By Johannes Allert

Having achieved the rank of full colonel at age twenty-eight, Gorrell, for reasons unknown, resigned from the Army in 1920 and briefly pursued a career in the automotive industry. By 1934, however, he returned to aviation and served alongside his former Army comrades George C. Marshall and Harold ‘Hap’ Arnold as a member of the newly formed committee known as the Baker Board. Their assignment involved reviewing events surrounding President Franklin Roosevelt’s ill-advised and hasty decision to cancel commercial airmail contracts (a system allegedly deemed rife with corruption), temporarily replacing them with Army aviators ill-equipped and unaccustomed to performing night navigation in inclement weather. The unintended consequence of this action resulted in sixty-six accidents and twelve fatalities.[1] A month-long session of testimony and reports exposed America’s scant support for adequately funding the nation’s fledgeling Army Air Service and revealed the enormous gap existing between military and civil aviation. The stark contrast showed that even at the height of The Great Depression, civil aviation’s assets in equipment, organisation, and talent dwarfed that of the U.S. Army Air Service. Consequently, the board recommended, with Gorrell’s insistence, that future construction of civil airliners include structural modifications for adaptation in military use should the need arise.[2]

In January of 1936, Gorrell was selected as head of the Chicago-based organisation known as the Air Transportation Association of America (ATA). As president, he viewed his mission as twofold. Firstly, to avoid a repeat of the boom and bust cycle experienced by America’s railroad industry of the previous century, Gorrell advocated for the establishment of reasonable and modest regulations compatible with commercial aviation’s development.[3] Secondly, and of equal importance was the grafting of civil aviation with the needs of national defence in times of crisis. He categorically stated that:

Beyond doubt, the scheduled air transport industry has influenced and stimulated many of our other national industries. Our military air force is as dependent on commercial aeronautics as our Navy is upon our Merchant Marine.[4]

This statement more closely aligns with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of naval strategy than anything related to William “Billy” Mitchell’s thoughts involving strategic bombing. Furthermore, unlike Mitchell’s acerbic personality, Gorrell maintained cordial relations with leaders in governmental agencies and commercial industry alike. Affability combined with credibility and insight made him the perfect catalyst for advancing aviation technology.[5] This was evident in his adept response to a proposal from Senator Royal S. Copeland (D-NY) to mobilise the airlines for a two-day exercise during the military’s 1937 summer manoeuvres. The mobilisation plan, based on a preliminary study from 1922 was, in Gorrell’s estimation, an outdated, vague, and ham-fisted approach. Having carefully studied the plans as they related to the exercise, he calmly concluded that should they proceed with the plan in its current form; the cumulative effect would result in a seven-day disruption of the entire airline system and cost the taxpayer approximately $5,000,000. Wisely, the War Department accepted his sage advice and rescinded the order without further argument from the Senator.[6]

C-54
A Douglas C-54 Skymaster of the Military Air Transport Service. Air Transport Command was a precursor to this organisation. (Source: Wikimedia)

Over the next three years, Gorrell assisted by his staff laboured to enhance civil aviation to include navigation aids, aircraft modification, mapping of routes, development of runway aids, and weather stations across the globe for the immediate benefit of commercial aviation and for military use in a war he considered as inevitable.[7]  By the time Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, Gorrell confidently assured General Marshall, now head of the U.S. Army, that the airline industry was readily available to support any contingency.[8] Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gorrell spelt out in a memo circulated to all airlines dated 20 January 1942 reviewing wartime control, industry coordination, and requests from the military and stressed the need for cooperation.[9] Still, relations between civil aviation and the military were not without incident and in 1943 when it appeared progress was stalled; President Franklin Roosevelt briefly contemplated nationalising the airlines. Fearing the possibility of a permanent government takeover of the industry Gorrell, with the support from the Army’s Chief of the Air Corps General Arnold, met privately with Roosevelt and expressed opposition to nationalising America’s commercial airlines. The two men eventually persuaded the President to maintain the current relationship between civil and military authorities whereby the later enlisted rather than commandeered commercial aviation’s support and as history demonstrates, this proved the better choice.[10]

liberator_express_consolidated_c-87_41-11706_281552059443329
Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express (Source: Wikimedia)

