Mason "Bull" Reeves (November 20, 1872 – March 25, 1948):
By WO1 Mark J.
Denger and LTC Norman S. Marshall - California Center for
Military History at www.militarymuseum.org
The history of Naval
Aviation in California would not be complete without including the biography
of Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves, for whom two naval airfields in California
have been named – the first, NAS Terminal Island, and the second, NAS
Joseph Mason Reeves was born in Tampico, Illinois, on November 20, 1872. He
was appointed to the Naval Academy from the Seventh District of Illinois in
1890. Reeves was an avid football player as a Naval Cadet. (1) Sixteen years
later he would return to Annapolis as the Head Football Coach of the Naval
Academy. After graduation in 1894, Midshipman Reeves spent several weeks on
the cruiser USS CINCINNATI (C-78) on the East coast before being assigned to
his first duty on board the cruiser USS SAN FRANCISCO (C-5) (2) for Atlantic
and Mediterranean patrols. In 1896 he joined the battleship USS OREGON (B-3)
(3), operating with the Pacific Squadron, and was in her when, under the
command of Captain Charles E. Clark, USN, she made her famous cruise from the
West Coast to the Caribbean in the spring of 1898. Four days after the
OREGON's arrival at Key West, Florida, she sailed with Admiral Sampson's
flagship, the USS NEW YORK (CA-2), for the Cuban coast, where they were
joined by other ships of the Northern Atlantic Squadron. On June 1, 1898,
operations were commenced against Admiral Cervera's fleet in Santiago Harbor
which culminated in the destruction of that naval force on July 3. For this
duty he was advanced four numbers in rank on the list of Lieutenants (junior
grade) and was commended as follows:
"For displaying eminent and conspicuous conduct in managing the
machinery of the vessel OREGON July 3, 1898. The leading engineer officer of
this vessel was so developed the efficiency of the motive power as to cause
the attainment of a speed unusual to the ship, thereby enabling her
commanding officer to place her in the very conspicuous position that she
occupied on that occasion, thus contributing in a very important degree to
the success of the OREGON in the battle."
In February 1899, he was commissioned ensign and assigned to the despatch
ship USS DOLPHIN. As lieutenant (junior grade) he served on board the
battleship USS KEARSARGE (BB-5) in the Northern Atlantic. In 1901 he had
instruction at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, Rhode Island, followed by
a second tour of duty on the SAN FRANCISCO during 1902.
In 1903, he served, in the rank of Lieutenant, as Aide to the Commanding
Officer in Charge of the Asiatic Fleet, first with Rear Admiral Yates
Stirling on the USS WISCONSIN (BB-9) (4), later with Rear Admiral Charles J.
Train on the USS OHIO (BB-12) (5). He was next an Instructor in the
Department of Physics and Chemistry at the Naval Academy and also had duty as
Head Football Coach from 1906 until 1908.
Upon completion of that duty he joined the USS NEW HAMPSHIRE (BB-25)(6) in
1908 and was assigned as her Ordnance Officer until September 1909, when he
assumed the duties of Fleet Ordnance Officer on the Staff of the Commander in
Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Rear Admiral Seaton Schroader, flagship USS
Promoted to the rank of Commander, Reeves came ashore in 1910 and reported to
Mare Island as a member of the Board of Inspection and Survey for three years
and simultaneously assumed command of the Naval Coal Depot at Tiburon,
Three years later, in April 1913, Commander Reeves commissioned the Mare
Island built collier USS JUPITER, the first electrically propelled vessel of
the United States Navy (7). After successfully passing her trials, JUPITER,
embarked a Marine detachment at San Francisco and reported to the Pacific Fleet
at Mazatlan, Mexico, in April 1914, bolstering U.S. naval strength on the
Mexican Pacific coast during the tense days of the Vera Cruz crisis. He was
detached from the JUPITER in April 1914, and assumed command of the USS ST.
LOUIS (C-20) which served as a training, receiving and submarine support
In June 1915, he rejoined the battleship OREGON, this time as her Commanding
Officer. In June 1916 he reported as Senior Aide to the Commandant of the
Navy Yard, Mare Island, California.
Stationed at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations when the United
States entered World War I. During World War I, he was Commanding Officer of
the battleship USS MAINE (BB-10) (8), which operated with the Atlantic Fleet,
and for "exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great
responsibility . . ." in that command and was awarded the Navy Cross.
