Table of Contents Last Chapter Next Chapter Home Page
The Lady Speaks for Herself
Washington, D. C. The Bureau of Construction and Repair, February 17, 1933.
Cynthia Harding's first action of the morning was to seek out out Mr. Howard Pardoe, the civilian accountant who was director of the bureau's budget. Tall and extremely thin, Mr. Pardoe seemed too cynical to be honest, but he somehow was. It wasn't, Cynthia thought, a matter of morals so much as an extension of cynicism. Mr. Pardoe believed that almost any activity would ultimately fail. Dishonest activities were those that failed in such a way as to send one to jail. In this connection, D. D. Ricketts had once joked to Cynthia,
"Howard is the one who keeps me out of prison. He has to approve everything inolving the budget, and he keeps telling me I can't do most of the things I want to."
Like many jokes, it was close to the truth. Ricketts, as a noble Virginian, never really understood the difference between public and private funds. Whenever this confusion worked its way to the forefront, Howard Pardoe would snap his suspenders, remove his cigar, and say,
"There you go again, D. D. Still trying to steal from the orphan fund. Better reconsider that one."
Some of the schemes for disguised vacations and the like had originated with Cynthia, and she had discovered that it was simpler to clear them with Howard before proposing them to Ricketts. Straight arrow that he was, Pardoe nevertheless seemed to assume that any admiral would want to take his mistress along on an inspection trip to New York or Boston. He would say to Cynthia,
"I'm concerned only with financial accountability. As long as you rent a hotel room and have receipts, I don't care whether you consort with D. D. in his room, or your room, or anywhere else. Even if you aide him professionally, the bureau won't pay for anything of yours. D. D. can afford to. Don't let him tell you otherwise."
This time, Cynthia was concerned with something proposed by Murphy which had nothing to do with vacations. Her first question caused Mr. Pardoe to jerk his head up sharply.
"You're certainly talking bigger money these days, Cynthia. The budget for the whole bureau. You wonder why it hasn't gone down. Why should it have?"
"We cancelled the contract for the new carrier and haven't issued any more."
"And that should save us money. Yes."
In prepration for serious business Mr. Pardoe put his cigar down and cleaned his already clean wire-rimmed spectacles on the voluminous sleeve of his immaculate white shirt. Replacing his glasses, he was ready to proceed.
"We're here talking about saving money Washington style. What happens is almost always this. A new program is cancelled in the name of economy. However, the saving is hypothetical and down the pike a piece. In the meantime, certain existing programs have to be expanded to make up for the absence of the new one. That zeroes out any saving for the current year. When the next year rolls around, there's a genuine new crisis. Or, if there isn't, a crisis is carried over from the past or borrowed from someone else. The saving is put back another year. And so on."
Cynthia grimaced and asked,
"Where are we now in all this?"
"All this is secret, but you already know all the secrets. Anyhow, you're a better security risk than D. D."
Pausing momentarily, Mr. Pardoe pulled a sour face and said,
"All right, this looks bad. We're overtly spending almost as much converting the battleship Mississippi to a carrier as we were to have spent in one year on the new carrier. That looks like business as usual in Washington. That's what we hope the Japs will think."
"Well, it does look bad. Converting a battleship was supposed to save money. You don't have to build a new hull and engines."
"Right. The secret is that we're manufacturing the components to convert other similar battleships to carriers. We won't actually do the conversions yet, so as not to alarm the Japs. But we can do it more quickly than anyone could guess when the time comes. So the money really isn't being wasted."
"Then we should still have in hand the money we would have spent the second year on the new carrier."
"That's what you want, eh? That won't be easy. For one thing, there are the new fast oilers to keep up with the new slow fleet. There may still be new warships. There are lots of places where it might be spent."
"That's what I meant. Won't there be a lot of uncommitted money in the next couple of years?"
"Let's just say that certain decisions as to its use haven't yet been made. Perhaps you can help make them. But you better hurry. The shipbuilding lobbyists are getting set to take certain selected congressmen out to lunch at this very moment."
