By Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)
Author’s Note: Seeing as the Navy and the Marine Corps have always been linked, it should come as no surprise that the two services’ reserve air corps were founded at the same time. However, this commemorative two-part article focuses on the Naval Air Reserve1 established in 1916, later renamed the Naval Air Force Reserve.
Most countries have a well-organized cadre of part-time Soldiers and Sailors that can be called to active duty and integrated with the active force when the time and situation demands. World War II and the Korean War are strong examples of such an arrangement when several nations, including the United States, eventually had some 80 percent reservists making up its final military complement. Without such formidable backup, final victory would not have been possible.
Each military branch usually has its own dedicated reserves. However, it wasn’t until Aug. 29, 1916, that the American Naval Air Reserve (NAR) was officially formed when the Naval Appropriations Acts for fiscal year 1917 provided funds to establish a Naval Flying Corps (NFC) and a Naval Reserve Flying Corps (NRFC) and purchase 12 planes for the naval militia. Members of the new reserve groups often came from various collegiate flying clubs, the most prominent being from Yale, which eventually contributed four such groups, with the First Yale Unit being the most well-known. The unit went to Europe and saw a good deal of combat by the end of World War I in November 1918.
When the NFC and NRFC were formed, the Navy had only six aircraft, two of which were assigned to armored cruiser USS North Carolina (ACR 12), with the other four assigned to the Naval Aeronautic Station at Pensacola, Florida. The appropriations act of 1916 limited the number who could serve to 48 officers and 96 enlisted men, and not more than 12 Marine officers and 24 enlisted men could be included. Thus, by the time the U.S. declared war on the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey—on April 6, 1917, the total manpower assigned to Naval Aviation was 48 officers, including six Marines and 239 enlisted men.
Many of them saw extensive combat, initially with squadrons of the British Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), and then the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF), which appeared after combining the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and RNAS on April 1, 1918. Other regular naval officers had also been occasionally flying bombing missions with the RNAS as crewmen aboard gigantic—for the time—Handley Page O/100 twin-engine bombers. (The “O/100” referred to the wing span [in feet] of these huge aircraft. The “O” was an alphabetical labeling of Handley Page designs, several of which were never constructed.) The British squadrons’ original purpose was to strike German submarine pens in Belgium, but later became a night strike force.
Members of the Yale Units saw action with RAF fighter squadrons, flying Sopwith Camels, one of the war’s most capable, if hard to fly, fighters, and bomber squadrons in De Havilland DH-4s and DH-9s, again highly capable aircraft that saw a lot of action in the last year of the war. It is while flying with No. 213 Squadron that then-Lt. j.g. David S. Ingalls became the Navy’s first ace, credited with six kills.2 Other NRFC members went on to other assignments. Ens. Charles H. Hammann received the first Medal of Honor awarded to a U.S. naval aviator for action in Italy flying a diminutive Macchi flying boat fighter on Aug. 21, 1918.3 On March 19, 1918, reserve Ens. Stephan Potter, a member of the Second Yale Unit became the first naval aviator credited with downing an enemy aircraft. While in command of a flying boat and part of a formation making a long-range reconnaissance mission over the Heligoland Bight off the German coast, his group was attacked by German seaplanes. Potter shot one down for which he received the Navy Cross.
After the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, a typical withdrawal and transitional period began. It was time for each country to assess its participation in the conflict, and, perhaps, bring itself to some sort of normalcy. The U.S. Navy and its fellow military services had a lot to consider. So many new weapons had been introduced, including the airplane as well as a somewhat unexpected invention, the aircraft carrier.
The decades following the war were lean years. Certainly, the 1920s was a period of less funding for military development. Mass demobilization was what the public wanted as well as making the American dream grow, which did not include anything to do with the military. Anyone not career-minded quickly left the service, and only a relative few maintained their military association by remaining in the reserves. By 1920, just a comparatively small group of Reserve officers remained on active duty.
The NRFC was relatively inactive with funding for a 15-day period of active duty at Rockaway Beach in New York, and that funding was soon withdrawn. For fiscal year 1922, Congress only appropriated $7 million for Reserve funding, less than half of the Navy’s request for the Naval Reserves. Other variations included offering the chance to enlisted reservists to go to the active duty force without losing their reserve status. Aviation reservists also received attention for a brief time when qualified naval aviators were offered the chance for training periods between July 1 and Sept. 30, 1920. But it was not enough and the NAR began to decline in strength until by 1922, the aviation reserve force was nonexistent. However, in July 1927, 50 Naval Reserve officer aviators began one year of training duty with the fleet following their graduation from Pensacola.
