The First One: General Benjamin Delahauf Foulois

In the historied life of the United States Air Force there’s had been a few officers who had stood up. A few, whom their contribution had shaken the very foundation of the service they represent. Much of them are relative household figures. Names such as Hap Arnold or LeMay are widely known in circles outside the military establishment. But for every Arnold or LeMay, there’s a Foulois. A brilliant and innovating pioneer, what Foulois lack in name recognition, he had in the admiration of the service he dedicated his life to improve.

Benjamin Delahauf Foulois was born on a small Connecticut town on the 9th of December 1879. He attended public school until he began his “pluming” career along with his father. He quickly realized that pluming was not in his future an in 1898, young Foulois enlisted in the First US Volunteer Engineers. He went on to serve in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American conflict. He took himself out of the volunteer corps and reenlisted on the regular Army the following year. Later on 1899, he saw combat action on the Philippines where he was assigned to mapping the island of Mindanao. After the Philippines, Foulois went on to attend the prestigious Army’s Infantry/Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In the mid 1900s he participated in operations with the Army of Cuban Pacification. After his service there, he enrolled at the Signal School. It was at the school that he first felt in love with the idea of flying. He commenced to study technics and technical data relating to this new and exiting field. Following his stay there, young Foulois was assigned to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer in Washington, DC.

By the mid 1909, the now second lieutenant, piloted the Army’s first operational ready dirigible. He was also one of the first officers to be introduced to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Flyer. In fact, he was Orville’s passenger during the Flyer’s last test flight at Fort Myer flying at nearly forty miles per hour. He had the distinction of being the only US Army pilot active between 1909 trough 1911. In 1910, he took the Army’s only available airplane, Signal Aeroplane No I, to San Francisco where he taught himself to fly, mostly by crashing. He corresponded frequently with the by now famous Brothers stating his flying experiences and suggestions. By 1914, Foulois, now a captain, took overall command of the Army’s first fully operational flying squadron, the First Aero Squadron based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The new squadron was equipped with the newest Curtiss plane, the JN2 biplane. They first saw action during General John J. Perishing’s Mexican Punitive Expedition in March 1916. Although the overall perception of the aerial component of the Expedition, was that of a failure, Foulois and his team did gained value experience, specialty on the logistic aspect of aviation.

The next conflict America would enter, the Great War, found the now major Foulois in command of the Joint Army and navy Technical Committee. It was in this post that the young major first learned how to craft and manage a military procurement budget. The office he headed dealt with the development of the aircraft as a military weapons platform on a large scale. There, Foulois prepared a detailed $ 640 million budget, an massive figure at the time; which eventually passed both houses of congress. A major achievement and one that would give him much satisfaction during the rest of his life. During the dreadful years of the War to end All Wars, Foulois was temporarily promoted to Brigadier General and proceeded to serve in several aviation post across Europe. He first was named Chief of Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces, later on he was reassigned to Assistant Chief of the Air Service, Service Supply Division where he put in play the input gather during the Mexican Expedition. He even helped craft some of the air aspects of the Treaty of Versailles.

After his war tour, Foulois returned to Fort Leavenworth with the now permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was briefly assigned base commander of the Mitchel Field in New York. In 1927, Foulois was promoted once again, this time to brigadier general and appointed Assistant Chief of the Air Corps. It was there that the enigmatic Foulois would make an enduring mark. During the May 1931 Air Coast Defense Exercises, Foulois employed all of the Air Corps’ airborne assets in a series of logistic and tactical trials that provided the ground work for the Army Air Corps’ World War II strategy. The success of the exercises earned him another star for his uniform and the promotion to the coveted Chief of the Air Corps post. He once again, had the distinction of being a trailblazer because he was the first Chief who was actually a combat aviator. While acting as Chief, Foulois re-organized the curriculum of the Air Corps’ Tactical School as well laying the groundwork for the eventual establishment of an independent office dedicated to tactical and strategic thinking. The office would be later known as the General Headquarters Air Force. He also drove the Air Corps to expend more time and effort in the development and eventual deployment of advance air platforms. The XB-15 and B-17 programs were a direct result of this effort.

As his star was rising, an incident occurred that dampened Foulois’ reputation for years. In the winter of 1933-34, contract difficulties caused the nation’s air mail delivery service to be suspended. Immediately, Foulois offered the government his Air Corps. As the spring moved in, the Army Air Corps began to assume regular mail delivery duties, but the Corps, not trained for this sort of profile, began to crumble under the stress of the operation. Regular casualties began to mount. During the spring’s months, 66 air crashed occurred, mostly due to poor weather patterns, insufficient mission training and the introduction of nigh flying, killing twelve men and injuring fifty more. As the Corps began to adjust to the realities of in-country flying, the crashes and for that matter, casualties commenced to drop. By the summer, the Corps mail operations ran almost without incidents. Nevertheless, the whole affair became a public humiliation for the Corps and its leader. The incident, which would be known as the Mail Fiasco tarnished the Air Corps leadership image with the public for a generation.

Exhausted, Foulois finally retire from the Army Air Force on January 1st 1936, following thirty seven years of frontline service. In 1956 he became the president of the Air Force Historical Foundation. A post he would serve until 1965. Two years later, on April 25th 1967, Benjamin Foulois passed away. The passing of this great visionary and pioneer was remembered by the Air Force in a quiet ceremony. Today, Foulois’ vision remains the core of the US Air Force’s main logistic strategy. A tribute by itself to the vision Foulois inserted into the Air Corps in the early 1930s.@

– Raul Colon

More Information:
wikipedia: Bernard Adolph Schriever
Astronautics Now
General Bernard A. Schriever
The Space Review
Air Force Link
Arlington National Cemetery Website

One thought on “The First One: General Benjamin Delahauf Foulois

  1. My husband was an AF officer stationed at Andrews AFB MD during Gen. Foulois last years. He lived on base at Andrews and would frequently attend parties at the Officer’s Club. Many of us, young officers and their wives would literally sit at the feet of Gen. Foulois as he would tell of his early flying years. He told us of his many crashes, some here at Ft.Sam Houston on the grassy strip that is now the parade field. He would write a letter to The Wright Bros. and explain what happened and they would write him back recommending him of a repair or procedure to try next. We were honored to have been there to hear his amazing memories of the early years of Military Flight.

Leave a Comment