Reappraisals of War Plan Orange in the second half of 1933 brought to a head the destiny of the flying boat. Rear Admiral Joseph “Bull” Reeves, a faithful believer in the type, insisted that the fleet could not enter Philippine waters nor even loiter in the Marshalls without a security umbrella of five to seven VProns. Op-12 dutifully incorporated them in the first attack wave. They could fly to the Marshalls via Johnston Island but would have to travel onward to Mindanao as deck cargo. Mobilization tables reserved space aboard all ship classes, yet many of the big planes were to be lashed precariously on minesweepers under tow. The absurdity of the “eyes of the Fleet” wallowing blindly along the dangerous passage helped discredit the “Through Ticket” once and for all.
In October 1933 the credibility of a mid-ocean campaign suddenly brightened. An excellent VP prototype had emerged from successful commercial types “flying down to Rio.” The Navy placed orders for the plane that evolved into the most-produced flying boat of all time, the Consolidated PBY, later dubbed Catalina for an island near the factory in California—a British practice of naming planes. The aerodynamically clean, high-winged monoplane soon achieved the long-sought 1,000-mile range—1,500 in some wartime models. War planners could look forward to delivery within three years of flocks of far-winging scouts for an ocean offensive.
Rebirth of the cautionary campaign plan after 1933 owed much to enchantment with the graceful Catalinas. Yet their arrival touched off four disputes among the war planners, operating commanders, and the naval bureaus as to their roles. Three of the disputes were decisively settled before war in the Pacific erupted. Confusion over the fourth had much to do with the tragedy of 7 December 1941.
The first dispute concerned whether the Navy should acquire as many Catalinas as possible as the workhorses of the fleet, or strive for even larger, more proficient aircraft. Projected numbers of flying boats for a Treaty Navy were modest: 184 operating with the fleet in 1935, with 30 added per year to reach a peak of 330 in 1941. But aeronautical science was advancing rapidly. The Navy funded design studies of what became the two-engine Martin Mariner, which surpassed the Catalinas in speed and altitude and usurped the key scouting role midway through the war. Giant Sikorsky and Martin civilian flying boats operated by Pan Air, and German and British models inspired the four-engine PB2Y Coronado, ultimately built in smaller numbers. In the extreme, the monstrous Martin Mars, an eight-thousand-mile range “flying dreadnought” was supposedly capable of a Hawaii-Tokyo round-trip. Only a handful were built late in the war.
In 1935 the CNO skeptically inquired whether planes of, say, five- to six-thousand-mile ranges were needed. They required long, smooth waters for takeoffs. They consumed much more fuel. They could not be carried aboard ship and cost was a major consideration. He preferred “mid-sized” Catalinas capable of haul-out on primitive shores on their own beaching gear, for service by small tenders, or carried as deck cargo or disassembled to Mandate’s lagoons beyond their range. The Commander of Aircraft Base Force thought the ideal to be a two-engine craft of 3,000 nautical miles range at 175 knots, 20,000-foot ceiling, takeoff in less than 2.5 miles of taxi lane. CinCUS Reeves and Chief war planner, Rear Adm. William S. Pye, hoped for 3,500-mile range and thirty-hour endurance. Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of BuAer, who usually championed the most excellent aircraft, agreed quantity over “utmost” quality in this case. Why was extra range needed when no naval battle had ever been fought more than a thousand miles from land? Besides, bigger planes would not be available in masses for three or four years.
There the matter rested until 1940. In February 1941 PBYs were in service (all earlier types having been retired) with 200 PBY-5s on order for rapid delivery. Only 21 PBM Mariners were on order. The General Board declared for only a few giant boats for a few extraordinary missions. Rear Admiral John Towers felt that a dozen four-engine giants would suffice; at a cost of $926,000 the Navy could procure 9 Catalinas or 4 Mariners (albeit the newer planes had not achieved cost benefits of volume production). The final prewar word was pronounced by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Chief of the WPD, in November 1941. The war in Europe showed that seaplanes could not match landplanes in range, ceiling, maneuverability, speed, or self-defense. For long-range patrolling the Navy needed big landplane bombers, 25 percent immediately and 50 percent ultimately.
