FRANCIS EDWARD ORMSBEE JR.
ENLISTED NAVAL AVIATION PILOT #25
Francis Edward Ormsbee Jr. was born on April 30, 1892, in Providence, Rhode Island. After growing up in Rhode Island, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1917 and following recruit training was assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Here he was trained as a gunner and became an enlisted naval air crewman. On September 25, 1918, Ormsbee was in the air as a crewman when he saw a plane go into a tailspin and crash into the water about three-quarters of a mile away. The pilot landed the plane near the wreck and Ormsbee lost no time in diving overboard and made for the wreck. He found it under water except for the two wing tips. Ormsbee dove into the wreckage and successfully pulled the gunner to the surface so that his head was out of the water. Continuing to dive into the tangled wreckage where he received a number of cuts to his hands, he was unsuccessful in rescuing the pilot who died. However, Ormsbee managed to keep the gunner’s head out of the water until a speedboat arrived and assisted in the rescue. For his heroic actions, Ormsbee was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross which was later raised to the Medal of Honor.
In the following year, 1919, the Navy Department announced a plan to select enlisted men for training as Naval Aviation Pilots (NAP). In view of his record, Ormsbee was selected as a member of the twenty-five enlisted men selected for the first group to take the Heavier-than-Air course at Pensacola. He graduated third in his class in February 1920, was appointed NAP#25 and was advanced to the rate of Chief Machinist Mate CMM(NAP). Ormsbee performed a variety of assignments as a NAP pilot before leaving the Navy in 1929 with 2,642 flight hours.
Leaving the Navy did not end Ormsbee’s flying career as on February 10, 1929 he joined the budding Pan American Airways Air Mail service. Flying the mail routes was considered a risky profession at that time and soon, because of the shortage of experienced pilots, Ormsbee was transferred by Pan Am in March 1929 from its Miami Division to the Panama Canal Zone to help with the chronic shortage of experienced pilots. He thus participated extensively in establishing early Pan American routes in Central and South America as well as flying at the time the world’s longest airmail route of Miami, Florida, to Santiago, Chile. In 1935 he joined the Bureau of Air Commerce and served as Assistant Manager of the First Air Navigation Division. He served in the Bureau of Air Commerce until his unfortunate death.
On October 24, 1936, Ormsbee was trying to land in Oklahoma during murky weather to wait out a severe storm. At that time he was an inspector/patrol pilot stationed in Fort Worth, Texas, and while attempting a landing at Woodford, Oklahoma, he was flying alone in heavily overcast conditions and crashed into a mountain north of the town. His body was found along with the wreckage the following day. He was buried at St. Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION
"For extraordinary heroism while attached to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla., on 25 September 1918. While flying with Ensign J. A. Jova, Ormsbee saw a plane go into a tailspin and crash about three-quarters of a mile to the right. Having landed near by, Ormsbee lost no time in going overboard and made for the wreck, which was all under water except the 2 wing tips. He succeeded in partially extricating the gunner so that his head was out of water, and held him in this position until a speedboat arrived. Ormsbee made a number of desperate attempts to rescue the pilot, diving into the midst of the tangled wreckage although cut about the hands, but was too late to save his life."
Submitted by CDR Roy A. Mosteller, USNR (Ret)