Book: Hell's Angels

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“I WAS BORN on the kitchen table of our ninety-acre dairy farm just outside of Smithton, Missouri,” said Van White. “It was April 30, 1919, and my birth certificate specified that I was ‘Born Alive.’ I grew up with an older brother and a younger brother and a sister in that same house with no electricity or running water.”

Dairy farming was difficult in good times, but it was almost not worth doing during the Great Depression, when prices plummeted to nearly nothing. “Aside from taking care of the cows and the actual milking, which had to be done twice each day,” White said, “the glass bottles had to be meticulously cleaned and sterilized before they were filled and capped. Then we delivered the milk on a small route we had in town—Smithton’s population was only about two hundred. We sold the milk for five cents a quart and also sold eggs for six cents a dozen. It was little more than a subsistence living; we were almost destitute, but as kids we didn’t realize it because so many of our friends were also very poor.

“Still,” White said, “we were envious of our friends who lived in town. They didn’t have chores like we did. They didn’t have cows to milk and bottles to be sterilized and filled. We did it before school, walked to school and then walked home afterward to do it again. And of course, we had to help with the big vegetable garden we kept. A lot of our meals came from that garden. So, there wasn’t much opportunity for us to play sports or participate in other activities.”

White’s father tried to supplement the family’s income as best he could. “At one point my father entered into a contract with a business in Kansas City. They agreed to buy all the rabbits we could raise—rabbit was commonly eaten at the dinner table back then. As it turned out, the company went bankrupt and we were left with two hundred and fifty domestic rabbits. We gave a lot of rabbits away, sold some and ate the rest for a long time after that.”

White matriculated through all twelve grades before graduating from Smithton High School in 1937. “I wasn’t a particularly good student,” he said, “although I did learn to type pretty well, which paid dividends later. I went down to Kansas City to work for Braniff Airways with my older brother. He was making ten dollars a week. I worked as a ‘cargo buster.’ I handled luggage, gassed and oiled aircraft, and did whatever else I was told. My brother and I shared a room at the airport for free.

“I got it bad for one of the Braniff stewardesses,” White said. “Her name was Elisia Romera, and she was from Dallas. She was cute as a speckled puppy under a red wagon, but I didn’t get anywhere with her.” Still, White did have a brush with greatness. “Jimmy Doolittle was famous as a great air racer during that time. One day he flew a Waco into the airport and taxied off the hard surface onto some wet ground. I helped him park his airplane, and when he climbed out he said, ‘Young man, if you wouldn’t mind getting a bucket of water and a brush to wipe off the underside of my airplane I’d be most appreciative.’ I got the mud cleaned off real nice and he gave me a five-dollar tip! That was close to half a week’s pay!”

White joined the Army in 1940. “I was visiting home and was in the barbershop at Smithton when my good friend George Monsees walked in and said that the Army was recruiting for the Air Corps. He wanted us to leave right then to sign up in Kansas City, and I had to convince him to wait until my haircut was finished!” After enlisting that same day, White reported to boot camp at Jefferson Barracks a week later. “It was cold and icy and George got pneumonia and was set back. I finished and was sent to Langley, in Virginia. My Class A uniform was left over from World War I and had been pulled from mothballs. It was the old choker-style jacket and had lace-up puttees to go over my boots. My boots were so old there was mold growing on them. When I got off the train at Langley, a very gruff second lieutenant grabbed me and told me to report to him the next day for a new uniform. It was January 1941.”

During the next year, White entertained notions of becoming a flyer, but because he demonstrated a talent for typing he was shunted into clerical work. Specifically, he was made an operations clerk. “So I ended up as a chairborne trooper in the paragraph corps,” he said.

*   *   *

“THE ARMY AIR CORPS changed my name for me,” said Louis “Mel” Schulstad. It was 1939 and Schulstad had been in the service for only a short time when he stood in line to collect his pay, which, for a private, was $21 per month. According to procedure, when it was his turn, he stepped in front of the lieutenant’s desk—which was stacked with cash—and saluted. The attending sergeant told him to sign the payroll. “So, I leaned over and looked and saw that they had spelled my name wrong.” Instead of “Lewis,” the Army had spelled it “Louis.”

Schulstad pointed out the error. “And the sergeant asked, ‘Do you want your money or don’t you?’” Schulstad declared that he did indeed want his money. “So, the sergeant said, ‘Sign it.’” From that point, Schulstad spent the rest of his life with the wrong first name.

