presidential edict -- 9/23/21
Today's encore selection -- from LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay by Warren Kozak. In the chaotic and experimental early years of his presidency, FDR intervened to force the U.S. Army's nascent 'Air Corps' -- the precursor of today's Air Force -- to deliver domestic airmail. It was an attempt to save money, but brought death and catastrophe instead:
"In 1934, [President] Franklin Roosevelt came up with a plan involving the Air Corps that would lead to a national disaster. The U.S. government used hired civilian contractors to fly the nation's airmail. The first regular route was started on May 15, 1918, between New York and Washington, with a stop in Philadelphia. The first transcontinental service was inaugurated in 1921. It was very popular with the public and highly lucrative for the federal government, but Roosevelt, always short on money for the treasury, wanted the civilian airlines that carried the nation's airmail to do it for less.
"The airlines refused to back down. During contract negotiations, FDR called their bluff and fired the entire force. In Roosevelt's mind, he already had an air force that was funded by the government, and with no war on, they were not doing much anyway, so he ordered the Army Air Corps to fly the mail. Military pilots, FDR reasoned, were already up in the air, so they might as well carry the mail while they were flying. In the meantime, it would force the civilian airlines to reconsider the federal governments new contract.
|United States Army Air Corps Recruiting Poster|
"Roosevelt's decision demonstrated an amazing lack of understanding. The Air Corps planes were not equipped to ferry hundreds of sacks of mail. The pilots did not know the routes. And an endeavor on this scale required massive planning. ... In 1934, there were exactly 1,372 officers and men on active duty in the Army Air Corps throughout the world -- close to the size of a small high school. Roosevelt issued the order on February 9, 1934, that the Air Corps take over dozens of routes in exactly ten days -- on February 19. No money had been allocated for the job, and crews found themselves suddenly sent back and forth across the country with no provisions for food or quarters to live in -- absolutely nothing.
"They were eating homemade mulligan [stew] and they were sleeping on planks laid across saw-horses in cold hangars. Lucky to be out of the rain. And they were scrounging around for blankets. [One pilot] told the story of a sergeant who was sent to another city and came back with a pillow given to him by an old lady who ran a hot dog stand outside the field, and was already feeding all the men in his outfit on credit. She took pity on him because he was sleeping on the ground. She told him she did not really need the pillow -- it was just lying around on her sofa. ...
"The boys were out [freezing and starving]; generous-hearted folks tried to do whatever they could for them. ... [A pilot] remembered with sarcasm 'It took that Congress until the 27th day of March to appropriate an excruciatingly generous five-dollar per day allowance for our living expenses. Meanwhile, it was hand-to-mouth.' But feeding the crews was the least of the problems.
"Between February 19 and June 1, 1934 (when the airlines resumed the service), sixty-five Army planes crashed, killing twelve pilots. ... It was an unqualified public relations disaster which eventually led to a Congressional investigation.
"The fact is, the Air Corps did not have the planes to do the job, and the planes they had could not accommodate all the sacks of mail. 'We'd stuff mail in wherever we could get a sack in: in the small baggage compartment under the rear cockpit, under the cowling, everyplace else.' Some mail was lost. Some sacks were not discovered until the plane went in for its regular inspection months later."