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ARMED FORCES: Revolt of the Admirals

11 minute read

ARMED FORCES Revolt of the Admirals

With all the impressive might of a carrier strike, the U.S. Navy last weekbrought its rebellion into the open. Risking their careers, the Navy’s highest-ranking officers ranged themselves in flat opposition to the declared policies of the U.S. Congress, the Secretary of Defense, theJoint Chiefs of Staff and the President of the U.S.

The outburst went far deeper than interservice bickering. Its weight made the shabby machinations and underhanded skulduggery that had preceded it seem inconsequential. The rebels were men with long and distinguished careers, among them some of the Navy’s proudest names. In its impassioned power, the revolt brushed aside the Navy’s civilian head, who had blandly assured the House Armed Services Committee that Navy morale was good and that the only dissatisfaction came from a few hotheads in the Navy’s air arm. The Secretary of the Navy was treated to loud and sardonic laughter from his assembled subordinates when he protested that he knew of no “block” against naval officers’ speaking their views.

Day in Court. The Navy got its full day in open court after one of its most noted fighting men did some quick footwork in the dark. Captain John Crommelin (who is eligible to become a rear admiral in December) had charged that the Navy was “being nibbled to death in the Pentagon” by “landlocked” strategists. His unruly blast had created only a short stir (TIME, Sept. 26). Last week, more than ever determined to get a formal investigation of his charges, John Crommelin took more desperate action.

Donning civilian tweeds, Crommelin pocketed a sheaf of papers, and went downtown to get in touch with the three wire services (the A.P. man said they rendezvoused in “a shadowy corridor”). To each man Crommelin handed over a confidential letter to Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews from Vice Admiral Gerald F. Bogan, commander of the Pacific’s First Task Fleet. Crommelin insisted only that his own identity be kept secret for the moment: he wanted nothing to detract from the impact of the letter itself.

Admiral Bogan had written: “The morale of the Navy is lower today than at any time since I entered the commissioned ranks in 1916 . . . The situation deteriorates with each press release.” The Navy’s older officers, he declared, “are fearful that the country is being, if it has not already been, sold a false bill of goods.”

A forwarding endorsement by Admiral Arthur W. Radford, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, added: “The majority of officers in the Pacific Fleet concur . . .” Most significantly, Chief of Naval Operations Louis Denfeld, who up to then had never raised his voice publicly against any decision of the Defense Department, had agreed and added: “Naval officers . . . are convinced that a Navy stripped of its offensive power means a nation stripped of its offensive power.”

The explosion was immediate. After the Bogan-Radford-Denfeld correspondence had been spread across Page One, Captain Crommelin admitted that he had slipped the letter to the press, was promptly blasted by Secretary Matthews as “faithless, insubordinate and disloyal” and suspended from duty. But the Navy got its hearing before Carl Vinson’s House Armed Services Committee.

Matthews made a last attempt to preserve the appearance of effective unification, fostered so sedulously by Defense Secretary Louis Johnson. He insisted that Admiral Radford should not be heard in open session. It might “give aid & comfort to a potential enemy.” The committee overruled him.

The Navy’s Case. Next day, on Capitol Hill, in the full glare of newsreel lights. the Navy at last told what had been gnawing at its heart. Its spokesman was four-star Admiral Radford, the man naval aviators everywhere recognize as their champion, the officer who built the Navy’s wartime air arm as director of aviation training, a brilliant fighting commander, and long an outspoken enemy of service unification.

The Navy’s case was simple but grave: the U.S. was entrusting its defense to a “fallacious concept”—the atomic blitz, and an inadequate weapon—the Air Force’s six-engined B-36 bomber. Said Radford: “The B-36 has become, in the minds of the American people, a symbol of a theory of warfare—the atomic blitz—which promises them a cheap and easy victory if war should come.”

“The B-36 Is Vulnerable.” The Air Force, he said, had pictured the six-engined B-36 as flying majestically at 40,000 ft., undetected by radar, unreachable by enemy fighters. Admiral Radford flatly disputed such claims:

¶The B-36 would be shot down before it reached its target: “Today . . . American planes by day or by night and at all speeds and altitudes which the B-36 can operate on military missions, can locate the bomber, intercept the bomber, close on the bomber, and destroy the bomber . . . It is folly to assume that a potential enemy cannot do as well . . . The unescorted B-36 is unacceptably vulnerable.”

¶The B-36 cannot hit its targets “Bombing at very high altitude can be effective only on targets of great area. Such targets, unless we are committed to the concept of mass area bombing of urban areas, rather than precise bombing of specific military targets, are very limited. . . The B-36 is a billion-dollar blunder.”

“Bomber Generals.” The scorn that Airman Radford once saved for “battleship admirals” he now turned on his fellow flyers across the fence in the Air Force. “Are we as a nation to have ‘bomber generals’ fighting to preserve the obsolete heavy bomber—the battleship of the air? Like its surface counterpart, its day is largely past … In the last analysis, the B-36 is a 1941 airplane.”*

Then Radford moved in to attack the whole theory of “atomic annihilation.” Even if it could bring victory, which he doubted, “a war of annihilation would be politically and economically senseless . . . [and] morally reprehensible.” Said Radford: “This basic difference of military opinion concerning the bombing blitz has been at the root of our principal troubles in unification.”

“That’s Sufficient.” Chairman Carl Vinson peered at Radford over his glasses. Did the Navy officially endorse these views? No, said Radford, but “on the large issue involved, my feelings are shared by every senior officer, by practically every experienced officer.” He began reeling off names: “Admiral Halsey, Nimitz, King, Leahy, Blandy, Conolly, Denfeld …” “Now, that’s sufficient,” broke in Vinson.

