Blog Archives

Enlisted Aviators: Naval Aviation Pilots and Insignia


One of collectors’ most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era (and prior), the Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP).

In the past six months, news stories centered on the increasing pilot-shortage issues faced by the United States Air Force have been frequently published in the media ranging from the Military and Air Force Times to mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Fox News. With the severe cuts made to the armed forces in the last decade combined with retirements and a vibrant aviation industry, luring aviators from their Air Force careers to more financially lucrative civilian jobs, the stick and rudder vacancies are mounting leaving leadership to think creatively in order to fill the empty seats.

Not since World War II has the Air Force turned to the enlisted ranks to source candidates to pilot aircraft. In 2016, USAF leadership commenced a program to begin training (E-5 and up) enlisted drone pilots in an effort to free up experienced officers for candidacy as manned aircraft aviators. Leadership announced an expansion of the enlisted drone pilot program in January.

Utilizing enlisted personnel is certainly not a new idea for sourcing military aviator candidates. Both the Army and the Navy trained non-commissioned and petty officers as aviators prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. In fact, the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (the predecessor to the Flying Service which would become the Army Air Corps) was already engaged in training non-officer personnel as early as 1912, graduating the qualified men as Flying Sergeants. Similarly, the Navy graduated seven petty officers and two Marine Corps sergeants in 1916, launching the program that would evolve into the Naval Aviation Pilot rating.

Throughout WWI, enlisted pilot training continued for the Navy with flyers in ratings (Quartermaster and Machinist’s Mate) designated as aviators. A significant number of the enlisted aviators were offered and accepted commissions as naval officers while a few continued serving and flying as petty officers. In the years after the 1918 Armistice, the Bureau of Navigation (the command responsible for managing and training personnel) issued a policy that would incorporate enlisted and warrant officers as a standard practice for flight training. In a March 12, 1924 Bureau of Navigation Circular, the Navy officially established the rating of Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) for for Chief Petty Officers. As the program continued, the Navy expanded the NAP rating for first class petty officers in September of 1927.

With World War II in full swing and the shift from ship-to-ship fighting became secondary to over-the-horizon, aviation-based offensive tactics expanded the need for pilots exponentially. The Bureau of Navigation further expanded the ratings for NAP to include second and third class petty officers. During World War II, at least 2,200 NAPs earned their wings (according to Bluejackets.com). By 1948 when Congress discontinued the training program for enlisted naval aviation pilots, nearly 3,800 enlisted sailors had completed the training program since it was established. Though there would be no new NAPs  following  April 2, 1948, those existing in the rating who continued to serve on active duty, also maintained their rating and flight status in dwindling numbers. On January. 31, 1981, the last Navy enlisted pilot, ACCM Robert Jones (who had been designated in 1947) retired, closing the book on the  NAP rating and insignia.

One of the most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era is seemingly the Naval Aviation Pilot due to the decidedly high listing prices (some reaching upwards of $400). Whether people are actually paying these amounts is more difficult to determine.

The NAP rating badge consists of the Naval Aviator wings centered beneath the eagle and above the petty officer chevrons (and beneath the CPO arc).  When the mark was established in 1924, the thread-color specification for the winged insignia was gold (or yellow) to match the Naval Aviator gold wing device. In the Bureau of Personnel circular of 12 July 1944, the color of the mark was changed to align it with the all other rating badges (i.e. white thread on dress blues and blue thread on whites).

Aside from the color change of the mark, there are two design differences with the wings. Prior to World War II, the wings had a curved (some collectors call them “drooped”) appearance. Speculation among the collecting community suggest that the straight wing (that matches the appearance of the officer’s metal device) began making its way onto badges after 1942. In John Stacy’s invaluable resource, U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885 -1982, the author references suggestions that the curved wing rating badge was used by naval personnel and the curved wing was adopted by Coast Guard NAPs, however provides a caveat that no supporting evidence exists.

I have seven NAP rating badges and photographed each to show both consistency and variation across the same era. All of these are from the 1940s – perhaps all are from WWII.

John Stacey’s referenced comments made by the last NAP, ACCM Robert Jones regarding the different colored wing marks in the rating badges. The “white ones,” Jones commented, ” were (found in) small stores, gold were PX” referring the sources of the different badges. Further comments made by Jones (in Stacey’s book) state that Jones was authorized to wear either the gold or white (colored) rating badge on his dress (blue) uniform when he attained his designation as an AP1/c.

Besides the winged insignia of the NAP, a specialist rating mark was also used for the Aviation Pilot rating. Originally established in 1942 for the Transport Airman rating, the “V” centered in a diamond insignia was re-purposed for the Aviation Pilot ratings for chief, first and second class petty officers from 1948 until it was disestablished in 1962 (BuPers Notice 1440, dated 29 December 1961; effective 1 March 1962).

Resources:

Advertisements

WWI Aero Trophies: Aviation Artifacts of Aero-Warriors


Archaeologists could agree that in some form or fashion, militaria collecting has been around seemingly since men have gone to war. Though the concept may not have been seen as collecting, at a base level, man has maintained combat-related artifacts to remind him of battles won or brothers-in-arms that were lost. Not only has man sought to remember his warring past, he has long maintained the spoils of war by removing specific items of his vanquished opponent’s body as it laid on the field of battle.

This illustration from Tut’s tomb shows the young pharaoh at war in his chariot (source: Araldo De Luca).

This illustration from Tut’s tomb shows the young pharaoh at war in his chariot (source: Araldo De Luca).

