While the first manned flight took place in 1903, it wouldn’t be until WWI that aeronautical advances were made that would turn aviation into more than just a county fair spectacle. While many men contributed to moving manned flight forward during this period, three men in particular stood out: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh.
All three made important contributions to aviation before, during, and after WWI, and became successful, world-famous celebrities. When World War II erupted, they were middle-aged and wealthy. They could have easily sat the war out while younger men fought. But they all answered the call to duty and provided their talents as ace aviators to the Allied cause.
My guest on the podcast today wrote a history of Rickenbacker, Doolittle, and Lindbergh. His name is Winston Groom. He’s authored numerous history and historical fiction books, including Forrest Gump, as well as the subject of today’s show, The Aviators, in which he details the engaging history of these pioneers of flight and their service to their country. Today on the show, we discuss each of these men and their respective heroics — from Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic, to Doolittle’s legendary raid on Tokyo, to Rickenbacker’s survival at sea for 23 days. We also dig into their complex characters and specifically, Lindbergh’s testy relationship with the press and how his initial opposition to the U.S. entering WWII got him labeled a traitor by FDR.
Winston is a masterful storyteller so you’re in for a real treat today. You’re going to be left both entertained and inspired by these three men.
- What aviation was like before WWI
- How the dangers of aviation attracted a certain type of person
- The traits and characteristics of those early daredevil pilots
- The beginnings of aviation heroes Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, and Jimmy Doolittle
- The aeronautic advances made by these 3 famous pilots
- The story of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic
- How and why 3 WWI pilots insisted on being of value when WWII broke out
- The backstory of Doolittle’s famed raid on Tokyo
- Eddie Rickenbacker’s amazing survival story
- The connection that the 3 famed aviators had with each other
- The testing that Lindbergh helped the military conduct
- Life lessons that Groom took from researching and writing about the great aviators of the 20th century
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Forrest Gump (the book)
- El Paso
- Eddie Rickenbacker
- Charles Lindbergh
- Jimmy Doolittle
- Doolittle’s Raid
- Atlantic Fever
Winston is a masterful storyteller. The Aviators was an absolute pleasure to read and you’re going to learn a lot about the history of aviation in the process. Also make sure to check out his latest fiction book, El Paso.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. While the first manned flight took place in 1903, it wouldn’t be until World War I that aeronautical advances were made that would turn aviation into more than just a county fair spectacle. While many men contributed to moving manned flight forward and many men lost their lives in the process, during this period there were three men in particular who stood out: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh. All three men made important contributions to aviation before, during, and after World War I, and all three men became financially successful, world famous celebrities.
When World War II erupted, all three men were middle-aged and wealthy. They could have easily sat out the war while younger men fought, but they all answered the call to duty and provided their talents as ace aviators to the Allied cause.
My guest today on the podcast wrote a history of Rickenbacker, Doolittle and Lindbergh. His name is Winston Groom. He’s authored numerous history and historical fiction books including “Forrest Gump,” – you’ve probably heard of that one – as well as the subject of today’s show, “The Aviators,” in which he details the engaging history of these three pioneers of flight and their service to their country.
Today on the show, we discuss each of these men and their respective heroics, from Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic to Doolittle’s legendary raid on the Japanese, and to Rickenbacker’s survival at sea for 23 days during World War II. We also dig into their complex characters, and specifically, Lindbergh’s testy relationship with the press, and how his initial opposition to the U.S. entering World War II got him labeled a traitor by FDR.
Winston is a masterful storyteller, so you’re in for a real treat today. You’re going to be left with, entertained, and inspired by these three men. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/aviators, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Winston Groom, welcome to the show.
Winston Groom: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a prolific writer of history, historical fiction. I’m sure our listeners are familiar with “Forrest Gump.” One that I just read – just walked away, blown away because I knew very little about this part of American history – the book is “The Aviators” where you focus on three pioneers of aviation, James Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and Edward Rickenbacker.
Before we get into the lives of these men, their contributions to aviation, I think it’s important for our listeners to have a little bit of background of what aviation was like before they came on the scene during World War I. What was flying like before World War I? Did it serve any practical purpose?
Winston Groom: It was the kiss of death.
Brett McKay: It was the kiss of death … okay.
Winston Groom: Well, they were learning by doing it. There wasn’t really … there was no aeronautics or anything. And once you get up in three dimensions, you’re in a whole different scale of things. And there’s a lot of things that go on up there that don’t go on here on earth … four wheel car. And so, they had to learn this stuff literally seat of the pants, what to do and what not to do. And so, a great many of these people perished.
