Home Page | The Navigator's Newsletter | Membership Benefits | Board Members | Activities

Rear Admiral Thomas D. Davies, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Rear Admiral Thomas D. Davies, United States Navy (Retired) was the founder and first president of The Foundation for the Promotion of the Art of Navigation.  He was a decorated Navy pilot who set several aviation records, a commanding officer, a diplomat, and an expert and innovator in several scientific fields, including navigation and optics. He was also a linguist and artist. Most recently he received international attention for his exhaustive analysis of Admiral Robert E. Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole in April of 1909.

His long professional involvement in the science and art of celestial navigation began as a Midshipman in Annapolis, where he studied under Arthur Ageton and published his first article in the Naval Institute Proceedings in 1937. During his lengthy naval career he had occasion to address navigation problems both at sea and in the air. Based on his experience and research he developed two new methods for celestial sight reduction.

Admiral Davies was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 3, 1914. His father, David A. Davies, was a turn-of-the-century businessman who had followed in the industrial tradition of his Welsh ancestors. The Davies had developed early gantry cranes to be used in shipbuilding. David Davies and his brother were executives in the Acme Machine Company. In this environment young Tom Davies developed his interest in the world of engineering and science. After graduating from high school Tom Davies entered the Case Institute of Technology, which he attended from 1931 through 1933. It was while a student at Case Institute that he developed a lifelong interest and love for physics and for optical physics in particular. While a student at Case he felt he was fortunate to have attended lectures in physics by guest lecturer Albert Einstein.

In 1934 he was accepted as a Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. After having attended Case Institute for two years, his first years at the Naval Academy were a time for building upon his knowledge and engineering insights already acquired. It was during this period, while studying naval ordnance and gunnery, that he became aware of the difficulty that the navy was experiencing in determining the accurate range of targets. To Midshipman Davies there was an obvious solution. That solution was to develop a new type of stereoscopic range. Midshipman Davies developed a workable model of the range finder. His target for his range tests was the dome of the Maryland State Capital Building.

His tests were so successful that senior officers in the Bureau of Ordnance asked him to brief them on the range finder. He explained the workings and accuracy of his invention to these senior officers, and they saw the great potential of such a range finder sight. Further development readied the optical range finder sight for the major ships with large caliber guns of the fleet. The sight developed by Midshipman Thomas D. Davies was used on all ship with large caliber guns of the United States Navy during World War II and on ships used for coastal bombardment during the Korean War. These sights are still visible on the battleships that have been preserved in museum status. For example, one can still be seen on the battleship North Carolina at Wilmington, North Carolina.

In addition to being a gifted engineer and innovator, as a student Midshipman Davies was also an artist and a young man of letters. At the Naval Academy he was Art Editor of the ''Log,'' and Associate Editor of the "Trident." In addition to his duties as Editor and Associate Editor, he contributed a number of pieces to , the Naval Academy Log and the midshipman humor magazine, and he also put his artistic talents to work designing the class ring.

After graduating from the United States Naval Academy with the class of 1937, Ensign Davies was assigned initially to the cruiser U.S.S. Portland, stationed in the Pacific. In February 1939 he commissioned his second ship, the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Wichita, which became a particular favorite. While aboard Wichita, he put his artistic talents to work and created a beautiful painting of his ship, which hung in a place of honor in his home for many years.

Ensign Davies left the surface navy and entered the Navy flight training program in early 1942. He completed flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator in late 1942 and assigned to Bombing Squadron 129 (VPB-129) as Executive Officer. This squadron, flying PV-1 Venturas, was fighting a little publicized antisubmarine war in the South Atlantic against German U-Boats. Flying from airfields in Brazil, Squadron 129 was charged with the protection of coastal shipping along the coast of South America. On one antisubmarine surveillance mission, Aircraft Plane Commander Davies engaged the German Submarine U-604. His attack scored a direct hit. For his attack on the German submarine, Davies received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and superb airmanship contributing to the destruction of an important enemy vessel."

As was the case in every assignment, Davies became interested in the language of the country. His forays into the villages and towns of Brazil during the two years of his assignment to Squadron 129 provided Davies an opportunity to develop hi s language ability. He learned to read and write Portuguese, skills he used later when he was assigned as Commanding Officer of the U. S. Brazilian Training Unit. He used his linguistic talents to write a manual in Portuguese and to assist the Brazilian Navy in translating English maintenance manuals into Portuguese, and to organize their maintenance and flight training efforts. Later, this ability to read, write and speak Portuguese was a great asset in allowing him to translate original Portuguese navigation documents into English for his research in Portuguese navigation techniques.

