Steamship Sunday – Frank Wead, John Wayne and the “Jeep” Carriers

Steamship Sunday

Hat Tip_2

Another tip of the hat to “Milo” for help with this series on the “Jeep” carriers.

John Wayne_On_Wings_of_Eagles

In our first post about the Escort Carriers, the “Jeep” carriers, we saw that they had been hastily developed and pressed into service using ship hulls that had originally been intended for other purposes. Last week, we saw how the “Jeeps” of “Taffy 3” took on and turned back a far superior Japanese force in the Battle of Samar – a modern David and Goliath story.

Today we will learn of the role of Navy Aviator Frank Wead in the development both of Naval Aviation and the “Jeeps” and how there came to be a movie about Wead with John Wayne as the star.


Frank  “Spig” Wead

Frank Wilbur “Spig” Wead was born to Samuel De Forest Wead and Grace Wead on 24 October 1895, in  Peoria, Illinois. Frank graduated from Peoria High School.

The Wead family had a strong background of service to the American nation. The Weads of Massachusetts were represented in one of the Committees of Safety established during the American Revolutionary War, and also as patriots in the Colonial Wars, forming part of the General Society of Colonial Wars during 1607–1763. The Connecticut Weads were also patriots of the American Revolutionary War. The Wead families were prominent in Illinois and Vermont in several fields during the 19th and 20th centuries: politics, law, education and as supporters of the Union during the American Civil War.

On 16 July 1912, Frank Wilbur Wead (aged 16) was admitted into the United States Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1916. The Class of 1916 graduated on 29 May 1916.

Following graduation from the Naval Academy and leave, Ensign Wead reported to his first sea-duty assignment aboard U.S.S. San Diego (ACR-6) on 28 June 1916.

Wead was next assigned to U.S.S. Pittsburgh (CA-4) and then to U.S.S. Shawmut (CM-4). Following the armistice with Germany, Wead returned stateside aboard Shawmut.

In February 1919, a kite-balloon division of six balloons was assigned to Shawmut and other ships. The ships participated in fleet exercises and, after seven weeks, returned to the United States after demonstrating the capability to operate without land-based support.

With the knowledge that the Naval Aviation Division was seeking naval officers with a strong aptitude in naval engineering, having a desire to accept projects with a certain amount of risk, and with the combat-proven ability to lead naval personnel by example, Lieutenant Wead began the process for obtaining endorsements to his application to be nominated for flight training.

Wead received a permanent promotion to Lieutenant (Junior Grade) on 3 June 1919. In the late summer of 1919, Wead requested naval aviation flight training at Aeronautic Station Pensacola, Florida. His request was approved and he was assigned to Class 1, the first class of regular officers sent to Pensacola after the commencement of World War I, on 15 September 1919. In addition to basic and advanced flight and navigation, the students were trained on a catapult installed on a floating barge at Pensacola. Wead was designated a United States Naval Aviator on 17 April 1920; his wife, Minnie “Min” Wead, pinned his golden wings to his uniform. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 July 1920.

Wead began to promote Naval Aviation after World War I through air racing, speed competitions and several naval aviation articles he submitted for publishing in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings magazine. This competition, mainly against the United States Army Air Service (and its leading racer, Jimmy Doolittle), helped push U.S. military aviation forward. These competitions would give Naval Aviation a much-needed spotlight in the public eye. The public attention that it generated helped push Congress to fund the advancement of military aviation. After World War I Wead was a test pilot for the Navy.

On 21 April 1921, a newly promoted Lieutenant Frank Wead reported aboard U.S.S. Aroostook (CM-3), homeported at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California. Aboard Aroostook, Wead was assigned aviation duties involving flying: Aeromarine 39-B (two-seater seaplane used as a “scout plane”) and Felixstowe F5L (flying boat that carried a crew of four); reporting to Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet Air Squadrons Captain Henry Barnum Butler and Executive Aide Lieutenant Commander Patrick N. L. Bellinger.

