The night race kicked off “Roosevelt Field’s “National Air Pageant.” The event, chaired by First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated aviation and also raised funds for Mrs Roosevelt’s special charities. In addition, the Darkness Derby, competition, promoted “Night Flight” a new Metro Goldwyn Mayer film. The movie premiered at the Capitol Theater the following evening, and leading lady, Helen Hayes emceed the opening. And it was on the Capitol stage that Chum received his trophy from the actress.
This 1933 Transcontinental Air Race/Darkness Derby/Air Pageant/Film Premier, combined to make the moment a heady one for 24-year-old Mont “Chum” Chumbley. Armed with new friends and clients, and other air enthusiasts from the City, a promising future in flight lay before him.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.
Cloud cover continued to dog the exhausted flyer. Though dawn light saturated the sky, visibility hadn’t improved.
Whirring through the gauzy gray, he weighed his options. If the weather didn’t improve, he would navigate out over open ocean and look for a break in the misty gloom. This contingency plan set, Chum streamed eastward, nervously checking and rechecking his wristwatch.
From the corner of his eye, he spied a shifting break in the cover, and Chum didn’t hesitate. He pushed the yoke and slipped through the sudden gap.
A panorama of chalk-gray spindles greeted him. Automobiles the size of insects, inched along among the spires.The Waco soared above the Manhattan skyline.
Exhilarated and exhausted, Chum beelined over the East River, and on to Roosevelt Field.
Thundering down landing strip number 1, Chum slowed his Waco to a full stop, tired but satisfied he had prevailed.
But the race had not ended.
Officials rushed the tarmac, urgently shouting and waving. Concerned about the commotion, he reached to turn the throttle off, and that was when he heard a chorus of NO above the din. Frantic hands pointed in the direction to another landing strip. If he shut down the motor he would be disqualified. Without a word, Chum promptly taxied to landing strip number 2, then shut down his biplane.
He had won.
Seven planes had ascended into darkening California skies. Of the seven only three found their way to Roosevelt Field. Chum’s Waco cabin had journeyed above the sleeping nation in 24 hours and 26 minutes; two minutes added by his last minute dash across the field. His victory award-$1,500, enough to reimburse the stock broker, and pay off his airplane. Not bad for a young man struggling through the worst year of the Great Depression.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-pat memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.
Building his own charter service at Roosevelt Field, Mont Chumbley got right to work building a clientele. Though 1933 marked the low point of the Great Depression, photographers and reporters from the Associated Press, United Press International, continued to work, beating a path from Manhattan to hire his Waco. Adding student-pilots to his schedule, plus weekends barnstorming around the countryside, Chum made ends meet.
Friendships with other aviation boosters included Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, wealthy philanthropist Harry Guggenheim, and his first sweetheart, pilot Frances Harrel Marsalis. In a later interview Chum referred to a long ago passenger, Katharine Hepburn, as a ‘nice girl.’
By Autumn of 1933 Chum unexpectedly found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though it hadn’t been his idea. A prominent client who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange believed Chum was New York’s answer to Lindbergh, funding needed modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter. Chum, weighing his chances. finally agreed.
His biplane soon readied, Chum winged his way from Long Island to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip west by moonlight for practice. Resting in Los Angeles much of October 2, 1933, Chum was told he was seeded third for take off, and finally lifted his Waco into dusky eastern skies.
At his first stop, taxiing across a dark air field in Albuquerque, a fueler informed him another plane had already been and gone. A bit panicked, sure he was lagging behind, the young flyer hustled into the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Just before dawn, the lights of Wichita appeared, where the spent pilot learned he was, in fact, the first entrant to arrive.
Weary as Chum felt, he couldn’t sleep. Keyed up by the excitement, he had to wait on those planes yet to arrive. And by late morning only two aircraft had cleared Albuquerque, a Monocoupe and a Stinson.
This night derby narrowed to a three-man contest.
Awarded 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place in Wichita, Chum coaxed his Waco upward against the lengthening shadows of a Kansas sky. Hours later, at his last checkpoint in Indianapolis, Chum pushed on for New York.
However, the weather wasn’t cooperative.
Through western Pennsylvania, the bi-plane’s windshield began to pierce thickening clouds. Growing anxious, he thought he might be off course, or even worse, lost. But luck remained his co-pilot, when he glimpsed a small break in the inky mist. A lone light flickered below in the blackness, and he slipped down through the pocket.
Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young flyer stumbled through darkness and dirt, making his way toward the light pole, and a modest farmhouse. Urgently thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, breathlessly apologizing for his intrusion.
