A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 3: Postscript

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 3: Postscript

By Johannes Allert

The lingering question remains as to why Edgar Gorrell is repeatedly misidentified as a stalwart advocate for strategic bombing. One clue, in particular, involves his analytical work compiled in the First World War entitled ‘The Future Role of American Bombardment Aviation.’ The plan above called for a robust air campaign aimed at German industry designed to break both German production and morale; however, the plan was shelved once Armistice was declared.[1] Withdrawing from the world’s stage, America quickly re-embraced isolationism. Yet, air strategists in their stubborn willfulness remained convinced that subsequent wars required sufficient strategies and weapons designed to mitigate problems associated with trench warfare.[2] Then, in 1935, technology and theory merged with the development of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the coincidental discovery of Gorrell’s of plans by a fervent disciple of “Billy” Mitchell – Lieutenant Laurence S. Kuter, later a General. This serendipitous moment reinforced his existing argument for strategic bombing in lectures he conducted at Maxwell Army Air Base. Believing strategy and technology could transition from theory to reality, the impressionable young Lieutenant arranged a meeting with its author to verify the data. Upon arrival, Kuter was surprised to discover Gorrell invited former members of his staff to corroborate the information. To a man, each concurred that the Lieutenant’s lecture matched the original plans. Vindicated, Kuter departed for Maxwell confidently stating:

We may return to our steel desks considerably refreshed by the knowledge that our school plans and our theories are not only supported by, but [are] identical with the plans of the level headed commanders in the field when the grim realities of actual war demanded effective employment.[3]

raid_by_the_8th_air_force
A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during the raid on the Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg, 9 October 1943. (Source: NARA)

Overlooked in the young Lieutenant’s statement, was the slight detail involving ‘employment of effective plans’ that, in reality never occurred. Furthermore, aircrews did not fly steel desks and the advent of the Second World War revealed a savage reality of aerial combat consisting of unexpected headwinds, radio interference, dispersed targets obscured by cloud cover, and skies filled with flak and fighters. Only the arrival in late 1944 of long range Allied fighter escort in substantial numbers alleviated the bomber’s plight. Kuter simply made a mistake common to us all – he saw what he wanted to see. Gorrell and his staff merely reinforced it.

Thus, the combination of events served as the catalyst for initiating a narrow and ideologically driven agenda. History, however, reveals Gorrell’s penchant for tackling any project assigned to him by meticulous analysis and hard work. Consequently, his recognition of aviation’s vast potential resulted in expansion and development of airlift capability that far surpassed his ‘significant achievement’ of 1918. It is also interesting to note that while analysis of his bombing study receives frequent coverage, his ‘Gorrell Histories’ remains virtually untouched. This is ironic given the fact that its intended purpose was to ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future.’[4] Furthermore, the manner that Gorrell’s obituary was written indicates Kuter, another West Point alum, as partly responsible for crafting the legacy of the late air executive to reinforce the ‘bomber mafia’ narrative. Gorrell’s ‘mistaken identity’ simply coincided with the leading aviation proponents’ narrative. Consequently, his death combined with strategic bombing’s overwhelming consensus sufficiently prohibited others from offering a counter-narrative.

Yet, it is the development and expansion of air transportation that endures. The ability to transport and sustain forces globally on a consistent basis in peace and war for over seventy years remains an underappreciated, yet unique and critical feature of the modern U.S. Military arsenal. Whether it is airlift’s support in battle or providing humanitarian aid in peacetime, success simply cannot occur without it. Gorrell recognised this early on and, in keeping with his philosophy of constant analysis, laboured ceaselessly to improve and expand it.

Similarly, it is the task of the historian to revive and revise Gorrell’s story and contribution. Unlike proponents of strategic precision bombing, historians must instead consider the broader actions and provide a greater contextual understanding of events and individuals of human history.

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

Header Image: A Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp.22-9.

[2] James P. Tate, The Army and its Air Corps: Army Policy toward Aviation: 1919-1941 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1998), pp.166-7.

[3] Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing, pp.58-9.

[4] Edgar S. Gorrell, Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19 Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp.1-4.

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

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

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.