Promoted to the rank of Captain, he assumed command of the USS KANSAS (BB-21)
before being serving as Naval Attache at the American Embassy, Rome, Italy,
from February 1919 until April 1921, when he assumed command of the USS
PITTSBURGH (CA-4). (9)
In October of that year he was ordered to Mare Island, California, for duty
as Commander of the Navy Yard, and from 1922 until 1923 he commanded the USS
NORTH DAKOTA (BB-29). He next attended the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode
Island, and, completing the senior course, served a year on the staff.
Following this tour, he volunteered for aviation duty and war ordered to NAS
Pensacola, Florida, to take the Naval Aviation Observer course.
At the age of 53, he qualified as a Naval Aviator Observer, the minimum
prerequisite for holding aviation commands, and after October 1925, assumed
command as Commander Aircraft Squadron, Battle Fleet, serving in aviation
billets from 1925 to 1931.
Congress, following the successful flight of the NC-4 flying boat, which in
May 1919 achieved the first crossing of the Atlantic by air, appropriated
funds for the conversion of the collier JUPITER (AC-3) into the U.S. Navy's
first aircraft carrier, a platform that would truly integrate aviation into
the fleet. Commissioned in 1922, she was christened LANGLEY (CV-1). But
carrier aviation had stagnated under the reigning battleship mentality. (10)
Though Moffett's acumen in handling political issues in the halls of Congress
was important to naval aviation's development, its ultimate success or
failure depended on its performance at sea. "The Navy is the first line
of offense and naval aviation as an advance guard of this first line must
deliver the brunt of the attack," Moffett wrote in 1925. "Naval
aviation cannot take the offensive from the shore; it must go to sea on the
back of the fleet. . . . The fleet and naval aviation are one and
Entitled to be addressed as commodore in this billet, Captain Reeves hosted
his broad pennant on his new flagship, the aircraft carrier USS LANGLEY
(CV-1), formerly his old ship JUPITER, as Commander Aircraft Squadrons Battle
Fleet. At the time, Naval aviation's seagoing force consisted only the LANGLEY,
which following commissioning served only in an experimental role. This
"experiment" operated twelve aircraft at most. Sea-based naval
aviation had yet to demonstrate any offensive prowess that would dispel the
traditional tenet of the supremacy of the battleship. All of this was about
In 1925, Captain Joseph M. Reeves, who had watched aviation concepts tested
at the War College and who also served as a member of the tactics faculty,
took command of the fleet's aviation squadrons. Living up to his nickname,
"Bull" Reeves drove his charges hard, demanding that his pilots
push the limits. He ordered the commander of the LANGLEY to increase the
number of airplanes she operated, and drilled the pilots and deck crews
incessantly in an effort to reduce the time it took to launch and recover
aircraft. Under his leadership, the LANGLEY began to conduct a series of
experiments that led to such innovations as crash barriers and the deck park,
which enabled the ship to more than double its aircraft complement and
dramatically increase its sortie rate. Due to these innovations, LANGLEY
stopped being an experiment and became an operational carrier, with 36 (and
eventually 42) operational aircraft.
On December 13, 1926, Reeves, commanding Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet,
reported on the results of the first dive bombing exercise ("light
bombing," as it was then called) to be conducted in the formal fleet
gunnery competition. One Marine and two Navy fighter squadrons and three Navy
observation squadrons participated. The Marine and Navy fighters made 45
degree dives from 2,500 feet and at an altitude of 400 feet, dropped 25 pound
fragmentation bombs; observation squadrons similarly attacked from 1,000
feet. Pilots of VF-2, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Frank D. Wagner and
flying F6Cs and FB-5s, scored 19 hits with 45 bombs on a target 100 feet by
45 feet. The uses visualized for this tactic included disabling or
demolishing flight decks, destroying enemy aircraft in flight, attacking
exposed personnel on ship or shore and attacking light surface craft and
Following a six-week period of closely observing his air forces, Reeves
called his officers together at North Island, California, and delivered a
history-making lecture. He was blunt in his opinion that his aviators lacked
insight into both the capabilities and limitations of their weapons and were,
therefore, totally unprepared to conduct fleet air tactics. He then
challenged his men to answer "Reeves' Thousand and One Questions," which
were mimeographed sheets circulated to all squadrons. The answers to critical
questions such as "How can we bomb effectively?"--were analyzed,
refined and developed until the compilation of this work became
"Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet Tactical Instructions, 1928."
Reeves used annual fleet exercises (Fleet Problems) to demonstrate new
tactics, such as high-speed long-distance steaming combined with undetected
predawn launches and coordinated dive-bomb attacks against targets ashore.
