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Frank Wilbur Wead
Nickname Spig, Sparrow
Born (1895-10-24)October 24, 1895
Died November 15, 1947(1947-11-15) (aged 52)
Place of birth Peoria, Illinois
Place of death Santa Monica, California
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1916–44
Rank Commander

Frank Wilbur "Spig" Wead (born October 24, 1895, in Peoria, Illinois – died November 15, 1947, in Santa Monica, California) was a U.S. Navy aviator turned screenwriter who helped promote United States Naval aviation from its inception through World War II.[1]

Military service[edit | edit source]

A 1916 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Wead began to promote Naval Aviation after World War I through air racing and speed competitions. This competition, mainly against the United States Army Air Service (and its leading racer, Jimmy Doolittle), helped push U.S. military aviation forward. These competitions would give naval aviation a much-needed spotlight in the public eye. The public attention that it generated helped push Congress to fund the advancement of military aviation. During World War I, Wead served on a minelayer in the North Sea.[2] After World War I he was a test pilot for the Navy. On 29 May 1916, midshipmen Frank Wead, Calvin Durgin, John D. Price graduated from the United States Naval Academy.[3] Following graduation, Ensign Wead departed, on 2 June 1916, for leave and travel to his first sea-duty assignment. Ensign Frank Wead is indicated in decklog of USS San Diego (ACR-6)[4] (homeported: San Diego, California), reporting aboard 28 June 1916, while the cruiser was in anchorage off Guaymas, Mexico.

Aboard USS Pittsburgh (CA-4) was Commander George B. Bradshaw, USN; Executive Officer was Commander Zeno Everett Briggs, USN.[5] Ensigns Frank W. Wead and John D. Price began this Latin cruise departing out of San Francisco Bay, 25 April 1917. As pollywogs, they participated in the time-honored naval tradition of the Line-crossing ceremony and were initiated into the royal Kingdom of King Neptune's realm and became crusty shellbacks when the armored cruiser crossed the equator at 0°0′0″N 36°05′00″W / 0°N 36.0833333°W / 0; -36.0833333, on 10 June. The ship reached Rio de Janeiro where with several other officers they departed the Pittsburgh, on 21 September. They were booked for passage to the Port of New York aboard SS Zeelandia. She departed Rio de Janiero on 25 September and arrived in New York on 17 October. Whereupon, Ensigns Wead and Price reported to the Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, for sea duty orders.[6]

In 1918, LT (j.g.) Frank Wead served aboard USS Shawmut (CM-4). It operated in the area of the North Sea Mine Barrage. Following the Armistice with Germany, Shawmut returned stateside to the Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts, with newly promoted LT(j.g.) Wead. A kite-balloon division of six balloons under the command of LT (j.g.) John G. Paul, USN, were staged on various ships and aboard the Shawmut. All units were assembled by 15 February, and began operations with the fleet. They participated in long-range spotting practice giving practical demonstration of aircraft and balloon capabilities, and of the advantages to be derived from the coordinated employment of air and surface units.[7] The experiences gained from these fleet maneuvers had historical significances not only for Air Detachment, Atlantic Fleet, but also for LT(j.g.) Frank Wead. It was during these fleet maneuvers that Wead became more interested in the new post-war naval aviation career than as a gunnery or submarine officer.[8] The influence provided by both Lieutenant Commander Marc Mitscher, USN, and Captain Steele was enough to convince Wead that the new field of naval aviation would become a promising naval career. With the knowledge that the Naval Aviation Division was seeking naval officers with a strong aptitude in naval engineering, having a desire to accept projects with a certain amount of risk, and with the combat-proven ability to lead naval personnel by example, Wead began the process for obtaining endorsements to his application for flight training.

