Thursday, February 22, 2024

Pirates of the Mediterranean: Stephen Decatur and the First Barbary War (Part 1)

By Nick Wieman
HRNM Educator

On February 16, 1804, saboteurs sailing a stolen vessel under a false flag boarded an American warship in Tripoli Harbor and put it to the torch before sailing off into the night under cannon fire. This act of daring sabotage was reportedly called “the most daring act of the age” by Horatio Nelson. The perpetrator was none other than Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, one of America’s first post-Revolution naval heroes.

Commodore Stephen Decatur (NHHC)

Since the early 16th century, the three largest so-called “Barbary states” of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli controlled coastal North Africa. Nominally vassal states of the Ottoman Empire, in practice they were independent military states sustained largely by piracy and slave-raiding throughout the Mediterranean, in some instances raiding as far as the British Isles and Iceland. So widespread and dangerous were the pirates that churches established “slave funds” for ransoming out captured European sailors.

"A Sea Fight with Barbary Pirates," by Laureys a Castro. State-sponsored piracy from the Barbary states of North Africa was a serious hazard for Mediterranean travelers. (Wikipedia)

At independence, America’s navy was virtually nonexistent. Of the over 60 ships that had sailed in the Continental Navy, only 11 had survived the war, with the rest sold off when Congress disbanded the Continental Navy in 1785. While the Constitution adopted in 1789 authorized the creation and maintenance of a navy, its size and scope was one of many sources of disagreement between the major political factions at the time. Democratic-Republicans opposed maintaining a large navy, fearing that it would become a source of political corruption and risked entangling America in foreign engagements. Federalists, on the other hand, supported a navy strong enough to protect trade and provide a deterrent to foreign adversaries.

By virtue of sailing under the British flag, American merchants had long enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy from Barbary piracy. The British government paid tribute to the Barbary states in exchange for protection from piracy, and Sailors could hope for ransom payments on their behalf. With independence came the loss of this protection, and while diplomacy was able to spare American ships from Moroccan pirates, the Barbary States demanded further tribute. In fact, the increasingly brazen actions taken by Barbary pirates against American vessels were the main justification for the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized the construction of the original six frigates for the infant United States Navy.

William Bainbridge in "negotiations" with the Dey of Algiers (Wikimedia Commons)

In September 1800, the frigate USS George Washington arrived in Algiers carrying the customary tribute to the Dey of Algiers to secure American shipping from pirates. Captain William Bainbridge had been given the unenviable task of formally presenting this tribute to the Dey, who not only insisted on further tribute than had been agreed upon, but demanded that Bainbridge ferry the Dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. When Bainbridge tried to refuse, the Dey threatened to destroy George Washington in the harbor and reminded Bainbridge: “Pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves. I have a right to order you as I may think proper.” Outgunned and outnumbered, a lone ship in hostile waters without diplomatic protection, Bainbridge was obligated to agree to this errand, sailing to Constantinople under the Algerian Crescent as a reluctant agent of the Dey of Algiers. Sensing possible weakness and looking to extract even greater tribute from the Americans, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801, in essence a declaration that it was open season on American shipping.

Beginning in May 1801, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched squadrons tasked with protecting American shipping to the Mediterranean. The first squadron was instructed not to attack any pirates unless fired upon or in coming to the aid of a merchant ship, as it had been dispatched before Jefferson had received word of Tripoli’s declaration of war and returned home after sporadic blockading and skirmishing off Tripoli. The following squadrons had no such limits placed upon them, and were prepared for a long deployment. Stationed out of ports in Sicily, the Mediterranean Squadrons established a blockade around Tripoli that would stand until the end of the war in 1805. Stephen Decatur participated in the blockade, commanding the 12-gun schooner USS Enterprise.

USS Philadelphia captured by Barbary pirates, 1803 (Wikimedia Commons)

On October 31, 1803, while in pursuit of a Tripolitan corsair outside Tripoli Harbor, USS Philadelphia suddenly ran aground on an uncharted reef. Despite the best efforts of the unfortunate Captain William Bainbridge and the crew to lighten the ship, from jettisoning all nonessential loads to sawing off the foremast, they remained stranded on the rocks. Before being taken prisoner by the pirates, they drilled holes into the hull below the waterline in a last-ditch effort to deny Tripoli the prize of an American frigate. Nevertheless, Philadelphia remained seaworthy, and when the tides came in enough to float the ship, the Pasha of Tripoli found himself in possession of a top-of-the-line 36-gun American frigate far outclassing any other ship in his fleet.

