Pensacola- Where Naval Aviation Really Took Off
On Memorial Day we honor those who have died serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Florida has played a central role in both U.S military and aviation history, and today we want to focus on the state’s contribution to the development of aerial warfare leading up to and through World War I. Events surrounding naval aviation were covered extensively in Florida newspapers, notably The Pensacola journal. This is in large part because Florida served as “the ‘springboard’ from which was launched the expedition which revolutionized the history of warfare by using airpower”, which led William C. Lazarus to refer to the state as “the womb of airpower” (Lazarus 42).
The origins of the Pensacola Naval Aeronautical Station, now known as Naval Air Station Pensacola, demonstrate the changing needs of the American military in the early 20th century. As aerial technology advanced, the U.S. Military developed an interest in the burgeoning field of aviation. In 1913, naval officers began searching for a location that would allow them to train pilots year-round and the area near Pensacola caught their eye due in part to the fact they could repurpose the facilities which from 1825-1911 had served as the Pensacola Navy Yard. According to Lazarus, “The old Navy Yard at Pensacola with its year-round flying weather, landlocked bay and numerous facilities capable of conversion, was the Board’s unanimous choice” (Lazarus 40). After making their decision, the Navy moved quickly to get the new station off the ground as soon as possible. By early 1914, ships containing planes began arriving in Pensacola and the first official flight took place on February 2, 1914 when Lt. J.H. Towers and Ensign Godfrey Chevalier flew for “twenty minutes…over the station and Bayou Grande.” Shortly thereafter, the community was reminded of the dangers associated with aviation when “Lt. James McClees Murray, USN, was killed in the crash of a Burgess D-1 flying boat” on February 16, 1914 (Lazarus 41-42). Nevertheless both the Navy and The Pensacola journal remained optimistic about the future of aerial warfare.
Only a few short months after the initial flight in Pensacola, naval aviation forces were ordered to transport their planes to Texas in order to engage in the expedition pursuing General Francisco “Poncho” Villa in Mexico. The Ocala evening star enthusiastically reported on the offensive the next month, speculating that in twenty five years, students would discuss the flight and accompanying details in history classes. The Pensacola journal also featured a long, front page article discussing how the “aviators made maps of Vera Cruz, Mexico…aiding in the occupation of (the) Mexican port” just before the pilots returned to Pensacola.
Airplanes were not the only aviation technology being explored and tested in Pensacola prior to World War I. At the time, the Navy was also exploring the possibility of using dirigibles (also known as airships or blimps somewhat interchangeably at the time) for combat. The Pensacola journal documents the arrival of the “first dirigible balloon of U.S. Navy” on December 15, 1916, eagerly anticipating the “preliminary tests” which would run as soon as it was constructed. Because it was considerably larger than the extant airplanes, the Navy soon realized they needed to build a hanger specifically for the balloon, and in 1917 it was announced that funding had been earmarked for that particular purpose. The DN-1 made its maiden voyage on April 20, 1917 and continued to be of interest both in Pensacola and among the national press.
The Navy established an official aeronautics school to train future pilots and other support positions on August 17, 1916. However, according to historian George F. Pearce due to “inadequate funding and lack of personnel, the school developed slowly until after the United States entered the war” (Pearce 151). Despite being underfunded, the small number of trained American aviators were nonetheless prepared to be deployed in Europe when the United States entered WWI. During the war, the Navy also designated the emblem of Navy aeronautics and recruited future aviators who were “some of the most prominent figures in the world of college sports” due to the physically demanding nature of aviation. In total, “from January 1914 until November 11, 1919 (the Armistice), Pensacola Naval Air Station trained 921 seaplane pilots, 63 dirigible pilots and 15 free-balloon pilots” many of whom would be stationed around Europe during the war (Lazarus 48).
After the war began, the Naval Aeronautical Station found itself with increased funding and a need for not only more aviators but a larger labor pool in general. Job openings for police, electricians, machinists, and more were posted in The Pensacola journal during the war. According to Pearce, “the war-inflated salaries paid to the large labor force drawn to the station to meet its burgeoning labor needs added another stimulus to quicken the pulse of the city’s economy” (Pearce 159-160). In addition to boosting Pensacola’s economy, those stationed at the base also participated in society events and other leisure activities in Pensacola. These included the Navy Yard Jazz Band providing music at the local Labor Day picnic, officers going hunting with locals, being entertained in the homes of prominent members of the Pensacola community, and marrying into local families. The influx of personnel at the Naval Aeronautical Station certainly shaped Pensacola’s culture during the war years.
After the Armistice, the military broadly had to contend with shrinking budgets during the period of post-war demobilization. Even though many were optimistic about the future of aviation warfare, including the Ocala evening star, who, in September 1914 touted the European conflict as “the world’s first great war in the air,” there were some in government who were less eager about providing the funding needed to support further development in this field. The Pensacola journal enthusiastically backed continuing the program, perhaps in part due to national pride as well as the fact that it benefited the local economy. This position is frequently reinforced by the tone of news stories about naval aviation in the years after the war. For example, the paper dedicated the front page of the “woman’s feature section” to a long story on the “possibilities of aviation” on April 6, 1919. In addition to keeping abreast of national policy discussions, they also covered the visits of individuals who supported developing the aviation program including that of then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Admiral W. A. Moffett.
Today, aviation still plays an important role in the U.S military. The Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, and the men who learned to fly there, should be remembered for their contributions during the developmental days of the field.
Citations and Additional Sources:
Evans, Mark L. and Roy A. Grossnick. United States Naval Aviation 1910-2010. 5th ed. Vol. 1. Washington D. C.: Naval History and Heritage Command Department of the Navy, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2017. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/publications/publications-by-subject/naval-aviation-1910-2010.html.
Lazarus, William C. Wings in the Sun: The Annals of Aviation in Florida. Orlando, Florida: Tyn Cobb’s Florida Press, 1951.
Pearce, George F. The U.S. Navy in Pensacola: From Sailing Ships to Naval Aviation (1825-1930). Pensacola, Florida: University Presses of Florida, 1980.