Following his tour as Commanding Officer of the U.S. Brazilian Training Unit, he became intimately involved in naval aircraft development. On February 19, 1943 a letter of intent had been given by the Navy Department to Lockheed Aircraft Company to initiate the development of two XP2V-1 Neptune Series of land-based aircraft. The design drawing had just begun on the Neptune when Commander Davies assumed his new duties at the United States Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics as the Patrol Plane Contracting Officer in Washington, DC. His task was to research and help select the next land-based patrol plane to replace the PV-1 Ventura.

Being assigned to this project was a rare opportunity for young Commander Davies. The responsibilities and authority inherent in his position as Contracting Officer during those years gave him the chance to help dictate the final design of the XP2V-1. It was during this initial development his superior engineering ability was allowed free reign. His assistance to the engineers of Lockheed and his insistence on extended flight duration for navy patrol aircraft, laid the groundwork for a subsequent world distance record in heavy propeller-driven aircraft.

Tom, who was then serving as the head of the patrol plane desk in the Bureau of Aeronautics, originated the idea of modifying the first production model of the new Lockheed P2V for a long distance flight to demonstrate the ability of Navy air antisubmarine warfare forces to reach targets anywhere in the world. With the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Nimitz, Davies developed and executed the plan, establishing a distance record of 11,256 miles which held for sixteen years.

In September 1946, a modified version of one of the first two prototype XP2V-1 Neptunes was ferried to Perth, Australia, by island hopping. This was to be "The Truculent Turtle" that Commander Davies and his crew were going to fly for a world distance record. Commander Davies, his crew, and engineers from Lockheed Aircraft Company, checked the plane in minute detail. The engineers were worried that the aircraft was grossly overloaded because of the much greater quantity of fuel that was required for the distance record flight. The oleo shock absorber struts were completely compressed during the taxi tests. The tires had very little room to spare between the rim of the wheel and the face of the tire. Even a bump could have caused the rim to cut the tire with disastrous results. While the Lockheed engineers worried and fretted, Commander Davies was confident, from his own personal calculations that the aircraft would fly.

As the crew was boarding the aircraft, the Lord Mayor of Perth arrived to wish them luck. He also brought with him a small kangaroo in a wooden cage for Commander Davies to fly to the United States. For the Lockheed engineers, this was the end. They were already convinced that the aircraft was grossly overloaded, but to add additional weight, especially a kangaroo in a wooden cage, was unthinkable. Commander Davies accepted the kangaroo for the people of the United States, and directed his crew to load the crate in the tail of the aircraft. He remarked to the worried engineers that lithe plane was already overloaded so a little more weight would not hurt."

As history records, the plane did get into the air after an unusually long take-off run. To conserve fuel the rate of climb was kept to a minimum and the altitude was under 6,000 feet for the first several thousand miles. For his achievement in the flight, Tom, along with his crew of three other pilots, was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Flying Cross, by President Truman in a White House ceremony.

After this, Commander Davies continued to push the frontiers of naval aviation. On April 27, 1948, as Commander of Task Group 68.7, in the first carrier launching of planes of this size and weight, two P2V-2 Neptunes, one piloted by Commander Tom Davies, made Jet Assisted Take Offs (JATO) from the deck of the U.S.S. Coral Sea (CV-43) off Norfolk, Virginia. These tests proved the practicability of operating long-range heavy attack planes from Navy carriers. These tests resulted in establishing a Navy, carrier-based nuclear bombing capability. For a short time Tom held the worlds piston aircraft speed record from the east to west coast of the United States. He stated he was able to capture this speed record with the P2V Neptune because all other speed records were from west to east to utilize the prevailing westerly winds. Also, using the Neptune he was able to complete the entire distance without refueling.

As a member of Admiral Robert E. Byrd's staff Davies continued to distinguish himself as a thinker, innovator and engineer. He designed the first set of skis for tricycle landing gear aircraft and developed the Sky Compass for navigation at the Poles where conventional instruments are unreliable. This new compass was later incorporated into celestial navigation equipment used by commercial airlines for early trans-polar flights to Europe. He also equipped two aircraft with special navigation and photographic equipment for use in mapping the Antarctic continent.