Explaining his predicament the bewildered couple kindly let him in. As the wife perked coffee, and laid out food, the farmer got out his maps and showed Chum his location. With heartfelt thanks, he apologized once again, then returned to the night sky, righting his direction toward New York and hopes for victory.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.
Following his celebrated success in the Darkness Derby, Chum found his charter business more hectic than ever. Student pilots, passengers, and acquaintances from the nearby press office, particularly from United Press International, and International News Photos, crowded the Waco Office looking to hire Chum.
In early September, 1933, a reporter tasked with covering a train derailment near Elmira, New York, hired Chum for a middle of the night flight. It was dark, and a wet, thick fog had settled over Roosevelt Field. Filled with doubt, Chum only reluctantly agreed to take the fare from the desperate reporter, and very soon regretted his decision to fly.
An impenetrable cloak of fog, blending into a thick darkness, confronted the pilot as he prepared to land near Elmira. Probing his way down, Chum set down hard and immediately slid across the drenched airstrip. Slipping over the edge of the field his Waco thudded hard against a power pole, damaging one side his biplane. The reporter had a waiting automobile at the airfield, and sped away to the train derailment, leaving Chum to sort out the accident. He deduced his Waco was still airworthy, and later in the morning returned with his passenger to Long Island facing an expensive fix. Ten days later, adding insult to injury, he opened a letter from Associated Gas & Electric charging him $16.30 for repairs to the power pole. Lesson learned . . .almost.
Two weeks after the mishap in Elmira, Chum took another risky flight. His friend and patron from the Stock Exchange, (see part one of this article) had given notice that Chum was to keep Monday, September 25th open for passenger trip. This wealthy investor was an avid horse enthusiast, and Chum had shuttled the gent to various racetracks around the northeast. On this particular day a last minute phone call sent Chum hurrying from Roosevelt Field to Red Bank, New Jersey, and his waiting client.
Three men climbed aboard Chum’s Waco Cabin near Newark, breathlessly directing him to aim for Havre de Gras’ Racetrack, near Baltimore. These men had a horse on the race card, and were anxious to reach their destination before post time. As the Waco neared the track his passengers grew increasingly impatient. Chum’s patron insisted that instead of landing on a nearby rural field, the pilot needed to land directly on the infield of the horse track. Chum balked at the idea, but his client insisted, vowing to pay for any damage or fines that might result. Folding under pressure, the pilot threw good sense to the wind, and again lowered the nose of his aircraft for a risky landing.
Connecting with the grassy infield, the Waco bumped down the entire length of the infield. By the time Chum rolled to a stop, track officials and the police had surrounded the Waco. In the end, with a lot of fast talking from his influential friend, and perhaps a little cash changing hands, the biplane was allowed to remain. In fact, he and his passengers spent a glorious day enjoying the races. Later, after the stands were emptied of spectators, Chum rolled up the length of the racetrack returning to the sky and home
For Chum night flying became a particular pleasure. He mentioned in a later interview how peaceful he found the experience. In March, 1934, when Howard Ailor asked him to deliver a new Waco C to West Palm Beach, Chum gladly took the overnight job. Coursing through the twilight he made his way south from New York. Landing in Richmond, Fayetteville, Charleston, and Jacksonville, Chum eventually touched down in West Palm Beach by late morning.
A bit worn, the pilot unbuckled and completed his log of the flight. Still seated in the cockpit, he noticed a tall gentleman come out of a hangar and head toward the biplane. Chum instantly recognized the man, as he was a famous aviator in his own right. It was Howard Hughes, and the millionaire was not happy.
Hughes wasted no time in telling Chum that the engine in this biplane was used, and that he wouldn’t buy it. For his part, the young pilot assured Hughes that that simply wasn’t the case, but that Hughes would have to take it up with Howard Ailor back at Roosevelt Field. With that, the exchange of telephone calls between Florida and New York ensued. Back and forth the two businessmen squabbled. As the war of long distance calls heated up, Chum repeatedly requested a ride to the train station. He told Hughes that he, too, had a business to run, and needed to return to New York. After a day of back and forth, Hughes informed Chum he wouldn’t buy the Waco Cabin, but he would hire Chum to come work for him. Astonished, Chum agreed with the unexpected offer, lured by Hughes prominence and by the good salary.
