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CDR JOSEPH PUGH NORFLEET (1887-1978)

by Phil Norfleet

 

JOSEPH PUGH8 NORFLEET (RICHARD URQUART7, STEPHEN ANDREWS6, THOMAS FIGURES5, REUBEN4, MARMADUKE3, THOMAS2, THOMAS1 NORTHFLEETE) was born September 1887 in Bertie County NC, and died 14 September 1978 in Cape May Point NJ. He married HENRIETTE PLANGERE. She was born 16 November 1898, and died March 1985 in Cape May Point NJ.

Joseph Pugh Norfleet was born in Bertie County, North Carolina in 1887 and died in Cape May Point, New Jersey on 14 September 1978. During most of his life, he was usually known as "Pugh" or "Swifty" Norfleet. Commander Norfleet's grandfather was Stephen Andrews Norfleet of Woodbourne Plantation, who, before the Civil War, was one of the wealthiest cotton planters in North Carolina.

Career Summary

Commander Norfleet graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1910 and from 1910-1915 served at sea aboard a battleship. In 1915, "Swifty" Norfleet was attached to the Navy's Flight School at Pensacola, Florida.  In 1917, he was in the first class to graduate from the "Lighter Than Air "training school at Wingfoot Lake, Ohio.  From 1919-1920 Norfleet served in the Naval Attaché's office at the U. S. Embassy in Paris, during which time he delivered plans for the captured German Zeppelin, the L-49, to the Navy Department in Washington DC.  While in France, Commander Norfleet met and married a French lady, Henriette Plangere. In the early 1920's he was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst NJ.  On this assignment, Norfleet served as the Navigator and later as Executive Officer on the Navy's first airship, the ZR-1 (later named the SHENANDOAH).

In the 1920's and 1930's, Commander Norfleet was one of the Navy's foremost experts on rigid (Zeppelin type) airship technology. His name is prominently mentioned in the ZR-1 (USS SHENANDOAH) airship exhibit at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. In August 1930 he published an article in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings entitled "Have Airships a Military Value?"

Commander Norfleet retired from the Navy in 1932; however, during WWII he returned to active duty and served in a number of executive capacities related to anti-submarine warfare.  In May 1945, he received the ship's papers from the captain of the first German submarine to surrender in American waters.  In 1946, Norfleet retired from the Navy for the second time.  He made his home in Cape May Point NJ, enjoying an active retirement until his death in 1978.

 

Commander Joseph Pugh Norfleet ca. 1943

 

Service on the Shenandoah (ZR-1)

In my opinion, the most interesting part of Commander Joseph Pugh Norfleet's long and varied professional career was during the 10 month period (September 1923 - June 1924) that he served as Navigator and Executive Officer of the U. S. Navy's first rigid airship, the USS SHENANDOAH.

While the ZR-1 was still undergoing flight testing, the Construction Manager, CDR Ralph D. Weyerbacher, functioned as commander of the airship.  The first operational commander of the airship during Norfleet's tenure was Captain F. R. McCrary; however, in February 1924, LCDR Zachary Lansdowne succeeded McCrary as commanding officer.  Joseph Norfleet had preceded Lansdowne at Pensacola as one of a handful of officers attached to the Navy's Flight School.  In the early 1970's, author Thom Hook interviewed and corresponded with Norfleet concerning his experiences while serving on the SHENANDOAH.  The following excerpts regarding Norfleet are taken from Hook's book entitled Shenandoah Saga, (published 1973):

... Lansdowne learned how the tall, mustachioed Norfleet picked up his nickname. A fellow officer and his sweetheart had a tiff when they were taking a boat ride at Pensacola, with Norfleet aboard. The girl chose to sit in the stem with Norfleet, with the spurned swain in the bow. At the end of the ride, he laid the name "Swifty" on the courtly southern officer. ... [See page 18.]

... Lansdowne did public relations work and lent advice at the colorful Gordon Bennett Cup Balloon races in Geneva, Switzerland Aug. 6, 1922. ... Lansdowne traveled alone with the Navy entrants. LCdr. Joseph P. "Swifty" Norfleet was a supernumerary balloonist. He had stayed in Europe two years after the Armistice and married a pretty French girl. Now he and Lansdowne discussed the progress being made on the ZR-1, since Norfleet had been back recently. ... [See page 45.]

"The new ZR-1's about half-completed, Zach," said the tall, mustached Norfleet. "'Tommy' Weyerbacher is running the show of assembling components from the League Island Shops. It looks good." Lansdowne smiled in agreement, as he checked a sand bag on the basket of the Navy bag amid the tethered array, which looked like gigantic toilet tank floats of many colors sitting in the park. The pilot of the Navy entry, Lt. W. F. Reed, and his aide, Kit Mullinx, came to the basket of the balloon, which was moored with the gas bags of 15 other nations and ready for competition. [See page 45.]

