Friday, August 17, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Beating Plowshares into Planes, Part 2

As the nation girded itself for total war at the beginning of the 1940s, ten stark white concrete triangular forms appeared among the irregular patchwork of farm fields and woods in the Tidewater region and along the Mid-Atlantic coast. The last of them, all Naval Air Auxiliary Stations under the administrative management of Hampton Roads Naval Air Center, was located at the small town of Oceana, which was the second-to-last stop on the Norfolk-Southern railway line that ended at Virginia Beach.
Although it was the last Naval Air Auxiliary Station (NAAS) in the Hampton Roads area to open during World War II, NAAS Oceana (Seen here in 1944) expanded by leaps and bounds after its commissioning on August 17, 1943.  Its runways and support areas as of 1942 are shaded blue on the photograph below. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Despite a reputation founded upon fighters, the first aircraft to call NAAS Oceana home were patrol aircraft, namely Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberators and PB4Y-2 Privateers, dedicated to protecting the sea lanes from the continuing depredations of German U-boats, which were down by this time in 1943, but were not out. 
NAAS Oceana continued to expand after the war.  It was designated a naval air station on April 1, 1952, and achieved the designation of master jet base in 1957. By the the early-1990s, it had grown to over 16 times its original size. Base realignment and closure activities since then have brought even more commands and functions to the sprawling 5,916-acre facility.  

Of course, not all of the airfields created in the area during the war thrived nearly as well, or at all, yet some of them serve diverse, interesting, and even mysterious functions today.  Here are a few of them.

NAAF Pungo, just south of NAAF Oceana, as it appeared on May 23, 1945. It was originally established in March 1941 on 441 acres northeast of the town of Pungo in Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach), and after training at least 24 Wildcat and Avenger squadrons during World War II was sold to Atlantic Flight Services. Although that business failed, according to Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields, some of the land around the runways reverted to farmland, a large berm there became the nucleus of the Virginia Beach Rifle and Pistol Club, and during the 1960s, the Coast Guard established a radio transmitter site on the property.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
NAAF Elizabeth City had been officially commissioned into naval service on March 6, 1943, but by the time this picture was taken on May 22, 1945, the Coast Guard presence loomed large, as can be seen on the roof of the large hangar at the center of the photograph.  Today, Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City is the service's largest. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
NAAS Franklin was commissioned on March 8, 1943, approximately two months after the Navy leased Franklin Municipal Airport from the city.  It proved to be a much better facility for the Hampton Roads Naval Air Center to base its Acceptance and Delivery Unit than its earlier location at muddy NAAS Monogram, northwest of Franklin on the banks of the Nansemond River. After making a number of improvements, such as adding barracks to house hundreds of temporarily-attached squadron personnel and adding a 4,200-foot runway, the facility was returned to the city and exists today as Franklin Municipal-John Beverly Rose airport.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
NAAS Chincoteague, seen here in September 1943, was commissioned into naval service a little over six months before. It now part of the National Air and Space Administration's Wallops Flight Facility, yet the Navy still conducts Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) there.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
NAAS Fentress, commissioned on April 15, 1943, is the only one among the nine other fields created during World War II to ease the pressure on NAS Norfolk to help train personnel for deployment that has has retained much of its original mission as a Naval  Auxiliary Landing Field (NALF). The original runways were woefully insufficient for the task after jet aircraft began to enter naval service en masse during the 1950s, so a runway measuring over 8,000 feet was added. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
A U.S. Geological Survey image of NALF Fentress taken in April 1990.  (Wikimedia Commons)
Navy and local officials break ground for NAS Harvey Point, North Carolina, in 1958, resurrecting the former PBM Mariner seaplane base, which had been deactivated 12 years earlier, as the new home of the experimental Martin P6M Seamaster.  The Seamaster program was cancelled in 1959, yet the Navy converted the facility for other purposes, and it now exists as the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity. Although it has successfully kept itself out of the news for many years, the former seaplane station at Harvey Point has played an important role in recent years for, among other things, training special operations forces, most notably when it was reported that Naval Special Warfare Development Group Sailors practiced there on a full-scale mock-up of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan before the successful mission was carried out in 2011, ending the biggest manhunt in United States History.    