One that comes to mind is – and I wrote about in my novel “El Paso” – is … I can’t remember her name now, a great aviatrix, and she died because she wasn’t wearing a seat belt, because it was argued at that point … I’m guessing around 1910, whether seat belts were dangerous because if you crashed and burned, you couldn’t get out of the plane. She was in an exhibition over Boston Harbor, and the plane turned, and both she and her passenger fell out three or four thousand feet into the harbor and died.
So there was that kind of thing. It was learning by doing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and it seemed like a lot of the early years of aviation, a lot of it was just like barnstorming, it was just like shows, it was more just entertainment purposes, really.
Winston Groom: Aircraft was not reliable enough … and this actually went for after World War I as well, but it just wasn’t reliable enough for passenger service because the weather was the deciding factor, and things like fog could cause the pilot simply to bail out. If you go into a fog, there’s no telling what you’re going to find because your instruments weren’t accurate enough. Doolittle solved that problem, but that was much later.
You couldn’t have, say, a flight from even Cleveland to Chicago because you couldn’t say with any kind of regularity whether you would get there or not. The mail was the first test of this. The U.S. airmail. And one of those pilots … as a matter of fact, they said it was basically a suicide club. About 70 percent of all the airmail pilots that they had back in the 1920s died in crashes. So it was a very risky business.
Brett McKay: And because it was risky, did it draw a certain type of person?
Winston Groom: Oh God, yes. You had daredevils, of which there were many. They were fearless people, obviously. They put aside that notion of self- preservation for the privilege of being up in the air like Batman or something.
Brett McKay: Seems like a lot of them came … they were like race car drivers. A lot of them were race car drivers before they got into it.
Winston Groom: Yeah. Well, of course, certainly Rickenbacker was. He was the greatest race car driver, one of the greatest, before he took to flying. As a matter of fact, he owned the Indianapolis 500 Speedway at one point.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s right. We’ll get into a little more detail about these guys, Rickenbacker and Lindbergh and Doolittle, and they all contributed to aviation in different ways, and we’ll talk about the different ways that they did that. But as you researched and you wrote about them, what do you think they all had in common? I’m sure fearlessness was one, but anything, other attributes they all had in common?
Winston Groom: Yeah, they had a drive to not just be better, but be the best, and it sort of snowballed along the way. As they got better, they strived to become the very best. And they were the very best in what they did. And I think that that is something that doesn’t limit itself just to aviation, but in all things, all matters, excellence …
I was just talking to, having dinner with a pilot last night; he’s a Colonel in the Air Force and now flies private planes. And he wondered about Einstein and what propelled him. And we started talking about it over dinner … he had an obvious aptitude, Einstein did, for mathematics, but he could see into the future, he literally could do that, and see into outer space where the rules don’t apply. There’s no … Newtonian physics don’t apply in outer space because there’s no gravity. And it’s a very special thing when you find such men, such people.
Brett McKay: That was interesting, too; they all came from relatively humble beginnings as well. I guess, Lindbergh might have been middle class, but they were humble.
Winston Groom: Certainly, they were. And as a matter of fact they were, with the exception of Lindbergh, they were lower middle class. Doolittle was from California, the Los Angeles area, and his father abandoned the family when he was very, very young, and he was raised by his mother in almost impoverished circumstances.
He made his way as a boxer. He was a small guy; he was only about 5’6″, but he was a very good boxer. He actually turned pro, a professional boxer, in California after winning the state championship. But he then applied himself at the University of California and he got a degree in engineering. And ultimately, he got a Ph.D degree in aeronautical engineering from M.I.T., which is of the best engineering schools … probably is the best engineering school in the world, and so he knew whereof he spoke.
Eddie Rickenbacker very similarly came from … he was from Columbus, Ohio and his family had emigrated, his parents, from Switzerland. They were poor German Swiss who, in those times, back I’d say in the 1890s I think, they could never get out of their class, which was essentially a farmer, a peasant’s class. In Europe, that ability didn’t exist and so they emigrated to the United States. I think his mother came with a note pinned on her saying who she was and where she was going. She didn’t speak English.
But Rickenbacker’s father was killed early on in a fight. Again, raised by the mother. I think that, if I’m not mistaken, Columbus was where the original Soap Box Derby was run, or somewhere there in Ohio. And he entered that and he won that and took to car racing. He was fascinated with the automobile. And as we talked about a minute ago, he became … I think he was third in the world somewhere along the line, or however they measured that.
