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The 1915 court-martial of Lieutenant Colonel Lewis E. Goodier Sr. is a little-known but significant chapter in the history of the U.S. Air Force. The trial laid bare the U.S. Army Signal Corps’s mismanagement of military aviation and seriously embarrassed the army. The fallout from the scandal put Captain William “Billy” Mitchell in charge of army aviation, where he was able to promote his advanced ideas on air power—namely, that aircraft would be the key to winning future wars.

Although the Signal Corps had bought its first airplane in 1908, by 1915 it still had no coherent plan for developing aviation beyond reconnaissance. From 1908 to 1914, in fact, airplanes had been used to support ground troops on only two occasions. The Signal Corps also had serious personnel problems. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Reber Jr. ran its aviation division as if it were his personal fiefdom; indeed, it seemed to be more of a flying club than a military force. Reber’s second in command, Captain Arthur S. Cowan, was in charge of the flight school and was drawing flight pay, even though he wasn’t a pilot and was taking only occasional flight lessons.

If Cowan disliked an officer for any reason, he simply gave the officer’s name to Reber, who drew up an order to send the officer back to his regiment. For example, after a dispute with First Lieutenant Roy C. Kirtland, a senior pilot, Cowan returned Kirtland to his regiment and hand-picked First Lieutenant William Lay Patterson to replace him. Patterson had no intention of learning to fly, but Cowan nonetheless rated him a junior military aviator, which came with a promotion to captain.

Brigadier General George P. Scriven, the chief signal officer, paid little attention to the aviation division, giving Reber free rein to run it as he pleased. When Scriven let it be known that he intended to give nonflying officers command of all new squadrons as they were formed, the general feeling of the rated pilots was that army aviation should be completely separated from the Signal Corps.

On March 16, 1915, eight disgruntled officers met in secret to talk about the problems in the Signal Corps’s aviation division. The most active participants were First Lieutenant Townsend F. Dodd and Second Lieutenants Byron Q. Jones, Walter R. Taliaferro, and Robert H. Willis. Kirtland, who had instigated the meeting, did not attend because he believed that his presence would give Cowan ammunition to discredit the entire group. After discussing their grievances—chief among them Scriven’s plan to assign nonflying officers to the new command positions, the four-year limit on assignments to aviation, and the lack of a more expansive vision for military aviation—the officers agreed that a congressional investigation of the division was needed. The best way to attract the attention of Capitol Hill lawmakers, they decided, was to file court-martial charges against Cowan on the grounds that he was fraudulently drawing flight pay.

Dodd, who chaired the meeting, directed Jones and Willis to go to Fort Rosecrans in San Diego and obtain copies of Cowan’s pay vouchers and the special orders detailing him to the school. He also directed them to draw up a list of witnesses who would testify against Cowan. 

For help in obtaining legal advice, Kirtland wrote to First Lieutenant Lewis E. Goodier Jr., who was convalescing in Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, asking him to pass on his request to his father, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis E. Goodier Sr., who was the judge advocate of the Western Department of the U.S. Army. On receiving Kirtland’s letter, the senior Goodier responded with a list of the evidence that the men would need to prevail in the case against Cowan. He also directed Kirtland to the specific army regulations governing the dissidents’ actions and provided the format for the charges. Kirtland passed along the reply to Jones, who during the next five weeks exchanged several letters with Goodier. On April 24, 1915, Jones and Taliaferro served Cowan with the charges.

In Washington, D.C., Reber immediately started pulling strings to get the case against Cowan dismissed. His first success was convincing Major General Henry Pinckney McCain, the army’s adjutant general, to have the case moved from California to Washington, where Reber took it over. Next, Major General Enoch H. Crowder, the army’s judge advocate general, added his endorsement—a legal opinion that absolved Cowan of any wrongdoing and ended with, “I do not think he could be convicted of any criminal offense and I do not, therefore, think that any disciplinary action is called for under this charge.” From there the charges and all the endorsements went to Secretary of War Lindley Miller Garrison. 

Although Crowder’s opinion was never tested in court, it had the effect of law in Washington. Garrison dismissed the charges against Cowan. Crowder drew up charges against the senior Goodier, accusing him of violating his duty as a judge advocate to be impartial, fomenting discord in the ranks, and seeking to induce the seven officers to take concerted action against their commanding officer. A general court-martial was then ordered to meet in San Francisco on October 1, 1915, at 10 a.m.

