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From critically acclaimed military historian Gerald Astor comes Wings of Gold, the first account of how the airplane transformed the U.S. Navy and paved the way to victory in the Pacific in World War II. Astor tracks that fateful journey from its humble beginnings in 1910 when Eugene Ely flew the very first plane off the deck of a U.S. Navy ship to the unprecedented air combat missions that helped defeat the Japanese.
Few naval aviators in World War II realized that when they earned their wings of gold they were about to become test pilots for a whole new kind of combat. In their own words, these courageous fliers describe the life-and-death air battles that defined the revolution in naval strategy that rose from the ashes of Pearl Harbor, when fighter pilots watched in horror as Japanese carrier-launched aircraft bombed their planes and airfields into smoking rubble.
While following the pilots’ firsthand reports of air strikes and blazing dogfights across the islands and atolls of the Pacific, Astor explores the ways the U.S. Navy began its momentous transformation before the war. Later, the critical role of aircraft carriers in the stunning U.S. victory at Midway sounded the death knell for conventional naval warfare, yet the public, the press, the Army, and even the president’s advisors refused to recognize the new reality. In fact, only a few in the Navy understood that a new era had begun that would change the face of war forever.
The young Americans who fought the deadly duels against Imperial Japanese forces high over the Pacific gave everything they had to the war effort, and many made the supreme sacrifice. Wings of Gold pays tribute to their courage, daring, and selfless dedication. Vividly told, thoroughly researched, and filled with stirring accounts of the Pacific War’s greatest air battles, Wings of Gold is an important addition to the annals of World War II aerial combat.
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Gerald Astor is the critically acclaimed military historian and author of Terrible Terry Allen, The Mighty Eighth, A Blood-Dimmed Tide, The Right to Fight, The Greatest War, and The Bloody Forest, among other titles. He lives near New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ed “Whitey” Feightner, who in 1940 was a student at Findlay College in Ohio and already held a civilian pilot’s license, remembered, “The war was coming along, and it was pretty obvious that I was going to be drafted if I didn’t do something. I immediately signed up in the Army Air Corps because I wanted to fly. But there were so many people that I was going to have to wait about eight months. One day, an SNJ [Navy air trainer] landed at the airport. This guy gets out of it, goes into the hangar. And he comes out and he’s dressed in a Navy white uniform. A car comes, a convertible, and picks him up. This redhead is driving the car, and Mike Murphy [an instructor, barnstormer, oil company pilot, and reserve army officer] looks at this and says, ‘Good God! How about you and Red [a friend of Feightner] take a plane up to Grosse Ile and find out what this Navy program is all about.’
“We flew up there and the Navy treated us royally. They took us in and they showed us what the program was. They showed us Hell’s Angels [a spectacular movie featuring Navy pilots from the 1930s] and a little strip of this thing [Hell Divers] with Clark Gable and John Wayne.” The pitch sold Feightner, who immediately enlisted.
David C. Richardson, as a youth in Mississippi during the early 1930s, was already oriented toward the Navy by his father’s assurance that a naval officer had an easy life. “When I was about thirteen, William ‘Stick’ Sutherland, a naval aviator, came to an Easter party at our home. He was dressed in whites. He was a very good looking man. I took one look at him and said, ‘That’s for me.’ ”
Like so many young men of the 1930s and early ’40s, Feightner and Richardson were entranced by the excitement and the romance of flight. The memory of Charles Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, “Plucky, Lucky Lindy,” who in 1927 flew solo from New York to Paris, remained vibrant. Barnstormers, with white scarves, leather helmets, goggles (the precursor of the sunglass look), wing walkers, air shows, and air races exuded glamour and excitement. For five dollars, kids, like Feightner, bought rides in rickety relics from World War I at small airports or from cow pastures.
While films such as All Quiet on the Western Front depicted the trench warfare of World War I in all its deadly misery, Hollywood glamorized aerial combat in the 1927 classic Wings, followed by productions of The Dawn Patrol and, as Feightner noted, burnished the image of the naval aviator in Hell’s Angels. Magazines that spun tales of World War I dogfights circulated briskly, and boys built replicas of the earliest and latest airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper, powering them with twisted rubber bands or tiny, balky gasoline engines.
While the Army Air Corps attracted its share of recruits for a plunge into the wild blue yonder, the Navy, with its sparkling, brass-buttoned uniforms, aircraft carriers that promised seagoing adventures with voyages to exotic ports of call, and above all those golden wings, beckoned most seductively.
The Navy became interested in donning wings well before 1903, when at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers’ contraption lifted off the ground and wobbled through the air a few hundred feet. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, in 1898, had recommended to his superior that a pair of officers meet with inventor Samuel P. Langley to discuss his plans for a flying machine with an eye to its possibilities as a weapon of war. In April of that year, the officers so charged reported that there was definite potential in Langley’s ideas and suggested further investigation.
Ten years later, when the Wrights demonstrated their machine for the U.S. Army, observers from the Navy were on hand. That led to a recommendation that the Navy buy planes to be developed for the service’s particular needs. Glenn Curtiss, an early manufacturer, built several flying machines, and in 1910, stunt pilot Eugene B. Ely, an employee of Curtiss, proposed to take off from a ship. He heard many a discouraging word. Curtiss himself thought it a bad idea. Wilbur Wright decried the attempt as too dangerous. The secretary of the Navy refused to pay for such an experiment. It was noted that Ely could not even swim.
