Aug 1

The Birth of the Aircraft Carrier

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 9:20 AM

Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the army's "Chief Aeronaut" as he styled himself, with a map in one hand and his "spy glass" at his side, just before heading for another 19th Century spy-on-the-sky mission.

THE BIRTH OF THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER (from USNI Proceedings Vol 93/No 4/Whole No 770)

by W. T. Adams

“Look! What’s that?” The gray-clad soldier pointed down the Potomac River toward a group of ships just rounding a bend. “Look just beyond the last one.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” his companion answered. “We’d better tell the captain right away!”

On that August day in 1862, as the Confederate lookouts ran back to report, they knew they had sighted something unusual, but they little realized that the ships rounding the bend were the Civil War’s most incredible armada-the first aircraft carrier task force!

Escorted by the powerful screw sloop Wachusett, the double-ended gunboats Tioga and Port Royal, and the armed steamer Delaware, the heart of the force was an unusual craft being towed by a small steamer. It was this vessel that had startled the lookouts, for moored to its unusually large and flat deck was a huge balloon with the name Intrepid standing out clearly on its sides. The vessel was, in fact, America’s first aircraft carrier, the George Washington Parke Custis.

The Custis, however, was not the first waterborne platform used for balloon operations during the Civil War. As early as August 1861, the little armed steamer Fanny had served as a temporary balloon base in Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads. As reported in the Scientific American:

The veteran and daring balloonist J. LaMountain has been at Fortress Monroe making ascensions and examinations of the secessionists’ positions in that vicinity. On the 3rd instant he tried a new scheme in aerial scouting, by taking his balloon on board of the steamboat Fanny, and went out in the middle of the river ascended 2,000 feet, with the balloon secured by a rope to a windlass. The Fanny then proceeded slowly down toward Sewell’s Point, drawing the balloon while in the air, halting, when opposite, for a time, and then proceeding on toward Craney Island and Pig Point. After a long reconnaissance of the points thus brought under his supervision, Mr. LaMountain came down to the boat, attached his balloon to its stern, and came back to the Fortress. He reports that behind the trees on Sewell’s Point he saw the labors on the fortifications actively progressing, and that a large number of guns, on cutting away the trees, will be made to bear on the Rip Raps, on the Fortress and on the shipping. The Rebels ran when they saw him in the air, leaving their works and peeping at him from their shelter and behind trees.

The operation had considerable value from a military standpoint, for the area LaMountain had viewed was screened by a natural growth of trees along the water. Without his aerial observation, the fortifications would never have been detected until after they had been completed and the trees cut away to clear the field of fire.

After that it would appear that LaMountain himself, if no one else, would have been a strong supporter of further waterborne aerial operations. His next one, however, did not occur until 10 August. Records conflict in reporting the use of two different vessels for this ascension-the Fanny and the tug Adriatic. In any event, LaMountain reported using the number of fires and tent lights to aid him in estimating the number of Rebel troops in their encampment. His report was apparently considered valuable, for General Benjamin F. Butler (who accompanied LaMountain aboard ship) promptly forwarded it on to General Winfield Scott. Strangely, however, despite the apparent success of these ascensions, the record shows nothing of waterborne aerial operations by LaMountain.

In the meantime, the Potomac River area had become the scene of extensive military activity. Both Union and Confederate troops were concentrated in the vicinity, and Union ships on the river often ran a gauntlet of rebel fire. The extent of the battlefront made reconnaissance a serious problem, and balloons were soon in use throughout the area. A number of balloon observation stations were established, but the rapidly changing battlefront made rapid movement of balloons essential throughout the entire area.

Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the army’s “Chief Aeronaut,” as he styled himself, had made extensive improvements in operation of the balloon corps. When first used during the Civil War, balloons were inflated from city gas mains and then towed slowly and tortuously (while inflated) to the scene of action. Movement was slow and difficult at best, and even a minor storm often made the operation disastrous. Lowe had increased balloon mobility by developing portable gas generating equipment that could be carried in the field. Even so, however, the movement of a wagon train with balloon, gas generating equipment, and supplies was often too slow to meet battlefield requirements.

