Southern New Jersey, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, had been inextricably tied to naval aviation with several air stations during World War II. The largest, and therefore most important, had been Naval Air Station Wildwood.
Tracing its origins to President Roosevelt, who had used New Deal funds to construct civilian airports under the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) for military conversion in the event of war, Naval Air Station Wildwood had been sparked by the emerging need for a pilot training base to protect the Atlantic seaboard from German submarines which had targeted US supply ships traveling to Britain. Nazi Germany, having already captured France in June of 1942, had become an increasing threat security bollards.
In Southern New Jersey, the US Coast Guard transferred its station, which had been originally built as a World War I naval base in 1917, to the Navy, which had then commissioned it Naval Air Station Cape May in September of 1940 and from which observation and scout squadron training had subsequently been conducted.
But the urgency for additional facilities had heightened the following year when the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, alerting of the need for naval aircraft and proficient dive-bomber pilots. The Cape May base had been pitifully inadequate for this purpose, prompting a series of surveys in Lower Township for additional land.
An initial 500 acres, leased for $1.00 from Cape May County for later conversion to civilian use, had resulted in March, 1942 governmental construction bids, and workmen, under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, commenced the arduous deforestation process by clearing trees and filling in swamps to prepare land for a fighting squadron training base in Rio Grande. Although the construction effort had been successful, its purpose had not been: the Army ultimately elected to establish a similar facility some 40 miles north, in Millville, abandoning the project.
The cleared, 500-acre area, with potential application as an auxiliary field for the inadequately-sized Cape May Naval Air Station, had still been 400 acres short of the Navy’s stipulated 900-acre requirement, and this had only been remedied by the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ emergency resolution authorizing an additional $15,000 for land acquisition. The win-win expenditure had been perceived as providing both the Navy with the needed land for its base and the county with the needed employment to arrest it from its economic fall into Depression’s quicksand, although the need for such a facility had been clearly demonstrated by the concurrent Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the Battle of Midway in June, victories only sustainable with the qualified bases where pilots could be trained. In fact, the number of such pilots had been estimated as 20,000. The proposed Rio Grande base, it had been argued, would be crucial to sustaining naval aviation’s imprint in the Pacific.
Resultantly, the Navy, leasing the land from the county and appropriating $500,000 for the new airfield, commenced construction in October of 1942, subsequently completing one 4,000-foot runway, three 5,000-foot runways, a control tower, hangars, barracks, an operations building, a mess hall, a water supply station, a steam heating plant, a sewage system, and roads, providing employment for 362 local civilians.
The base, adopting its name from the nearest post office, had been commissioned “Naval Air Station Rio Grande” on April 1, 1943, and Lieutenant Commander Morris Ruggles Brownell, Jr. had assumed command of it, but early confusion with the identically-named city in Texas had resulted in its redesignation as “Naval Air Station Wildwood” on June 17, a name hitherto only associated with a southern New Jersey beach resort. Supplemented by Woodbine Auxiliary Airfield, which had opened two months later, in August, and a facility in Delaware, the new naval air station met the Navy’s capacity needs and enabled it to concentrate dive-bombing pilot training at the new field. It had also operated in conjunction with Naval Air Stations Cape May and Atlantic City.
Composite Squadron Thirty (VC-30) of Carrier Air Group 30 (CAG30) had been the first to have been commissioned by the Navy at its new facility in April of 1943 for the USS Monterey, although the squadron’s size had initially necessitated the use of eight Westward huts and tents and hotels in Wildwood for 150 of its pilots until base facility construction had been completed.
The initially-combined Bombing Squadron Fourteen and Fifteen (VB-14 and VB-15), training under the “Fleet Air Detachment Wildwood Operation Plan for the Defense of the Eastern Sea Frontier” in Douglas SDB Dauntless aircraft, practiced squadron flying, individual bombing practice, diving, navigation, glide bombing, fixed gunnery, free gunnery, instrument night flying, and anti-submarine surface strafing.
II. Naval Air Station Wildwood Aircraft
Instrumental to Naval Air Station Wildwood and the Navy’s combat strategy in the Pacific had been the dive-bomber aircraft, which provided precision attacks of rapidly moving targets at steep descent angles. Such designs, of the low-wing, metal airframe type usually powered by a single piston engine, had been capable of operating from aircraft carriers with arrester hook provision and had been equipped with dive brakes, such as split flaps, to prohibit excessive, unrecoverable profiles, limit airframe stress, and increase the maneuver’s duration to improve the accuracy, aim, and trajectory of the bomb itself, which had typically been carried on a hinged bomb rack. After its release, it had to be projected downward, with sufficient clearance from the propeller arc to avoid interference.