The Naval Reserve Act of 1925 provided more money to support drills and 15 days of active duty for training 188 officers and 8,000 enlisted men in the Fleet Naval Reserve (Aviation) ranks. Besides the NAR in New York, two other metropolitan areas were busy—Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and Squantum, just outside Boston. The latter was established in 1917 as a seaplane base in the outer reaches of Boston Harbor, while Anacostia opened on New Year’s Day in 1919. Both reserve bases had long careers, but Squantum eventually outgrew its usefulness and closed in December 1953, its reserve activities moved to South Weymouth, south of Boston. Anacostia came into conflict with the civilian airport across the Potomac River known as National Airport and was closed on Sept. 30, 1961.
Naval Air Reserve activities in the Western United States also developed quickly with the focus in Southern California and, to a lesser extent, Washington state.
The years between the world wars saw many different policy reviews and adjustments regarding the reserves. Sometimes, there were programs that allowed men to apply for and receive training as aviators and eventually earn their commissions as reserve ensigns. Under the Naval Reserve regulations, the intention was that drills for Aviation Fleet Divisions would be devoted to carrying on flight operations as units, a premise that has largely carried on to the present day. Retainer pay drills were devoted almost entirely to carrying out the terms of the annual syllabus for flight training of Fleet Naval Reserve aviators, again, a procedure that continues today.
By 1934, the Naval Reserve was made up of three classes: the Fleet Naval Reserve, the Merchant Marine Naval Reserve and the Volunteer Naval Reserve. The first class consisted of officers and men qualified or in training for combat duty and, along with the third, included aviation personnel. The aviation group was organized into squadrons made up of set numbers of officers and men who, by law, were required to perform 15 days of active or training duty, with pay and allowances, each year, as well as a stipulated number of drills during the year.
Thirteen bases around the country hosted training planes and associated equipment maintained by reservists on year-round active duty. On Jan. 1, 1934, Naval Reserve Air Bases (NRAB) hosting primary flight training were redesignated Naval Air Stations (NAS). Aviation officers in the Fleet Reserve were A-F (aviation flight officers) and, as of Sept. 30, 1934, there were 257 with this designation. Enlisted men in the Fleet Reserve did not have a specific designation denoting aviation duty.
The Volunteer Naval Reserve was composed of officers and men available for detail in the event of war, if required. Their drills and training duty periods were voluntary and without compensation.
The Reserve groups experienced ups and downs throughout the 1930s. In 1934, a study by the Federal Aviation Commission called for strengthening the aviation reserves, both Navy and Army, and increased funding. The report considered the consequences of not having a properly prepared Reserve backup in the event of a “war against a major power.” At the time, the Naval Reserve’s complement numbered 481 officer pilots, 251 of whom could be considered ready for immediate active duty.
The commission proposed an aviation cadet program to build up the Navy and Marine Corps reserves. This program provided for the selection of young men to be appointed by the Secretary of the Navy to the grade of aviation cadet in the reserves. Gradual acceptance of the program spread, although there were occasional slowdowns in the training rates of aviators in the Volunteer Naval Reserve because flight hours were at a premium. The last half of the 1930s saw an increase of Fleet Reserve officers on permanent active duty, and the Naval Reserve Act of 1938, which covered the overall Reserve, included a few provisions that applied directly to the Naval Air Reserve.
On June 13, 1939, a revised Aviation Cadet Act provided for the immediate commissioning of all cadets on active duty as ensigns and second lieutenants and for the future commissioning of others when they finished their flight training.
A new category, the Organized Reserve, with those previously classified A-F, were now designated A-O with the goal of reaching maximum numerical strength within 10 years. This estimate, however, was considered completely inadequate—with war seemingly on the horizon, yearly periods of training duty had to be increased.
By 1935, the number of Reserve officers had grown to around 630. Aviation officer numbers were also increasing. The requirements of the 1938 annual estimate wanted 500 new aviators every year. A tall order, but the process geared up and by the time the U.S. entered World War II after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, training Reserve aviation officers was well underway, as was every aspect of the huge American military team. They would be desperately needed in a very short time.
