During the recently completed centennial of naval aviation (2011), there were many and varied tributes to the factual history of naval aviation. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that public perception of the armed forces is also a strong historical consideration. In Sailing on the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the U.S. Navy, Lawrence Suid has observed that “for most of the past ninety years the American film industry and the U.S. Navy have worked together to their mutual benefit. Hollywood used the Navy to obtain—at little or no cost—personnel, equipment, and locations for movies filled with adventure, romance, and drama. In turn, the Navy obtained—at little or no cost—a positive public image that boosted both its recruiting efforts and its relations with Congress.” This is especially true if we consider how the careers of two pioneers of Hollywood and the U.S. Navy—director John Ford and screenwriter Frank W. “Spig” Wead became intertwined during the Golden Era of filmmaking and how Ford paid tribute to his friend and colleague in The Wings of Eagles (1957).
Wead’s Early Naval Career
Wead was born on October 24, 1885, in Peoria, Illinois. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912 at the age of sixteen and graduated in 1916. He spent time during WWI doing mine work in the North Sea, after which he qualified as a naval aviator. In 1923 he led the Navy team that competed in the Schneider Trophy Race at Cowes, Isle of Wight. Two of his teammates—Lt. David Rittenhouse and Lt. Rutledge Irvine—placed first and second in the race. Wead continued as a naval aviator, setting naval aircraft records for speed, endurance, and distance and eventually working for the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.
Wead’s Hollywood Career
In 1927, an unexpected turn of events changed Wead’s life forever. After he took a fall in his house in Coronado, California, he was seriously injured, having fractured the fifth cervical vertebra in his neck and doing irreparable damage to his spinal cord. After surgery and more than two painful years of recuperation, he progressed to being able to sit up, and, with the aid of steel braces, to walk. Wead decided that he needed another activity to recuperate fully, so he tried his hand at writing. In time he collaborated on a script for The Flying Fleet (1929), the first Hollywood film about contemporary military flying, with Byron Morgan, a former naval aviator who had become a screenwriter for MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer). The Flying Fleet was also the first in a long list of films credited to Wead that were about the U.S. Navy or naval aviation. Wead also wrote screenplays about civil aviation, including one for Air Mail (1932), a film directed by John Ford, and Ceiling Zero (1936), a film directed by Howard Hawks that was based on a play Wead had written that appeared off-Broadway in 1935. He again worked with Ford on They Were Expendable (1945), based on the true story of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, commanded by Medal of Honor winner John D. Bulkeley during the evacuation of the Philippines early in WWII. This film is considered one of the best war films ever made..
Wead’s World War II Service
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wead had gotten permission to reenter the Navy through the good graces of an old friend, Admiral John Towers. His first assignment was as an assistant to Captain Ralph Davison, chief of the Plans Division of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Later, Wead trained air combat intelligence officers at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. From October 1943 to June 1944, he was a planning officer on the staff of the Commander Air Pacific in Hawaii. In this capacity, he helped develop plans for Makin, Tarawa, Eniwetok, and Kwajelein. All these operations led up to the battle for the Marianas Islands.
Wead was also credited with developing the idea of escort carriers (the so-called “Jeep Carriers”), which were employed to provide logistical support for the main carrier forces. During the Marianas air assaults, he was invited onboard the U.S.S. Yorktown by Admiral J. J. Clark as an observer. He was involved in actual combat during the Marianas battle when Japanese aircraft attacked the ship. Despite his disabilities, Wead showed courage and was an inspiration to the crew. After the Marianas, Wead decided to retire from the Navy and return to screenwriting. For his service during WWII, Wead was awarded the Legion of Merit. He died on November 15, 1947 at the age of 52
The Wings of Eagles (1957)
The idea for The Wings of Eagles came about as a way of honoring Wead, but John Ford, the film’s intended director was somewhat reluctant to undertake the project. He and Wead had been close friends. According to Ford’s biographer, Joseph McBride, Ford is reported to have said “I didn’t want to do the picture, because Spig was a great pal of mine. But I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”
That Ford would become involved in a film honoring Wead and the U.S. Navy should come as no surprise. Ford himself became a naval officer quite late in his life. In 1934 he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was commissioned as a Lt. Commander. In 1939 Ford began to organize the Naval Volunteer Photographic Unit, which eventually became known as the Naval Photographic Organization, to document naval combat activities. In September 1941 Ford was appointed chief of the Field Photographic Branch, which was part of the Office of Strategic Services, headed by William J. Donovan. In that capacity Ford was at the Battle of Midway, which he filmed and whose footage he turned into an Academy Award-winning documentary of the same name in 1942.
Two unsuccessful attempts were made to produce a film about Wead. Finally, Kenneth MacKenna, a story director at MGM, and John Dale Price, Wead’s old friend, now a retired admiral, who eventually became technical advisor for the film, collaborated on a script. After nearly eight months of work, MacKenna submitted the script to the Pentagon for approval, and the Navy’s Office of Information agreed to cooperate, despite some opposition on the grounds that the script contained historical errors.
While the film, which starred John Wayne as Wead, and Maureen O’Hara as his wife “Min,” portrays naval aviation history in a favorable light, it cannot be considered entirely historically accurate, confirming the Navy’s reservations. In addition to historical inaccuracies, some of the Navy’s objections were based on the portrayal of alcohol abuse in the film. Evidently, the drinking scenes that had to do with Maureen O’Hara’s character had to be cut because Wead’s children protested. Nevertheless, the film provides more than subtle hints that alcohol played a significant part in Wead’s life and in the life of his wife, and that it may have been responsible for their inability to reconcile the demands of military life with the demands of family.
Evidently it was not practical for Ford to portray Wead’s contributions as a screenwriter to positive depictions of naval aviation in prewar films like Dive Bomber (released in August 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor). Instead, he relied heavily on a part-fiction, part-fact portrayal of Wead’s military contributions during the interwar years and in WWII. In fact, Wead’s achievements in WWII are much more factually presented in the film than those that take place during the interwar years. Ford’s message is strong: Wead was not only a staunch defender of naval aviation, but a doer, in spite of his debilitating handicap. Moreover, it is important to realize that The Wings of Eagles is significant also for what it says about American values as seen through the lives and ordeals of military men. The Wings of Eagles, like some of Ford’s other films, displays familiar Fordian themes: the sense of community among American naval men: in this case, naval aviators; naval service as a reflection of national identity; an intermingling of historical fact with historical fancy.
Nevertheless, the film may be interpreted on other levels. Dan Ford, Ford’s grandson, contends that the film is a veiled autobiography of his grandfather. Both Wead and Ford were restless and disposed to lives of action. Because they were both disabled, they were attracted to vicarious adventures. Both were involved in moviemaking as a substitute for military careers. Both served in WWII but as observers rather than as combatants. Both neglected their families to focus exclusively on their careers. Both preferred masculine companionship to that of women.
As a result, The Wings of Eagles may be seen as two films. One contains the mythologizing biography of “Spig” Wead and extols naval aviation and American values of patriotism, courage and perseverance. The other, a more personal one, critiques the institution—the U.S. Navy— that would create an atmosphere which is potentially dangerous to family life.
Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.