Air force visionary Paul Beck’s scandalous demise clouded his impressive legacy.
“The gun exploded and blew Beck’s head off,” reported The New York Times. “It was the dramatic outcome of a social evening among friends, the location of the tragedy in one of the most fashionable homes in town.” The controversy surrounding Paul Beck’s death on April 4, 1922, marked an ignoble end to the life of a U.S. Army officer who had done much to advance military aviation.
Retired Oklahoma Supreme Court Commissioner Jean P. Day claimed he killed Lt. Col. Beck when the gun accidentally discharged during a fight. Day said he caught Beck—a recent widower then serving as commander of Henry Post Army Airfield at Fort Sill, Okla.—making improper advances toward his wife, Aubie. He told reporters, “Could any red-blooded American do anything else when his confidence is violated, his home invaded and his faithful wife insulted and violently attacked!” Neither the sheriff nor the district attorney believed the judge at the time, but the coroner’s jury ruled Day had been justified in killing Beck “in the course of protecting his home and his wife’s honor.” Nevertheless, an Army board of inquiry ruled that Beck had died in the line of duty, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
Born in 1876 at Fort McKavett, Texas, the son of Brig. Gen. Henry W. Beck and Rachel Tongate, Paul Ward Beck enlisted in the Army in 1899 and served in the Philippines during the uprising there. A brilliant student, he graduated from three Army schools: Infantry, Cavalry and Signal Corps. In 1907 he was assigned to the Signal Corps and stationed at Benicia, Calif.
Beck was later detailed to the Signal Corps’ Aeronautical Division, where he would have a profound impact on military aviation’s earliest years. At the first-ever American International Air Meet, held in January 1910 in Los Angeles, he claimed to have pioneered the theory of bombing when he “first put into effect the idea of dropping projectiles from a moving aeroplane.” During the meet he and Farman III pilot Louis Paulhan dropped several sandbags, weighing about two pounds each, from 250 feet, aiming at painted targets. The closest missed by 58 feet. According to Beck, they were “the first bomb[s] that there is any record of having been dropped from a heavier than air machine.”
The following year Beck was appointed secretary of the San Francisco International Air Meet as well as its chief of the flying field. The San Francisco Examiner reported that Beck was “one of the leading aviators in the Army.” The January meet was the first in which the U.S. military participated, according to the Examiner,“with officers of both the army and navy…detailed in carrying out experiments to determine the value of the aeroplane as applied to modern warfare and to make careful and minute notes of the work for future military use.”
It was reportedly the first time a military encampment was observed and photographed from the air. Other reported firsts included: aerial reconnaissance to locate military units that were attempting to avoid detection; dropping live bombs specifically designed for aircraft; a wireless transmission from an airplane; mock dogfights; aerial mapping; and a takeoff and landing from a naval ship (when Eugene Ely flew on and off the armored cruiser Pennsylvania).
Beck himself was one of the first men to transmit a wireless message from a plane to a ground station. On January 21, Associated Press reporter Guy Moysten penned a message “without letting [Beck] see what it was.” Flying as a passenger in a Wright Military Flyer, Beck unfolded the message and, using a wireless set that sat in his lap, sent the first “aerogram” to a receiving station 40 miles away: “Scotford is not the only birdman on the committee” (a reference to Frederick Scotford, chairman of the meet’s executive committee). “We are three hundred feet up and riding level,”he added.“It is cold. It is bumpy.”
Beck was assigned to take flying lessons from aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis, becoming one of the first four Army and Navy aviation students to earn his pilot’s license. In March 1911, he was appointed commander of the provisional aero company at Fort Sam Houston, Texas—a move that slighted Captain Benjamin D. Foulois, up until then the Army’s only aviator, creating a rift between the two men. In his autobiography, Foulois would claim he had been punished because he “openly clashed with Beck.” Foulois was transferred to a desk job in Washington under a rule limiting an officer’s detachment from his service branch to a maximum of four years, the so-called Manchu Law. That rule became an impediment to the advancement of military aviation, since pilots had to be transferred back to their branches at the end of the four-year stint. Foulois was so bitter that he considered resigning his commission. He would later be elevated to chief of the Air Service during World War I.
Under Beck’s command the aero company formed a flight training facility and flew its first operational missions, including surveillance along the Mexican border. In 1912 Beck was transferred back to the infantry, due to the Manchu Law. Historian Dwight R. Messimer noted that during Beck’s brief stint as company commander he incurred the wrath of several superior officers.
Although Beck was officially out of military aviation, he became the first man to publicly advocate an independent air force, via an article in the Infantry Journal, “Military Aviation in America: Its Needs.” Besides promoting a separate air organization within the Army, he proposed a rigorous pilot selection process followed by one year of flight school (a combination of ground school and pilot training), pilot certification, regular medical examinations, distinctive uniforms, badges and “some distinguishing collar ornaments.” Beck also specified that only commissioned officers should become pilots, and he called for flight pay and allowances, the development of strategic and tactical aircraft and a cadre of enlisted personnel trained to perform aircraft maintenance. Although Beck’s superiors ridiculed his proposals, he lobbied Congress to authorize an independent air force. In February 1913, he managed to persuade Congressman James Hay to introduce legislation that would establish a semi-autonomous Air Corps with Beck at its head. “The bill and Beck’s self-serving role and show of raw ambition were resented by his peers and infuriated his superiors,” wrote Messimer. “He was the only military man to testify in favor of the legislation at the Congressional hearings.” Moreover, as historian DeWitt Copp pointed out, Captains Foulois, Billy Mitchell and “Hap” Arnold then favored “keeping aviation in the Signal Corps.”
A version of the bill did become law in 1914, but instead of establishing an autonomous air force, it created an Aviation Section within the Signal Corps, sans Beck. The new law did suspend the Manchu Law as it applied to pilots, and authorized an increase in Signal Corps personnel dedicated to aircraft operation and maintenance, as well as flight pay and pilot commission qualification.
Ironically, it would be Mitchell and Foulois, serving as commanders in the Army’s air arm during World War I, who implemented Beck’s other ideas. Toward the conflict’s end President Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Army Air Service by executive order. As an independent wartime branch, the new service was effectively removed from the Signal Corps—essentially vindicating Beck’s controversial campaign.
Beck himself served in the infantry during the war, but in 1920 he transferred back into military aviation. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was appointed commandant of Fort Sill’s Henry Post Airfield. At that point it seemed things were finally looking up for him—until Judge Day caught him in flagrante delicto with his wife.
A year after the Oklahoma City incident the judge and his wife divorced, lending credence to gossip that Mrs. Day might have shared some culpability in the circumstances leading to Beck’s death. Even so, the scandal destroyed his reputation and relegated him to historical obscurity. To further diminish his memory, Billy Mitchell would be widely credited with fathering the idea of a separate air force—even though Paul Beck had been the first to advocate the concept.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.