It was. The list was too impressive to dismiss. Next day the Navy’s top test pilot appeared to back up Radford’s claims. Captain Frederick M. Trapnell, 47, commander of the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Md., has probably flown more types of planes than any other U.S. pilot. He testified that standard Navy radar had no trouble picking up small jet fighters at 40,000 ft., that Navy fighters had made interceptions at that altitude by day and by night. Said Trapnell: “If you were to ride as an observer in a B-36 at 40,000 ft. during joint exercises, you would see Banshees diving and zooming all around you and making repeated gunnery attacks with a speed advantage of over 100 miles per hour.”

The Navy was obviously itching for a test of their jet fighters against the B-36. On the witness stand Radford had suggested it. A Congressman objected: “Someone testified that the test would have no value without live ammunition. It was either Kenney or Spaatz.” Said Radford: “I don’t believe Tooey Spaatz would make that statement.”

From the press table (where he was sitting as Newsweek’s military columnist), retired General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, 58, former Air Force Chief of Staff, shouted: “Am I supposed to be a witness here?” He added: “If I didn’t make that statement, I’m willing to make it now.” Radford retorted mildly: “We haven’t quite reached that stage. We have camera guns that do almost as well.”

New Ally. Listening to Radford, old Carl Vinson, who used to call the nation’s sea service “my Navy,” grew sympathetic. He suddenly remembered that Louis Johnson, with whom he was feuding, had promised to cut $800 million from the current budget. Some $353 million, the largest cut given to any of the three services, was to come out of the Navy’s appropriation.

“If Johnson adheres to the reductions, what effect would it have on the security of the country?” demanded Vinson. “It would very definitely impair it, in my opinion,” confessed Navy Secretary Matthews, who until then had seemed to be opposing his own admirals. Snapped Vinson: “Johnson sets figures without the slightest idea of what effect they will have on national security.”

Vinson also told the committee he “understood” that the Navy and Marine strength in .aircraft squadrons was to be cut almost in half in the 1951 budget, that “secret orders” had already been issued and that the Air Force was even advocating “that no large carriers or air groups should be kept in the Navy.” Said Vinson: “So, I find it not too difficult to comprehend the concern of the air arm of the Navy and the Navy in general.”

No Confidence. Just how good was the Navy’s case? Obviously, the plain speech of patriotic men could not be dismissed as the whimpering of a proud service which now saw itself reduced to a second line of defense. It was clear that the Navy deeply distrusted Secretary of Defense Johnson, who had fathered the big-bomber program when he was Assistant Secretary of War before World War II, and had summarily canceled the Navy’s supercarrier without consulting the Navy.

The Navy felt it was outnumbered on the Joint Chiefs of Staff; time after time General Omar Bradley and the Air Force’s Hoyt Vandenberg voted 2 to i against the Navy’s Denfeld. The Navy also had no confidence in the leadership of Navy Secretary Matthews, who was Johnson’s choice. Matthews cheerily admitted, when he took office that he had never commanded anything bigger than a rowboat.

“What Atomic Blitz?” All of this made the Navy’s bitterness understandable without making right what its bitter men said. Even so staunch a friend of the Navy as the New York Times’s Annapolis-trained Military Analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote that he himself did not consider the cutbacks in the Navy program disastrous. Baldwin added drily that “Some of the Navy’s interest in morality as applied to strategic bombing seems new-found.”

Besides, what responsible man in any service talked of a “cheap and easy” blitz war? General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Air Force Chief of Staff, had been specific on that point. “Veterans of the Eighth, the Fifteenth, the Twentieth and other historic Air Forces,” he said on July 2, “know very well that there are no cheap and easy ways to win great wars.” The way Congress had apportioned funds almost equally among the Navy, Army and Air Force also seemed proof that no one was counting on an “atom blitz” to do it all.

Nor did the Air Force argue that the B-36 was invulnerable (“We know,” said General Vandenberg in the same speech, “that no plane or weapon of any kind can be completely invulnerable”). The Air Force, Vandenberg said, held only that the B-36 could get through in sufficient numbers to deliver an initial atomic blow; the threat alone “serves to divert a great portion of any nation’s effort to its internal defense.” There were better planes than the B-36 on the drawing board and in the works, but until they were ready, the B-36 remained the best bomber in being, in a year of crisis.

What was the Navy’s alternative? Said Radford: small, fast bombers which, escorted by fighters, could hit military targets with accuracy. It sounded remarkably like the formula for World War II carrier warfare. Certainly the Navy did not now have a bomber with the range, speed and armor of the B-36, which could drop the atomic bomb.

No Other Way. The Navy’s case had showed up indisputable shortcomings in procedures to settle differences of opinion between the services. It had also proved, far more clearly than the first unseemly attempts at forcing an investigation, that the Navy was determinedly opposed to many vital aspects of national defense—from the purchase of long-range bombers to matters of highest military policy. Presumably the differences between the Navy, the Administration and the other services were not irreconcilable, but it would take nothing less than a full-dress investigation to get them working in harmony again. The inquiry, which would probably run for months, could not be carried on without laying military plans and procedures bare, in the open where Russia would be listening carefully. But there was now no other way out.

*A headline-catching phrase. The B-36 design was submitted in 1941, but it was not ready for production until 1947. Under the same dating system the B-17 Flying Fortress was a 1934 airplane, the B-29 Superfortress a 1940 model.

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