Despite his early opposition to American involvement in World War II, Charles Lindbergh made a significant contribution to Allied victory.
At 9:38 p.m. on Monday, April 24, 1944, a heavily loaded Douglas R4D took off from Naval Air Station North Island, in San Diego Harbor, climbing slowly into the western sky. The Navy and Marine version of the Army’s workhorse C-47, it was bound for Oahu’s Kaneohe, 2,600 miles distant. In command was Captain Charles A. Lorber, a veteran of Pan American Airways’ first flying boats and one of the world’s most experienced transoceanic pilots. Yet among his passengers was one still more experienced: Charles Augustus Lindbergh. America’s “Lone Eagle” was no stranger to North Island, and this departure marked an anniversary. Not quite 17 years earlier, on May 10, 1927, the lanky airman had left North Island on a personal quest that ended triumphantly less than two weeks later at Le Bourget amid thousands of delirious Parisians swarming his Spirit of St. Louis. Now he was embarking on another flight into the unknown: the far Pacific, to fly with its fighting airmen as a civilian technical representative of America’s aircraft industry.
It was risky and potentially lethal. Under different circumstances, Lindbergh might have served—like his friend Jimmy Doolittle—as a senior officer leading combat forces against the Axis. He had trained as an Army pilot before his flight to Paris, and afterward had held a colonel’s reserve commission in the Army Air Corps. But Lindy was barred from active uniformed service, his patriotism having been questioned publicly by no less than the president himself.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bitterness toward Lindbergh dated to 1934, when misguided reformers had convinced the president and Postmaster General James Farley to cancel Hoover-era airmail contracts with the airlines. The cancellation threatened the stability and safety of America’s civil aviation system, and generated an embarrassing and tragic fiasco. Though ill-equipped and ill-trained, Air Corps airmen had taken over flying the mail, suffering 66 accidents and 12 fatalities. Lindbergh forcefully criticized the cancellations, and though many others—including Eddie Rickenbacker, then America’s ace of aces— did so as well, Lindy’s stature as America’s first mega-celebrity earned him a special enmity that lingered long after the administration abandoned its ill-considered scheme.
But there was still more: Like his congressman father (who had opposed American entry into World War I), Lindbergh was a staunch isolationist, though not a reflexive pacifist. In the 1930s, he had traveled to many countries, including Nazi Germany. There, he had inspected its production plants, flown various aircraft (including an early Messerschmitt Bf-109) and met with leading Nazi air officials, scientists, engineers and designers. During one trip, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had casually sidled up to Lindbergh at a dinner at the U.S. embassy, presenting him with the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to world aviation. Those present did not think it unusual—Lindbergh had received many such foreign decorations—but it furnished critics ammunition for unfounded accusations that he supported the Nazi regime.
In fact, the Nazi aeronautical establishment alarmed him. Lindbergh labored strenuously to strengthen American air preparedness, writing detailed reports on what he had seen and serving on the main committee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (where he urged accelerating the pace of American aeronautical research) and on an Air Corps survey board whose work Air Corps chief Maj. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold judged “inestimable” for its value to American air rearmament.
A preparedness isolationist, Lindbergh clashed publicly with Roosevelt, opposing aiding foreign air services if it delayed first reequipping America’s Air Corps and Navy. Arnold felt the same way, but for FDR, Lindbergh’s stance, his acceptance of the German award and his heated rhetoric all meant he must be a Nazi sympathizer. In late April 1941, Roosevelt publicly compared the unassuming airman to the Union’s proConfederate “Copperheads” during the Civil War. Bitterly wounded, Lindbergh resigned his Air Corps commission, writing that “a point of honor is at stake,” and that doing so constituted “the only honorable course to take.”
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed the isolationist movement. Lindbergh noted in his diary there was “nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight,” adding that had he been in Congress, “I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war.” There was no question of his regaining his commission. Hap Arnold recalled after the war that Lindbergh’s work with the America First movement “alienated him permanently from President Roosevelt’s good will.” Instead, Lindbergh turned to industry, insisting that any position offered him must directly contribute to winning the war. His quest took him to the Ford Motor Company, then building its giant Willow Run production plant outside Detroit. He arrived at the plant—after driving virtually nonstop from New England—at 9:30 a.m. on April 2, 1942, and immediately set to work. That afternoon he rode along on a test flight of a Consolidated B-24C Liberator, noting afterward, “I am not overly impressed with the qualities of this bomber.”