Many changes were occurring within the Naval Aviation community. In the summer of 1921, Lieutenant Wead took part in the round-trip, long distance flight operation involving twelve F-5-L flying boats departing from NAS North Island to the Coco Solo Canal Zone and back. Additionally, Wead took part in tests involving dummy torpedoes dropped from F-5-L aircraft. Also, in accordance with an Act of Congress, United States Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby issued orders for the establishment of a Bureau of Aeronautics to begin operations, 1 September 1921, with Rear Admiral William A. Moffett as chief of the bureau.(Moffett Field in Mountain View, California on the southern end of the San Francisco Peninsula is named after Admiral Moffett.)

The experience gained aboard USS Aroostook involving F-5-L flying boats was instrumental in Wead being selected as commanding officer of Combat Squadron No. 3 (re-designated, Fighting Plane Squadron 3, on 17 June 1922), U.S. Pacific Fleet; he served in this capacity for over a year until the spring of 1923.

During the period of 1921 – 1923, there was a great interest among state governors and congressional leaders to send Government airplanes to all parts of the country to participate in patriotic celebrations, municipal and state functions, conventions, air meets, including international air races. In an era of aeronautic cooperation and coordination with the taxpayers, the two services (United States Army Air Service headed by Major General Mason Patrick and the Bureau of Aeronautics headed by Rear Admiral Moffett) wholeheartedly approved at the 14th Annual Banquet of the Aero Club of America  to compete for the Pulitzer Trophy (National Air Races), Mackay Army Trophy (Mackay Trophy), Collier Trophy, Wright Trophy, Larsen Efficiency Trophy, Curtiss Marine Trophy, Detroit Aviation Country Club Trophy, Liberty Engine Builders Trophy, Detroit News Aerial Mail Trophy, Inter-service Championship Meet, including the two foreign races – the Coupe Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe and the Coupe Jacques Schneider for seaplanes and flying boats.

In the spring of 1923, Wead reported to Naval Air Station (NAS) Anacostia, Washington, D.C. for shore duty assignment. Assigned to the Flight Division of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Lieutenant Wead worked closely with the Philadelphia Naval Aircraft Factory and three contractors (Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Wright Aeronautical, Glenn L. Martin Company) in the development of seaplane airframes and new engines, and testing the seaplanes in duration flights above the Potomac River. Based upon his experience and technical expertise, Wead submitted several articles for publication that pertained to known issues concerning aircraft design, power plant problems, and future naval aviation.

Following his assignment at NAS Anacostia, Wead was assigned staff duty involving flying at NAS North Island where he served as Flag Lieutenant to the Flight Project Commander at NAS North Island, Captain Stanford Moses. On 28 October 1924, Wead was assigned to command VT Squadron 2. During 1924 and 1925, Wead was involved with the planning for the San Francisco to Hawaii endurance and navigation tests to comprise two Naval Aircraft Factory PN-9 flying boats, and one Boeing PB-1 flying boat.

In early April 1926, Wead received a naval message at his headquarters, NAS North Island, that he was selected for promotion to Lieutenant Commander; promoted ahead of his fellow naval aviators Class of 1916; and, one of the Navy’s youngest squadron commanders.

In his book “All the Factors of Victory: Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves and The Origins of Carrier Airpower” (May 2003), Thomas Wildenberg provided an insight into the naval aviation tactical issues with which Reeves was involved and the part Wead played as commanding officer of VF-2 fighter squadron (comprising Vought VE-7SF “Bluebird”, Boeing Model 15 naval variant FB-5, Curtiss Model 34D F6C-2 “Hawk”). Wead was preparing his squadron for the June 1926 tactical exercises aboard U.S.S. Langley (CV-1, the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier) up to his accident on 14 April 1926. Wildenberg identified Wead’s replacement as Lieutenant Commander Frank Dechant Wagner, who would further improve upon the training tactics devised by Wead, including developing new dive-bombing techniques.


