War, with its victory-or-defeat, life-or-death dynamic in which there is no excuse for failure or mediocrity, rapidly sets the outstanding officer apart from the ordinary one. This was what was happening to Bennie Schriever. He was starting to move to a level of recognition and responsibility that would distinguish him from his former peers for the rest of his career. On the one hand, his interest in aeronautical engineering was now, in fact, taking him out of a combat cockpit and the ascendancy through regular line positions that most professional aviators craved. He would not become a bomber group commander. On the other hand, in tribute to his performance with the 19th, the commanding general, a man with an eye for talent, was reaching down to pick up a thirty-two-year-old major of barely four months and promote him into one of the most important positions in the organization, in effect chief of maintenance and engineering for the entire Fifth Air Force. Schriever did not mind being taken off the combat cockpit track. He had as much courage as the next man and knew it, feeling no need to prove it to himself or anyone else. He was being given work for which he had a talent and interest and that carried with it great responsibility and meaning. What could be more crucial for an air force than to keep its aircraft battle-worthy and ready to fly? The job also held the promise of promotion. If he did not make a hash of things he would soon be exchanging the gold oak leaves of a major for the silver ones of a lieutenant colonel. He sallied into the work with his usual self-starter attitude. His initiative almost immediately got him into trouble with a terror of an aviator whom no one crossed with impunity—Brigadier General Ennis Whitehead.
Ennis Whitehead was Kenney’s right-hand man and deputy for combat operations, which Whitehead ran out of a separate headquarters at Port Moresby. Prior to the appearance of the comic strip Dennis the Menace, someone had dubbed Whitehead “Ennis the Menace,” and the moniker had taken hold. Whitehead relished it, although no one, of course, dared to repeat it in his presence. A pugnacious man with a ruthlessly forceful nature, which was why Kenney had chosen him as his combat operations deputy, Whitehead even looked the part. He had played professional baseball for a while before joining the Army Air Service, the First World War predecessor of the Air Corps, and had a badly smashed nose from an encounter with a ball. In those days before sophisticated reconstructive nasal surgery, he had to live with the result and tended to snort when he got agitated.
New on the job as chief of maintenance, Schriever inspected a B-17 at Port Moresby that was shot up badly enough to warrant major repairs in Australia. Three of the bomber’s four engines were still in working order, however, which made it flyable under the safety rules. The matter seemed simple to Schriever. He issued instructions to fly the bomber over to Townsville, up toward the northern end of the Australian east coast across from New Guinea, where the Fifth Air Force’s main supply and maintenance depot was located. What Schriever did not know was that no one ordered aircraft about in General Whitehead’s domain without his permission. Someone told Whitehead right away, before the plane had been moved. Bennie was invited to lunch at the general’s mess, in this case a grass hut with a table and chairs. “Get that son of a bitch in line and bring him in here for lunch,” was the way Whitehead’s invitation was extended to him by a staff officer. Whitehead’s staff sat around the table having their meal with their chief while Schriever became the source of the luncheon entertainment, receiving one of the worst ass chewings of his career. “Goddamn it, I’m the only one who orders airplanes around and I want you to know it,” Whitehead said, snorting and firing his words at Schriever machine-gun fashion. “Yes, sir,” Schriever said. “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” “Yes, sir” remained the totality of Bennie’s end of the conversation as Whitehead continued to chew on more than his food. Schriever could see that he had provoked the general into one of his legendary rages and that it was useless to try to explain himself. He also was in the wrong. He should have asked permission from Whitehead or his staff as a matter of courtesy. The B-17 was flown to Townsville, later, and with Whitehead’s nod.
It was not long before Whitehead was after Schriever again. The P-40 fighters were fitted with an Allison engine that was subject to failure of its bearings. When this occurred, the engine would be removed and flown down to Australia, where Bennie had arranged with Australian machine shops to have the engines overhauled. The rub was that the engines were suffering bearings failures again after only a couple of hours of flying time. Before Schriever could discover the source of the problem, Whitehead flew down to Townsville to complain personally. “God damn it,” he berated Schriever, “can’t you do a decent job down here in Australia? Your God damn engines are flying two or three hours and failing again.” Bennie said he would investigate the problem and fix it.
He did, but before he could report to Whitehead, the general sought him out at the Service Command headquarters in Brisbane to berate him once more. This time Schriever let him rage on for a while and then said calmly, “Well, I’ve found out exactly what is happening.” He explained to Whitehead that when the initial bearings failure occurred, the bearings disintegrated and spewed shards of metal into the P-40’s oil cooler, which was separate from the engine itself. The shards of metal from the old bearings thus flowed back into the rebuilt engines and ruined them again. The maintenance crews at Port Moresby had not realized they needed to flush and clean the oil coolers before reinstalling the engines. The oil coolers were now being flushed, Schriever said, and the reinstalled engines would last their allotted time. Whitehead snorted and left. When he returned to Port Moresby, however, he checked and learned that Schriever was telling him the truth. From that day onward Bennie, who never let Whitehead down when other obstacles arose to keep planes from flying, was one of the favored people of Ennis the Menace. Whenever he happened to be in Port Moresby, and later at subsequent headquarters Whitehead established as MacArthur progressively drove the Japanese from New Guinea, Schriever would always be invited to lunch or dinner at the general’s mess, and Whitehead, who was keenly loyal to those who excelled for him, would always seat Bennie at his right, regardless of the rank of any other guest at the table.
