Air University Review, March-April 1979

"The Shasta Disaster"

forgotten lesson in interservice relations

Dr. Murray Green

A Few months after Billy Mitchell resigned from the U.S. Army in 1926, the Army Air Corps Act came into being. As it offered a less than half-a-loaf solution to the air leadership's vision of a proper national defense, the law did not still the clamor for a unified organization in which air, land, and sea forces would serve as equal partners.

A fresh opportunity was inadvertently provided by the so-called MacArthur-Pratt Agreement, signed in January 1931 between two sovereign military powers. The Army and Navy had carved up the territory to lessen interservice friction between them and to cut off the air zealots before they regained the momentum lost when Mitchell retired to Boxwood, his wife's estate in Middleburg, Virginia.

The agreement, signed by General Douglas MacArthur, who had just taken office as Army Chief of Staff, and Admiral William Veazie Pratt, who had just come aboard as Chief of Naval Operations, proclaimed their respective domains--the one over land operations, the other over the seven seas. Between the cracks of their empires, however, an aggressive Air Corps leadership saw a new opportunity to assert its right to participate in the coastal defense of our shores against invasion. And that right included the training of long-range bomber crews to search the seas and attack an enemy armada before it could land.

That mission interpretation was not exactly shared by General MacArthur. In fact, the Chief of Staff expressed a willingness for all military aviation to be eliminated by treaty, if that could be arranged at the World Disarmament Conference soon to convene in Geneva. Admiral Pratt vetoed that idea, however. It seems that Navy planners had just begun to appreciate the potential offensive power that the carrier task force could add to the fleet.

In this setting, in the summer of 1931, just a decade after Mitchell's triumph over the German warships off the Virginia Capes, the air advocates saw their chance to grab the limelight and strike a public relations blow for freedom and equality and to regenerate among congressional supporters a fresh surge of legislative action. In July of that year, Major General James Fechet was the lame duck Chief of Air Corps preparing to turn over the controls to Major General Benny Foulois in just a few months. An idea was born and given impetus in the executive staff Office of the Chief of Air Corps (OCAC), headed by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Andrews, to test bomb a steel cargo ship of World War vintage. The S.S. Mount Shasta, declared surplus, was to be sited off the Virginia Capes, then set on a slow, straight course. Bombers from the 2nd Bomb Group, commanded by Major Herbert "Bert" Dargue stationed at Langley Field, Virginia, were to fly to sea, search out the Shasta, and bomb it to the bottom, thus demonstrating the Air Corps capability to meet its obligation for coastal defense.

There seemed to be little reason to doubt that the exercise, scheduled for mid-August, would be a Success. When staff planning papers trickled across Constitution Avenue from the Munitions Building, Navy Supporters hastened to discount any larger significance that might be attached to the exercise.

Nor were there doubts among Air Corps sponsors. Dozens of reporters, including crews from Fox Movietone News and Paramount News, were invited to record in words and pictures the spectacular destruction of the S. S. Mount Shasta.

The mission started confidently, perhaps reminiscent of the first Battle of Bull Run, where spectators came from Washington in carriages bringing their picnic lunches. Shiploads of observers, regaled with food and drink, had been invited to witness the sinking of the Shasta.

But first it had to be found. On August 11, starting day, the weather was less than ideal, but everything was in place. Second Bomb Group planes went out and searched and crisscrossed their tracks, but they could not locate the Shasta. At first observers were surprised, then aghast, and finally smirking with delight that the bombers were unable to locate a slow-moving target on a known course. By afternoon, the weather socked in, frustrating further search efforts.

Three days later, the skies cleared enough for a second mission. But according to the post-mortems filed with headquarters, the bombers came in at 5000 feet instead of 12,000 feet, as they had been trained to do. Officials in charge had been persuaded to change the mission so the news photographers could get better pictures. In addition, the bombers were armed with smaller bombs than they had originally trained with.

So it was stated, but neither reason seemed valid.

The fact is that the bombers found the Shasta only belatedly, but then they could not sink it. The Navy's public relations apparatus leaped to the offensive. Writing under the headline "Naval Supremacy in Defense Found Upheld by Air Bombers' Failure to Sink Merchant Ship," Captain Dudley Knox, USN, gloated in the New York Herald Tribune. "For three days, the lightly constructed, entirely unarmored, and otherwise defenseless merchant ship, the Mount Shasta, survived efforts to sink her by bombing." Afterwards, Captain Knox wrote, the vessel "was then finally sunk by a few shots from one-pounders, scarcely more than pop-guns, fired from an attending Coast Guard vessel to prevent her from becoming a derelict menace to navigation."

The New York Evening Post remembered Mitchell's test-bombings off the Virginia Capes a decade earlier and said "the Navy evened up an old score." Edward Folliard, a young reporter covering the story for the Washington Post from a nearby Coast Guard cutter, wrote: "The Air Corps took a terrible beating out here today."