The Sky Compass was a set of polarized lenses mounted in a frame that penetrated the top of the aircraft. By rotating the lenses, an accurate relative bearing of the sun could be made while the sun was still well below the horizon. By using this relative bearing and the known longitudinal position of the sun, taken from the Nautical Almanac, the gyro compasses could be accurately realigned. This procedure allowed the aircraft to navigate in polar regions where all other compasses of that time were useless. Magnetic compasses could not be used and gyros compasses precessed to a degree that they were utterly useless unless frequently corrected. For this necessary and useful invention, Commander Davies, received the Thurlow Award for the Outstanding Contribution to the Science of Navigation for 1949 from the Institute of Navigation.

For the years of 1950-1952 Davies was assigned to be in charge of the aircraft overhaul and repair facility at Naval Air Station, Sand Point, in Seattle. He was then transferred to the Staff of the Commander, Fleet Air Mediterranean where he remained until 1954.

While stationed in Italy, Tom Davies continued to build on his language capabilities and to exercise his engineering abilities. The U.S. Navy's presence in the Mediterranean included navy patrol aircraft based out of Sigonella, Sicily. Sigonella had the only adequate maintenance facilities for these patrol planes. Periodically the squadrons would base in the eastern Mediterranean. Without maintenance facilities their availability quickly deteriorated. Commander Tom Davies installed maintenance facilities in an LST which could beach near the airfield and provide maintenance vehicles, shops and spare parts to the deployed aircraft squadrons. On his return from Italy, Commander Davies was assigned as Commanding Officer of the Naval Air Engineering Facility at Philadelphia, where he had responsibility for arresting gear and catapults for aircraft carriers. Commander Davies was intimately involved in the development of the Navy's steam catapult and arresting gear systems. He remained at the Naval Air Engineering Facility until 1958, when he was reassigned to service in Washington, D.C.

In 1960 and 1961 Captain Tom Davies commanded the fleet oiler U.S.S. Caliente deployed in the Western Pacific. Here he continued to practice his navigation and improve his abilities in celestial navigation.

This assignment was followed in 1962 and 1963 by service as Commander, Fleet Air Wing Three, located in Brunswick, Maine. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred during this tour, and his command was an important part of U.S. aerial surveillance forces. It was during the surface surveillance that the importance of accurate navigation was again proven necessary for comprehensive search and detection of surface shipping. The lessons he learned during the Missile Crisis were later used to develop a command and control system for his carrier division.

In 1963 and 1964 Captain Davies commanded the Naval Air Station at Norfolk, Virginia, and he thereafter returned to Washington, D.C. and was selected as a Flag Officer. Rear Admiral Davies joined the staff of the Secretary of the Navy where he remained from 1965 to 1967. He founded the Office of Program Appraisal within the Office of the Secretary. Under the charter of OPA, Admiral Davies was responsible for reviewing all of the Navy's major programs for engineering, funding and, most of all, usefulness.

In 1967 Admiral Davies was assigned as Commander Carrier Division 20. It was in this capacity that he continued to develop his surface surveillance/ command and control system. The thoroughness of the system for data collection, ship identification, electronic emission control and navigation allowed Admiral Davies to evade all Soviet surveillance ships that had been trailing U.S. aircraft carriers since the beginning of the Cold War. These trailing Soviet ships were a major concern of the Navy Department since it would mean that each carrier would be continually targeted. If hostile action occurred, the carriers would be the first targets. With the Davies system of command and control, constant track was kept of the trailers, and they were avoided by tactics of silence and subterfuge. His command and control system, which identified all surface contacts and kept track of their position, was a major assist in locating submarines. Knowing the exact position of every surface contact, having it identified and knowing the acoustic properties of each contact's propulsion, were key factors in locating all five Soviet submarines operating in the Mediterranean. His system drew attention from all levels, and his subordinates spent the next four years training Commanders of Carrier Divisions, commanding officers and command and control officers in the techniques developed by Admiral Davies.

In 1969 Admiral Davies was made the Chief of Naval Development/Chief Oceanographer of the Navy. In this position he was able to continue to develop weapons systems from ideas he had conceived while a Carrier Division Commander. As Chief of Naval Development he helped develop two systems that were used in the more recent Mideast confrontations -- the vertical launcher for shipboard missile systems and the cruise missile. Meanwhile, his command and control system continued to be of major interest to fleet commanders, and 29 units of a display system that he invented were installed on major ships of the navy. As Chief Oceanographer, Admiral Davies had the opportunity to work with Jacques Cousteau.

In 1973 Rear Admiral Davies retired from the U.S. Navy to accept a presidential appointment as Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). He held this position for seven years under three different presidents and led two U. S. Delegations on negotiations with the Soviet Union. In his first position as Assistant Director his bureau had the responsibility for nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear test ban matters, chemical and biological weapons control and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). He continued in this position during 1974, when he represented ACDA in the U.S. Delegation to the Threshold Test Ban (TTB) negotiations in Moscow. That agreement was signed by President Nixon in 1974.