Union Army soldiers inflate a Yankee balloon using Professor Lowe's balloon gas generator.

To improve balloon mobility, Lowe then proposed the use of a boat especially equipped to launch balloons and carry supplies for their operation, and the George Washington Parke Custis was selected. She had been purchased by the Navy Department in August of 1861 as a coal barge for the Washington Navy Yard and was 122 feet long with a 14 foot beam and a 5 1/2-foot depth of hold. Described by one correspondent as a “nondescript sort of craft,” the Custis was modified for balloon work by covering the hull with a wide, flat, overhanging deck all around and adding a small house on the stern. Gas generators, repair parts, and other necessary facilities for balloon operation were provided and she was manned by a crew of army balloon handlers under Lowe’s direction. The operation of the balloon boat, as it was called, was entirely an army affair, except that the lack of motive power and armament required cooperation of the Navy for towing and escort services.

By early November 1861, the strange craft was ready for service, and the first balloon expedition by carrier left the Washington Navy Yard on 10 November. The following day, the first operational ascensions from the balloon boat were made off Mattawoman Creek where Lowe, accompanied by General Daniel E. Sickles, observed Confederates at work constructing batteries at Freestone Point. The results apparently convinced Lowe of the value of his new aircraft carrier, for a few days later he wrote the Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard that “It is my intention to use permanently the boat lately fitted up for balloon purposes.”

By January 1862, Lowe’s balloon corps had expanded its operations westward, with the dispatching of John Steiner and one balloon to Cairo, Illinois. Preparations were underway there for an attack on the Confederate stronghold at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, and both Lowe and Steiner believed that balloon reconnaissance would be of value to that theater.

On arriving at Cairo, however, Steiner was brushed off by the army. “Arrived here on Wednesday and reported to General Allen’s,” he reported to Lowe, “but he gave me little satisfaction…. I cannot get any assistance here, they say they know nothing about my balloon business…. They even laugh.” As a result, Steiner offered his services to the naval commander, Andrew H. Foote, who gladly accepted them.

Steiner had observed the advantages of waterborne balloon operations in the Potomac area, and the similarity of the situation at Island No. 10 was immediately apparent. Obtaining the use of a large flatboat, from which a balloon could be operated in a fashion similar to that employed with the Custis on the Potomac, he loaded his equipment aboard and anchored at a point upriver from the Union fleet.

Then on 25 March, John Steiner made the first waterborne balloon ascension in the western theater of operations. Although the weather was hazy, the log of the mortar division, for whom he was spotting, indicated that “the experiment proved satisfactory.”

The following day he again ascended from the flatboat, and the observations were reported to have been of considerable assistance in correcting the fire of the mortar boats. With the surrender of Island No. 10 shortly afterwards, however, the waterborne balloon experiment on western waters came to an end.

Meanwhile, back in the Virginia peninsular campaign, the use of the balloon boat, the former George Washington Parke Custis continued. Lowe was determined to prove the worth of his balloons, and he often advanced to the very forefront of the army. In one instance, for example, he reported that “We moved by water to White House Landing, the balloon boat being the first to land, and was even some distance ahead of the gunboats, while the first night the balloon guard was the advance picket on the river bottom.”

During this same period, waterborne balloon operations were further extended when Commodore Charles Wilkes had one of his ships tow a balloon along a section of the Potomac River, holding it at an elevation of 1,000 feet while examining the surrounding countryside.

The Navy’s increasing role in waterborne balloon operations at that time is further shown by the order of Commodore Wilkes which established the first aircraft carrier task force. “It is desirable,” Wilkes wrote the commander of the USS Wachusett, “to make a balloon reconnaissance in the neighborhood of Fort Powhatan. I desire you to superintend and take charge of the party. The Stepping Stones will be ordered to tow the balloon lighter down tomorrow morning, and leave at 4 o’clock. Near the Fort at Powhatan Station you will find the Delaware, Tioga, and Port Royal-the former off Windmill Point-which vessels you will use as guards and, shou1d the balloonists report any works in progress, you will shell them effectually and destroy the works if, in your opinion, you have sufficient force to overcome any opposition that may be expected. Gather all the information from the balloonists you can, and return by the convoy in the afternoon.”

