An association of Aerographers & Mates,
Meteorologists & Oceanographers

Memories of the Naval Weather Service in the 1920s and 30s


A Letter by LCDR Robert L. Welles, USN RET 

to CDR Neil F. O’Connor, USN RET

November/December 1975

CDR Neil F. O'Connor, US Navy,

Staff, ComSeventhFlt,

FPO, San Francisco, Calif, 96601.


Dear Neil:

Glad to receive your letter and to know that the project is still alive. Will do my best to provide some information regarding the early days of pre-war aerology. Much will be personal experiences, likely a lot of generalities, and perhaps a few remarks that might not stand the light of publicity. Hopefully this will wind up in some degree of chronological order and be of help. Also, should "Red" Lockhart return from Oregon prior to time of completion of this will contact [him] to see what he night remember from the 30s.

Bear in mind that prior to 1929 the branch had very few officers. Aerological activities at the air stations, on what carriers and seaplane tenders which were at hand, and the staff positions as they developed, were in charge of Chiefs. By 1925 there were 12 to 14 of us, all quite competent for that day and age. As a side remark, during those early days there was quite a bit of contention between radio and aerology regarding copying weather broadcasts, consequently several of the chiefs became relatively proficient (hit or miss) in copying these broadcasts for their own benefit. One, Bob Currie at NAS Norfolk about 1922-23 developed the ability to enter data on a map directly from the broadcast signals. An order came out about 1925 that radio personnel would cooperate fully in copying these schedules. 

Until the aerographer rating was established (about 1925, I think) the branch ratings were under a general "catchall" designation of Quartermaster. For example aerographers were QM(m)(Meteorology), there was a QM(p)(Pigeons), and of course the general service deck rating. For a time and until the fleet received the proper word, it was not unusual to find a QM(m) standing general deck and bridge watches, a few became good navigators. There were many more ratings under the QM label. It was a catch-all type rating.

During those early days, up to about 1925, the branch would accept transfers of men having almost any rating, providing they were considered adaptable, trainable and having desirable personal traits. This was done to build up seniority in the rating structure. Thus, Al Francis, R.J. Brown and I were MM1c(a) (Aviation) Bob Currie was a CQM; Tommy Thcmas a C.Signalman, E.M. Brown a C. Yeoman, J.B. Chamberlain a Boatswains Mate 1c, and so on. These and others formed the nucleus of the branch as it developed. Francis and I preceded the others. Perhaps a notation on later activities might be of interest: Francis left after 16 years to become Chief Meteorologist, later Chief Navigator, and then night operations manager for PanAm Pacific, then became Operations manager for China National. Bob Currie became Chief Meteorologist for American Airlines, R.J. Brown was Chief for PanAm South American Division while Thomas became Chief for PanAm Atlantic division. I was Chief of United Western Division and then was Western Division station manager at Oakland. Being Fleet Reservists, all except Francis were recalled prior to WW2. So you can see that the Navy had a lot to do with development of commercial airlines, weather wise, not to mention pilots, which is another story.

The first school was at Pensacola, instituted sometime before I was there in 1921. There had been a few post WWI classes as a few aerographers were scattered around at the various Air Stations. The Pensacola office and school was under command of Lieut. William F. Reed, a reserve officer with a weather bureau background and a holdover from WWI. At this time Lieuts. Reichelderfer and J.B. Anderson, also hold overs from WWI, were around someplace but not active in Aerology. Late in 1921 Reed was transferred to BuAer. as officer in charge of the branch, have no idea of whom he may have relieved, if anyone. Do suspect that during that post war period that the branch was run by almost anyone available in the Flight Section. This was the start of modern day control of the branch by Aerological officers. Anderson was then brought back into aerology and came to Pensacola; he was one of the countries outstanding small sail boat men and, I believe, held international status, also he was on the Shenandoah (dirigible) when it was torn to pieces over Ohio in a line squall, He was, I think, the only Aerological officer ever assigned to the dirigibles, rest of the time the jobs were held by Chiefs, except perhaps Shorty Orville.

