Remembering the B-17 Era: Are We Lindbergh or Andrews?


2013-04-18 by Robbin Laird

In my second piece on reflections on the development of the B-17 and its stumbling entrance into history, I would like to focus on one of those set of historical oddities one finds while studying a subject.  In this case, it is the intersection of intelligence with policy or really intelligence in search of a policy.

Two developments in the mid-1930s, which happened about the same time, defined the battle for understanding as the world was moving towards War.  

The first was the Italians flying across the Atlantic, US airpower advocates trying to use the event to highlight the developments of airpower, and military intelligence running from the opportunity to learn what they did not want to know.

The second was a real American hero, Charles Lindbergh, looking closely at the NAZI regime and seeing their dedication to building up air power and concluding correctly that the Nazis were building unprecedented airpower, but lapsing into the unfortunate conclusion that this was an inevitable thing, one which America would have to accept.   In Lindbergh’s case, it was first hand knowledge but which severed a policy purpose – isolationism, not knowledge designed to inform the public or decision makers.

In October 1938, Lindbergh was presented by Goering, on behalf of the Fuehrer, the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation.

It must be remembered that Lindbergh in his Spirit of St. Louis had only crossed the Atlantic in 1927.  Then by 1933, the Italians were demonstrating the advances in airpower by doing an around the world set of flights.

From 1 July – 12 August 1933, he led a flight of twenty-four flying boats on a round-trip flight from Rome to the Century of Progress in Chicago, Illinois. The flight had seven legs; Orbetello — Amsterdam — Derry — Reykjavík — Cartwright, Labrador —Shediac — Montreal ending on Lake Michigan near Burnham Park. In honor of this feat, Mussolini donated a column from Ostia to the city of Chicago; it can still be seen along the Lakefront Trail, a little south of Soldier Field. Chicago renamed Seventh Street Balbo Drive (it still bears the name) and staged a parade in his honor. 

During Balbo’s stay in the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited him to lunch and presented him with the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was awarded the 1931 Harmon Trophy. The Sioux even honorarily adopted Balbo as “Chief Flying Eagle”. 

Balbo received a warm welcome in the United States, especially by the large Italian-American populations in Chicago and New York. To a cheering mass in Madison Square Garden he said, “Be proud you are Italians. Mussolini has ended the era of humiliations.” After this, the term “Balbo” entered common usage to describe any large formation of aircraft. Back home in Italy, he was promoted to the newly-created rank of Marshal of the Air Force (Maresciallo dell’Aria).

Meanwhile, back in the depths of the Army Air Corps and the battle for the future of airpower, airpower advocates were drawing on the Italian achievement to try to waken American policy makers to what airpower might be able to do in the period ahead.  

As DeWitt S. Copp put it in his classic study, A Few Great Captains:

Behind the welcoming crowds, the official receptions and speechmaking, the epic venture also illustrated an aeronautical axiom. The bemedaled Balbo, with massive head, glittering eye and rakish red goatee, stated it clearly when he declared in a public report to Mussolini: “The air forces can, like the navies, confront the problem of moving squadrons. With the Atlantic flight, Italy has furnished proof of these possibilities. I believe that with this aviation policy … aviation can make gigantic strides in all senses whether with reference to the improvement of machines or to the preparation of the flyers or the organization of the meteorological, logistic and technical services which are all too insufficient.” 

Andrews and the Italian airmen met at a reception, and perhaps they discussed the future, for Colonel Andrews had said essentially the same thing in a paper written at the War College titled “The Airplane in National Defense.”: “We often hear about the limitations of military aviation. But, year by year, these limitations are becoming less with the improvement in airplane design and manufacturing and, more important, with the improvement in aids to navigation and piloting.” 

“Many people are prone to judge our possibilities in time of war by limitations which peacetime operations impose upon us; limitations due to lack of funds for carrying out some project in its entirety. Others, whose experience in military aviation ended with the World War, can see no improvement in military aviation, but live in the past so far as the activity is concerned.” [ref]DeWitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1980, p. 127.[/ref]

Such an event might create the “wrong impression” Inside the Beltway or Inside the Nation, so intelligence management of these events was crucial. 

At the time of the Balbo flight, two actions by the War Department indicated exactly what Andrews had in mind. The Italian venture had been over a year in the planning. During it, the US Assistant Military Attache’ in Rome, Captain Frances M. Brady, had sent back detailed reports to Army G-2, the Military Intelligence Division, on the equipment, training methods, and logistical plans the Italians were perfecting. Apparently, none of this information was passed on to the Air Corps, although Brady had specifically made note of obvious interest. It was not the G-2 was attempting to hide the information, simply that, unless there was demand for it, the Air Corps was not on its routing list. [ref]DeWitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1980, p. 127.[/ref]

So not bringing the Air Corps into the loop may be a bureaucratic slip up but the role of military intelligence in shutting the door was not.

