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Joseph M. Reeves Creates a Navy Tradition

During the period between the world wars, Joseph M. Reeves (1872-1948), nicknamed “Billy Goat” because of his beard, was one of the most able senior officers in the history of the U.S. Navy. Both a traditionalist and an innovator, while playing at Annapolis he invented the football helmet and later became the “Father of Carrier Aviation”.

While Reeves was commanding the battleship North Dakota (BB-29) in 1922-1923, one of the ship’s float planes went into the water.  A nearby destroyer promptly dispatched a motor whale boat. While rescuing the plane's crew, one of the destroyermen briefly becoming entangled in the wreckage and was almost pulled under as it sank.

Reeves deeply appreciated this effort, and wanted to show both his gratitude for the rescue and encourage similar efforts if other planes went into the drink.  So he initiated the paperwork for awards.  But he wanted to do something more, something immediate.  Now, as captain of a battleship, Reeves had a pretty good cook, a man who was a top notch baker.  So, the next day that destroyer received enough fresh-baked apple pies for everyone in the crew to have a taste.  Knowing it came from the captain's mess only made it sweeter.  This was much appreciated, and word got out to the fleet that if one of Reeves’ flyers went in, he would be generous in his thanks.

In 1925, Reeves, having qualified as an aviation observer, became Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, aboard the Langley (CV-1). This began what was to be his most important work for the fleet: developing carrier aviation.  Now Langley was not the best ship for working aircraft, and planes often went into the sea.  Destroyers were assigned to plane guard duty, which was -- and is -- difficult and dangerous.  While planes were landing, a destroyer serving as plane guard was pretty safe, as she was in an offset position about a thousand yards behind the carrier.  So if a plane went into the sea on its landing approach, the destroyer could make a quick run toward it, put a boat into the water, and fish out the aviators with some degree of safety.

But plane guard duty when aircraft were taking off could be very dangerous.  The destroyer had to stand off the carrier's bow in case a plane fell into the water.  If that happened, attempting a rescue could put the destroyer in great danger.  The Langley was much less nimble than destroyers, and much bigger, while the rescuers’ whaleboats were even smaller, and in danger of getting too close to the flattop and being overrun.

Needing to inspire rescuers, as well as reward them, Reeves recalled the pies from his North Dakota days.  But pies are rather fragile, and don't take rough handling well.  Thinking harder, Reeves realized that the Langley was equipped with something new and unique and not available to destroyers: an ice cream machine.  So Reeves passed the word that a ship whose boat crew pulled a pilot out of the water would get ice cream, gallons of it.  Soon, instead of shunning plane guard duty, destroyermen were actually volunteering for it.

Admiral Reeves' thoughtful incentive worked where orders and exhortations might not have.  It was an easy, elegant answer that benefitted everyone.  And rewarding ships with ice cream for pulling aircrew out of the water became a tradition in the U.S. Navy that lasted into the 1950s when new destroyers began being equipped with their own “geedunk machines”.

--With thanks to Dennis Largess

BookNote:  Reeves has recently been the subject of a fine biography, All the Factors of Victory: Adm. Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Air Power , by naval historian Thomas Wildenberg.

 

Improbable Wars: The War of the Bastards (August-September, 1324)/a>

This curiously named conflict, in French “La Guerre des Bâtards”, is often referred to more politely as the “War of Saint-Sardos”.  It grew out of a jurisdictional dispute between King Edward II of England (r. 1307-1327), in his capacity as of Duke of Aquitaine, and King of France, Charles IV (r. 1322-1328), overlord of Aquitaine, and not incidentally Edward’s brother-in-law.  In 1322 the Parlement of Paris (effectively France’s supreme court) ruled that the tiny village of Saint-Sardos, in Gascony, was not subject to Edward II’s authority, and authorized the Abbot of the local Benedictine Priory to turn the place into a bastide, a fortified village.  This rankled the local petty nobility, who were happy to be Edward’s vassals (as he was an inept ruler) and worried that the bastide would attract outsiders who might displace them as regional prominenti.  So in late 1323, when King Charles sent a serjeant to post a royal emblem, some of the local nobles promptly burned down Saint-Sardos, and for good measure lynched the poor man. 

Naturally this upset Charles, who demanded apologies and an explanation.  Edward tried to smooth things over, but was widely – perhaps rightly – viewed as being responsible for the violence against the French Crown.  Tentative negotiations followed, but by June of 1324, Charles was preparing for war, and in August sent an army under his uncle, Count Charles of Valois, into the district.  The Count was highly successful, as Edward had few resources with which to defend his lands.  After about six weeks the war was over, and Edward ceded some territories back to the King of France. 

So why was it called “The War of the Bastards”?  Well, rather than openly make war against King Edward, King Charles claimed the expedition was necessary to suppress banditry by the bastard sons of some Gascon lords, a swipe at the local folks who burned the village and killed his serjeant.

 


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