'The Big E' Leadership Factory

By Barrett Tillman

“Jig Dog” Ramage was a case in point. Having overheard Ewen’s impolitic comments, Ramage absorbed the lesson and applied it to his own career. When he returned to the ship as an aviator in 1943, he was on his way to commanding a bombing squadron in the world’s greatest carrier clash. Meanwhile, Ramage and other junior officers benefited from the deck-plate leadership that abounded in the Big E’s 20,000-ton hull. As a division officer, Ensign Ramage relied heavily on his NCOs. He was mentored by the leading petty officer, Joseph Van Kuren, an old salt with a sailing ship tattooed on his chest. Ramage later said, “I learned very early not to meddle with things because he had that division running like a watch.” Ramage’s chief boatswain was Fred Filbry, who demonstrated an easy hand on the tiller while offering sage advice: “Always be around but don’t say too much, sir.” 2

Leadership on the Bridge

Including interim leaders, the Enterprise had 15 captains, 9 in wartime, throughout her career, 1938 to 1947. Little realized today is how few World War II carrier captains had previous commands. At the end, with nearly 100 flattops in commission, there were far too few aviator captains to progress through escort carriers or other ships into fast carriers. The Enterprise was no exception. None of her prewar skippers had held previous carrier commands, though some had conned seaplane tenders or served as carrier executive officers with some shiphandling experience.

The commissioning skipper was Captain Newton H. White, a rural Tennessee boy. He earned his wings in 1919, becoming executive officer of the Lexington (CV-2) before commanding the seaplane tender Wright (AV-1) in 1932. His successor was Captain Charles A. Pownall, a rare bird who had commanded a destroyer from 1939 to 1941. Big E sailors recalled him as “100 percent on training,” placing heavy emphasis on the air division. However, in the 1930s some senior officers regarded carriers as surface vessels with a flight deck, an attitude noted when Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews brought his staff aboard. Andrews, whom sailors labeled “Lord Plushbottom,” allowed no flying during the noon hour, lest his lunch be disturbed.

Naturally, aviator admirals were more accepting. Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr. flew his flag from the Enterprise at various times, most notably from late 1941 well into 1942. However, Halsey’s prewar chief of staff was the irascible Captain John H. Hoover, sardonically called “Genial John” by contemporaries. He assumed the mantle of his chief’s three stars, sometimes giving helm orders when not even on the bridge. The mild-mannered “Baldy” Pownall tolerated the situation but his successor did not. After Captain George D. Murray came aboard in March 1941, he was showering in his cabin when he noted a course change and demanded why of the officer of the deck. The lieutenant (junior grade) replied that the chief of staff had ordered it, prompting a wet, squishy Murray to stalk up to the bridge. The ensuing discussion was loud, contentious, and short. Problem solved.

Murray’s tenure might have ended when the Enterprise nearly swapped paint with the battleship Oklahoma (BB-37) during an exercise in the fall of 1941, but after 7 December Halsey supported the CO. It was a good choice, as Murray proved in combat. During the raid against the Marshall Islands in February 1942, bridge personnel noted the skipper darting from one wing to another, gauging the approach of Japanese bombers and accordingly ordering course changes. A sailor even reported that the captain grabbed the wheel on one occasion, spoiling the Mitsubishis’ aim.

After the Battle of Midway, Murray was relieved by Captain Arthur C. Davis, who remained for nearly four months. He had no previous commands but did well in the early phase of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Surely the record for on-the-job training was held by Captain Osborne Hardison, who assumed command at sea on 20 October 1942, four days out of Hawaii. His previous position was chief of staff for the undersecretary of the Navy for Air, earning stellar grades (as he had at Annapolis) in organizing naval aviation’s expansion. He took the Big E to the Solomons in time for the hard-fought Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October. With six days’ experience he evaded nine Japanese torpedoes—likely the American record—but in fairness he had the excellent support of an experienced bridge crew.

The Big E’s only two skippers with previous carrier commands both came up through CVEs. Captain Cato D. Glover Jr. had placed the escort carrier Barnes (CVE-20) in commission in February 1943, delivering replacement aircraft throughout the Pacific. He boarded the Enterprise after the Marianas operation in July 1944.