Finally, Reeves seized upon opportunities to demonstrate the offensive
potential of the carrier. During war games, he foreshadowed the Day of Infamy
by launching a dawn attack against Pearl Harbor.
Reeves pushed the envelope of what those early aviators thought they could
do; he challenged Fighting Squadron One to make as many landings and takeoffs
on LANGLEY as possible in one day, while he clocked them from the bridge.
Within a year he increased the number of aircraft embarked on LANGLEY from 8
to 30. By mid-1928 Reeve's technique of flight deck stowage and handling
resulted in an increase from 72 to 90 aircraft embarked aboard both LEXINGTON
(CV-2) and SARATOGA (CV-3).
In January 1929, the U.S. Navy undertook another exercise known as Fleet
Problem Nine. Fleet Problem Nine took place off the coast of Panama. Present
for the first time in these fleet problems were two ships of radically new
design—the aircraft carriers USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) and USS SARATOGA (CV-3).
During the exercise, Vice Admiral William V. Pratt, commanding the attacking
force, authorized Rear Admiral Reeves, commanding the SARATOGA and a light
cruiser as escort, to execute a high-speed run toward the Panama Canal.
"We take off at 3:30 a.m. to bomb the canal," an excited Lieutenant
Artie Doyle wrote on the eve of the landmark attack. "They haven't a
chance to stop us." Reeves "attacked" the canal with a
seventy-plane strike force launched 140 miles from the target.
"The planes struck without warning in an attack deemed so effective
by the referees that they ruled the locks at the Pacific end of the canal
The SARATOGA's performance changed naval warfare; she had demonstrated that a
speedy aircraft carrier could independently attack enemy installations with
devastating results. Admiral William V. Pratt, the Black Fleet Commander for
this exercise, was so impressed that he moved his flag to the USS SARATOGA
for the return trip to the United States. (11)
In his post-exercise critique, Admiral Pratt made the following comment,
"Gentlemen, you have witnessed the most brilliantly conceived and most
effectively executed naval operation in our history. . . . I believe that
when we learn more of the possibilities of the carrier we will come to an
acceptance of Admiral Reeves' plan which provides for a very powerful and
mobile force . . . the nucleus of which is the carrier." (12)
After having served on the Navy's General Board, June 1929-June 1930, he
reported for duty as Senior Member of the Board of Inspection and Survey,
Pacific Coast Section on September 15, 1931, and during the building of the
USS SAN FRANCISCO (13) at Mare Island, became Commandant of the Navy Yard,
Mare Island, California in June 1932. Rear Admiral Reeves was one of Mare
Island's most colorful and best-liked Commandants. His two-starred rear
admiral's flag flew over the island from June 1, 1932, to June 7, 1933.
He again assumed command of the Battle Force in June 1933, and on June 15,
1934, hoisted his flag on board the USS PENNSYLVANIA (14) as Commander in
Chief, Battle Force, United States Fleet. Rear Admiral Leahy relieved Rear
Admiral Reeves in June 1936. Reeves was then ordered to the Navy Department,
where he served as a member of the General Board until October 1, 1936, when
he became Chairman of that board. He continued to serve in that capacity
until his retirement effective December 1, 1936.
Reeves was recalled to active duty in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy
on May 21, 1940 (15), where he served as the Lend-Lease Liaison Officer from
March 1941 to December 1945. He served as Senior Military Member of the
Munitions Assignments Board and Chairman of the Navy Munitions Assignment
Committee from February 1945 to November 1945, also Chairman of the Joint
Munitions Assignment Committee from January 1944 to September 1945. During
this period, he was advanced to the rank of Vice Admiral, to rank from
February 23, 1942, pursuant to an Act of Congress effective that date, having
been especially commended for performance of duty in actual combat. On July
16, 1942, he was advanced to the rank of Admiral.
For his meritorious service during the World War II period he was awarded the
Distinguished Service Medal and was cited as follows:
"For exceptionally meritorious service . . . displaying unusual
qualities of leadership and ability in diplomatic negotiations with the
senior military representative of the United Nations, Admiral Reeves rendered
invaluable service in carrying out his manifold duties fulfilling many
difficult tasks requiring great resourcefulness in coordinating and processing
the request of the Allied governments for military equipment. His skill and
initiative in bringing about the harmonious distribution of finished
materials to meet the ever pressing demands of all United Nations Services
were essential to the integration of the Allied military organization, and
his brilliant analysis of the over-all situation were substantial factors in
executing logistic plans in accordance with strategic requirements.
