When Charles Augustus Lindbergh gazed down in the gathering dark on the huge crowd covering Paris’s Le Bourget aerodrome, he wondered if there was even room for him to land the Spirit of St. Louis amid that sea of upturned faces. From that history-making May 1927 evening onward, the young American aviator, nicknamed The Lone Eagle and beloved by an adoring public wherever he went, would never be entirely comfortable in the role of the world’s most famous person. His indifference to public popularity and open dislike for members of the media became even more pronounced after his marriage to a daughter of millionaire business tycoon Dwight Morrow, and especially after the kidnapping of his first son and the media circus it spawned. Lindbergh detested the playboy image others had constructed around his every coming and going. And come and go he did, traveling the world promoting aviation and the industries growing up around it. (As a young lad living in New Jersey within a short distance of the Dwight Morrow estate, the author knew the excitement of waving a “Hello Lindy” greeting as the Stutz driven by the hero of every young American would drive by.)
Lindbergh was not appreciated by everyone, and among the latter were the President – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and the entire White House staff. The “Lone Eagle” made no secret of his dislike for what he saw as a little-disguised drift toward socialism in the administration and he spoke loudly and frequently on the subject. Matters became much worse when Lindbergh became associated with the America First Committee in his outspoken opposition to any direct involvement in the unfolding European War, (a position which in 1940 was shared by a large segment of American society.) Because he was a frequent guest of such German WW I aviators as Ernst Udet and Hermann Gӧring it was easy for his detractors to label him as “pro-German”. In fact so discredited did he feel at the time that he voluntarily resigned his Colonelcy in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh wanted desperately to serve his country, but found himself “black-balled” by the Administration at every turn, until Henry Ford, who was not cowed by any politician, asked him to find out why the B-24 Liberator bombers coming off his Willow Run assembly plant were so easily falling prey in battle. Hired as a consultant, “Lindy” ended up relocating gun positions in the plane, completely reshaping Ford’s production line, and saving the great warplane from an early demise thus changing the air war in Europe. Next he was asked by United Aviation (Chance-Vought) to find out why the Corsair fighter plane – mainstay of the navy and marine air war in the pacific – was not performing as expected in combat. This finally led him to the front lines as he quickly learned the art of flying in combat, actually developing dive-bombing techniques which saved American lives while drastically advancing the campaign to isolate the Japanese garrison at Rabaul in New Britain.
With the political walls now broached, he was next asked by Lockheed Aircraft to find out why Army Air Corps pilots seemed unable to come to grips with the challenge of mastering the highly-touted but difficult to fly twin-engine twin-boomed P-38 Lightning high-altitude fighter in MacArthur’s Western Pacific campaign. Here Lindbergh hit his pace, flying daily combat missions with the 475th Fighter Group whose young pilots at first wondered just how this 45-year-old 1st world war veteran could even keep up with them.
In the end the civilian Lindbergh not only taught them how to fly the P-38, but soon found himself acting as a squadron commander on many missions (kept secret from the politicians in Washington,) while winning the respect of MacArthur and his front line air commanders for his leadership skills. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the war effort came from his discovery of how to extend the P-38’s range by at least 400 miles by managing manifold pressure and fuel flow in a technique he was then asked to teach to other groups and which made possible fighter protection all the way to Tokyo for U.S. bombers. It is believed that this one change in tactics did more to save American lives and speed an end to the war in the Pacific than any other single engineering innovation.
The Allison V-1710 turbo-charged engine which powered the P-38 Lightning was the only indigenous U.S.-made V-12 engine of WWII. 70,000 were built. Al Cooper Photo
The most carefully protected “secret” of Charles Lindbergh’s secret war took place on July 28th, 1944, when his determined efforts to avoid personal air combat came to an end when he was engaged by Captain Saburo Shimada, one of Japan’s most famous fighter aces. Not only did he end his Pacific campaign by flying more than 50 combat missions, but he capped it off by shooting down a Japanese Zero flown by one of the enemy’s most celebrated airmen.
I only wish I could call back those carefree days of the 1930s so that I could once again shout “Hi Lindy” to that “lone eagle” passing through our town.