You’re still stuck at home, you’re bored outta your gourd – what are ya gonna do?
It’s pandemic reading time.
A while ago, I offered ideas from my pilot’s library. Since the pandemic has offered many of us opportunities to fill our days, here are some more ideas to help you fill your time, profitably. By reading.
Chickenhawk. The Chosen Instrument. A Dream of Eagles. Calculated Risk. The Wartime Journals of Charles A Lindbergh.
If you want to know what it was like to fly a Huey in Vietnam, Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason, is your book. Mason flew in the First Cav in 1965 and 1966. It was way back when America believed that it could beat the crap out of a bunch of rice farmers.
The flying scenes are intense: the assault tactics, the LZ’s, the horror, the sadness. All Mason wanted to do was fly helicopters, but the missions flown, and his frustration with them, overwhelmed him.
Rereading it after 30 years, it took me back to that time when I was in college and people were fighting in, and protesting against, a war that we couldn’t win with the tactics employed by the former Ford Corporation beancounter, then Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, and his stooge, William Westmoreland. We didn’t take land and hold it; we flew American GI’s somewhere, killed as many Vietnamese as we could, counted their bodies, inflated the count, and hoped that their leaders would eventually tire of all their dead. It didn’t work. Had there been a war crimes trial at the end, McNamara and Westmoreland would have been hung not, perhaps, for the 58,000 American Servicemen killed, but for the multiple millions of Vietnamese combatants and non-combatants.
Chickenhawk is far from the best book ever written – you won’t race to your book shelves and toss all of your Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Joyce or Faulkner – whichever literary artists you admire most. But it is an honest account of what it was to be a helicopter pilot in the early days of the major American efforts in the Vietnam War.
Vietnam is a far cry from the topic of “The Chosen Instrument,” by Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul. It’s the tale of Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American World Airways, and how he built the airline from nothing until it was the most prestigious in the world – and then how it all came apart. If you love stories about the early days of commercial transport, this is your cuppa.
Trippe grew up on the very edge of high society, went to school with Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, and attended Yale University. At Yale, Trippe made contacts that would help him most of his life. Yale men held important positions in business and, more importantly, in government. And it was these connections that helped Trippe form the most famous, or infamous, airline in the United States.
In three years, Pan American grew from a two Focker business flying an air mail route from Key West to Cuba, to a monster that dominated South America. Because of the advanced preparation of wangling air mail contracts through their many contacts in the federal government, Pan Am leapfrogged all competition. In addition, they had to establish radio stations, weather stations and airports/seaports. Trippe hired brilliant people to implement his vision, gave them authority over their domains, but kept tight rein and kept his own counsel on the overall plans he had for the continued expansion of the airline.
After success in South America, stymied by the lack of long distance, heavy payload aircraft of the time, and the efforts of the British – he turned his view westward. He obtained concessions from the United States Government to build and open bases in the Pacific. Hawai’i was easy, but building accommodations for flying boats on Midway and Wake Islands posed bigger problems, yet they were overcome. He obtained concessions from the government of the Philippine Islands for landing rights, although he experienced struggles in China. Always there was the presence of Japan and it’s imperial expansionist plans. The journey of the first China Clipper was covered in a nationwide radio broadcast.
In 1939, Pan American was able to fly the North Atlantic, and eventually establish service that spanned the globe. It had become the world’s largest airline – without ever gaining the ability to provide service within the boundaries United States.
Pan Am was the legacy of one man, Juan Terry Trippe. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, unless he wanted something from you – and once he had gotten what he wanted, he had absolutely no use for you.
The authors – I’m never a fan of “team” writing – are a married couple who, quite frankly, aren’t very good at their trade. The book is uncertain of it’s purpose. Is it a biography? No, not a good one. Is it the story of the rise and fall of a large organization? I guess, but again, it’s unsure of itself. There is no linear story line, so trying to figure out where you are in history becomes a problem – clearly a flaw in a book that’s telling the history of a person, or an organization.
Yet, if you’re interested in the history of commercial aviation in America until the early 1980’s, this book is well-researched enough to give you a fairly accurate depiction of how it all started, and how it evolved. And there’s some pictures.
The story of one of the early competitors trampled in Trippe’s pursuit of glory and monopoly is related in Ralph O’Neill’s A Dream of Eagles.
O’Neill became an ace in WWI flying Neuports and Spads. He became a mining engineer, working in the United States and South America, then returned to the air – perhaps his first love – to begin the first successful international airline in America. And then lose through the lying, scheming machinations of Juan Terry Trippe, the postmaster general of the United States and his lackey, and the US State Department.
Basically, A Dream of Eagles is the author’s retelling of the struggles he encountered building, then losing, what was at the time the airline with the longest route system in the world.