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Beating Plowshares into Planes, Part 1

From right to left, Rear Admiral Patrick N.L. Bellinger, Commander, Air Force, Atlantic Fleet  attends the ceremony establishing Oceana Naval Auxillary Air Station on August 17, 1943, along with with Oceana's first officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Jesse Fairley, and his executive officer, Lieutenant W.J. Lee.  The Navy had experienced a profound transformation since Bellinger took his first flight on a Wright biplane as a lieutenant in the fall of 1912.  Although NAS Oceana grew to become the largest air facility in Hampton Roads during the decades that followed, its opening was only mentioned on the last page of the local daily newspaper, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, while its chief rival, the Ledger-Dispatch, did not mention NAAS Oceana's commissioning at all. (Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library
Once upon a time there was a little Virginia farming community called Tunis in what was then Princess Anne County, east of Norfolk. Then in 1883, the Norfolk Southern Railway line came through, creating the second-to-last stop to its new terminus at Virginia Beach. With the railroad came speculators who bought up surrounding lands on what was then called the Salisbury Plain, originally a tract of 500 acres which had been given to William Cornick by his father Simond in 1657 and remained in family hands until 1859. In 1891, Tunis’ name was changed to Oceana after it came to light that there was another town named Tunis in Western Virginia. For nearly a half-century it remained a quiet farming community. Hog raising was also a profitable activity in the area, and the expansive mud flats in the area were a testament to how ideal the land was for that activity. Besides agriculture, the only employer of note in the small town was a sawmill. That was, until the Navy came calling just before World War II.

Naval aviation had been a part of military activity in Hampton Roads since a temporary wooden deck was constructed atop the cruiser Birmingham for aviation experimentation at Norfolk Navy Yard in 1910, Glenn Curtiss began training military pilots on a 20-acre site in Newport News five years later, and one of the Navy’s first dedicated air stations was established on a 40-acre site at Sewells Point two years after that. In the wake of the USS Shenandoah (ZR 1) tragedy and the ongoing jeremiads of Army Air Service Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell (which would lead to his court martial) in the fall of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge convened a board under the leadership of banker and industrialist Dwight W. Morrow to study the role of aviation in national defense. The recommendations of the board and those from other studies which followed during the interwar period would make a huge impact on the economic development of Hampton Roads and change its landscape for decades to come.

One result of the board’s recommendations the following year was that the Navy was allowed to increase the number of its aircraft to 1,000 planes, which it reached by 1930. One of the Morrow Board members was Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia, and he would emerge over the following decade as the foremost champion of naval aviation in Congress. An act under his and Florida Senator Park Trammell’s names enacted in 1934 allowed the authorized number of naval aircraft to nearly double. Over a decade before, the collier USS Jupiter had been converted into the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1) at Norfolk Navy Yard, and the Navy’s first purpose-built carrier, USS Ranger (CV 4) had been launched from Newport News Shipbuilding in 1933.  The carriers Yorktown (CV 5) and Enterprise (CV 6) would emerge from the same shipyard later that decade, funded by these Congressional appropriations, yet only Chambers Field at Naval Air Station Norfolk and a smaller field at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown were in place to host the incessant training and maintenance that would be required to prepare squadrons for deployment upon these vessels.  

USS Yorktown (CV 5), shortly after launching on April 4, 1936 at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company.  The next year, USS Enterprise (CV 6) would join the growing carrier fleet from the same shipyard.  yet its planes and pilots had an insufficient number of shore installations in Hampton Roads from which to train and maintain. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
 With war clouds on the horizon in Europe, Vinson followed up Vinson-Trammel with the much bolder Naval Act of 1938 (also called the Vinson Navy Bill), which mandated a 20 percent increase in overall naval strength. The Vinson Navy Bill also authorized the number of naval aircraft to be increased from 1,910 to 3,000. Between June 14 and 19, 1940, however, that number was expanded to 4,500, then to 10,000, and finally a mind-boggling 15,000. Despite the giant runway expansion program nearing completion at NAS Norfolk in 1941, bringing the size of the facility to over 2,000 acres, naval aviation in the Fifth Naval District area, which comprised most of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, was exploding at such a rate that a single air station would be insufficient to base them all. Making matters worse, the bills that Congress passed in 1934 and 1938 made no provision for shore facilities to support this breakneck expansion.

Seen here in 1939, Chambers Field at NAS Norfolk was the only major dedicated landing, storage and maintenance facility for the hundreds of new aircraft converging upon the area (until the East Runway complex was opened two years later). To alleviate the congestion, smaller grass and mud fields were established in satellite locations around Hampton Roads and in the farther reaches of the Fifth Naval District, but no paving was completed nor permanent structures built on them until the early-1940s. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
To cope with the massive influx of squadrons, planes, and pilots, plus provide all the storage, training, fueling and hundreds of other miscellaneous requirements that would come with them, Acting Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison appointed Rear Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn to lead a commission which in 1938 recommended to the Bureau of Yards and Docks that dozens of outlying airfields be established across the country to support major and secondary air bases. The Hepburn base program, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on April 25, 1939, appropriated $500,000 for land acquisition in support of NAS Norfolk. That money helped secure the land for a total of ten naval auxiliary air stations in the Fifth Naval District; seven in Eastern Virginia, and three in Northeast North Carolina.
The names and approximate locations of the ten Naval Auxiliary Air Stations supporting Naval Air Station Norfolk during the Second World War as labeled on a map of the Fifth Naval District that appeared in a guide to all the district naval facilities made in 1943. The colors denoted whether or not photographs of them originally appeared in the publication. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum File)
Although it ultimately became the biggest naval air station in Hampton Roads, NAAS Oceana, commissioned on August 17, 1943, was actually the last of the Naval Auxiliary Air Stations commissioned in the Fifth Naval District area during the war, all of which were commissioned that year. NAAS Manteo in North Carolina was the first on March 3, followed by Chincoteague on Virginia’s Eastern Shore on March 5, Elizabeth City, North Carolina on March 6, Franklin on March 8; Pungo and Creeds on April 5; Fentress on April 15; Monogram on May 15; and Harvey Point, North Carolina, on June 15.

