By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 24, 2010

2. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 13-40

Book I, Becoming an American: 4. White Silk Scarves and Open Cockpits; 5. Entering the Brotherhood; 6. A Fiasco and Reform; 7. Staying the Course; 8. A Fork in the Road; 9. "Let's Dive-Bomb the Bastards"
Having attended Texas A&M, which was a military school where ROTC was mandatory, Schriever not surprisingly entered the Army on graduation. And San Antonio was where the Air Corps did advanced pilot training at Kelly Field. As Sheehan notes, "This was the romantic era of flying, of white silk scarves, leather helmets and goggles, and open cockpits." Schriever entered flight school in July 1932, was selected for Advanced training eight months later, graduated in June 1933 and was sent to March Field near Riverside, Calif., for a year of active duty as a second lieutenant. His mother and brother went with him to Riverside because the Depression had forced her to close the sandwich shop and Gerry could no longer afford tuitition at A&M.

Hap Arnold, then a lieutenant colonel, was commanding officer at March Field. Arnold was a West Point graduate who had learned to fly in 1911 at the aircraft factory the Wright brothers had started in Dayton, Ohio. He didn't see combat in World War I, but worked instead in Washington on the efforts to start mass production of airplanes. He testified for the defense in the 1925 court-martial of Billy Mitchell, who was charged with insubordination for his efforts to get the brass to recognize the importance of air power. Arnold was punished for his support of Mitchell by being sent to the cavalry post at Fort Riley, Kansas, "to take charge of a small detachment of observation aircraft attached to the horse soldiers." By 1933, however, he had regained favor.

The Air Corps was still underfunded, however. "The B-3 and B-4 Keystone bombers that Bennie and his mates flew were big, ungainly biplanes with highly flammable cloth and wood-frame wings and fuselages." Flight instruments were primitive and fliers were limited to only four hours of flight a month when the weather was favorable. Schriever had plenty of time for golf, which allowed him to network, and his mother made friends with Arnold's wife, which "led to Bennie becoming well acquainted with his commanding officer."

In 1934, a scandal involving commercial contracts for flying the mail led President Roosevelt to temporarily turn over the job to the Air Corps, whose planes were, as noted above, poorly equipped especially for night flying. But given that it was an improvement over being able to fly only four hours a month, the pilots were eager to do it. "To keep from freezing in the open cockpits, the pilots wore leather face masks and flying suits, both lined with sheepskin." But the lack of instrumentation was disastrous: "Twelve pilots were killed in all and there were sixty-six crashes. Roosevelt turned the job over to commercial fliers again in June, but the deaths had made the government aware of the state of the Air Corps' equipment.

The threat of war in Europe that became apparent in the mid-1930s led to the development of better military aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress that Boeing produced in 1935, a dozen of which were on their way to Hawaii when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. "To Schriever, the sequence was clear. Had the alarm not been raised by the air mail disaster, that rudimentary air force would not have existed when the moment of peril came."

But Schriever had been forced by the lack of funding to return to civilian life in March 1935. He and his mother returned to San Antonio, where they were joined later by Gerry, who completed his college course work at the University of San Antonio and entered the same Flying School that Bennie had attended. Bennie took charge of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp on the Arizona-New Mexico border in June 1935 and developed skills at managing people.

In 1936 the Air Corps was building up again, and Schriever went to Albrook Field in Panama, where the commander for the Canal Zone, Brigadier General George H. Brett, heard of Schriever's golf prowess and asked him for some pointers on improving his game. Brett made him one of his aides and one day in 1937 sent him to pick up his daughter, Dora, who was arriving on a transport ship after a stay in Washington. After leaving the Air Corps again and taking a job as a co-pilot for Northwest Airlines in Seattle, he married Dora in January 1938 at the home of Hap Arnold, who was a good friend of the Bretts, in Washington. Arnold became head of the Air Corps in September of that year and urged Schriever to apply for a commission again. Schriever was sworn in on October 1, 1938. The Schrievers' first child, Brett Arnold, was born on March 23, 1939.

George Brett had been put in charge of the testing facilities and laboratories at Wright Field near Dayton, and requested that Schriever be assigned to him as a test pilot. Schriever entered the Air Corps Engineering School at Wright Field in July 1940, and impressed its commandant, George Kenney, so much that he was selected to go to Stanford in September 1941 to get a master's in advanced aeronautical engineering. The Schrievers' second child, a daughter they named Dodie Elizabeth, was born in June, and the family moved to Menlo Park, Calif. After Pearl Harbor, Schriever was assigned to the Southwest Pacific Area of the Army Air Services in Australia, but he was not to leave until he had completed his work at Stanford, which he did in June 1942.

Schriever reported for duty in Melbourne where his father-in-law was a lieutenant general in charge of the Allied Air Forces, Southwest Pacific Area, but was about to be relieved of that command by Douglas MacArthur. Brett's replacement was George Kenney, and Schriever was promoted to major and sent to the 19th Bombardment Group to be engineering officer in charge of maintenance. Kenney chose to focus on bombing raids against the Japanese in New Guinea, and Schriever and Major John Dougherty put together a strike crew. Schriever and Dougherty flew a B-17 that dropped flares to illuminate the targets for the other bombers that followed. 

One night a cloud bank intervened between them and the targets on which they were to drop flares, so Dougherty, "a wild streak of an Irishman," decided to dive-bomb the target. "Schriever glanced at the airspeed indicator and it was registering 260 miles per hour. In fact, no one was ever known to have attempted bombing with a B-17 in this harum-scarum manner." They came under heavy fire, but received only six hits from small-arms fire. Dougherty won a Silver Star and Schriever an Air Medal for the maneuver. They later received Purple Hearts -- though neither was wounded (the medal was designated only for wounds later) -- for another raid over Rabaul in October. Schriever was then transferred to the Fifth Air Force Service Command as chief of the Maintenance and Engineering Division.

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