“Spig” Wead in the 1920s.

On 14 April 1926, Wead heard his daughter Marjorie crying. Rushing to her, he tripped, falling head first down a dark stairway, and fractured his neck. The injury resulted in paralysis. Wead was immediately taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Balboa Park (today’s Naval Medical Center San Diego) where the Commandant of the U.S. Naval Hospital, Captain Raymond Spear, was briefed on Wead’s condition and ordered for him to be operated on.

According to an article written by a San Diego Union staff writer:

“Lieut. Frank Wead Slips on Stairway of Coronado Home; Operated Upon. Lieut. Frank Wead, one of the best known aviators in the naval service, was operated on for a fractured neck at the naval hospital yesterday morning. Wead sustained the injury which came near costing his life when he slipped and fell from the top of the stairway of his home in Coronado late Wednesday night. The aviator had just moved into the home and was unfamiliar with the staircase. Physicians, following the operation yesterday, said that Wead will recover but it is doubtful if he will be able to fly again. Wead’s outstanding exploit since entering the naval flying corps was his flight against British pilots in the international seaplane races off the Isle of Wight in 1923, when American naval fliers took all the honors.”

On 16 July 1926, while convalescing in the hospital, Wead was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.  At the encouragement of his fellow naval officers, he put his writing skills to work and started sending manuscripts to pulp book and magazine companies. During spring of 1927, in the hope that his recovery was imminent and with the strong recommendation from Commander Marc Mitscher, Rear Admiral Moffett submitted Wead’s name to Rear Admiral Richard Leigh, Commander, Bureau of Naval Personnel, recommending Wead to be the new Squadron Commander of VF-6B (previously, VF-2) with duty aboard U.S.S. Langley. However, Wead was placed on the retired list, 28 May 1928 with a residence of Los Angeles, California. He began his second career, screenplay writing, which subsequently occupied him throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Commander Mitscher was later promoted to Admiral and commanded Hornet, CV-8  during the Doolittle Raid and during the Battle of Midway. Mitscher, like Wead, was an early advocate of naval aviation and is one of the unsung heroes of World War II.)

In the hours immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, from the library within his rented estate in Beverly Hills, Wead listened as bulletins interrupted regularly scheduled radio programs with updated details of the bombing. He also made a long-distance phone call to the Bureau of Aeronautics to speak with Rear Admiral Towers, requesting a recall to active duty. The phone call was followed-up with a Western Union telegram to Captain Ralph Davison.

It was a chance to serve his country, again. Wead flew from California and arrived at Naval Air Station Quonset Point where he worked as special aide to Captain Ralph Davison. Also, at NAS Quonset Point was Rear Admiral Calvin Durgin and his naval aide Captain John Hoskins. All these naval aviators (who had graduated from Annapolis together) communicated closely together in working out the details for the manning and training of carrier air groups for the newly commissioned aircraft carriers. With the approval from Davison, Frank was promoted to the temporary rank of Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, on 28 September 1942.

Wead returned to the Navy during World War II and helped integrate the use of Escort Carriers to support the main battle line and beach landings.

In his syndicated column In Hollywood, on 13 January 1942, Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) service staff correspondent Paul Harrison released an article on a recent interview with Spig Wead titled “No Weeds Growing Under Wead’s Feet”. (NEA supplied daily features to many newspapers; United Media). Paul wrote:

“Early Offer. On the fateful afternoon of December 7, Wead sent a wire offering his services to Rear Admiral John Towers, Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. A reply of acceptance came next day, along with assurance he needn’t worry about his physical disability… And so Lieut. Comdr. Frank Wead now is special assistant to Capt. Ralph Davison, head of the Plans Division, which deals with the organization and tactical operation of all naval aviation… When I used the word ‘sacrifice’ in reminding him that he was leaving a $2,000-a-week berth for one paying $460 a month, he just snorted. It was a very eloquent snort.”

