John Henry Towers was born in Rome, Georgia, on 30 January 1885, son of William Magee and Mary (Norton) Towers. He attended schools in Rome, and the Georgia School of Technology at Atlanta (civil engineering course) for a year prior to his appointment to the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, from his native state in 1902. Graduated with credit on 12 February 1906, he served the two years at sea, then required by law, before he was commissioned Ensign on 13 February 1908. By subsequent promotions he attained the rank of Rear Admiral, to date from 1 June 1939. He was promoted to Vice Admiral effective 6 October 1942; and Admiral, from 7 November 1945. He was transferred to the Retired List of the US Navy on 1 December 1947, after forty-five years in the Naval Service, and died in New York, New York, on 30 April 1955.
Following graduation from the Naval Academy in 1906, he joined the USS Kentucky, and made the cruise around the world in that vessel during 1907-1908. Detached in September 1909, he assisted in fitting out the USS Michigan, and was assigned to her as Fire Control Officer and Spotter upon her commissioning 4 January 1910. In the Spring of 1911, the Michigan won the Gunnery Trophy and Battle Efficiency Pennant, and for his contribution in connection with those honors, he received commendatory letters from the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy.
One of the first three Naval officers assigned to aviation duty, he reported in June 1911, to Hammondsport, New York, for flight training under Mr. Glenn H. Curtiss. He qualified as a pilot in August 1911, under the regulations of the federation Aeronautique Internationale, since the Navy had not at that time set up its own pilot qualification system. In September 1911 he returned to the Naval Academy for duty in connection with aviation at the Naval Engineering Experiment Station. One Wright and two Curtiss planes were purchased by the Navy, a camp set up at Greenbury Point, near Annapolis, and the first Naval aviation organization began operations.
In December 1911 he was sent to the Curtiss Flying School at North Island (in San Diego Bay), where further development of seaplanes and airplanes was being undertaken. Glenn Curtiss had a number of experimental projects on hand, and, as but few pilots were available, it was arranged that Lieutenant towers would, in addition to his other duties, do as much of this experimental flying as possible. During the next year and a half he did practically all the flying of this nature accomplished by the Curtiss Company. Many types of floats and pontoons were tested, discarded or improved; the over-hanging wing was tried out and found to be desirable, and what was probably the most important, a dual control was developed during that period.
In 1912 planes were not equipped with safety belts nor pilots with parachutes. On 20 June 1913, he was flying as a passenger in a two-seater, open cockpit plane with Ensign W. D. Billingsley, USN, as pilot. They were over the Chesapeake Bay at about one thousand seven hundred feet when a downward air current struck the plane, and both were thrown out. Ensign Billingsley was catapulted out of the pilot's seat and was killed in the fall to the waters below. Towers managed to grab onto one of the struts and fell with the plane into the Bay. The craft turned over on the way down and landed on top of him as it struck the water, but he held on until he was rescued. During the three months he was in the hospital, he was visited by Mr. Curtiss, who was eager to interview the survivor of an airplane accident, a rarity in those days. Rowers' explanation of the circumstances, brought about the adoption of safety belts for pilots and crewmen. Deducing that other accidents had been caused by similar circumstances, Curtiss designed the safety belt that is standard equipment on all planes today.
When the Fleet went south in January 1913, for annual winter maneuvers, Naval aviation accompanied it aboard a collier. Towers was in charge of that unit, which operated with the Fleet for the first time. Based ashore at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the unit spent the entire time on the southern cruise in experiments and tests pertaining to the coordination of aircraft with Fleet operations. During the maneuvers, one of the planes discovered the "enemy" force and reported by wireless. Upon the return of the unit to its base at Annapolis in March 1913, the fact that airplanes could perform such duties as scouting and locating mine fields and submarines had been practically demonstrated. Admiral (then Lieutenant) Towers was designated Naval Aviation #3 on 5 March 1913.
In January 1914, when the first Naval Air Station was established at Pensacola, Florida, on the site of the abandoned Navy Yard he was ordered there as Executive Officer of the station. During the close association between Curtiss and Towers, the two talked of the possibility of building a plane capable of making a trans-Atlantic flight. In February 1914 Mr. Curtiss wired Lieutenant towers that he believed he could build such a plane, and asked the Navy Department to order Towers to Hammondsport, New York. Over a period of time they designed and started construction on the twin-engined flying boat "America." However, the outbreak of World War I put a decisive end to that project, but much valuable data had been obtained which was the basis of the present day "big boat" development.