LT (j.g.) Frank Wead requested orders for naval aviation flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. His request was approved. The orders stated to report for "Class 1" (the first class of regular officers sent to NAS Pensacola after the commencement of World War I), on 15 September 1919. Wead was assigned to a training flight team comprising three students: (1) LT (j.g.) Frank Wilbur "Sparrow" "Spig" Wead, USNA-1916; (2) LTjg Robert Moran "Jerry" Farrar, USNA-1916; and, (3) LTjg Calvin "Cal" "Pansy" Thornton Durgin, USNA-1916). LT (j.g.) The three aviators (Wead, Farrar, Durgin) learned the basics of flight and advanced flying and navigating. Their training involved flying, navigating, radio time. Wead was designated a Naval Aviator on 17 April 1920. On that date, his wife, Mrs. Minnie "Min" Wead, pinned his golden wings just above his two decoration ribbons: Mexican Service Medal and World War Victory Medal. Both Farrar and Durgin received their aviation wings on 27 May 1920.

File:The Wings of Eagles poster 22Feb1957.png

The Wings of Eagles movie poster. Dated: 22 Feb 1957.

On 21 April 1921, LT Frank Wead reported to USS Aroostook (CM-3), homeported at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California. Aboard Aroostook, Wead was assigned aviation duties involving flying: Aeromarine 39-B (two-seater seaplane used as a "scout plane") and Felixstowe F-5-L (flying boat that carried a crew of four). In the spring of 1923, Wead reported to NAS Anacostia, Washington DC (today, known as the Naval Support Facility Anacostia) for shore duty assignment.

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Official Navy Department (National Archives) photo of Vice Admiral John Dale Price, USN, Naval Aviator. Date of photo: 1954.

On the 22nd and 23 June 1924 in Anacostia, D.C., as a lieutenant, Wead along with Lieutenant John Dale Price, using a Curtiss CS-2 with a Wright T-3 Tornado engine, set new Class C seaplane records for distance (963.123 miles), duration (13 hours 23 minutes 15 seconds), and three speed records (73.41 mph for 500 kilometers, 74.27 mph for 1000 km, and 74.17 mph for 1500 km). Lieutenants Wead and Price struck again on the 11th and 12 July 1924, with new Class C seaplane records for distance (994.19 miles) and duration (14 hours 53 min 44 sec) using a CS-2 with a Wright Tornado engine. In order to set these records, Wead and Price had to exchange positions at the controls, as the aircraft had only one set of controls. One of the pair would leave the navigator/spotter position, climb out of the plane and slide along the hull on a small rail. The two would both occupy the pilots seat as one slid into place and the other slid out and exited the aircraft and moved to the navigator's position. Following his successful assignment at NAS Anacostia as staff officer of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Wead was assigned staff duty involving flying at NAS North Island where he served as Flag Lieutenant to Captain Stanford Elwood Moses, USN- the flight project commander at NAS North Island. One big event Wead was involved with during 1924–25 was the planning for the San Francisco to Hawaii endurance and navigation tests to comprise two Naval Aircraft Factory PN-9 flying boats, and one Boeing PB-1 flying boat.

Harvey M. Beigel provided an article that was published in the American Aviation Historical Society Journal [1] (winter 1997) describing further details of "Spig" Wead's aviation exploits and screenwriting abilities.[9]

Accident[edit | edit source]

Wead would have continued his career as a naval aviator had it not been for a serious accident. In April 1926, he was resting upstairs in his home and heard one of his daughters scream. He then rushed downstairs and tripped, falling and breaking his neck. The injury resulted in paralysis. While convalescing, at the encouragement of his Navy friends, Wead began writing.

According to an article written by a San Diego Union Tribune staff writer:

Lieut. Frank Wead Slips on Stairway of Coronado Home; Operated Upon. Lieut. Frank Wead, one of the best known aviators in the naval service, was operated on for a fractured neck at the naval hospital yesterday morning. Wead sustained the injury which came near costing his life when he slipped and fell from the top of the stairway of his home in Coronado late Wednesday night. The aviator had just moved into the home and was unfamiliar with the staircase. Physicians, following the operation yesterday, said that Wead will recover but it is doubtful if he will be able to fly again. Wead's outstanding exploit since entering the naval flying corps was his flight against British pilots in the international seaplane races off the Isle of Wight in 1923, when American naval fliers took all the honors."[10]

