“Penguins Don’t Fly”: The Senate Military Affairs Committee, Secretary of War Baker, and Aircraft Production, 1918

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

On April 6, 1917, America entered World War I. On June 8, 1917, public announcement was made that a great fleet of 20,000 airplanes was about to be created and would be decisive of the war, months before an effective army could be put in Europe. On July 24, 1917, Congress appropriated $640,000,000 to carry out the aircraft program. This fund was, either by actual expenditure or by commitments, exhausted and a further appropriation of $884,304,758 was found necessary. Despite the monies being made available and the energies of the War Department and the American aircraft industry being expended to create fleets of aircraft to take part in the war in Europe, a year had gone by since America’s entry into the war and actually little had been accomplished. Finally, the Senate Committee on Military Affairs was directed by a Senate resolution adopted April 30, 1918, to investigate aircraft production in the United States. [1]

The Senate Committee on Military Affairs appointed a subcommittee, headed by Charles S. Thomas (D-Colorado), to carry out the investigation. It held its first hearing on May 29, 1918.[2]

During June, July, and August hundreds of witnesses were called upon to testify and be questioned about the problems associated with aircraft production. By the second week in August, the subcommittee was nearing the end of its work and called upon Secretary of War Newton D. Baker to appear before the subcommittee.

Baker, who had been Secretary of War since March 9, 1916, appeared before the subcommittee on August 9. Present were Senator Thomas presiding, Harry S. New (R-Indiana), James A. Reed (D-Missouri), and Joseph S. Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey). The questioning began with Senator New.

Senator New: Mr. Secretary, I have just a few questions that I would like to ask you with reference to aircraft matters. Are you acquainted with the conditions of the country’s aircraft program?
Secretary Baker: In a general way.
Senator New: What is the general situation with regard to it?
Secretary Baker: In what particular?
Senator New: Is it satisfactory or otherwise?
Secretary Baker: I do not like to indulge in generalities about it. The aircraft program is being worked upon by the largest number of most expert persons we can find, and progress is being made. It is not such progress as the country desires to see made, but it is the best that we have been able to do.
Senator New: Has this country produced any combat planes that are now in use with our forces abroad?
Secretary Baker: I cannot answer that. I do not know.
Senator New: Is it not a matter of official record in the War Department that there are no American-made airplanes now in use by our Army in France?
Secretary Baker: It was some time ago. I do not know what the present status is.
Senator New: You are Secretary of War.
Secretary Baker: Yes.
Senator New: And that is certainly a very important bureau of the War Department, is it not?
Secretary Baker: Obviously. [3]

Baker continued to be grilled by the subcommittee and the hearing became somewhat contentious. This became even more so after Senator Reed asked “is it not time to stop Mr. Creel[4] sending out his false statements and false pictures about aeroplanes?” Baker asked what he was referring to. Reed mentioned that the Division of Pictures, Committee on Public Information at the end of March 1918 had stated that a particular photograph showed airplanes ready for shipment to France, and that it had stated hundreds had already been shipped and that thousands would soon follow. [5] This exchange was followed by more discussion about photographs and misleading information.

Image of plane and caption.
Breese Penguin. NAID 17341872.

Eventually, Senator Reed stated: I have a letter from Mr. Creel in which he denies the statement in the paper that he had sent out the pictures of Penguins[6] as flying machines in France. There is the very picture that he sent out. [Handing a photograph to the Secretary.] And it is labeled on the back “American planes,” as you will see. That is the original label placed on there.
Secretary Baker: That does not say “American planes.”
Senator Reed: What does it say?
Secretary Baker: Aviation. Planes at an American aviation field in France.
Senator Reed: They are not aviation planes; they are Penguins that cannot fly.
Secretary Baker: I think that is straining the point, Senator.

Senator Reed: He denied to me that he had sent out the pictures of Penguins as planes.
Secretary Baker: Penguins are planes.
Senator Reed: Do you think that any man representing this Government and sending out a propaganda such as I have read to you about our perfect planes and then put out a lot of pictures of these little Penguins with that sort of label is not engaged in deliberately trying to deceive the American public?
Secretary Baker: I do not think your inference is justifiable.
Senator New: To be sure it does not say that these are “American planes.”
Secretary Baker: Nor does it say they are combat planes or fighters or anything else.
Senator New: It says that they are planes at an American [field]