Several ascensions were made as the task force worked its way up the Potomac, but there is no clear indication of results. The entire record of waterborne balloon operations becomes almost nonexistent in this period.

In this connection, it must be recognized that Lowe’s ballOon corps, from its beginning, had been a sort of semi-independent, quasi-military, quasi-civil organization. Nominally attached to the topographical engineers of the army, it was held together largely by Lowe himself.

Lowe’s control of his balloon corps was weakened in late 1862 and early 1863 by a combination of illness, which forced him to take sick leave, and the transfer of some of his strongest supporters (in particular Generals George B. McClellan, Fitz-John Porter, and Humphreys) to duties where they were no longer in a position to support his work. To make matters even worse, the new chief of the topographical engineers (under whom Lowe worked directly) refused to recognize the independent way in which the balloon corps operated.

The ensuing snarl of red tape made further work impossible for a man of Lowe’s temperament, and led to his resignation immediately after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1862. Without Lowe’s aggressive leadership, the corps literally fell apart at the seams and there was no further significant use of balloons during the war. The George Washington Parke Custis was sent to the Washington Navy Yard for repairs in the spring of 1863 and soon fell into obscurity with the remainder of the balloon corps.

The potential of waterborne aerial operations was, of course, never fully recognized during the Civil War; and it was not until the airplane was proved successful that the Navy recognized the value of eyes in the sky. Even so, the great aircraft carrier task forces of today must trace their heritage back to the George Washington Parke Custis and the balloon pioneers of the Civil War, who first demonstrated the value of aerial observations from a floating platform.

Aug 1

Operation Sea Orbit

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 9:18 AM

The Nuclear Fleet comprised of USS Enterprise, USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge in various formations while in the Mediterranean.

On July 31, 1964, three nuclear-powered Navy ships left Norfolk, Virginia, to begin their journey around the globe without refueling. The following account of Operation Sea Orbit’s success was published in the March 1965 issue of Proceedings.


By Rear Admiral Bernard M. Strean, U.S. Navy, Commander, Task Force One

The U. S. Navy is an old hand at “showing the flag,” at conducting good will visits, and at entertaining foreign dignitaries on board ship. The Navy is also an old hand at conducting test and evaluation cruises, and at establishing records. But rarely does the Navy have the opportunity to do all of things in one operation.

Operation Sea Orbit, the unprecedented around-the-world cruise by the Navy’s three nuclear-powered surface ships, did all of these things and more. Not since President Theodore Roosevelt sent out the Great White Fleet of 16 first-line battleships in December 1907, had the Navy attempted such a cruise.

The three ships which comprised Task Force One, formed specifically to carry out Sea Orbit, were no longer news in the Navy. The attack carrier Enterprise (CVAN-65), and guided missile cruiser Long Beach (CGN-9), and the guided missile frigate Bainbridge (DLGN-25) had a total of eight years service, but the three ships had never operated together as a unit, as a self-contained task force, until Sea Orbit. Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 26

Naval Reserves in the Korean War

Thursday, July 26, 2012 3:21 PM

Three Panther jets make a pass over their carrier USS Boxer (CV-21) before landing aboard in Korean waters.

On July 27, 1953, the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed at Panmunjon, Korea, and the Korean cease-fire went into effect at 10:00 PM, ending three years of combat. The following article, published in the July 1952 issue of Proceedings, gives an account of what it was like to be a part of a Naval reserve group in the Korean war.


By LIEUTENANT W. H. VERNOR, JR., U. S. Naval Reserve


IF you’ve ever driven between the Texas cities of Fort Worth and Dallas on a Sunday morning, chances are you’ve seen some of the rugged, old Navy TBM torpedo bombers lumbering into the air from Dallas’ nearby Naval Air Station. You’ve seen these planes on weekends because they’ve been turned over to the Navy’s Air Reserves, civilians who use their weekends to renew their proficiency in the art of flying and keep up with the latest developments in Naval Aviation. These air reserves, many of them Navy veterans, have maintained more than a nodding acquaintance with the Navy over the past few years. Not only at Dallas, but at other similar Naval Air Stations scattered over the nation, these Sunday flying reserves have become known as the “Weekend Warriors.”