World War II and retirement[edit | edit source]

Wead returned to the Navy during World War II and helped integrate the use of escort carriers to support the main battle line and beach landings. In his syndicated column In Hollywood, on 13 January 1942, Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) service staff correspondent Paul Harrison released an article on a recent interview with Spig Wead titled "No Weeds Growing Under Wead’s Feet" (NEA supplied daily features to many newspapers; United Media). Paul wrote:

Early Offer. On the fateful afternoon of December 7, Wead sent a wire offering his services to Rear Admiral J. H. Towers, Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. A reply of acceptance came next day, along with assurance he needn’t worry about his physical disability And so Lieut. Comdr. Frank Wead now is special assistant to Capt. Ralph Davison, head of the Plans Division, which deals with the organization and tactical operation of all naval aviation.. When I used the word 'sacrifice' in reminding him that he was leaving a $2,000-a-week berth for one paying $460 a month, he just snorted. It was a very eloquent snort."[11]

The story of CDR Wead's sea-duty during World War II began when USS Yorktown (CV-10) arrived in Pearl Harbor on 24 July 1943. Having completed another successful operation, Yorktown, instead of returning to Pearl Harbor, steamed to the newly established Pacific Fleet anchorage at Majuro Atoll, arriving about 4 February 1944. It was during this short eight-day anchorage period amongst the Pacific Fleet that CDR Wead was transferred from Yorktown to a destroyer, and then to Essex (CV-9).[12]

The commanding officer of Essex was Captain Ralph A. Ofstie, USN. While aboard Essex, Wead saw action against Truk Island (17–18 February), now called Chuuk, and against Saipan, Tinian, and Guam (23 February). After these operations, Essex received orders for overhaul and CDR Wead remained aboard Essex as it steamed to San Francisco Bay. The carrier arrived at Naval Air Station Alameda on or about 16 April 1944 for a much-needed overhaul. It was at NAS Alameda, aboard USS Essex (pier-side), that Wead was given an official send-off from active duty just prior to his retirement. CDR Frank Wead was relieved of active duty on 21 July 1944, and was processed through the Personnel Department at NAS Alameda receiving his discharge papers and a train ticket for Los Angeles, California.

Works[edit | edit source]

Early pulp writings[edit | edit source]

Following his release from Balboa Naval Hospital, LCDR Wead, USN (Ret.), moved to Los Angeles County, California, to reside in Santa Monica where he purchased a beautiful small home at 1417 Ocean Avenue (an ocean front view). It was at this residence that LCDR Wead wrote:

Frank A. Andrews's book Dirigible (New York: A.L. Burt Co. 1931), is based on the Columbia picture screenplay by Wead. Frank Wead's publishers released another book in 1931. This was Wings For Men.[13] Writing would become a second and even more important career for Wead, and a means of promoting naval aviation.

His second unexpected career became far more important than his work as a pilot. Wead's writing led him to Hollywood and the eventual friendship and collaboration with director John Ford. Wead received two Academy Award nominations in 1938, one for Best Original Story for Test Pilot and a second for Best Screenplay for The Citadel. Wead also wrote for leading magazines (The Saturday Evening Post and The American Magazine), and he wrote at least two books: Ceiling Zero (1936), and Gales, Ice and Men, A Biography of the Steam Barkentine Bear (1937). He later adapted Ceiling Zero into both a Broadway play and a feature film.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

On 17 November 1947, the Associated Press reported Frank Wead's death.