In World War I, he wanted to get into the war. He was very famous by then as a race car driver. Somehow finagled his way into becoming a driver. They made him a Sergeant and he was a driver … Billy Mitchell, who was the famous aviator who was court-marshaled for promoting aviation too strongly. And through Billy Mitchell, he got to be a pilot and then wound up shooting down more German planes than any other American, at least, and became the Ace of Aces.
And Lindbergh was probably raised in a more financially secure position. His father was a Congressman and had actually done very well, but then he lost his money, I think his father did, in some agricultural adventure, and he lost his seat in Congress. The father sort of abandoned the family.
He managed to get little bit of college training but, again, he wanted to fly. He’d watch these planes in Minnesota, or Wisconsin, I can’t remember which. But he was out in the woods and look up in the air and see the airplane and think, “I want to do that.” And he scraped up $500 to buy a used training plane, one of those Curtis Jennys from World War I, and learned how to fly it himself without any training. He just thought he knew how to do it. That’s how these guys grew up.
Brett McKay: That’s how they got into flying. Let’s talk about Rickenbacker. So, he was an Ace of Ace, but in the process he made a lot of contributions to aviation and was able to propel it forward. What exactly was Rickenbacker’s role in promoting or making advances in aeronautics during World War I?
Winston Groom: I don’t know that he made a lot of advances in aeronautics in the First World War, but he certainly pushed the envelope so far as being a fighter pilot. He had, if I’m not mistaken, 21 victories, which means he shot down 21 enemy planes. One time, he tore into a squadron of seven enemy fighter planes just by himself. He so terrified these people, they all flew off in the other direction just because he was bold. He had a way of suppressing his fears to the extent that he said he never was afraid when he was there; it was always so many things to watch out for or to do. But whenever he came down and landed …
He was in an aerodrome in France. There was a wall, and he’d go behind the wall and throw up, and then he started to shake, and then he’d go into the officers’ lounge and have a drink, and that would kind of put him back on an even keel again until the next time. It was a scary thing what he did, but then of course, afterwards, he became the owner and the president of Eastern Airlines, and he did a huge amount of promoting … promotion of commercial flying. It was just enormous. He was a well known, worldwide known figure in commercial aviation. Everybody knew Eddie Rickenbacker.
Brett McKay: This is the first time I’ve ever heard of him, but he was … because of his race car driving, because of his exploits during World War I, he was this … he was world famous, he was a celebrity.
Winston Groom: Oh God, yes. I’ve got a set of glasses that belonged to him … I say “belonged to him” … He would give them out from Eastern Airlines and it says, “Compliments of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.” He always wanted to be known as “Captain Eddie.”
Brett McKay: So, he contributed a lot to dog fighting, how we fight in the air, and then also commercial. Let’s talk about Doolittle, because unlike Rickenbacker who was a celebrity even before he became an Ace of Ace, Doolittle, he had to earn his celebrity after World War I. So, what was it that Doolittle did that basically made modern aviation possible that we know today?
Winston Groom: He was so good as a cadet, a flying cadet, that during World War I they made him a teacher, an instructor. He never got into the action. He was furious, but that was the way it was. But he stayed in the Army, stayed in the military for at least until the 1930s, and at one point …
He became a household name because of his flying abilities. They used to have races, I think they still have a few of those, but these pilots would race around big pylons. It was a blood sport; people went to see them crash, kind of like these car races they have today. But, in fact, they did crash too much and he won all of those prizes, and at last he announced – very publicly announced – that he was quitting. He said, “I think aviation … we’ve done enough to promote aviation in these kinds of races, but now we need to promote aviation safety and this isn’t the way to do it because we’re losing too many people.” And that was pretty much the end of the big time plane racing.
But what he did was, he realized like all of them did, like Lindbergh and Rickenbacker did, that aviation was so limited by the weather that they needed some way to overcome it. Another way to overcome it was instruments. And basically what he Doolittle did was, he invented – because he was, actually, a professor of aeronautical engineering – with the help of the government, he invented a number of instruments, very basic instruments, but some form of these are still used in planes today that would allow you to fly blind. And to prove it, he went out one day on Long Island, somewhere on Long Island, when the weather … a big fog moved in and he pulled a canvas hood over the cockpit of his bi-plane. This was back in the early 1930s.