It was an hour before Admiral Ricketts was free. Even then, Cynthia slipped into his office by the back door, taking the turn of a congressman's aide who was impatiently waiting in the outer office. She had discovered that, if she meant to do business, she had to start talking immediately, and take a seat across the desk from Ricketts. That forestalled him before he could get started on anything else.
"I got a lot of news from Murphy this morning. For one thing, he's being promoted and going to the Bureau of Aeronautics as assistant to the chief."
"I've heard. I don't know how he does it. With his background, I never thought he'd even make full commander."
"Doesn't ability count for anything at all?"
"It must be more than that. He must have something on somebody. Probably Snelling."
Admiral Ricketts produced a noxious cloud of smoke from his cigar. His gesture of equanimity suggested that he wasn't likely to attempt to uncover and expose improper practices, even in the bureau of his enemy. Cynthia replied,
"D.D., you know Murph's not a blackmailer. Besides, he always served Snelling loyally without even complaining."
"Too loyally. He must know exactly what went on there for years. They don't have anyone like Howard Pardoe at BuNav. It's not a question of blackmail. It's simply that Snelling knows what Murphy knows. If Murphy should ever wind up testifying before a congressional committee, Snelling would depend on him to forget quite a few things. So, when an opportunity for advancement came up, Snelling owed it to Murphy to get it for him."
"I wonder how the navy ever got such a clean reputation. It must be the white uniforms."
"Anyhow, I suppose that's the end of our pipeline to BuNav."
"Not at all. Murph has found a replacement, a young lieutenant. I'm to meet him shortly."
"Murphy thinks of everything. Are you going to keep seeing him after he's moved to BuAero? His chief there, Moffett, is the only bureau chief who'll still speak to me. Not much more then "hello" though."
"I imagine we'll still meet. What's Moffett like?"
Ricketts waved his cigar with a modicum of approval.
"Old line man who took up a new challenge when planes came along. Honest. Brave. Also cranky and vindictive. But, still, he's one of few who would take on a former enlisted man like that."
"Murph already has a possible arrangement with us worked out that he thinks Moffett will accept. It hinges on the fact that you'll have large discretionary sums to spend in the next few years."
Ricketts, for a moment, looked almost as he would have if she had asked him to contribute to the Seminole Orphan Fund out of his own pocket. He immediately replied,
"Don't be so quick. Remember, the original arrangement with Sheldon was that money not spent on new ships was to be turned back to the government. I thought I was going to retire, so it was all right with me. I even welcomed it as a way of making some of those bastards squirm while I got rich as a civilian."
"And we know what happened then, don't we?"
"Don't complain. I just didn't know how important it was to Elaine to be an admiral's wife. And I provided for you."
"To a degree. But go on. What's going to happen to the money for the new carriers we aren't going to build?"
The admiral's suspicions now seemed somewhat allayed, at least if one judged by the tone of his voice.
"Well, now that I'm staying, I'd like to keep it. But that won't be easy. I have to get out of my agreement. We have to prove that the money's needed for something other than new heavy ships."
"There Murphy can help you. His suggestion is that BuCon fund a joint program with BuAero on aircraft development."
"Wow. That's a big one. It raises all kinds of questions. I wouldn't want to commit myself to anything for a while. By the way, are you negotiating for me or Murphy?"
"For you, of course. But I think he has a good idea. How else can we justify keeping those millions in our budget?"
"I will say that there's a crying need for more and better naval aircraft. They're still having trouble getting together enough scout planes for the newer cruisers, much less preparing for the carrier conversions."
The admiral was reacting better than Cynthia had hoped. She thought it was safe to press her advantage.
"The logical thing would be to cut our budget and hand it over to BuAero."
Cynthia paused a second to let this register. Just as Ricketts was winding up to let loose, she quickly continued,
"This is a way of keeping the money in our budget."