In March 1943, after a little over eight months as a major, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and at the end of August he moved up again to become chief of staff of the Fifth Air Force Service Command. In effect, Schriever was now the deputy and chief operating officer of the Fifth Air Force’s entire maintenance and supply organization. He was given the job just as MacArthur was unleashing an offensive to seize Lae and nearby Japanese bases about a third of the way up the north coast of New Guinea. More than a hundred new fighter planes were still in crates or various stages of assembly at a depot in Brisbane. Kenney wanted them in the fight—now. Schriever got them assembled and flown to New Guinea at a pace faster than anyone had ever achieved before. The general thanked him with a letter of commendation in September. When his boss, Colonel Ralph Brownfield, who was temporarily heading the Service Command, recommended him that same month for accelerated promotion to full colonel as “the most capable officer known to me,” Kenney initialed the request “OK.” On December 21, 1943, Bernard Schriever, three months and a week after his thirty-third birthday, received the eagles of a full colonel.
Although his responsibilities would continue to increase, he had gone as far as he could hope for in rank during the war. With the exception of a few who did win a star, the best of the second lieutenants from the Flying School classes of the 1930s became the colonels of the Second World War and saw that the orders of the generals were carried out. The men who won the stars and issued the orders came from the classes of the 1920s and earlier, men like Curtis LeMay, awarded his wings in 1929. LeMay, who was to create and lead the Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, was a first lieutenant as late as 1938 but a major general only six years later.
Kenney’s command was doubled in strength in June of 1944, as the destruction of the Japanese empire in the Pacific gathered momentum. He was given a second air force, the Thirteenth. Its deputy commander, Brigadier General Thomas “Tommy” White, became another of Bennie Schriever’s mentors in the postwar years, first as vice chief and then as chief of staff of the independent U.S. Air Force, which was to be created in 1947. Ennis Whitehead received his second star as commanding general of the Fifth Air Force, while Kenney, who would gain the fourth star of a full general the following spring, established a higher headquarters, U.S. Far East Air Forces, to control both the Fifth and the Thirteenth. Schriever became chief of staff of the Far East Air Service Command, which supported the combined air forces. Late in the war a third air force, the Seventh, was added to Kenney’s sphere and White was given command of it.
MacArthur had devised a strategy of leap-frogging past heavily defended enemy bases to gain time and avoid American and Australian casualties. The bypassed Japanese troops were left to wither. That April he had leapt 400 miles to seize lightly garrisoned Hollandia, more than two thirds of the way up New Guinea’s north coast, bypassing heavily garrisoned Wewak farther south, where the Japanese had expected him to attack and concentrated more than 200,000 troops. Hollandia became the new main base. Kenney had a compound built there for himself and his staff. It was as comfortable as one could expect under the circumstances. The bedrooms were located around the outside edges to catch what breezes came off the sea. He invited Bennie to move in with them. Kenney was a rarity among military men in his working and sleeping habits, an owl who liked to work until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and then catnap during the day. He did his best brainstorming in the clarity of the predawn hours. He hated staying up alone and so Bennie and the staff took turns staying up with him. For Schriever it was also an opportunity to observe how to run an enterprise on the vast scale in which Kenney operated.
At the beginning of September 1944, as MacArthur was preparing to take Morotai, the northeasternmost island in the Moluccas chain and the stepping-stone to the Philippines, Schriever was given a job that would demand all the energy and improvising skills he could muster. He was put in charge of a new Advance Echelon of the Far East Air Service Command. His task was to solve instantly any supply problems that arose and to oversee the building of new airfields and depots for Kenney’s two air forces as fast as MacArthur advanced. When, for example, Whitehead was preparing to launch strikes but was low on aviation gasoline, Bennie had to locate the tankers still at sea with the fuel and get them to the offshore pumping stations to send the fuel in through the lines and fill the tanks at the bases in time for the planes to gas up and take off. There were always shortages, despite the fact that American industry was now producing all-out. The war in Europe continued to receive priority and MacArthur’s command, the Southwest Pacific Area, was at the end of the Pacific supply chain. The Navy’s zone farther up in the Pacific under Admiral Chester Nimitz and his two fleet commanders, Admirals Raymond Spruance and William “Bull” Halsey, first skimmed off whatever it could. As Schriever put it in a bomber formation metaphor, “We were the tail-end Charlies.”