For two weeks Chum worked at Hughes West Palm hangar. The other mechanics were easy to know, and he enjoyed watching Hughes and his entourage come and go. The only sticking point to this new job was that there was nothing to do, except watch Hughes. The new Waco Cabin sat inside Hughes hangar without any resolution.
After two weeks of inactivity, salvation arrived in the form of a long distance phonecall. Called to take the call in Hughes empty office, Chum issued a polite hello. The voice on the other end belonged to Hugh Perry from the Waco Factory in Troy, Ohio. Momentarily taken aback, the young pilot discovered that Perry wanted him for a sales position in South America. Pleased, Chum couldn’t say yes fast enough. And not waiting around to give Hughes notice, Chum simply walked to the train station and bought a ticket for New York.
He never knew the fate of that Waco Cabin. (#NC 13402)
Chum set sail on the Munson Cruise Liner The Western World in April of 1934. To say Chum was thrilled doesn’t do justice to his excitement. The farm boy from the foothills of the Allegheny’s, caught in the worst economic crash in memory, boarded a luxury ship for Brazil. He felt on top of the world.
After two weeks at sea, the pilot arrived in Rio de Janeiro and set to work at once. The Brazilian Air Ministry had shown some interest in the Waco CTO, complete with Browning machine guns mounted on the wings. He later said he couldn’t understand why the country needed such armaments, but the customer was always right, and Brazil was the customer.
Mont Chumbley took his first flight over Rio on May 4, 1934, piloting another Waco C. By the 7th he was testing and demonstrating other models, including the CTO. Becoming acquainted with officers from the ministry, he learned the government was determined to develop the vast jungle interior of the country, answering his unspoken question of why machine guns might be needed. Obstacles stood in the way deep in Amazonia. In the end the ministry opted not to make the purchase, though other biplanes met their approval.
Chum did very well in sales to the government of Brazil, and also in Argentina.
Chum lived and worked in Rio for almost three years. In that time he earned his reputation as one of the most successful Waco sales representative in the company’s history. However, by spring of the 1936 he had met, and become engaged to a beautiful American dancer, Helen Thompson and decided to leave South America. Chum later said he left Waco in the fall of 1936 to find a more predictable job in aviation, one more suitable for a married man.
By the end of October, 1936, Chum returned to New York for good. He had considered a job offer from Pan American, but declined when he learned he’d have to train at Dinner Key, Florida, Pan Am headquarters for a year.
The next month Chum returned to Waco, but this time stateside.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available on Kindle.
His was a storied life of potential and opportunity.
With damn good luck and perseverance Mont Chumbley forged a career in the earliest days of aviation. And that he became a pilot at all stood in stark contrast to his rustic, Virginia beginnings.
Born in 1909, young Mont spent his childhood on a farm more 19th Century than 20th. As the eldest son of the eldest son, Mont, as a matter of custom, was expected to follow his father as the next heir of the operation—as had scores of Chumbleys in prior generations. But to the patriarch’s displeasure, the son showed little interest in tending fields.
Instead young Mont discovered other passions; school, sports, girls, and the excitement of town. This lack of enthusiasm for farming generated enough animosity, that the boy had to run away from the farm in 1924.
Mont was 14.
Following a horrifying ordeal in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine, the shaken young teen caught a train back to Virginia, but not the farm. Rather he found sanctuary in his aunt’s opulent home in town. Grateful for his unexpected deliverance, Mont blossomed, graduating from Pulaski High School in 1927, lettering in football and class valedictorian.
Through his academic and athletic achievements, Mont’s opportunities appeared endless, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
While still a little tyke Mont had witnessed a barnstormer set down a biplane in nearby fields. Hearing the roar of the plane’s engine, glimpsing the spinning prop as the aircraft winged above the fields, Mont discovered his calling. Inspired with this childhood memory, Mont set his cap on entering the United States Naval Academy in 1928.
However, he couldn’t crack admission exams, so his hopes for Annapolis vanished, leaving Mont only one option–enlisting as a seaman recruit.
As straightforward as that path appeared, the young man ran into an immediate hurdle; his father had to sign his enlistment papers, and that the old man would not do. If the heir did not want to farm, the father would not help.
This family impasse did not resolve until Mont’s mother stepped in and threatened her husband with legal action. Mont’s mother, sure to her word hired a lawyer and prepared to seek consent from a judge. The father stunned by her defiance knew he was beat, and reluctantly endorsed his son’s enlistment papers, allowing Mont to enter the US Navy in 1928.