The trial opened on October 18, 1915. The court consisted of Brigadier General William L. Sibert, as president, and 11 field-grade officers as the jury. Captain John T. Geary, a commander in the army’s Coast Artillery Corps, was the judge advocate, which in a military trial is the prosecutor. 

The charge was “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline,” in violation of the 62nd Article of War, with three specifications. The first alleged that Goodier was biased against Cowan. The second alleged that Goodier acted maliciously, with intent to “incite, promote, and foment discord in the official and personal relations” between Cowan and the seven named accusers. The third alleged that Goodier had “sought to induce and persuade” the seven officers to “take concerted action against” Cowan. 

Geary’s strategy was to show that Goodier had taken a poorly organized group of officers and given them leadership and direction. Geary also wanted to raise the possibilities that the junior officers were ignorant of the law governing flight pay and that no crime was committed at all.

Goodier had two legal counsels: Captain Allen J. Greer, an infantry instructor at an army training camp in San Francisco, and William P. Humphreys, a civilian trial lawyer. Greer’s role was to advise Humphreys on military law and procedure. Humphreys was an experienced trial lawyer who had a reputation for capitalizing on any opportunity that came his way. He knew that scandal sold newspapers and swayed juries. But this was a military trial, and Humphreys realized that he had to play it straight and focus on showing that the intent to file charges against Cowan was already well developed before the accusers contacted Goodier. He wanted the court to accept the argument that Goodier was acting within his authority when he gave them legal advice. Humphreys would hammer on the argument that his client did not solicit the contact and did only what the accusers asked of him. 

During the first two days of the trial, Geary showed that Cowan’s accusers and Goodier had operated outside official channels, and that the accusers had failed to take their complaints to the army’s inspector general. He also showed that the accusers had not discussed their suspicions with the aviation school’s second in command, Captain Benjamin Foulois. He also showed that Goodier had urged secrecy in the preparation of the charges against Cowan.

Humphreys’s aggressive style came into play on the first day when he cross–examined Kirtland. He used Kirtland to cast Cowan as an officer who became progressively petty and unreasonable, causing growing dissent among the pilots. Humphreys opened a discussion on Patterson’s fraudulent rating as a junior military aviator. By introducing the issue of Cowan’s flight pay, Humphreys forced Geary to shift from making the case against Goodier to defending Cowan.

That afternoon, as he questioned Jones about Cowan’s flight pay, Humphreys struck gold when Jones told the court: 

I saw a letter in the official files. It was to Captain Cowan from Colonel Reber in which he states, you have to knock some of these youngsters in the head once in a while, so as to keep down the rest, so that they don’t get to feeling that the Signal Corps owed them anything.

In one of the rare times that Greer addressed the court, he rose and said, “We shall ask for all the records at the aviation school at San Diego, and among these we expect to produce this letter which has just been mentioned.” The following morning, the court directed Geary to provide the defense with the entire correspondence file. By the close of the second day, Geary had probably made his case against Goodier, but the dynamic had changed and the trial’s focus had shifted to Cowan and Reber.

By the time Reber took the stand on November 2, his image had been badly tarnished, and his testimony did nothing to improve it. He came across as an officer who believed that he had absolute authority, whose actions were unassailable, and for whom duplicity was routine. His arrogance was unbridled. The press had already painted him as the puppeteer who pulled Cowan’s strings, and his testimony did nothing to change the picture.

Geary’s direct examination of Reber was a disaster. He simply reintroduced the letters that Humphreys had placed in evidence and asked Reber to explain some of his statements in them. Reber’s answers were long winded and peppered with self-importance. He repeatedly admitted his complicity in falsifying Patterson’s rating and Cowan’s eligibility for flight pay. Reber saw no wrong being done because the aviation section was being run the way he wanted it run. 

That attitude was clear when Reber told the court, “If people on the outside would ask questions as to why [Patterson] had not any hours in the air, why, it was none of their concern.”