Over the next two years, Lindbergh worked strenuously to refine the B-24 into a decent long-range bomber, and also undertook risky high-altitude flights in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, for engine performance analysis and to conduct physiological studies for the Mayo Foundation. While he felt at home in the B-24, he confessed that “I will never grow to like the multiengine ships as well as the smaller ones.” He also joined United Aircraft Corporation as a technical consultant, flying Vought’s powerful F4U Corsair. Then in April 1944, at the advanced age of 42, he volunteered to go overseas as a technical consultant, to study air combat operations in person, flying with pilots half his age.
After Lindbergh arrived in Hawaii, he immediately began flying combat formations and firing on towed target banners, noting to his satisfaction that his gunnery scores were well above average. He visited Midway Atoll as well, where he discussed fighter technology and tactics with Marine pilots and flew more practice sorties. In early May he left by another R4D for the South Pacific, hopping via Palmyra and Funafuti to Espiritu Santo, arriving early in the afternoon of May 8. The New Zealanders were experiencing vibration problems with their Corsairs, and Lindbergh immediately flew several, assessing the problem as a combination of unbalanced propellers and ignition breakdown. Marine Corsair pilots were trying to convert their fighters into dive bombers, so Lindbergh worked to get them proper bomb racks and reliable dive-angle and bomb-release tables.
He flew up to Guadalcanal, landing at Henderson Field on May 19, then on to Green Island, from which he flew his first combat sortie on May 22, part of a group of Corsairs from Marine Air Group 14 accompanying Grumman TBFs, Curtiss P-40s and Bell P-39s, covered by Lockheed P-38s, on a joint-service airstrike against Rabaul. After the strike element had turned for home, the Corsairs strafed buildings on Rabaul and nearby Duke of York Island. Lindbergh riddled a dozen huts and other buildings, noting with satisfaction that “most of the bullets went home,”leaving“dust and fragments flying into the air,” but hoping as well that they found only “soldiers—no women, no children.”
Lindbergh’s belligerency alarmed MAG-14’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Roger Carlson, for as a civilian he was not supposed to actively engage in fighting. Carlson worried that if Lindbergh was shot down the Japanese might execute him out of hand. Lindy logically replied,“They shot you anyway.” So the Marines let him continue flying, justifying his gunnery as “target practice on the way home.”
On May 24, he had an encounter that affected him greatly, about which he wrote repeatedly over the rest of his life. During a reconnaissance along the New Ireland coast, he spotted a Japanese soldier striding across the beach. The man was in the open, helplessly vulnerable to Lindbergh’s six deadly .50-caliber machine guns. But he refused to run from the racing Corsair. Deeply moved by “his bearing, his stride, his dignity,” Lindbergh didn’t fire, instead pulling back and soaring skyward, seeking out other targets for his guns.
Two days later Lindbergh returned to New Ireland, strafing an already-bombed Japanese barge to prevent its repair. The next night he rode with a Navy PT-boat on a nocturnal anti-barge patrol and intelligence collection mission along the New Ireland coast. He accompanied its heavily armed landing party to Tingwan Island, exchanging supplies and food with friendly natives, searching an abandoned plantation and seizing Japanese documents, uncovering a buried arms and fuel cache, and then burning the building and fuel before racing back to port.
By the time Lindbergh left the Solomons for New Guinea aboard a Naval Air Transport Service Douglas R5D on June 14, he had flown with VMF-115, 212, 216, 218 and 222 on a variety of missions, giving him valuable insight into the diverse nature of Marine combat operations. What’s more, he had impressed those with whom he flew. Legendary Marine fighter ace Marion Carl recalled that Lindbergh was “a very good pilot” who “knew an awful lot about the Corsair,” with a habit of lengthy preflights that exasperated Marine pilots eager to get into the air, adding it “didn’t occur to us young bucks at the time that this was the reason he was still around.”
