At the close of World War II, the Navy was left with several types of aircraft that were doing duty in the patrol, reconnaissance and surveillance roles. The PV-1 Ventura and PV-2 Harpoon were important mainstays of the war. Their forward firing cannons and their relatively short endurance made them more suitable in attack and escort roles than for long-range patrols. These aircraft did prove valuable in an ASW role in the North Atlantic toward the end of the war, and had success in ASW operations in the Western Atlantic close to shore. The Navy also had longer range aircraft in its inventory, but each had its own shortcomings. The PBY and PBM seaplanes did valiant service during the war. Both had longer range than the PV-1 and PV-2, but were also slower and more vulnerable to enemy attack.
The Navy tried to convert some aircraft for patrol use that had been introduced by the Army Air Forces (AAF)... the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. The PBJ Mitchell bomber, a variant of the B-25, which Doolittle’s Raiders flew from the U.S.S. Hornet to attack the Japanese mainland, saw some success with the Marine Corps, but saw little use as a Navy patrol plane. The PB-1 Flying Fortress, a variant of the famous AAF B-17, also saw little use in patrol operations. The PB4Y Liberator, a variant of the AAF B-24, saw wider use as a patrol plane and served well in several Navy patrol squadrons. But, at the end of WWII, the Navy knew that it needed a new design for a faster, more capable long-range patrol aircraft.
During World War II, the Army Air Forces proved to the world that land-based aviation in the form of long-range bombers, was a strategic necessity for success in wartime. The strategic bombing role that the AAF undertook in Europe brought Germany and Italy to its knees, although our losses of AAF crews and aircraft were tragic and previously unimaginable. From bases in the U.K., the AAF flew literally thousands of bombing missions per day against strategic Axis targets in Europe. No one can ever forget the wartime losses of thousands of our AAF aircraft and brave crews over the span of WWII. The AAF’s new B-29, which was the fastest and highest flying bomber of WWII, was noted for delivering the first and only nuclear weapons used in wartime when it was used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Soon after the close of WWII, there was a move underway to make the Army Air Forces a separate military service. Up to that point, we had a War Department that included the Army and the Army Air Forces, and we had a Navy Department that included the Navy and Marine Corps. The AAF was a subsidiary of the Army, while the Marine Corps was considered a separate branch of the military under the Secretary of the Navy. The AAF wanted its independence from the Army and wanted separate-service status similar to the Marine Corps, but with its own Department and Secretary like the Army and Navy. There was also an effort by the Army Air Forces to enlarge its scope of responsibility by attempting to take over the Navy’s and Marine’s air arm. Those attitudes stemmed from two decades before when General Billy Mitchell proposed that all military aviation matters should be the responsibility of a single, independent air force. The AAF had so proved its worth in WWII that it gained a good deal of political support for taking control of all U.S. military air resources including those of the Navy and the Marine Corps. The AAF aspired to be the U.S. Air Force with ownership and control over all assets that flew. They would allow the Navy and Marine Corps to use aircraft carriers, but they wanted the carrier airplanes to be Air Force airplanes. Some even accused the AAF of wanting control over the Army’s Howitzers that shot cannon shells into the air.
In 1946, there was a tremendous down-sizing of our military forces. All of the services were required to reduce their personnel and equipment to peacetime levels. Ships, squadrons, and battalions of troops were disestablished. Money to be spent on defense became scarce, and the services began to compete for available dollars. There began a “roles and missions” squabble among the services, with each service staking out its perceived role in warfare and seeking the funds necessary to support that role with people and weapons. It soon became clear that a battle was underway between the Navy and the Army Air Forces to determine which service should have the role of maritime air patrol. The AAF was touting its B-29 as the longest range, most capable aircraft to do that job. They also had a huge behemoth of an airplane coming into production… the ten-engine B-36, that later proved to be highly unreliable and that was quickly outmoded. The Navy was waiting for its new patrol aircraft to come off the production lines… the P2V Neptune.
Even before the end of the hostilities of WWII, CDR Thomas D. Davies, experienced in patrol aviation and decorated for achievement in ASW, was assigned for duty in the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. In early 1946, CDR Eugene P. Rankin, another patrol squadron veteran, arrived for duty in BuAer in Washington, D.C. CDR Davies headed the Patrol Plane Class Desk, supervising the design and selection of the Navy’s next patrol aircraft. CDR Rankin was assigned to the Armaments Division, where he had access and input to the newly designed P2V’s weapons systems. Both officers, and many other Navy officials in the Capitol, were intensely aware that the Navy’s role in maritime surveillance and reconnaissance was considered up for grabs in many Washington, D.C. circles.
While the P2V was still in the final design stage, CDR Davies was working with Lockheed to extend the P2V’s long-range capabilities. At Davies’ request, Lockheed initiated “Operation Turtle” to investigate ways to extend the range of the P2V. CDR Davies spoke openly about his desire to use the P2V in an endurance record-breaking attempt to show that it was just as capable of covering the world’s oceans as the B-29. CDR Eugene Rankin was the first to volunteer to participate in such a flight. The conclusions of the “Operation Turtle” study suggested that a highly modified P2V Neptune could fly at least 12,000 statute miles.
In June of 1946, P2V-1 aircraft began coming off the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s production line in Burbank, California. Since the cost of the P2V’s represented a sizeable portion of the Navy’s peacetime budget, and owing to pressures from the AAF to take over the role of maritime air operations, the Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz sent a memo to Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal. Nimitz suggested the following:
“For the purpose of investigating means of extension of present patrol aircraft ranges, physiological limitations on patrol plane crew endurance and long-range navigation by pressure pattern methods, it is proposed to make a nonstop flight of a P2V-1 aircraft from Perth, Australia to Washington, D.C. with the possibility, weather permitting, of extending the flight to Bermuda.”
Left unsaid in Admiral Nimitz’s memo was the fact that the intended route would exceed the distance record set the year before in which a B-29 had flown non-stop from Guam to Washington, D.C… a little over 7500 nautical miles. There were also rumors that the AAF was planning a more ambitious record-setting flight across the North Pole from Hawaii to Cairo, Egypt, a trip of some 9,000 nautical miles. Not coincidentally, the distance from Perth, Australia to Bermuda, via great circle route, is almost exactly 12,000 miles.
There is no hard evidence to prove it today, but it is widely believed that CDR Davies drafted the memo that Admiral Nimitz sent to SECDEF Forrestal, and gained the support of VADM Arthur Radford, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air Warfare to push the project along.