He taxied, and he took off, and he flew for about 20 miles. And he came back and he landed in a total … under this canopy where all he could see was his instruments. And this was enormous. And it was the very beginning of commercial flight.
Brett McKay: It’s crazy, he tested it himself. Like I said, he helped invent the altimeter, which allows you to know how high you are, the artificial horizon. I love how you describe the radar, sort of the rudimentary radar they developed to let a pilot know …
Winston Groom: It was a radio signal. It was simply a signal that went out and they had … You could hardly believe that this guy would risk his life on this. There were two reeds you had, like an oboe or something … a reed, and they sent out a radio signal from a beam, from the aerodrome, airport, and you could tell how far away from the airport you were by the humming of these reeds as it received the signal. So he knew when he was getting close when the signal was louder and louder and louder. And then he’d look at his altimeter and he’d look at his horizon, he’d look at whatever else he had, and somehow he was able to put down on a runway, and that’s all he had. It was an extremely bold thing to do, but he wanted to prove a point. He was always pushing that envelope.
Brett McKay: By conquering the fog, he paved the way for aviation that we know today. We’re on a jumbo jet because of Doolittle.
Winston Groom: A hotelier had put up a big prize, I think it was like $50,000, which, back then … it’d translate today, maybe half a million, something like that. Many people had tried and many people had died. And Lindbergh decided he was going to enter this contest just for the hell of it, to see if he could do it.
He had missed World War I, but he was in the Army. Ran into some Army flyers, I think, during the war … toward the end of the war, and they said, “Well, why don’t you go and get in a unit. You’ve got a plane you can fly. Get in the Army.” So he did. He joined up in the reserves and he flew, and then he decided he was going to enter this race. Essentially designed his own plane after some fits and starts of trying to buy one. The race was from New York to Paris. It wasn’t from New York to Ireland; it had been done. But New York to Paris was a much longer distance.
And just as he was getting ready to start his turn at it, to try, a handful of other pilots, probably three or four, were trying to do it. They all died. Well actually, some were grounded because they’d crashed, and they didn’t die but they were hurt, the plane was hurt, and so on. And he took off and he did it.
Brett McKay: All the characters you follow in this book, I’m sure Charles Lindbergh is the most well known. And what’s interesting is, he’s the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, but what I didn’t realize is – or, I should have realized – is that there was actually a race. There was multiple people trying to achieve this goal. How were the other pilots going about this?
Winston Groom: I think, most important, the fact that he was going to do it solo. The bet didn’t say anything about solo, and people didn’t think you could do it solo because, they said, you’d fall asleep hours over the ocean, and just the monotony of it. He decided that what he was going to do was have a monoplane. Everybody else said no, you’ve to have at least a biplane for when the engine’s konked out because that was very common back then, that one of the engines would stop and you put down in a field or something. But if you’re in the middle of the Atlantic, that’s not possible.
And so he decided he was going to get a big Curtis right engine and hope for the best. And he took every bit of weight, including … he measured it down to the piece of paper, the weight of a piece of paper, just a sheet of paper that he would scribble something on. Eliminate all the excess weight and use it for gasoline, for fuel.
He actually couldn’t even see out of the cockpit. He had fuel tanks ahead of him. If you were sitting in a cockpit, normally you’d look out the front of the cockpit. But he couldn’t do that; he had to stick his head out to the side. But he said pilots did that anyway, and he didn’t need to see what was ahead of him because he knew what was ahead of him – water.
Brett McKay: How was Lindbergh’s approach different from these other pilots, and why was he successful when these other pilots failed? Was it just luck, or was it the design of the plane?
Winston Groom: He was doing it without those kinds of instruments. If he had gotten, for instance, in a fog somewhere over France, he would have been S.O.L. because fog is the most dangerous … I’m a sailor and I can tell you that fog is the most hated thing of anybody on the water because you simply can’t see where you are, there’s no way to see. You’re in a fog, is where you are.
So anyway, his luck held out and he flew all the way … He got to Paris … he was consumed he’d forgotten his wallet. He didn’t have any money and he was wondering if anyplace was going to be open where he could get something to eat, but how is he going to explain to some pensione or somewhere cheap hotel he could stay, he would get money in the morning through American Express. That was his big concern. If he reached England, he could see … he look down, so he knew he was probably going to make it. But he was really worried about his circumstances when he got to Paris because he was hungry.