Ricketts again relaxed, and even leaned back reflectively.
"I wonder if Moffett would agree to that. We already do some aeronautical research, and there's the Naval Aircraft Factory. But those are small potatoes. Does he really want another bureau to have an important role in the design and construction of aircraft?"
"I bet you Murphy can talk him into almost anything. But there's more to it than just that. I wish he could talk to you himself, but I'll explain it the best that I can."
"I'll let you talk, but remember, I may later want to deny any knowledge of this."
Cynthia ignored this disclaimer and spoke in her most business-like way.
"Murph knows how to fly himself, and he's been talking to all kinds of wartime fliers, including Rickenbacker. Everyone says that an air force runs out of pilots long before it runs out of planes. Moreover, a good pilot in a mediocre plane can shoot down a bad pilot in a good plane."
From the look in Ricketts' eyes Cynthia knew that he didn't see where she was heading. He replied,
"One thing we could do would be to expand our aeronautical design team, and branch out beyond the limited areas we've confined ourselves to. In fact, we might want to retrain a couple of the younger naval architects as aircraft designers. That's all reasonable enough, but it's not going to absorb the kind of money we're talking about."
Cynthia found that she could wait no longer before taking the main gamble.
"No, but there's one thing that could absorb as much money as we want. A large scale pilot training program."
Ricketts began shouting, and Cynthia was afraid that she had blown her opportunity.
"Cynthia, you and Murphy are both crazy. This bureau is concerned with design and construction. We have nothing to do with personnel or training pilots or dishwashers or any other goddamned thing. Snelling and the CNO would send the marines up here if they had any idea ..."
"Calm down, D. D. It works like this. Murphy says that the best pilots around are the test pilots. We put together a research station and airfield. We have to acquire and train test pilots. We get more than we need, and we train them to test land the planes on carriers. We also ..."
Ricketts was muttering, and Cynthia knew he had stopped listening. She picked up the picture of Mrs. Ricketts in its heavy frame and brought it down on his desk top hard enough to mar the surface. He stopped mumbling and looked at her apprehensively.
"Listen, D. D. We also have to have them try out combat manoevers and formations. In the process of testing the planes thoroughly, we'll turn out a hard core of top notch pilots."
As Cynthia paused for breath, she was relieved to see that she still had Ricketts' attention. She resumed before she lost it.
"Then we rotate them and keep bringing more in. Murphy says that even a hundred additional pilots of the best quality could be decisive in a battle between carrier forces."
"We'd never get away with it. Not on a scale that would make any difference."
"What do you have to lose, D. D.? The most they could do is retire you, and then there wouldn't be anything Elaine could do about it. If you lose, you'll just end up getting rich as a civilian."
When Cynthia left Ricketts' office, she was under the injunction to clear everything with Howard Pardoe. She was pretty sure that it was just Ricketts' cowardly way of having someone else put a stop to a scheme that he considered hare- brained. She forgot to exit by the back door, and was only momentarily conscious of the angry stare of the congressman's assistant.
Although Cynthia realized that everything now depended on Howard Pardoe, she hardly gave a thought to the question of how to best approach him. Indeed, when she met Lt. Commander Tom Blenkinsop in the hall, a whole other set of considerations pushed pilot training programs out of her mind. Blenkinsop was rather attractive, and was married only vaguely, perhaps temporarily. His level of alcoholism, while noticeable, wasn't bad for a naval officer. Whether oiled or not, he was rather charming, and was often flirtatious. Cynthia would certainly have called his bid and raised it, but for the complications of having an affair with one of Ricketts' subordinates. As it was, she had tried to act the type of southern lady who is just out of reach, and would at least pretend to be shocked by any overt approach.
Of course, if Blenkinsop knew about her relation to Ricketts, as he might, this posture might be variously interpreted. Still, whether the respect he took such pains to show was serious or mocking, Cynthia enjoyed it and dallied a few minutes. As she was about to wind things up with Blenkinsop, she caught sight of Pardoe, en route from the men's room to his office. Quickly waving good-bye to her admirer, she followed Pardoe into his office and asked casually,
"Howard, are you willing to participate in a criminal fraud for the good of the country?"