A hardy boy, the rigors of Naval training proved no problem for Seaman Recruit Mont Chumbley. He easily adapted to drilling and training, initially pleased with the life he had chosen. What he didn’t expect was his first assignment below deck aboard a Navy collier, (coal-burning vessel). Shoveling endless black filth wasn’t what he had envisioned. Mont aimed for the sky.
The Navy of the 1920’s had no regulations excluding enlisted men from flight, but still the odds were daunting. How the young man earned a spot in Naval aviation beggars belief. Through a series of chance encounters, Mont soon served as a babysitter for the Commander of Schools at Norfolk Naval Station. Through tending this officer’s children, Mont developed a son-like attachment to the Commander, and felt courageous enough to ask for help. That single connection made all the difference, and Mont, now called “Chum” by his fellow enlistees, progressed to flight elimination exercises at Hampton Roads.
The short version of this tale is Chum survived flight-elimination trials competently handling amphibious Curtiss NC4’s. The next year, he and his compatriots, Class 37C, found themselves soaring over the Gulf in Pensacola, this time in wheeled aircraft. Later his class received their first assignment, shipping out to Coco Solo, Panama.
Life in the Canal Zone was a jungled universe of its own. Military bases dotted the nearly 50 mile stretch of canal, in a mix of both Naval and Army installations. Coco Solo, anchored by the Navy, commanded the Atlantic side, and trained largely in T3M’s, Martin Torpedo Bombers. In simulated war games, the pilots descended until parallel with the sea, then Chum and his fellow pilots would release virtual “payloads” into surface vessels.
In later interviews, an elderly Chum expressed his reservations about the maneuver as far too hazardous for aircraft.
Suddenly, in 1933, Chum up and decided to leave the Navy, though he remained in the Reserves. When asked why, after so much trouble to join, he admitted, “I didn’t much like taking orders.”
Shipping an old Chevy he had purchased in Panama, Chum steamed into New York Harbor in May, 1933. Optimistic and eager to find work, he paid calls on various air carriers from Eastern Transport to National Airways. But no one was hiring. No one. The country and the world, deep in Depression had nothing to offer the young pilot.
Disappointed, Chum rumbled out to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, for a chance meeting with a figure who would change his life.
Howard Ailor, sales representative for Waco Aircraft, took a shine to the young pilot. Repeating the same gloomy job forecast Chum heard elsewhere, Ailor counseled him to make his own luck. The silver-tongued salesman, said what Chum needed was his own equipment, and talked him into buying a brand new Waco C cabin biplane.
And that purchase transformed young Mont’s life.
Next time the Transcontinental Air Race.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.
Some of you may know that we signed a film option a while back with Falls Park Entertainment in South Carolina. Brett Kanea, the executive producer, read our script, “Dancing On Air,” then my two books that inspired “Dancing.” Brett found it original and exciting and anticipated producing a successful film. Unexpectedly dear Brett died before any filming began. As you can see he from this pic, he was too young to leave us, and our hearts go out to his family and loved ones.
The morning he first called to discuss the property I thought he was the cable guy expected later that morning. We laughed about that snafu for months after.
Though our future in film is unclear, Brett’s warmth, humor, and confidence lingers on.
Godspeed Brett, the almost cable guy.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle.
This excerpt comes from River of January, the first volume of the two-volume memoir available on Kindle, and at http://www.river-of-january.com
Two weeks later, a nervous and sleep-deprived Mont Chumbley reported for flight elimination exercises. He joined 125 other candidates; smartly lined up on a long dock, facing the gray, choppy seas of Hampton Roads. From this windy spot would-be pilots underwent demanding instruction in ten-hour heats on various flight maneuvers. Day one: morning-takeoff, afternoon-landings. Day Two: mornings- turns, including the figure-eight, afternoon-climbing and descending turns—all in Curtiss NC4 seaplanes. Their instructors rated them at each step, either passing or failing, with no second chances. The pool of candidates became smaller with each roll call.
Feeling the pressure, the young sailor took special pains to follow protocol. Climbing around on wet pontoons fixed to the underside, Chum examined the biplane as it bobbed on the rolling water. He talked himself through each required procedure, so he wouldn’t overlook any step.
“Oil leaks? Negative,” Chum recited as he performed his pre-flight inspection. “Rudder locks off? Affirmative.”
He continued crawling around the aircraft until he was sure his check was thorough. After the meticulous exterior inspection, he settled into the cockpit.
“Controls? Check. Stick?” He jockeyed the stick left to right then up to down, “Check.” “Ailerons? He wagged the panels, “Check. Gauges?” He examined the calibrations closely. “Check.”
