From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Just like a pair of pants, pilots strap on their planes the same, whether officer or enlisted. But for the most part, it wasn’t likely those with gold buttons on their uniforms might also be found digging latrines or working as messcooks.
Times have changed since enlisted Sailors could wear pilot insignia designating them Naval Aviator Pilot (NAP). The last one to do so was Air Controlman Master Chief (NAP) Robert K. “NAP” Jones when he retired 34 years ago today on Jan. 31, 1981.
The enlisted rating as a naval aviator has never been a smooth nor straight path, but that didn’t deter those in the ranks wishing to pin on their aviator wings. The advent of Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP), the enlisted designation, got its start 99 years ago Jan. 1, 1917 when a class of seven Navy petty officers and two Marine sergeants went through flight instruction. They were already either stationed at the Naval Aviation training center in Pensacola, Fla., or on the armored cruiser North Carolina (CA 12), where just over 13 months earlier an AB-2 Curtiss flying boat had been catapulted off her stern.
Following graduation as pilots, most were promoted to warrant officer and then offered commissioned officer status. A few, however, qualified as pilots, but were not designated as such, remaining among the enlisted.
After World War I, there was an effort by the Bureau of Navigation to encourage the enlisted Sailors younger than age 30 to become pilots of heavier-than-air planes and dirigibles. The first class had 40 enlisted students and its graduates were the first to use the naval aviator pilot designation, or NAP, on Jan. 22, 1920.
CQM (A) (NAP) Harold H. “Kiddy” Karr held certificate No. 1, but two of his classmates would receive Medals of Honor and a third the Legion of Merit.
- Chief Machinist Mate Francis Edward Ormsbee received his Medal of Honor after repeatedly attempting to save the lives of a plane’s crew that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico near the training center at Pensacola. He saved the gunner, but was unable to pull the pilot to safety in time.
Chief Aviation Pilot (NAP) Floyd Bennett was the co-pilot who flew with Arctic explorer Adm. Richard Byrd over the North Pole May 9, 1926. Both Bennett and Byrd received Medals of Honor for their feat and a ticker tape parade in New York City. Bennett was to pilot Byrd on his trek to the South Pole, but he died from pneumonia in 1928 after flying while ill with a fever to rescue a group of fliers downed at Greenlay Island in Quebec.
- Chief Boatswain’s Mate P.J. “Pappy” Byrne received the Legion of Merit in 1955 after amassing more than 22,600 hours in the air with more than 140 types of planes. He retired three years later to conclude a 40-year career.
“It is ironic that some men who had their wings pinned on uniforms while in the enlisted ranks ended their careers flying some of the navy’s highest ranking officers,” said Hill Goodspeed, the historian at the National Museum of the Naval Aviator in Pensacola, Fla. “One such was Lt. Cmdr. Harold W. Brown, who received his wings as a petty officer and retired after serving the final years of his career as the pilot for the Chief of Naval Operations, Admirals Arleigh Burke, David McDonald, and Tom Moorer.”
By 1921, NAP designations specified seaplane, ship-plane and airship. By the mid-1920s, both the Chief Aviation Pilot (CAP) and Aviation Pilot First Class (AP1c) rates were established.
The boot camp to pilot program for enlisted aviators was approved in January 1929 and Congress even legislated there be a 30 percent ratio between enlisted and officer pilots. But the rarity of enlisted pilots remained a conundrum for those trying to fill operational billets on ships.
Such was the case of Seaman 2nd Class (NAP) George Webber. Between 1930-32, Webber was assigned to VS-3 aboard USS Lexington (CV 2) while Capt. Ernest J. King, the future admiral and chief of naval operations, was commanding officer. Lack of berthing placed the second class seaman on deck in a cot, and when his squadron needed to supply messcooks to help the galley, well, the second class seaman drew the short-straw again. And to make matters worse, Webber’s shipmates were a bit skeptical about the audacity of their fellow messcook wearing aviator wings on his uniform.
Webber solved the problem with his messmates by inviting them to watch one of his flights, but when Capt. King, not well known for his sense of humor, got wind one of his carrier pilots was working in the galley, well, that ended Webber’s collateral duty as a messcook pretty quick. Webber eventually accepted the commission offered to him as a pilot and retired as a commander in 1959.
Despite the chance to become a commissioned officer, the enlisted pilot program faltered. With lack of numbers, Congress dropped the ratio to 20 percent enlisted to the officer pilot numbers in 1932.
That all changed during the build up to World War II. The percentage of enlisted earning their aviator wings increased and as many as 95 percent accepted commissions as officers. Some were temporary until the end of their military career, while others made it permanent after earning the required college education credits.
Up in the air, however, experience counted more than education. It wasn’t unusual to have a “whitehat” leading a squadron or be a plane commander while flying a mission. Until they landed. Then command went back to those wearing gold buttons.
“One squadron established during 1927 and in service through the Battle of the Coral Sea was Fighting Squadron (VF) 2B, known as the “Fighting Chiefs,” the majority of the pilots in the squadron being highly-experienced enlisted pilots,” said Hill Goodspeed, the historian for the National Museum of the Naval Aviator in Pensacola, Fla. “It was regularly regarded as one of the top fighter squadrons in the fleet during its existence.”
Goodspeed said the enlisted ranks tallied 11 fighter aces (those who achieve five or more kills in air-to-air combat) during World War II. Besides Bennett and Ormsbee, Marine 1st Lt. Ken Walsh received a Medal of Honor for heroism performed during the Battle of the Solomons in 1943, where at one point, while separated from his squadron, attacked 50 Japanese Zeroes and downed four before he was forced to “deadstick” land his crippled plane on Vella Lavella where he was later picked up.
There was also still that issue with collateral duty being assigned to those with NAP designations. During World War II, the Guadalcanal Marine Air Group 14 found two of their combat pilots were missing, only to discover Sgts. Ollie Michael and Rohe C. Jones were digging latrines on New Caledonia. In no time they were back flying Douglas SBDs during the Solomons campaign. Michael was credited with sinking three Japanese ships between Nov.-Dec. 1942. Sadly, Jones was killed during his third combat tour.
Following World War II, the Enlisted Flight Training School was cut and by 1948 Congress terminated a requirement for enlisted pilots.
During the reduction in forces, temporary commissions ended and enlisted pilots resumed their NAP status, dwindling down in numbers either by advancement into officer ranks or retirement.
In 1955, the Navy held the most enlisted pilots at around 300, followed by 255 for the Marines. Of the 216 enlisted Coast Guard pilots, all but 37 were trained during World War II.
A Sept. 1967 article in Naval Aviation News about the remaining 34 enlisted pilots mentions the struggle for enlisted pilots may have been the difficulty of achieving their educational requirements while juggling their enlisted duties. Career officers also could advance to top-level positions, but for enlisted pilots, those command opportunities were limited.
The last four Marine enlisted pilots simultaneously retired Feb. 1, 1973: Master Gunnery Sergeants Joseph A. Conroy, Leslie T. Ericson, Robert M. Lurie and Patrick J. O’Neil. In 1979, the last Coastie enlisted pilot retired, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Master Chief (AP) John P. Greathouse. And two years later, Jan. 31, 1981, the last Navy enlisted pilot, ACCM Jones, turned out the lights on the NAP insignia.
Information for this blog was provided by the Naval Aviation News, a product of the Naval History and Heritage Command, the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., and bluejacket.com.