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Barnstorming The U.S. Mail

July 2024
17min read


Flurries of wet snow camouflaged the runway of Cleveland airport in the early winter darkness. of Monday, February 19, 1934. Attended by a small group of chilled spectators and outlined by explosions of light from news cameras, a bulky figure in fleecelined flying suit, leather helmet, heavy boots, and furry gloves clambered into the open cockpit of a Boeing P -12 pursuit biplane. Lieutenant Charles R. Springer pulled down his goggles, fastened his seal belt, waved, and prepared to carry out his orders. By direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the United States Army Air Corps that stormy Monday had started to transport the nation’s air mail. Lieutenant Springer was to fly a leg of its first delivery.

What followed at Cleveland looked more like a Keystone Kops comedy than history in the making. The P -12’s engine sputtered and died. Lieutenant Springer and his mail sacks were hurriedly transferred to a second P -12. But a pin on its starter shaft broke, and a third plane was rushed onto the runway. Lieutenant Springer waved and roared off into the snow-filled sky, only to land again a few minutes later. “Get me a flashlight so I can find my way out of this damned town!” he yelled. The light bulb on his instrument panel had just burned out.

Equipped with a new bulb, Lieutenant Springer waved a final anticlimactic farewell and without further incident flew the Army’s first mail run from Cleveland to Louisville.

In New Jersey the next day Lieutenant Donald Wackwitz, two hours overdue, brought a big B -6 A Keystone bomber and ninety pounds of mail into snowbound Newark airport. Although he and Sergeant Paul Gibson wore leather face masks and new electrically heated flying suits, they had to be helped from the open cockpit. On the mountainous route from Cleveland, known in flying lore as Hell’s Stretch, Lieutenant Wackwitz found his radio dead and his airtemperature gauge at twelve degrees below zero. For a time his entire instrument panel was frosted over. Lost in the clouds, he descended to five hundred feet and wandered above Jersey rooftops until he found Newark.

In Alabama, Lieutenant John R. Sutherland, his compass thirty degrees off course, plopped his P -12 safely down near a town he mistook for Selma. To his surprise he found himself in Demopolis, fifty miles away. Citizens of Demopolis were understandably perplexed at the sight of an Army plane taxiing down their main street to the gas station. Next morning Lieutenant Sutherland took off, using a gravel road as a runway. When he landed in a plowed field outside Selma, his plane slowly nosed over, burying its propeller in the soft Alabama earth. A friendly gang of black prisoners, working nearby, helped Sutherland set it upright.

Launched into its sudden assignment with only ten days’ notice, the Air Corps had the misfortune to encounter a heavy storm right at the start. Throughout the first week of operations reports of faulty radios, overheated engines, forced landings, and narrow escapes clacked into regional headquarters. On Wednesday weather claimed its first fatality when Lieutenant Durwood O. Lowry, thirty miles off course in a Curtiss 0-39 observation plane, crashed onto a rain-soaked Ohio field.

On Thursday, Lieutenant H. L. Dietz, piloting a Curtiss 0-1 G ; from Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., was luckier. Early in the flight he watched helplessly as his map blew from its holder and vanished. Lost in a thick fog, his noisy radio almost unintelligible, he circled the small town of Marion Station, Maryland, while worried citizens below illuminated an emergency field with car headlights. His plane hit a tree, and Dietz, unconscious but destined to survive, was rushed to a hospital.

The week closed in a crescendo of disasters. On Friday a plane carrying Air Corps pilots to a Virginia base lost engine power and landed in icywater off the Jersey coast. Before rescuers arrived, five hours later, one pilot slid off the wing and drowned. In Texas another Army flier, forced by rain to make an emergency landing, died when his plane cartwheeled into a ditch.

Grieved and humiliated, the Air Corps counted its dead. Three fliers, practicing for their new assignments, had plunged to their deaths in mountain snowstorms and fog before actual operations began. Now three more had died in the first week of their airmail duties. Mystified citizens poured angry protests upon Congress, precipitating a Saturday-afternoon floor debate in the House that lasted six hours. In California a woman telephoned Air Corps Captain Ira C. Eaker: “You bloody butcher, you are killing these young boys!”