Gorrell realised that necessary ingredient for achieving Allied victory in World War II required logistics that, in turn, required expansion of air transportation on a global scale. This was the very thing the U.S. Army Air Corps lacked. The existing bomber bias so pervasive within its pre-war ranks was nowhere more evident than in the inventory of aircraft that, in 1939 amounted to 1,700 – of these, only seventy-five were designated as transport.[11] Without civil aviation’s support encompassing its equipment, expertise, and facilities, expansion of the United States Army Air Force’s transport system was, at best, problematic. During the early stages of the war, the Army relied almost exclusively upon civil aviation’s assistance in transporting men and equipment to Alaska to blunt the Japanese offensive in the Aleutians.[12] Civilian transport also played a crucial role in assisting with securing vital assets in Latin America deemed necessary for the war effort.[13]  With civil aviation’s assistance, the U.S. military went so far as to commandeer civil aircraft used by Axis powers and press them into military service.[14] By 1945, the Army’s Air Transport Command, with Gorrell’s expertise and support, grew to operate 3,386 aircraft consisting of 41,520 officers, 166,026 enlisted, and further backed up by 23,735 civilian technicians.[15] This organisation was a one of a kind operation that successfully performed global missions utilising civil aircraft modified for military use – namely Consolidated’s C-87 (modified from the B-24 bomber), the Lockheed Constellation (designated C-69) and Douglas DC-4 (designated C-54).[16] By war’s end, strategists recognised the value of airlift operations and therefore incorporated this significant component into all future planning and logistics.[17] Another overlooked feature of Gorrell’s contributions to the growth of American air power was the modification centre concept. The management of ‘Mod Centers’ by various airlines across the United States enabled aircraft manufacturers to concentrate on production without stopping to refit for improvements.[18] Overall, Mod Centers were responsible for readying half of all U.S. military aircraft produced for combat during World War II.[19]  Gorrell’s foresight and hard work culminated in not only the expansion and development of aviation technology but forged a successful partnership between civil and military aviation on a global scale. Unfortunately, Edgar Staley Gorrell did not live to see the fruits of his labour. Without warning, he suffered a heart attack and died in the spring of 1945 at age fifty-four. In accordance with his wishes, his remains were cremated and scattered across the parade ground of his alma mater, West Point.[20]

Part One and Three of this article can be found here and here.

Header Image: Newly delivered USAAF Consolidated C-87-CF Liberator Express transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, Fort Worth, Texas, in October 1942. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] E.R. Johnson, American Military Transport Aircraft Since 1925, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2012), p.3.

[2] Theodore J. Crackle, ‘Roots of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet,’ Air Power History, 45(4) (1998), p.30.

[3] ‘Notable, of course, is the fact that the new (Civil Aeronautics) Act imposes a comprehensive system of economic regulations of air carriers, heretofore lacking, which is, as the Interstate Commerce Commission has said, if anything more comprehensive than that applying to railroads.’ Address delivered by Col. Edgar Gorrell entitled ‘Progress Ratified: Lethargy Rejected’ delivered at ATA’s Experimental Station located in Indianapolis, IN on 29 May 1939. Courtesy of Norwich University Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945

[4] Edgar Gorrell’s address to the Boston’s Chamber of Conference on Transportation 14 January 1937. Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945

[5] Crackle, ‘Roots of the civil reserve air fleet,’ p.32.

[6] Ibid. 33-4.

[7] Roger Bilstein, Airlift and Airborne Operations in World War II (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museum Program, 1998), pp.10-1.

[8] Reginald M. Cleveland, Air Transport At War (New York, NY: Harper & Bros. Publishing), pp.17-9.

[9] Ibid, p.19.

[10] Ibid, pp. 1-2.

[11] Bilstein, Airlift and Airborne Operations in World War II, p .3.

[12] Jack El-Hai, Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp.91-2.

[13] Crackle, ‘Roots of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet,’ pp.40-1.

[14] Dan Hagedorn, Alae Supra Canalem – Wings Over the Canal: The Sixth Air Force and the Antilles Air Command (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 1995), pp.105-7.

[15] Johnson, American Military Transport Aircraft since 1925, p.7.

[16] Ibid, pp.145-46, 113-14, and 95-7.

[17] Bilstein, Airlift and Airborne Operations in World War II, pp.14-5.

[18] Cleveland, Air Transport at War, pp. 282-83.

[19] Ibid, pp. 282-309.

[20] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), p.34.

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2 thoughts on “A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 2: The Emerging Role of Civil Aviation in Air Transport

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