Bennie and his crew of approximately thirty-five officers and men averaged only five to six hours of sleep a night and they were constantly on the move in the B-25s assigned to them for transport. The airfields they had to arrange to rebuild were invariably in ruins—captured Japanese bases with bomb-cratered runways and gutted buildings or former American fields occupied by the Japanese in their initial onslaught and blasted and burned in the retaking. To get a jump start, they would arrange to fly in immediately after the assault troops had cleared the places. Usually there was still plenty of shooting going on as the infantry cleaned out the last of the Japanese snipers and stragglers. In October 1944 it was Tacloban on Leyte, after MacArthur again fooled the Japanese by bypassing Mindanao, the southernmost island in the Philippines chain, and striking at Leyte in the center. In December it was the airstrips on Mindoro, just south of Luzon, the main island at the other end of the Philippines. At the end of February 1945 it was Luzon itself and Nichols Field on the edge of a devastated Manila, where the international airport now stands. One of Schriever’s men was killed there by a Japanese straggler hiding in the remnants of a building. In June 1945 it was Naha on Okinawa. The Marines were using flamethrowers to incinerate the Japanese holed up in caves in the hills around the field.
Improvisation was always at a premium. Bennie was ordered to turn Nichols into a new headquarters for the Far East Air Service Command and an air logistics base to support the expected invasion of the Japanese home islands. He lacked cement. He had managed to corner a lot of toilets, which he kept as potential trade goods. The Japanese naval troops who had held Manila to the death, slaughtering 100,000 Filipino civilians in a frenzy at their own defeat and impending end, had also, for some bizarre reason, smashed the toilets in every building still wholly or partially standing. Schriever managed to obtain quite a bit of cement through toilet swapping, but he still did not have enough. He persuaded Major General Leif “Jack” Sverdrup, MacArthur’s chief engineer, to give him carte blanche to haul up what cement he wanted from a prewar plant that was still functioning on the island of Cebu, next to Leyte. Sverdrup assumed Bennie would be transporting the cement in C-47s and thus wouldn’t be able to take that much. Schriever didn’t tell Sverdrup he had rounded up four small ships capable of carrying thousands of tons of cement. But he got too greedy. He loaded so much cement on one of the ships that it could not get across the reef at the outer edge of the harbor and he had to partially unload it to float the ship loose. Sverdrup discovered Schriever’s larceny. In later years, after Sverdrup had returned to civilian life, the major St. Louis engineering firm of Sverdrup & Parcel, which he headed, was involved in a number of Air Force construction projects. Whenever he had to introduce Bennie at some public function, he would always amuse the gathering by needling him about the overloaded cement hauler getting stuck on the reef.
About three weeks after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, Bennie flew a B-17 from Nichols Field at Manila to Atsugi near Yokohama just south of Tokyo, the only usable airfield in the area, ferrying a general and his staff who were to take over all air service and supply functions in occupied Japan. As he came in over Tokyo Bay he was astounded at the destruction Curtis LeMay’s B-29s had wrought on one of the great cities of the world. “There was nothing; it was just wasteland,” he said later. What was still intact—the moated island of the Imperial Palace grounds and across from it the six-story Dai Ichi Insurance Building, which MacArthur would turn into his headquarters (the name of the building was appropriate for the man who would now rule Japan, as “Dai Ichi” means “number one”) and the nearby Hotel Imperial—appeared like a little oasis in the middle of a desert. But he felt no pity. The behavior of the Japanese enemy he had fought had deadened him to any compassion for them and their people. Before flying back to Manila, he stayed for a few days at the Imperial, poking about out of curiosity, and noticed that American officers were already ceasing to carry sidearms. It was obvious there was going to be no resistance from this race, so fierce and fanatic only weeks before. For the Japanese, now that they had lost the war, it was over.
In September, shortly before flying home from Manila, he went to see Kenney to say goodbye. That March the general had arranged for him to be awarded a Legion of Merit for his accomplishments as chief of staff of the Service Command. He did not know it yet, but at Whitehead’s insistence and with Kenney’s assent, his name had also been submitted for a Distinguished Service Medal, the highest noncombat award an officer can receive, for his singular performance commanding the Advance Echelon. Once Schriever had completed the long leave to which he was entitled with his family and was ready for duty again in the United States, Kenney would make sure that he came into his reward. “You look around and tell me what assignment you’d like to have and I’ll see that you get it,” Kenney said.
He flew from Manila to Hawaii and there caught a ride on one of the newer four-engine C-54 transports for the final leg home. They took off in the afternoon and it was a long, cold flight through the night because the plane’s heater failed. They approached San Francisco just as the sun was rising over the Golden Gate on the clear California morning of September 24, 1945. Schriever wept at the sight and tears came into his eyes again as he recalled it nearly fifty years later. In the fall of 1943, he and a team of other officers had flown back to Patterson Field at Dayton for a couple of weeks to meet with the Air Service Command representatives there and try to alleviate the supply problems Kenney was having. He had stolen one of those weeks to be with Dora and his son and daughter and to fly over to San Antonio to see his mother. Except for those two weeks, he had been at war in the Pacific for three years and three months.