Admiral John H. Towers was the architect of the U.S. Navy’s carrier aviation program.
Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King, Raymond A. Spruance and Marc A. Mitscher have their place in history assured. Their accomplishments during the war are well documented, as is the public acclaim accorded them.
However, another naval flag officer, a contemporary of the U.S. Navy’s greatest heroes of the war, remains relatively obscure, his name and his achievements virtually unknown to generations of Americans who have earned their wings as naval aviators and flown from the decks of aircraft carriers. Admiral John H. Towers was born on January 30, 1885, in Rome, Ga. His interests led him to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., where he graduated in 1906.
Towers became fascinated with flight and was the third Navy man to learn to pilot an aircraft, taught by famed aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. In May 1919 he commanded the first transatlantic flight, made by three NC (Navy-Curtiss) seaplanes. It was Towers who advocated a separate naval air arm that would train its own pilots, maintain its own aircraft and develop the platforms from which they would operate. As the Navy’s strongest air proponent he ran afoul of crusading U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who championed a separate U.S. Air Force during the 1920s with total control of air operations in the American military.
In his 1991 biography Admiral John H. Towers: The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy, Clark G. Reynolds describes his subject as one who stood “at the forefront of early aviation.” From 1939 to 1942, says Reynolds, Admiral Towers was the mastermind of the mobilization of aviation forces for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps along with Congressman Carl Vinson of Georgia and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Admiral Towers made the cover of Time magazine for the week of June 23, 1941, with a revealing caption under his portrait: “Navy Air Chief Towers: Not ships v. planes but planes plus ships.”
During the interwar years, a great debate concerning the role of aircraft raged within the American military establishment, and a microcosm of that debate polarized the high command of the U.S. Navy into two main factions. One group supported the traditional battleship as the queen of the seas and principal naval weapon of future wars. The other recognized the airplane as a weapon that would dominate future battles on land and sea, and eventually, the aircraft carrier as the dominant player in naval battles to come.
Towers became an iconoclast, working tirelessly for the pre-eminence of naval aviation over the battleship. He commanded USS Langley, the Navy’s first operational aircraft carrier, and later the famed aircraft carrier Saratoga.
According to Reynolds, Towers, as head of the Bureau of Aeronautics, “forged the carrier doctrine that spearheaded the defeat of Japan” during the Pacific War. After World War II, he became commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, guiding it during the early years of the Cold War.
Why, then, is John Towers’ name rarely mentioned in connection with the exploits of his more famous contemporaries? The answer is simple. Towers was strong and forthright in his assertions, and in his zeal he managed to alienate several of his superior officers, including Nimitz, King and Spruance. These three, explains Reynolds, prevented Towers from receiving the combat command that might have propelled him into the limelight during World War II. Ultimately, however, he was vindicated. His ideas were proved to be so correct that he became a well-respected adviser of Nimitz during the latter’s tenure as Pacific Fleet commander during the war and his later term as chief of naval operations (CNO).
In a supremely ironic twist, it was Spruance whom Towers relieved as commander of the Pacific Fleet on February 1, 1946. Spruance had been a member of the battleship faction years before. History had other plans, and Spruance is now remembered as the hero of the Battle of Midway and the U.S. commander during the great victory over the Japanese in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Spruance the battleship man is now known as one who understood and superbly applied the principles of naval aviation and aircraft operations–principles conceived by Admiral John H. Towers.
Towers died on April 30, 1955, having devoted more than four decades of service to the Navy. Reynolds observes that even eminent historian Samuel Eliot Morison “completely failed to give voice to his accomplishments. The fact is that Towers’ career was a major success story, marred only by his having been kept from combat command during World War II and from the top post of CNO afterward.”
As others have done before, Towers sacrificed career advancement in the name of principle. It was the right thing to do.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II