As Cynthia had expected, he didn't look terribly surprised.
"In government that's sometimes necessary. But I want to make sure that it's you, and not me, who gets blamed if it goes bad."
After Cynthia had explained the plan to Pardoe, he sat for a moment without saying anything. He then pushed up his glasses, rubbed one eye, and remarked,
"As you've explained your plan, it would involve the misappropriation of public funds. However, it may be possible to conceive it in some other way."
"It really is true that we're doing very little to produce the pilots and planes we'll need against Japan."
"Yes. I recognize that. It's mostly the fault of an honorable fool, Admiral Moffett. In all justice, his budget at BuAero ought to increase every year to reflect the growing importance of aircraft. In bad times, such as these, the other bureaus ought to have their budgets cut to make that possible. Unfortunately, an absurd thing happened last year. The Secretary sent out the usual letter asking each bureau to economize. Everyone but Moffett ignored it. The only bureau with a legitimate claim actually gave money back. Then, of course, as Moffett should have known, his budget for the following year was cut back in proportion."
The consideration of Admiral Moffett's action seemed to cause Mr. Pardoe physical pain. It looked for a moment as if he might switch to a more pleasant subject of conversation. But he made a visible effort to pull himself together. Before he could say anything else, Cynthia intervened.
"It seems that Moffett likes to strike poses. In doing so, he's leaving his own work undone. The system makes it hard for anyone else to do it for him."
"I can only say this, Cynthia. If we try to train pilots directly, we'll get caught almost immediately. Make your experimental station entirely civilian. You'll have to find someone to set up a company for that purpose. They must actually test aircraft and sign contracts. You, not D. D. but you, can quietly intimate to them what else you want them to do."
"Why not someone higher than me? I'm hardly more than a secretary."
"You're capable of getting messages across. And you can easily be disowned. The phrase is, I believe, 'The lady speaks for herself.'"
"I see. Someone is going to have to gaurantee this lady a living if she gets disowned right out of her job."
"It would be foolish for you to proceed without such an assurance. I can't think of anyone apart from D. D. who could give it."
"Hasn't it also occurred to you that I don't know anything about pilot training? How could I pick the right people to conduct it, and then keep them up to scratch?"
"You'd have help, of course. And you could learn. And you could use your wits. We accountants are always monitoring processes we don't half understand. There are lots of little signs of competence and incompetence. A good judge of people can pick them up."
It seemed to Cynthia that Howard was enjoying himself. She asked him why.
"I think you can do a better job than Moffett would have, even if he hadn't thrown away the money. He's too rigid and too much of a boy scout. The future aces aren't young gentlemen now at Annapolis. They're tough kids who hang around garages, hop freight trains, and get into fights. You'll appreciate that fact in a way in which Moffett never could have."
In the next week Cynthia found herself shuttling back and forth between Murphy, Pardoe, and Ricketts. To her surprise, she discovered that even Pardoe and Ricketts didn't want to discuss the proposed plan with one another. While she had gradually overcome Ricketts' resistance, he was still embarrassed about the whole issue. He didn't wish to take it to Pardoe, whom he regarded as the conscience of the bureau. He would rather, as he admitted openly to Cynthia, have her work out the details with both Murphy and Pardoe.
Another man in Ricketts' place might have acted thus out of sagacity, so that he could later deny everything. As nearly as Cynthia could make out, Ricketts hardly thought about such things. He simply had a little boy's reluctance to discuss any subject which made him uncomfortable. Pardoe, on one occasion, even made a joke to that effect. He also made it clear that, as long as nothing was done which he thought would invite prosecution, he was happy to let Ricketts proceed in whatever degree of oblivion he chose to maintain. As he put it to Cynthia,
"Given that we're doing something edgy, I don't feel the necessity of myself making D. D. approve every move. If you tell me that you're informing him of the main events, I'll accept that."
