Friday, June 2, 2017

Ninety Years Ago: Lucky Lindy's Forgotten Navy Flight and the Lost American Legion

Before being put on temporary display at Potomac Park in Washington DC, a Sailor touches up the lettering on the Spirit of St. Louis while another inspects the other side of the aircraft on June 12, 1927, the day after it was uncrated from USS Memphis (CL 13) at Washington Navy Yard. The object protruding from the upper left corner of a window on the aircraft's port side is the periscope that pilot Charles Lindbergh used to see ahead of him while flying. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)  
Seated in a wicker chair behind a giant fuel tank and looking at the world before him through a periscope mounted on the port side of his plane's fuselage, 25 year-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh took off alone from Long Island at 7:52 am on May 20, 1927, bound for Paris. Traveling at 108 miles per hour for 33 hours and 39 minutes, sometimes through impenetrable fog or just above Atlantic wave tops he could not see, Lindbergh flew without a radio and with only two compasses to guide him.  The following evening at 10:22 pm, he landed an airfield northeast of Paris, 3,610 miles away.
Charles A. Lindbergh, pictured at NAS San Diego (now known as NAS North Island) before taking off for St. Louis on May 10, 1927, on the first leg of what would become his history-making transatlantic trip.  "Lindbergh would come back to the West a hero," wrote Naval Air Rework Facility North Island historian Elretta Sudsbury, "but in the early days of May, 1927, he was just another hopeful."  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)   
Although Lindbergh was a captain in the Army Air Service Reserve Corps and the Missouri National Guard before his solo flight, he had been a civilian airmail pilot for the Robertson Aircraft Company in St. Louis.  Besides earning worldwide fame, he also nabbed the Raymond Orteig Prize, a $25,000 award (about $365,000 today) for the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, not to mention the first Distinguished Flying Cross ever awarded, plus a promotion to colonel in the Army Reserve from President Calvin Coolidge himself. 

The eight St. Louis businessmen who underwrote Lindbergh's quest gave his specially modified Ryan M-2 its name, yet his journey across the Atlantic had actually begun at Naval Air Station San Diego (now known as NAS North Island) on May 9, not far from where the aircraft had been constructed by Ryan Airlines.  There were many other Navy connections to Lindbergh's journey, not the least of which is that he and the Spirit of St. Louis returned to America aboard the Omaha-class light cruiser USS Memphis (CL 13), which left Southampton, England, on June 3.  
Crates containing the Spirit of St. Louis are loaded aboard the light cruiser USS Memphis (CL 13) at Southampton, England, aboard which they and pilot Charles A. Lindbergh will depart on June 3, 1927 for Washington Navy Yard. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Although commemorations of his feat center around his daring solo flight across the Atlantic and his exultant welcome in Paris, lesser remembered is the central role the U.S. Navy played in bringing the American hero home to his first stateside welcome.  Although professional press photographers captured his departure from Europe and his heroes' welcome at the Washington Navy Yard on June 11, it took the camera of a member of the Memphis crew, machinist's mate Irvin Blair Clarke, to capture these never-before-published images of Lindbergh coming aboard and mingling with the crew.  
Charles Lindbergh is piped aboard the Omaha-class light cruiser Memphis (CL 13) before his journey back to America in June, 1927. (Clarke Photograph Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
Charles Lindbergh (center right) poses with crew members of USS Memphis while the aviator and his history-making aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, were returning to America aboard the cruiser in June, 1927. (Clarke Photograph Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
Charles Lindbergh meets a group of Sailors aboard USS Memphis (CL 13) shortly after boarding with his aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, which is in a crate just behind the Sailors. The starboard wing float of one of the cruiser's two Vought UO-1 aircraft can be seen just above the group.  Lindbergh would take a flight aboard one of the seaplanes during the voyage he took back to America.  (Clarke Photograph Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
"There was nothing like the deluge of news which has followed Lindbergh at every step and flooded the country," wrote a commentator in New York World in an article published the day he returned. The thirst for news about anything that he did seemed insatiable, and that included his transit aboard Memphis.

The World's correspondent continued:
Lindbergh eats dinner with the crew--Lindbergh climbs to the crow's nest--Lindbergh is trapped on the bow of the Memphis and a wave breaks over him. A conquering hero is returning home.  The news keeps pace with him at every step.  And it is apparent that the welcome which lies just ahead will outdo anything by way of welcomes that this country has seen for many years.  in fact, it is doubtful whether we have ever had anything just like this before.
And, of course, what else would you expect the world's most famous pilot do on his voyage other than fly? 

Charles Lindbergh, seated forward on one of two Vought UO-1 planes aboard USS Memphis, prepares to be catapulted into the air during his return trip to the United States from Europe in June 1927. (Clarke Photograph Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
Charles Lindbergh is catapulted into the air in a Vought UO-1 from the light cruiser USS Memphis (CL-13) during his return trip to the United States from Europe in June 1927. (Clarke Photograph Collection, Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
After Lindbergh's triumphant return to America at the Washington Navy Yard, where an estimated 300,000 had converged upon the city to see him, the Spirit of St. Louis was unpacked and reassembled by local Sailors and put on temporary display upon a barge on the Potomac River (to deter the types of souvenir-taking that threatened to disintegrate the plane in Paris).  It is estimated that one-third of the nation saw him during the nationwide tour that commenced afterward.

And he lived happily ever after (sort of).
Surrounded by adoring throngs, Charles Lindbergh (highlighted) departs the pier at Washington Navy Yard in a limousine bound for Potomac Park after returning from Europe on Saturday, June 11, 1927, leaving behind the light cruiser USS Memphis, which had brought him and his aircraft, the Sprit of St. Louis, back across the Atlantic. (Harris & Ewing Photographers/ Naval History and Heritage Command image) 
If not for the fact that Charles Lindbergh was a man with a long and complicated public and private life, perhaps he would have simply lived happily ever after.  The ups and downs of his later life are well-documented, yet it should never be forgotten that, amongst Lindbergh's many competitors that spring in 1927, two young naval aviators were also striving for the Orteig Prize.  Not long before Lindbergh's attempt ended in triumph at Le Bourget Field, theirs ended in tragedy at Langley Field near Hampton Roads, before it even really began.

The Lost American Legion

Source: Langley Field: The Early Years (Langley AFB, Office of History, 4500th Base Wing, 1977), 78. 
On April 26, 1927, Lieutenants Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster were killed during a test flight of their Keystone Pathfinder, which stalled and crashed in the Back River, which borders the airfield now known as Langley Air Force Base.  Although the aircraft was not completely destroyed, both pilots were trapped in the cockpit when their American Legion nosed into the river, and they drowned. They became two of six men who died either preparing to cross the Atlantic or while making the attempt.

We will never know how history might have been different had they lived, and possibly claimed the prize and the world's adulation for themselves.  In any case, once it was proven that a single aircraft could cross the Atlantic nonstop, the aviation industry received a tremendous boost in public profile, not to mention investor confidence, and the world would never be the same.

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