During the American occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in the summer of 1914, Admiral towers was the officer in command of the aviation unit, composed of four planes, divided into two sections, and based on board the USS Mississippi and USS Birmingham. In August 1914, he reported as Assistant to the US Naval Attache, American Embassy, London, England. He remained there until October 1916, when he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department, Washington, DC. He had duty in charge of Naval Aviation, and later became Supervisor of the Naval Aviation Flying Corps, then in its formative stage. Upon the establishment of the Division of Aviation, he became Assistant Director of Naval Aviation.
In February 1919, Admiral Towers, then a Lieutenant Commander, was ordered to duty in charge of the proposed trans-Atlantic Flight with NC seaplanes. The flight of the NC boats in May 1919 was the culmination of plans laid out when there was an urgent need for flying boats overseas for patrol and scouting missions, and all available space on transports and commercial ships was being used to carry necessities to our troops. It was practically impossible to ship the flying boats then under construction, as they were very large and hard to handle, and required a great deal of space on board ship. As a solution to the Problem it was suggested that they be flown to England via the Azores and Spain. The plan was adopted, but the Armistice removed the necessity for carrying it out for war purposes.
Since the Navy was confident that the new NCs were capable of accomplishing such a flight, preparations went forward with one division of those planes. The four-engined biplanes had wing spans of 126 feet, were more than 68 feet long and carried 2,680 gallons of fuel. Their radio sets had a 200-mile range. Sixty-eight destroyers were assigned to mark the route, and five battleships were stationed at four-hundred mile intervals. On 6 May 191, the NC-1, NC-3 and NC-4 took off from Prepassey, Newfoundland, under command of Admiral (then Commander) Towers, who also commanded the NC-3.
Encountering a heavy fog, the NC-1 and NC-3 landed near the Azores to determine their positions, but the heavy seas prevented their taking off again. The NC-3 was slightly damaged but Admiral Towers managed to keep it afloat for fifty-two hours. Battling a heavy storm, he sailed his plane two hundred miles to Ponta Delgado. The NC-4, however, reached Horta on 17 May, took off on the 20th, and arrived in Ponta Delgada two hours later. She left the Azores on 27 May, and arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, the same day. The final leg of the flight was completed four days later when the NC-4 arrived at Plymouth, England, 31 May - the first airplane to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Admiral Towers was awarded the Navy Cross: For distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the seaplane NC-3, and of the NC Division, which made a long overseas flight from Newfoundland to the vicinity of the Azores in May 1919."
In October 1919, he reported for duty as Executive Officer of the USS Aroostook, and as Senior Aide to the Commander of the Air Detachment, Pacific Fleet. On 10 December 1920, he assumed command of the USS Mugford, which served as an aircraft tender. Relieved in December 1921, he returned to Pensacola, to serve as Executive Officer of the Naval Air Station. In March 1923 he reported as Assistant Naval Attache to the American Embassies at London, England; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and the Hague, The Netherlands, and in April 1924 was assigned additional duty in Berlin, Germany. He returned to the United States in September 1925, and was assigned to the Bureau of Aeronautics (which had been established in 1921), Navy Department.
While on duty in the Bureau of Aeronautics, he served as a member of the Court of Inquiry on the loss of the USS Shenandoah, rigid airship, which had crashed at Ava, Ohio, on 5 September 1925. In January 1926 he was detached with orders to report as Executive Officer of the first aircraft carrier of the Navy - the USS Langley, he assumed command of that vessel. While in command of the Langley, a main gasoline storage tank exploded on 20 December 1927, and for his efforts in suppressing the fire that followed, he received a commendatory letter from the Secretary of the Navy, as follows:
"Your coolness and courage in the face of danger combined with the vigorous action in suppressing the fire, are responsible to a large degree for the prevention of a catastrophe."
Detached from command of the Langley in August 1928, he became Head of the Plans Division, Bureau of Aeronautics, and on 24 April 1929, assumed the duties of Assistant Chief of that Bureau. While so serving he was appointed (by President Herbert Hoover) a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - the Government organization having jurisdiction over the scientific study and research of fundamental problems in aeronautics. In June 1931 he joined the staff of Commander Aircraft, Battle Force (USS Saratoga, flagship), as Chief of Staff and Aide and served in that capacity for two years.