Decatur concluded that a recapture of Philadelphia was likely impossible. Moored under Tripolitan shore batteries, any attempt to sail it out of the harbor would likely have been met with fire after the Tripolitans realized what was happening, and even then, it wasn’t known whether or not Philadelphia was capable of getting under way at all. The safest course of option was its destruction.

To undertake the operation, Decatur would need a ship fast enough to outrun Tripolitan shot and small enough that it would not stand out in the harbor. Fortunately, the Tripolitan pirates soon provided one: on December 23, Decatur seized the Tripolitan ketch (small sailboat) Mastico, rechristened it USS Intrepid, and outfitted it in British colors to look the part of a common merchant ship. To gain passage into the harbor, Decatur hired a Sicilian crew, including one man who could speak Arabic, to communicate with harbor personnel while the American crew hid below deck. Finally, Decatur and Intrepid would be supported by USS Syren, which would provide additional crewmen for the operation and cover Intrepid’s escape.

At around seven in the evening, Intrepid drifted into Tripoli Harbor. The Arabic-speaking Sicilian crewman, Salvatore Catalano, called out to harbor personnel that their ship had lost its anchors in a storm and needed to pull in for repairs, and received permission to dock. Moving carefully to avoid attracting suspicion, Intrepid pulled in just close enough to Philadelphia that they could tie themselves to the ship. With a cry of “Board!” Decatur led his men to climb over the side and fell upon the surprised Tripolitan skeleton crew. In a span of ten minutes, twenty Tripolitan sailors had been killed and the rest fled overboard. The only American casualty was one Sailor who received a cut on his finger.

Boarding the Philadelphia, artwork by J.O. Davidson (NHHC)

With the ship secured, Decatur and his men set to work preparing the ship for the blaze. A human chain quickly brought combustible supplies up from Intrepid and onto the deck of Philadelphia, at which point they split into teams of four assigned to the storerooms, gunroom, cockpit, and berth deck, preparing them for ignition. When all was in position, Decatur walked down the spar deck and commanded each team to light their munitions then quickly evacuate. Within minutes, Philadelphia was completely ablaze. Decatur stayed aboard until the last of his men had returned to Intrepid.

USS Philadelphia burning, by Edward Moran (NHHC)

By now, the American attack on Philadelphia was unmistakable, but there was little anyone in the harbor could do about it other than vainly fire on Intrepid as it sailed away. Adding insult to injury, the blaze heated the cannons aboard Philadelphia hot enough that they fired their shot into Tripoli itself, a sort of poetic last shot on the part of Bainbridge and the crew of the Philadelphia still held prisoner by the Pasha.

Stay tuned! This story will be continued in our next blog post.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Lee Van Cleef: Legendary Hollywood Bad Guy and World War Two Sailor

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

With his distinctive hooked nose, piercing eyes, and powerful baritone voice, Lee Van Cleef became one of the most recognizable villains on both television and the silver screen. However, before his fame in Hollywood, Van Cleef served in the United States Navy.

Clarence Leroy Van Cleef was born on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, Van Cleef enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. He completed basic training and then attended Sonarman School. Upon graduating, he received a promotion to Sonarman Third Class. Van Cleef then received orders to his first ship, USS SC 681, which he served on from March 15, 1943, to January 16, 1944. During his time aboard SC 681, Van Cleef was promoted to Sonarman Second Class. SC 681 kept Van Cleef busy while the ship’s crew searched for German U-Boats in the Caribbean. When he finished his time aboard SC 681, Van Cleef received orders to the Fleet Sound School in Key West, Florida.

Lee Van Cleef as a Sailor (

After graduating from Fleet Sound School, Van Cleef went to Savannah, Georgia, as part of the pre-commissioning crew for USS Incredible (AM 249). He reported in April 1944, and after commissioning, Incredible had its shakedown cruise along the East Coast and in the Caribbean Sea. On July 24, 1944, Incredible left Norfolk to participate in the invasion of southern France. Incredible stayed on station sweeping for mines off southern France until January 1945. Incredible then sailed to the Soviet Union, performing mine sweeping in the Black Sea. In July 1945, Incredible once again left Norfolk, this time heading for the Pacific Theatre. In August 1945, Incredible participated in Operation Skagway, clearing mines in the East China Sea and Ryukyu Islands. While serving aboard Incredible, Van Cleef was promoted to Sonarman First Class. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on February 20, 1946.