According to a letter written on 3 May 1955 by Vice Admiral Calvin Durgin, USN (Ret.), to film director John Ford (who directed the 1957 film about Wead starring John Wayne):

“I can tell your writer about getting Spig to Washington during the war. I suggested to Admiral Towers that we recall him. It was he who originated the plan, which later was adopted, of changing over many of the cruisers we were then building into light carriers (CVL’s). He deserves most of the credit for that. I remember discussing this matter with him and then going to Admiral Pratt who, at that time, was very close to Roosevelt and who was quite interested in getting the small “Jeep” carriers started [during this period, Commander Durgin was assigned to the Bureau of Aeronautics, Plans Division]. I think the first such carrier, the Long Island, was Admiral Pratt’s idea. Spig’s aggressiveness and logical approach convinced Admiral King and the President that six of the eighteen cruisers should be made into carriers. Spig was not satisfied; he wanted all eighteen to be CVL’s. He said the cruisers were not going to take a big part in the Pacific war but that carriers would. This was in 1940 – 1941. Spig, as we know now, was absolutely right”.

The story of Wead’s sea-duty during World War II began in the air flying from Port of San Francisco and landing at Honolulu Harbor aboard a Boeing 314 Clipper, arriving at Oahu Island on 21 November 1943. From the Port of Honolulu Wead reported to Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet Headquarters as head of the Plans Division for Commander, Air Force, Pacific Fleet, Vice Admiral John Towers. This shore-duty assignment was to await the return of USS Yorktown. On the afternoon of 9 December 1943, Wead reported aboard Yorktown where he met with his old Naval Academy buddy Captain Joseph Clark, skipper of the Yorktown. Representing the Plans Division, Wead’s orders aboard Yorktown were to monitor and report on carrier aviation combat operations, most especially obtaining first-hand knowledge in the ability of consolidated CVs in a task force to readily replace their lost/damaged aircraft with replacements from close-by CVLs. (The CVLs were the “light” carriers, smaller than the CVs but larger than the “Jeep” Escort Carriers.)

Having completed an earlier successful operation, Yorktown (assigned to Task Group 58.1, commanded by Rear Admiral John Reeves, Jr.) departed Pearl Harbor with Wead aboard on 16 January 1944. Wead took part in the attack on Kwajalein Atoll during Operation Flintlock, an operation that involved four carrier groups. The U.S.S. Yorktown then steamed to the newly established Pacific Fleet anchorage at Majuro Atoll, arriving about 4 February 1944. It was during this short eight-day anchorage period amongst the Pacific Fleet that Wead was transferred from Yorktown to U.S.S. Essex, CV-9. The commanding officer of Essex was Captain Ralph Ofstie, another of Wead’s Annapolis contemporaries. While aboard Essex, Wead saw action against Truk Island (17–18 February), now called Chuuk, and against Saipan, Tinian, and Guam (23 February).

After these operations, Essex received orders for overhaul and Wead remained aboard Essex as it steamed to San Francisco Bay. The carrier arrived at Naval Air Station Alameda in mid-April 1944 for the much-needed overhaul. It was at NAS Alameda, aboard Essex, that Wead was given an official send-off from active duty just prior to his retirement. Wead was relieved of active duty on 21 July 1944, and was processed through the Personnel Department at NAS Alameda receiving his discharge papers and a train ticket for Los Angeles, California. Wead was placed on the retired list on 11 May 1945 with the rank of Commander.

Frank Andrews’s book “Dirigible”, is based on the Columbia Pictures screenplay by Wead. Frank Wead’s publishers released another book in 1931. This was “Wings For Men.” Writing became a second and even more important career for Wead, and a means of promoting naval aviation.