Anti-New Deal newspapers gave generous space to the “air-mail fiasco.” Editorials blamed Postmaster General James A. Parley, in whose name all commercial air-mail contracts had been abruptly cancelled because of congressional charges that they had been obtained by favoritism, graft, fraud, and collusion. Aero Digest chided: “Old Patronage Jim made a slight mistake when he started this air mail massacre.” Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, whose feat of shooting down twenty-six German planes in the World War had led to the vicepresidency of Eastern Air Transport, harshly accused the administration of “legalized murder.”


But the heaviest burden of blame fell upon the five-foot five-inch chief of the Air Corps, Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, who had learned to fly in 1910 by corresponding with Wilbur and Orville Wright and became the first military aviator to pilot an Army plane. Now Foulois sent urgent orders to his three zone commanders, Major Byron Q. Jones in the east, Lieutenant Colonel Horace M. Hickam in the central zone, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in the west. Pilots were to make no night flights unless their radios and instruments were fully checked out; no mail was to be flown when the weather was bad; and planes were to be meticulously gone over before takeoff.

Even so accidents did not end. On the night of March 9 four more members of the Air Corps died when planes plummeted to earth in Ohio, Florida, and Wyoming.

Early the next morning “Benny” Foulois and General Douglas MacArthur, Army chief of staff, were ushered into a large bedroom on the second floor of the White House where their commander in chief, propped with pillows and surrounded by newspapers and reports, was ensconced in the majestic Lincoln bed. Fpulois, who had never met Roosevelt, was somewhat surprised that the famous grin, so often seen in the newsreels, was nowhere in evidence. “Without a word of greeting,” he reported later, the President, scowling fiercely through his pince-nez, barked at him: “General, when are these air mail killings going to stop?”

An exasperated Roosevelt, stung by public disfavor for the first time since entering the White House, tried to extricate himself by delivering a bluntly worded directive to MacArthur, Foulois, and Secretary of War George H. Bern. The Air Corps must end the fatal accidents, the President ordered, or stop flying the mails. Next day Foulois suspended all flights and set out to inspect his bases, leaving Roosevelt to reflect upon the galling fact that his own impulsiveness was partly to blame for the Air Corps’ plight.

The prelude to all this had begun in 1933 when Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, ardent Roosevelt supporter and chairman of a special Senate investigating committee, had started a probe of federal air-mail contracts. His findings made dramatic headlines over the nation: three giant holding companies—Aviation Corporation of Delaware, United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, and North American Aviation—monopolized federal contracts to carry the air mail. These consolidations of major airlines, together with Northwest Airways, Inc., which held one contract, had received 97 per cent of all air-mail subsidy funds in 1932.


Senator Black had further complaints. Contracts had been awarded when Post Office officials met—Black said “colluded”—with favored airline representatives in 1930 in an anteroom of the Postmaster General’s office. There had been neither public advertising nor competitive bidding; indeed, the big three were instructed to agree among themselves as to which routes each wanted. Operators of such small airlines as Braniff Airways were left out in the financial cold, although one told Black he had offered to carry the mail for seventy cents a mile when the Post Office was paying almost three dollars. Another testified that he had sold his company to one of the larger airlines as a result of Post Office pressure.

Colorful epithets—”collusion,” “favoritism,” and “secret spoils conference”—enlivened press coverage. So did revelations of dazzling profits. One young entrepreneur ran an aviation investment of forty dollars to paper profits of more than five million dollars in four years. Another told the committee he had actually realized nine million dollars from an initial investment of two hundred and fifty-three dollars in airline stocks. “Stock pyramiding!” fumed Black.


In vain Walter F. Brown, who as Herbert Hoover’s Postmaster General had approved the air-mail contracts, tried to attract public attention to his side of the story. His aim, he insisted, had been to develop an efficient, modern aviation system. “There was no sense,” he told the Black committee, “in taking this government’s money and dishing it out … to every little fellow that was flying around the map and was not going to do anything … to develop aviation in the broad sense.” By using subsidy money strategically Brown hoped to create a strong, integrated airline network that would carry mail, passengers, and express. He compared the growth of airlines to that of railroads in the previous century. Absorption of small, uneconomical lines by large carriers was, Brown believed, inevitable.

