7.

STAYING THE COURSE

This time he was off to Panama. As it gradually geared up, the Air Corps had begun accepting applications from Reservists to return to active duty flying status. Schriever applied and was sent to Albrook Field on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone. Before going he had to agree to revert from first lieutenant back to second to save the Air Corps money on his salary. Golf came to his assistance again. The game is, as Schriever once shrewdly observed, “the finest avenue for meeting the right people.… It is a friend-making game.” Older men who are not particularly adept at golf often like to play with a younger and highly skilled golfer because they can learn from him and a handicap system allots them a set number of strokes in their favor in advance. They can enjoy themselves by participating in some fine golf without being ashamed of their scores at the end of the game.

Brigadier General George H. Brett, the Air Corps commander for the Zone, whose headquarters was at Albrook, was that kind of a golfer. Brett was another of the band of original Army aviators. A 1909 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute at a time when only West Point graduates could obtain direct commissions in the small Regular Army, Brett had accepted what he could get, a second lieutenant’s commission in the Philippine Constabulary, a colonial model force manned by Filipino enlisted men and officered by Americans. It had been formed to enforce tranquillity in America’s new imperial possession in Asia. Brett had seen quite a bit of action against the independence-minded Moros, the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao, before he was able to win a commission in the cavalry of the Regular Army and then, in an adventurous move, become a pilot in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, the precursor of the Army Air Corps, just as the First World War was erupting in 1914. Over the decades since, he had gradually wound his way up through the officer ranks to the star he now wore as commander in the Canal Zone. He was currently interested in improving his golf game and word of Schriever’s aptitude at his avocation had preceded him to Panama. Brett asked Bennie if he would like to serve as one of his two aides. The career opportunity was marvelous because of all a young officer can learn working directly for a general (the job also paid an additional $10 a month).

It led to marriage as well when Brett sent Bennie to the Atlantic side of the Canal one day early in 1937 to meet his twenty-year-old daughter, Dora, who was arriving on an Army transport ship to rejoin the family after staying with friends in Washington. Schriever walked up the gangplank still a bit drowsy because he had risen in the wee hours to cross the Canal Zone and be on time for the ship’s 5:00 A.M. docking. His drowsiness dissipated at the sight of the pretty young woman with a figure to remember and curly blond hair. They got acquainted over a breakfast of ham and eggs in the ship’s dining room and were soon in love.

In 1935 and again in 1937 Schriever had applied for one of the few Regular Army commissions given out each year and had been turned down both times. A Reserve second lieutenant was in too precarious a position to take on the responsibility of a wife and the family that presumably would follow. He could have been deactivated at any time. And so he requested deactivation himself in order to marry Dora. That August of 1937, he sailed from Panama to take a job as a co-pilot with Northwest Airlines, flying the Seattle to Billings, Montana, run. The aircraft was the Lockheed Electra 10, advanced for its day in that it had an all-metal fuselage and twin radial engines, and was aptly named because it could carry ten passengers. Bennie’s additional duties as copilot were to load and unload the sacks of mail and hand out sandwiches in box lunches to the passengers. He and Dora were married on January 3, 1938, at Hap Arnold’s home in Washington.

By now Arnold was a brigadier general and assistant chief of the Air Corps, soon to become its head when the current chief, Major General Oscar Westover, was killed in the crash of a plane he was piloting that September. Hap and Bee Arnold were close friends of the Bretts. Dora’s parents did not come up for the ceremony because there was as yet no airline service from Panama and the journey by ship was time-consuming and burdensome. Arnold gave away the bride.

Schriever was currently making an excellent salary of about $250 a month as a co-pilot with Northwest. The prospect was that he would double that to the fabulous Depression-era salary of $500 a month in the not distant future when he became a reserve lead pilot, or “reserve captain” as the position was designated in the airlines. Dora therefore had every reason to feel content as they set up housekeeping in Seattle.

Then Hap Arnold flew out to Seattle in March to confer with the president of Boeing. He arranged a foursome at golf and invited Bennie as one of the players. Arnold rarely played golf and his purpose in setting up the game became clear as soon as it was over. With war appearing more and more inevitable in Europe, the Air Corps was finally being allowed to award Regular commissions to sizable numbers of Reservists. A competitive examination was scheduled for that August. “Bennie,” Arnold said as they were changing in the locker room afterward, “I hope that you’ll take the exam for a Regular commission.” He explained that he wanted to create an all-weather air arm and therefore needed to get as many airline pilots who were Reservists as possible back into the Air Corps on a permanent basis, because they had the knowledge and experience for instrument flying. Decades later, Schriever remained astonished at Arnold’s ability to look into the future. “Arnold was sitting there in 1938, long before we were in the war, saying he wanted an all-weather air force. That was truly visionary. By the end of the war, we had the capability. When the Soviets blockaded Berlin in 1948 and we had to stage the airlift, we had mechanical failures and we had crashes but we rarely had to cancel a flight because of the weather.”

Dora was opposed to his taking the examination. If he was accepted as a Regular, he could not reenter at his Reserve rank of first lieutenant. He would have to start all over as a second lieutenant at the bottom of the seniority list. With flying pay and a housing allowance, the cut in income would not be that serious compared to his current salary of $250 a month at Northwest, but it would be half what he would soon be earning there. As a daughter of the regiment, Dora was also acutely aware of the constant moves, the separations, and the dangers of military life. With Northwest there was stability: even when Schriever overnighted in Billings, he was back home the next day in Seattle. She did not make a major issue of her opposition, however, and there was no stopping him in any case. Bennie Schriever was not going to give up the Air Corps to fly to Billings via Spokane.

On October 1, 1938, at Hamilton Field near San Rafael, just north of San Francisco, he held up his right hand again and took the unusual oath that American officers take when they accept their commissions—not an oath of allegiance to the president as commander-in-chief, not an oath of loyalty to the nation, but rather a vow to uphold an ideal of liberty and republican government embodied in law. Schriever swore that, as a second lieutenant in the Air Corps, Regular Army, “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.… I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Of the 188 men in his group who were accepted, about two thirds were airline pilots. Hap Arnold had apparently passed the word to the examining board as to whom he wanted.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!