Erl Clinton Barker Gould

By Puck Purnell 

First Yale Unit & Naval Air Station Key West - 1916-1919

Born October 3, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland, Erl Clinton Barker Gould (1895-1968) was one of six children of Elgin R.L. Gould and Mary Hurst Purnell (two of the sons died in infancy). Raised in New York City, he was educated at St. Paul’s School (class of 1914) and Yale (1918). He married Katharine Speer Laughlin (1896-1977), daughter of George M. Laughlin, Jr., whose father founded Jones & Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh on June 1, 1918. They had six children: Henrietta, Margaret, Curtis, Erl, Jr., George, and John.

Erl Gould’s father, Elgin R.L. Gould (1860-1915), was born in Ottawa, Canada. After completing his B.A. at the University of Toronto in 1881, Elgin Gould came to the United States in 1882 where he earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1886. Among his good friends and classmates was Woodrow Wilson. Elgin Gould is largely credited with bringing the sport of lacrosse to the United States. He married Mary Hurst Purnell (1868-1955) of Baltimore.

After a stint at the Department of Labor investigating European trade practices and the living conditions of European workers, Elgin accepted a position teaching social science at Johns Hopkins in 1892, specifically focusing on techniques of exploration of social problems in Europe. In 18951896, he taught statistics at the University of Chicago.

Elgin Gould moved to New York City in 1896 where he became President of City and Suburban Homes. The focus of the company was the construction of alternative housing (“model tenements”) for the working class in New York.

He was deeply involved with St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue where he served on the Vestry. In addition to the church and housing reform, he was a founder of the Citizens’ Union, a progressive urban political movement in opposition to the Tammany machine. His many lectures and writings reflect his progressive beliefs, including industrial education and technical training, concern for the indigent, and improving social conditions for working people.

Elgin Gould died on August 18, 1915 in Cartier, North Bay, Canada, as a result of a horseback riding accident. At the time, his son, Erl, was just entering his sophomore year at Yale.

Erl Gould was actually named for his father. ERL are the initials for Elgin Ralston Lovell and were given by Elgin and Mary to their third son, following the infancy deaths of Elgin R.L., Jr. and Elgin R.L., II.

At St. Paul’s, Erl was a star hockey player and captain of the team. He brought these skills to Yale where he also distinguished himself on the ice. In the spring of 1917, at the irregularly early ceremonies due to America’s impending entry into the war, he was tapped to join Scroll & Key. He was also a member of the Kappa Delta Epsilon fraternity.

Erl was among the original twelve who joined F. Trubee Davison to form the Yale Aero Club in the spring and summer of 1916. That summer, he learned to fly The Mary Ann, a Curtiss F-Boat that was purchased for the Aero Club by the Davison family.

On March 23, 1917, Erl enlisted in the Navy and the next day was commissioned an Ensign, Naval Reserve Flying Corps. He, along with others in the Unit, traveled in April to West Palm Beach to continue their flight training. Back on Long Island in June for final training and evaluation, Erl Gould passed his check ride at Huntington on July 31, 1917 and was designated Naval Aviator #68.

For the remainder of the summer, Erl served as Officer in Charge of Flying at Naval Air Station Bay Shore, with temporary duty at New London during September as test pilot and instructor in use of the Davis anti-submarine gun.

NAS Key West was opened on December 18, 1917 to meet the training demands brought on by World War I. Erl was Officer in Charge of Flying at NAS Key West where he organized the station as a primary flight training facility for potential Naval Aviators and as an anti-submarine patrol base. Additional facilities at Key West included the headquarters for the Seventh Naval District and a submarine basin.

The scope and importance of Key West as a training base was quickly recognized in Washington and Erl Gould’s appointment at the Florida Naval Air Station acknowledged the need for exceptional leadership, organizational skill and flight expertise. As such, Erl received all of the planes, spare parts, equipment and support necessary to establish a preeminent Navy flight school with an outstanding safety record.

The Air Station saw extraordinary growth in personnel and mission. With nearly a thousand men and dozens of aircraft under his command, Erl’s leadership was quickly rewarded by promotion to full Lieutenant and appointment as Commanding Officer. At age 22, Erl Gould was the youngest officer to command any of the four primary Naval Air training stations. He administered all aspects of the Air Station and training program until the Armistice in November 1918. He was relieved of active duty on January 22, 1919 and honorably discharged from the Navy on March 23, 1921 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander, NRFC.