At 12:30 Sibert adjourned the court for the day. When it reconvened at 10 a.m. on November 3, Reber returned to the stand. Geary quickly wrapped up his direct examination and turned the witness over to Humphreys. Reber was a ripe target for cross-examination, but when the time came, Humphreys failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

The cross-examination lasted just 15 minutes and covered six points—only two of which were important. One was a letter Reber had written to Cowan that included an instruction to destroy the letter after he had read it. The other was a letter Reber had sent to Cowan that contained a cipher Cowan was to use at his discretion. Humphreys read the letter to the court and then introduced it as an exhibit, which caused Reber to haughtily interject: “I don’t object to it. I would be very glad to have it introduced.” There was no reply, but many in the courtroom wondered whether Reber really believed that his authority extended to the court. Reber stepped down from the stand and walked out of the room. “I have no further witnesses,” Geary told the court. “The prosecution rests.”

Humphreys did not offer a lengthy defense. He called his first witness, First Lieutenant Townsend F. Dodd, intending to reinforce previous testimony that Cowan had mismanaged the aviation school almost to the point of criminal negligence. But Dodd’s testimony devolved into a series of technical explanations related to aeronautics—what causes a stall, wing design, angle of attack, and so forth—which no one in the courtroom seemed to understand. Dodd was allowed to step down.

Humphreys then recalled another witness, Colonel James B. Erwin, the Western Department adjutant, to the stand. His testimony was limited to saying that Goodier was a fine fellow and “an able judge advocate.”

At 2:30 p.m., the court adjourned for the day. The first witness scheduled for November 4 was Goodier. When the court reconvened, the room was packed with reporters, who were sure that the defendant would provide the crushing blow to the prosecution. 

In questioning Goodier, Humphreys mostly covered old ground—namely, that Cowan’s accusers had contacted Goodier first and Goodier had agreed to review their evidence and give them a legal opinion on whether they had a case. All that was proper and not out of the ordinary. Humphreys now needed to show that Goodier had drawn up the charges against Cowan without malice and that they were based entirely on the evidence Dodd and Taliaferro had given him. He began by asking Goodier why he had proferred charges against Cowan for his part in Patterson’s fraudulent rating. This point had been covered during the prosecution’s presentation and Humphreys’s cross–examinations. When the court reconvened after lunch, Humphreys led Goodier over the whole business of how he had become involved in the case, what he did and did not do, and why he added the charges against Cowan. Nothing new came from Goodier’s answers, and even the press corps was falling asleep.

Geary’s cross-examination questions were the type calling for yes or no answers, but almost without exception, Goodier went into tiresome legal explications. 

On November 18, 1915, the court, finding Goodier guilty on all three specifications of the charges but not guilty of some parts of each specification, sentenced him to be reprimanded. The sealed verdict went to Crowder, who recommended that the sentence be “carried into execution.” Attached to the memorandum was a two-page executive order prepared for President Woodrow Wilson’s signature.

On February 13, 1916, Crowder formed a board chaired by the army’s inspector general, Brigadier General Ernest A. Garlington, to “examine the conditions respecting the administration of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, with special reference to the disclosures of the record of the trial of Lieutenant Colonel Lewis E. Goodier.” The board, which met from February 17 to March 29, recommended that Scriven be censured and Reber relieved. It also recommended that Cowan and Patterson be made to return the flight pay they had improperly drawn and that Patterson be relieved from aviation duty. 

On April 3, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker (who had succeeded Garrison) censured Scriven and Reber. Two days later Crowder started cleaning house. He relieved Reber and tapped Colonel George Owen Squier to replace him. He selected Captain William “Billy” Mitchell to be the chief of the Aeronautical Division and appointed Colonel William A. Glassford to replace Cowan. News of the shakeup, which marked the closing of the Goodier affair, appeared in the nation’s newspapers on April 18.

With America’s entry into World War I, the removal of army aviation from the authority of the Signal Corps became inevitable. In September 1917, General John J. Pershing separated the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service from the Signal Corps, saying that “aviation was in no sense a logical branch of the Signal Corps.”

The Goodier court-martial literally created Billy Mitchell. Mitchell, who went on to lead the second effort to establish a separate air force and brought about his own court–martial in 1925—10 years to the month after the Goodier proceedings opened in San Francisco. The Army Air Corps record in World War II was the final chapter in the movement to create an independent air force. The U.S. Air Force was established on September 18, 1947. MHQ

Dwight R. Messimer is the author of a dozen books on military and naval history, including, most recently, An Incipient Mutiny: The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Pilot Revolt (Potomac Books, 2020).


This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Laws of War | Revolt in the Ranks

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