When some of the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were opened and the contents were inspected and cataloged, among the gilded, religious and life-story items were weapons of war. Free from the worries and troubles of earth, anthropologists and Egyptologists surmised that the military pieces were objects that heralded the deceased king’s victories. Within the tomb of the most widely known pharaoh, King Tutankhamen (or “Tut”), among several depictions of him in combat, was his beautifully ornate chariot that would, more than likely, have been used in battle as documented throughout his burial treasure.

This section of fabric from an aircraft belonging to the famed Lafayette Escadrille (a squadron of American volunteers that flew for France during WWI) recently sold at auction (source: Cowan Auctions).

This section of fabric from an aircraft belonging to the famed Lafayette Escadrille (a squadron of American volunteers that flew for France during WWI) recently sold at auction (source: Cowan Auctions).

With the advancement of technology came the modern version of the chariot during World War I, the airplane. The warrior who battled from the seat of these modern machines, though differently equipped, had much in common with the brave Egyptian warriors of ancient times as they bravely piloted their flying machines into the center of the fray. In the quiet of the battle’s aftermath, these warriors would, if possible, descend from their winged chariots to survey their opponent’s wreckage, tearing or cutting strategic pieces of the fabric that contained specific identifying marks that helped to tell their story to both their squadron mates and to their leaders, providing quantifiable evidence of their success.

This section of cloth survives from an aircraft of the 1st Army Aero Pursuit Squadron and is preserved at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

This section of cloth survives from an aircraft of the 1st Army Aero Pursuit Squadron and is preserved at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

In many cases, these aerial opponents would extend honors that were reserved for their own fallen heroes, to their vanquished enemies. When Manfred von Richthofen, Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) of the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Army Air Service) was killed when his Fokker Dr1 was downed, members of the Royal Air Force took custody of his remains. To a casual observer viewing his funeral service, it would have appeared that a renowned British war hero was being laid to rest by the varying honors being rendered to this fallen adversary. However, the preservation of his aircraft was overlooked as souvenir hunters quickly rendered the nearly undamaged plane a shamble as they haphazardly dismantled it.

Bestowing honor upon fallen adversaries was practice by the Allies’ opponents, the Germans. Quentin Roosevelt, son of the former president and colonel (from the Spanish-American War’s Rough Riders), was an aviator in the 95th Aero Squadron, flying pursuit aircraft such as the French-made Nieuport 28. After he was shot down during an engagement, his flight of twelve was jumped by seven German fighter planes. Roosevelt received two fatal bullet wounds to his head and his aircraft rolled over and spiraled to the ground. His subsequent funeral service was witnessed by a fellow American soldier, Captain James E. Gee (110th Infantry) who had earlier been taken prisoner:

“In a hollow square about the open grave were assembled approximately one thousand German soldiers, standing stiffly in regular lines. They were dressed in field gray uniforms, wore steel helmets, and carried rifles. Near the grave was a smashed plane, and beside it was a small group of officers, one of whom was speaking to the men. I did not pass close enough to hear what he was saying; we were prisoners and did have the privilege of lingering, even for such an occasion as this. At the time, I did not know who was being buried, but the guards informed me later. The funeral certainly was elaborate. I was told afterward by Germans that they paid Lieutenant Roosevelt such honor not only because he was a gallant aviator, who died fighting bravely against odds, but because he was the son of Colonel Roosevelt whom they esteemed as one of the greatest Americans.”

Similar to the flag shown on Pawn Stars, this WWI aircraft has a flag painted on the fuselage side.

Similar to the flag shown on Pawn Stars, this WWI aircraft has a flag painted on the fuselage side.

Collecting aviation artifacts from WWI is becoming increasingly difficult as nearly a century has elapsed since the armistice was signed. The soft materials that made up the uniforms and accouterments are under continuous attack from the ravages of time and every manner of decay brought on by insects and ultraviolet exposure. Museums in the last few decades have done amazing work at acquiring the best examples of surviving armament and other hardware to provide their audiences with incredible displays and depictions of the Great War. When the rarest pieces arrive in the marketplace, the heavy competition ensues driving the prices skyward.

In an older episode of the History Channel’s Pawn Stars (the “Stick to Your Guns” episode), a woman enters the shop with a rolled-up section of old fabric emblazoned with a hand-painted representation of an American flag. She tells the story of her American serviceman relative darting over to a recently wrecked plane to cut out the flag, saving it from the ensuing fire resulting from the crash.

This flag looks to have been cut from a WWI American aircraft. The jury is still out as to whose aircraft it was removed from (source: Pawn Stars screen grab).

This flag looks to have been cut from a WWI American aircraft. The jury is still out as to whose aircraft it was removed from (source: Pawn Stars screen grab).

In providing the requested provenance, she presents a pair of World War I dog tags. One of the tags shows the information for her ancestor while the other contains the personal identification of Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. The Pawn Stars segment could easily lead viewers to draw the conclusion that the flag was removed from Roosevelt’s wreckage but that would be a considerable leap based upon the story of the retrieval and the burning aircraft. It would have been difficult for American to do so, considering that Roosevelt crashed behind enemy lines.

Ultimately, the Pawn Stars folks purchased the flag (the price was well into four figures) despite the lack of connection to Roosevelt. In my opinion, they probably overpaid for the piece but considering that it was destined for Gold & Silver Pawn Shop owner Rick Harrison’s personal collection, it wasn’t too much of a reach.