by Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
“It’s always about the money” goes the old saying and that was certainly true 75 years ago when Chief of Naval Operations Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered the establishment of an exhibition flight team, the birth of today’s famed Blue Angels. Having led the Navy to victory in the Pacific during World War II, Nimitz ascended to the sea service’s top post on December 15, 1945. The great fleet he commanded had rapidly disappeared as the nation demobilized its military forces following the end of World War II.
Though newspaper headlines had just months before trumpeted peace, the postwar world presented new dangers with the dawning of the atomic age and the deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union. With a shrinking defense budget the military services engaged in a battle of their own. The Army Air Forces (soon to become the U.S. Air Force in 1947) contended that atomic weapons had minimized the need for a large Army and Navy in favor of long-range bombers. This proved a direct threat to Naval Aviation and one way to counter this was to keep the Navy’s capabilities in the forefront of the public’s consciousness. To this end, on April 24, 1946, Nimitz ordered the establishment of a flight exhibition team with the missions of boosting Navy morale, demonstrating the capabilities of naval airpower and maintaining the public’s interest in Naval Aviation.
To fill its ranks, the Navy turned to the Instructors Advanced Training Unit (IATU), which included many very experienced aviators. Additionally, the unit was already supporting the F6F Hellcat, the aircraft chosen to equip the exhibition team, so there would be no criticism that the Navy was wasting money on a stunt team in austere budget times. The selection of Lt. Cmdr. Roy M. “Butch” Voris to lead it was no surprise. Before Nimitz issued his order, the IATU officer-in-charge had asked Voris his thoughts on forming such a team, the type of aircraft that it should fly and potential maneuvers. The leader knew the stakes of his new position. “My frame of mind was that they didn’t offer this to me to come in second to the army [air forces],” Voris recalled. “I felt that if we weren’t the best, it would be my naval career.”
The team Voris formed around him represented links to his wartime service in some of the storied squadrons of Naval Aviation. Kansas-born Lieutenant Maurice “Wick” Wickendoll served with him in the VF-10 Grim Reapers flying from the legendary USS Enterprise (CV 6). Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Barnard shared the skies with Voris while they flew from USS Hornet (CV 12) as members of the VF-2 Red Rippers. Both were fighter aces, with Voris downing 7 and Barnard having shot down 8 enemy airplanes, including 5 on one flight over Iwo Jima.
Lieutenant Mel Cassidy had not been a wartime squadronmate of the new exhibition team leader, but shared a stellar combat record. Flying from USS Langley (CVL 27) in 1945, he logged combat missions over Okinawa and the Japanese Home Islands, and participated in the attack against the Japanese super-battleship IJNS Yamato.
With his initial team members in place, Voris set about formulating a flight demonstration that would appeal to the public. The first step was the configuration of the team’s F6F Hellcats, including removing armament and some armor and adding weight in the tail as a counterbalance. For a paint scheme, Voris chose overall blue with “U.S. Navy” painted in gold on each side of the fuselage and on the bottom of the wings, the latter visible to air show crowds as the airplanes flew overhead. Pilot positions were noted with a gold number on the vertical stabilizer.
Voris, who recalled the team practicing over remote swampland near Jacksonville because “if anything happened, just the alligators would know,” designed the show to stay in front of the crowd. The team built its maneuvers around tight three-plane formations executing “blind rolls” during which pilots would briefly lose sight of other aircraft. The aircraft sometimes flew at just 50 feet off the ground with a maximum altitude of 2,800 feet.
After demonstrating their proposed show for training command leadership, Voris received word that the first performance would be Saturday, June 15, 1946, as part of the first ever Southeastern Air Show and Exposition at Craig Field in Jacksonville. News reports announcing the upcoming show highlighted simulated air attacks by Navy dive bombers and a flight by an Army Air Forces P-80 Shooting Star, one of the U.S. military’s early jet aircraft. Other events included air races and performances by “nationally-known stunt flyers.” There was no mention of Voris and his new team aside from a notice in the NAS Jacksonville station newspaper, which featured drawings of the faces of team members surrounding a diving airplane.
Prior to this first public performance, some personnel changes occurred. Barnard received unexpected orders transferring him to new duties at NAS Corpus Christi and two new pilots joined the team. One was Oregonian Lieutenant (junior grade) Al Taddeo, a veteran of combat missions over Attu in the Aleutian Islands and in Voris’ old squadron, the Grim Reapers. The other was Lieutenant (junior grade) Gale Stouse, a native of Indiana, who was slated to perform a new wrinkle Voris envisioned for the show, but one that would not be ready for the team’s first performance.
Weather almost torpedoed the first public performance of the new exhibition team from the start, as late afternoon Florida cloud cover moved in on June 15th, threatening to limit the performance to low-level maneuvers. However, the skies cleared just in time as Voris, Wickendoll and Cassidy roared over Craig Field and climbed skyward performing a graceful loop. That’s not to say they didn’t go low, with Voris recalling that they could see the “expansion joints on the concrete” during some maneuvers. While there are no surviving images of the Hellcats in the air, there are some of the aircraft taxiing in front of the crowd, the reaction of those assembled mirrored by millions who have watched since 1946. Performing again the following day, the team was invited to the stands after climbing out of their airplanes for presentation of a trophy, the first of many awards received and one that still occupies a place of prominence in the Blue Angels hangar on board NAS Pensacola.
Following the team’s performance, the Navy published a press release that announced “FLIGHT EXHIBITION TEAM IS READY FOR FUTURE ENGAGEMENTS…Routine was received and most enthusiastically by the public. The Team is an outstanding contribution for public information on Naval Aviation.” Voris’ team was on its way and soon they would adopt the colorful name by which they are known today.