In June 1933 he reported for instruction at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, with additional duty at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport. Completing the senior course in June 1934, he assumed command of the Naval Air Station, San Diego, California, shortly thereafter. In April 1936 he returned to the staff of Commander Aircraft, Battle Force, to serve as Chief of Staff and Aide until 9 June 1937, when he reported as Commanding Officer of the USS Saratoga. Detached from command of that carrier in July 1938, he again became Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and on 1 June 1939, was appointed Chief of the Bureau with rank of Rear Admiral.
As Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics he organized the Navy's mass production program for all types of planes, increasing the total Naval aircraft from 2,000 to more than 39,000 during his tenure of office. He was responsible for the pilot training program, which began with rigorous athletic conditioning and admitted no compromise with quality even in urgent wartime expansion. He pushed forward a program for training a large corps of reserve specialists to provide capable ground officers without taking time for flight training. In the training program, started during his administration, total personnel assigned to Naval Aviation reached approximately three quarters of a million.
On 6 October 1942, he became Commander Air Force, US Pacific Fleet, with the rank of Vice Admiral. In that command he supervised the development, training and supply of the growing carrier fleet as well as land-based Naval and Marine aviation. Later, as Deputy Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, this jurisdiction extended to the whole fleet, as well as to Army commands. In the latter assignment, his functions were largely logistical and administrative, but he shared in the development of the strategy of the Pacific campaign. He particularly helped build up the tactics by which air and sea defenses were neutralized in a million square miles invasion area while a new landing war was taking place. The carrier thus took the offensive role visualized in early Towers theory, destroying the enemy attack at its source.
He was awarded the Legion of Merit and cited: "For exceptionally meritorious conduct...as Commander Air Force, Pacific Fleet, from October 14, 1942, to February 25, 1944. Displaying sound judgment and keen resourcefulness, (he)promptly inaugurated an intensive program to improve and coordinate naval air operations in the Pacific area...(and) was largely responsible for the effective organization and development of aviation components attached to carrier striking units operating with such conspicuous success against enemy forces in the Madated Islands."
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal "For exceptionally meritorious service to the Government of the United States...from February 1944 to July 1945. An able administrator, (he) demonstrated outstanding professional ability, sound judgment and an unusual knowledge of the complex details of military and naval operations in the discharge of his heavy responsibility for the provision of personnel, equipment, supplies, shipping and the general logistic support of the combatant units in all services during the fiercely fought campaigns, resulting in the capture and development of bases in the Marshalls, Marianas, Carolines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the Pacific Fleet operations which decisively supported the recapture of the Philippines..."
In August 1945 he assumed command of the Second Carrier Task Force and Task Force 38, Pacific Fleet. On 7 November 1945, in the rank of Admiral, at Yokusuka Naval Base, he assumed duty as Commander, Fifth Fleet. His flag in the USS New Jersey. On 1 February 1946 he hoisted his flag in the carrier Bennington, as Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, with headquarters at Pearl Harbor, T. H. While so assigned he had additional duty as a member of the Flag Officer Retirement Board, convened in the Navy Department, in March 1946.
Relieved of command on 28 February 1947, he assumed duty on 10 March as Chairman of the General Board, Navy Department, and served in that capacity until transferred to the Retired List on 1 December 1947.
After his retirement, Admiral Towers served as President of the Pacific War Memorial, a scientific foundation in New York; as Assistant to the President of Pan American Airways; and as President, Flight Safety Council, New York. He died at St. Albans Hospital, Jamaica, New York, on 30 April 1955.
In addition to the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, and the Legion of Merit, Admiral towers had the Cuban Pacification Medal; the Mexican Service Medal; the World War I Victory Medal; the NC-4 Medal; the American defense Service Medal; the American campaign Medal; the Asiatic-Pacific campaign Medal; and the World War I Victory Medal. He also had the Military Order of the Tower and Sword, rank of Commander, awarded by the government of Portugal in 1919; the Royal Air Force Cross, awarded by the Government of Great Britain (1919); and Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire, Military division, awarded by Great Britain in 1946.