Anyway, he got there, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He said, “There must be some factory letting out.” He saw these thousands and thousands of headlights of cars. This is 1927. And he descended to the airfield, and there were hundreds of thousands of people on the aerodrome. And he didn’t know where to land; they were on the runway. So he found a runway that wasn’t being used and managed to land, and he got out of the plane and all these people ran over to him and seized him, and he was afeared for his life. And they lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him around for half an hour before some French pilots somehow rescued him and got him into a building. And he was then taken to the American Embassy and treated like a god.
And it started there, that this fame began there, and it never, ever ceased.
Brett McKay: Right. He was the first modern worldwide mega-celebrity.
Winston Groom: Yeah. Like the biggest rockstar, the biggest athlete. You think back then, we were in between the wars. The world was at peace. People needed heroes and, of course, the press was big in that, the newspapers, they created heroes. So he was feted everywhere, because it didn’t hurt that he was a tall, handsome, good looking, well spoken young man; very humble and just a pretty much an all around good guy. He was a media hero.
Brett McKay: But he didn’t really respond well to the fame.
Winston Groom: He didn’t like all the celebrity. After a while, that can wear thin. He was not like these movie stars that won’t give an autograph. He always had time to do these things.
But his privacy … the trouble was he was so famous that his very privacy was often invaded; he didn’t have any privacy. And of course, there was the horrible tragedy with his infant son who was kidnapped and murdered. The press … they would literally camp out wherever he was, no matter where he went. When he was going to get married, the press would be camped out by the bride’s home. And he would always have to disguise … when he went out, he would lie in the backseat of the car. That can wear thin on you after a while.
Brett McKay: These three men in their 20s and early 30s, they made these fantastic contributions to aviation during and around World War I, but what’s amazing about them is that when World War II broke out and the U.S. entered World War II, all three of them returned to service for their country as pilots.
Winston Groom: Yeah, they had taken that ball and gone home. They were too old to do any kind of regular military service, and they were certainly well enough established and extremely wealthy, all of them, so they didn’t have to do this, but they did it. And I think that in the regular service, because Doolittle was a regular Army Colonel at that point; what they called the Army Air Corps then, belonged to the Department of the Army before they had an Air Force. And he was at the Pentagon … well, this is before the Pentagon, wherever the hell the Army was based, and Roosevelt was very, very, after Pearl Harbor, extremely adamant that we needed to strike back at Japan and nobody knew how to do it, because we had aircraft carriers, but we had fighter planes on them, or fighter bombers, but they didn’t have the range to strike Japan and get back to the carrier.
And even if they had, they couldn’t carry a payload of bombs that would be meaningful. And one day a Naval Captain discovered that the B-25 could fit on an aircraft carrier, and the B-25 was sort of a medium-sized bomber but it could carry a payload that makes a difference. And Hap Arnold, the head of the Air Force, assigned Doolittle to get up a squadron of these people and go and strike Japan, and he did. And he trained them and he did all that, and then he announced that he was going with them. “No way. You’re too valuable to go with them.” But he said he was going to do it.
And there was some finagling going on there, and he wound up leading this bunch. It was an extremely bold thing that they did. Doolittle himself, because he was so educated, he was an odds man, and he gave himself and everybody else less than 50-50 chance that they were going to come back alive because they had to go and get off the carrier, first of all, and nobody had ever done that before with a full payload of bombs on that kind of plane.
And then they had to get to Japan, and it was said that Tokyo had 1,000 anti-aircraft weapons around … huge things. And then they had to fly on after that to airfields in China, which were supposed to have been prepared and weren’t in fact. And so, everything seemed to go wrong. They took off from the carrier under duress because they had been spotted. They were supposed to take off 400 miles from Japan; they took off 700 miles from Japan. The seas were huge. There was just an awful storm and the waves were as high as a 30 story building, and the deck of the carrier was pitching like a see-saw.
But anyway, they all got off somehow, performed their mission. They came in so low that the Japanese were so surprised, they didn’t expect this thing. And by the time they got to man their anti-aircraft guns and get their fighters off the ground, Doolittle’s Raiders had hit their targets and gone on.
But then the biggest problem came up when the weather turned really bad and the night was falling. They were supposed to have landed in daytime, but because of weight they had to land at night. The weather was huge, and China, of course, is … the coast is wide but it’s big mountain ranges. They go way back into the interior. Nobody even knew how high they were because the maps couldn’t be trusted.
But they flew on, and finally Doolittle radioed the other planes, “Just fly until you run out of gas and jump out.” And that’s what they did. Now, you imagine that wasn’t scary, because half of China was occupied by the Japanese, and they knew probably if they were caught by Japanese they were going to be executed on the spot or taken to Tokyo and executed. And some were, in fact.