As for WWI aerology, about all I know is that it did exist and generally was composed of Weather Bureau personnel, no idea of how far it was developed. Understand that Reichelderfer came into it with some kind of a science degree from college. Believe it was under general command of McAdie, an old-time weather bureau man. Would suggest you communicate with Captain W.F. (Red) Lockhart regarding this period, he told me the other day that he had made quite a study of letters and other files during time he was head of the branch about 1930. Will tack his address onto this letter, his memory is still very good.

My class in 1921 consisted of 8 Navy and 4 Marines. All Navy men were above 2c in their various ratings. Of the Navy personnel only Al Francis and I remained in the service. Might be of some interest to know the future of those leaving the service when their enlistments expired; Ken Crebbins became one of the heads of the California State Parks system; Roscoe Houseman gained high status in the silver manufacturing business in Troy, New York; Byron Morris became founder and owner of the largest glass company in Nevada; while Abe Finer was from a family dealing in furs and later on became head of the business. The others I do not know about. The class was actually given some free balloon training and made flights with instructors, but never soloed. Last one to receive this training.

Late in 1921 the first, and only, group of officers arrived at Pensacola for (I guess) on the job training to be Aerological officers. All were Lieutenants and aviators. Felix B. Stump, later on in WW2 to be Task Force Commander and then CinCPac; Adolph P, Schneider, a hot shot aviator that flew in the old time Curtiss Cup races, and was killed in one of them later on; one named Marmison (or reasonably close to that) never did know what happened to him. This was somewhat of a joke and mostly a three (3) month vacation for them. While they did show up in the office every day and learned how to decode and enter a map, to some extent, make balloon soundings and make a weather observation, none of them ever held an active billet in Aerology.

Early in 1922 the first aircraft carrier was commissioned, the Langley (nee Jupiter a converted coal collier and a sister ship of the ill- fated Cyclops), wide open and nose down the top speed may have been 14 knots, if lucky. I was the first and only Aerographer on board at commissioning but in May was relieved by the permanent complement, consisting of Al Francis and about three lower ratings. I was transferred to NAS Anacostia for duty in BuAer with Lieut Reed. Late in 1922 Reed was relieved by Reichelderfer. Reed retired.

Early in 1923 Reichelderfer sent me to the Arlington Naval Radio Station to install wind equipment on top those old 600 foot towers with recording equipment located in the main transmitter building, powered by wet cell batteries, he had a firm belief that his boys could do anything that might be assigned, and generally he was right.

Toward end of 1923 BuOrd wanted actual ballistic wind and density data as well as moment of inertia information for computation of the range tables for the 14 and 16 inch guns that were being made for installation on the California and West Virginia class battleships. Being available, Reichelderfer sent me along with two third class to Dahlgren. Up to five flights were made daily for densities, using a DH4 British WW1 biplane, attaining an altitude of 22 to 24,000 feet, without oxygen, this would be about 2/3rds of the maximum ordinate. Balloon soundings were made to at least 40,000 feet as firing conditions dictated. In between times we were computing star shell ranges, duration of light, angles and altitudes. All of this was in connection with actual firing of the guns. This lasted for about one year.

About 1924 or perhaps early 1925 aerology supply and inspection of materials was moved to the Naval Observatory, prior to this time had been at the Naval aircraft factory at Philadelphia with no aerological personnel on site. When moved it was put under command of a Chief Warrant Gunner named Smitherman, his knowledge of aerology was nil, but he was a damn good supply officer. Later on, a year or so later, he was relieved by Chief Aerographer Williams, at this time the job was expanded to include inspection and acceptance of aircraft navigational equipment such as navigational watches, sextants, octants, drift sights, etc. (I fell heir to this job in 1932) Much elaborate equipment was developed for the testing procedures, mostly by Williams, he was a mechanical whiz. The shipboard theodolite was mostly developed at the Observatory, believe the prototype was made in their precision instrument shop. Wind recording instruments were tested in the tunnels at BuStandards.

