Part V: At Naval Air Station Porto Corsini
by James Patton
On 23 July 1918, 377 U.S. Navy personnel were assembled at Porto Corsini, under the command of Lt. Willis Haviland. The following day the Italian 263rd Squadron turned over the station and it was commissioned as a U.S. Naval Air Station, under the command of USN Aviation Forces, Italy, located at the American Embassy in Rome. The new commanding officer was the familiar and again-promoted Lt. Cdr. J.L Callan USN (RF), who had set up shop on 25 April. He would be succeeded on 16 October by Capt. Charles R. Train (USN), who remained in command until all personnel were returned to the United States.
The Italians left 30 aircraft at the site (15 Ma.5s, five Ma.8s, and 10 FBAs), but only a total of five were operational. So Haviland’s first challenge was to repair as many of these as possible. There was a shortage of spare parts, and some of Macchis even had to be returned to the factory to be rebuilt. By the Armistice the Italians had provided only six additional units. The USN had some Curtiss HS-2Ls (with two 400-hp Liberty engines) available in France, but their 74-ft wingspan was deemed too wide for the Canal Candiano.
The NAS was built on a manmade island in the midst of a marsh, which the sailors whimsically dubbed "The Isle of Capri". When told that Capri in Italian means wild goat, they dubbed their barracks area "Goat Island City". As a result, the NAS adopted a winged goat caricature as its insignia and this was painted on each plane. Otherwise, the Italian livery was retained to preclude confusion.
The enemy were apparently aware of the arrival of Americans at Porto Corsini and decided to give them a warm reception; on the night of 25 July they attacked and dropped about a ton and a half of bombs. Luckily, however, they made a mistake as to the location of the station, and although two large bombs landed within 500 yards of the camp, the majority of bombs hit the marshes and canals farther up the coast.
In addition to anti-submarine patrols in the Adriatic Sea, the NAS Porto Corsini was tasked with conducting offensive bombing against the enemy base at Pola. All operations were directed by the Italian Navy district commander at Venice.
|NAS Porto Corsini, Note Plane Taking Off in Canal|
In the weeks after their arrival, the operational strength slowly grew to five FBAs, four Ma.5s and four Ma.8s. The first attack mission, a daylight raid against Pola, was launched on 21 August. The strike package was five Ma.5s and two Ma.8s. They were met by anti-aircraft fire and five land-based fighters. One Albatros was shot down by Ensign George Ludlow, the first aerial combat victory in U.S. Navy history, but Ludlow’s plane was damaged and he had to ditch. Ensign Charles Hammann would later receive the Medal of Honor (also a first for U.S. Navy aviation) for rescuing Ludlow, but his Ma.5 was damaged beyond repair upon landing. All told, two Ma.5s were destroyed plus a Ma.5 and a Ma.8 had to turn back due to engine trouble. Perhaps not an auspicious start, but the aviators were commended by the Italian district commander and also by Lt. Cdr. Callan in Rome.
That night the enemy made another reprisal air raid, but although one of the buildings of the nearby Italian naval station was destroyed there were no casualties.
Bombing missions on Pola were mounted almost every night. Ensign Tinkham flew his first combat mission in an FBA, one of four that set out on the night of 28 August. One of these FBAs (not Tinkham’s) was forced down due to engine failure, but was the crew was rescued the next morning by an Italian MAS boat.
|NAS Porto Corsini|
From the left: an Ma.5, an FBA, another Ma.5, and (possibly) an Ma.8
On 1 September, acting on an urgent directive from the Italian Navy, Haviland sent out his three FBAs on a maximum-range search for a missing Italian submarine (probably the X-1, which was formerly the German UC-12). The sub was found drifting dead in the water and Italian surface ships were guided to the rescue. Another Italian Navy commendation was forthcoming for Haviland, Ensign Tinkham, and the other pilots, and later these men would receive the Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra.
On 7 October daylight missions against Pola were resumed, by six Ma.5s headed by Lt. Haviland. Five enemy planes engaged them, but the combat was inconclusive. After the 21 August debacle, knowing that his men were green in aerial combat tactics, Haviland led his Ma.5s in closing with the enemy (who weren’t very experienced dogfighters either). Lt. Cdr. Callan, sitting in his office in Rome, did not believe that commanding officers should lead attacks, let alone engage in combat, and he threatened to relieve Haviland, who paid no attention, and continued to lead daylight raids. Callan then threatened a court martial for disobeying orders. Haviland’s response was: “I wasn’t leading my men – I was too far ahead of them for that". This escalating confrontation was forestalled on 16 October when Callan moved on. Both stayed in the navy; Callan eventually became a rear admiral and Haviland a captain.
On the afternoon of 22 October the first coordinated "big plane" raid was staged, in conjunction with 30 Italian planes from Venice. NAS Porto Corsini sent three Ma.8s, two FBAs (one piloted by Ensign Tinkham), and eight Ma.5s, out of a total of 16 operational aircraft. Enemy defenses were ineffective and the damage to the targets was considerable.
The last mission flown was an armed reconnaissance by four Ma.5s over Pola on 2 November to ascertain the damage inflicted by an Italian limpet mines attack the previous day. These pilots were the first to report the sinking of the dreadnought SMS Viribus Unitis.
Although NAS Porto Corsini suffered no casualties directly due to enemy action, there were unfortunately four deaths from accidents. On 11 August, James L. Goggins, landsman for quartermaster, USN(RF), crashed a Ma.5 and was instantly killed. On 15 September, while testing a new radio, Ensign Louis J. Bergen, USN(RF), and Gunner (R) Thomas L. Murphy, USN(RF), crash-landed in an Ma.8 and died in the hospital at Ravenna shortly afterward from their injuries. George B. Killeen, coppersmith, USN(RF), died on 18 September as a result of burns received in a gas torch explosion.
|Maachi Ma.8 with Ground and Air Crews|
Considering that the NAS was always seriously handicapped by a lack of planes and the spare parts and tools necessary to repair them, the results accomplished were altogether commendable and praiseworthy. The planes which had been promised by the Italian authorities were delivered only in small and insufficient quantities, owing to delays in production and the more urgent need of their own stations elsewhere. Twenty-one was the greatest number of flyable aircraft ever available at NAS Porto Corsini at the same time and with the machines available a total of 745 flights were made during active war operations. Five aircraft were lost: three Ma.5s, one Ma.8 and one FBA.
Admiral H.T. Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, stated on 10 November 1918 that NAS Porto Corsini had "the distinction of being the most heavily engaged unit of the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe."
The Chronicle of Edward Tinkham's war service will be continued in Roads to the Great War. Jim Patton's earlier installments of Edward's adventure can be read here:
Part I: With the American Field Service
Part II: With TMU 526, of the AFS and the Rèservé Mallet
Part III: Difficult times in the Camion Service
Part IV: Training to be a Navy Pilot
Sources: Cornell University, American Field Service, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Willis Haviland Lamm