Around the World in 175 Days, 1924: Department of State Contributions to the U.S. Army Aerial Circumnavigation: Part I

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts.

In September 1924, in an aerial trip reminiscent of the voyage of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet (also known as the “Great White Fleet”) around the world between December 1907 and February 1909, a team of U.S. Army airmen completed the first successful aerial circumnavigation of the world.  They departed from Seattle, Washington, on April 6, and returned to that city 175 days later on September 28.  While most attention has focused on the adventures of the pilots and the U.S. Navy support to that flight, given that almost all of the journey transited foreign lands, the Department of State had an important, yet unheralded, role in the successful completion of the mission.

While rumors were probably spreading in the halls of the State-War-Navy Building (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building), where the Department of State and the War Department were then headquartered (the last Navy office moved out in 1921), the Department of State received official notification of the upcoming operation in this July 5, 1923, letter from the Acting Secretary of War to the Secretary of State.

Under Secretary of State William Phillips, the Department’s number two man, acknowledged that letter on July 17, informing the War Department that the U.S. diplomatic missions in London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and Copenhagen had been instructed to obtain written permission for the scouting teams to proceed.  Those instruction were not sent until the following day.  This is one example of that instruction.

While it took several months, eventually all the governments approved the request.  As those approvals arrived, that information was conveyed to the War Department via a series of letters and memorandums. 

The one country that presented significant problems and drew out the process was Japan.  Only after the July 18 instruction went out did the Division of Far Eastern Affairs have an opportunity to comment.  On August 30, the head of the Division noted:

“I regret that I did not have the opportunity to discuss it . . .  before it was sent.  This matter of foreign aircraft in Japan is a matter of such a degree of suspicion and chauvinistic nationalism as can scarcely be understood by those who have not had the experience of the abnormal psychology of the Japanese in regard to questions of “national defense”.  It is a matter in which it would be clearly unwise to act except on the advice of the Embassy.”

That same day, the Department sent the U.S. embassy in Tokyo a telegram asking whether the flight over Japanese territory “could be arranged for under existing law, and whether in your judgment contemplated request could be made without antagonizing official and popular opinion in Japan.”  Not receiving a response, on November 27, the Department sent another telegram, quoting its August 30 message in full and asking that the embassy bring the issue to the attention of Japanese authorities “immediately,” noting that the “War Department must have reply by November 30th due to contracts for construction work in connection with flight.”  The telegram also stated: “For your confidential information and for discreet use: Of all Governments from which permission for flight across territory was requested, Japanese Government is only one which has not replied.”

The embassy in Tokyo answered on November 30 and December 2 with the two following telegrams”

Telegram from American Embassy, Tokyo to the Secretary of State, Nov 30, 1923 (NAID 302021)
Telegram from American Embassy, Tokyo to Secretary of State, Dec 2, 1923 (NAID 302021)

The Department replied to those two messages on December 4, informing the embassy that the Japanese understanding was mistaken – the French had given “unqualified” approval. (It later developed that the French approval was for the preliminary work, not the actual flight, a point clarified in a subsequent telegram.)  The Department also reported that the United States had approved a British request for overflight of the United States for a competing British effort to fly around the world.  The telegram closed by advising the embassy to “please note in your discretion that it is essential for the success of the flight that the permission from Japan should be received during the course of this week at the latest.”

The embassy answered with this telegram:

Telegram from American Embassy, Tokyo to Secretary of State, Dec 8, 1923 (NAID 302021)

On December 14, the embassy followed up this telegram with a despatch that arrived in the Department only on January 7.  In that report, the embassy elaborated on the three conditions imposed by the Japanese:

  1. between the Aleutian Islands and Honshu Island, the only landing place allowed would be Shumushu Island;
  2. details relating to fortified zones and naval bases would be settled by Japanese military authorities and the U.S. advanced officer; and
  3. if the Japanese made a similar request to fly over U.S. territory, it would be approved.

In the meantime, on December 18, after receiving additional information from the War Department, the Department responded to the embassy’s telegram of December 8, noting that a nonstop flight from the Aleutians to Honshu was impossible and spelled out an itinerary with a series of additional stops.  It further explained:

“In your discretion, you will emphasize importance of adhering to this itinerary.  Stops … mentioned were selected by War Department because of water landing facilities.  All landing in Japan must be on water, as planes are not equipped for land landings.”

The embassy’s answer came in this telegram:

In response to the embassy’s request for instructions, the Department consulted with the War Department, and replied to the embassy with two telegrams on December 29.  In the first, it noted changes in itinerary agreed to by the War Department but noted that a stop was needed between Shimushu and Honsha.  Without that, the flight of more than 1000 miles “would require at least fifteen hours and it would be highly dangerous to fly over volcanic islands in the dark.”  The proposal was to land at Bettobu or some other point that allowed for a daylight flight of not more than 500 miles.  The first telegram also harkened back to the July 18 instruction and reiterated the request for approval for an advance officer to go to Japan.  The second telegrams focused entirely on this last point. 

The embassy answered with this telegram:

Telegram from American Embassy, Tokyo to the Secretary of State, Dec 31, 1923 (NAID 302021)

In light of that response, on January 4, 1924, the Department authorized the embassy to disregard its December 29 instructions “until otherwise instructed.”  It also left to the embassy’s discretion on how to proceed with securing authorization for the visit of the advance officer while emphasizing the War Department’s view that it was “essential to the success of flight.”

In the interim, the embassy’s despatch of December 14 arrived on January 7.  Just two days later the Department provided comments on the second and third conditions noted in that report.  Regarding the second condition, the Department noted the apparent contradiction in the Japanese approach: in setting conditions, the Japanese wanted matters settled with the advance officer, yet they had yet to approve the visit of the advance officer.  Regarding the third condition, the Department wrote:

In case Japan should make a specific request for a similar flight over United States territory this Department would be glad to recommend to the Governors of the States and to the Executive Departments administering the territories over which the flight was contemplated that permission to fly over and to land be granted to the Japanese.  The Department has no reason to believe that permission would not be readily accorded and all facilities extended.

The embassy’s response, came in two telegrams five days apart:

On January 18, the Department directed the embassy to “express gratification to appropriate authorities for informal consent” and to telegraph as soon as written confirmation was received.  The embassy fulfilled the latter point in the following telegram.  With that, the Department’s involvement arranging for the path-finding work ended.

Telegram from American Embassy, Tokyo to Secretary of State, Jan 25, 1924 (NAID 302021)

Even as the Department was working with the Japanese to secure approval for the path-finding phase of on-site planning, the second phase of its work on the mission had begun. 

To be continued in Part II. 

Sources:  Place-name spelling is as in the documents.  All the documents mentioned above come from file “811.2300” in the 1910-29 segment of the Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  A listing of those documents will be found in the Purport List for that file, which is available online.  See NAID 87603160, beginning at frame 510

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