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 1: Early Life

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 1: Early Life

By Johannes Allert

In the following series of posts, Johannes Allert explores Colonel Edgar Gorrell’s role in co-ordinating US civilian aviation assets in support of military aviation strategy during the Second World War.

I came solely to benefit [American] commercial aviation, to try to keep it supreme in the air, [and] to do what I could for national defense.

Edgar Gorrell speaking before the Senate Committee Investigating Air Safety – January 1936

‘Chicago Banker, Air Transport Head, Dies.’ This headline in the Associated Press dated March 5, 1945, informed the world about the passing of Colonel Edgar Staley Gorrell and indicated that the decedent’s work evolved more around finance than flying.[1]  Later that same year his alma mater at West Point paid homage to his career stating his most notable contribution ‘was his formulation of the plan for strategic air bombardment of Germany’ and further asserted his ideas concerning aerial bombing predated those of Mitchell and Douhet.[2] His brief life, however, encompassed far more than the obituaries or a singular doctrine reveal, yet his legacy quickly faded amidst the Allies’ triumph in the World War II and was further overshadowed by Strategic Air Command’s ascent during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, interest in his work reemerged in 1990 with the publication of Marvin Skelton’s article entitled ‘Colonel Gorrell and his nearly forgotten records.’ The author, utilising West Point’s Assembly, reasserts ‘one of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany.’[3] George Williams later countered this assertion arguing Gorrell merely copied theories previously proposed by Major Lord Tiverton and Hugh Trenchard.[4] Rebecca Grant, however, rebuts this notion in her article published in November 2008 and stated Gorrell’s work concerning strategic bombardment was, in fact, the key to allied’ air victory in the Second World War.[5] In actuality, his varied career concentrated on the growth and development of civil aviation yet; historians repeatedly define him as the principle architect responsible for creating the original blueprint designed to target German industry through strategic precision bombing.[6] Further, complicating matters was the fact that, unlike many of his colleagues who frequently engaged in a very public and ideologically driven campaign promoting a bomber-centric doctrine, Gorrell’s preference involved coordination of civil air assets with military airlift operations. As history demonstrates; his results lay in actual achievements that endure today.

Edgar Gorrell’s Early Years

600px-1st_aero_squadron_-_pilots_in_mexico
At field headquarters near Casas Grandes, Mexico, April 1916, dashing airmen Lieutenants Herbert A. Dargue (left), and Edgar S. Gorrell (right) pose with Signal Corps No. 43. (Source: Wikimedia)

Small in stature, yet boundless in energy, Gorrell entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1908. His classmates nicknamed him ‘Nap’ (an abbreviation for Napoleon) and the moniker proved appropriate because, like his namesake, Gorrell was indefatigable. As a young cadet, his interest in aviation blossomed when he witnessed Glen Curtiss complete the final leg of his Albany to New York flight.[7] Briefly serving as an infantry officer, Gorrell quickly transitioned to the Signal Corps and obtained a pilot’s license within its air service section. In 1916, he flew reconnaissance missions in support of General John Pershing’s Punitive Expedition against the elusive Pancho Villa. This marked the first time in American military history where powered flight and ground forces operated jointly. Although the exercise achieved less than expected results, the experience left an indelible impression upon the young aviator.[8] During America’s brief involvement in the First World War, he served under the flamboyant and controversial General William “Billy” Mitchell; however, unlike his superior, Gorrell was short on style and long on substance. While Mitchell sparred with General Benjamin Foulois over control of the America’s emerging Air Service, Gorrell created a detailed and comprehensive air offensive aimed at crippling Germany’s industrial centre. Although hostilities ceased before his plans were implemented, they were later resurrected and used as a template in the Army Air Force’s bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War.[9]

