World War 1 USN Airship Operations

P2Y of VP-19, circa 1939

Some eighty years ago, the Consolidated P2Ys of Patrol Squadron 19 were a familar sight skimming across the waters of Lake Washington along whose banks was located Naval Air Station Seattle. The P2Y was an ungainly looking contraption, but looks belie the fact is was a very sturdy and reliable performer. 


Many of the officers and men in this photo were local reservists. On the men’s cap is a ribbon which states they are part of “Patrol Squadrons, USN” (one man is from the USS Teal, a seaplane tender assigned to the base). 

PBY Catalina Day

Boeing XPB-1 (3)

First flown in 1925, the XPB-1 with its all-metal hull seemed promising enough, but was plagued by difficulties with its liquid-cooled engines.

Despite the engine problems, the rugged XPB-1 was retained for testing purposes by the navy who eventually replaced the original motors with radials. Still, there was only one built.

VP-101, Philippines, 1941



Under the tropical skies of the Olongapo Seadrome on Subic Bay, men of Patrol Squadron 101 stand before one of their PBY-4 aircraft. By the time this photo was taken in very late 1941, war clouds were gathering over the western pacific. In response, VP-101 has hastily camouflaged their aircraft; this is easily seen on the OS2U Kingfisher on the right. Soon, the squadron would be at war. Very few of the men pictured will avoid death or capture in the coming weeks and months.

Patrol Squadron 3, 1937


Posing proudly before their PBY at NAS North Island in the fall of 1937 are the men of VP-3. Of additional interest are the large numbers of enlisted pilots (note the wings on their chests). VP-3 had already racked up some impressive achievements with their new patrol bombers.

The PBY shattered no existing speed records, but that being said, with its single wing, no landing gear, and a minimum of external braces all contributing to fairly low drag, the early PBY was, by 1937 standards, a speedy enough machine. Its rated top speed was only 170 knots, but this was comparable to most fighter aircraft of the period, they mostly being biplanes with fixed landing gear.


Grumman F3F – the “Flying Barrel” (2)

The F3F had a number of nicknames, all of which seemed related to its appearance. Nevertheless, it was rugged, reliable, and pretty quick. It was also the last biplane fighter ordered by the US military. The first two photos show VF-4 out for a cruise above California in the late 1930’s. Numbers are 261, 228, 235 (3)

Here we see marines of VMF-2 out for a drive in the F3F-2. This second model had a bigger motor and is therefore quickly identified by the size of the engine cowl. Numbers are 973, 977, and 979.


Scouting Three, USS Saratoga, 1939 (1)Hurrying across the hills of Southern California, 18 SBC Helldivers of Scouting Squadron Three (VS3) make a fine display for the (4)The men of VS3 aboard their home base, USS Saratoga. The ship’s main battery of 8″ guns make a nice backdrop. Note the small saluting/practice gun at the base of the big rifle barrels. Many have dismissed this defensive armament as a throwback, a sop to the old-school admirals who could not fathom that the day of the big gun ship had been eclipsed by aircraft.

But these two carriers were built in the mid-1920’s and entered service in 1927. Simply put, the aircraft of that time were not an effective substitute for a warship’s heavy armament – and that was on a sunny day suitable for flying. In bad weather or darkness the ship’s aircraft were of almost no value whatsoever. Big guns were needed, but how big? The “Lex” and “Sara” were faster than any battleship of that time, so battleship-sized guns were not required. What they could not outrun was a cruiser. Given that typical armament for a cruiser was 8″ guns it made sense to provide the same weaponry to the two carriers.

Less than ten years after the two carriers were commissioned, the advances in aviation technology made the big guns less important and they were eventually removed. While those guns were still part of the ship though, they were not there at the insistence of traditional or narrow-minded navy brass. When the two carriers were designed the question must have been asked: what were they to do on a zero-visibility day with aircraft grounded, and an enemy cruiser swept in through the mist? Answer: Provide the two ships with all-weather firepower. Makes good sense.

TBD Devastators of USS Lexington and USS Saratoga (1)

Torpedo 3 (VT-3) prepares to land aboard Saratoga in 1939. Barely visible above the center aircraft, in echelons of three, are six SBC Helldivers (Well, at least in the original photo they are visible). 3-T-11 is BuNo. 281 which was lost in 1942 while landing on the Sara.  Note the “plane guard” destroyer trailing behind the carrier. (2)

Torpedo 2 cruises up the California coast in the late 1930’s. Left to right: 292, 293, and 298. The first, 292, was lost in a mid-air collision with another TBD in 1940. 293 was transferred to VT-8 and was shot down at Midway. 298 saw action when assigned to VT-5 but was forced to land in in a lagoon at Jaluit Atoll in Marshall Islands Feb 1, 1942. (3)

The same aircraft as seen above.

Looks like they managed to get almost every TBD in Torpedo 3 aloft for this photo.

A few F4B’s

Berliner-Joyce OJ (1)

The prototype XOJ-1 (A8359) seen at NAS Anacostia. Note the machine gun mounted in the upper wing. The hangars of the Air Corp’s Bolling Field are in the background. It was not unusual at the time for the Army and Navy to have a patch of ground they practically shared but were in fact distinctive and separate airfields. Those days are over; today the 100 year old facilities are known as Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (2)

Two views of an immaculate OJ-2 (A9196) at Boeing Field. Aircraft was assigned to Naval Air Reserve Base Seattle just a few miles up the road. (3)