He grew up in the small town of Reynolds, North Dakota, and, like many young men of his generation, was inspired by Charles Lindbergh. “I was bitten by the flying bug,” he said. “But it was hard to find the money in 1935 and 1936. I worked as a seventeen-year-old on the farms around my town for a dollar a day. That meant that you were out in the field at six in the morning and you had some lunch and sometimes they brought you dinner—coffee and sandwiches—and then supper at the house at six in the evening. And then you slept in the barn, or if they had extra bedrooms you’d sleep in the house. And you were there for six days a week.”

Payday came on Saturday. “Every Saturday night,” Schulstad said, “you’d stand there with maybe a couple of other farmhands and the farmer paid you in cash. He’d count out the bills: ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’ Six dollars for six days’ work.” Consequently $6 was a very dear sum to Schulstad.

“I became acquainted with Lester Jolly,” said Schulstad. “He had a Piper Cub and gave lessons for eight dollars an hour. I reached an arrangement with him and he agreed to give me lessons—about fifteen or twenty minutes—for two dollars. I’d meet him at the wheat field where he kept his airplane and pay him the two dollars. He’d hand it to his wife, who drove to town, bought five gallons of gas and then poured it into the airplane. And that was our arrangement.”

Schulstad’s desire for more flying, together with other exigencies, compelled him to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He was determined to become a pilot. Although the odds were greatly stacked against him at the time, there was—assuming he performed well—an official path for him to do so. After completing basic training and other assignments typical for a non-flying enlisted man, he was sent to March Field, in Riverside, California, during 1940. It was there that he saw his first B-17. “Wings you could walk under. And four engines of twelve hundred horsepower each. My God!” Schulstad was excited to learn that, as an armorer, he would fly aboard the massive aircraft.

Schulstad’s commanding officer took a liking to him and appreciated the young man’s desire to become a pilot. But he knew that Schulstad would have to pass a rigorous battery of academic tests for which he was not prepared. “I think you’ve got the potential,” he told Schulstad. “I’m going to make you my orderly. That means your job is to come in here at six o’clock each morning and get my office ready for the day. And then, you’re going to the junior college in Riverside.”

“Well, I didn’t have a car,” said Schulstad. “But he knew that if I was really serious about passing those tests and becoming a pilot, that I’d find a way to do it. So, I hitchhiked to school every day.” In the end, after failing at his first attempt, Schulstad passed the exams.

Schulstad’s unit was soon after broken into three parts, which were to form the nuclei for new units. He was sent to Tucson with one of those three parts. The new unit had only a handful of B-17s that it parked at the municipal field. Short on aircraft, it accepted a dozen PT-17 biplane trainers so that its pilots could maintain their currency and earn their monthly flight pay. Schulstad was made a crew chief and subsequently—under the tutelage of an experienced master sergeant—learned a great deal about the little aircraft. “He drank a little bit too much,” said Schulstad, “but I admired the old guy.”

The “old guy” taught Schulstad quite a bit, including how to adjust the various bracing wires that ran between the wings. “The tension would change a bit depending on the temperature and such, and the old sergeant would get out there with his pliers and hit one of the wires and listen to it as if it were a guitar string or a harp string. And then he’d tell me ‘tighten this one,’ or ‘loosen that one.’”

At the time, the Army Air Corps was expanding rapidly, and Schulstad was promoted from private first class to staff sergeant within just a few months. The extra money was certainly welcome, but Schulstad’s job as a crew chief offered other benefits. “I got to know the pilots and they got to know me. They’d take me flying and we flew all over Arizona. We’d do aerobatics or shoot landings. Sometimes if they had a hangover we’d land in a pasture and sleep in the shade under the wing. Often, when they got bored, they’d let me fly. And I learned to do turns and how to land and even do aerobatics. It was a lot of fun.” Consequently, when Schulstad was called to pilot training a few months later, he had no problems whatsoever. He was awarded his wings on March 16, 1942, and sent to fly B-17s.

*   *   *

“MY FATHER WAS A BAKER and he delivered pastries in his Willys Whippet to different resorts along the Osage River in Missouri,” said John Ford, who spent much of his young life in the west central Missouri town of Warsaw. “But the flour from his bakery got to him. He finally caught pneumonia and went bankrupt at about the same time.”