USS Incredible, Lee Van Cleef's second ship (

Back home, Van Cleef began his acting career in plays at The Little Theater Group in Clinton, New Jersey. He started out reading for the play Our Town and eventually landed the part of Joe Pendleton in Heaven Can Wait. During a performance of Heaven Can Wait, he was noticed by talent scouts, leading to an audition for the play Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda. Van Cleef landed a part in Mister Roberts, which eventually took him to Los Angeles. There, his work on stage caught the attention of film producer Stanley Kramer. Kramer offered Van Cleef a part in his next film, High Noon, as the deputy opposite Marshal Will Cane, played by Gary Cooper. For this part, however, Kramer insisted that Van Cleef have surgery on his nose. Refusing to alter his physical appearance, Van Cleef instead accepted the role as gunfighter Jack Colby. Although he had no speaking lines in the film, Van Cleef’s screen presence and persona led to many future roles as a villain.

Van Cleef in High Noon (

High Noon was released in 1952, ending as a tremendous success. It opened the door for Van Cleef to many additional acting roles. From 1952 to 1965, Van Cleef worked in both television and movies, including major roles in the films Kansas City Confidential, The Big Combo, and Vice Squad. In addition to films, Van Cleef appeared in several of the popular western TV shows of the time, including Tales of Wells Fargo, Annie Oakley, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Maverick, and The Rifleman. Still, it wasn’t until 1965, when Italian director Sergio Leone cast him with Clint Eastwood in For A Few Dollars More, that Van Cleef finally achieved star status.

The success of For A Few Dollars More led Sergio Leone to cast Van Cleef with Eastwood again the following year in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The best of the three films that Eastwood made with Leone, Van Cleef’s portrayal of “The Bad” is considered to be one of the greatest villains in a western film.

Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (

With his newfound stardom in the United States and also in Europe, Van Cleef went on to be a leading man in several films produced in Italy in the “Spaghetti Western” genre, usually playing the protagonist. In his later career, he starred with Chuck Norris in The Octagon and had a supporting role in the cult classic Escape from New York. Lee Van Cleef died from a heart attack in 1989 and was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood, California. Among those paying their respects at Van Cleef’s funeral was Clint Eastwood. Lee Van Cleef’s acting career includes 90 roles in movies and 109 television appearances. Along with being a screen legend in the western genre, Van Cleef was also part of the Greatest Generation, serving his country during World War Two.

Lee Van Cleef in Death Rides a Horse, 1968 (Wikipedia)

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr.: Civil War Sailor and Civil Rights Activist

By Bennett White
HRNM Volunteer

Thomas Paige likely served aboard USS Minnesota during the Battle of Hampton Roads. In this painting, USS Minnesota is protected by USS Monitor on March 9, 1862. (Tom Freeman Art)

African Americans have participated in armed conflicts since the American Revolution; however, the Civil War was the first time the Federal Army and Navy officially incorporated free Black men and previously enslaved individuals into their ranks. In his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln instituted a policy allowing Union military commanders to begin enlisting Black men into the Union military. By May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established in Washington, D.C., to administer the increasing number of African American units operating in the field.[1] While the Union Army quickly established complex regulations to segregate African Americans into all-Black units, the Navy—desperately short of manpower at the start of the war—fully integrated the decks of its steamboats, supply ships, and war frigates to put together an effective fighting force.[2] Hampton Roads, due to Fort Monroe’s reputation as a refuge for escaping slaves, proved to be a rich recruiting ground for Navy personnel to identify and enlist African Americans into military service. Many of these Black veterans would go on to shape American life after the war through political activism and entrepreneurship.

Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr. was one of these brave men. Born into slavery in 1838, Paige had to combat racism in antebellum Norfolk from an early age. Before the Civil War, enslaved people in Norfolk held the same jobs as free Blacks and less affluent whites, and often developed skillsets necessary for carpentry, barbering, crafting sails, and staging freight along Norfolk’s dockyards. However, economic stagnation made jobs scarce, which prompted white laborers to lash out against African Americans through street brawls and vigilantism.[3] In 1857, seeking freedom, Thomas—along with his brother Richard Paige (who eventually became Virginia’s first Black attorney and a Republican congressman)—escaped aboard a schooner bound for Philadelphia through the help of northern abolitionists. While Richard remained in Boston to study law under abolitionist George Hilliard Steward until 1867, Thomas quickly found himself back in Hampton Roads after enlisting in the Navy in Boston sometime in early 1861.[4]

Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr.'s USN Pension File (National Archives)

According to his pension file, Paige worked as a landsman on four different ships, including USS Minnesota, USS Princeton, USS St. Louis, and USS Macedonian.[5] Although archival records are not definitive, his time spent on Minnesota in late 1861 and early 1862 likely coincided with Minnesota’s famed involvement in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8-9, 1862. On March 8, punishing broadsides from the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia crippled the Federal flotilla blockading southeastern Virginia, sinking USS Congress and USS Cumberland before forcing USS Minnesota to run aground off the coast of Newport News. Immobilized by a thick mud bank, Minnesota’s crew ferociously returned fire from CSS Virginia, CSS Jamestown, and CSS Patrick Henry while tugs worked to pull the steam frigate to safety. As the battle continued, the ironclad USS Monitor defended Minnesota’s crew from CSS Virginia’s attacks long enough for tugs to escort Minnesota back to Fort Monroe. Often overshadowed by the historic showdown between ironclads, Minnesota’s crew heroically withstood artillery barrages and returned fire throughout the two-day ordeal, protecting the Union blockade and ultimately helping USS Monitor neutralize the Confederacy’s most prized naval asset.

After the war, Thomas Paige—through his advocacy for racial equality—embodied the courage exhibited by Minnesota’s crew during the Battle of Hampton Roads. As the smoke cleared from Virginia’s battlefields and waterways, Thomas and Richard Paige immediately began advocating for recently emancipated African Americans. In the summer of 1865, prominent African Americans in Norfolk organized clubs that lobbied for Black political equality. Led by a former slave, dentist Dr. Thomas Bayne, community organizers established the “Colored Monitor Union Club” and gathered nearly 2,000 African American citizens on the steps of Catherine Street Baptist Church to listen to local speakers reflect on issues central to the Black community. The lectures were then published with the help of Thomas and Richard Paige—their Bostonian contacts connected them with E. Anthony and Sons, a Black press located in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The resulting pamphlet, Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va, to the People of the United States, called for Black male suffrage in state and local elections in order to obtain legislative representation and to ensure ex-slaveowners would be unable to re-form the Confederacy.[6] The Paige brothers, along with the Colored Monitor Union Club, financed the printing of 5,000 copies dispersed throughout the United States.[7]

Emboldened by his political leadership, Thomas Paige navigated persistent racial discrimination during Reconstruction to become a successful businessman and property owner in Norfolk. By 1872, Norfolk had 74 Black-owned businesses. Black entrepreneurs forged successful law practices, established importation companies, and opened barber shops. All six of the city’s oyster dealers were African American, and four Blacks held positions on the Freedmen’s Bank advisory board. Black social life experienced a renaissance, too. Norfolk’s Black community spent their leisure time attending lectures, hosting weekend picnics, and organizing grand parades complete with veterans in military dress and lively musical bands. By 1880, Thomas opened Paige’s Hotel, a boarding house centrally located on the western side of Market Square, Norfolk’s premier business district in the late nineteenth century. There, an exhausted dockyard worker could pay fifty cents per night for access to a warm bed, eat a hearty meal any time of the day, and play pool in the attached billiards hall while imbibing with “the best wines, liquors, and cigars” in Norfolk.[8]

Advertisement for Paige's Hotel in the Norfolk City Directory, 1880 

The story of Thomas Frederick Paige, Jr. is just one of the many unique narratives that can be uncovered when exploring the archival records of African American service members. For many Black Civil War veterans, serving in the Union Army and Navy meant more than performing their patriotic duty. Rather, it was a deeply personal endeavor to free their own parents, wives, and children from the same plantations from which they escaped. Once free, Black veterans like Thomas Paige built on their military careers by fighting for political rights and economic prosperity during Reconstruction and beyond.