Following the Armistice, Gorrell further burnished his credentials by chronicling America’s aviation efforts in the Great War as part of the Army’s official history – a project concocted by the general staff as an instructional aide for future wars. However, in a rush to demobilise, many perceived the gathering and analysis of squadron operations as an unnecessary task, yet Gorrell embraced the challenge and delivered a detailed report never published but often referred to as ‘The Gorrell Histories.’[10] He later incorporated aspects of his experiences in the Great War into academic lectures and speeches where he effectively debunked two myths concerning America’s involvement in the First World War. The first pertained to the ‘Billion Dollar Bonfire’ propagated by the media criticising the U.S. military’s disposal procedures of surplus aircraft at war’s end. Countering the charge of carelessness on the part of the Air Service that sent taxpayer’s dollars up in smoke, Gorrell provided a comparative analysis revealing the cost break down and the logic behind the disposal procedure.[11] Secondly, he argued that despite early setbacks associated with coordinating aircraft production congruent with allied war aims, American industry succeeded in supporting the Allied war effort by producing quality tools and equipment including the lighter and more reliable Liberty aircraft engine based upon the British Rolls-Royce design. From this and other experiences in his varied and fruitful career, Gorrell repeatedly maintained that careful planning, preparation, and just plain hard work were fundamental ingredients for success.[12]

In the next part, here, we will explore Gorrell’s role the emerging to role of civil aviation in air transport in the US.

Header Image: A Curtiss JN-3 of the US 1st Aero Squadron during the Mexico Expedition of 1916. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] ‘CHICAGO BANKER, AIR TRANSPORT HEAD, DIES.’ Col. Edgar Staley Gorell. 54. President of Air Transport Association of America and Chicago Investment Banker, died today of a heart condition after a brief illness. Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Tuesday, March 6, 1945, http://newspaperarchive.com, (accessed 6 February 2014), p. 1.

[2] Quoting directly from Assembly ‘One of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany. It is difficult in these days. When huge German and Japanese cities lie in heaps of rubble, to appreciate the daring imagination which conceived that plan in 1917 and 1918. No Douhet or Mitchell had yet preached the modern gospel of air power.’ Gorrell’s obituary is reproduced and available on line. Cullum No. 5049. Mar 5, 1945. Died in Wash DC. Age 54 http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/5049/

[3] Marvin Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, Over The Front, 5(1) (1990), pp. 56-71.

[4] George K. William, “The Shank of the Drill’: Americans and Strategical Aviation in the Great War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 19(3) (1996). pp. 381-431

[5] Rebecca Grant, ‘Airpower Genesis,’ Air Force Magazine, 91(11) (2008), pp. 54-57.

[6] At Strategic Air Command’s zenith, Thomas Greer’s ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918’ published in Military Affairs states Gorrell’s plan ‘was a truly striking forerunner of the doctrine which matured years later at the Air Tactical School’ and quotes (then) Major General Laurence Kuter ‘the earliest and least known statement concerning the conception of American airpower.’ Thomas Greer, ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918,’ Military Affairs, 20(4) (1956), p. 214.

[7] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp. 7-8.

[8] Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, p. 56-8.

[9] In James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (Syracuse,: Syracuse University Press, 1968), pp. 54-8, the author chronicles the friction between Mitchell and Foulois. Mitchell arrived in France ahead of his peers and after consulting with various allied air strategists, became the self-declared American authority on air power. Contemptuous of Foulois’ Air Staff, Mitchell frequently referred them as ‘an incompetent lot’ or simply ‘carpetbaggers’ this implies they were newly arrived outsiders out to take credit for his efforts.

[10] Following the Armistice, and order was dispatched to all air units directing each to prepare a history and forward it to the Information Section. However, feedback concerning the order surfaced indicating a lack of enthusiasm for the project since ‘The Z. of A. has no further interest in war. The squadrons have but one idea – getting home. Writing history does not appeal to them.’ Consequently, M.G. Mason Patrick assigned Col. Edgar Gorrell the task of assembling a staff, gathering the information, and submitting a report to include any information that might ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future which would leave unanswered questions that might be asked concerning the Air Service in Europe.’ Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19, Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp. 1-4.

[11] Edgar Staley Gorrell, The Measure of America’s World War Aeronautical Effort (Northfield, VT: Norwich University, 1940) pp.73-7.

[12] Gorrell’s commencement address to the Norwich Corps of Cadets on 7 June, 1937 emphasized the concepts of life time learning, empathy, and above all hard work and diligence in problem solving far outweighs the label of genius. ‘Standing on the threshold of a Profession,’ Graduation Address to the Corps of Cadets Norwich University, Northfield, VT. June 7, 1937. Courtesy of Norwich University Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945