During 1975, President Ford signed the instrument of ratification whereby the United States became a party to the Geneva Protocol prohibiting gas warfare, and in 1976 he also signed the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty. Both agreements limited nuclear explosions above a certain yield. Admiral Davies played a principal role in achieving these agreements.

In 1975 Admiral Davies became an Assistant Director in a new capacity as head of the Nonproliferation and Advanced Technology Bureau. He continued in that position during 1976 and was active in promoting the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. In 1974 and 1975, he headed the U.S. Delegation to the bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union that preceded the multilateral development of this agreement. It was signed by President Carter in 1977.

Under President Carter and ACDA Director Paul C. Warnke, Admiral Davies became Assistant Director for Multilateral Affairs. That Bureau continued to address advanced technology matters over which Admiral Davies had special expertise, such as a comprehensive nuclear test ban and the further control of chemical, biological and radiological weapons, nuclear-free zones and environmental modification. In addition, he acquired more responsibility for multilateral arms control negotiations at the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. He chaired an interagency backstopping group supporting many arms control initiatives in those for a.

It was during the latter part of 1977, while at ACDA, that Admiral Davies completed his development of his Star Sight Reduction Tables for 42 Stars: Assumed Altitude Method of Celestial Navigation (published in Bowditch). In 1982 Admiral Davies expanded the tables and published Sight Reduction Tables for Sun, Moon and Planets: Assumed Altitude Method of Celestial Navigation. The method utilizes the observed altitude to identify a star and reduce the sight in a single operation. This is accomplished by generating an assumed altitude by rounding the observed altitude to the nearest degree. The method provides accurate and simple solution for most latitudes and altitudes. His Concise Tables for Sight Reduction were developed in conjunction with the Naval Observatory and have now been incorporated in the U.S. and British Nautical Almanacs.

It was also during this time period that Admiral Davies developed the Prism Level, a device used to improve the accuracy of the sextant when used in celestial navigation. With the Prism Level it is easy to maintain a vertical plane with the sextant on a small boat in rough weather. The Prism Level is in wide use and is available for a number of sextants.

In 1980 Admiral Davies conceived the idea of the Foundation for the Promotion of the Art Navigation to advance the art of celestial navigation. The Foundation now has worldwide membership and conducts an active program in both theoretical analysis and in the development of practical sea-going experience. In addition to the quarterly newsletter, the Foundation also publishes a condensed Navigator's Almanac, and provides a central point from which members can acquire navigation charts, publications and books.

In 1988 Admiral Davies and the Navigation Foundation were invited by the National Geographic Society to examine the 80-year old controversy over Admiral Robert E. Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. After a year of extensive research and thorough analysis, his final report considered all relevant factors including time and distance, polar celestial observations, navigation, and depth sounding of the ocean bottom. In addition, Davies, for the first time, applied modern photographic analysis techniques to the sun's shadows that were evident in Peary's photographs taken in the vicinity of the pole. Using spherical trigonometry, this new shadow evidence proved to substantiate Peary's claim. This innovative work was further reinforced after the original report had been published when new photographs that included the sun itself were discovered.

As a result of his exhaustive studies, Admiral Davies concluded that Peary was probably within 5 to 10 miles of the North Pole. He consistently indicated, however, that his conclusion wan not based on any single source of information, but rather on the broad framework of data that was completely consistent with this finding. Though skeptics may persist, Admiral Davies himself was confident that Peary had succeeded, as were the other members of the Foundation's Board of Directors.

Rear Admiral Davies' military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Legion of Merit medals. Foreign awards were the Order of the Southern Cross, and the Comte de la Vaulx medal of the FAI. In addition to a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Naval Academy, Admiral Davies held a master's degree in international relations from the George Washington University. He also was graduated with distinction from the National War College in 1962. He married the former Eloise English in 1945 and had four children.

Admiral Davies died on January 21, 1991 at the age of 76. The members of the Foundation's board of Directors join in a sense of admiration and respect for this remarkable man that is deep and everlasting. Every effort will be made to carry on the work of the Foundation, which is the work of Tom Davies. Among his many legacies is the commitment of his Foundation colleagues to the purposes and goals which he established in 1980, and which are just as valid today as they were then. 

by Capt. Terry Carraway and Roger Jones

From The Navigator's Newsletter, Issue 32, Summer 1991