In spite of the naysayers, Captain Washington I. Chambers, the Navy’s first director of aviation, supported Ely. Private contributions paid for a sloping eighty-three-foot-long platform built on the scout cruiser Birmingham, anchored at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The engine for the pusher-type Curtiss Hudson Flyer arrived aboard the Birmingham only the morning of the appointed day. Ely and mechanics, however, managed to install the motor and ready the plane, which had been salvaged from the wrecks of two other Curtiss aircraft. “A strong wind was driving the rain in sheets,” reported the New York Times correspondent. “His biplane rushed along the runway and the test began. He failed to elevate his plane properly as the biplane left the runway and the rudder and propellers struck the water some yards from the ship. There was a heavy splash and Ely was drenched.”
Nevertheless, the pilot recovered and the Hudson Flyer lifted into the air. Originally, he had planned to travel fifty miles to the Norfolk Navy Yard, but the squall interfered. He initially lost his bearings and appeared headed out to sea before he changed course to land on the beach.
The triumphant Ely, despite a bent propeller blade caused by the near crash on takeoff, had demonstrated feasibility of airplanes in the service of the Navy. Captain Chambers remarked that the feat would have been easier had the Birmingham been moving. The authorities allowed that a plane might be used for “scouting purposes.” While some of the brass scorned the “stunt,” which required dismantling of some of the cruiser’s guns, the Navy hedged its bets. A month later, Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson became the first naval officer assigned to undergo flight training at the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Camp.
Meanwhile, Ely, with the backing of Chambers, pushed the envelope further. He volunteered to land aboard a ship, the cruiser Pennsylvania, moored in San Francisco Bay. On January 18, 1911, Ely took off from an Army airfield thirteen miles off and headed for the cruiser. About fifty feet from the vessel, he cut his throttle and glided toward the specially constructed platform on the stern. The 1,000-pound plane touched down. As it rolled forward, hooks mounted on the undercarriage grabbed at a series of twenty-two ropes anchored by 500-pound sandbags. The final dozen lines snagged the hooks and Ely stopped, using only 60 feet of the 120-foot ramp. He did not require the use of a large canvas barrier erected at the end to prevent a slide into the sea, nor did he need the pontoons attached to the aircraft to stay afloat.
The Pennsylvania skipper became an instant convert, burbling about “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.” Following lunch, Ely took off from the ship and returned to the airfield. The San Francisco Examiner immediately grasped the significance of the round-trip. Its headline read, “Eugene Ely Revises World’s Naval Tactics.” And in England, a British aviator, Lieutenant Charles R. Samson, added to the possibilities when he launched himself from a moving ship, showing that planes could be carried to battle sites. Samson also innovated the first folding-wing aircraft, opening the way for convenient storage where space was always at a premium.
By 1912, a primitive catapult made it possible to launch a plane from a ship without a takeoff platform and in 1914 the Navy had created its own flying school at Pensacola. Navy flyers performed reconnaissance for Marine operations in Mexico near Vera Cruz during that country’s revolution. World War I introduced the airplane as a serious weapon. While the land-based airmen specialized in reconnaissance and raids on ground forces, the naval service, relying on seaplanes, concentrated on antisubmarine campaigns, striking at U-boats and their bases. Occasionally, German pilots confronted the small American contingent. In the U.S. Navy’s first air-to-air victory, Ensign Stephen Potter and his gunner shot down an enemy seaplane off the German coast in April 1918, but six weeks later his lone ship was jumped by seven foes over the North Sea and Pot- ter was lost. Subsequently, Lieutenant David Ingalls, in a Sopwith Camel, a British-manufactured plane, became the Navy’s first ace. In 1917, the British introduced HMS Furious, the first aircraft carrier, whose planes carried out a successful raid on a Zeppelin base in northern Germany. Unfortunately, the Furious lacked the means to recover its aircraft on board. It was a one-shot weapon, which reduced its contribution considerably.
A year after World War I ended, the Navy drew plans to convert a collier into its first aircraft carrier, named in honor of the prophet of the 1890s, USS Langley. At the same time, the Army’s most fervent advocate of airpower, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, had already begun his campaign to base American military strategy upon the airplane. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt even invited Mitchell to meet with the Navy General Board to discuss future policy. Initially, the officers responded favorably, but those in the upper echelons dampened the enthusiasm. There was a growing suspicion that Mitchell intended to build an air force independent of both the Army and the Navy.
In 1921, Billy Mitchell sought to demonstrate the airplane’s supremacy by bombing some captured German warships. The honors for the first attack went to the Navy, whose two waves of planes blew a German submarine to bits. The success raised some eyebrows, but old-line military salts noted tha...
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Book Description Presidio Press, 2004. Hardcover. Condition: New. Brand New!. Seller Inventory # VIB0891418539
Book Description Presidio Press, 2004. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0891418539
Book Description Presidio Press. Hardcover. Condition: New. 0891418539 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.0491607
Book Description Presidio Press, 2004. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0891418539