"Gentlemen," said Lansdowne, "You did well in the nationals back home -- if you can beat Ernest deMuyter, the Belgian Army Lieutenant, you can take the cup." The starting signal came. The balloons lifted in fine weather. As the hours went by, sightings were reported. At the end, as the Geneva crowd kept score of those who had landed and gone farthest, the Navy balloon of Reed and Mullinx seemed to have it. Lt. deMuyter's balloon had gone the most kilometers, but his balloon's tether broke after he landed, and the pilotless balloon soared away. Lansdowne and Norfleet were disappointed when the judges still awarded deMuyter first place, after some delay in contemplating the correct interpre­tation of the rules which seemed to indicate bal­loons had to be moored where they came down so they stayed down. "Wait until next year," said Norfleet. "Well, we're still getting a lot of good scientific information from free ballooning and this type of competition," Lansdowne said. "It's too bad," mused Norfleet. "The heavier-than-air boys no longer have to come to Lakehurst as part of their training, as we used to, from Pensacola." [See page 47]

Lansdowne put away the news releases, programs and other papers covering the event and prepared for the trip back to Berlin by car with Norfleet. "Yes, it's too bad every pilot doesn't have to be trained in airship as well as airplane flying," he said. "It would help them understand what some of our problems are and show what the advantages of ballooning are!" "We'll get another crack next year, Zach!" said Norfleet. "But I'm afraid this is my last possible shot at it." He touched his pencil-line mustache, as they looked out at the Swiss countryside on the routine drive to Berlin. Norfleet would return to Lakehurst. He was in line to be the first executive officer-navigator for the new ZR-1 when construction was completed the next summer. The air station commander, Cdr. Frank R. McCrary, had indicated as much. [See page 47.]

... A classmate of "Swifty" Norfleet's at the Academy in 1910 was LCdr. Lewis "John" Hancock, who had learned all you could about undersea-boat handling and was decorated for getting a sub out of a crisis situation. ... Hancock had commanded many submarines before, during and after the Great War. He also had been decorated for attempting to ram an enemy sub while operating out of Bantry Bay, Ireland, and he was a pioneer of the first sub flotilla to cross the Atlantic. Hancock came aboard at Lakehurst for student training in airships in May 1923. It was 16 months after the first cradle had been completed on Feb. 1 l, 1922 for the assembly of the ZR-1 W began, and the crew under Cdr. Frank McCrary and LCdr. "Swifty" Norfleet as navigator was going through ground school and training in blimps and balloons as ship construction progressed at about a frame every 10 days. ... [See pages 47-49]

There was something about traveling in a large rigid that prompted naval officers to become literary men, and perhaps the first of the many who followed was Cdr. Weyerbacher, who shortly after the New York trip penned a piece on the cruise for the New York Tribune... The newspaper connection eventually turned into a boomerang, as time went by. A series of articles by the paper's staff began suggesting that Weyerbacher, who had built the ship, ought to be in command of the ,Shenandoah instead of McCrary, whose experience was in heavier-than-air.  To correct this, LCdr. Joseph "Swifty" Norfleet was sent on a personal visit to the N. Y. Tribune to explain to them that a line officer had to command the ship, and "Tommy" Weyerbacher was in the Construction Corps of the Navy. Broad-shouldered, likeable Norfleet was among the first 20 naval aviators at Pensacola around 1915, had been in a crash that had hospitalized him for three months-otherwise, he would have won his wings of gold sooner than he did. He tried to explain to the newspaper that articles dividing public sentiment and the Navy as to who should command the air­ship would be harmful. The paper's reporter merely shrugged his shoulders, said that wasn't the way he had heard the story, and continued to plead the cause that Weyerbacher would be better at the helm than the air station's commanding officer.  [See Page 66.]

Swifty Norfleet's Last Flight on the SHENANDOAH

The SHENANDOAH was severely damage during a gale on 16 January 1924 and was not available for operational use until late May of that year.  On 22 May 1924, the first post-repair flight of the SHENANDOAH was made.  Swifty Norfleet's last flight occurred on 3-4 June 1924; he was being transferred to a Washington DC desk job.  The following excerpts concerning Norfleet's last flight are also taken form Thom Hook's book:

To give the repaired ship a good shakedown cruise after the short test hop to Toms River, Lansdowne had navigator "Swifty" Norfleet flight-plan a 24-hour trip to Albany and Buffalo for the Shenandoah. It would cover 866 miles and take the ship through the scenic Mohawk Valley, over Niagara Falls and return following the Susquehanna river on her way to New Jersey.