Distinguishing himself by his sound judgment, exceptional tact and zealous
devotion to the varied and complex details of his various assignments,
Admiral Reeves contributed materially to the successful prosecution of the
war and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval
On December 23, 1946, he was ordered relieved of all active duty, thus ending
his naval career at the age of 74. He died on March 25, 1948 at the United
States Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland. He was survived by his son,
Joseph M. Reeves, Jr., who, at the time of his death, resided of Los Angeles,
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal, Admiral
Reeves had the Sampson Medal (USS OREGON); Spanish Campaign Medal
(Spanish-American War); Victory Medal with Atlantic Fleet Clasp (World War
I); American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; and the World
War II Victory Medal. From the Government of Italy he was awarded the Crown
of Italy (rank of Commander) and the Diploma of the Order of Saints Maurice
and Lazarus (grade of Commendatore).
Admirals Joseph Mason Reeves' foresight laid the foundation for modern
carrier striking forces. He and Rear Admiral William Adger Moffett was of the
same school of thought that naval aviation would decide the outcome of future
naval surface engagements between two opposing fleets in the expanses of the
Admiral Reeves and his closest aviation proponents knew that the Navy would
have to be prepared to deal with the rising naval aviation within the Empire
of Japan, and that our battle tactics had to be written for such an
engagement, no matter what the battleship admirals thought. The realism and
sense of urgency Reeves imparted to fleet air operations and later to the
entire U.S. fleet served the nation well.
Upon his retirement, in his honor, Reeves Field was commissioned in 1936 on
Terminal Island, Los Angeles County, California. Reeves Field was operational
from 1936 to 1947. The name of this Naval Air Station was later transferred
to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, in 1961.
Also in his honor, the Guided Missile Frigate USS REEVES (DLG/CG-24) was
launched in 1962. The ship's sponsor was Mrs. Joseph M. Reeves, Jr.,
daughter-in-law of Admiral J. M. Reeves. Reclassified guided missile cruiser
CG-24, on June 30, 1975, REEVES was decommissioned and stricken from the Navy
Register on November 12, 1993 at Pearl Harbor.
(1) The origin of the modern football helmet is credited to Admiral Joseph M.
Reeves. The first leather football helmet was first worn in an 1893 Army-Navy
game. An Annapolis shoemaker created the leather helmet for Cadet Reeves, who
had been advised by a Navy doctor that he would be risking death or
"instant insanity" if he took another kick to the head. This helmet
would also serve as the basis for the first aviator caps.
(2) USS SAN FRANCISCO (C-5) was built at San Francisco, California, and
commissioned in November 1890. She served in the Pacific until 1893, then
steamed to the Atlantic.
(3) USS OREGON (BB-3) was built by Union Iron Works, San Francisco,
California. Commissioned in July 1896, at that time she was the only
battleship serving on the U.S. Pacific seaboard. As the Spanish-American War
approached, she was ordered to steam around South America to strengthen the
forces available in the Atlantic. Upon arrival, OREGON served off Cuba, and
had an important role in the Battle of Santiago on 3 July 1898.
(4) USS WISCONSIN (BB-9) was laid down on February 9, 1897 by Union Iron
Works, San Francisco, California; launched on November 26, 1898; and
commissioned on 4 February 1901. In May 1903, she sailed for the Asiatic
Station, proceeding via Honolulu. WISCONSIN arrived at Yokohama, Japan, on
June 12, with Rear Admiral Yates Stirling embarked; three days later, Rear
Admiral Stirling exchanged flagships with Rear Admiral P. H. Cooper, who
broke his two-starred flag at WISCONSIN's main as Commander of the Asiatic
Fleet's Northern Squadron while Admiral Stirling hoisted his in the tender
(5) USS OHIO (BB-12) was laid down on April 22, 1899 by Union Iron Works, San
Francisco, California; launched May 18, 1901; and commissioned October 4,
1904. Designated flagship of the Fleet, OHIO departed San Francisco on April
1, 1905 for Manila, where she embarked the party of then Secretary of War William
Howard Taft, which included Miss Alice Roosevelt, the President's daughter.
She conducted this party on much of its Far Eastern tour of inspection, and
continued the cruise in Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine waters until
returning to the United States in 1907.
(6) USS NEW HAMPSHIRE (BB-25), commissioned 19 March 1908, after fitting out
carried a Marine Expeditionary Regiment to Colon, Panama, in June 1908, then
made ceremonial visits to Quebec, Portsmouth, New York, and Bridgeport.