Captain Grover B. H. Hall assumed command in December 1944. He had conned the training carrier Charger (CVE-30) on the East Coast, where his dynamic methods earned him the nickname “Dynamite.” In Hawaii he gave his new command a thorough winging out, prompting one sailor to observe, “Captain Hall drove that ship like a Model A Ford.” 3

Air Officers, Execs, and Subordinates

Of the Big E’s 15 captains, it is noteworthy that none left a lasting impression. Some were excellent; a few were not. Some were average. But CV-6ers are unanimous that the greatest influence was exerted by two other leaders: Commanders John G. Crommelin and Thomas Hamilton. As air officers and executive officers they were much more directly in contact with the white hats, and the crew came to appreciate them to a much greater extent than the commanding officers.

Crommelin arrived after Midway, remaining through September 1943. A deceptively soft-spoken southerner, he was one of those rare people who did everything well. He graduated near the top of the Naval Academy class of 1923, becoming a widely respected officer and superb aviator. He first served as air officer, the usual route to exec, and quickly established a rapport with the ship’s company as well as the air group. Irreverent of authority and brashly outspoken, he once dismissed an order from the captain by exclaiming: “Oh, don’t listen to that SOB. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” 4

A successor, Commander Tom Hamilton, recalled Crommelin as “a truly great officer” who had his own way of doing things—often nonregulation but inevitably effective. Hundreds of Enterprise sailors learned that “Uncle John” Crommelin had their interests at heart. His affection for Big E men extended beyond the ship. Those who called on then-Captain Crommelin for help after the war could count on his heartfelt effort.

Football fans were familiar with Hamilton, a Navy All-American who coached the Academy squad for three seasons in the 1930s and for two after World War II. An aggressive player and officer, he defended his decision to go for a win rather than a tie against Army’s 1946 powerhouse by famously saying, “A tie is like kissing your sister.” 5

Like Crommelin, Hamilton began his Enterprise service as air officer, rising to exec in 1944. As such he was the only wartime skipper who wore three stripes, conning the ship from Majuro to Hawaii after the Marianas battle.

Frequently subordinates rose to the occasion when superior officers proved lacking. During the Guadalcanal campaign, the Enterprise received Air Group Ten, the first such unit organized and deployed since start of the war. The group commander, through no fault of his own, was ill-prepared for the challenge and proved a weak leader. Fortunately, he had three capable squadron commanders including the fighter skipper, Lieutenant Commander James H. Flatley Jr. He was widely recognized as one of the most competent aviators in the Navy, having flown from the Yorktown (CV-5) during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. Pilots soon recognized the natural leaders in the air group and gravitated toward Flatley and his colleagues.

Landing the Planes

Leadership also was evident on the Big E’s flight deck, never better demonstrated than during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands at the height of the Guadalcanal campaign. The ship’s landing-signal officer was Lieutenant Robin M. Lindsey, assisted by the air group LSO, Lieutenant (junior grade) James G. Daniels. Lindsey had been on board since July 1941 and learned the “paddles” trade under the tutelage of prewar LSOs. Daniels had survived Fighting Squadron Six’s debacle in the night sky over Pearl Harbor on 7 December when panicked Navy and Marine gunners shot at anything, killing three Big E aviators.

During the carrier battle of 26 October, the Enterprise ’s sister, the Hornet (CV-8), sustained fatal damage from Japanese aircraft. The Big E had to accept the Hornet ’s orphaned aircraft, but her flight deck began to fill up. She had taken a bomb hit that jammed the forward elevator full up, leaving only the number two elevator available to take planes to the hangar deck while room remained topside.

Standing on the LSO platform, Lindsey and Daniels brought plane after plane aboard. Eventually the “pack” moved steadily aft until only the last few arresting wires—closest to the stern—were available. Daniels bet Lindsey a dime for every plane he “cut” onto the “one wire,” which planes hardly ever snagged.

Inevitably the Hornet overflow required parking aircraft over the number three wire, then the two wire. Only the one wire was available with planes still aloft. Lindsey’s talker reported an order from the bridge to stop landing operations, lest a major accident deprive the Pacific Fleet of its last available flight deck. Lindsey did not know if the order came from Captain Hardison or Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, the task force commander, and he didn’t care. He told his talker to pull the plug on the sound system, adding, “I don’t want to hear anything from anybody.”

