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“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
I was working in the mines that summer, at the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. Oddly enough, although it was only a couple of hundred miles, I guess, from San Francisco, we were practically isolated from the outside world. It wasn’t until I returned to college that I first learned we were really at war. And immediately I came to the realization that I wanted to participate. I looked around at the various military services one could get into, and the thought reawakened my desire to fly. You see, I have always been, to some degree, a loner. I enjoy being with a few intimate friends, but I have always been able to enjoy life even if I am alone. So I naturally went into fighter-pilot aviation, because there is a basic difference between the fighter pilot and the bomber pilot. The fighter pilot is almost always a rugged individualist, whereas the bomber pilot is more inclined to be a team player. For much the same reasons you will notice that a fighter pilot usually does a superb job in wartime and does not adapt to peacetime activities as well as the bomber pilot.
Well, at the beginning of World War I did you have much of an option between fighters and bombers?
You had an option in that you were permitted to express a preference. Only the pilots who seemed to be the most apt were normally taken into fighter training. There was a great deal more latitude then, of course, because there weren’t as many bombers. At that time the Army Air Service was considered a defensive arm, to be used mainly for observation and reconnaissance purposes. Both the Army and the Navy were greatly opposed to building long-range bombers, and this made it very difficult to procure the necessary funds for research and development. We did have the twin-engine Martin bombers, and then around 1923 or 1924 the Barling bomber was built. It was a very large airplane, flown at Wright Field by Harold Harris, but it was so heavy and so underpowered that its poor performance made the concept of long-range heavy bombers look bad. If my memory is correct, in the late twenties Boeing built a much larger bomber which they called the B-15, but it had certain problems, and the Army wouldn’t buy it, so Boeing was permitted to sell it, as I recall, to the Japanese.
What did the Japanese do with it?
I would imagine that it was very useful to them for two reasons. First, to get some experience on how to build a big airplane, and second, to find out what made it unsatisfactory for American use. You learn as much from your failures, if you study them, as you learn from your successes.
Since you were trained as a fighter pilot, do you find it paradoxical that your best-known exploit in World War II was at the controls of a big bomber?
No. During the war I flew both bombers and fighters in North Africa and Italy. I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to know as much and hopefully more about the equipment than the men who were flying it. Second, when I visited one of the bases in my command, I would arrive in one of their aircraft as a courtesy to my men.
By any chance did you join the Army Air Service because you hoped the uniform might impress a young lady named Josephine Daniels?
I don’t think so. I had been courting Jo since high school. In fact, I’ve known her now for sixty-four years. I certainly hoped that I would be able to impress her with the thought that I was serving my country, but exactly what uniform I was in would have been academic as far as she was concerned.
Where did you receive your flight training?
At Rockwell Field in San Diego. Jo and I were married the day before Christmas in 1917, and she went with me to San Diego. The training was much different in those days. We were in a terrible hurry to get pilots trained, and, of course, the airplanes were very simple. We flew the old Curtiss JN-4 or Jenny, and we practiced things like grass cutting, which meant holding the plane about three feet off the ground. After seven hours of flying with my instructor, good old Mr. [Charles] Todd, I soloed. It lasted thirty-nine minutes.
Would you tell me about the Jenny?
It was a very fine training plane, a two-seater, in which you could do almost anything that your skill permitted you to do. It was also quite a safe airplane to fly, although, with the ox-5 engine we had at that time, somewhat underpowered. I remember on one occasion landing in the Imperial Valley with an ox-5 Jenny. When I tried to take off, I found that I could not get the plane airborne. Each time it would just settle back down to the ground. I had to wait until early the next morning, when the cool morning air was heavier, in order to take off and come home.
Were there a lot of crashes during flight training?
Not a great deal, no. There was a periodic crash. Quite frequently a crash occurred because a pilot got in a spin. In those days the spin was referred to as the deadly spin, and it wasn’t until I was fairly well along in my instruction that the spin became part of our training. You learned that as the plane begins to spin you push the nose over, pick up speed, and come out. I can remember discussing the pros and cons of this, wondering why this was. Before this the tendency was to pull the nose up, which caused the plane to stall, and with a single-engine plane that could be fatal.