Friday, August 10, 2018

In the Offing: A Forgotten Fictional Hero's Return

The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy

Edited by Craig Yoe  (Annapolis, Dead Reckoning, 2018)

Reviewed by M.C. Farrington

One of the many laudable goals historians pursue is resurrecting heroes of history from the depths of obscurity so that they may be appreciated by a new generation. By reprinting the zany exploits of naval intelligence officer Don Winslow, Dead Reckoning, the new graphic novel imprint of the Naval Institute Press, has made a case about the merits of bringing fictional naval heroes of the past to the attention of today’s readers as well.

Don Winslow of the Navy
started as a newspaper serial in 1934, helped along by future Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News. During its two-decade run, Winslow’s adventures could also be read in young adult novels, heard in syndicated radio programs and seen in movie serials (with the star of the latter actually joining the Navy and rising to lieutenant commander during the war).  During the character's heyday, thousands of boys signed up to be a members of "Don Winslow's Squadron of Peace," using his official code book to decipher messages broadcast during his radio program. 

The comic book series from whence this collection was based debuted in February 1943. Captain Marvel, who ruled the comic book world long before Superman, personally introduced his legions of fans to Cmdr. Winslow.
Needless to say, Don Winslow did not spring from the mind of Elmer Davis or the War Writers Board. Winslow was fully formed well before the war, the brainchild of a real naval reserve intelligence officer named Frank V. Martinek, who was chairman of publicity for the Navy League of the United States before dreaming up Winslow.  

"Strangely enough, Winslow, the hero in my strip, follows closely in my own footsteps," quipped Martinek, who claimed to have worked for the FBI during the 1920s. "Of course, I have to develop slight variations of my own experiences because Winslow must always be in the thick of drama while I occasionally had a rest from running spies to earth or checking fingerprint clues."

Winslow and his trusty sidekick, Lt. Red Pennington's primary nemeses both before and after the war tended to be stock international villains; a Fu Manchu-type character called The Scorpion, then a felonious femme fatale named Singapore Sal.

During the war years, the plot lines followed pretty conventional detective story tropes as Winslow and Pennington matched wits with diabolical Nazi agents trying to steal battleships and underworld thugs attempting to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge at the behest of their Japanese masters, with diversionary stories set on Mount Everest and Antarctic exploration thrown in for good measure.

Although over two decades would pass before the term “jump the shark” came into common currency, Don Winslow of the Navy began to lose its own way in ever more bizarre ways after the end of the Second World War, as stock Axis heavies gave way to giant multi-colored cannibalistic Amazon warriors and Venusians. 

Comic book heroes have undergone somewhat of a revolution in the last quarter-century, as the demographics of their protagonists have become more inclusive and their flaws and foibles more reflective of those living in the real world, even as their godlike powers have grown ever more estranged from reality.  Those familiar with this progression might regard Don Winslow as somewhat primitive.  Or, to use a phrase I heard at a museum conference a few months ago, he might even be dismissed as "male, pale, and stale." 

Despite his square-jawed appearance, unrelenting earnestness and the absence of any quirks or vices to speak of, Winslow should not be dismissed out of hand. This "ace of naval intelligence" was fighting a secret war against transnational cabals long before James Bond was a twinkle in Ian Fleming’s eye.  His only powers seemed to be great deductive ability and a powerful right cross, yet Cmdr. Winslow was beating up bad guys the old fashioned way with his sidekick Red several years before Batman and Robin, and the bizarre banter between arch-enemies Winslow and Sal is definitely reminiscent of the scenes filmed decades later between Adam West and Julie Numar.       

The long-forgotten Cmdr. Don Winslow might or might not have inspired the creation of some of the most enduring characters of twentieth century fiction, yet his creator Frank Martinek made no bones about the fact that he wanted to inspire young people to join the Navy to experience adventures of their own.  Although it is unclear just how many youngsters sought this kind of adventurous life due to Lt. Cmdr. Martinek's opus, The Best of Don Winslow of the Navy is an interesting slice of popular culture, emblematic of who represented the ideal American fighting man on paper at a time when millions of his very real flesh-and-blood compatriots were called upon to endure less-exotic and more dangerous adventures during a conflict that changed the course of history.