Following the Chicago visit and a ticker-tape parade up New York’s Broadway, Balbo’s visit was to be capped by a meeting with president Roosevelt at the white house and a farewell banquet at the Army Navy Country Club. The guest list included the Secretaries of War and Navy, Chief of Staff General Douglass MacArthur, Air Corps Chief Major General Benny Foulois and close to one hundred Army and Navy Officers and their ladies, among whom were Major and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was a grand night for toasting, and the departing visitors received the kind of military send-off that could only add to their prestige and pleasure.  

But, behind the smoke of good Havana cigars, there lay in this final gesture of hospitality a War Department failure to capitalize on what had to be an obvious opportunity.  The Military Intelligence Division, under Brigadier General Alfred T. Smith, appeared incapable of realizing a promising intelligence opportunity when offered it. 

The estimated cost for entertaining the visitors while in Washington amounted to $1,240 and the Navy asked the Army to pay half. Smith was against paying it. His rationale was that the severely restricted funds of the Military Intelligence Division were “for obtaining military information.” Apparently, it didn’t enter the Chief of Intelligence’s head that the entertaining the Italian Air Minister and his men offered a rare opportunity to gain added insight into Italy’s military plans. 

Although Mussolini’s aggression in Ethiopia was eighteen months away and could not be foreseen, the War Department and its Military Intelligence Division had to be aware that the Italian dictator was building up his armed forces. From an intelligence point of view, with nearly a hundred individual prospects from whom to glean possibly valuable information, it might seem that $620 was well worth the investment and eminently justified. 

Not so, said General Smith. “ The funds appropriated for the contingencies of the Military Intelligence Division,” he reasoned, “ are for the purposes specified in the Act and there is serious legal question as to whether they would be available for such purposes as this.”  [ref]DeWitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1980, p. 128.[/ref]

This does not seem like It certainly does not seem like a Star Wars moment where you have entered a time warp “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

But not to be outdone in roughly the same time frame, Lindbergh was become a confident of that other airpower, Germany. In 1936, Lindbergh was invited by the US military attaché in Berlin to come to Germany and do an assessment of the evolution of German airpower.

The letter from Major Truman Smith dated May 25, 1936 which invited Lindbergh (then living in England) said in part:

I need hardly tell you that the present German air development is very imposing and on a scale, which I believe, is unmatched in the world.  Up until very recently this development was highly secretive, but in recent months they have become extraordinarily friendly to the American representatives and have show us fare more than the representative of other powers.[ref]Walter S. Ross, The Last American Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 264[/ref]

Another source noted the following:

While in Germany, Charles and Anne attended the Summer Olympic games as the special guests of Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the head of the German military air force, the Luftwaffe. Lindbergh toured German factories, took the controls of state-of-the-art bombers, and noted the multiplying airfields. He visited Germany twice during the next two years. 

With each visit, he became more impressed with the German military and the German people. He was soon convinced that no other power in Europe could stand up to Germany in the event of war. 

“The organized vitality of Germany was what most impressed me: the unceasing activity of the people, and the convinced dictatorial direction to create the new factories, airfields, and research laboratories…,” Lindbergh recalled in “Autobiography of Values.” 

His wife drew similar conclusions. “…I have never in my life been so conscious of such a directed force. It is thrilling when seen manifested in the energy, pride, and morale of the people–especially the young people,” she wrote in “The Flower and the Nettle.” 

By 1938, the Lindberghs were making plans to move to Berlin.

Oops!  Developing good intelligence is one thing, moving to Berlin to join in might be considered another.  In October 1938, Lindbergh was presented by Goering, on behalf of the Fuehrer, the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation.

Lindbergh was allowed to fly his own plane over Germany and learned first hand information simply not available to any other Westerner.

He even became the go-between in trying to sell German military engines to France in exchange for hard currency! The policy outcome was probably inevitable from seeing the rise of Nazi military strength and perceived European weaknesses.

(In 1939) Lindbergh saw Nazi victory as certain and thought America’s attention should be placed elsewhere. “These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder… This is not a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion.” Building on his belief that “racial strength is vital,” Lindbergh published an article in Reader’s Digest stating, “That our civilization depends on a Western wall of race and arms which can hold back… the infiltration of inferior blood.”

Eventually, Lindbergh got the point, but certainly did not serve in Europe, but in the Pacific.

In 1943, Lindbergh convinced United Aircraft to send him to the Pacific as an observer. His work there involved a good deal more than observation though. Lindbergh flew more than 50 combat missions, including one in which he brought down an enemy fighter. The 42-year-old Lindbergh often bested men half his age in feats demanding intense physical ability. Drawing on his extraordinary piloting skills, Lindbergh instructed others on how to conserve fuel and extend their flying range by up to 500 miles.