But most of … they jumped out, and there were 16 planes and, I think, about 80 flyers, and a couple of them were killed jumping out; they landed in the wrong place. About half a dozen more were captured by the Japanese and some of those were executed, but the majority of them – by hook or by crook – somehow, with the help of the Chinese people, were taken back to U.S. lines there and flown home.
And Doolittle, he was mortified because he thought he was going to be court-martialed because he lost all the planes; a whole squadron of planes had crashed and burned. And he got back to Washington, finally. It was a big, circuitous route through India … he didn’t even have proper clothes on. And General Marshall, who was the Chief of Staff for the Army, called him in and he said, “We’re going to the White House.” And Doolittle said, “What for?” He said, “The President is going to give you the Congressional Medal of Honor,” which he did. So that was the story of the Doolittle Raiders because Doolittle became very, very famous after that.
Brett McKay: This was “Doolittle’s Raid.”
Winston Groom: Well, the interesting thing about Doolittle is, and the reason I wrote this book the way I did … I was going to do a biography of Doolittle. Nobody had done it. He wrote an autobiography, but I got about a third of the way into it, and I said, “Now I know why nobody’s done a biography of Doolittle.” Because the Raid itself, which happened in 1942, was the biggest thing in the biography.
Even though, interesting enough, he became the Commanding General of every Air Force we had in the Atlantic theater. When we raided North Africa, he was Commander of the 12th Air Force. When we invaded Italy, he was the Commander of the 15th Air Force. When we invaded Normandy on the European continent, he was Commander of the 8th Air Force. Huge, important positions.
But the problem really was, Eisenhower had forbade him to fly because he knew about “Ultra,” which was the top secret code breaking operation going on in Great Britain, and they were afraid that if the Germans got him to somehow … torture him to cause him to reveal this, that would all be blown. And so, his work was basically administrative, even though it was great work.
Then also, he lived on until he was, like, 95. And I said, “This book … I can’t write this book. It’s going to be dull.” I said, “Wish to heck he had crashed in the Pacific like Eddie Rickenbacker had.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute,” I started having an epiphany, and I said, “Wait a minute. How about if I write about Doolittle and Rickenbacker?” And then I had another epiphany right on top of that. I said, “Wait a minute. If I add Lindbergh, I’ve got the three greatest flyers of the 20th century.” I would take all three of them.
They all knew each other; they were all World War I products in one way or the other. And they all did their thing early on, in their 20s, except for Doolittle but he raced a lot back then. And then all went over to World War II. I said, “This is a really good story here.” So, that’s how I came to write the book.
Brett McKay: So you started off with Doolittle. And going to Rickenbacker, that was phenomenal, too. He was this celebrity, hero, wealthy … went back and he got shot down in the Pacific and he was a castaway, like in the middle of the ocean in a lifeboat.
Winston Groom: He wasn’t actually shot down. He was in a B-17, they were going to … he had some special message to tell General MacArthur, who was in New Guinea. And they took off in this B-17 and, for a variety of reasons including some navigational problems, they ran out of gas. He had to put a B-17 down in an ocean with 12 foot seas. It’s never been done before – successfully, anyway – and they did. And they got out these little life rafts and the plane sunk almost immediately.
They had three life rafts, and this was early on in the war before the Air Corps realized what they needed to put in the life rafts. And so they had some fishing poles and hooks, but no bait. No water, no food, just … this stuff. And it was the kind of life raft where if one guy has to turn over, everybody’s got to turn over.
And so, they went for, like, a week with no food, no water. People were literally dying. And all of a sudden, Rickenbacker’s sitting there and a seagull lands on his head. And, of course, everybody stared. They were looking at this seagull as lunch. And he slowly, slowly reached back as careful as he could and seized that bird and wrung its neck, and they divided it up. He had the good sense, though, to keep the entrails for bait. So then, they began to catch some fish and that got them through.
But on they went for week after week until … the Air Force was going to give up the search because they have a certain amount of time … two weeks, I think is it. And Mrs. Rickenbacker stormed down from New York to Washington and stormed into Hap Arnold’s office – he’s the head of the Air Force – and “Don’t you dare give up this search.” So they put it on for another week or however long it was, and suddenly one of these search planes looked down and he saw these life rafts … saw one of the life rafts, anyway. They got them, finally. Emaciated and sunburned, horribly sunburned, and sores that you get when you’re in that kind of situation.