As he spoke thus, Pardoe looked as if he had just decided to bet his total assets on a horse. It wasn't, Cynthia realized, absolutely contrary to his nature to gamble. His pessimism prevented him from taking any very positive view of the outcome, but his cynicism allowed him to discount the value of anything that might be lost.
There was also, it turned out, a chink in the pessimism itself. Mr. Pardoe believed that, if any project ever did fully succeed, it would be one that was conducted so as to violate as many regulations as possible.
During their third conspiratorial meeting of the week at the Gallery, Murphy described to Cynthia his last conversation with Moffett.
"I think he realizes that he's done something very foolish. When he turned back money to the Secretary, he seems to have assumed that the other bureau chiefs would do the same. Then, when he found out he was the only one, he felt stupid. He doesn't admit any of this directly, but he's extremely bitter about civilians. I suppose he really means Secretary Adams."
"Perhaps he got you because he thinks your predecessor should have kept him from doing it."
"Possibly. A bit late now, of course. But he's made it clear that he wants me to be the administrator. He loves those dirigibles of his, and he likes to go up in them personally to prove what they can do."
"That's not the proper role for a bureau chief is it?"
"Of course not. Instead of trying to make up for the combat experience he hasn't had, he ought to sit at his desk and make plans. However, I think I'm moving into a vacuum, and that no one at BuAero will be likely to object to anything I want to do."
Afterwards, Cynthia and Murphy walked across to the Occidental for lunch. It was the sort of restaurant that neither she nor a naval commander living on his salary could afford. However, he had decided that they already had something to celebrate.
After they were seated among the congressmen and ever- present lobbyists, they inevitably continued to talk about their plans. Cynthia began,
"This is practically the first chance I've had to catch my breath in a week. I find it absolutely amazing how much I'm allowed to be involved in all this. Some day people are going to wake up and remember that I'm just one rating up from a secretary."
"It's not so amazing, Cynthia. Everyone else is afraid of taking responsibility. They all know that you're competent and honest, so there you are."
"But I'm not competent in this area. I haven't the faintest idea how to train pilots."
"None of us have, really. It sounds to me as if Pardoe's ideas are as good as any. Pick up tough kids who're living off the land. Even if they're running from the police. They'll have nothing to lose and they'll be thankful for a square meal and a bed. We don't dare advertize, but these are the kinds of kids we can find without advertizing."
"You aren't proposing to pick them up by the roadside, are you?
"If I have to, but I don't think it'll come to that. The country is full of barn-storming flyers who race, do stunts at county fairs, and dust crops. Most of them might be a little old for the next war, but we can pick up the younger ones. Particularly the fifteen year olds that follow the aces around, hero worship them, and are just itching to get hold of a hot plane."
"Isn't that pretty young?"
"That's the time to learn, and we won't have to worry about military minimum ages. Then, when war comes, they'll be just about the right age. That's where you come in. You can do some of the crucial recruiting."
Cynthia wasn't sure whether to be shocked or laugh.
"Surely you don't want me to go around inspiring puppy love, and then use it to lure adolescents into our program?"
"Not quite, my girl. But there'll be times when it's necessary to recruit some of the heroes these kids follow. They'll be winning a certain amount of money in races, and may not want to be carted off to whatever obscure location we choose for our base. You could help a bit there."
"I can just imagine the type. Covered with grease and unlikely to take baths. They probably sleep under the wings of their planes, and kill rodents and alley cats for breakfast."
"That may be. But they may also be the best flyers in the world."
Cynthia was suddenly overcome with a fit of giggling which brought on hiccoughs. Murphy started laughing as well, which only made her hiccoughs worse. Already something of a spectacle, Murphy had her drink across a glass of water held below table level. It worked. As relief came, Cynthia found herself blushing furiously, but enjoying herself. She finally managed to control her laughter sufficiently to blurt out,
"I knew all this power and influence would have a catch to it somewhere."