[1] Keith P. Wilson, Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2013), 2.
[2] Segregation in the Navy | Naval History Magazine - February 2021 Volume 35, Number 1 (
[3] Tommy L. Bogger, The Slave and Free Black Community in Norfolk, 1775–1865 (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1976), 161–62; 188.
[4] Encyclopedia Virginia, “R. G. L. Paige (1846-1904),” Last modified (n.d.), Accessed Dec. 14, 2023, R. G. L. Paige (1846–1904) - Encyclopedia Virginia.
[5] The National Archives, Washington, DC, USA. U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; NAI Title: General Index to Civil War and Later Pension Files, Ca. 1949-Ca. 1949; NAI Number: 563268; Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007; Record Group Number: 15; Series Number: T288; Roll: 211. U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 -
[6] Excerpts from Equal Suffrage: Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, VA, to the People of the United States (1865), 5. Excerpted by the National Humanities Center, accessed September 28, 2023,
[7] Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart, and Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 227.
[8] Norfolk City Directory (1880), “Paige’s Hotel,” 177. Accessed Dec. 14, 2023. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 -

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Naval Aviation Pilots (NAPs): Unsung Heroes of the Skies

By Mark Freeman
HRNM Ceremonies/Special Events Coordinator

Enlisted Naval Aviators (NAPs) have played a crucial yet often overlooked role in shaping the history of naval aviation. To learn more about the Naval Aviation Pilot, please see our previous blog. This article seeks to shed light on several of the most famous NAPs, spanning the period from 1911 to 1981. The journey begins with the humble origins of enlisted aviation training, exploring the challenges and triumphs that these men faced in their quest to take to the skies.

In the nascent days of naval aviation, the distinction of being NAP No. 1 fell upon Chief Quartermaster (Aviation) Harold H. “Kiddy” Karr. Karr was trained as a biplane pilot in France to support World War I aviation efforts. An illustrious member of the original 1919 class, Kiddy Karr's legacy set the stage for future generations of enlisted aviators. Karr is identified as NAP No. 1 because he was trained before the program was established.

Chief Machinist’s Mate (A) Floyd Bennett, NAP No. 9, soared to fame as a pilot for polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. In 1926, Bennett became the first enlisted pilot to fly over the North Pole. He received the Medal of Honor for his Arctic flight. Bennett continued flying experimental planes and died in 1928 from pneumonia following a crash in Canada. Famed pilot Charles Lindbergh was enroute to the hospital with a serum to save Chief Bennett but arrived after he had already died.

CMM Floyd Bennett (NHHC)

The post-World War I era saw remarkable feats, with Chief Machinist’s Mate (A) Eugene “Smokey” Rhoads (NAP No. 27) standing out. Shoveling coal on trains before joining the Navy, Rhoads became a transatlantic flight pioneer and, in 1919, he was a member of the crew that completed the first transatlantic flight flying the NC-4 Flying Boat.

NC-4 Flying Boat Crew, with CMM Rhoads on left (This Day in Aviation)

NC-4 Flying Boat (NHHC)

Chief Machinist’s Mate (A) Francis E. Ormsbee, Jr., NAP No. 25, the first NAP to receive the Medal of Honor, demonstrated extraordinary heroism in a 1918 rescue mission. Chief Ormsbee rescued a gunner from a downed aircraft off the coast of NAS Pensacola. He landed nearby and jumped in, holding the gunner’s head above water until assistance could arrive. Once assistance arrived, he continued to dive to try and save others aboard the aircraft, to no avail.

CMM Ormsbee (US Navy)

The golden era of NAPs unfolded during World War II, as they transitioned from utility roles to frontline combat. Notable figures like Chief Boatswain Patrick J. “Pappy” Byrne, with an astonishing 23,000 flight hours in 140 aircraft types in his 40-year career, exemplified the versatility of NAPs.

The heroic exploits of Chief Petty Officer Wilbur B. “Spider” Webb, who continued flying despite losing a leg during the Pearl Harbor attack, highlighted the indomitable spirit of these aviators. Flying with Fighting Squadron 2 (VF-2) attached to USS Hornet (CV 12), Webb earned the Navy Cross for his heroics defending the Marianas Islands, during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, becoming a Navy ace by shooting down seven enemy aircraft in aerial combat.

Chief Webb (The Hall of Valor Project)

During the Korean War, the Navy needed additional NAPs. NAPs such as Aviation Machinist Mate First Class (AD1) William Longley flew helicopter missions. These missions were mainly in support as combat rescue and medical evacuation. Longley flew 27 different types of aircraft with over 11,000 hours as a pilot. He once recorded flying over 600,000 miles in 414 days without incident, which was a record at the time.