In a second debate, enthusiasts of the wondrous Catalinas envisioned them as a striking force hurling bombs and torpedoes at Japanese fleets and bases. The planes were performing splendidly in exercises out to U.S. atolls. Navy leaders’ enthusiasm may seem odd but in the mid- to late 1930s nobody knew how a future air war would unfold. Leading the battle cry was Ernest J. King, an air power devotee who attended flight school in middle age and then commanded the carrier Lexington. Moffett’s death brought King to the top of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1935 King warned against discounting the attack role. A modern VPron could drop twenty-four tons of bombs, almost as much as the thirty tons of all planes on the two largest carriers, the Lexington and Saratoga. Such planes were “distinctly a naval weapon for use over the sea against a naval objective.” Here was an opportunity “just as positive and clear” as Army bombers over land. Like cruisers that also scouted, flying boats could also fight. Any Commander in Chief would welcome them, any enemy would fear them. To ignore such a mission would cede to the Army the most promising development in aviation.
A chorus of skeptics greeted King. The CinCUS considered combat a distinctly secondary role. WPD Director Captain G. J. Meyers noted that VP scouting released carrier planes for combat. The commander of the fleet squadrons imagined Catalinas carrying four 500-pound bombs as a secondary role, but Rear Admiral Frederick J. Horne, commander of the VP squadrons, retorted that loading bombs from rafts onto wing racks was so time-consuming as to render the force impotent for attack. Pye, the next Director of the WPD, said that aerial torpedoes were too big, costly, and delicate. The naysayers conceded only peripheral missions such as attacking submarines while on patrol, mining, or night attacks on poorly defended islands, albeit sacrificing range for ordnance. Nevertheless, when King returned to the fleet to command the VProns he soon was exercising them as bombers and asking for torpedoes. Claude Bloch, the next CinCUS, continued attack training. King was apparently vindicated when the Navy redesignated the Catalina “PBY,” the first seaplane to sport a “B” for bomber along with “P” for patrol. Commander in Chief Arthur Hepburn transferred them in 1937 from the defensive Base Force to a new offensive command, Aircraft, Scouting Force.
By early 1940, however, opinion turned negative and soon jelled into hostility. Flying boats were inherently vulnerable. Orange Plan studies had assumed attrition of 10 percent per month, even in the scouting role. Combat raids were not worth the additional sacrifice of essential scouts. Commander of the VProns, A. B. Cook, after exercises, declared that “use as an attack forces is questionable except as a last resort,” while torpedo attacks on defended ships “should not be attempted except under desperate circumstances.” Captain Russell Crenshaw, Chief of the WPD, concurred. Richmond Kelly Turner delivered the death knell in November 1941 with his plea for long-range landplanes for the attack role as well as for scouting.
A third quandary of operating VP aircraft in a Blue-Orange war involved how and where to base them far beyond the harbors of California, Panama, and Oahu. In the early stages of flying boat development some Navy officers believed they could operate effectively under the most extraordinary conditions. A few thought they might operate en masse from the open ocean, or at least in the lee of islands, if only in circumstances of utmost urgency. Experiments of refueling at sea from the specially configured tanker submarine Nautilus proved barely practicable for one or two planes at a time. An ill-advised notion to lift a VP airplane for servicing onto a cradle on the deck of a submarine that would rise to the surface beneath it was wisely squelched by acting CNO Richardson. Further experiments proved open-sea operations dangerous and impracticable (although “Dumbo” VP aircraft rescued many a downed aviator at sea during World War II). Other ideas met similar dead ends. Designs for a ship with stern gates and a ramp for hauling aboard planes with folding wings were shelved. Takeoffs were conducted using catapults mounted on towed barges that could feather into the wind, with some success in calm waters, although this left open the question of where to land on return. One outlandish scheme envisioned VP aircraft packed with Marines landing in lightly defended enemy lagoons, to defend the toehold with hand weapons until reinforcements arrived by ship.