Santa Monica, Calif. Nov. 17- (AP) – Frank Wead, 52, of Los Angeles, naval aviator in World War I who became a film writer died Saturday night in Santa Monica hospital[14] which he entered Nov. 1 for surgery Wead, who was born in Peoria, Ill., fell at home in 1926, fracturing his neck and sustaining paralysis after which he retired from the Navy. He is survived by two daughters, Mrs. Doris (William) Copley of San Diego, Calif., daughter-in-law of the late publisher, Col. Ira C. Copley, and Mrs. Lila Ployardt of North Hollywood, Calif.; by his divorced wife, Mrs. Minnie Wead, La Jolla, Calif., and by two brothers DeForest Wead of Peoria, and David Wead, Oswego, Ill. [also survived by a nephew-DeForest W. Meehleib of Peoria, Ill.]. After funeral services Tuesday the body will be taken to Peoria for burial."[15]

John Ford directed The Wings of Eagles in 1957, portraying Wead's contributions to Naval aviation. John Wayne was cast as Wead, Ken Curtis as John Dale Price, and Ward Bond played director Ford in the thinly-disguised pseudonymous character of John Dodge. Maureen O'Hara held the role of Mrs. Minnie "Min" (Bryant) Wead (9 December 1891 in Colorado-21 January 1952 in Los Angeles), Frank's wife.

File:Miss Naval Aviation of 1957 Maureen O'Hara Feb1957.png

On Monday evening, 4 February 1957, Maureen O'Hara was proclaimed Miss Naval Aviation of 1957 at the annual Naval Aviation Cadet Recruiting Officers' Convention by Commander Tom Cates, USN (left), and Lieutenant Commander C. G. Hathaway, USNR (right).

For her part in the MGM film The Wings of Eagles, Maureen O'Hara was crowned "Miss Naval Aviation of 1957" at the annual Naval Aviation Cadet Recruiting Officers' Convention at the Lafayette Hotel, in Long Beach, California, February 1957. Shortly after, at another MGM publicity event held in Norfolk, Virginia, naval cadets of the Aviation Cadet Barracks crowned Ms. O'Hara as "Miss Valentine". O'Hara in turn presented the NavCad Victory Cup to Commander Tom Cates for outstanding cadet procurement during Fiscal Year 1956. This cup was originally presented to the Navy by the Chance Vought Aircraft Corporation to be awarded to the top NavCad procurement team in America.

Military awards and certifications[edit | edit source]

Legion of Merit[edit | edit source]

According to a Navy Department Office of Public Relations and Office of War Information radio and press notice of Tuesday, 29 August 1944, CDR Frank Wead received the Legion of Merit:

Mexican Service Medal[edit | edit source]

Ensign Frank Wead earned the Mexican Service Medal aboard USS San Diego (ACR-6) between 7 July 1916 through 12 February 1917. This Navy warship was previously commissioned as USS California (ACR-6).

World War I Victory Medal[edit | edit source]

LT(j.g.) Frank Wead earned this medal while serving aboard USS Shawmut (CM-4) during mine laying operations in the North Sea's Northern Barrage, 1918.

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal[edit | edit source]

World War II Victory Medal[edit | edit source]

Aviation certification[edit | edit source]

Civilian honors[edit | edit source]

Schneider Trophy (1923)[edit | edit source]

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Bronze replica of the Schneider Trophy.


The American team under the leadership of LT Frank Wilbur Wead, USN (team captain) won the Schneider International Seaplane Race and were awarded the Schneider Trophy (Europeans refer to it as the Schneider Cup [16]) on 28 September 1923, at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, Great Britain. The American team comprised LT Frank Wead, LT David Rittenhouse, LT Rutledge Irvine, LT Adolphus Worthington Gorton, and several naval aviation mechanics. It was managed by team captain LT Wead. The Schneider Cup (or Schneider Trophy), named for the French aviation enthusiast, started in Monaco in 1913. This seaplane racing cup resided in Europe until 1923 when Lieutenant David Rittenhouse won the race and brought the cup home to the United States for the Navy team.

Ceiling Zero[edit | edit source]

The film Ceiling Zero (1936) received critic's choice recognition as a Broadway play and film production; a film based upon the stage and screen play by LCDR Frank Wead, USN (Ret.), and the technical advise of Paul Mantz.