AD1 Longley aboard USS St. Paul (Naval Helicopter Association Historical Society)

When the Vietnam War concluded, the era of Naval Aviation Pilots drew to a close. In 1973, four of the last five enlisted pilots, Master Gunnery Sergeants Robert Lurie, Leslie T. Ericson, Joseph A. Conroy, and Patrick J. O'Neill, retired after 30 years of service. Their retirement marked the end of an era that spanned two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. In 1981, Master Chief Air Controlman (NAP) Robert K. Jones retired. His retirement marked the end of an era, as he was the final NAP to retire.

From the icy expanses of the North Pole to the intense battles in the Pacific, NAPs exemplified dedication and heroism. In their 65 years of distinguished service, these 5,000 unsung heroes left an enduring legacy. Their story is not just one of flying machines but a testament to the indelible spirit of those who served their country with unwavering commitment and valor.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Message from Home: The National Christmas Command Performance

By Zac Cunningham
HRNM School Programs Educator

“Command Performance–formerly shortwaved to American armed forces overseas–is presented to the domestic audience for the first time tonight in Christmas Eve broadcasts heard all over Pittsburgh stations,” reported Vincent Johnson on the radio page of the December 24, 1942, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.[1]

Command Performance, a variety show, was the flagship program of the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), a unique military unit established by the War Department on May 26, 1942. Based in Hollywood, AFRS existed, as Matthew Seelinger of the Army Historical Foundation notes, “to educate, entertain, and inform” servicemen and women and build their morale via radio during the Second World War.[2] According to radio, television, and film scholar Samuel Brylawski, the service was “to furnish overseas GIs with a sense of home, not only to dispel the feelings of loneliness or displacement, but to reinforce the values of the United States for which they were fighting.”[3]

Cast and band on stage for a Command Performance broadcast (Internet Archive)

To do its part to overcome this distance from home, Command Performance featured, as each show’s opening trumpeted, “the greatest entertainers in America as requested by you, the fighting men of the United States Armed Forces throughout the world.” Sailors, Marines, soldiers, and airmen mailed requests for Hollywood’s biggest stars to perform songs and sketches and those stars obliged these requests as commands. First launched by the War Department in March 1942, the Armed Forces Radio Service started producing the program in December of that same year. One of AFRS’s first Command Performances was the special global Christmas Eve broadcast previewed in the Post-Gazette.[4]

On December 24, 1942, at 11 p.m. Eastern War Time[5], this unique Command Performance went on the air coast-to-coast and around the world. The show was heard live and simultaneously on CBS, NBC, the Mutual Broadcasting System, and the Blue Network. Ken Carpenter, a voice many Americans recognized as the announcer on the Kraft Music Hall, a popular weekly music and variety program starring Bing Crosby, gave a rousing opening to the special broadcast.

A couple listens to the radio in Royal Oak, Michigan, in December 1939. (Farm Security Admin/Office of War Information)

Carpenter then handed off to Elmer Davis, director of the Office of War Information, the U.S. government’s wartime propaganda agency, for an introduction that summarized the ultimate message of the broadcast. It was the message of most AFRS programs and an ideal theme for a Christmas broadcast: home. Davis explained that American forces around the world had been listening to Command Performance for nearly a year but that “tonight, it serves as a link between them and us at home. We’re all hearing it, the whole American people, whether in the cities or on the farms or on ships at sea or in army camps or at the front.” Although 1942 was the second Christmas at war for the United States, for most of the millions of Americans fighting the war, it was the first holiday spent far from home. Davis acknowledged these separations and offered this solution, “Because it is Christmas Eve, and a Christmas Eve when a good many American families can’t be together as they used to be, tonight, the War Department has invited us to come together–all of us–as listeners to this program.” Davis imagined how American military men and women scattered across the globe were “thinking about home tonight . . . Home which they are not likely to see again until the war is won.”

After Davis set the show’s theme, master of ceremonies Bob Hope presented a monologue heavy with jokes about homefront rationing and social changes. One wonders if Hope’s material purposely focused on homefront topics since ‘mom and dad’ were listening. His monologues on other Command Performances and AFRS programs tended heavily toward jokes about military life. Regardless, Hope built upon home as the theme of the show.