Concluding the pre-flight list, the student-pilot ignited the motor as another crewman propped the biplane’s propulsion blades, quickly, hopping back to the dock.
Chum, still repeating all he was taught, lifted the plane from the rollicking waves and then leveled the wings using the needle ball as he reached altitude. Momentarily surprised with the ease of his lift, Chum relaxed, in control of the little trainer.
“This isn’t that complicated!” the astonished young man marveled. The thrum of the engine seemed calming, and he could practically feel the buoyant pontoons below the fuselage.
“Flying makes sense,” he reflected. “Pull the stick this way, up, reverse the stick that way, down.”
A sense of wonder filled the young man. As if born to fly he intuitively grasped the mechanics. “Flight requires gravity, logic, instinct, and sound equipment.”
The Curtiss biplane read Chum’s mind, rising on a line, descending on an angle, turning on an invisible anchor point. The little aircraft did what he desired.
Of the 126 flight hopefuls, only nineteen succeeded— including Mont Chumbley. The washouts returned to Norfolk to ship out to sea, to labor on the hellacious coal burning tugboats or other maritime duties. Chum gratefully headed for warmer climates—flight training with his class, 37C, in Pensacola, Florida.
Thinking of Commander Seymour Chum had to smile, “Radio school would probably have been too difficult.”
A former student posted pictures yesterday of a cadet event at West Point. In a formal ceremony he and his classmates were presented with gold class rings in what looked like an annual military tradition. According to the post these rings were made from gold melted down from deceased former cadets, and shavings from the remains of the Twin Towers. A moving and inspiring affair for sure.
Parades on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, festooned with waving flags, highlight the modern veneration Americans feel for their warriors, past and present. But this honor and respect wasn’t always held for our fighting forces. In fact from the close of World War One in 1918 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans across the country roundly rejected and criticized anything to do with the armed forces.
As I go about the Northwest, speaking on “River of January,” folks are consistently surprised with the contempt the public held for soldiers and sailors in the book’s setting. The central figure in the memoir, Mont Chumbley shared with me before his death that at the time he enlisted in Norfolk Virginia, signs appeared in city parks warning, “dogs and sailors keep off the grass.” And it is that quote that draws stunned reactions from listeners.
The killing fields of World War One dragged on for three bloody years until America joined on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President betrayed his earlier campaign promise of, “He kept us out of the war,” quickly changing his mind about Europe. He ultimately asked Congress for a declaration of war in April, 1917 to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” This idealist Chief Executive sent American boys across the Atlantic to remake the world in the image of America’s republican system.
American soldiers, “doughboys,” weren’t in any way ready to deploy, quickly activated and barely trained. Still the recruits and draftees were promptly loaded onto troop ships landing in time to stave off a final German offensive. Gung ho and naïve, US forces made the difference almost at once, charging enemy trenches in blind innocence, with a faith in their youthful invincibility. The exhausted, war-weary combatants, particularly the German “Huns,” soon collapsed, requesting an armistice in November of 1918, ending hostilities.
World War One had unleashed unthinkable horrors in tactics and weaponry. Foul sewage-filled trenches, poison gas, machine guns, aerial bombing, torpedo launching u-boats, tanks, barbed wire, and “no man’s land,” sickened the American people. An outraged sense of being duped into war by big business and self-serving politicians became universal.
Beleaguered President Wilson attempted to salvage purpose from the unspeakable carnage with his “Fourteen Point” peace plan, including his “League of Nations,” a forerunner to the United Nations. Citizens universally rejected Wilson’s efforts to remake a peaceful world. In fact, Americans rejected any form of internationalism whatsoever. War was pointless, and the nation resolved to never venture abroad again, period.
An attitude of isolation gelled and hardened into popular opinion for years to come. Any boy who joined the service was considered a no account scoundrel with no ambition, or self respect. It was in this hostile atmosphere Mont Chumbley bucked popular opinion choosing to join the Navy and ultimately fly airplanes.
It came as no surprise that his family vehemently opposed his enlistment plans. The entire clan closed ranks, certain the family name and reputation was at stake, and the boy could not be permitted to sully the rest of them. And that is only a single anecdote of one family in a nation appalled by anything military.
All three branches faced draconian budget cuts in the 1920’s, with more slashed during the Great Depression. Military leaders hustled to find ways to justify their shrinking budgets before Congress. Military planners were met with answers such as that concluded by Congressman Gerald Nye. Results of Representative Nye’s study determined the US only entered the World War to enrich munitions manufacturers and bankers. The Navy had already taken an earlier hit when a moratorium was placed on building any new battleships. America didn’t need them anymore, the country would never go to war ever again.
