Barnstorming The U.S. Mail

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One witness proved even more recalcitrant. William P. MacCracken, Jr., an airlines attorney who had been Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Hoover days, refused to allow Senate investigators to examine files in his Washington office. Lawyers, he said, had the privilege of protecting their clients. Reasoning thus, MacCracken allowed two clients to remove papers they did not wish the Black committee to see. An angry Senator Black stirred the Senate to the rare procedure of ordering its sergeant at arms to arrest MacCracken, two airlines officials, and a clerical employee.

Armed with a silver-headed cane, adorned in morning coat, graystriped trousers, and a western sheriff’s ten-gallon hat, Sergeant at Arms Chesley W. Jurney set out on his unusual mission. But MacCracken, on advice of his attorney, refused to appear before the Senate. As a private citizen MacCracken contended he could not be compelled to sho.w cause why he had committed a past act. Grim-faced, Senator Black offered a resolution directing MacCracken’s rearrest. Sergeant at Arms Jurney set forth again.

Three remaining defendants were brought to trial before the Senate, with Black acting as prosecutor. Triumphantly he confronted them with some of the missing papers, pieced together from scraps retrieved by postal clerks who had searched three hundred bags of trash from MacCracken’s office building. The Senate freed two defendants but sentenced MacCracken and a fourth to ten-day jail terms for contempt. Thereupon MacCracken began to pursue Jurney, actually seeking arrest so that he could institute habeascorpus proceedings to test the Senate’s authority. Jurney refused to oblige, finally eluding his one-time prey by jumping on the running board of a moving car. Eventually MacCracken served his sentence.

As this opéra bouffe occupied the headlines in late 1933 and early 1934 Roosevelt pondered his move. Democrats had pledged to reform procedures under which government contracts were granted and to fight corruption, favoritism, and personal influence. Parley urged that commercial lines continue to carry the mail until new contracts could be negotiated, but the President thought this course lacked the dramatic impact required to inspire legislative reforms. Why should beneficiaries of the old system continue to profit from contracts obtained by collusion and without competitive bidding?

Besides, the President was not unaware of the role Black’s revelations might play in 1934 elections. It was suggested that the Army Air Corps, which had briefly pioneered air-mail service in 1918, could take over temporarily. On February 9, 1934, Roosevelt, his mind made up, instructed a reluctant Parley to cancel all existing air-mail contracts as of February 19.

That same morning Benny Foulois and Harllee Branch, Second Assistant Postmaster General, had discussed the possibility of this new assignment. Could the Air Corps handle it? Branch asked. Through Foulois’ mind Hashed the problems: Army pilots had little instrument- or night-flying experience; they would be Hying unfamiliar routes; bombers, observation planes, and pursuit planes must carry the mail. But a dramatic call to duty might focus national attention upon an Air Corps so starved for money by a cavalry-minded general staff that its equipment had not even kept pace with commercial aviation. “Yes sir,” Foulois told Branch, “if you want us to carry the mail, we’ll do it.”

Returning to his office, Foulois ordered his staff to begin preparing a contingency plan for use if and when the President cancelled (he contracts. Moments later the Army’s chief of staff, his face Hushed with excitement, accosted Foulois. The President, MacArthur told his astounded Air Corps chief, had ordered Army Hiers to duty in ten days’ time. Perhaps suspecting that his subordinate had really sought the assignment to dramatize the needs of the Air Corps, MacArthur told Foulois gruffly: “It’s your ball game.”

The administration’s dramatic move aroused a storm. Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, American folk hero and technical adviser to Transcontinental Air Transpon, chided Roosevelt for condemning commercial aviation without a trial. Before Lindbergh’s wire reached the White House, its text appeared in morning newspapers. Roosevelt frostily refused to answer. White House Press Secretary Stephen Early informed the press that it was customary to allow the President the courtesy of reading a message before releasing it to the press.

In the House, Representative Hamilton Fish of New York created an uproar when his effort to read Lindbergh’s telegram into the Congressional Record was blocked. Roosevelt’s “summary action,” Fish declared heatedly, was “worthy of Fascism, Hitlerism. or Sovietism at their best.” Will Rogers commented dryly: “It’s like finding a crooked railroad president and stopping all the trains.”

On the last day of commercial service Eddie Rickenbacker and Jack Five, vice president and chief pilot of Transcontinental and Western Airlines, Hew a new Douglas transport and the final shipment of contract mail from Ix)S Angeles to Newark in the record time of thirteen hours, four minutes, and twenty seconds. As a gesture of bravura by commercial carriers the flight was highly successful. Within hours, as already noted, a major winter storm forced the Air dorps to cancel all eastern-zone Mights on the first day of its air-mail operations. This ironic sequence of events did not escape notice by the antiadministration press.