In 1969, Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen, U.S. Navy (Retired), conducted one of the U.S. Naval Institute’s earliest oral histories—with one of the U.S. Navy’s earliest aviators. In this excerpt, Vice Admiral Bogan recounts a close-shave episode from his days on board the USS Langley (CV-1) in Fighter Squadron One (VF-1) when naval aviation was in its nascence—a time defined by trial, error, a dangerous learning curve, and, sometimes, just plain luck.
I was executive officer in VF-1 for the first year and moved up to skipper for the next two years. We participated in all the fleet cruises, and about that time Commodore J. M. Reeves became Commander, Aircraft Battle Force. I believe that, although he had no background in aviation, it was his intention and driving ambition to make aviation an integral part of the fleet. That changed it from a group of squadrons acting independently, and at times to each other’s disadvantage, into a cohesive whole that later became Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet and was a complete entity.
As I say, he did not have much of an aviation background, and, as an instance of this, on one occasion in the summer of ’27, we were on our way from San Diego to Seattle in the Langley, when Commodore Reeves decided that the time had come to break the record for carrier landings made in a single day. He sent for me and for Commander Marc “Pete” Mitscher, who was then air officer of the Langley, and said this was a good time to do it. I explained to him that the wind was blowing 50 knots, that the planes landed at about 52. The Langley needed at least eight knots for steerageway, and she was pitching 24 or 30 feet. I said it was going to be very difficult to land with the sea and wind conditions as they were. Commodore Reeves said, “Not at all. We’ll just steam downwind.”
I thought Pete Mitscher was going to vomit, but he didn’t, and we began the landings under those conditions. Two or three of my pilots refused to fly, so I took one of their planes in the morning and took my own in the afternoon. Later that afternoon, toward the end of the day, my tailhook caught a fore-and-aft wire, and I went over the side and was picked up by the Aroostook [CM-3], which was plane tending. When they threw me a line, I tried to get it around the tail of the plane, but she sank as I reached for it, so I tied it around myself and they hauled me up to the deck.
We did break the record. I think we made 129 landings, but it had absolutely no significance. Commodore Reeves just wanted to break a record, and we did it under very adverse conditions. He was a very determined man, and a brilliant man, but he just had a blind spot there. We were going to break the record, period. On the way back from Seattle, Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur was in one of the battleships. Reeves called me in and said, “I want you to give a good demonstration over the California [BB-44] for Secretary Wilbur.”
I said, “Commodore, there’s a storm coming in here from the northwest.”
“Oh, it amounts to nothing.”
So we went off, and we hadn’t been in the air 15 minutes before this thing hit, and if conditions on the record-setting day were bad, these were worse, because the rain was driving down in such sheets that you could barely see the deck. But we got away with it. Not a wheel was broken and not a tire blown.
In reviewing this little cruise at a critique at North Island a few weeks later, Reeves said, “Gentlemen, you went to Seattle neophytes, and you came back veterans.”
I said, “Yes—and we were lucky to come back.”