Senator Reed: They are planes that run on the ground used for beginners to practice with.
Senator New (reading): “Planes at an American aviation field in France.” Is not the whole import of that misleading to the public? Do you not think it was intended to impress the public with the fact that those were American planes?
Secretary Baker: I cannot answer either of those questions. I can only say that as far as I am concerned its effect on me is that it is a truthful statement.
Senator Reed: You do not think it was deceiving the public?
Secretary Baker: I do not think so. It would not deceive me.
Senator Reed: You would not know they were Penguins yourself if I had not told you.
Secretary Baker: No, sir. [7]

Continuing the discussion,

Senator Reed: What would be the use of sending out to the public pictures of little Penguins? What is the object of that? [8]

Secretary Baker: The only part of this that appeals to me is that this does not say that this is an American-made plane. It does not say that this is a combat plane, but gives information in the language characteristic of these pictures, and this seems to be a harmless picture to me.
Senator Reed: It is deceptive, because if the public had been told the truth it would say that it was a picture of three little machines impressed with the fact that we were prepared over there to create devastation.
Senator New: The Penguin is not an advanced training plane, but it is a training plane, but it does not leave the ground.
Secretary Baker: It is the A. B. C.’s of the business, the grasshopper type.
Senator Reed: “No. 12470. Aviation. Planes at an American field, France.” What would you get from that?
Secretary Baker: I think that is a practically colorless description. It might be of any kind of planes.
Senator Reed: But if it was coupled with the words “American aviation field,” would you understand there was anything there except some French planes?
Secretary Baker: In view of what has been stated in our newspapers; our papers have carried the story over and over again that there was nothing there except the French planes.
Senator Reed: On the contrary, there was published in an American paper the statement that we had gotten in great quantity production and were sending over enormous quantities of planes, and that was followed by Mr. Creel’s statement on March 28. Following those bombastic and false statements these pictures are shown to the public.
Secretary Baker: They are all French planes.
Senator Reed: Planes in an American aviation field.
Senator New: Yes; but they are all French training planes, and if you look at them closely you can see the French names on them.

Senator Reed: As late as May 28 this picture was sent out, showing your picture over there where you are looking at those planes. Those certainly are French planes.
Secretary Baker: Those are, certainly, and are labeled as nothing else.
Senator Reed: I have the labels.
Senator New: I think it is perfectly plain that those pictures were issued by Mr. Creel’s bureau with the express intention and purpose of misleading and deceiving the American public, and I think it is perfectly plain on the face of it that that was his intention.
Senator Reed: Mr. Secretary, I have gone far enough. I can pursue this thing if it has not been completely demonstrated. Either wittingly or unwittingly this man has given the American public to understand that we had a great and successful air program. As a matter of fact, you know today and we know to-day that the aeroplane program up to this date is a conspicuous failure—a very sad fact, and one that we regret—and that the only thing we can do now is to put our best foot forward and try to remedy these evils. [9]

Continuing,

I do not care that this thing be exposed more than need be, but I do think we ought to stop that sort of thing and we ought to go on and try to get some planes built, and I am calling attention to this not from any trifling reason but because I think the thing to do now is to tell the American people very plainly that they will have to abide with patience.
Secretary Baker: I do not draw from those pictures the same inferences that you do. Mr. Creel did not know anything about aircraft. Mr. Creel had not had the advantage of sitting in with this committee. Pictures came to Mr. Creel showing aeroplanes in the air and on the ground. People told him that that picture would interest the American people and he issues the picture, and I think there is nothing in any of the descriptions which have been shown me beyond some language of hyperbole, and I think there is nothing indicating any intent on Mr. Creel’s part to deceive the public.
Senator Reed: Outside of the fact that he has not stated the truth.
Secretary Baker: He has overstated the perfection of the Liberty motor and he has overstated the quantities of the machines undoubtedly.
Senator Reed: And he has led the American public to understand that we have a vast number of machines over there, American machines. And he has been furnishing the American public with these pictures of French machines under the label “American aviation field,” and when his attention is called to it he undertakes to defend it and to insist that it is true, and this country is to-day carrying these same pictures in the newspapers. Now, I think it ought to be stopped. I would rather stop it here than on the Senate floor, but it must be stopped.
Senator New: You say that Mr. Creel has not had the opportunity to sit in with this committee and hear the evidence which has been produced here. That is true, but it is also true that time and time again, repeatedly, have statements been made by the members of this committee to the effect that Mr. Creel’s statements were untrue and were not supported by the facts. They have no further effect upon Mr. Creel, apparently, than to cause him to redouble his output and no attention has ever been paid to an authoritative word uttered by any member of this committee. Mr. Creel, apparently, at least, acts upon the statements made by people who do not know what they are talking about.
Secretary Baker: With the greatest deference to you, I think you are unjust to Mr. Creel. The legends on those pictures are out of proportion. The words he uses imply quantities which do not exist, but a picture containing the phrase, “Planes at an American field in France,” is absolutely and literally true, and to say that that deceives the American people because they will imagine that they are combat planes. [10]
Senator Reed: You must take that in connection with the statement which I read to you, that we have these fighting planes on the front, which preceded the sending out of these pictures. I am not interested in it further than that I would like to know whether you sanction it or whether you do not sanction it? [11]