After both had collected themselves, Murphy continued,
"As a matter of fact, I have a different and more immediate mission for you. Much more respectable except in the eyes of most of the admirals we know."
"I'm afraid to ask."
"You needn't be. Who do you think knows more about airpower than anyone else in the world?"
There could have been only one answer to that question: General William Mitchell, late of the Army Air Corps. As commander of the American air forces in France during the war, he had started almost from scratch, without even any adequate aircraft. He was also up against an air force that had years of combat experience. It wasn't long before Mitchell had his force fully competitive. Indeed, by the end of the war, the American air force was gaining strength as the others were being drained of it.
The really striking thing, noticed only by relatively few, was the way Mitchell used his air power. The other forces parcelled their squadrons out along the long front line, flew patrols, and engaged in extensive dogfights with each other. They occasionally came down to strafe the enemy infantry, but had no great effect on war in the trenches. Mitchell, on the other hand, succeeded in concentrating his force and using it deep in the rear of the enemy line. On one occasion, late in the war, he attacked a German division which was attempting to reinforce the line, and pinned it down so thoroughly that it didn't arrive until the battle was over. This was the first time that an air force had been used in such a way as to decisively influence a battle on the ground.
Returning to America, Mitchell claimed that air power could have a similar effect on naval warfare. Aircraft could sink warships, even battleships. After much argument, he was given a chance to practice bomb some captured German ships. The culmination of this exercise came when the battleship Ostfriesland was sent to the bottom with bombs dropped from aircraft.
Quite apart from Mitchell's controversial and extreme claims about air power, his style often separated him disastrously from those he sought to convince. Handsome and dashing though he was, he didn't look terribly honest. There was something of the adventurer about him. Thus, when Mitchell met with other high-ranking officers, there was sometimes an odd contrast between an honest man who looked a little shady and dishonest men who appeared to be the very souls of rectitude.
As far as naval affairs went, Mitchell claimed that the battleship was dead. Even carriers, he thought, would be decisive for only a few years. As the range of aircraft increased, they would eventually become redundant, and the only important naval weapon would be the submarine. Despite these views, he had some strong supporters and friends among serving naval officers, including Rear-Admiral Moffett, the first chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.
Mitchell's troubles intensified as he continued to write for newspapers and magazines all over the country, and, indeed, the world. A fluent and persuasive writer, he pictured most generals and admirals as hopelessly incompetent iconoclasts. The politicians who supported them were, of course, in the pay of the large companies. Mitchell's proposal for an independent air force was, in large measure, an attempt to sweep away the deadwood of the army and navy high commands. They would then be replaced with competent and honest officers. He had never made much of a secret of the fact that he considered himself to be the ideal chief of the new air force.
There was a good deal of exhibitionism in Mitchell, and a certain amount of exaggeration. The latter turned out not to be so very great in the end, but it must have seemed almost insane to his fellow officers. Among those mortally offended was Mitchell's friend, Moffett. The latter was put in a position in which he had either to renounce his ideas about air power or join Mitchell in his accusations of virtually the whole of the officer class. Moffett was not a man who liked to level wholesale charges, even if ninety per cent of those charged were guilty. Whatever understanding the two men might have had on that score, Moffett felt betrayed. Indeed, he was to become Mitchell's most bitter enemy.
In 1925 Mitchell claimed in print that the situation was so bad, and America so vulnerable, that those responsible were guilty of behavior which was "almost treasonous." That did it.
President Calvin Coolidge, a profoundly stupid man who resented anyone who talked too much, helped arrange Mitchell's court martial. The only issue considered was insubordination, not the correctness of Mitchell's charges. He was found guilty and retired.
