A Navy AB-3 piloted by LTJG Patrick Bellinger from the USS Mississippi‘s aviation unit at Veracruz, Mexico, on this date in 1914, conducted military reconnaissance of Veracruz and a preliminary search for mines in the harbor. This is the first operational use of United States naval aircraft in a combat situation. LTJG Patrick Bellinger was born in Cheraw, SC, and graduated from the Naval Academy class of 1907.
Little did naval aviator Bellinger realize that he was blazing a path for future aviators, the path of aerial combat to include the risk of being shot down, killed or captured. Many World War I pilots did not survive getting shot down, but those who did were treated fairly well by the Germans. In World War II aviators had a better chance of survival with parachutes, but unlike Germany, a Japanese capture could mean beheading or a terrible POW (prisoner of war) experience. Korea likewise, was a difficult environment to survive as POW and many naval aviator jet pilots ended up with ejection injuries from the high-speed escapes out of burning, out of control aircraft, and little food or care as POWs.
Better ejection seats would help in Vietnam, but ejection injuries continued. POW’s now had a code of conduct and perhaps some resistance training to help them survival a POW experience that still could be brutal and deadly. At the 1998 Tailhook convention a Vietnam POW panel moderated by Barrett Tillman and composed of CAPT Ray Alcorn, VADM Ed Martin, CAPTs Bob Naughton , Dick Stratton and Jim Hickerson discussed POW survival. They believed the keys to survival (endorsed by all five aviators) were: faith in God, family, one’s fellow POWs and a sense of humor. Admiral Jim Stockdale, also a Vietnam POW, was quoted as saying, “If you can’t take a joke, don’t wear a set of wings.”
One of the more astounding tales of POW survival is that of LT Dieter Dengler’s. He was shot down in his A-1 Skyraider over Laos in February 1966. His story has recently been made into a very moving movie and below is a short review of the movie, “Little Dieter Needs To Fly.”
I don’t think LTJG Bellinger ever imagined what he was getting future naval aviators into when he launched on the first combat flight in 1914, but in the future with drones, RPVs (remotely piloted vehicle) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) , perhaps aviator POW experiences will be only nightmares and movies from our past existence…