Lindbergh received a no less friendly reception from the Army Air Forces in New Guinea. At Nadzab on June 16, he first flew a sleek twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It proved to be an inauspicious introduction to one of World War II’s finest fighters: Following an hour’s familiarization, a frozen brake nearly caused him to swerve off the runway. After taking an opportunity to sample a Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter flown by Northrop test pilot John Myers, he flew up to Hollandia, New Guinea, on June 16.
Hollandia was home to the 475th Fighter Group, an already legendary band of supremely capable and aggressive Lightning pilots, including standout aces such as group commander Colonel Charles MacDonald and Major Thomas McGuire. Altogether, by the time Japan collapsed, the 475th would down 552 Japanese aircraft at the cost of 60 of its own pilots killed or missing in action, and 18 others lost in accidents. The group had fought and bested some of the most elite squadrons of the Japanese Army Air Force and Imperial Japanese Navy. The Lightning’s primary opponents were the JAAF’s Nakajima Ki-43 and IJN’s Mitsubishi A6M, known to the Allies as the “Oscar” and “Zero,” respectively. To attempt maneuvering with either lightly loaded fighter, especially the Oscar, risked disaster. In a tight-turning aerial knife-fight, each could handily outturn heavier Allied fighters, which (as their speed dropped and G-load increased when their pilots attempted to pull-lead or evade the more agile Japanese planes) risked “departing” in a potentially fatal accelerated stall. Even McGuire—second only to Dick Bong among American fighter aces—perished when his heavily loaded Lightning snaprolled into the ground as he tried to out-turn an Oscar at low altitude. The secret was to remain high, keep speed up, pick the terms of combat and then use the P-38’s heavy firepower at minimal range to obliterate the lightly structured and inadequately armored Japanese fighters.
Lindbergh’s arrival took MacDonald and his pilots by surprise, but they immediately adopted him as one of their own. He took off on his first combat mission just 24 hours after first landing at Hollandia. MacDonald led McGuire, Major Meryl Smith and Lindbergh on an offensive sweep along the coast to Kaiboes Bay, hoping to run into Japanese aircraft. Instead, they encountered “quite accurate” flak that Lindbergh found “a little too close for comfort.” Prudently breaking off to look for Japanese barges and coastal luggers, they found several and enthusiastically strafed them, Lindbergh crossing a forested ridge at less than 10 feet before strafing one that exploded under the fire of his four .50-calibers and single 20mm cannon.
After this introduction to Lightning operations, Lindbergh settled in, flying a variety of sweeps, strafing and bombing missions, the latter with the P-38 carrying a 1,000-pound bomb with a 10-second delayed fuze (“Our bombing,” he confessed in his diary after one raid, “is very poor”). Repeatedly the 475th hoped to engage enemy aircraft, but few opportunities presented themselves. Instead the squadron’s pilots strafed and bombed the ever-present barges, and Lindbergh was pleased to find that with such practice his accuracy, already more than acceptable, reached even higher standards.
On July 3, MacDonald led 12 P-38s from Hollandia as top cover for a B-24 strike against a Japanese airfield at Jefman, with Lindbergh leading a flight of four. Over Jefman, the 16 Libs unloaded their deadly cargo, Lindbergh noting that “hardly a bomb missed its mark.” Once the bombers were heading home, MacDonald crossed over to the Waigeo islands to hunt for barges. The marauding Lightnings found several and left them in flames before, singly and in pairs, they broke for home. Finally only Lindbergh and his wingman remained, and after several more passes they too turned back, making a precautionary landing on Owi Island so the wingman could refuel. While Lindbergh landed with 260 gallons of fuel remaining, his wingman had just 70, yet both had left that morning with identical amounts.
