All the Factors of Victory: Adm. Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Airpower

  • Published

All the Factors of Victory: Adm. Joseph Mason Reeves and the Origins of Carrier Airpower by Thomas Wildenberg. Naval Institute Press, 2019, 352 pp. 

Thomas Wildenberg, an independent historian specializing in the development of naval aviation and technological innovation in the US Navy, argues Adm Joseph Mason Reeves as an unsung hero by offering Reeves’s progenitor role in the development of carrier aviation operations, tactics, and employment during the interwar years as evidence. Wildenberg elects a biographical perspective tracking Reeves’s life from childhood to death. Unfortunately, Wildenberg’s effort was hampered by one rather difficult problem: there is not much written or documented about the life of Admiral Reeves. This problem forced Wildenberg by his own admission to “borrow generously” from a single-source document, a doctoral thesis authored by the son of one of Reeves’s former chief of staff titled “Admiral with Wings” (p. x).   

Despite the documentation disadvantages saddling Wildenberg, he produced an easy-to-follow text of Reeves’s career populated with occasional leadership lessons suiting the purpose of a biography. The book opens recalling the pivotal point in Reeves’s career where he excelled during Fleet Problem IX, the first annual training exercise that focused on carrier employment. Wildenberg then shifts back in time to Reeves’s acceptance to the Naval Academy and sequentially documents Reeves’s life until it ends three months following his final retirement from naval service. The effort spends little time on Reeves’s personal life, only intonating that his devotion to the sea led to a lonely existence and estrangement from his wife. 

Reeves’s career is somewhat of an exception in the current era of officer development. He demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for leadership and innovation in various company and field-grade officer assignments, was placed in charge of what was essentially carrier aviation operational testing and evaluation and was then given command of the first operational carrier force. Along the way Reeves made more friends than enemies and remained cognizant of the other interest groups holding sway—the battleship mafia known colloquially as the gun club. Although somewhat an over-simplification of Reeves’s long and impactful career, Wildenberg uses Reeves’s successful navigation of these waters as justification for his deserved remembrance.     

If there are qualms about Wildenberg’s effort, they would be that throughout the biography, the author weighs Reeves’s contributions to the propelling of carrier aviation a bit heavier than is warranted. There were many supporters of carrier aviation at all levels during Reeves’s career, meaning that the bureaucratic and organizational battles that Reeves fought were ones that often landed on sympathetic ears as many saw the carrier as a mobile air base solution in the vast Pacific for deterring Japanese attacks. As well, Wildenberg sporadically uses conjecture to link Reeves’s presence in different situations to associated responsibility for follow-on actions, likely driven by the lack of documentation of Reeves’s life.  

Wildenberg finished his preface by offering, “As was the case with so many of the exceptional leaders produced by the Navy in the first half of the twentieth century, Reeves was an extremely talented, multifaceted officer whose career stands as a mute tribute to the Navy’s leadership during the interwar years” (p. xi). Adm Joseph Mason Reeves is not the first great leader whose contributions have been muted by the momentum of time, nor will he be the last. Still, Wildenberg did all that was possible to rescue Reeves from a fate of obscurity. And in doing so, Wildenberg also augments the knowledge of airpower development for aviation enthusiasts and historians focused on the interwar era. 

Col William J. Ott, USAF, Retired 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."