But the drama of the hearings overrode such economic theorizing. Comic episodes amused official Washington but outraged many Americans imbued with the ethic of fair play. Postal clerks told Black they had been ordered by Brown to burn papers dealing with air-mail contracts before the Democrats took office in 1933. Not true, Brown at first replied. He had merely disposed of personal letters so as not to leave the office “all cluttered up” for his successor, James A. Parley. But upon second thought Brown appeared in Parley’s office lugging a suitcase stuffed with contract records. He had “unexpectedly” found them, he said, among some personal papers. Chairman Black, unmollified, retorted that important records were still missing.

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.

Three weeks and ten fatalities later Benny Foulois faced hostility from every side—Congress, press, public, and, so it seemed, nature herself. Attempting to obey what he considered the impossible order of his commander in chief that “deaths in the Army Air dorps must stop,” he pledged Roosevelt that mail would not be flown if the slightest question arose as to equipment safety or weather conditions. With the President’s approval mail flights were ordered to resume March K) on drastically curtailed routes. But Foulois, a grimly realistic pioneer of the air, knew there would be fatalities as long as man persisted in flying. In sad testimony to Foulois’ philosophy Lieutenant H. C. Richardson, a one-time airlines pilot called to active duty with the Air Corps, died March 17 when his Douglas 0-38 observation biplane crashed on a training flight near Cheyenne, Wyoming.


Messages from his bases further reinforced Foulois’ pessimism. Pilots in open-cockpit planes reported temperatures of twenty to forty-five degrees below zero, blinding snowstorms, fog and squalls, frostbitten fingers, ears, and noses. Airfields froze, then thawed to become quagmires of mud. One pilot, flying an unfamiliar route in a P -12 laden with mail and gas, lost radio contact and found his compass gyrating uselessly. His only guides were a set of railroad maps that showed no airway beacons, radio stations, or emergency landing fields. “I climbed out of that cockpit … an old man,” reported Lieutenant Beirne Lay, Jr.


Piloting a B -6 A from Cleveland to Chicago one bitterly cold night, Lieutenant Norman Sillin briefly lost consciousness. When he revived, he was horrified to see a rotating airway beacon just ahead of his plane’s nose. Realizing he was in a vertical dive, Lieutenant Sillin managed to level his plane three hundred feet from disaster.

Flying Hell’s Stretch in an O -39, Lieutenant H. M. McCoy noticed his engine belching black smoke. His antifreeze had escaped, and he was forced to land near Bishtown, Pennsylvania. A local miner, he claimed later, rushed up to advise: “Mister, you ought to try burning some of our coal instead of that there soft coal. It don’t smoke so much.” Lieutenant McCoy made it to Middletown Air Depot, where a new engine was installed, but it refused to turn over in the below-zero temperature. Mechanics swaddled the plane in a heavy tarpaulin and warmed it by a coal stove from a chicken brooder, torches, and improvised oil stoves. After ten hours they turned the crank, and the engine started.

Gunnery and rear seats had to be hastily stripped from small Armyplanes to make room for mail sacks. Stuffing one P -12 with a hundred and seventeen pounds of mail, mechanics found they could get all but a single sack aboard. “Start it up,” the pilot ordered. “I’ll carry the other sack in my lap.” One converted plane went into an unexpected spin shortly after takeoff. When its pilot managed to land safely, investigators found that empty cartridges from the guns had lodged in the tail and fouled the rubber cables and pulleys. Another pilot reported his seat was so loose that he flew most of the way from Macon, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida, clinging to the cockpit with his left arm. So frenzied was the conversion process that an Air Corps officer, visiting a nearby base, almost lost his new O -1 G to the mail service. While he chatted with friends in the operations office mechanics swarmed over his plane, removed its cowling and observer’s seat, and were busily installing a radio set and mail compartments when the frantic officer rushed to its rescue.