Jane Russell, Bob Hope, and--in background--Major Meredith Willson conducting the AFRS band during a Command Performance broadcast (c. 1944) (AFRTS/Wikipedia)

Most of the program was popular entertainment familiar to military and civilian listeners alike. The Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Ginny Simms, and Dinah Shore performed. Except for a performance of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” by Kay Kyser and his band, there was little overt ‘war’ music. With a sketch and song, famed comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen ended (temporarily) their long-running mock feud.

Interestingly, Christmas fare on the program was limited. The one holiday song performed was a wild version of “Jingle Bells” by novelty band Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Christmas-themed comedy sketches came from Red Skelton and Harriet Hilliard plus Charles Laughton with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Seabees of the 22nd Special Naval Construction Battalion listen to a radio broadcast during World War II (NHHC)

The theme of home returned more overtly at the end of the broadcast in another monologue from Bob Hope, this one quite serious and rather moving despite its sentimentalism. With strains of “Auld Lang Syne” softly playing under his voice, Hope delivered what amounted to a peroration for the program that is worth quoting in full:

Well, men, this is Bob Hope, speaking from the U.S.A. You know, this is a land that not long ago had boundaries. An ocean on one side and an ocean on the other. Douglas firs and deep snow and good fishing to the north. Blue water and lilacs and hot weather and cotton fields to the south. You lived and worked inside those boundaries and thought it would always be that way. You worked at the shoe store in Peoria. Yet, tonight, you’re over there in England and North Africa. You fly hell out of your bomber and go through God-made storms of snow and rain and man-made storms of steel and fire and then you write home to this radio program and say, “Please do a song for me.” You were the clerk in the local grocery store, the young doctor starting out, the history teacher in Grand Rapids, the mechanic at the corner garage. Yet, tonight, you’re blacked out on a freighter or standing guard over your brother along a path in the jungle. You were the guy who’d never been outside Nevada. Yet, tonight, you’re at home in Fairbanks, New Delhi, and Chungking. But, well, that’s the way it goes these days. For the boundaries of land and water have vanished from all nations and in their place a single boundary of freedom is moving across the earth, as God meant it to be. But because of guys like you, when we think of America, we still think of Douglas firs. Because you guys are like those Douglas firs. And you’re like the good fishing in the lakes and Coney Island and the cornfields and smokestacks. And you’re like the little towns with the red water towers, like Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, and Highway 66. Because all those things are American. They were part of you when you left and they will still be part of you when you come back. The stuff that makes Americans and, brother, they don’t make better stuff anywhere in the world.

Throughout Bob Hope’s closing as well as the whole of this national Christmas Command Performance was an important message the U.S. government delivered to its citizens and its military as they listened at the same time to the same radio program. The message was that far away servicemen and women ought to feel at home in a world united in its fight for freedom while also feeling united with loved ones who were part of the same fight back home in America. Connected by radio, everyone listening, whether soldier or civilian, was fighting together for a home in a free America and a free world that was worth fighting for, whether fighting in Fairbanks, New Delhi, and Chungking or those little towns with the red water towers.

The message was emphasized one final time as announcer Ken Carpenter returned to ask “the entire cast, the studio audience, and the nation” to end this morale-boosting Christmas Eve broadcast by joining together for an anthem at home and a rarity on Command Performance, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Author's note: To listen to this recording of Command Performance in its entirety, visit here.

[1] Vincent Johnson, “Command Performance is Given,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 24, 1942.
[2] Matthew Seelinger, “A Touch of Home: The Armed Forces Radio Service, 1942-1945,” On Point 19, no. 2 (2013): 39-40, [accessed December 22, 2020].
[3] Samuel Brylawski, “Armed Forces Radio Service: The Invisible Highway Abroad,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37, no. 3/4 (1980): 441-57, [accessed December 22, 2020].
[4] Seelinger; Brylawski.
[5] On February 9, 1942, Congress instituted nationwide, year-round daylight saving time known as war time.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

A Short History of Naval Aviation Pilots (Enlisted)

By Mark Freeman
HRNM Ceremonies/Special Events Coordinator

Naval Aviation Pilot insignia (NHHC)

Enlisted naval aviators have played a crucial role in the history of military aviation. Enlisted as non-commissioned officers, these aviators have undergone rigorous training, operated diverse aircraft, and actively participated in major battles.