General Foulois, Air Corps Chief-designate, was called to account by the fuming General MacArthur. Foulois disclaimed personal knowledge of the affair, saying he learned of it in the press. Years later, Foulois was more forthright in his autobiography, writing that he was "against the idea because I saw it as nothing more than a reopening of...controversy." He said the project had been approved by the General Staff--not likely if the details had been disclosed in advance--and that "Jim Fechet overruled me and took charge of the preparations. "

While others busied themselves protecting their flanks, Frank Andrews accepted responsibility for the mission. Hap Arnold was worried "because the newspapers allover the country have lambasted us," but Andrews replied, "What worries us most is the possibility that something is wrong with our training and our ability to attack targets at sea. " Arnold, at Wright Field, Ohio, was slated to command the First Bomb Wing at March Field, California, with a coastal defense mission identical to the one so badly bungled by Bert Dargue and his group. Arnold feared the War Department might relinquish the mission and abort his new job.

Captain Dudley Knox had called it "the Shasta Disaster," but its dimensions were larger than the canvas on which he painted it. The immediate consequence was that General

Foulois displaced Lieutenant Colonel Andrews and six other officers from Air Corps headquarters when he took command. At higher levels, the Navy was concerned lest the MacArthur-Pratt Agreement, as interpreted by the Army Air Corps, could erode the Navy's traditional control of operations on or over the high seas. When Admiral Pratt retired in July 1933, the Navy pressed General MacArthur to rescind the offending agreement on grounds that it was a "purely personal" arrangement that should not be honored by Admiral William Standley, successor to Pratt.

MacArthur at first took exception to the view. He told a congressional committee that he regarded the issue of coastal air defense as "completely and absolutely settled." But it became somewhat less than settled for him as well as for the Navy in August 1934 when Arnold daringly led ten B-10 bombers in formation 950 miles diagonally across the North Pacific Ocean from Juneau, Alaska, to Seattle, Washington. Newspaper headlines that followed the triumphant fliers as they made their way back to Washington, D.C., proclaimed the beginning of a new style of warfare.

The Navy called an urgent meeting of the Joint Board (predecessor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff). MacArthur, representing the War Department as senior member of the board, found consistency of position a lesser virtue than joining the Navy in shoving the upstart Air Corps back into its place. First, MacArthur directed in his own hand that no awards or other recognition be accorded the offending fliers. And, further, the Chief of Staff agreed on 26 September 1934, to redefine service roles and missions as follows: the Navy would have "paramount interest" in air operations at sea when the fleet was present and free to act, while the Army should have "paramount interest" in operations over land. Neither service was to build or operate planes intended to duplicate the functions of the other.

That last sentence of the restated agreement hurt the Air Corps by undermining the rationale for buying in quantity the B-17 Flying Fortress, which was just coming off the drawing board. The B-17 was to be the centerpiece of Air Corps designs for a strategic air capability, and that included extended flying over water.

Two months later, in November 1934, the Federal Aviation (the Howell) Commission, established by President Roosevelt to survey the soundness of America's civil and military aviation, heard closed-door testimony by Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), that the Army should be restricted to building only planes it needed for overland flying. According to Captain George C. Kenney, who sat in at the hearing, Admiral King said: "In case we need some Army bombers out there, we'll have a Navy airplane fly out there with them and show them how to get back to North America." Admiral King, years later as Chief of Naval Operations, denied having made such a statement.

The upstart Air Corps refused to stay in place. By 1938, Douglas MacArthur was safely away from Washington, sent to reorganize the defense of the Philippines. Major General Frank Andrews, back in power as General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force commander, was still willing to take chances to stretch the military air mission, even if it meant stepping on sensitive toes. In May 1938, three B-17s, commanded by Major Caleb V. Haynes, flew from Langley Field to search for another ship, this one far out to sea. The Italian liner Rex was more than a day's journey from New York Harbor, about 700 miles away. Despite heavy weather en route, First Lieutenant Curtis LeMay, flight navigator, headed those planes right to their target. As they broke out of the clouds, Major George Goddard, father of American aerial reconnaissance, turned on his equipment, producing sensational pictures from just above masthead height of dozens of passengers waving from the deck. Goddard's pictures made the front page of the New York Herald Tribune and many other newspapers around the country.

The following day, General Andrews at Langley Field received an irate call from General Malin Craig, successor to MacArthur as Chief of Staff. Henceforth, all GHQ Air Force planes were to be restricted to flying not more than 100 miles out to sea--for safety reasons.

Those restrictions were not lifted in some instances until nearly the eve of America's entry into World War II. The suppressed hostility that showed itself between the services during "the Shasta Disaster" now elicits a few smiles among survivors. But it was nothing to laugh at on 7 December 1941, when real disaster struck at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.

Silver Spring, Maryland


Colonel Murray Green, USAF (Ret), (B.S.S., M.S., City College of New York; Ph.D., American University) is living in retirement in the Washington area after thirty-four years as a civilian employee of the Air Force, including service in the Office of the Air Force Secretary. He has published numerous magazine articles, including "Major General Hugh J. Knerr, Hard Campaigner for Airpower," Air force, October 1978. Dr. Green is currently working on a biography of General H.H. Arnold.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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