Caribbean exercises were followed by participation in the Naval Review by
President Theodore Roosevelt in Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909, welcoming
home the "Great White Fleet."
(7) Unknown then to Reeves, the Mare Island built collier USS JUPITER would
again become a part of his life when she was converted in 1920 as a
11,500-ton aircraft carrier and renamed the USS LANGLEY. Commissioned in
March 1922, LANGLEY was the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier, and in
October-November 1922, she launched, recovered and catapulted her first
aircraft during initial operations in the Atlantic and Caribbean areas.
Transferred to the Pacific in 1924, LANGLEY would serve as the platform from
which Naval Aviators, guided by then CAPT Joseph M. Reeves, undertook the
development of carrier operating techniques and tactics. Sadly, in February
1942, during the early months of World War II, Japanese bombers would sink
the old "Covered Wagon," with her deck-loaded with P-40s. LANGLEY
was the oldest Mare Island veteran to get into the war, having been launched
thirty years earlier as the collier JUPITER, and was the first Mare Island
ship sunk during that war.
(8) USS MAINE (BB-10) was laid down on February 15,1899, a year to the day
after the destruction of the first MAINE. She was launched on July 27, 1901,
and commissioned on December 29, 1902. During World War I, she trained
engineers, armed guard crews, and midshipmen. Following the defeat of the
Central Powers, she took part in the review of the fleet at New York in
(9) USS PITTSBURGH (CA-4) was originally the USS PENNSYLVANIA (AC-4). Renamed
and renumbered USS PITTSBURGH (CA-4), it was on this ship, then the
PENNSYLVANIA, that Eugene B. Ely first landed and took off his plane from a
flight deck constructed by Mare Island Navy Yard in January 1911.
(10) The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, among other things, banned the
construction of battleships and limited carrier tonnage among the major naval
powers. In addition, in 1928 the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact
(11) Clark G. Reynolds, The Fast Carriers (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute
Press, 1968), p. 17; and "Remarks by Commander Black Fleet, W. V.
Pratt," Fleet Problem IX," "Report of the CINC, U.S.
Fleet," National Archives Publication M964, cited in Robert L.
O'Connell, Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the
U.S. Navy (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991), p. 285. Pratt flew his flag from
the SARATOGA on the return cruise, "partly as a badge of distinction,
but most because I want to know what makes the aircraft squadrons tick."
(12) As Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William V. Pratt directed that
carriers be placed in offensive roles in war games and fleet exercises. In
such exercises, involving experimentation with new kinds of equipment,
doctrine, and formations, were sown seeds that brought forth the fast carrier
task forces that enabled the U.S. Navy to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy
during World War II.
(13) USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) was laid down on September 9, 1931 at the Mare
Island Navy Yard, in Vallejo, California; launched on March 9, 1933, and
commissioned on 10 February 1934, Capt. Royal E. Ingersoll in command.
(14) USS PENNSYLVANIA (BB-38), commissioned 12 June 1916, was from August
1931 to 1941, homeported in San Pedro, where the PENNSYLVANIA engaged in
Fleet tactics and battle practice along the west coast and participated in
Fleet problems and maneuvers.
(15) Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people around the nation,
including some vocal congressmen, asked why America had been caught off
guard. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by appointing an
investigatory commission. Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts was selected to
head it. Also appointed to the group were Major General Frank McCoy,
Brigadier General Joseph McNarney, Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves, and Admiral
William Standley. The Roberts Commission began investigating whether there
were any "derelictions of duty or errors of judgment" that
contributed to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. The commission blamed both
Admiral Kimmel and General Short and the findings were made public. The
investigations into Pearl Harbor were far from over, however. Seven more
investigations followed, some of which exonerated Kimmel and Short while
others upheld the findings of the Roberts Commission.
(16) Joseph Reeves, Jr., the son of Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, earned his
reputation as a painter of Southwest subjects, many of them portraits. He
graduated from the University of California in 1917, where he studied art
with C. Chapel Judson. He continued his art education at the Pennsylvania
Academy of the Fine Arts and Corcoran Gallery and then served in the navy
during World War I. He remained in Europe, studying at the Academies Julian
and Colarossi in Paris. When he returned to the United States, he worked as a
portraitist in New York and Norfork, Virginia before moving West, going first
to San Rafael and San Francisco, and in 1923 and settled in Los Angeles where
he was President of The Artists of the Southwest and The Painters and
Sculptors Club. He was also a member of the California Art Club, the Los
Angeles Art Association, and the Laguna Beach Art Association.