All of this was common knowledge to both Cynthia and Murphy. Moreover, Mitchell, though ill, had continued writing, and had continued to testify in Congress. He still made the headlines frequently, and Cynthia knew immediately who Murphy had in mind. She said,
"I suppose the best thing would be simply to have Billy Mitchell train and equip a civilian air force that could be called on in time of war. It would be able to beat anything Moffett could produce hands down. But I know we couldn't get away with that."
"No. And remember, I'll be working for Moffett in a few weeks. I not only can't go near Mitchell, I can't allow my name to be associated with that of anyone who is thought to have anything to do with him. However, there's nothing to prevent your going down to his home in Virginia and talking with him. You can give him my regards. I've known Billy ever since the war, and I think we can depend on him to keep our secrets."
"I'd be happy to talk with him. But I can't just call up and say that I'm Cynthia Harding, and that I'd like to discuss airpower."
"You just about could. He's very easy to approach. I met him in 1918 when I wanted to switch to the army flying service. He was very helpful, and would have brought it off if the war had lasted a little longer. I've seen him secretly since he's been retired, but I can't go back just now. Just tell him I sent you instead. He'll understand."
Washington D. C., The Freer Gallery, February 23, 1933
"Hi Cynthia. How did it go?"
"Well, it was rather strange. I think he's gone a little crazy. Just at times, though. There are lots of times when you can see what he must have been like when so many people admired him so much."
"He isn't the sort of person who can operate on his own, even if he gets publicity. He needs to be at the hub of things. When he is, he's much less authoritarian than most generals and admirals. If he once trusts you, he'll listen even when you disagree with him."
"He has a couple of obsessions, but he seemed interested in what we're doing, and he remembers you warmly. He said that your being in charge is the next best thing to being in command himself. Before I could explain why we can't openly associate with him, which would have been embarrassing, he explained it all himself. Then he said his health wouldn't be up to active service in any case."
"It's criminal what they've done to him."
"Anyway, it hasn't dimmed his mind. I've got ten pages of notes on what he said about pilot training. Before I give them to you, I'll go over some of the high spots. He agreed that the whole thing should be civilian, and that we should choose young kids who have as little connection as possible with the respectable world. He also said that we should look for boxers. That they have the quickest reflexes. Young club fighters, he called them. Who are they?"
"There are boxing clubs all over the country that sponsor Saturday night fights. It's rather like bush league baseball. Many of the fighters are very young, and they're often exploited by people who like to watch them tear each other to pieces. It's a good idea to recruit them. They'll be quick and aggressive, and, however we treat them, they'll be better off than they are now."
"Yes. He said we should put all these tough kids in together in a free-for-all situation. The natural leaders will emerge. All we need then, he said, is the world's toughest meanest old fighter pilot to regulate the flying and to keep a lid on the whole situation."
"Perhaps. I have no idea who we could get."
"He also said that we'd better locate our operation in a foreign country, probably in the Caribbean. We can claim that it's for weather reasons, but the real reason will be to keep our little anarchy out of sight."
"Having gone this far, I suppose that's just ordinary prudence."
"It's the next part where I think his craziness might be coming out. This was after we had had tea with his wife. She then left, and he settled back in a kind of relaxed reflective mood. I thought he was just going to talk about the war nostalgically, and he did start that way. He said that the inexperienced fighter pilot is at a great disadvantage. Many get killed right off. The veterans eventually get killed too, but, in any given battle, their chance of being shot down is much less."
At this point, Cynthia got the pages of her notes mixed up. She finally found the right page.
"No amount of the ordinary kind of training really prepares a pilot for combat. The first time he's being shot at, it all goes right out the window. A whole new set of reactions takes over. Whether it's fear, anger, or the lust to kill that motivates him, these new feelings have to be worked into a set of tactics that take account of the capabilities of the airplane, and of the enemy."
"Is there anything wrong in that?"
Cynthia shook her head and continued.
"He said that the first air force which has pilots fire live ammunition at each other in training will wipe the others out in the opening battles. We can't do that, Murph."
"Jesus. How did you react to that?"
