Elizabeth and Gerry went with him to Riverside. The grimly worsening Depression had severely reduced her business at the sandwich stand on the twelfth hole. People were not playing golf in nearly the numbers they had been and the number of visitors coming to San Antonio on vacation had also declined drastically. So she closed the stand before departing. Gerry had been forced to leave A&M in the middle of his sophomore year in January 1933 because of Elizabeth’s straitened circumstances. Her bank had failed and taken all of her savings with it. Bennie was now their source of support with his second lieutenant’s pay of $125 a month, an additional half again of $62.50 as flying pay, and an allowance of roughly $30 a month to rent a house off base because there were no quarters available at the field for the families of Reservists. His salary and flying pay were soon reduced, however, when the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, decreed a 15 percent pay cut for the entire military, which remained in effect into 1935.
In entering the officer ranks of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Bennie Schriever thought of himself as having joined an elite group of flying men. He could not know precisely how important to the destiny of the nation that elite was to be. At the end of 1938, when the menace of Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan at last began to awaken Congress, there were only about 1,650 officers, including Reservists, in the entire Air Corps. From these 1,650 officers would come the men who were to create and lead the mighty fleet of the skies during the Second World War.
The commanding officer at March Field that summer of 1933 was the man who was to shape and command that armada, Henry “Hap” Arnold, then just a lieutenant colonel. He would subsequently cast a long shadow of influence over the nature of American air, missile, and space power during the Cold War and the arms race with the Soviet Union that followed. Arnold’s principal deputy at March Field in 1933 was a trim, mustachioed man, Major Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, who wore his uniform cap crushed in on the sides in rakish fashion as if he were sitting in a cockpit with his earphones on. At bachelor social occasions, he played the guitar and sang risqué songs, and he was fond of late-night poker games at which he would while away the hours sipping Scotch whiskey with soda and chain-smoking cigarettes. Lieutenant Schriever was soon initiated into these nocturnal gatherings. Spaatz’s carefree exterior concealed a relentless determination whenever the needs of his profession required it. He was an accomplished fighter pilot. During the First World War he had shot down three German aircraft in just a few weeks and returned with the nation’s second-highest decoration for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross. During the Second World War, he would command the air forces of the European theater as a four-star general and oversee the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. When the independent U.S. Air Force was finally established in 1947, Spaatz would become its first chief of staff. The other officer at March Field on whom Arnold depended was a captain named Ira Eaker—short, balding, and round-faced, with penetrating eyes. In the war to come, Eaker would lead the famous Eighth Air Force out of England and then command the Mediterranean air forces under Spaatz in the task of pummeling the Third Reich into bits and pieces.
Of the three, Arnold was the man who was to matter the most for Second Lieutenant Schriever. Arnold went back to the origins of American aviation. A West Point graduate in the Class of 1907, he had aspired to the cavalry and instead had been sent to the infantry, which he detested. To escape, he had volunteered for the Signal Corps’ nascent Aeronautical Division, from which the Air Corps was eventually to evolve, and became one of the first half dozen Army pilots when he was trained to fly in 1911 at the factory the Wright brothers had established at Dayton, Ohio, to profit from their invention. A solidly proportioned man of medium build, Arnold was a complicated figure, always impatient to accomplish any task at hand, yet long-enduring of the frustrations of military life and the struggle to build a modern air force. During the First World War he had been denied a combat assignment in Europe until it was too late to see any action; instead, he had been posted to Washington to monitor the effort to gear up American industry for the mass production of aircraft. The program had been a failure, from which Arnold had learned what not to do when it was his turn to take charge and organize industry for the production of hundreds of thousands of planes during the Second World War. In 1925, he had displayed the moral courage to ignore warnings from his superiors and place his career in peril by testifying in defense of Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, the crusader for an independent air force, at Mitchell’s court-martial. Afterward, Arnold had barely evaded court-martial himself for using military printing facilities to lobby congressmen and the press on Mitchell’s behalf. His punishment was exile to Fort Riley, Kansas, the nation’s largest cavalry post, to take charge of a small detachment of observation aircraft attached to the horse soldiers.
When Schriever met him in 1933, Arnold’s career was back in motion. March Field was the Air Corps’ West Coast tactical operations center. At forty-nine, Arnold had matured as an adept organizer and commander. In his search for ideas to create a modern air force he had formed a friendship with Robert Millikan, who headed the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Millikan had in turn introduced him to Theodore von Kármán, the Hungarian aeronautical engineering genius whom Millikan had recruited for Caltech in 1930. Von Kármán, who had been teaching and directing an aeronautical engineering laboratory at Aachen, was among the first of the distinguished European intellectuals of Jewish ancestry driven across the Atlantic by the rise of Hitler and the growing national madness consuming Germany. Reaching out to such a man was a natural consequence of Arnold’s urge to employ science and technology to develop an effective air arm, an urge that was eventually to transform him into a technological visionary. He had every reason to be dissatisfied with the aircraft in his force. The planes with which the Air Corps was then equipped were essentially throwbacks to the First World War era. The B-3 and B-4 Keystone bombers that Bennie and his mates in the 9th Bombardment Squadron flew were big, ungainly biplanes with highly flammable cloth and wood-frame wings and fuselages. The cockpits were open. Some of the Keystones had two-way radios. Others had only receivers—the pilot could not reply. Top speed was a little more than 100 miles per hour and range was just 400. Safe flying was restricted to fair weather because the only instruments were an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, a horizontal needle-and-ball device that mimicked the attitude of the plane when turning or banking, and a compass. The fighters were better—Boeing P-12s with 500-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines—but they too were old-fashioned biplanes with wood and fabric wings and had no radios at all. Lack of operating funds also affected training. Pilots were restricted to four hours of flying a month, which meant that the younger aviators like Schriever could not get enough time in the air to become proficient.
Golf was one of the ways in which the lieutenant drew himself to the attention of the older man who was to so affect his destiny. Again for lack of operating funds, Air Corps officers usually worked only half a day, at most until 3:30 P.M., after a leisurely lunch, leaving plenty of time to play. Schriever’s prowess on the links at the nearby Victoria Country Club at Riverside, where he won two amateur tournaments and set a new club record of 63, received local newspaper coverage that quickly made him stand out among the new pilots. Elizabeth Schriever also helped because of the military social customs of the day. As Schriever was a bachelor, his mother substituted for a wife during social events at the base. Arnold’s wife, Eleanor, or “Bee” as she was nicknamed, was roughly the same age as Elizabeth. She had spent three years in Germany as a young woman and enjoyed speaking the language. The two women became friends. Their friendship led to Bennie becoming well acquainted with his commanding officer.