Like most LSOs, Lindsey had a personal relationship with his aviators. He probably did not know any of the Hornet pilots, but he recognized their SBDs as the most valuable aircraft in the fleet. He continued giving the “cut” signal to plane after plane, each one’s tailhook grabbing the last available wire.

At length only one plane remained airborne, the F4F-4 Wildcat flown by Lieutenant Stanley W. Vejtasa. Earlier that day “Swede” Vejtasa had set an American record, downing seven Japanese aircraft and breaking up one of several attacks on the Big E. Now, turning up the carrier’s wake, wheels and hook down, Vejtasa looked at a deck jammed with blue-gray aircraft.

Vejtasa’s CO, Jimmie Flatley, regarded Swede as the finest carrier aviator afloat. And Vejtasa considered Robin Lindsey the best “waver” in the business. Theirs was both a personal and professional relationship, based on mutual respect and confidence. With the Wildcat farther out than ever before, Lindsey gave Vejtasa a “high dip”—drop the nose slightly, then recover—and then slashed his paddles down in the cut signal.

Vejtasa responded as ordered. He recalled, “I was looking right at the ramp,” the aft end of the flight deck. 6 He chopped the throttle, dropped the Grumman’s stout airframe onto the deck—and caught the one wire. In the nearby catwalks, sailors applauded and cheered a virtuoso performance by two accomplished professionals. Swede Vejtasa shut down his engine, climbed out, and warmly shook hands with his friend Robin Lindsey.

However, Lindsey’s superb work apparently went unappreciated on the flag bridge. He was put in hack, confined to his quarters, for defying authority. The only living witness is the captain’s yeoman, who believes Admiral Kinkaid likely was responsible. In any case, Hardison had kept the ship steaming into the wind, permitting landing operations to continue. 7

While glooming in his cabin, Lindsey was visited by Uncle John Crommelin, bearing an unauthorized beverage. The exec asked what he could do for the gifted LSO, who said he would love to have the battle flag the Big E flew that day. The prize was duly delivered and may be seen today at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.

Policing the Big E

As Jig Dog Ramage had learned during his prewar “black-shoe” tour, leadership was where you found it. Among the noncommissioned personnel, a standout was Chief B. H. Beams, the big, burly master-at-arms who served on board during the entire war. As the ship’s “police chief” he wielded considerable authority but did not have to rely on force. His commanding presence usually sufficed, reinforced by his size. He was so imposing that sailors said his initials stood for Bulkhead, and that’s what he was known as.

On one occasion in 1944, Beams walked past the captain’s office to find some sailors had spread a blanket on the deck and were indulging in decidedly illicit gambling. The miscreants espied Bulkhead at the same moment—there was no missing him—and awaited his response. Beams had three options: ignore the offense, punish the offenders, or something else. On a whim he asked, “What’s the ante?” One of the men chirped, “Two bits, Chief.”

Beams knelt down, anted up, and played. And played. And played. According to one participant, he won $17,000 (more than $200,000 today) but made sure that he lost it all before he broke up the game and wandered off, whistling to himself. Widely revered in the Enterprise community, he died in Hawaii in 1995.

An aircrewman explained the wartime attitude toward money: “We had nowhere to go, nothing to do, and not much to spend it on. Money didn’t mean much to us until we got ashore, and then it was easy come, easy go.” 8 Undoubtedly Bulkhead Beams shared that opinion.

After Service on Board

Former Big E officers continued contributing to the Navy and the nation long after VJ Day. Nobody who knew John Crommelin was surprised when he emerged at the tip of the Navy spear in the bitter postwar struggle with the nascent independent Air Force. In 1950 he was identified as the source of leaked communications from admirals concerned that the Truman administration’s anti-Navy bias would destroy naval aviation. The New York Times labeled him “a stormy petrel who wouldn’t shut up.” He retired that year with a “tombstone” promotion to rear admiral. Crommelin died in 1996, still revered among his shipmates as “Uncle John.”