But Rickenbacker spent a week putting himself back together, and then he flew on back out to New Guinea to give MacArthur his message. He was tough.
Brett McKay: Again, it’s that tenacity; tenacity that they had from the get-go. And again, he was in his 40s when this was going on, too.
Winston Groom: He was in his 50s, I think. I believe he was in his early 50s, if I’m not mistaken.
Brett McKay: And again, he didn’t have to do this. He could have been just enjoying the hight life.
Winston Groom: Oh no, he didn’t have to do it. He kept on going. He would go out to North Africa. His solid job … they offered him a rank of Lieutenant General, and he said, “No, I don’t want that.” He said, “I want to be Captain Eddie. I don’t want to get in the military with all that hierarchy people. Even Lieutenant Generals have people telling them what to do. I’m going to do it my way.”
And his job was … he would to go out to these various pilots’ units, and these are all young pilots; they weren’t professional pilots. They were young men in their 20s who had taken the pilot training. But, here was Rickenbacker, he was one of the gods, like Doolittle and Lindbergh. And he would go there to various bases, and he knew how to give a pep talk. He was very adept at that.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Lindbergh, because he is an interesting case because it took him awhile to come to his country’s service during World War II. Both Rickenbacker and Doolittle, even before World War II, were making a big push for aviation in the military, which kind of fell on deaf ears until Pearl Harbor.
Can you talk a little bit about Lindbergh and why it took him a bit to come to his country’s aid?
Winston Groom: He was a Colonel by that time in the Army, and he was on the reserve list; he wasn’t active. He was very much opposed to the U.S. entry into World War II, and I think some of that was a product of his upbringing as, essentially, an Isolationist. And that sprang from World War I, where we sent 2 or 3 million troops to France and to Europe, and had 50,000 of them killed. And what? Twenty years later, they’re at it again. The Isolationist movement was very strong. Lindbergh’s father was a great Isolationist. He just said, let Europe have its own problems; we don’t need it.
So he joined an organization called America First. Rickenbacker was in the same organization for a long time. It said, basically, it’s America first, and what that meant was that they should spend the defense money, but spend it on defense of this country so that if Germany does, in fact … which it had appeared. We’re talking 1939, 40, 41. It appeared that Germany was going to take over all of Europe from ’39 on, early ’40 on. Great Britain was the only ally there was. The rest of them had been conquered … France and all the Lowland countries, and Scandinavia … everybody was under the thumb of the Germans except for the Soviet Union.
And Lindbergh had been there a number of times; been to Germany, been to Great Britain. And was of the opinion, looking at the German Air Force, that they were far superior to anything Great Britain had. He became one of the major spokesmen for this America First, which infuriated Roosevelt, President Roosevelt. And Roosevelt had cast doubts on his loyalty because, of course, he was of German extraction. And that caused Lindbergh to renounce his Colonelcy in the Army. He said, “I can’t serve for a man who thinks I’m disloyal.” And, of course, he wasn’t disloyal.
In any case, when the war came, when we got in the war at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had a long memory, and Lindbergh had gone back and begged … I wouldn’t say begged, but he asked very politely he’d like to have his commission back. And the word came … but even where he worked … he wanted to work in aviation and wherever he worked, the Roosevelt administration had threatened to pull the government contracts from these companies.
And the only person that Roosevelt couldn’t stand up to was Henry Ford, who at that point, had the largest aircraft manufacturing operation in the world at Willow Run making war planes. And so they hired Lindbergh on as … he was essentially a test pilot, and he did things that very few pilots, with the exception of, say, Doolittle, would have done. High altitude stuff, and pushing the limits on planes.
And finally in 1943, I believe it was, he went to Henry Ford and said, “Look, I’ve done all I can do here with testing these aircraft. I need to go and test them under the conditions on which they were designed,” meaning combat conditions. And in particular, he wanted to test two airplanes they did. The Navy had a single engine fighter plane that they used off of aircraft carriers and off the islands with the Marine Corps. And the Army was using the twin engine plane, the P-40; two booms, it’s a funny-looking thing, but that’s what the Army was using quite often.
So, indeed he did. He went out and they gave him a … there was a special kind of designation they gave him where he was neither fish nor fowl. He dressed up with an officer’s uniform and he ate at the officers’ mess, and he was accorded the officers’ privileges very much like a newspaper reporter, but he was essentially a technician.