World War II
A Reservist’s War
America needed thousands of new aviators to fight another world war. Industries could build the necessary number of aircraft, but the effort to send out the men to fly them was Herculean. Nevertheless, the programs were established and put into motion. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, only 600 trained and ready aviator reservists were available, and only 700 enlisted were ready for mobilization. Meanwhile, the regular Navy would have to hold the line, and it did so in fine fashion. Battles were fought, ships, planes and men were lost, and the Reserve training cycles kicked into high gear.
During the war, some 54,000 aviators and hundreds of thousands of enlisted crewmen went through the pipelines. In a four-year period, the number of trained reservists increased by 300 percent. From 1935 to 1940, only 1,800 aviation cadets had been trained. The number jumped to 7,000 in 1941 and by the end of 1943, as the U.S. campaign of island-hopping toward Japan’s doorstep began in earnest, the number had soared to 20,000 per year.
By the end of 1944, more than 55,000 trained naval aviators, plus a similar number of aviation specialists and general service officers on active duty in aviation-related billets, swelled the ranks of the wartime Navy. At war’s end in August 1945, 83 percent of the Navy’s fleet manpower was made up of reservists. The following statistics show the amount of Reserve participation:
- Of the 4,025 naval officers killed in action, 2,983 were reservists, and 1,341 were aviators.
- Enlisted aircrew killed in action numbered 1,659, with 1,015 of those coming from the Reserves.
- An additional 8,184 officers and enlisted were killed in operational mishaps, with 6,587 of these reservists.4
After the final victory over Japan, the war-weary Allies settled back into trying to rebuild the shattered world. Economics that had been pumping out arms and other materials, as well as supporting massive training programs, now had to restructure themselves for building a peacetime society. This meant reducing standing military forces, while trying to maintain sufficient defenses for national security—wartime allies Russia and China were becoming major threats that could not be ignored.
Prewar plans officers decided the loss of trained Reserves would be wasteful and the Naval Air Reserve Training Command was established at NAS Glenview, Illinois, in November 1945. Launching the program wasn’t easy. Personnel to fill 21 naval air stations and training units had to be recruited from veterans just released from wartime duty. Five thousand officers and 30,000 enlisted men were assigned to the “ready reserve,” those in a drill-pay status. However, many vets were interested, and in the first year Naval Air Reserve aviators flew 412,000 flight hours while 55 air groups were commissioned. By 1948, 71,419 officers and 15,458 enlisted members were in the Naval Reserve, now composed of 200 squadrons that flew a half-million flight hours.
Most of the aircraft were wartime F6F Hellcats and F4U Corsairs, with PBY Catalina flying boats, various transports and other assorted types. NAS Squantum sent Carrier Air Group 56 aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV 42) in 1948 for carrier qualifications while Patrol Squadron (VP) 69 went down to Miami for two weeks training duty. By the end of the decade, the Naval Air Reserve was a viable organization, and just in time.
War in Korea:
Send in the Reserves…Again!
North Korea invaded South Korea on June 28, 1950, crossing the 38th parallel dividing the Korean peninsula. The only U.S. carrier in the area, USS Valley Forge (CV 45), sent AD Skyraiders and F9F Panther jets to attack the North. The action was heavy and U.S. Reserves were quickly mobilized to augment the meager Allied forces already in country. Eighty-four NAR squadrons were eventually activated, and some 30,000 reservists were recalled to active duty. The first NAR squadron to actually begin operations in the Korean theater was Patrol Squadron (VP) 892 from Seattle, flying PBM Mariner flying boats. The squadron flew missions from Iwakuni, Japan, starting Dec. 18, 1950.
On March 29, 1951, Carrier Air Group 101, the first all-reserve air group to deploy to Korea, flew its first combat missions from USS Boxer (CV 21). Reserve squadrons that made up this air group came from: Dallas, Texas; Glenview, Illinois; Memphis, Tennessee; and Olathe, Kansas. On June 12, 1951, two PB4Y-2 Privateers of Patrol Squadron (VP) 772 from Los Alamitos, California, were transferred from NAS Atsugi, Japan, to Pusan, South Korea. The four-engine patrol bombers dropped flares in support of Marine night bombing.