Ford’s father recovered and immediately started another career. “He went to barber school,” said Ford, “and when he finished he set up a barbershop in Versailles, about thirty miles northeast of Warsaw. I finished growing up there. I was an average student in high school, where I learned to type and also played the saxophone and the clarinet. I played baseball too.

“I joined the CCC when I graduated from high school in 1940,” Ford said. The CCC, or Civilian Conservation Corps, was a Depression-era relief program that taught young men discipline and basic skills while maintaining and improving remote public lands. They planted trees, fought fires and constructed outbuildings—among other duties. They were paid $30 each month and were required to send home $25.

“It was essentially a military lifestyle—barracks living and formations and such,” said Ford. “We learned quite a bit and it was a good experience. Lots of guys I later served with had spent time in the CCC.” Nevertheless, Ford didn’t stay in the CCC long before enlisting in the Army. Following basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, he was sent to Langley Field in Virginia during the spring of 1941. “I wanted to be a pilot in the worst way,” he said. “I talked one of the young pilots into taking me flying four or five times in the Waco PT-14. Taking off was no problem at all, but landings gave me problems.”

Ford’s officers discovered he had typing talent and assigned him to the administrative shop of the 43rd Bombardment Group’s 64th Bomb Squadron. The new unit—based in Bangor, Maine—was equipped with B-18s, two-engine bombers that were already obsolete in 1941. Nevertheless, the B-18 was a useful aircraft for antisubmarine patrol work, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor the unit flew missions over the maritime approaches from the North Atlantic.

Bangor was cold and miserable that winter. “Aside from my regular job, I was assigned other duties, just like everyone else. It snowed quite a bit that year, and when I stood guard duty—two hours on and two off—I tramped a trench in the snow about three or four feet deep. During that time I still wanted to fly and applied to do so, but during the interview with my commanding officer he told me that I was too valuable doing what I was doing and he didn’t forward my request.”

Ford’s dilemma was not uncommon—especially among men who could type. Many commanding officers did their best to keep good enlisted personnel in their units. It served them no good purpose to let talented men leave for flight training or for other reasons. Good typists were in especially short supply as the USAAF was in the process of enlarging itself many times over. It was an administratively intensive effort, and administration required good typists.

Ford was stuck.

*   *   *

WHITE, SCHULSTAD AND FORD—and many thousands of young men like them—enlisted in an air force headed by General Henry “Hap” Arnold. They were part of Arnold’s plan to grow the service into the largest military air arm in history. It was a plan he had stewarded for several years, and one that had already caused him serious health issues. He was the assistant chief of the Army Air Corps when his boss, Oscar Westover, was killed at the controls of his own aircraft while on a whirlwind circuit to start the buildup that Arnold ultimately completed. Arnold recalled: “Westover worked harder than anybody. Too hard. He flew all over the country, always flying his own plane, landing here and talking to some group or other about airpower while his sergeant got the ship ready for the next hop, then flying on to give another enthusiastic talk to people in another town.”

On September 21, 1938, Arnold received a call from the Air Corps representative at Lockheed’s factory in Burbank, California. Westover and his sergeant had been killed in a landing crash there. “He said,” Arnold recalled, “that as he was talking to me the plane was still burning on the runway. I joined my wife and we went down to wait in the lobby of the Kennedy Warren, hoping to reach Mrs. Westover before she heard about it over the radio.” Arnold was made chief of the Air Corps eight days later, on September 29.

At that time the Army Air Corps numbered fewer than twenty-five thousand personnel and twenty-five hundred aircraft. Notwithstanding the fact that the United States was the richest and most industrialized nation on earth, the task before Arnold was gargantuan. Firstly, the government had to make funding available, and Arnold was consequently at loggerheads not only with secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, but also with President Roosevelt himself. The two senior statesmen—unschooled in air warfare—believed that a powerful air force was measured in numbers of aircraft. That notion permeated much of the government, and Arnold tried to educate the President: “The strength of an air force cannot be measured in terms of airplanes only. Other things are essential—productive capacity of airplanes, of pilots, of mechanics, and bases from which to operate. A sound training program is essential to provide replacements.”