So he went to, of all places, Guadalcanal and studied planes; these were Navy planes. And he then went up-island to Bougainville and all those places. He flew with some of the … with Foss, who was the most famous Marine Corp ace in World War II, and he started flying combat missions with him, and Alan liked him.
So he was a good guy and gave him a whole lot of good tips. He was, again, the most famous aviator of his age. Mot to be outdone, he then went to New Guinea and he started flying with these guys, and they said that he flew with the best-known air group that was, I can’t remember the name of it; 434th or something like that. He walked into the pilots’ shack there, and there was a Commander who was probably in his 20s; he was a Colonel. And he said who he was. And the guy was playing checkers.
He walked in behind him, he said who he was and what he wanted. He said, “I want to fly with your group and study your aircraft.” And the guy sort of waved him off. So he waited for about four, five, six minutes, and finally the Colonel says, “Now what did you say your name was and what do you want again?” And he told him his name and he told him what he wanted, and the guy turned around. He said, “Not Charles Lindbergh. My God.” And so he became ingratiated with this group.
And he began flying these combat missions, and he showed them something that they didn’t know – how to change the mixture of the fuel that would give them an extra 600 mile range. Everybody was extremely appreciative of this, because that was part of the problem with these islands being distant. MacArthur was moving up from New Guinea toward the Philippines, and later, Japan. In order to send his bombers, his B-17 bombers, they needed escorts and the fighters just didn’t have the fuel range.
Well suddenly, Lindbergh had given them the range. And then one day, a notice comes to him to immediately report to MacArthur’s headquarters, and he figures he’s in for it because he’s not supposed to be flying with these people. He’s a technician. He’s also Lindbergh; he was anathema to Roosevelt. So he goes to MacArthur’s headquarters, and MacArthur greets him like a long lost brother. And he told him, he’s given them this enormous range, that they get 600 more miles – that’s coming and going – a 300 mile range, I guess, where they could fly there and fly back giving 600 miles of flying time, I meant to say.
But anyway, he continued to do that, and actually flew more missions, and he shot down a Jap Zero and almost got shot down himself. He flew more than was required by the Army, and he came home. So, he’d done his duty.
Brett McKay: That’s funny. He found a way to serve. So I’m curious, as you were researching and writing about these men, did you pick up any life lessons that you think men today can take from …?
Winston Groom: Well, yeah, and you do it in all the histories that I’ve written. It’s perseverance, it’s somehow the ability to put your own life on the line. You’re built to somehow conquer fear; put the fear, compartmentalize it, put it somewhere else because all these things require a certain amount of fortitude. And once you conquer that, once you get that under control, then it’s perseverance because none of these things are easy that these guys did.
I mean, you think of Doolittle putting himself in that situation where he’s got a canvas cover over his cockpit. He can’t see anything but the instrument panel. It’s looking right at him; that’s all he can see. And he’s going to take that thing up in the air that way? That required a lot of fortitude, but also it took him years … I can’t remember, not many, many years because he had a lot of help from the Bureau of Standards and other things … but they perfected these instruments. He went out to the finest watchmakers and other people who knew how to do precision instruments and make them small and precise. It was a big risk, but it was also the years that it took him to get those things just right.
And the same thing was true for Lindbergh. All these guys … there’s a very thin margin in aviation between life and death. My conversation with my friend, the fighter pilot, last night … he had just been in Afghanistan … and it’s very thin. And a lot of unknowables, like who’s going to shoot at you and when? But you know those are risks that you take. It goes with the territory.
These guys were willing to take the risk and willing to put their lives on the line, but they were also very smart guys who had great instincts for self-preservation, but also great instincts as to what it took to be an American. And I think that that is a trait that is not necessarily unique to this country, but it’s unique to a lot more people in this country than it seems to be any other place in the world. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Brett McKay: Well, Winston Groom, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
My guest today was Winston Groom. He’s the author of several books. Go to Amazon.com and search “Winston Groom.” You’re going to find all sorts of great books. He’s got a ton of them on there including history books and historical fiction. You can find more information about his work at winstongroom.com. The book we talked about today was “Aviators” and his latest historical fiction book is “El Paso.” So go check that out.
Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/aviators where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, the wraps up another edition of “The Art of Manliness” podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out “The Art of Manliness” website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one or two minutes to give us a review on iTunes, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, whatever you use to listen to podcasts, please give us a review. That helps us out a lot.
As always, thank you for continuing to support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: July 5, 2017