"I think I acted appalled. He went into a justification. He said a machine gun can be altered so that it just fires single shots instead of streams of bullets. The chance of killing the other pilot or setting his plane on fire is then slight, and everyone has parachutes. You stage aerial combats that last a minute or so, and the winner is the one who holes the other plane. He thinks this will give the feeling of combat, and only very occasionally will someone be killed. He claimed that, if we're extra careful about other things, fewer pilots will be killed than in an ordinary training program. We can also claim to be testing planes. Testing them under combat conditions."
"I suppose you don't go to Billy Mitchell unless you want dangerous ideas."
Cynthia kept her hands in her lap and spoke quietly in a voice which was only vaguely southern.
"Obviously I haven't breathed a word of this to anyone else, but I've been thinking about it a good deal, as you can imagine. It seems to me that it's the essence of his idea that pilots really have to be killed. Suppose we had them shooting at each other in such a way that no one is ever killed. The pilots would begin to ignore the danger, and it wouldn't be combat training any more. Then you and I would have to alter the rules in order to make sure that someone does get killed. Having done it, we'd then have to be pleased. We could say to each other, "That boy got killed today. I guess we've got the rules about right." How could we possibly do that?"
Murphy remained silent for a moment, and then replied,
"You've put your finger on the problem that commanding officers face in wartime. They have to send men out to be killed. If a ship or infantry patrol comes back without making contact with the enemy, they have to send it out farther the next time. In practice, that means sending it somewhere where men will be killed."
"You've done that?"
"No. I was only a petty officer in a destroyer's engine room. But that's why things are so different for Billy. He flew combat missions himself, but, for the most part, he had to send other people out to be killed."
"He thinks that, if we operate under quasi-wartime conditions in peacetime, we'll win the war when it comes. He may be right, but what if there's no war? Then we'll have killed boys needlessly."
Ever since she had talked with General Mitchell the day previously, Cynthia had been obsessed with a feeling of inevitability. No matter how much one tried to disagree, there was something about the general's personality that forced on one the conclusion that, for better or worse, his ideas would eventually prevail. Now, in talking with Murphy, it was unnerving to see how much force those ideas had, despite their being expressed by someone who was horrified by some of them. There was a brief silence which Murphy broke suddenly,
"I'm willing to assume that there'll be a war. You won't have to make some of those difficult decisions. I will. Of course, you'll have to be aware of their necessity."
Cynthia said nothing, and Murphy continued,
"I know how bothered you are by this, but it's partly because you don't know what fighter pilots are like. They're all in love with danger, and they delight in playing dangerous games. For example, they fly right at each other to see who's the first one to flinch and turn away. When one pilot is supposed to follow another, the leader often dives toward the ground, pulling out at the last moment. He tries to time it in such a way that the other will crash in his attempt to follow. When I was training, one of the pilots dove on to a freight train, touched his wheels on the top of a box car, and bounced up again."
"I think you're telling me that these pilots are all trying to kill themselves anyway. But I still don't think we should help them do it."
"In standard training programs they tolerate close-in aerobatics and follow-the-leader games because they're closely related to combat. If you can stay on another guy's tail, you may be able to shoot him down. But that doesn't satisfy the pilots. They also have to fly under bridges, and they do it no matter how hard their instructors try to prevent it. If we let them shoot at each other, then they won't have to do some of the stupid things they do now. We'll be substituting a risk that may later save their lives in combat for others that have no useful function."
"Are you sure we can't be legally prosecuted or sued for this?"
"We take a number of precautions. In a country like Mexico or Haiti no one will care. We'll also be recruiting the sort of people who've lost track of their relatives, and who distrust the police and lawyers. Lastly, nothing gets put into writing. We, and our bureaus, can disclaim any knowledge of dangerous training practices."
Cynthia, feeling overwhelmed by the inevitable, replied only,
"I guess the next thing is to find the right man to run our program."
Table of Contents Last
Chapter Next Chapter Home