The most successful basing idea in the late 1920s and 1930s was the seaplane tender. The VProns needed sheltered harbors for flights and for ministrations by mother ships that were hybrids of fuel, repair, and barracks vessels. The Navy considered adapting merchantmen and even yachts, but settled on converting several small, slow minesweepers with lyrical names like Swan, Thrush, and Pelican. The shallow twelve-foot draft “Bird”-class tenders were well suited for uncharted lagoons. Crews could assist in hauling out VP aircraft on beaching wheels for light repairs. However, tenders were so defenseless that they might have to be evacuated during daylight hours and return after dark. Furthermore, their sluggish speed retarded fleet mobility. Working in pairs, one tender would sail off to lay moorings at an advance base while the other stood by until takeoff, then chugged gamely after. The net rate of advance was one-third that of the surface fleet.
During the Depression so many tenders were laid up that movement with a war expedition was virtually precluded. By 1935, however, one large and five small tenders were serving the squadrons, with gasoline enough for thirty hours of flying. Throughout the 1930s CinCUS and General Board reports urged the development of large tenders as semipermanent homes for three squadrons, with far more fuel and berthing capacity and with cranes to lift a VP plane aboard for major repairs by its well-equipped machine shops. After every “fleet problem,” that is, massed annual maneuvers, the Commander in Chief and his aviation subordinate identified the “urgent necessity” of more and better tenders as their most important deficiency. CinCUS Reeves demanded that tenders receive highest priority. The Ship Movements Division called for four large and seven small tenders for the squadrons already in service. In 1939 the Greenslade Board’s “Are We Ready” studies again listed tenders as the fleet’s number one deficiency. The minesweeper types were slow, lacked stowage, and could handle only a half squadron. The converted destroyers cured only the speed problem. The larger types took three years to build.
A new solution for both defensive and offensive VP basing early in a war appeared shortly before the actual war. For mid-Pacific operations the United States possessed a few scattered atolls west of Hawaii. Beginning in 1935 some were developed, with naval encouragement, by Pan Air for its “Flying Clipper” service to the Orient. Three atolls—Midway 1,000 nautical miles northwest of Oahu, Johnston 720 miles southwest, and Palmyra 960 miles south—were envisioned as defensive bases for Pearl Harbor. Squadrons and tenders exercised at Johnston and at French Frigate Shoals halfway to Midway. VProns made record-breaking massed flights to Midway during 1935 maneuvers. In 1938, with world tensions mounting, Congress approved a huge appropriation to develop the defensive atolls as seaplane bases—and at Midway a submarine base as well—by dredging channels through rock-hard reefs and erecting shore facilities, contracted to civilian firms that had built Hoover Dam. In 1941 ground and air defense units were emplaced on the islands. With advanced island bases in the offing the Navy ordered the PBY-5A, an amphibious version of the Catalina, to fly from airstrips as well as lagoons. By 7 December 1941 Midway housed a squadron periodically rotated, and Johnston a half squadron (six planes) from time to time.
Wake Island was a different story. Situated two thousand nautical miles west of Oahu and only a few hundred miles north of the Japanese Marshalls, it was hardly a defensive outpost. In fact, the evolving Orange Plans noted Wake’s unique value for the Blue descent on Eniwetok in the northwest Marshalls, the first objective of the offensive, to be occupied six months after the start of the war. VP aircraft could cover the fleet operating nearly a thousand miles beyond Wake. They could scout and might even bomb the Mandate Islands. B-17 bombers, staging through Midway and Wake, could certainly bomb the enemy islands. In 1940 Congress belatedly approved the funding of Wake. Meanwhile VP planes visited Wake on a few training missions by using the Pan Air channel facilities. A permanent deployment was expected in 1942. The fleet now had an advanced base from which VP aircraft could cover it as it moved into the Mandate.
The hurried construction at Wake brought to a head the final, and perhaps most important, debate about the flying boats. Was their primary function defensive scouting, that is, patrolling naval bases against surprise attack? Or was it supporting the offensive as scouts fanning out ahead of the fleet’s advance across the Pacific? In the Orange Plans of the 1920s and early 1930s the defensive mission was deemed paramount because Japanese Micronesia lay undefended. U.S. forces could occupy the Marshalls and probably Truk before Japan could fortify them. The VProns’ job was to warn of a surprise Japanese counterattack on Blue ships anchored there. Security demanded continuous long-range patrols, round the clock, covering 360 degrees. The war planners expressed confidence in the protective surveillance umbrella.