Several Naval Air Reserve squadrons volunteered en masse, the first being Fighter Squadron (VF) 781 from Los Alamitos and Fighter Squadron (VF) 791 from Memphis. Many squadrons were flying obsolete aircraft, but mobilization brought newer, more modern types like the AD Skyraider and F9F Panther. Only those units flying the F4U Corsair needed little or no transition training. Dallas-based Attack Squadron (VA) 702 also flew ADs from Boxer in spring 1951. On Nov. 18, 1952, seven MiG-15s—the top Soviet fighter at the time—were intercepted by three F9F-5 Panthers flown by NAR pilots of VF-781 who were flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) from USS Oriskany (CV 34). The Americans downed two MiGs and damaged a third, while losing one Panther.
By 1952, Naval Air Reservists had flown 6,000 of the 8,000 sorties from U.S. carriers, and including other NAR units in the total—USNR ashore and Marine Corps Air Reserve shore-based squadrons—by the ceasefire in July 1953, the NAR had flown one-third of the combat missions in Korea.
“I sincerely believe that this country never before has had a Reserve so splendidly trained and ready to meet any sudden emergency,” Vice Adm. H. M. Martin, Commander, Naval Air Force Pacific Fleet, wrote Rear Adm. L. A. Moebus, Commander, Naval Air Reserve Training after returning from Korea in April 1952. “I am likewise firmly convinced that never before has our country realized such dividends from a peacetime training program.”
Perhaps the NAR’s experience in Korea was best told by author James Michener’s epic novella, “The Bridges at Toko-ri.”5 After spending time on several Navy carriers in Korea, Michener wrote the story of Harry Brubaker, a recalled Naval Air Reservist and civilian lawyer from Denver. Published in 1953, the book was adapted a year later into a Hollywood film that remains one of the best motion pictures about military aviation.
An important program during the early 1950s was the Training and Administration of Reserves (TAR) program that offered several advantages to reservists, including remaining ashore to take care of the growing NAR facilities and equipment without the prospect of lengthy deployments. Promotion and retirement opportunities were the same as regular Navy active-duty personnel but promised a more stable family life at a time when the Reserves needed people with experience and knowledge of aircraft and Navy administrative requirements. Squadrons often had a TAR officer-in-charge, usually a commander, during the week, along with TAR enlisted in yeoman and various maintenance positions and officers to keep the aircraft in shape for the weekend flying activities or the annual two-week active duty periods.6
TARs became the functioning NAR. Without people there on a daily basis to run the squadron, the drilling reservists who were civilians during the week could not rely on either their aircraft or the administrative support that kept the squadrons up and running throughout the year. In addition, TARs were occasionally sent out on regular deployment and even into combat, especially during the Vietnam War.
Into the 1960s
After the war in Korea ended with an armistice in July 1953, the makeup of the Reserves changed. The NAR made the change to more jets, while the Marine Corps Air Reserve held onto the elderly prop-driven F4U Corsair for a while longer. By April 1955, the first F9F Panthers had joined the Naval Air Reserve.
The categories of “ready reserves” and “standby reserves” were clarified by the Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1952. Ready reserves could be recalled in an emergency, and in addition, categories of “active” and “inactive” determined the status of reservists in certain programs. Concern for the growing Soviet submarine fleet placed anti-submarine warfare (ASW) patrols on the Naval Air Reserve’s plate, and its squadrons of P2V Neptunes and S2F Trackers had a specific mission looking for Russian subs off the U.S. coast. An increased blimp patrol from coastal naval air stations such as South Weymouth south of Boston raised the level of lighter-than-air presence for several years.
A new category, the selected reservist, or SELRES, began Feb. 13, 1958, and were crewmen that carried pocket-sized orders giving them priority on airlines, buses and trains in the event of being recalled in times of a national emergency.
Because reservists made their main livings like other civilians, it became necessary to make periods of training more convenient, and some Reserve activities provided airlifts to drill sites. Besides the actual bases that served as training facilities, various supporting and administrative units were created such as air wing staffs, auxiliary air units and auxiliary ground units.
In addition to the ongoing change to jets, prop types such as the AD Skyraider and the big four-engine transports and patrol aircraft, such as the R5D Skymaster and PB4Y-2 Privateer, respectively, were augmented by the twin-engine Lockheed PV-1 Ventura and P2V Neptune.