The roots of enlisted pilots can be traced back to 1916. The first class of enlisted pilots were trained in Pensacola, Florida. Once these men received designation as Navy Air Pilots (Enlisted), many were transferred to the Navy Reserve Flying Corps, awaiting commission and held in an Active status as enlisted pilots until their commissioning. Enlisted men identified as interested in aviation increased during World War I, leading to the establishment of Naval Air Stations (NAS) for pilot training. As the demands of aerial combat escalated, the need for skilled pilots grew exponentially. The United States Navy established the Enlisted Pilot Corps to address this shortage in 1917. Enlisted pilots demonstrated their dedication and competence, proving that naval aviation was not the sole domain of commissioned officers. The first ten enlisted pilots received their wings at NAS Pensacola, Florida (all received a commission). This initial cadre of enlisted pilots primarily operated biplanes like the Curtiss N-9 and the Vought VE-7.

Curtiss N-9 (left) and Vought VE-7 (NHHC)

After World War I ended and many volunteers were demobilized, naval aviation again had issues maintaining qualified aviation personnel. Throughout 1919, Navy leaders discussed creating and maintaining a program specifically for enlisted aviators. All of the enlisted aviators previously qualified and designated between 1916 and 1919 had either been commissioned in the Naval Reserve Air Corps or had rescinded their commissions and were back in the fleet as enlisted personnel.

The first use of the term "Naval Aviation Pilots" (NAP) came from an October 1919 Bureau of Navigation letter, which stated, “In the future, it will be the policy of the Bureau to select a certain number of warrant officers and enlisted men for flight training and duty as pilots of large heavier-than-air craft and directional pilots of dirigibles.” Thus, without approval from Congress, the Navy began the NAP program. Congressional approval did not occur until the mid-1920s.

With the outbreak of World War II, naval aviation underwent a paradigm shift. Ninety-five percent of NAPs received temporary commissions. Since NAPs were trained in so many different types of aircraft, they could backfill undermanned air wings. NAPs found themselves at the forefront of combat operations in the Pacific theater. They were involved in major battles, such as the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Operating aircraft like the Douglas TBD Devastator, NAPs contributed significantly to the victory. Aviation Pilot First Class (AP1) Robert Miles was a member of Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8), which flew from USS Hornet (CV 8) during the battle. With no fighter cover protecting them, they attacked despite superior numbers and enemy weaponry. AP1 Miles was shot down and lost at sea. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. VT-8 had only one survivor from the battle.

VT-8 aboard USS Hornet (CV 8), circa May 1942. Miles is in the front row, far right. (NHHC)

At the end of World War II, the NAP flyers either resigned their commissions and entered the “regular” Navy or left the service. In 1947 the Navy terminated the NAP program with the last of the trained enlisted pilots finishing their training that same year. NAPs would continue to fly through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, with four of the last five retiring on the same day in 1973.

The Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot program faced its fair share of challenges, particularly during periods of conflict. World War II, in particular, witnessed a surge in demand for naval aviators, leading to an expansion of the program. Enlisted personnel, many of whom had never flown an aircraft before, were thrust into the rigorous training regimen that awaited aspiring naval aviators. The program's challenges were multifaceted. From mastering complex aircraft to navigating the intricacies of naval aviation, NAPs had to overcome skepticism and prove their worth in an environment traditionally dominated by commissioned officers. In an interview, NAP Francis “Red” O’Laughlin said, “Despite all of our accomplishments, officers still didn’t think we could do it.” The push for rapid expansion during wartime added an extra layer of pressure, with an emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness in training.

Despite the challenges, the Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot program left an indelible mark on naval aviation history. The legacy of the NAPs is one of trailblazing courage and tenacity exemplifying the Navy's commitment to finding and nurturing talent irrespective of rank.

Naval Aviation Pilots (Enlisted) have a storied history, dating back to the early 20th century. From the biplanes of World War I to the cutting-edge jets of the 21st century, NAPs adapted to the changing face of naval aviation. Their involvement in major conflicts and battles consistently demonstrated their skill, versatility, and dedication to the mission at hand. When the Navy terminated the program in 1947, roughly 5,000 enlisted pilots had earned the right to be considered a Silver Eagle (Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot). In 1981, the final NAP retired, ending a storied era in naval aviation.

ACCM (NAP) Robert K. Jones, the final NAP to retire. (