Test Pilot[edit | edit source]

The film Test Pilot (1938) earned 4 Academy Award nominations: Outstanding Production, Writing, Film Editing

The Citadel[edit | edit source]

The film The Citadel (1938) earned 4 Academy Award nominations: Outstanding Production, Best Actor, Directing, Writing-Screenplay

They Were Expendable[edit | edit source]

They Were Expendable (1945) earned two Academy Award nominations for Sound Recording and Special Effects.

Filmography[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. The American Magazine, volume 109, # 5, sale 25 cents, May 1930
  2. The Saturday Evening Post, volume 202, # 47, page 54, sale 5 cents, 24 May 1930
  3. Submarine Stories, volume 4, # 12, page 36, sale 20 cents, July 1930
  4. The American Magazine, volume 111, # 3, page 74, sale 25 cents, March 1931
  5. Liberty, page 37, sale 5 cents, 27 August 1932
  6. The Saturday Evening Post, volume 205, # 40, page 12, sale 5 cents, 1 April 1933

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Frank Wead (1895 - 1947) - Find A Grave Memorial". Findagrave.com. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7967640. Retrieved 2010-03-31. 
  2. "Mr. Wead Comes Out of the Clouds" - New York Times - May 5, 1935
  3. United States Naval Academy. Yearbook: Lucky Bag 1916.
  4. "USS California/San Diego, ACR-6, WWI". Freepages. military. rootsweb. ancestry.com. http://freepages.military.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cacunithistories/USS_San_Diego.html. Retrieved 2010-03-31. 
  5. (born: 1876, West Point, Nebraska; died: 1972, La Jolla, San Diego County, California)
  6. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897 - 1957 (National Archives Microfilm Publication, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives, Washington DC; T715_2548; Year: 1917; lines 12, 19; sheet 83A).
  7. The History of Naval Aviation. Part 2: Test of Strength, 1917–1919. p 38, web site http://www.historycentral.com/NAVY/chron/NAVALAVIATION.html
  8. Naval Aviation News. 1 October 1944. "1919: First Fleet Air Detachment. Shawmut Converted to Carrier in Guantanamo Bay Winter Maneuvers." p. 20.
  9. Beigel, Harvey M. American Aviation Historical Society Journal (vol. 42, pp 302-309). "'Spig' Wead: Naval Aviator and Screenwriter" (winter 1997).
  10. The San Diego Union. "Daring Aviator Fractures Neck" (Friday morning edition), 16 April 1926, Editorial Page, page 4, column 4.
  11. Harrison, Paul. "No Weeds Growing Under Wead's Feet" (13 January 1942, NEA: Hollywood CA).
  12. U.S.S. Essex (CV-9) List of Nonenlisted Passengers of U.S.S. ESSEX, Date: 28 February 1944. List no. 14, (column 1) Names: Long, Dwight S.; (column 2) Rank, Title, etc.: Lieut. A-V(S) USNR. List no. 27 (column 1) Names: Wead, Frank W.; (column 2) Rank, Title, etc.: Comdr. (Retired) USN.
  13. Wead, Frank W. Wings For Men. The Century Company: New York and London, 1931. Illustrated. Includes extensive reference to the Wright Brothers. Frank Wead's hypothesis in this book that in any future war, aircraft will prove the determining factor in guiding a nation either to victory or to defeat.
  14. "Welcome to Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center & Orthopaedic Hospital: Santa Monica, CA". Uclahealth.org. 2006-09-30. https://web.archive.org/web/20071028065229/http://www.uclahealth.org/homepage_sanmon.cfm?id=265. Retrieved 2010-03-31. 
  15. "Death — Frank Wead" (17 November 1947, Associated Press article). The Santa Monica Hospital address: 1250 16th Street, City of Santa Monica, Los Angeles County, California.
  16. "Schneider Trophy (Cup) Races Seaplane Competition The Rolls Royce Aero Engines and Spitfire and Hurricane | The Bluebird Electric Land Speed Project". Bluebird-electric.net. 1912-12-05. http://www.bluebird-electric.net/schneider_trophy.htm. Retrieved 2010-03-31. 

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