JOHN RODGERS, CDR, USN
John Rodgers '03
Date of birth: January 15, 1881
Date of death: August 27, 1926
From the 1903 Lucky Bag:
Biography & Loss
Rodgers was the great-grandson of Commodores Rodgers and Perry. He was born in Washington, D.C. and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1903. His early naval career included service on ships of various types before studying flying in 1911 and becoming the second American naval officer to fly for the United States Navy. In September 1911, Lieutenant John Rodgers assembled and flew a crated Wright Model B-1 aircraft delivered by Orville Wright at an armory in Annapolis, Maryland, and then bringing naval flight as a pioneer to the United States Navy.
He commanded Division 1, Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet in 1916; and, after the United States entered World War I, he commanded the Submarine Base at New London, Connecticut.
Following the war, he served in European waters and received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for outstanding work on minesweeping operations in the North Sea. After several important assignments during the next five years, he commanded Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet, in Langley in 1925.
That year he led the first attempt at a non-stop flight from California to Hawaii. Given the technology of the time, this tested the limits of both aircraft range and the accuracy of aerial navigation. The expedition was to include three planes. Rodgers commanded the flying boat PN-9 No. 1. The PN-9 No. 3 was commanded by Lt. Allen P. Snody. The third plane was to have been a new design, which was not completed in time to join the expedition. Due to the risks, the Navy positioned 10 guard ships spaced 200 miles apart between California and Hawaii to refuel or recover the aircraft if necessary. The two PN-9s departed San Pablo Bay, California (near San Francisco) on August 31. Lt. Snody’s plane had an engine failure about five hours into its flight, was forced to land in the ocean, and was safely recovered.
Rodgers’s flight proceeded with few difficulties for more than 1200 miles. However, higher than expected fuel consumption and a weaker than predicted tailwind made it necessary for the plane to land in the ocean and refuel. The plane headed for a refueling ship, but limitations of the navigation technology and erroneous navigation information provided by the ship’s crew caused Rodgers and his crew to miss the ship. The flying boat was forced to land in the ocean when it ran out of fuel on September 1. Since the position of the plane was not known while it was in the air and the plane’s radio could not transmit when the plane was floating on the water, Rodgers and his crew were not found by an extensive, multi-day search by planes and a large number of ships. After passing a night without rescue, Rodgers and his crew used fabric from a wing to make a sail and sailed towards Hawaii, several hundred miles away. Later the plane’s crew used metal flooring to fashion leeboards to improve their ability to steer the flying boat while it was sailing. Finally, nine days later, after sailing the plane 450 miles to within 15 miles of Nawiliwili Bay, Kauai, the plane and its crew were found by submarine USS R-4 under the command of Lt. Donald R. Osborn, Jr, (USNA class of 1920), after a search by the US Navy. They were towed near the reef outside of the port. The harbor master and his daughter rowed out to the plane and helped Rodgers and his crew surf over the reef and into the safety of the harbor. By the time they were found by the submarine, Rodgers and his crew had subsisted a week without food and with limited water. He later shared with a newspaper, "We were taken care of by the good people of the island, who insisted on treating us as invalids, whereas as a matter of fact we were in very good shape and perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves." After their return, Rodgers and his crew were treated as heroes. Also, despite not reaching Hawaii by air, their flight established a new non-stop air distance record for seaplanes of 1992 miles (3206 km).
After this experience, Rodgers served as Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics until his accidental death in an airplane crash after the plane he was piloting suddenly nose-dived into the Delaware River on August 27, 1926.
He was survived by his ex-wife, from whom he was divorced in 1924, Ethel Greiner Rodgers. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
John Rodgers Field—now Kalaeloa Airport, Hawaii—was named for him.