Regularly scheduled aerograph flights began around this time, 1924/25. Flights were made at all continental air stations and results forwarded by wire to the weather bureau. Take-off time was generally around 5 am. They were suspended by bungee cord between the wings of biplanes and in a cage on monoplanes. Aerographs had been in use before this time but only infrequently.

Early in 1925 I was transferred to the USS Wright, seaplane tender, flagship of the aircraft squadrons of the Scouting Force, as it was then called. RAdm J.J. Rabey was in command with Cdr. E.J. King (wartime CNO) as skipper of the Wright. The Wright was, I believe, the only ship ever developed to carry observation balloons. The balloon well was almost large enough for a football field had it been wide enough. Several F5Ls (the fleet type seaplane were stored in the balloon well and one or two as deck load on the Langley. Made a direct run from the Canal to Hawaii, however. Admiral Rabey liked to swim so every day or so the entire armada would stop and swimming call was sounded until one day when a large concentration of sharks were on the scene, that stopped that. After maneuvers with the Battle Fleet (as it was then called) I was transferred to the Aroostook, an old Fall River Line boat which had been a WW1 mine sweeper and now a seaplane tender for the Pacific aircraft squadrons, generally assumed that the boat died of sheer fright at Pearl Harbor.

We were to be 2/3rds of the way between San Francisco and Hawaii for the John Rogers attempt to non-stop in the PN-7 type seaplanes over that route. The Weather Bureau was to be prime forecasters, I was to furnish winds aloft and weather conditions. A low overcast prevented any attempt to make a sounding, by sextant no less, and weather was a low rainy overcast. They were sent on anyway and managed to get about 100 miles from our ship. The early day RDF was so experimental and inaccurate that we couldn't find them, they were picked up days later by some civilian boat.

After arriving at San Diego I was transferred to the Staff Cdr. Aircraft Pacific which was under command of a line Captain by name of Moses. He was a wild one and quite famous for many strange directives including the classic “There Will Be No More Forced Landings”, which came after a rash of them scattered planes all over Southern California.

In early 1926[?] the school was moved from Pensacola to Anacostia and was in charge of Chief R.J. Brown. Francis was in BuAer at this time with Reichelderfer. John Dungan was in the dirigibles, Manley Lawing at San Diego and the others scattered at the other stations.

Also early in 1926 I was transferred to the Alaskan Aerial Survey Expedition under the Department of Interior. 24 or 25 of us including Lieut Ben Harrison Wyatt in command together with 4 LoeningAmphib. planes, with pilots, mechanics, photographers, and a cook and baker. There were 3 or 4 Interior representatives, none of them engineers. Had the minesweeper Gannet and a huge covered barge converted into photo labs and living quarters, and also an inland waterways pilot. Had 2 weeks at the Seattle weather bureau for a fast course in Alaskan weather. After arrival in Southeast Alaska, being the only one around that knew [what] a transit was for, I was elected the surveyor, luckily I found a book in Ketchikan. This lasted until late fall.

On the return to San Diego, Lieut Wyatt (later a Rear Admiral) was transferred to the West Virginia as Battle Force Aviation officer, by this time each ship was equipped with planes, one catapult on the after turret and another on the fantail. Anyway during the summer V.Adm Jackson had come to Alaska on a destroyer to see what was doing with the expedition, he asked Wyatt what had happened to the Chief Aerographer that was up there,  guess Wyatt told him that I was in San Diego, so next day or so I was on the West Virginia on his staff. What he wanted was ballistic winds and densities at sea for gunnery practice. This had never been done at sea. So, the expedition had been equipped with a very light weight French 40-rod theodolite, we acquired this and the aerograph from the storeroom at San Diego, took it to the ships machine shop and re-worked it to be mounted on a gimbal ring and then used it on one of the outboard repeaters on the wing of the bridge, worked great. The circular plotting board was just available so there was no trouble in plotting. So off Gonaives, Haiti, I would catapult underway very early and afterwards make the balloon sounding, extremely busy for one man but it worked beautifully, back in those days they didn't fire until late in the forenoon, and the ship navigator had given me a quartermaster to help with ships headings etc.