Though brave and eager, Air Corps pilots were novice mailmen. One took off without his mail and had to be recalled by a sarcastic radio operator. Another, twenty miles into his route and loaded with four hundred pounds of letters, radioed back: “Please find out from control officer where in hell this mail goes—my manifest is locked in mail compartment.” A third took the wrong leg of a radio beacon and reported ruefully: “Landed in Buffalo with the Cleveland mail.” A control officer, worried because he had no plane for a southern run, hurriedly met an arriving plane from the south, loaded the mail in a truck, and was halfway to the train station before he realized that he could use the same plane that had just come in. But a fast train could often make better time than a heavy-laden bomber fighting a strong head wind.

With such stories circulating actively, citizens of Washington, D.C., were alarmed one early spring day at the sight of a low-flying plane scattering leaflets. Had an Air Corps pilot gone berserk and begun to thiow his mail into the streets? Control officers were relieved and pleasantly surprised to discover that the plane was a commercial ship dropping advertisements.

As a whole, however, the public was sympathetic. When a pilot made a forced landing near a small Nebraska community, the mayor himself came out to assist at takeoff, bringing road machines to clear a makeshift runway. Eyeing a tall tree, the mayor ordered, “Cut it down.” Only a large red barn then obstructed the takeoff. “Can you clear that, lieutenant?” asked the mayor. “I don’t know,” the pilot replied. “Then,” ruled His Honor with a grandiose sweep of his arms, “burn her down!” Grateful for such friendly gestures, many pilots autographed airmail letters for stamp collectors. In return for this favor one avid collector offered to send “some beautiful crash pictures.”

While the Air Corps grappled with its mailbags, controversy in Washington intensified. General Foulois hinted darkly to the President that his planes were being sabotaged by agents of commercial aviation bent upon embarrassing the corps, but his evidence was scanty and inconclusive. Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, ardent exponent of a separate air force, blamed aviation holding-companies for monopolizing the best flying equipment. To compare Air Corps planes to commercial ships, he said, was “like comparing a Model T Ford with a racing car.”


But many members of Congress, seeking a scapegoat, excoriated the hapless Parley, who all along had cautioned the administration to proceed slowly. At one point in the Black committee hearings former Postmaster General Brown testified that his successor had made a “personal remark” about the air-mail investigation. “Repeat it! Repeat!” shouted Chairman Black. Brown refused to do so without Parley’s consent. “Then we’ll get him in here,” declared the senator, biting on his cigar. A week later, with Parley on hand, Brown revealed his secret: Parley had told him that he had “no sympathy for these political investigations” and that Chairman Black was “just a publicity hound, but don’t tell anybody I told you, for I have to get along with him.” The crowded committee room exploded with laughter, led by Black himself. Parley tactfully denied making any such remark.

At the White House, trying to save face, Roosevelt stonily refused to comment on the Air Corps’ troubles, leaving Parley to take the lightning. The loyal Postmaster General recalled later that he was accustomed to abuse and criticism, but when he was called a murderer, he had looked to Roosevelt for help. “No help came,” Parley said sadly.

Congress, meantime, entertained a clamor of suggestions for a permanent solution to the problem of carrying the nation’s air mail. Forty bills defining aviation policy were introduced in the House. Amelia Earhart urged a federal department of transportation to oversee air, rail, and bus travel. Lindbergh and Rickenbacker favored an independent agency to control air travel only. Harold Ickes advised Roosevelt that the Post Office should build airplanes and carry the mail. The possibility that the Army might keep its new job permanently as a cheap and convenient method of strengthening national defense also flickered through Roosevelt’s mind.

The American public was not only alarmed over accidents but dissatisfied with Air Corps postal service. Small Army planes could only hold a hundred and fifty pounds of mail at best, while two-ton commercial ships could handle eighteen hundred to two thousand pounds. It often took six or more Army flights to equal the normal load of one airliner. Lacking sufficient hangars, Army mechanics sometimes spent three hours revving up the engine of a cold plane that had been staked down in an open field. Service became so uncertain that many business firms, in violation of postal standards, began wrapping bundles of letters as parcels to be shipped by air express aboard commercial flights.