The injury to his neck left Frank Wead with an ability to endure hours of pain sitting upright in a chair typing away on manuscripts for possible publication. Known to outsiders as being “belligerent, brave, eccentric visionary; a man of fanatical dedication…doomed to be alone”, his love for his daughters and their well-being could not be matched. Frank sent his daughter Dorothea to attend the prestigious Smith College; she graduated with the Class of 1939. Thus, this Naval Academy grad and record-breaking naval pilot was able to succeed as a screenplay writer and to earn a comfortable income to support his daughters in their life-style and college education. However he was, by all accounts, difficult to live with after his injury. Despite his devotion to his daughters, his wife divorced Wead, packed up the girls, and moved to Denver, Colorado. She later returned to California, but the Weads were not reunited.

Frank Wead’s talent for writing grew during the years as a naval officer involved with the daily administrative papers, submitting detailed reports, completing flight schedules. One of his interests was reading stories and poetry written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Frank would later use the Requiem inscribed on Stevenson’s tomb as script material for several screenplays, such as “They Were Expendable,” and screenplay writers Frank Fenton (writer) and William Wister Haines used the Requiem in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film about Wead, “The Wings of Eagles.”

The popularity of his pulp and magazine stories led Frank Wead to Hollywood and the eventual friendship and collaboration with director John Ford.


During late 1928, Frank Wead began his screening experience by assisting M-G-M as a technical adviser and screenwriter for the film “The Flying Fleet.” This was Wead’s first film work.

In 1931 after getting “local color” from sailors on leave in the Panama Canal Zone, Wead wrote the story that became the script for the movie “Hell Divers” with Clark Gable and Wallace Beery. “Hell Divers” was filmed aboard the carrier Saratoga in the Pacific off of San Diego.

Frank Wead-Clark Gable

Wead, getting a haircut on the flight deck of U.S.S. Saratoga, talks with Clark Gable.

Hell Divers

Wead received two Academy Award nominations in 1938, one for Best Original Story for “Test Pilot” and a second for Best Screenplay for “The Citadel.”

Wead also wrote for leading magazines (The Saturday Evening Post and The American Magazine), and he wrote at least two books: “Ceiling Zero” (1936), and “Gales, Ice and Men, A Biography of the Steam Barkentine Bear” (1937). He later adapted “Ceiling Zero” into both a Broadway play and a feature film.

Frank Wead died in 1947. John Ford’s movie about Wead, “The Wings of Eagles” was released in 1957, with John Wayne as Wead. Ward Bond played director Ford in the thinly-disguised pseudonymous character of John Dodge. Head’s wife, Minnie “Min” Wead, was played by Maureen O’Hara.

In The New York Times (18 November 1947), this article appeared:

“FRANK WEAD DIES; MOVIE WRITER, 52. Did Screen Plays for ‘Citadel’ and ‘They Were Expendable’- Naval Aviator in 1917. Santa Monica, Calif., Nov. 17 (AP) – Frank Wead of Los Angeles, naval aviator in the first World War, who became a film writer, died Saturday night in Santa Monica Hospital, which he entered Nov. 1 for surgery. His age was 52. Mr. Wead, a Commander in the Navy, turned to writing after he was injured in an accident at home. He wrote many original screen plays and collaborated on others. Among the well-known films to his credit were ‘Dirigible’, ‘Hell Divers’, ‘Ceiling Zero’, ‘The Citadel’, ‘Dive Bomber’, and ‘They Were Expendable’, the last in 1945. Born in Peoria, Ill. Mr. Wead fell at home in 1926, fracturing his neck and sustaining paralysis, after which he retired from the Navy. Surviving are two daughters, Mrs. William Copley of San Diego, Calif., daughter-in-law of the late publisher, Col. Ira C. Copley, and Mrs. Lila Ployardt of North Hollywood, Calif., and two brothers, DeForest Wead of Peoria and David Wead of Oswego, Ill. Mr. Wead wrote the play ‘Ceiling Zero’, the aviation melodrama which Brock Pemberton produced at the Music Box Theater in April, 1935, and a book, ‘Gales, Ice and Men, a Biography of the Steam Barkentine Bear‘ (1937). Other films besides those mentioned, for which Mr. Wead wrote the screen play in whole or in part, are ‘West Point of the Air’, ‘Sea Devils’, ‘Submarine D-1’, ‘The Hoodlum Saint’, ‘Destroyer’, ‘Moon Over Burma’, ‘The Great Impersonation’ (from the Oppenheim novel) and ‘Blaze of Noon’, which was shown at the Rivoli in New York last spring. Before becoming a Hollywood writer Mr. Wead contributed many stories to ‘the pulps’ and, later, to The Saturday Evening Post. The formula he used successfully at the start was ‘coward turns hero’.”

