As economic hard times increasingly put the pinch on defense dollars, today’s Navy would do well to look back to the interwar years, when naval aviation weathered the Great Depression as well as a fight over its very existence. Rear Admiral William A. Moffett combined political savvy with shrewd public relations to successfully navigate the Bureau of Aeronautics through many of those turbulent years.
Moffett’s political skills enabled him to deal deftly with Congress on budget issues, secure aviation’s position within the Navy, and help defeat proponents of a unified air service—the most controversial and colorful of whom was Army Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell.
According to William F. Trimble, author of Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation (Naval Institute Press, 2007), in many ways Moffett’s battles with fellow Navy officers, who either perceived naval air as a “threat to their long-established prerogatives” or favored a separate aviation corps within the service, was more difficult than his headline-grabbing fight against Mitchell. Rarely mentioning the air general’s name in public, “Moffett won the war with Mitchell using an astute combination of carefully worded jabs in the news media and the support of fiscally conservative Republican administrations,” writes Trimble.
Underlying Moffett’s efforts was his skill at promoting naval aviation. The Navy had an enormous edge over the Army in vying for public attention and defense dollars: majestic and powerful ships—the tangible results of naval expenditures. Admiral Moffett took full advantage. For example, in 1923 he recommended that the CNO order the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley (CV-1), to Washington, D.C. During her ten-day visit, the public, members of Congress, and President Warren Harding viewed aerial demonstrations and toured the flattop.
Admiral Moffett was able to outdo his water-bound Navy counterparts by having some of his ships sail into America’s heartland. These rigid airships, profiled in Norman Polmar’s article “Ships That Were Lighter Than Air,” made numerous transcontinental voyages as well as “hand-waving flights” over county fairs, parades, and other public gatherings. Thus thousands of Americans who’d never seen an ocean were able to look up and marvel at an enormous dirigible with “U.S. Navy” emblazoned on her sides.
Sill more people were able to get a taste of Navy life, or at least Hollywood’s version of it, from the era’s steady stream of naval-themed motion pictures. The biggest stars of these films were often ships, including the Arizona (BB-39) and Saratoga (CV-3). When Commander Frank “Spig” Wead suffered a 1926 accident that ended his flying career, he began cranking out naval aviation–themed film scripts. Eric Mills’ look at fixed-wing naval-air movies, “Hollywood on the Flight Deck,” includes some films scripted by Wead.
Moffett’s airships also appeared in motion pictures, perhaps most notably the 1931 Frank Capra movie Dirigible, screenplay by Spig Wead. It featured the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), and much of the filming took place at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. Tragically, two years after the movie’s release the airship Akron (ZRS-4) crashed at sea, and among the 73 men who perished was naval aviation’s most enthusiastic proponent, Admiral William Moffett.
Richard G. Latture, Editor-in-Chief