After gunnery practice the Pacific Fleet, which had come around through the Canal, proceeded to New York. I acquired some leave and went to the Bureau, to be greeted, "Where in the Hell have you been.” Reichelderfer was calmed down the next day or so when a very nice letter was received from Admiral Jackson thanking BuAer for the cooperation, only thing wrong was that no one had bothered about telling anyone beforehand.

Anyway Reichelderfer had an idea that every air station should have a chief that was also a pilot for making the aerograph flights. BuAer had approved sending 2 of' us to Pensacola to start the program, so Jerry Barber and I were elected to; take this training. Both of us finished, I especially bad a real wild time, unfortunately I had a marine lieutenant as an instructor who had 7 marines and me, and he hated sailors, me especially. By this time BuAer had changed their mind and said that all graduates would be Chief Aviation Pilots and go to general duty. Barber changed over, but I would not, had it not been for a good friend of aerology in the Chief of the Bureau, Admiral W.A. Moffett, likely I would have been in deep trouble.

In late 1928 the first class of officers, fully trained in aerology, came out of M.I.T. They were Lcdr W.M. "Red” Lockhart, Lieutenants Tom Raftery, Tony Danis, Molly Maguire, Shorty Orville, Arnold True, Fred Dartsch. Pete Hale, Kenneth Earl, Howard B. Hutchinson and Lt(jg) Fredrick Nelson, there may have been one or two others, at least one whose name I cannot remember, transferred to the supply corps soon after graduation. All remained in aerology for varying periods of time, but promotions being what they were in those days, and the general tendency to pass over special duty type officers without line sea duty, all sooner or later gravitated back to general service except Lockhart, Raftery, Dartsch and Orville. True did return to the branch as aerologist for western sea frontier about the middle of WW2, after gaining the Navy Cross while commanding a destroyer in the Atlantic during early part of the war. During the war, for quite a period of time Lockhart was Staff Aerologist with Nimitz and other fleet commanders.

Somewhere around late 1929 (needs to be verified) Lockhart relieved Reichelderfer in the Bureau, and then J.B. Chamberlain would have been the chief there as the assistant. By this time Reichelderfer was LCDR or maybe CDR, not sure. Believe he went to general service for a year or so, anyway in 1931 or early 1932 Lockhart sent him to Norway to investigate the weather analysis theory, after considerable time there came back and then Lockhart and Reichelderfer compiled the first "bible” of this new weather gadget. I still have one of those manuals.

he winter of 1932 Lockhart was relieved by Orville, and he went to Alaska to study winter storms coming through that area. Jack Shirley and two of three others were along. Lockhart and Shirley had their wives, and the winter was spent of Attu.

In December 1931 I was sent to a new job, Staff Commander Cruisers, then under RADM W.H. Standley, later on CNO. Then in May 1932 I was sent to the Naval Observatory to be inspector of materials for Aerology and Aircraft Navigational equipment.

In 1935 when I was again back in the Cruisers, Petterssen came over from Norway and delivered on the East Coast to all officers and to what Chiefs that could be available, lectures were on the East Coast and West Coast, likely some others in the civilian areas of the country.

In 1936 we went to South America, Peru and Chile, where absolutely no weather reports were available. In those days PanAm would call their destination, find out their weather then fly from Panama to Peru or Chile over the Andes, no matter what they might encounter on the way. No wonder they lost quite a few planes.

In 1937 I was transferred to NAS San Diego. There until early 1939 when I went with United. During this time we had the responsibility for ferry flight planning for PBY planes being delivered to England, started out by going San Diego to Panama then up the other coast to Elizabeth City, then I concluded that there was enough water between San Diego and the East coast, together with the general winds, so we send a hundred or so directly across country without incident.

Just called Captain Red Lockhart. Just came in from Oregon. He is very willing to furnish any information possible in regards to history of the branch. He did say that it would be better if you could come to see him, perhaps with a tape recorder as he isn’t too much on writing anymore.

Captain W.M, Lockhart USN (Ret)

128 Lyell Street,

Los Altos, California, 94022.


Hoping that the foregoing may be of some assistance in your endeavor.


Best Regards,

Robert L. Welles