Secretary Baker: I will be happy to say to Mr. Creel that in dealing with the aircraft situation that all such words as “perfect” are misleading.
Senator Reed: You dwell on the word “perfect,” but he has dwelt on the word “quantity” and you have no quantity over there.
Secretary Baker: We have some over there.

At this point the chairman ended the day’s hearing and the subcommittee then adjourned. [12]

The subcommittee submitted its report to the Senate on August 22. On August 25, The New York Times reported “The evidence upon which the Thomas sub-committee of the Senate Military Committee based its indictment of the Army aircraft program was made public this afternoon [August 24]. Senators say it fully bears out the allegations of delay, waste, and failure to adopt successful European types of aircraft set forth in the report which the sub-committee made to the Senate on Thursday.” [13] The criticism of the Army’s aircraft program, led to Secretary Baker on August 28 announcing the appointment of Director of the Aircraft Production Board John D. Ryan, as Second Assistant Secretary of War as well as Director of the Air Service. That day The Washington Post observed that “The change from the dual authority plan to the one-man control system, which is made with the concurrence of the President, is going to be regarded as the direct result of the report made on the aircraft situation last week by the subcommittee of the Senate Military Affair committee. The Senate Subcommittee made sweeping criticisms and recommended the creation of a department of the air, headed by a cabinet officer of equal rank with the heads of the War and Navy departments, and organization of an air service under one man, not alone for this war, but for all time. Baker’s plan partially responds to this recommendation, but it apparently follows the basic idea of concentrating aircraft in the hands of one man.” [14]

On August 31, Baker and Ryan sailed to Europe to, among other things, review the aircraft situation at the Front. The New York Times, observed “It is believed that the report filed by the sub-committee of the Senate Military Committee, which investigated allegations of failure in the American aviation program, served as the mainspring for Baker’ sudden trip.” [15]

By the time Baker and Ryan arrived in Europe, the war was some ten weeks from ending, and the need for the production of American aircraft ended. Not ending however, was the national debate on the question of whether America’s military aviation should become a separate, independent cabinet-level department.


Footnotes

[1] U.S. Senate, Committee on Military Affairs, Aircraft Production in the United States, Senate, 65th Congress, 2nd Session, Report No. 555 August 22, 1918 (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1918), p. 1.

[2] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 1, p. 3.

[3] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1129.

[4] George Creel was the chairman of the Committee on Public Information. This committee was stablished as an independent agency by Executive Order 2594 of April 13, 1917. It consisted of Creel (Chairman) and Secretaries of State, War, and the Navy as ex officio members. Its primary functions were to release government news during World War I and sustain American morale. The Committee’s domestic activities were discontinued after the Armistice was signed, November 11, 1918, and its foreign operations discontinued on June 30, 1919. It was abolished by Executive Order 3154 of August 21, 1919. The records of the Committee, including still photographs, are in the custody of the National Archives in Record Group 63.

[5] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1135.

[6] During World War I the Army wanted to develop a non-flying trainer which would give student pilots the feel of airplane controls at near-flying speeds, without the danger of actual flight. The only aircraft of this type produced was by the Breese Aircraft Corporation of Farmingdale. In late 1917 Breese received a contract for 300 trainers called “Penguins”. The Penguin’s wings were too short and its engine too small to allow it to fly. For a brief descriptions and photographs of the Penguin see Rebecca Hancock Cameron, Training to Fly: Military Flight Training 1908-1945 and Joshua Stoff, The Historic Aircraft and Spacecraft in the Cradle of Aviation Museum (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001), p. 14.

[7] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1137.

[8] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1137.

[9] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1138.

[10] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1139.

[11] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, pp. 1139-1140.

[12] Aircraft production. Hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on military affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, second session, (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1918), vol. 2, p. 1140.

[13] “Aircraft Failure Evidence Bared by the Senate,” The New York Times, August 25, 1918, p. 1.

[14] Albert W. Fox, “Ryan is Air Director,” The Washington Post, August 28, 1918, p. 1.

[15] “Baker in France on New Mission,” The New York Times, September 9, 1918, p. 1.

Leave a Reply