And that attitude persisted from 1919 to 1939 until Hitler’s blitzkrieg shattered the peace. But even then the US did not involved itself, even as England stood alone before the Nazi onslaught. Instead Congress passed Neutrality Acts tying the President’s hands to help the English. American entry into that war didn’t occur until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor two years later, in December of 1941.
The “Long Weekend” starved America’s military for twenty years. That Mont Chumbley managed to join at all, and managed to fly the few aircraft the Navy possessed is nothing less than a miracle. That farm boy from Virginia overcame immense barriers; stiff family opposition, social ridicule, and crossing an immense chasm to become a Navy pilot.
But he did.
Any questions? Reach me at email@example.com
Author Note: The following excerpt was drawn from extended interviews with veteran aviator Mont Chumbley (1909-2006), discussing his training in the interwar Navy. For the rest of the story read “River of January” available on Kindle.
Later, with his flight training securely behind him, Seaman Montgomery Chumbley received his first official orders. He and his class were assigned to Torpedo Squadron 3, located in Coco Solo, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. Chum joined his fellow novices as they shipped out southward aboard the USS Shawmont.
Watching from the deck as the Florida base vanished, the pilot silently rejoiced at this milestone. He also celebrated the fact that he didn’t have to return in disgrace to Virginia. That euphoric detail made the sky somehow bluer, the clouds somehow more feathered and graceful. The young man felt nearly giddy.
After two pleasant days at sea, the Shawmont cruised into the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to refuel. Chum was enchanted by the beauty of the jungle and continued to marvel at the colorful sea life and assortment of exquisite birds circling the ship for handouts. The vast horizons he used to imagine, were becoming reality.
The Squadron’s final destination lay near Colon, Panama. Coco Solo was a vast, busy American naval installation, surprising the young pilot with its colossal size. The arrivals boarded a transport for delivery to their quarters, gawking out their bus windows in wonder at the enormity of the American base.
His awe continued after he and the boys were escorted to the adjacent submarine facility to tour that installation.
Returning to the field, the group sat through their initial military briefing, Chum, next to Win, listened as the instructor addressed the new aviators. The captain explained that a 1929 War Department directive assigned the US Navy the task of protecting the Atlantic zone of the Panama Canal from hostile threats.
“The Army’s Fort Gulick sits adjacent to us in Coco Solo, and shares our same mission,” he explained. “As some of you may already know, to the southwest, other military bases dot the entire 51 miles of the canal—all the way to where it meets the Pacific.
After the session, Chum remarked to his buddy, “I feel strangely noble defending the canal. It’s as though we all are part of a bigger picture, with America expanding into both oceans.”
“But what country would be nuts enough to attack us?” Win wondered.
War games made up much of Chum’s Panama duty. The flyers were the “red” team, attacking from the air, while the “blue” team lay in wait, aboard ships “guarding” the canal. The pilots executed their orders during these simulations, but off-duty they grumbled about the Navy’s outdated and seriously flawed maritime battle plans.
“I can’t believe they have us flying so near enemy ships!” Chum groused, crunching over a gravel path after morning exercises. Win paced alongside as they headed toward the base canteen.
“So near? What do you mean? How else could we release our torpedoes?” His friend asked as they ordered sodas at the commissary’s cafeteria.
“Think about it, Win. A torpedo aims more accurately if it detaches directly above the ocean’s surface. And it’s not the steep dive on approach that’s fatal—it’s pulling up after releasing the torpedo. That maneuver is potentially fatal. The belly of the plane is too close to enemy guns. Any surface ship could blow us to kingdom come.” He smacked his palms loudly for effect.
“But, Chum, hold on! There’s smoke laid down on the surface by the first two T3M’s. That smoke blankets us.”
“Yeah, if all goes as planned. If the smoke is laid down close enough to the water, if it doesn’t rise too fast, and if the wind doesn’t blow in too hard. That’s a lot of ifs. Think about it. We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”
The two flyers stared at their icy drinks. Perhaps Win could see his own plane exploding into the cold depths, just as Chum had already envisioned.
“Anyhow, the scuttlebutt says the brass is taking a second look at that line of attack,” Win disclosed. “The Navy wants to remodel the torpedo bombers into patrol biplanes, replacing the ordnance with fuel tanks. Can’t come fast enough for me—you’ve made me a believer,” his friend admitted.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.