Following Korea, the Reserves continued to drill—convene for training usually on weekends—and participate in annual two-week extended periods of active duty. Things were quiet, and very few reservists of any category were recalled for active duty until the fall of 1961 when Communist East Germany unexpectedly built a wall dividing the tortured city of Berlin, challenging the 16-year-old agreement between the Allies and Soviets regarding the city’s freedom. Not since the Berlin Airlift of 1948, which temporarily served as the only supply line to the West Germans living in Berlin, was there such a direct threat to the peace and stability of Europe. To indicate its concern and annoyance with the Russians, the U.S. called up selected units of its air reserves. Eighteen squadrons and 3,600 Naval Air reservists were mobilized. Although they remained in Norfolk, Virginia, Antisubmarine Squadron (VS) 861 served nearly a year on active duty during the Berlin Crisis, from October 1961 to August 1962. Seattle-based Antisubmarine Squadron (VS) 891 also was mobilized. VS-832 from New York was called up in its entirety to augment VS-837. The recall was the largest since Korea and it impressed the world overall, including the Soviets, but the infamous Berlin Wall remained standing for 28 years.
Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.) was commissioned through Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1968, and remained a reservist, serving in various intelligence billets as well as two tours with Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306 until retiring in 1992. He was the first civilian editor of Approach magazine, has been a volunteer associate with Naval Aviation News since 1971, and has written NAN’s book review column since 1982 including some 700 book reviews to NAN and other publications, including 16 books on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation.
Look for Part II in our next issue.
I am thanking the following people in order of seniority for taking time from their busy schedules to provide advice, information and, most importantly, support. Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, USN (Ret.), former Chief, Naval Reserve (CNR); Vice Adm. John G. Cotton, USN (Ret.), former CNR; Vice Adm. Robin Braun, CNR; Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, USN, (Ret), Director, Naval History & Heritage Command; Rear Adm. John Sadler, Deputy Director Maritime Operations, U.S. Fleet Forces Command; Rear Adm. William M. Crane, Chief Navy Air Force Reserve (CNAFR); Capt. Rosario Rausa, USNR, Training and Administration of Reserves (TAR) (Ret.); Capt. Scott Eargle, Commodore, Fleet Logistics Support Wing; Capt. Marc Orgain, Commodore Maritime Support Wing; Capt. John P. Mooney, Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), Reserve Component Commander; Capt. Mark D. Brazelton, Deputy Commodore Tactical Support Wing (TSW); Capt. R.T. Rascoll and Lt. Dani Still, Navy Air Logistics Office; Cmdr. Rob Teague, Public Affairs Officer, TSW; Lt. Cmdr. William F. Murphy, Deputy Executive Assistant to CNR; Lt. Cmdr. Rick Morgan, USN (Ret.); Lt. Wesley A. Holzapfel, Public Affairs Officer, CNAFR; Lt. Adamantios Kouloumoundras, Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 209; Aviation Warfare Systems Operator 1st Class Marc Frattasio, USNR (Ret.); Nicholas J. Thrasher, Editor in Chief, Naval Aviation Museum Foundation; Tony Holmes, Ted Carlson and Warren Thompson.
The distinction between the regular Navy and the reserve Navy was clear cut until 2005, when Vice Adm. John G. Cotton, Chief of Navy Reserve, 2003-2008, pushed for a change in terminology that dispensed with “Naval” and began using “Navy.” However, references to pre-2005 individuals and activities may still use the traditional “Naval Reserve.” For instance, if a person’s period of activity and affiliation was before 2005, one uses USNR as a member of the Naval Reserve. If the date is after 2005, then one should use “USN” and “Navy Reserve.” Since the author retired in 1993, he uses the traditional terms and references, including the acronym NAR for Naval Air Reserve, unless referring to organizations and individuals after 2005.
A feature movie entitled “The Millionaires’ Unit,” was recently produced by Darroch Greer, telling the story of the Yale Units. For more info, visit www.millionairesunit.org.
For more details on the NRFC, Yale Units and Northern Bombing Group read: “The Millionaires’ Unit,” by Marc Wortman; “Hero of the Angry Sky,” a wartime biography of David S. Ingalls through his diary and letters in World War I, edited by Geoffrey L. Rossano; and “Striking the Hornet’s Nest,” by Geoffrey L. Rossano and Thomas Wildenberg.
Cmdr. David F. Winkler, USNR (Ret.) “Ready Then. Ready Now. Ready Always. More Than a Century of Service By Citizen-Sailors, the United States Navy Reserve.”
The book and movie are highly recommended for those interested in Naval Aviation, the Korean War or just fine movie-making.
At the time of the change of the USNR designation, TAR was changed to Full-Time Support (FTS) to indicate a higher level of operational support for the fleet.