This program was set up by foresighted regular Navy airmen at high command levels. Since the end of the last war, it has kept available a trained and ready pool of organized squadrons-at a fraction of the cost required to maintain a large, continuously active air arm. When fighting broke out in Korea, certain of these standby squadrons were quickly activated; the practical test of the plan was underway. And now that several air groups of these all-reserve squadrons have been operating from aircraft carriers off Korea for many months, the test results are clear: the Navy’s “Weekend Warrior” plan has paid off. Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 24

Operation Forager

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 10:17 AM

Japanese planes burning on the air strip on Tinian Island.

On July 24, 1944, the Naval Task Force landed Marines on Tinian. After victory in the Battle of Saipan from June 15 to July 9, Tinian, which was 3.5 miles south of Saipan, was the next logical step in the U.S. strategy of island hopping. Tinian was Phase III of Operation Forager, which began with the capture of Saipan (Phase I) and the battle for the liberation of Guam (II), which was raging even as the Marines were approaching Tinian. Submarines were used to destroy enemy forces approaching the islands , clearing the way for the beach landing. The following article, published in the August 1964 issue of Proceedings, gives an account of the submarines’ success.

Operation Forager

by Sherwood R. Zimmerman, Ensign, U.S. Navy

By May 1944, General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Army, and his Southwest Pacific Forces had driven westward along the northern coast of New Guinea to the island of Wakde, in preparation for the next step, the invasion of Biak. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, U. S. Navy, in command of the Fifth Fleet, had completed Operation Desecrate on 30 March and, with a carrier air raid on the Palau Islands ended, plans were laid to thrust the sword of sea power deep into the underbelly of the Japanese Empire.

Meanwhile, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, was preparing for quite a different type of operation. The Japanese Empire had been pushed back to a line joining Biak to the Carolines, Marianas, and home islands. Toyoda realized that an attack on this perimeter was imminent, but was determined to hold the line at all costs. A confrontation of enemy fleets was, therefore, unavoidable; it resulted in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 23

Sealab I

Monday, July 23, 2012 9:36 AM

Sealab 1 being lowered into the water from alongside the pier at the U.S. Naval Station Bermuda, July 1964.

Sealab I was the first experimental underwater habitat developed by the Navy to research the psychological and physiological strain of extended periods spent living and working underwater. Two more Sealab experiments followed the first, providing information that helped advance the science of deep sea diving and rescue. The following article, published in the February 1965 issue of Proceedings, discusses the goals of Sealab 1, and the results of the ten day experiment.


by Lieutenant Commander Don Groves, U.S. Naval Reserve

An odd looking, 40-foot vessel, equipped with pontoon-shaped appendages, was launched from the navy’s oceanographic research tower, Argus Island, on 20 July 1964. Instead of floating, this vessel-the Sealab I-promptly sank to the bottom, 192 feet below the surface. Twelve hours later, four navy divers entered the Sealab 1, prepared to begin a unique 21-day experiment. Their assigment was to participate inthe Navy’s first protracted physiological-engineering test to determine how men can work freely and for extended periods in the hostile underwater environment.

Because of an approaching storm, the experiment had to be cut short after ten days of working in and around the ocean floor sea laboratory. In spite of this curtailment, however, all the experimental ovjectives of the project were accomplished. Moreover, othrough the man-in-the-sea, or Sealab, experiment, it has been concluded that total saturation dives in this depth in the open sea are now completely feasible. Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 18

John Paul Jones Remembered

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 8:15 AM

Portrait of John Paul Jones by Cecilia Beaux in the U. S. Naval Academy Museum

The United State’s first well-known naval fighter died 220 years ago, on July 18, 1792. Originally published in the July 1947 issue of Proceedings to mark the bicentennial of his birth, the following article outlines the life of John Paul Jones and his contributions to the Navy.