Just a few days following the death of Commander Wead, Hearst columnist , commentator and writer Bob Considine submitted a tribute article titled “Frank Wead”. He wrote:

“FRANK WEAD, the Hollywood writer who died this week, was one of the more remarkable figures of our time…When the carrier war opened in the Pacific Wead returned to active service in the Navy…’Spig’ Wead was flown to Pearl Harbor and lifted aboard a carrier by cargo net. From his desk in the captain’s quarters he helped plan some of the more remarkable strikes against the Japanese fleet and shore installations. If his carrier had gone down, he would have had to go with it, for there could be no escape for him… He remained one of the frankest critics of navy ‘battleship brass’ in intimate naval circles. He had been a confirmed airman since he captained the early Schneider cup teams and his constant hammering for more funds and attention for naval aviation brought about many of the reforms we know today”.

In July 1956, veteran Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas, who covered Hollywood stories for many years, had interviewed Charles Schnee. Schnee had known Frank Wead for a number of years, and in an interview for the new film had told Bob Thomas stories about Frank Wead – the naval aviator and World War II aircraft carrier strategist:

“He was living in a new house in San Diego. He got up in the night to look at one of his daughters and was going back to bed when he slipped and fell downstairs. Wead broke his neck. The doctors told him he would be forced to face the life of an invalid, but he refused to accept their decision. He taught himself to walk, slowly and painfully, with the aid of canes…His doctor, who is helping us with the picture, said he would have lived much longer if he hadn’t gone on active duty [World War II].”

The movie editor, John Domer, staff writer for the Mansfield News-Journal, wrote this article regarding the new film “The Wings of Eagles” that was printed in the Saturday morning edition of 23 February 1957:

“Story of Navy Air Hero Stars Wayne. The story of one of the great modern Heroes of naval aviation is brought to the screen of the Ohio Theater in ‘The Wings of Eagles’, which will be held over through Tuesday. This motion picture recreates the dramatic and exciting career of the late Commander Frank ‘Spig’ Wead, one of the outstanding pioneers in the field of naval aviation. John Wayne portrays Cmdr. Wead quite capably, but co-star Dan Dailey steals the show as a Navy mechanic who aids Wayne in his fight to recover from a spinal injury. The M-G-M film – in color – beginning with a sequence close to the start of the story, in which ‘Spig’ Wead, and Annapolis graduate learning to fly at Pensacola in 1919, gives a stunting exhibition in his first flight which results in a crash. This exhibition includes flying through an empty hanger as well as ‘buzzing’ everything in sight. It is on the night that ‘Spig’ receives word of his appointment as skipper of a fighting squadron (making him the youngest squadron commander in Naval history) that he incurs the spinal injury which holds his life in the balance. Through intestinal fortitude and will power, aided by the encouragement of Navy mechanic St. Carson, he learns to walk and to begin a new career as an author, playwright and screen writer on the subject of aviation. This brings the story up to the point of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sent to the Pacific to put into effect his idea for “Jeep” carriers to follow up the big carriers and replace lost planes. Wead sees his plan culminating in the defeat of the Japanese navy at Kwajalein. His long fight to win a strong air arm for the Navy has been won.”

On Wings of Eagles - inside

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