BEN HARRISON WYATT
EARLY NAVAL AVIATOR
WITH ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER
Ben Harrison Wyatt was born in Williamsburg, Kentucky in 1894. He was educated at Kentucky’s Cumberland College and at Bethel College, from which he graduated in 1913. In 1914 he was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated a year early, in 1917, when the U.S. entered World War One. He was soon assigned to Europe where in 1918 he met and married Camille Palmer. Wyatt became a pioneer naval aviator and specialized in aerial photography. During the early 1920s, he commanded an expedition that air-mapped the oil shale reserves in Colorado. Because of his reputation, then Lieutenant Wyatt was assigned in 1926 as the commander of the Naval Alaskan Aerial Survey Expedition. Previously, the Department of the Interior had conducted mapping Alaska from land, an extremely slow and rigorous endeavor. The Navy agreed to the request to undertake the job of an aerial photograph survey of over 10,000 square miles.
Weather conditions, meager weather reports, with rain and heavy clouds lasting for days made aerial photograph extremely difficult and hazardous. On good days, the long daylight hours of the summer months made it possible for as many as four 3½-hour photo daily flights to 10,000 feet to be made. However, returning to base the area was often covered in rain clouds and heavy fog making the task of finding the base difficult and hazardous as they flew among the mountainous southeastern Alaska area. In addition, the two Loening OL-4 amphibious aircraft used in the survey were not equipped with radios because there was no space available on the planes for a bulky and heavy radio sending and receiving set, along with the three man crew, photographic gear, a emergency food ration package, and emergency equipment that had to be carried in case of a forced landing in the Alaskan wilderness.
Historical records report that LT Wyatt was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of his exemplary performance during the Alaskan expedition. Records also identify LT Wyatt as one of the first naval aviators to make a transcontinental flight. Promoted to the rank of Commander in 1928, he was loaned to the Peruvian government to organize its air force. This was followed by assignment as the Naval Attaché in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome (1934 to 1937). He was later Naval Attaché in Spain and Portugal (1939 to 1941). From 1942 to 1943, then Captain Wyatt was the commanding officer of the escort carrier USS Chenango. Following World War II, he served as the military governor of the Marshall Islands and thus was the Bikini Island commander during the atomic bomb tests there in 1946-1947. He retired from the Navy in 1947 with the rank of Commodore.
During retirement, Commodore Wyatt made his home in Coronado, California, where he became active in civic affairs. He once served as chairman of the Coronado Harbor Commission, was a member of the Coronado Rotary Club, and the Coronado Yacht Club. During his many years of civic leadership, he was president of the Chamber of Commerce, was largely responsible for dredging Glorietta Bay, creation of the Coronado golf course, and the Coronado Bay bridge. He died in Coronado in September 1968, survived by his wife, a daughter and granddaughter.
Submitted by CDR Roy A. Mosteller, USNR (Ret)