewed as auxiliaries when compared with battleships and battle cruisers. As a result, the provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 allowed the conversion to flattops of two U.S. battle cruisers that were already under construction.
The resulting Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) entered service in 1927. Dwarfing the Langley and attaining speeds capable of keeping pace with the Fleet, the two carriers bolstered the offensive capability of naval aviation, a fact the Saratoga dramatically demonstrated during Fleet exercises in January 1929. With only an escorting destroyer, the “Sara” separated from other ships and proceeded under cover of darkness to a position from which she launched a surprise dawn “attack” against the Panama Canal.
Meanwhile, for naval aviators wearing Marine Corps green, the “Banana Wars” provided the opportunity to put tactical doctrine into practice under enemy fire. In the jungles of Central America and the Caribbean were sown the seeds of close-air support and dive-bombing that would be so effective in the Pacific during World War II. Dive-bombing also proved effective against ships, with Navy squadrons perfecting the tactic during the interwar years.
To deliver ordnance on target at extended range, to say nothing of seeking out opposing fleets and protecting friendly forces from enemy aerial attacks, required capable aircraft, and the interwar years witnessed the dawning of new technologies in aircraft design. Beginning in the 1920s, air-cooled engines, notably the famous Pratt & Whitney Wasp, bolstered speeds. The next decade brought advances in metal construction, retractable landing gear, and a shift from biplanes to monoplanes.
A new crop of aviation manufacturers launched after World War I, including Grumman, Douglas, and Consolidated, provided a steady stream of aircraft to the Navy. Some of the planes introduced during the interwar years, including the capable PBY Catalina flying boat and SBD Dauntless dive-bomber, would prove so effective that advanced versions were still on the front lines when World War II ended.
Manning the cockpits of Sea Service aircraft were the successors of the pioneers who bravely took to the air in naval aviation’s formative years. Some were young officers who advanced up the ranks to command squadrons and air groups in gaining vital experience that prepared them to lead men into harm’s way during 1941–45. Others were senior officers, with names such as William F. Halsey, John S. McCain, and Frederick C. Sherman, who entered naval aviation later in their careers and became air admirals in World War II.
As the possibility of war became ever more pronounced during the troublesome 1930s, Congress passed the Aviation Cadet Act in 1935. It brought thousands of reserve officers into the ranks of naval aviation to serve a fleet that by December 1941 numbered eight aircraft carriers and more than 3,400 planes. That month one of those cadets in training penned a letter to his parents in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: “As the details . . . reached us, we stood with heads bowed in chagrin but defiance in our hearts.” Naval aviation had once again been called to fight a world war.