Back at Hollandia, Lindbergh’s fuel conservation astonished and delighted his fellow airmen. Operating their Allison engines at high rpm and on auto-rich settings, they were unknowingly wasting both fuel and range. Long-range cruise control had been a Lindbergh specialty since his Paris flight, and he had studied the problem extensively while serving as a technical adviser to Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways. He called a meeting that night and instructed the pilots to operate their engines at low rpm, not high, and at auto-lean, not auto-rich. The next day the 433rd Squadron departed on another Jefman mission. Afterward Lindbergh noted they “Landed on Hollandia strip at 1517. Lowest man reported 160 gallons of fuel in his tanks after the 6 hr 40 min flight, making me feel that the talk last night was worthwhile.”
In early July, an old bugaboo resurfaced: Lindbergh’s status as an ostensible noncombatant. An Australian inquiry triggered higher-level interest in his role, and on July 10 theater commander General Douglas MacArthur ordered him to Australia. Lindbergh arrived in Brisbane on July 12 and immediately met Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, Far East Air Forces commander and MacArthur’s air boss. Kenney was adamant that Lindbergh not fly combat, allowing him only the right to self-defense if attacked, and informing him that he would prefer Lindy saw the war from a bomber. (“I told him I didn’t like to get shot at unless I could shoot back,” Lindbergh noted afterward). MacArthur greeted the airman more effusively, particularly when informed that Lindbergh could extend the P-38’s operating radius to as much as 750 miles, something the old campaigner called “a gift from heaven” if it could be done. So Lindbergh returned to New Guinea with a somewhat mixed official blessing, returning to work.
Unknown to Lindbergh, his time with the 475th was rapidly drawing to a close. On July 28, he flew as “Blue 3” on a 433rd Squadron fighter sweep over the Vogelkop Peninsula. Over the Amahai airstrip the Lightnings spotted two Mitsubishi Ki-51 “Sonia” ground attack airplanes of the JAAF’s 73rd Independent Flying Squadron. One escaped to the safety of the airfield’s flak shield, but the Lightnings trapped the second. Ably and bravely flown by Captain Saburo Shimada, the 73rd’s commanding officer, it turned toward Lindbergh, settling into a head-on run, its pilot boldly pitting his two 12.7mm machine guns against the Lightning’s heavier armament. As the two planes raced toward each other, Lindbergh calmly held his sight steady on the Ki-51’s engine, firing continuously and hitting it repeatedly. The Sonia abruptly pitched up “with extraordinary sharpness,” Shimada likely mortally wounded and reflexively snatching the stick. It passed so close that Lindbergh could see the cooling fins on its radial engine, and his Lightning jolted from the disturbed wake of the stricken aircraft. As Lindbergh turned back, he saw the Sonia roll into a diving wingover, ending in a “fountain of spray” in the waters of Elpaputih Bay.
On August 1, Lindbergh had two close calls during a strike deep into the Pacific against Palau. MacDonald led four P-38s north to the tiny island, encountering a small Japanese patrol craft and strafing it until it was a drifting, smoking wreck. Two seaplanes appeared, and MacDonald flamed one of them. Lindbergh saw a landplane and nearly opened fire before realizing, fortunately, that it was a P-38 whose pilot had raced ahead. The eager airman shot down his own victim, and MacDonald got another. Then Lindbergh providentially looked behind in time to see, high at his 6 o’clock, a diving Zero. He called out the threat and then looked to his own survival, ramming his throttles and rpm forward, to 60 inches manifold pressure and 3,000 rpm. Too low to dive, he could only hunch down, protected by his armor plate, thinking of his wife and family during “an eternity of time” as the Zero closed from behind. But nothing hit his plane. Instead, the rest of the flight had shot it down. Sobered by Lindbergh’s close call, the four Lightning pilots returned to base.
The fallout from Lindbergh’s two air-to-air encounters played out over the next two weeks. The easygoing MacDonald received a 60-day grounding from Brig. Gen. Paul Wurtsmith, Kenney’s chief of V Fighter Command, for letting Lindbergh fly combat. Not unsympathetic to the fighter leader, Wurtsmith let MacDonald take the grounding as leave, so that he could return to the States and meet an infant son for the first time. (MacDonald subsequently returned, finishing the war as a 27-victory ace). Meanwhile, Lindbergh completed several more sorties strafing barges and ships, though without further aerial encounters.
