‘With Your Shield, Or On It’. | (Plutarch, Mor. 241)
When we think of the veterans lost in the wake of the Flight-19 disappearance it seems pretty farfetched to be trying to connect their deaths in a training accident to any part of a conspiracy theory. But it’s no more fantastic an idea than one claiming that aliens abducted the crews or that the Bermuda Triangle reached out and plucked them from the sky. Besides there’s far more evidence for the former rather than the latter idea in this case.
To begin to prove anything, however; no matter the theory we need to start by looking at the historical context of the times in order to get a more accurate picture of the environment.
Perhaps the biggest question in trying to prove conspiracy is the why? Why would there ever be a need for the US Government of even the Navy to cover anything up? They would never do that would they?
That’s a rhetorical question by the way. The answer is most likely obvious to anyone familiar with US History.
No. It’s not the first time since the birth of our Democratic Republic; that the US government in general, and its leadership have failed to learn from recurring obfuscation of diplomatic embarrassments and military failures. Nor is it the first time that these operations have been highlighted by dubious outcomes with little or no accountability found afterward.
The appalling surrender of Bagram airbase this past August for example- the precursor to another Vietnam War like withdrawal – and by the military infamous for leaving no one behind, egregiously stranding Americans in Afghanistan is a perfect example of the perceived incompetency of US leaders by the general public that requires some kind of retort beyond that of the finger pointing by politicians.
Because of the potential of political scandal that often surrounds and evolves from events like these; mysteries with no honest elucidation, Americas military today is more often than not viewed by both national and global communities as questionably inept; negligent, even weak, especially after undertakings with disastrous consequences and seemingly avoidable deaths. But this hasn’t always been the case, or has it?
For several reasons, there exists a tenuous tie between the military and its civilian authority; a relationship that has its origins in the distant past, one that has been contentious ever since the creation of the Continental Congress itself, one that includes the US Navy.
Over time, the press and by extension historians following these debacles, have perhaps inadvertently witnessed and documented this bellicose connection; what might be considered by some, the slow adulteration and contamination of the military-industrial complex, at the hands of ‘the State’. In the military mindset, the concept of Esprit De Corps and the military pride it creates is enough of a reason to push back on this attempt at control by the bureaucrats especially control in the field, but it is not enough to ignore the benefits of currying Congressional favor.
The friction created highlights the incessant need for dominance of one branch over another, and at the heart of this contest is the need to be the premier national defense organization; to be the best and more importantly the first to grab the lion’s share of funding.
What the public sees as friendly inter-service rivalry represented by the service academies each year meeting on the football gridiron to decide who can go back to their institution with bragging rights; belies the truth of the struggles for influence in the halls of the Pentagon and the Congress. An example of this tension would be the article written by Murray Green in the Air Force Magazine of July 1961. The US Airforce, formerly the Army Air Corps was created as part of the National Security Act of 1947 and was part of President Harry Trumans attempt at bridging the rift between branches but as the article indicates there was definite animosity between the President and newly appointed Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, again indicative of the friction between branches.
For centuries the US Navy and by extension the Marine Corps have both had to withstand congressional budget cuts after each war or conflict, garnishing just enough support to stay in existence. To have survived beyond paper, let alone be capable of supporting a lengthy or protracted conflict outside of the National draft is a testament of the tenacity of previous leaders.
The Army on the other hand had always been considered the primary force for national defense. For the longest time the US was always on the verge of being invaded and who better to repel an invasion but the Army. The naval forces were considered supplementary forces even during US Expansionism and the resulting Banana Wars of the early 20th century. At that time the Navy was primarily seen as a transportation service shuttling the Army and Marine Corps around to hot spots.
Furthermore: this contest of wills, which is best explained by the axiom ‘the pen is mightier than the sword has for better or worse exemplified the idea of civilian control over the military has as a byproduct both created a monster in; and simultaneously cowed the military leadership. It’s forced a necessity within the military hierarchy for the need to adopt the practice of plausible deniability as a means to explain away humiliating failures and to avoid challenges to it’s influence.
This tactic of denying involvement due to a lack of clear evidence; an unethical skill that is known to be deftly spun by politicians has also at times ironically been used as a weapon by the military. It has given the General officer core the ability to save face by pivoting away from exposure in the press, feign indifference, and deflect blame onto anyone down the chain of command it chooses; often ending with the lowest field commander. In 1945 that blame fell on both Captain Charles B. McVay III the Captain of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis and Lt. Charles C. Taylor the flight leader of Flight-19.
In the facts and opinions at the conclusion of both legal cases, it is clearly stated that the US Navy was at fault for setting both McVay and Taylor up for failure. Though other officers were named as contributors to both tragedies none were ever seriously reprimanded.
But again, why would the Navy be so devious in its condemnation of its own commanders? Perhaps for once, it had too much to lose and at the same time gain?
The Race to Save the Navy
The United States with a large hand from the Navy had just emerged victorious as the first superpower with the advent of the atomic bomb. Though the Army had sea-going vessels for the transport of troops and supplies it was the Navy that provided the bulk of that transport, the Navy that provided most of the escorts for those transports, the Navy moved the Marine Corps and a good portion of the Army from base to base and it was the Navy that pushed battleships and aircraft carriers to where they were needed most.
Also on the foothold of the Cold War, the Navy found itself juggling several aspects of demobilization and peace all at once. The pressure on the Navy was enormous. Figures from ‘the War Department radio roundup of 14 September 1945: indicated that 1,225,000 had already returned from all theatres of operation with another 1,750,000 scheduled to from the Pacific and 2,000,000 scheduled to either redeploy or return from Europe. ‘
In just a few years the Navy had gone from just over 700 to over 6,000 commissioned vessels, many of which now had to be used in Operation Magic Carpet: the program to get millions of these G.I.s back to the states and which afterwards would soon be mothballed.
The dominance of the battleship had come to an end at the hands of airpower, there was a need for the brass to market aircraft carrier battle groups with their range, as the premier means for projecting American influence across the oceans as exemplified by ” The Navy Plan for National Security by Admiral James Forrestal presented by Senator Elbert D. Thomas -The chair of the Senate Military Affairs Committee.
With the end of the Lend-Lease Agreements on the horizon, it was once again feeling the eyes of congressional budgeting committees. With over three million navy personnel in uniform, there was no doubt that the axe was coming. But balancing the transition of those being discharged with the needs of maintaining equipment for training let alone combat, especially when key positions were being vacated and left unfilled was a monumental task.
What made matters worse was the growing impatience on the part of the public to repatriate service personnel back into society in time for the Christmas of 1945. So much was the desire for troops to return to civilian life that the rates of personnel going AWOL had also sharply increased.
This angst and the inability to process discharges fast enough, along with transportation shortages, led to the February 1946 Army Mutiny and for shorthanded manning rosters.
Now, how embarrassing it would be for the Navy to admit that it lost five of its planes off the coast of Florida in a training exercise because of complacency? How inept sounding would it seem after the court-martial of Captain McVay?
Can there be any doubt that the US Navy’s reputation was foremost on the minds of the navy brass, especially James Forrestal the Secretary of the Navy, and Admiral King the Chief of Naval Operations?