While on duty in Key West, Erl piloted the first flight from the mainland to Cuba. As the story goes, he positioned a ship half way to Havana with its bow pointing at the correct compass heading to reach his destination because compasses on board aero planes were still quite unreliable.

Another sidebar in his tour at Key West concerns Thomas Edison. The great inventor worked with air station personnel in 1918 on a listening device for detecting submarines. He was also interested in how to camouflage areo planes flying at low altitudes.

World War II - NAS Corpus Christi, Tarawa & Acorn-14, NAS Barbers Point, and Post-war

Erl Gould worked for his father-in-law at Jones & Laughlin Steel after leaving the Navy in 1919. The steel world, however, was not to his liking. Beginning in 1927, he was in the investment brokerage business.

In the fall of 1940, Erl received a phone call from Admiral John Tower (Naval Aviator #3), an acquaintance from the First Yale Unit days and his time as C.O. at NAS Key West. He was asked to come to Washington.

Admiral Tower spoke with Erl about the war in Europe and the likelihood of United States’ involvement. He reviewed Erl’s leadership achievements at Key West and concluded by saying, “We need you.” Erl said, “Thank you sir. I’ll certainly think about your offer.” To which, Admiral Tower replied, “Erl, either you can decide to come back or I can decide for you.”

By October 1940, Erl Gould was reactivated in the Navy at the rank of Lieutenant Commander. On January 16, 1941, he reported for active duty at the Bureau of Aeronautics. Following temporary assignments in Miami, Jacksonville and Pensacola, he assumed command of the Aviation Cadet Regiment at the Naval Aviation Training Command at NAS Corpus Christi in March of 1941. He soon was promoted to the rank of Commander. In December 1941, he also became the Executive Officer of the Air Station. After a flight refresher course, Erl was re-designated a Naval Aviator in 1943.

In the summer of 1943, Erl Gould was promoted to Captain and became C.O. of ACORN-14. He reported to Port Hueneme, California to organize and train the unit for duty in the Pacific. In essence, ACORN-14 was a land based aircraft carrier. The unit’s mission was to assemble the necessary personnel and equipment to construct, operate and maintain an advanced land and seaplane base and to provide complete operational and support facilities.

Erl Gould’s leadership experience at Key West and his recent command in Corpus Christi made him an excellent choice to bring ACORN-14 into the war. The unit assembled in Port Hueneme, California for amphibious assault training. In October 1943, they transferred to Pearl Harbor and then headed to the south Pacific.

On November 20, 1943, the U.S. marines fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war on Betio Island, part of the Tarawa Atoll (Gilbert Islands). Erl Gould lead ACORN-14 ashore as the battle was raging. They immediately began clearing out wrecked Japanese aircraft and the carnage of the fighting. In three weeks time, ACORN-14 transformed this narrow strip of land into a fully operational airfield (Hawkins Field) and support facility. As a result, the Navy then had a forward base from which to strike at Japanese interests in the south Pacific. For their heroic efforts, ACORN-14 was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation and their commanding officer, Erl Gould, the Legion of Merit. Fighting in the vicinity of Tarawa subsided by the summer of 1944 and Erl was given command of NAS Barbers Point in Hawaii where he served until the end of the war.

In July 1945, Erl was assigned to the staff of Commander Fleet Air West Coast. Subsequently, in 1946, with the rank of Commodore, he reported to duty with the State Department as Special Naval Assistant to the Foreign Liquidation Commission in the Philippines, China, Okinawa, French Indo-China and Saipan, headquartered in Manila. In June 1946, he was Central Field Commissioner responsible for the disposal of all Navy and Army surplus in Central and South America with headquarters in Balboa, Canal Zone.

On June 6, 1947, Erl Gould was released from active duty. In January 1948, he took a job as Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters until retiring following a heart attack in May of 1950.

Erl C.B. Gould was retired from the Navy November 1, 1953 with the rank of Rear Admiral. (Note: Erl Gould served on active duty in the Navy for 8 years, 2 1/2 months. During that short time he went from Ensign to Rear Admiral, a remarkable progression of promotion.) Erl Gould died on October 29, 1968.

Rear Admiral Erl C.B. Gould, USNR

Navy Commendations:

  • Legion of Merit Navy Commendation Medal
  • Navy Unit Commendation Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation (w/star)
  • American Defense Medal American Campaign Medal
  • Asiatic/Pacific Campaign Medal (w/2 stars) WWII Victory Medal
  • Naval Reserve Medal Philippine Liberation Medal

Photo: Courtesy Erl G. Purnell
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