It’s written in the first person, nearly forty years after the events occurred – although credit is give to another author besides O’Neill. It is a far more compelling read than The Chosen Instrument because the story is far more interesting and far better told.
Even though the author(s) tell the reader what will happen, the retelling of the tale still offers suspense and action in linear fashion. The reader becomes engaged because of the problems presented and overcome, and, in this reader at least, causes you to root for O’Neill and his company against the forces aligned against him.
There are times when it feels that O’Neill portrays himself in a better light than what an objective observer might choose. Nevertheless, it is a good read and an enjoyable one.
The events described in Calculated Risk relates the story of Jimmy Doolittle, a contemporary of Juan Trippe and Ralph O’Neill, as told by one of his granddaughters. If you don’t know who Jimmy Doolittle was – a pox upon your ignorant arses – this volume will be useful to help rectify that flaw.
It’s not really a biography – more of a family memoir of a man, his wife and his family. The fact that the man was one of the greatest and impactful fliers in the short history of aviation makes the story compelling.
James Harold Doolittle. The last name is such a misnomer considering how much the man actually did. Here’s a partial list: winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor (for leading the raid on Tokyo in 1942), the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, and multiple foreign decorations; first cross-continental crossing under 24 hours in 1922; winner of the Schneider Trophy Race of 1925; first pilot to perform the outside loop in 1927; first to take off and land an airplane solely by reference to instruments in 1929; winner of the Bendix Trophy Race in 1931; setter of a transcontinental speed record in 1931; winner of the Thompson Trophy Race (in a widow maker Gee-Bee) in 1932; setter of the landplane speed record in1932; winner of: the Mackay Trophy, 1926; the Spirt of St Louis Award, 1929; the Harmon Trophy, 1930; the Guggenheim Trophy, 1942; the International Harmon Trophy, 1940 and 1949; the Wright Brothers Trophy, 1953. The list goes on and on and on.
Jimmy Doolittle was an indifferent student as a young man, more interested in brawling – then learning to box – gymnastics, and a life of action. He was born in Nome, Alaska in 1896, but his mother had had enough of Alaska by 1908 and moved herself and Jimmy to Los Angeles. In 1910, Jimmy witnessed the Dominguez Field aerial exhibition and was hooked on airplanes for the rest of his life.
Attending Manual Arts High School in LA, he discovered the other passion of his life: Josephine Daniels. Doolittle and Josephine began a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. They married on Christmas Eve, 1917, and remained so for 70 years until her death, 71 years later.
The author, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, lacks great skill, but the subjects’ lives are so fascinating that you keep turning pages. Jimmy Doolittle’s life is so intertwined with the history of aviation that you owe it to yourselves to read about it.
Finally – Jaysoos, only five books – there is The Wartimes Journals of Charles A Lindbergh.
Whyever would you want to read someone’s diary? Well, after all, it’s Lindbergh’s diary. And it’s an enormous read: a thousand freakin’ pages. Lindbergh divides it into five sections: Europe Prewar; United States Prewar; United States Wartime; Pacific Wartime; Europe Postwar.
Published in 1970, it covers Lindbergh’s life from March of 1938 until June of 1945. It may seem tedious to some because there are notes on nearly all of the early pages, generally regarding the people mentioned in the text. Why read it all? Well, for instance, the people mentioned are the stuff of history: politicians, fellow pilots, soldiers, artists, writers, royalty, scientists.
He and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, fly their airplane throughout Europe in 1938 and 1939. He tours aircraft manufacturing plants in France, Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia, meeting with a veritable Who’s Who of early aviation history. In Germany, Lindbergh meets regularly with WWI ace Ernst Udet, has discussions with Inspector General of the Luftwaffe Erhard Milch, meets Dr Willy Messerschmitt, and, unfortunately, receives a medal from Marshall Herman Goering. In France he meets with Guy la Chambre, the Minister of Air, Paul Reynaud, the future Prime Minister of France, and Edouard Daladier, the Prime Minister of France. In Czechoslovakia, he meets President Eduard Benes.
He writes of attending a luncheon in London at Lord and Lady Astor’s. Among those in attendance were Mr and Mrs George Bernard Shaw, US Ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy, and William Bullitt, the US Ambassador to France. During a ball at Buckingham Palace Lindbergh spent time chatting with the Queen of England. He thought her very nice and remarkably down to earth. At various times he met with David Lloyd George, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, all of whom had been (or currently in 1938 and 1939) Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Lindbergh and the family moved back to the United States. General Hap Arnold, commander of the Army Air Corps contacted him and requested that he returns to active duty in the Air Corps as a Colonel.
… and, since I’m only half-way through the one thousand page volume, there will be more to follow. Just read it.