Offensive scouting, serving as the eyes of the fleet as it advanced, was more problematic. Carrier planes could scout ahead two hundred miles or so, and not at night. Floatplanes of battleships and cruisers could reach somewhat farther. But fleets could close on each other by five hundred miles overnight. Only flying boats could provide information of the enemy’s whereabouts a thousand miles out to sea.
Unlike the clear solutions of the other quandaries before the war, planners deemed both defensive and offensive scouting vital. But in 1941 the number of VProns available to the Pacific Fleet was still small, and dwindled as some were sent to neutrality patrol in the Philippines and the Atlantic. Nearly 1,000 more aircraft were on order but were not expected in service until 1943 at the earliest. In an emergency, a Commander in Chief might have to decide which of his scouting functions, offensive or defensive, was most critical. As war loomed, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, chose the wrong option.
In May 1941 War Plan Orange morphed into the Pacific half of Rainbow Five, a plan for a two-ocean war against Germany and Japan adopted jointly by the U.S. and British governments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred most of the U.S. Fleet to Hawaii in May 1940 as a deterrent to Japan grabbing U.S. and Allied colonies in the Far East. In February 1941 he promoted Kimmel to command the newly named Pacific Fleet. Kimmel’s primary mission under Rainbow Five was to divert the Imperial Japanese Navy for seventy days from attacking the great British naval base at Singapore, long enough for King’s Atlantic Fleet to relieve portions of the Royal Navy so they could steam to the rescue of Singapore. However, to ensure that the offensive-minded Kimmel did not thrust too far out into the Pacific during an emergency, say, the collapse of Great Britain, thus requiring a recall to the Atlantic, CNO Harold Stark directed Richmond Kelly Turner’s War Plans Division to tether Kimmel’s range of action. His ships must not operate west of 166° 39’ E, the longitude of the Marshall Islands and Wake (although some units could cruise in the South Pacific as far as Australia). Kimmel’s planning dilemma was how to support Singapore without cruising within 4,500 miles of it! In July 1941 his brilliant war planner, Captain Charles H. “Soc” (for Socrates, his nickname because he was considered an extremely wise man) McMorris, provided the answer in Fleet Plan WPPac-46. When Japan attacked the Far East the fleet would sortie from Pearl Harbor immediately. Several flying boat squadrons would wing ahead to Midway, Johnston, and Wake to cover it. Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s three fast aircraft carriers would steam through the Marshalls twice, first to reconnoiter and then to bomb. Meanwhile Kimmel’s eight powerful battleships would rendezvous at Point Tare, the point of maximum cover equidistant between the three atoll VP bases, then take up position between Wake and Midway. In analysis of Kimmel’s strategy the naval ballet made sense only as an elaborate ambush of Admiral Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet, presumably enticed by Halsey’s gambits to a fight in the Central Pacific. Kimmel, who “wanted to be the American Nelson,” almost certainly hoped for a gunnery slugfest about the third week of war, in waters densely patrolled by flying boats from Wake and Midway but far beyond reach of Yamamoto’s long-range scouting planes. VProns were the key to Kimmel’s grandiose plan. Plan WPPac-46 was no mere school exercise; CNO and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox approved it in September 1941 and it was not materially amended before 7 December.
Aware that the Catalinas could operate at still-primitive advanced bases for only a few weeks before engine overhauls, Kimmel opted to horde most of them on Oahu in tip-top shape for the surge forward rather than wear them out patrolling in defense of Oahu, knowing the Army Air Corps lacked long-range planes for the job. He had received a war warning. At dusk on 6 December Commander Nagumo’s carriers were about 275 miles to the north-northeast, well within the normal radius of flying boats. Kimmel had sixty-eight Catalinas in six VP Squadrons afloat and ashore at Oahu that morning, but only one was airborne guarding the harbor mouth against submarines. The Japanese attack destroyed all but one of the Catalinas. None got airborne. Assigned a nearly impossible mission, Kimmel chose to ignore base defense, the original mission for which the great planes were designed, for the more glamorous role of “eyes of the Fleet” as it steamed to the attack. He made the worst choice.