VIEWED from the bicentennial of his birth, John Paul Jones has even greater eminence now as a leader of the American Navy at its beginning than he won at the time of his incomparable triumph in the battle of the Bonhomme Richard with the Serapis. The climax of his intrepid career on this occasion was in keeping with his life so that he remains today, even following the panorama of heroic exploits of two world wars, an indomitable warrior of unique personality. He became the first American naval officer to set a tradition of victory, to win respect for the flag by other nations, and to have the statesmanship to foresee and urge the paramount importance of the Navy in our future history. Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 13

Exploring The Antarctic

Friday, July 13, 2012 9:52 AM

On July 13, 1939, RADM Richard Byrd was appointed as commanding officer of the 1939-1941 Antarctic exploration. This was Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition, and the first one that had the official backing of the U.S. Government. In honor of his work, and the work done by many others who braved the cold and ice, here is a brief history of American Antarctic exploration, originally published in the November 1961 issue of Proceedings.

Ice floes off the coast of Marie Byrd Land.

Charting of an Unknown Land: The Antarctic Continent


There is a suspicion among some cartographers that Christopher Columbus carried with him on his first trip to the New World a map of the Antarctic coastline.

Later, so the story goes, a Turkish naval officer and geographer, Piri Reis, waylaid a former pilot of the famous explorer and swiped from him one of Columbus’ charts-the one purported to be of the Antarctic. Piri Reis then set about compiling a map of the world, using this chart and others, many first drawn some 300 years before Christ was born.

The existing fragment of the map (now in the Library of Congress) has stumped experts since its discovery. But famed cartographer Arlington H. Mallery believes he has solved the mystery. The fragment, he claims, represents an ice-free Antarctic continent as it appeared 5,000 years ago.

Though the map, or chart, is interesting, it hardly represents the continent as it appears today. Antarctica measures some 5 1/2 million square miles in area, most of this solid ice. Mountain ranges, peaks, and nunataks (out­croppings) pierce the ice sheet, sometimes in an expected orderly fashion, but more often in places completely strange and unsuspected. Read the rest of this entry »

Jul 3

Adventures of Old Glory

Tuesday, July 3, 2012 12:46 PM

The U.S. Flag taken while looking up from the USS Utah Monument along "Carrier Row", Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

A brief American flag history from 1777-1927 is presented in celebration of Independence Day. In the March 1927 issue of Proceedings, an article was published with a chronology of some “firsts” for the American flag. Another “first” not included in the following article: On July 4, 1777, John Paul Jones and the crew of the Sloop-of-War Ranger hoisted the first “Stars and Stripes” flag to be flown on board a continental warship.

Adventures 0f “Old Glory”

By William E. Beard

The flag of the United States, adopted June 14, 1777, was thereafter in the Revolution thirteen stars and thirteen stripes. The War of 1812 was fought under a flag of fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. Effective July 4. 1818, the original number of stripes, thirteen, was restored, and the number of stars was made to depend upon the number of states. The flag of the Mexican War bore twenty-nine stars; that of the Civil War, thirty-one to thirty-five; of the Spanish American war, forty-five, and of the World War, forty-eight.

Displayed in battle for first time. The United States flag was displayed in battle for the first time on August 3, 1777, at Fort Stanwix, or Fort Schuyler (the present site of Rome, New York), by the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort on the appearance of a force of British, Tories and Indians led by Colonel Barry St. Leger, who was acting in concert with Burgoyne in the latter’s ill-fated invasion of New York. The record reads: “Aug. 3d. Early this morning a Continental flag made by the officers of Colonel Gansevoort’s regiment was hoisted and a cannon levelled at the enemy camp was fired on the occasion.” The improvised flag continued to flaunt a defiance to St. Leger’s blood curdling threats, though the fort was closely beset and an expedition commanded by Gen. Nicholas Herkimer failed, after a furious woodland battle, to relieve it. The siege was not raised until August 22, 1777, when the enemy decamped on the approach of an American brigade led by Arnold. The brave Gansevoort died in 1812 still remembered as “The hero of Fort Schuyler.” Read the rest of this entry »