Then on August 13 he received notice that Kenney was prohibiting him from flying on any more combat missions. “I owed him a debt of real gratitude for increasing the combat range of our fighter planes,” Kenney later wrote. “It was going to pay heavy dividends for the rest of the war and I appreciated what he had done, but I was getting worried for fear he would get shot down.” Lindbergh briefly lectured P-47 squadrons on how they could improve their own fuel economy, making test flights in a borrowed “Jug” to develop reliable data. Following final meetings in Brisbane with MacArthur, Kenney (who recalled he asked Lindbergh “not to tell anyone back home about being in combat as long as the war lasted”) and Wurtsmith, he flew back to Espiritu Santo on August 25, riding a big Consolidated PB2Y-3R Coronado flying boat operated by Pan American.
But Lindbergh did not immediately return to the States. Instead, he went on to the Marshall Islands, visiting Roi and the F4U-1D Corsair squadrons of Marine Air Group 31, commanded by Colonel Calvin R. Freeman. Japanese fighters weren’t a problem in the Marshalls, for Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat pilots had already shot them out of the skies. But the Corsairs faced occasionally intense anti-aircraft fire on their ground attack missions, divebombing with 1,000-pound bombs, and they wanted to hit targets harder and with greater effect. Three months earlier, Lindbergh had helped Corsair squadrons in the Solomons get proper bomb racks and dive tables. Now he worked to increase the ordnance payload of those in the Marshalls.
He flew his first sortie with MAG-31 on September 2, an attack by 20 Corsairs against Taroa Island, each dropping a single 1,000-pound bomb. The bent-wing fighters dived at 60 degrees from 8,000 feet, releasing at 3,000 feet. Most of the bombs, Lindbergh reported, landed in the target area, starting a fuel fire. The next day, however, he showed they could take off with three 1,000-pound bombs (the first time it had ever been done with a Corsair), dropping them singly against gun positions on Wotje Island. Convinced the F4U-1D Corsair could carry a 4,000-pound bombload, he worked with a young Marine engineering officer to design and fabricate a suitable centerline rack capable of carrying a 2,000- pound bomb.
On September 8, Lindbergh dropped a 2,000-pounder on Wotje, proving the feasibility of carrying the larger bomb. Then, on September 13, he took off with one 2,000-pound and two 1,000-pound bombs. While his subsequent attack was not perfect because the heavy bombload changed the trimming characteristics of the Corsair, his bombs nevertheless hit a naval gun installation. Lindbergh noted jubilantly in his diary, “I could not have selected a better target even if it had been intentional.” The next day, following a final conference on the bomb trials, he left for the States, arriving on September 16.
Even then Lindbergh’s war was not over. After Nazi Germany collapsed, he went to Europe as part of a Navy technical mission, confronting the horror of Nazi slave labor at the Dora concentration camp, which had furnished prisoners who were worked to death in Nordhausen’s Mittelwerk rocket and jet factory. Nazi science, he concluded, had exemplified “truth unguided by moral principles….The German scientist had partaken of a fruit from which death had surely followed.” After the war, though he remained active in aviation (even regaining his reserve commission and a reserve generalship in the U.S. Air Force), he increasingly sought common ground between technology, society and the natural world, seeking to assist native peoples such as those he had encountered in the Solomons and New Guinea.
Charles Lindbergh died in 1974, a complex and resolute man: aviator, philosopher, political and social activist, critic and warrior. Though he was a consummate and deadly combat pilot, he never lost his humanity and decency, even when confronting opponents who behaved with astonishing brutality and cruelty. Few who flew in World War II could lay claim to greater courage, or to having made a greater contribution to the Allied aerial victory.
Dick Hallion is a former U.S. Air Force historian and author of numerous aviation books and articles. For additional reading, he recommends: The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, by Charles A. Lindbergh; 475th Fighter Group, by John Stanaway; Charles A. Lindbergh: An American Life, edited by Tom D. Crouch; and Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle Against American Intervention in World War II, by Wayne S. Cole.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.