Norfleet would serve as exec officer instead of LCdr. Lewis Hancock.

The day of the flight, Hancock was preparing to be married at the seashore home of the bride's parents, and they had picked out a honeymoon home at Toms River, east of Lakehurst. It was Tues., June 3, 1924, and Hancock was granted 20 days leave with the best wishes of Captain Lansdowne and the entire crew. [See page 93.]

At 7:19 a.m., the ship departed in the haze, with high, thin clouds above Lakehurst. LCdr. "Swifty" Norfleet, as exec officer, relayed the command over the annunciators for all engines to be at two-thirds speed. On a course of 360 degrees, north­ward, plowing through the haze, the airship by 8:30 a.m. was seen and admired by commuters on their way to work in Manhattan. An hour later, thanks to a 20-mile-an-hour tailwind from the southwest, Vassar College girls at Poughkeepsie in graduation mortar boards and gowns stopped talking with parents and boy friends long enough to look at the graceful silver ship in the sky. While they gazed skyward, a rain squall sent them scurrying for cover. The Shenandoah continued up the Hudson River and past its high ramparts, where West Point cadets admired the Navy's newest weapons system from the drill grounds. The ship arrived over the state house at Albany by 10:38 a.m. There, for nearly a half-hour, messages of greeting from President Coolidge and the Assistant SECNAV were broadcast over the airship's loud­speaker to the people below. ... Lt. Regg Houghton relayed the orders to change course from north at Albany to westward. At Schenectady by 11:40, workers on lunch break ate their sandwiches at the General Electric factory and admired the airship. Utica was reached by 2 p.m. and Syracuse 33 minutes later. By 5:18 p.m. the ship was over Rochester, and workers at the Eastman Kodak plant were let out 12 minutes before quitting time to snap pictures. ... Then "Swifty" Norfleet had the rudderman change course for 105 degrees true to return to the air station, as cloudiness increased with the approach of darkness. ... [See page 95.]

... From Princeton, Norfleet recommended a course of 155 degrees, and the ship went southeast Long Branch on the Jersey shore, whence they knew their exact position. Low stratus clouds now surrounded Lakehurst and to the east and south as well as 15 miles northward. The ceiling was down to 500 feet above the surface. Moving along at slow speed in pea soup visibility, the crew in the cabin peered out the large celon-windows at 4:35 a.m. Wednesday Sept. 4.  At Mantoloking, Lansdowne agreed with Norfleet's recommendation that they turn west and follow the Toms River road to the air station. ... Lt. Jack Lawrence, noting the ship was light for landing at dawn, suggested valving helium. "Valve for three minutes, Jack," Lansdowne ordered. Lt. Bruce Anderson held the stop watch while Lawrence pulled the toggles opening the maneuvering valves at the tops of the gas cells. This still was insufficient valving to get the ship down. Another attempt was made to land. Sunrise began boring unhelpful holes in the clouds. "Valve an additional five-and-a-half minutes," Lansdowne ordered. When the toggles had been pulled and a total of 40,000 cubic feet of helium had disappeared into the air, the ship was 2-3,000 pounds light, and the landing was made at 6:40 a.m. Twenty minutes later she was walked into the hangar by the ground force of sailors and marines. "That's $2,400 worth of helium we had to valve," Lansdowne remarked to "Swifty' Norfleet. Norfleet mused. "We're lucky we didn't lose more in the vicinity of those thunderstorms when the vertical currents threw us up to 5,200 feet. It was a good, extended cross-country -- even if we did have to feel our way back!"  Lansdowne smiled in agreement. He knew "Swifty" had his hands full figuring out what towns they were over in New York state in the black of night and with the local thunderstorms causing them to zigzag frequently to avoid them. Lansdowne was sorry to see the tall, broad-shouldered Norfleet complete this final flight as navigator, and he shook "Swifty’s" hand as he said so. The amiable, well-born officer had been navigator ten months, and now was being transferred to duty in Washington at BuAer, where he still would be concerned with administrative work in connec­tion with flights of the airship. ... [See page 97.]

Children of JOSEPH NORFLEET and HENRIETTE PLANGERE are:

i.  BARBARA PUGH NORFLEET, born in 18 February 1926, Lakewood NJ; married ALFRED Brettauer COHN in 1950; COHN was born in 1924.

Dr. Barbara Pugh Norfleet is a noted photographer, psychologist, educator (Harvard University) and author of numerous books

ii.  PATRICIA HILL NORFLEET, born in 1924; married WILLIAM GLENN DEGENER, who was born in 1943.

 

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