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Setting the Stage

New York City's first municipal airport, Floyd Bennett Field, opened May 23, 1931. Located on a site called Barren Island, the airfield's importance was reflected at its dedication by the presence of aviation pioneers. Included in the list of attendees were Charles Lindbergh (who had flown non-stop from Roosevelt Field, New York to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France in 1927) and James “Jimmie” Doolittle (military aviator in both World War I and World War II, aviation speed trophy holder, and dare-devil who first performed an outside loop). Admiral Richard E. Byrd (the polar explorer who flew over the North Pole in 1926 and the South Pole in 1929) also attended the dedication. The airport was named for Floyd Bennett, the pilot for Byrd's North Pole overflight and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In 1931, Floyd Bennett Field was one of the most advanced airports in the world. From the Field, throughout the 1930s, early aviators attempted or completed numerous pioneering transcontinental, transatlantic, and round-the-world flights and established speed records with both passenger and transport planes. Laura H. Ingalls and Jacqueline Cochran set transcontinental speed records for women; Howard Hughes set intercity and round-the-world flight records on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest and most reclusive men in America; and Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan achieved notoriety by filing a flight plan for California, but ending up in Ireland.

Floyd Bennett Field may have been famous, but its failure to win U.S. air mail contracts meant that passenger airlines (which needed postal income to be profitable) refused to schedule flights into the airfield. In 1939, with the opening of the city's second municipal airport, LaGuardia Airport, city officials put Floyd Bennett Field up for sale. The U.S. Navy wanted to improve its aviation capability around the port city of New York and already had a Naval Air Reserve Squadron located at Floyd Bennett Field. The Navy acquired the airfield on June 2, 1941 and it was officially commissioned as U.S. Naval Air Station, Brooklyn, New York. However, it continued to be commonly referred to by its civilian name, Floyd Bennett Field.

The Neutrality Acts, passed by Congress during the 1930's, obligated President Franklin D. Roosevelt, upon the outbreak of hostilities between two or more foreign countries, to proclaim formally that a state of war existed. This made unlawful for the United States to export arms, ammunition, or the implements of war to those hostile nations. In general, the Neutrality Acts reflected the attitude of an American public that did not want to be drawn into a war in Europe. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II began in Europe. The major nations of Europe and Asia became divided into two camps: the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) and the Allies (England, France, China and later the Soviet Union). Americans had already begun to heed President Roosevelt's call in December, 1940, that the United States “must become the great arsenal of democracy.” During 1940 and 1941 the United States started to increase its military preparedness. In March 1941, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act allowing the U.S. to lend the Allies war materiel in return for repayment after the war. However, until the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, U.S. public opinion remained divided on the issue of direct American military involvement in the war.

The last civilian flight out of Floyd Bennett Field took off on May 26, 1941. The United States was still neutral despite the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939. Yet, from the beginning of 1941, with German U-Boat submarines prowling the Atlantic, “Neutrality Patrols” (which flew as escorts to convoys shuttling war materiel to Great Britain from New York) were equipped with depth bombs.¹ Floyd Bennett Field was about to be plunged into war.

¹ Naval Air Station New York [Floyd Bennett Field] performed a vital function during the U-Boat offensive of 1942 by providing air cover for convoys embarking from the Port of New York. The Naval Ferry Squadron based there delivered thousands of aircraft to the fleet from factories on Long Island.

-- Dr. Joseph Meany, New York State Historian, Museum of the State of New York



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