- Historic Sites
“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
Much of it was because the airplanes were so much slower. Another part was because we crashed enough to learn how to crash. For instance, one night in 1929 I got into some very bad weather flying from Buffalo to New York. It became necessary to crash, so I found an opening in the clouds over a park in New Jersey and then picked a strong tree to hook my wing on. I did that deliberately. It’s one of the things pilots learned. If you had to crash, the best thing was to get the outer part of your wing on something that would absorb the energy gradually instead of suddenly. They should be thinking about this same thing today for automobiles.
Why did you decide to stay in the Army after 1918?
I had found a great deal of pleasure in flying, and I enjoyed the military life. Had there been commercial airlines at that time … no, I still would have enjoyed the military life. The boys who got out of the service and became barnstormers, they had a rather precarious existence, both from the point of view of eating and living.
What was it like in the Army Air Service after the war?
We were constantly trying to think of something to do to keep busy and, hopefully, to enhance the public’s interest in aviation. The senior people, particularly Billy Mitchell, understood this very clearly. We junior people didn’t understand it as well, but we were anxious to participate. Any time we could get an airplane to fly someplace, well, we were for that. I remember right after the war I convinced Colonel Burwell to let three of us fly from San Diego to Washington. We didn’t get very far before two of the planes cracked up. When I reported this to Burwell by telephone, he called me a Chinese Ace—in those days Chinese Aces were pilots who cracked up their own airplanes—and told me to come back immediately. On the way I had to make an emergency landing and flipped my plane over in a soft field. I undid my safety belt and, as I fell out, ripped off the seat of my pants. I got the plane fixed and flew back. When I landed, a mechanic told me to report at once to the colonel. I went to his office, covered with oil, and he gave me the bawling out I was eminently entitled to. When he finished, I saluted briskly and did an about-face, exposing considerable bare posterior, which caused him to think that this was my indirect way of expressing my opinion. So he bawled me out again, with flourishes. I recall he said something to the effect that I couldn’t even keep my ass in my pants.
Weren’t you involved in Billy Mitchell’s historic sinking of the captured German battleships?
You mean the Frankfurt and the Ostfriesland? Those were attacked by the Martin bombers. I was part of a squadron of DH-4’s that Mitchell also assembled at Langley Field [Virginia] in 1921, and our target consisted of some smaller ships and, I think, a submarine. The mission was all part of Mitchell’s belief that aviation should be a separate branch of the service. There was some merit in this concept, because the traditionalists in the Army and the Navy were opposed to the idea of airplanes becoming an offensive weapon. So when Mitchell finally got permission to conduct his experiment against those surplus ships, he set out to carefully train the pilots who would fly the mission. Mitchell even had special bombs made by the ordnance department, an important part of the whole operation that is sometimes overlooked.
Did you sink the targets that were assigned to your flight?
It’s difficult to say. You went out and dropped your bombs and went on your way. Somebody else was scoring the results. I do have a very clear recollection of bombing an Italian battleship, the Roma , during World War n, and that was a very distressing mission. The Roma and two cruisers were anchored in the harbor at Spezia—this was before Italy came over to our side—and it was with considerable difficulty that I got permission to attack her. I put a group of B-25's on each of these ships, just to be sure, and we missed. We attacked with a hundred forty-seven bombers, and none of the three ships was sunk. It was very embarrassing. Il was the only completely unsuccessful mission I led in the entire war. A little later, after Italy had switched sides, a single German light bomber with one controlled bomb came over and sank the Roma . I’m just glad General Mitchell wasn’t around.
Billy Mitchell was an unusual man, wasn’t he?
A very colorful man. I got to know him quite well. One of the busiest days I ever spent was acting as his aide on one of his missions. I was a youngster in my twenties, and I found it difficult to keep up with him. He was a man of prodigious energy. He was a good flier, too. He flew practically everything. But in the end I think that the methods he used to advance the cause of aviation probably delayed the development of air power, as well as destroyed him. I’m reminded of the two Chinese woodcuts that depict the wind blowing over a bamboo and an oak. When the wind stops, the bamboo comes back up; the oak doesn’t. I’m inclined to think that if there had been a little more bamboo in Billy Mitchell, he might have achieved more than he did.
Do you agree with the outcome of Mitchell’s court-martial?