Other Enterprise aviators reached the pinnacle of their profession. As a captain, Charles D. Griffin was involved in the “Revolt of the Admirals” but survived to hold four-star European commands in the 1960s. Prewar fighter pilot Thomas Moorer became chief of Naval Operations and chairman of the Joint Chiefs (1970–74), while his erstwhile squadron mate John Hyland commanded the Pacific Fleet from 1967 to 1970.

At least seven Big E officers became vice admirals, including William I. Martin, who commanded the 6th Fleet in the 1960s; his record of some 400 night carrier landings stood for 40 years. Jim Flatley established the Naval Safety Center and founded a naval aviation dynasty before passing away in 1958. Captain Vincent De Poix, who as a fighter pilot had served in the Big E, placed the next Enterprise (CVN-65) in commission in 1961.

Rear Admiral Martin D. Carmody, an SBD pilot of Guadalcanal vintage, commanded the Kitty Hawk (CVA-63). Other World War II Enterprise aviators who gained carrier commands were Swede Vejtasa with the Constellation (CVA-64), Stockton Birney Strong with the Lexington (CVA-16), and Jig Dog Ramage with the Independence (CVA-62).

The Blue Angels flight demonstration team was established by a VF-10 aviator, Lieutenant Commander Roy Voris, with squadron mate Lieutenant Maurice “Wick” Wickendoll. Other alumni of the “Grim Reapers” and Big E included Raleigh Rhodes and Edward L. Feightner. “Dusty” Rhodes had been shot down and captured during the Santa Cruz battle of October 1942, and “Whitey” Feightner flew a later combat tour in Hellcats. He was one of two Vought F7U Cutlass demonstration pilots on the team in 1952.

Some Enterprise alumni continued exercising leadership after they left the Navy. Lieutenant Charles “Bud” Wilkinson of the hangar-deck division became the most successful college football coach of his era, leading the Oklahoma Sooners to three national titles in the 1950s. Fighter pilot Jack Taylor had such regard for his carrier that he named the world’s most successful rental-car business for her. And the perennial Jig Dog Ramage personally funded the Enlisted Combat Aircrew Roll of Honor on board the Yorktown (CV-10) at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum near Charleston, South Carolina.

A long-serving Big E man was Lieutenant Commander John U. Munro, a prewar Harvard scholar turned damage-control officer. He had plenty of damage to control, from the Eastern Solomons in August 1942 to Santa Cruz two months later through the bomb and kamikaze attacks of 1945. Returning to academia after the war, he became dean of the college at Harvard University in the 1960s, where he aided veterans and less-affluent students pursuing an Ivy League education. From there he went to Miles College, a black school in Alabama that was struggling with academic credentials. He died in 2002 at age 89.

There was no single reason for the Enterprise ’s long list of exceptional leaders. But surely the process began at commissioning in 1938, setting the stage for a rare succession of long-serving officers and men. In fact, there were still plank owners on board when the ship went inactive in 1946. That kind of institutional knowledge was extremely rare in the World War II U.S. Navy. It was even more remarkable among prewar carriers, as the Saratoga (CV-3) saw relatively little combat compared with the Enterprise , and the Ranger (CV-4) saw almost none.

Reflecting on his ship’s exceptional record, Tom Hamilton said, “It was one of the most remarkable things that the old crew—and personnel was changing all the time—would pass on their know-how and their pride to the new crew members, and they would carry on in that same fashion.” 9 Thus, the turnover process continued throughout the Big E’s career. Time after time the process renewed itself, integrating the veteran ship with her new sailors via the bonding cement of old hands still on board.

No surprise, then, that from tattooed petty officers to future four-stars, the Enterprise became a leadership factory.



1. Barrett Tillman and R.L. Lawson, Carrier Air War in Color (Osceola: Motorbooks International, 1996), 7.

2. RADM James D. Ramage, USN (Ret.), U.S. Naval Institute oral history, 1999.

3. Author’s interview with Arnold Olson, January 2010.

4. Barrett Tillman, Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 89.

5. “Thomas Hamilton, Ex-Navy Coach, 88,” The New York Times obituary, 5 April 1994.

6. Stanley W. Vejtasa to author, July 2010.

7. Willard W. Norberg to author, August 2013.

8. Ronald Graetz to author, 2010.

9. RADM Thomas J. Hamilton, USN (Ret.), U.S. Naval Institute oral history, 1978.

 

 
 

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