Arnold didn’t argue the point that considerable quantities of aircraft were essential. But he knew that they had to be high-quality machines of the types needed to fight the coming war. Moreover, highly trained men were necessary to crew and maintain them. And those men needed bases from which to operate. Too, specialists such as mechanics, meteorologists, doctors, logisticians, administrators and other uniquely qualified personnel were necessary to support them. Furthermore, an expansive and efficient supply train had to be grown, provisioned and sustained—and it had to reach every man in the giant organization that Arnold and his staff envisioned. Finally, the nation’s industries had to be modified and grown to produce everything from electrical harnesses for gun turrets to cathode ray tubes for radar displays. None of this existed in the form and size that was required.

And all of it cost money. Lots of it. Consequently, Arnold’s routine included continuous lobbying. His work and the work of his staff and other airpower advocates—together with the exigencies of the coming war—combined to open the coffers not a minute too soon. This was at a time when it took five or more years to design and field a competent aircraft type. And it took approximately a year to train a mechanic or technical specialist, and roughly the same amount of time, or more, to prepare a pilot for combat. Moreover, creating experienced leaders from these cadres of newly trained men took years.

It was demanding work, and it was additionally a politically difficult time for Arnold. He and Morgenthau clashed constantly as Roosevelt had vested the secretary with the power to decide who received what aircraft and equipment. This proved to be nettlesome as various soon-to-be-allies scrambled to purchase whatever American equipment they could while Arnold competed with them for the same equipment to build the Army Air Corps. Arnold’s job was made additionally nettlesome by the nation’s isolationists who believed that a nation that was equipped for war was more likely to make it.

Arnold and the Army Air Corps, together with industry and the government, worked tirelessly to grow the service to meet the impending global threat. At that point the existing personnel and infrastructure were archaically organized as a defensive arm intended to deter an invasion. It was a preposterous notion for what was essentially little more than a hobbyhorse organization.

Nevertheless, that ill-prepared organization served a purpose. It was the tiny grain of sand about which was created the pearl that eventually grew to be the most massive and modern air arm in history. During 1939, Congress authorized the growth of the Army Air Corps to an unprecedented 24 air groups. Following the start of the war in Europe, the expansion was raised to 41 groups in 1940. The service was charged with training seven thousand pilots each year. This was more pilots than had been in the service two years earlier, but it was nothing compared with what was to come. By 1941, authorization had been granted to equip and man 224 air groups. Pilots were needed to fly the aircraft in those groups, and the annual training rate was assessed at seventy thousand new pilots per year, together with a commensurate number of other aircrew—navigators, aerial gunners, bombardiers, etc.—not to mention the necessary mechanics, administrators and support specialists.

Such massive growth was mind-boggling even to careerists such as Arnold. In practical terms it meant that virtually everyone assimilated into the growing giant was an amateur. Much learning was done on the job by men who only months earlier had bagged groceries, sold millinery or studied for Boy Scout merit badges. Men who had been in uniform as little as two years were “old hands” who molded newcomers for service even as they learned their own duties.

Arnold’s value was unquestioned by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although there were still precious few aircraft available and the training machine was only then getting to speed, there was a guarded optimism that the objectives Arnold and his staff had set could be reached. In fact, even at that point the United States was already producing more aircraft than Germany and Japan combined.

Still, there were setbacks, and painstakingly developed plans were changed and then changed again and again. But Arnold had set the Army Air Corps—newly renamed and reorganized during 1941 as the United States Army Air Forces, or USAAF—on the right path. Ultimately, he oversaw the expansion of the nation’s air arm to 2.4 million personnel, and 318 groups. During 1944 alone, the nation’s manufacturers produced nearly one hundred thousand aircraft.

But victory was years away when the Arcadia Conference was convened on December 21, 1941. There, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and their staffs met to mature their plan to defeat the Axis powers. A precept of that plan was the concentration of resources and effort against Germany first. To that end Roosevelt and Churchill stressed the importance of heavy bombardment operations against the Third Reich and queried Arnold as to when the United States might join the Royal Air Force—the RAF—in such efforts. “I said,” Arnold recalled, “we could not send less than one Group because the Group was our smallest self-sustained unit; that I could probably get the first Group of our bombers over to England by the following March [1942].”

*   *   *

TO PORTRAY THIS MASSIVE GROWTH as anything better than not quite chaotic would be a mischaracterization. For example, William Eisenhart reported for military service to Fort Benjamin Harrison at Indianapolis while wearing a suit and tie. “They took me to a railroad siding on the fort, handed me a shovel and set me to unloading a coal car. In my new suit. It was ruined and I was furious. I still am.”

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Next: “She Is a Hell of a Big Ship”