All the Factors of Victory. Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Airpower. By Thomas Wildenberg. Paperback. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018.
Reviewed by David Hobbs
Thomas Wildenberg is an independent historian who has specialised in the development of naval aviation in the US Navy, especially in the period between 1924 and 1945. He has written five books on the subject and this paperback is a reprint of a book first published in 2003.
Reeves is widely recognised as the man who, more than any other, made the operation of large numbers of aircraft from carrier decks a viable operational proposition in the 1920s.
He commanded the first USN carrier, the converted collier Langley, but before doing so he had to qualify as aircrew under the laws that govern the USN . He was awarded his aviation observer’s wings at the age of 53 having successfully passed the course at NAS Pensacola in 1925 and went on to command the carrier, the carrier squadron when it grew to include Lexingtonand Saratoga and eventually became the Commander-in-Chief US Fleet. He was the first aviator to reach flag rank. Of interest his first command had been the collier Jupiter which was later converted into a prototype carrier and renamed Langleyand he thus had an intimate background knowledge of her systems that allowed him to concentrate on flight deck operations. He drove his men hard but fairly, famously asking his pilots 1001 questions about how to improve methods, technique and tactics. Under his tutelage the small, slow Langleyoperated an air group that grew from 8 to over 40 aircraft in just five years. Whilst he did not actually invent transverse arrester wires, crash barriers and landings controlled by ‘batsmen’, he can be credited with proving their efficiency and integrating them into the carrier operating methods that both the USN and RN used to such good effect in World War Two. His idea of using different coloured shirts so that the trades of men working on deck could easily and quickly be identified can still be seen today on every flight deck in every navy in the world and they all still use the same colours that he devised in 1926.
It would be wrong to think of Reeves just as a dynamic latecomer to the world of aviation, however, and Wildenberg describes his whole career in detail. He started as an engineering officer, transferred to line duties and specialised in gunnery, making a number of recommendations about improved magazine handling arrangements, ammunition supply, sighting and fire control that materially improved the fleet’s accuracy and capability in long-range fire. After specialising in aviation he was not always popular with the early pilot specialists but was recognised as a man of vision who got results from the new technology. Once promoted to flag rank he commanded the task force built around the aircraft carrier Saratogathat carried out the famous simulated attack on the Panama Canal locks during Fleet Problem IX in January 1929. This was the exercise that demonstrated the potential strategic importance of carriers and which started the process that led to the outstanding achievements of the Fast Carrier Task Force in the Pacific during 1945. Once he became the US Fleet C-in-C his ideas broadened again and he was an early advocate of changing fleet command structure from a single entity into type commands from which ships and air squadrons at the peak of efficiency could be extracted to form task forces for specific missions. This was to be the way in which the USN fought the Second World War and which has subsequently been adopted by every major navy. Even after retirement Reeves continued to serve the USN and he was appointed to the Presidential Commission that examined the causes of the debacle at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. He subsequently served as the Admiral in charge of naval Lend/Lease arrangements on the Munitions Assignment Board alongside an RN Admiral. He died in 1948.
This is an excellent book that not only tells the story of a remarkable man but covers a wide range of naval issues and disciplines although, it has to be said, aviation stands out as the first among them. Reeves was a dynamic officer who deserved his rise to the top of his profession and established carrier operating techniques that have endured the tests of conflict time. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and recommend it to ANI members with a wide range of naval and historical interests.