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

The Forgotten Visionary

When we think about strategic bombing doctrine, and its early proponents and converts within the United States armed forces, we naturally thought of men of such status as the famous and controversial William “Billy” Mitchell or the colorful Benjamin “Benny” Foulois – seldom, if ever, does the name of Edgar S. Gorrell come to our mind. A sad example of what writers called “phantom lagoons”. In those early days of aviation, when writers tended to enlarge the personal profiles of anyone who could achieve a milestone in this new field of human endeavor, some names gathered more recognitions than others. This type of reporting or writing only enhanced the profile of those controversial and colorful characters, leaving other equally important names in the history of aviation in a historical lagoon. One of those men stuck in the phantom lagoon was Colonel Edgar S. Gorrell of the US Air Service.

Gorrell began his military service after graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point in the spring of 1912. After a relatively un-distinguished Army career, Gorrell decided to enlist in the infant Air Service when the US declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917. Two months later, Gorrell was deployed to France as part of the spearhead of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). His unit, the Bolling Mission, arrived at the French capital in July of the same year, well ahead of the AEF main force. In France, young Gorrell was assigned to the new US Air Service Technical Section. The Section’s main objective was the development of an attack and bombing strategy to be implemented against German targets deep inside the Kaiser’s homeland. Here is where the first steps towards the US air strategic doctrine, a policy that has dominated America’s air campaign strategy since then, began to take shape. Heavily influenced by the great British’s strategic visionary Major General Hugh M. Trenchard, who was at the time head of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and his liaison at Paris, Major Lord Tiverton, who in September 1917 had proposed to the RFC that a new and more destructive type of aerial assault be implemented in order to submit ordinary Germans to the full power of the Allies new weapons; Gorrell began to form the outlines of what could have become the main US strategic bombing campaign plan on the Western Front. By October, Gorrell’s outlines had become a more serious technical proposal than he originally thought, one that he presented to the AEF commanders in mid November 1917. The proposal called for a massive bombing campaign against German troop concentrations, dockyards, industrial areas and major population centers deep inside Germany itself. The new American plan, as the paper was later known, utilized all of Tiverton’s four main concepts first presented to the RFC in September. The first of these concepts was the determination of bombing targets, distances, enemy offensive and defensive capabilities around them, projected casualties figures and weather patterns around the selected zone. Next was the evaluation of America’s, and its Allies, overall air resources and capabilities assigned to the determined objective. This was followed by logistical studies and planning implementation mechanisms. Last, Gorrell encouraged commanders to plan their assaults on areas where the impact of saturation heavy bombing would cause the greatest effect to German civilian moral, which was the plan’s original combat target.

The similarities between Tiverton’s and Gorrell’s papers were one of the reasons that the name of Gorrell is seldom known outside military aviation historians today. As the American Plan moved up through the chain of command, it gained more and more converts among field commanders, and although the Plan was not implemented because of aircraft production shortages and training shortfalls, it was of such depth that it went on to serve as the cornerstone of the US Army Air Corp’s bombing doctrine during the Second World War. In the early months of 1918, before the great German offensives of the spring, Gorrell wrote a second paper titled “The Future Role of American Bombardment Aviation”. This paper followed almost the same path as the American plan. It called for the same four principals when preparing to engage an enemy with aerial power. But by the time the paper was ready for serious consideration, an Armistice was signed in a railway car outside Versailles ending the War to End all Wars, and thus the paper was relegated to some obscure long term planning divisions. De-mobilization was at top of the American commanders minds, but this did not mean that the two papers were neglected or even ignored, in fact, the opposite occurred. During the inter-war years, much of Gorrell’s visionary ideas were implemented in the Army Air Corps Tactical Manual, forming the backbone of the US air effort little more than twenty years later.

Edgar Gorrell’s natural traits helped him shape American military aviation tactics for decades. His selflessness enabled him to incorporate foreign-developed concepts into his own ideas and his analytical mind made him redefine those concepts and apply them to the American reality, thus forming a new thesis on the use of American air power. A thesis that would dominate US Air Force’s strategic doctrine ever since those months in 1917.

– Raul Colon

1 U.S. Air Force: A Complete History, Air Force Historical Foundation 2006
2 Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004