First published in Sea Power – October 2009
By NHF Staff Historian Dr. Dave Winkler[Editors note: Rear Admiral John Mustin, Vice Commander, Fleet Forces Command, great grandson of Captain Henry Mustin (featured below) is currently overseeing the USN Comfort as it assists medical operations to battle the novel Coronavirus pandemic in New York City.]
Recognizing the clear weather advantages of the Gulf Coast, in early 1914, the Navy decided to reopen an old naval station located in Pensacola, Florida, to serve as a naval aviation training facility for its fledgling aviation program. As commanding officer of the obsolescent battleship Mississippi, Cdr. Henry C. Mustin would oversee the process. Docked at the station’s pier, the battlewagon provided berthing, messing, electricity, and other services to a facility that had been shut down for three years. Aircraft arrived as did the students who would learn to fly them.
Pensacola’s location proved fortuitous as the ongoing unrest in Mexico escalated in the spring of 1914. President Wilson ordered naval forces to land ashore at Vera Cruz and the Navy seized the opportunity to take some of its aircraft from Pensacola to perform scout work. Mustin loaded floatplanes on Mississippi and rushed across the Gulf of Mexico. On April 25, Mustin launched the first naval aircraft to support combat operations. That morning a floatplane went aloft to locate a reported mine. Over the next two months, aircraft based from Mississippi and the cruiser Birmingham would serve as eyes for troops ashore. Mustin, the visionary, could already see an offensive role for the aircraft. Following a short deployment to Europe where he learned about French naval aviation advances, Mustin returned to Pensacola to reassume command of the Naval Aeronautic Station.
Mustin understood that the next step in the evolution of naval aviation was the installation of a reliable catapult on ships to launch aircraft. On November 5, 1915, Mustin personally demonstrated the concept as a catapult erected on the fantail on the North Carolina launched him off. Although buoyed by success, Mustin quickly grasped that the complexity of aviation operations off a conventional warship limited the potential for naval aviation. A ship dedicated to air operations would be the next step in the evolution. Appearing before the Navy General Board in Washington in the summer of 1916, Mustin called for the design and construction of a ship capable of launching and landing torpedo planes, spotter aircraft, and fighters. However, the entry of the United States into World War I sidetracked Mustin’s advocacy. With victory in Europe, Capt. Mustin would continue his advocacy for an aircraft carrier. Eventually, funds were made available to convert the collier Jupiter into the Langley.
In early 1921, Mustin demonstrated the long range and versatility of flying boats with a trip down to Panama and back, a feat that got him and his comrades dubbed “the Columbuses of the air.” As a result of the pioneering work conducted by Mustin and his peers, the Navy began to embrace naval aviation. The Bureau of Aeronautics was created in July 1921 with Rear Adm. William A. Moffett at the rudder. Moffett selected Mustin to be his assistant chief. When the Washington Naval Conference limited further battleship construction, it became clear to Mustin that naval aviation would become critical in a hypothetical war against Japan. After his vigorous campaigning, Congress authorized funds to convert two battle cruisers slated for scrapping under the treaty to become the carriers Saratoga and Lexington.
Going before the Navy General Board, Mustin argued for three more carriers, envisioning these ships operating as part of task force formations that could send aircraft to lash out at enemy ships and land masses. Because of the austere budget, Mustin’s pleas fell on deaf ears. In the interim, Langley had joined the fleet and presented the Navy with opportunities to operate aircraft with the fleet. In January 1923 Mustin was admitted to the Washington Naval Hospital where doctors determined he had an aortic aneurysm—a ballooned artery that rubbed against his ribs. Over the next several months his condition worsened. On August 23, 1923, he died. Cdr. Charles Melhorn commented that the untimely death of Mustin, who had had an ability to “translate broad strategic vision into detailed planning,” left Moffett with a void that he could never quite fill.
Sources: Charles M. Melhorn, Two Block Fox: The Rise of Carrier Aviation (Naval Institute Press, 1974); John Fass Morton, Mustin, A Naval Family for the 20th Century (Naval Institute Press, 2003)