Finally Roosevelt, Parley, and other administration officials, impatient with congressional foot dragging, decided to let temporary ninety-day mail contracts to commercial airlines, specifying that no company whose contract had been annulled for fraud and collusion might bid. While Post Office and airline representatives worked out the new bids Lieutenant Thurmond A. Wood, flying from Chicago to Omaha with twenty-three sacks of mail, hit a heavy thunderstorm and died in a crash. He was the twelfth—and final—fatality of the Air Corps’ disastrous tussle with the mail.

On June 1, to the general relief of the Roosevelt administration, the Air Corps carried its last load of mail. In seventy-eight days of service it had experienced fifty-seven accidents and twelve fatalities. Altogether it completed 65 per cent of scheduled flights, aborting or cancelling the remainder because of weather, accidents, or other factors. There was small consolation in the statistic that Air Corps planes had carried 777,389 pounds of mail without losing a single pound. Only five pilots had died while actually carrying the mail. Efficient Army rescue teams had salvaged every letter.

To what purpose had twelve fliers given their lives and a nationwide brouhaha raged? In June Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1934, which forbade interlocking directorships, set a $17,500 ceiling on salaries in subsidized firms, limited each company to three air-mail routes at a maximum of forty cents a mile, and specified that any person convicted of collusion to prevent competitive bidding must pay a $10,000 fine and/or spend five years in the federal penitentiary. More significantly the act empowered the President to appoint a Federal Aviation Commission to study and recommend broad policy. Its report eventually resulted in the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority.

But the old commercial contractors, who held a virtual monopoly on the multiengined aircraft that could offer more reliable service, returned. Purged of individuals who had been present at the 1930 “spoils conference” and with their corporate names changed, they were allowed to bid for temporary contracts that were later extended. Several independents also obtained, at last, some government contracts to supplement their passenger revenues. The cost of air-mail subsidies fell from nineteen million dollars in fiscal 1932 to nine million dollars for the first year of the new program.


Despite its humiliation the Air Corps, too, eventually profited. A special committee of civilians and military officers, named by Secretary Dern to review the status of the Air Corps, recommended against an independent air force; but the seed of this concept was planted and would come to fruition in 1947. The committee reported bluntly that the Air Corps had been handicapped since the World War by stingy appropriations and lack of training in instrument, night, radio-beacon, cross-country, and bad-weather flying. The President himself asked Congress to authorize an additional ten million dollars, a bonanza sum in times of economic depression, to be spent for new planes and equipment. From that time on there was a steady build-up of Air Corps strength and efficiency.


Although most Americans lost interest in the air-mail fiasco even before the elections of November, 1934, its principals did not fade so abruptly from the national scene. Hugo Black, he dogged Senate investigator who set in motion these events, got his first taste of national fame and attracted favor from a President who would later name him to the Supreme Court. “Hap” Arnold, who commanded the western air-mail zone, was to become the inspiring leader of the Army Air Force from 1938 through World War II . Horace Hickam, commander of the central air-mail zone, was killed in an air accident late in 1934, and an airfield in remote Hawaii was named in his memory. Millions of Americans would be familiar with Hickam Field after the tragic morning of December 7, 1941.

In December, 1942, seven years after the Black committee hearings, the United States Court of Claims rendered judgment on a damage suit brought by the original air-mail contractors. Roosevelt and Parley were justified in annulling the contracts, the court ruled, because the companies and Postmaster General Brown had colluded to prevent competitive bidding. Franklin Roosevelt, although embroiled in wartime anxieties, told an aide that he had read the opinion and enjoyed it.

But that sentimental Irishman Jim Parley, estranged by then from the man he had helped put in the White House, remembered the air-mail episode as one of his saddest experiences in public life. “I cannot think of it now,” he wrote in 1948, “without being stirred by regrets.”

Benny Foulois, his long career scarred by public controversy over the performance of his corps during the stormy winter of 1934, retired from the Air Corps on December 31, 1935, after piloting his 0-38 on a last sentimental solo above the snow-covered Virginia countryside. He lived until 1967 and died believing that his twelve pilots were sacrificed for a higher cause than delivering the mail—for a powerful United States Air Force capable of responding to the challenges of Hitler and Pearl Harbor.

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