As one looks at our own version of the 1930s, with a very turbulent world populated by some pretty nasty leaders, we can simply argue that it costs too much to defend ourselves, and accept the inevitable. 

We can be Lindbergh or Andrews.

Frank M. Andrews was at the center of the long struggle of air-minded officers in the Army who sought to establish an Air Force that could operate co-equally with the ground forces. 

He was made first chief of General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ), set up on March 1, 1935 at Langley Field, Virginia, as a combat organization, with a status similar to the Office, Chief of Air Corps, which handled supply and training. During the next four years General Andrews continued in this position to lead the battle for greater organizational independence and for a greater role for the four-engine bomber, the B-17. He sharpened the operational readiness of the air forces with combat-type exercises and record-setting pioneer flights in the United States and Latin America. 

During Army-Navy war games in 1938, navigation tests proved that the B-17’s ability to intercept an “enemy aircraft carrier” (the Italian Liner Rex) more than 700 miles east of New York City. Also of great significance, but not publicized, was the air arm’s interception of the Navy battleship Utah in a military exercise in 1937 in bad weather off the coast of California. General Andrews personally directed the operations of GHQ Air Force in both of these exercises; and was a passenger in the B-17 that “bombed” the Utah. (The navigator on both flights was Curtis E. LeMay.)

Constantly General Andrews and his staff found themselves opposed by policies of the General Staff, such as one based on an oral agreement between the Army Chief of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations in May 1938 that limited the Air Corps to operational off-shore flights of  no more than 100 miles. 

The muscle-flexing of Hitler and his German Luftwaffe in 1938 had persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt of the decisive potential of airpower and prompted the U.S. Army to prepare a new study of our Hemisphere defenses. The study, submitted to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall in September 1939, recognized the air threat to the Western Hemisphere and the need for long-range and other aircraft to help defend the Nation. It included for the first time a specific mission for the Air Corps. 

General Marshall, who had just replaced General Malin Craig, called General Andrews to Washington to be his Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, Andrews became the first Air officer to handle the Army’s organization and training. 

A year later, in November, General Andrews assumed command of the Panama Canal Air Force. The following September he was made commander of the Caribbean Defense Command and the Panama Canal Department. He was the first Air officer to head a joint command, and one of his greatest tasks was to insure effective coordination of Navy-Army-Air Force and Latin American forces. The system of organization developed there by General Andrews was recommended later to other commanders by the Chief of the Army Air Forces, General H. H. (Hap) Arnold. 

In November 1942 General Andrews was assigned to command all United States forces in the Middle East. Several months later he was appointed commander of the United States forces in the European Theater of Operations, with Headquarters in London. In a report to the Secretary of War, General Marshall said that General Andrews, “a highly specialized Air officer,” was assigned this high position after he had been sent to the Middle East “for experience in combat and in contacts with our allies.” The report pointed our that “this order was paralleled by the creation of a North African Theater of Operations, under General Eisenhower.”

Three months later, on May 3, 1942, General Andrews was killed in an aircraft accident in Iceland, while making a trip to installations under his command. He was 59.  

Frank Maxwell Andrews was born in Nashville, Tennessee on February 3, 1884. He was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in June 1906 and appointed a second lieutenant of Cavalry. With the Cavalry he served not only in Virginia, Texas, Vermont, and Hawaii, but in the Philippines, and at Fort Yellowstone, Wyoming and Fort Huachuca, Arizona. In 1917, he transferred to the Signal Corps for duty with the Aviation Division. 

It is difficult now to speculate about how great a role General Andrews would have played during World War II and later, if he had lived. One thing is certain, in his 25 years of service in the Air Arm he retained the highest respect of his fellow officers in all the Services while he stimulated great advances in organization, doctrine and weapon systems. As commander of GHQ Air Force for four years he did much to shape today’s Air Force.

Perhaps the greatest tribute ever made to General Andrews was by General Hap Arnold during World War II. He said: “Today, when American bombers fly a successful mission in any theater of war, their achievement goes back to the blueprints of the General Headquarters Air Force. Our operations were based on the needs and problems of our own Hemisphere, with its vast seas, huge land areas, great distances, and varying terranes and climates. If we could fly here, we could fly anywhere, and such has proved to be the case…General Headquarters Air Force  was also responsible for our present ideas of organization, maintenance and supply.”

General Andrews made a lasting imprint on the outstanding men on his staff who later became key Air Force leaders – an they, in turn, have made their special marks on the Air Force of today. 

— From the General Frank Maxwell Andrews Scholarship in the Air Force Academy.

For my baseline brief on the B-17 see the following: