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Personal Note from J.B.

I have been enjoying an occasional respite from writing by reading books. Of particular interest was Joe Rochefort’s War, by Elliot Carlson (my review below).

I also read Pioneer Pilot, Jo Cooper’s memoir of her father, Walter E. Lees (1887-1957). Lees was an early aviator, having soloed more or less accidentally in 1912. He, with Cap Woolson, flew the first successful flight of a diesel powered airplane in 1928. The QB biography of Lees is available at http://earlyaviators.com/biolees.htm. Jo (1929-2007) considered that she’d worked on the book for twenty years, and said that, although she was very glad she’d written it, she’d never attempt such a project again.

I have attended several Commemorative Air Force Museum programs at Falcon Field this year. Among them, Bill Quehrn hosted a presentation on “WWII The Home Front” which covered many of the efforts, activities, and restrictions in the homeland that occurred in the 1942-1945 period on behalf of winning World War II.

Also during January, Iris Yang, author of the novel Wings of a Flying Tiger, recounted her experiences growing up in China (until age 23) under the current government. She vividly relayed the earlier horrors of the Japanese occupation following its invasion of the mainland in the 1930s, based upon family experiences.

Most recently, Mike Lavelle—pilot, researcher and retired Boeing employee—presented a well-documented history of the development of Boeing’s B-17 bomber, the “Flying Fortress,” from its earliest airframe in the mid-1930s through to its final iteration. In response to the question, “How many engines could the B-17 lose and still fly,” Mike said “Two, or perhaps three, although with three engines gone you would only be able to fly to the site of the crash.”

The article below “The Great Film Race” describes another of Nick Mamer’s true aero adventures. I hope you like it.  

I hope you enjoy my blog. Please take time to comment, about the website, the blog, or other topic. (Be sure to tell me who it’s from.) Simply send an email to: feedback@illusionsofmagic.com.


 

 
 

 
The Great Film Race

 

Two minutes before noon, Saturday, September 1, 1923, houses splinter, brick walls tumble. Roofs beams split and tiles collapse, hurling clouds of dust across carts, streetcars, roads, and the river.

The cries of those trapped but not crushed fill the murk. As the dust settles, a few surviving structures poke defiantly through the vast white coverlet.

Smoke issues from the wreckage and explodes into orange flames. Fire, sustained by dry, splintered timbers, shoots outward on jets of gas from broken pipes. Hundreds gathered at the river to escape are immolated by a scorching wind—a front of flames driven at high speed by its own distending heat.

Since its opening in the late nineteenth century, the bayfront City of Silk has flourished on international trade. Now ships rest capsized in its harbor, locomotives lie overturned near twisted rails, and bodies float in its rivers and canals.

A great hotel on the seafront is down, having crushed guests and staff alike. Yokohama’s homes and shops are ablaze, its citizens and merchants incinerated. A severe earthquake has struck the island of Honshu, devastating both Yokohama and nearby Tokyo. A tsunami and firestorms follow, creating an annihilating catastrophe that is estimated to cause more than 140,000 deaths.

Listeners across the globe quickly learn of the Honshu catastrophe from scratchy voices on early crystal sets or via crude 1920s’ radio receivers. Soon, headlines trumpet the disaster in newspapers as distant as America. Pictures, however—photos and newsreels illustrating the vastness of the destruction—must await transport across the thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean.

Initial moving-picture films of the devastation are secured by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation for showing in Broadway theaters in New York City. The unprocessed film is placed aboard the 23,000-ton Empress of Australia, a Canadian Pacific Steamship passenger liner sailing from Kobe. Destination: Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle, Washington.

In the United States, H. W. Braly, district manager for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, is charged with transporting the film from Seattle to New York. Paramount Pictures, the distributor for Famous Players-Lasky, plans to feature the film in its moving picture theaters on Broadway.

Braly’s job becomes more daunting when he learns that a rival company’s moving pictures of the Japanese disaster have arrived by ship in San Francisco. They also are destined for New York for distribution and showing. Realizing that the wish of Adolph Zukor, head of Famous Players-Lasky, is to outmaneuver any competition, Braly hires pilots to fly them to New York. According to Braly, the company “which first reaches New York will have scored one of the greatest ‘scoops’ ever registered in moving pictures.”

The Great Film Race Course Map

Thus begins what may be called “The Great Film Race.”

With the Empress within its range, the Famous Players disaster film is transferred to a seaplane out of Seattle. The seaplane docks in Seattle Sunday evening, September 23, saving 15 hours over the normal docking of the steamer at Seattle.

Following processing and clearance by customs, the film is consigned to the Standard J-1 aircraft of pilot Nick Mamer. Mamer is chosen to deliver the film because of his widely-known skill of flying in the mountainous and weather conditions of the Northwest. Mamer’s open-cockpit biplane takes off from Seattle at 5:00 a.m. Monday, headed for Great Falls, Montana.

Meanwhile, noted endurance pilot Eddie Stinson had flown his Junkers-Larson airplane into Great Falls on Saturday accompanied by A.C. Gray. They’d flown 11.5 hours out of Minneapolis. Stinson hoped to shorten the time to New York, with the intent of establishing a delivery record for Stinson’s air fleet that would attract the attention of the entire country.  (The film, however, remains on board the Empress.) Now all Stinson can do is top off his fuel, check everything, and await the arrival of Mamer.

Braly too is on the move. He’s traveled to Great Falls from Salt Lake City to insure the safe transfer and flight of the 2000 feet of film to its New York premier. Ensconced in a Great Falls hotel, he anxiously awaits a call alerting him to Mamer’s arrival. On a nearby table, he’s secured a bundle of sandwiches purchased to help ease Stinson’s long flight east to Chicago and New York.

While Braly, Stinson and Gray wait, Mamer lands in Spokane for refueling. On the ground he says little about his mission, although the strain is evident. The worry, of course, is that any delay in his  arrival at Great Falls favors Famous Players’ adversary. Once his fuel gauges read “full,” Mamer takes off, noting possible headwinds aloft over his eastbound track. Urging his 180-horsepower Hispano motor to an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet to clear the mountains of Idaho and Montana, he attempts 90 miles per hour. Adverse winds aloft will reduce his speed over the ground, adding to the delay.

Hours later, Mamer sights the field at Great Falls. Noting the windsock, he guides the Standard to a perfect landing at 3:40 p.m. and taxies to the Junkers-Larsen. Stinson and Gray quickly gain the Junkers-Larsen and accept the can of film from Mamer.

The Great Film Race Junkers-Larsen

In a nearby hangar, a call is made to Braly’s hotel. Braly dashes to the airfield with the sandwiches. But Stinson, knowing the value of each minute, has already taxied to the takeoff position. As Braly stares skyward, the Junkers-Larsen takes to the air and sweeps eastward over the city.

At about 11:00 a.m. the next morning, Stinson lands at Fort Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota, to refuel. He’d been forced down near Marshall, Montana by rain and fog. After taking on 120 gallons of gas, he takes off again, expecting to fly nonstop to Chicago. But the flight is not to be nonstop. Instead, he lands at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota and is not airborne again until 4:00 p.m.

Stinson and Gray finally land at Ashburn field near Chicago around midnight. After gassing up, they take off a half-hour later.

Finally, at 3:15 p.m. on September 26, the moving picture film of the Japanese earthquake disaster arrives at Curtiss Field outside of Mineola, New York, from which it is whisked to Paramount Pictures’ New York movie houses. The flickering scenes of panoramic devastation, including surviving refugees on foot fleeing with children or toting wooden wheeled carts with salvaged possessions, are truly appalling. But no announcement is forthcoming about a winner (or a loser) of “The Great Film Race.”

The next day, however, the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News advertises “THE GREATEST DISASTER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD”— First Motion Pictures of the Earthquake in Japan, secured by Paramount Pictures

  • By Vessel to Vancouver
  • By Seaplane to Seattle
  • By Airplane to New York
  • By Fast Train to Po’keepsie

And on the Screen at the Bardavon Today ! Complete Pictorial Record of the Great Holocust !” (actual spelling)

So ends another of the adventures of pioneer aviator, Nick Mamer.

 

 
 

 
Allow a Pilot in your Life

J.B. Rivard, with apologies to Alan Jay Lerner

 

Just let a pilot in your life

And your serenity is through!

No doubt it will be as thrilling

As when your dentist is drilling,

While the pilot has the enthralling

Fun of overhauling

You.

 

Oh let a pilot in your life

And you’ll invite eternal strife!

Help to take a second mortgage

For a plane with which to forage

In the back yard seeking food

While you try to find a mood

Allowing a pilot in your life!

 

 

But let a pilot in your life

You’ll see your calm and fun are through!

It’s a line that never ends,

An army of flying friends,

Who talk of clear-air turbulence

And how they’ll use past tense

In reference to you.

 

 
 

 
Joe Rochefort’s War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway

by Elliot Carlson


Review by J.B. Rivard

 

The title (including the subtitle) of Elliot Carlson’s book both overstates and understates USN Commander Rochefort’s significance. He contributed strongly to the U.S. victory at Midway—a towering achievement, hardly a “War.” He didn’t really outwit Yamamoto, but his intelligence, skill, and tenacity in convincing Admiral Nimitz of the location and aim of the huge Japanese force intent on overcoming Midway was crucial to the outcome of this battle, and arguably the war, during the summer of 1942.

I hasten to add the above comments should not detract from this long, detailed, and excellent coverage of Rochefort’s naval Intelligence experience, his life in the secret Hawaiian basement during the intense early months of WWII, as well as aspects of his life before and later.

Joe Rochefort felt deeply he, as a skilled intelligence analyst, had failed to predict the raid on Pearl Harbor. This guilt—despite evidence that the intelligence breakdown was elsewhere and diffuse—served as significant motivation for him as the next events of the war unfolded.

This complex story is not so much about code-breaking, though the Midway outcome depended on breaking the Japanese JN-25(b) code. Rochefort, who’d spent three years becoming fluent in Japanese, brought much more than decrypting to the task of understanding the intentions and actions of the Japanese military. From fragmentary and unrelated segments (often less than 10-20 percent) of partially-decoded radio traffic, he was sometimes able to deduce the meaningful substance of the Imperial Navy’s messages.

But Rochefort’s success became his downfall. Months following the triumph of predicting the disposition of the Imperial invasion force, he was ordered off Intelligence and assigned to supervise the construction of a floating drydock. His correct analysis of the Japanese intentions was so resented by Navy Intelligence brass in Washington they made sure he was “reassigned.” And even though Admiral Nimitz himself recommended that Rochefort be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his contribution, the medal was only granted many years later, posthumously.

This book is a wonderfully revealing tale of superb performance in time of war. The accompanying human failures clearly contrast with the brilliance, skill, and courage of Commander Rochefort.

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011. pp. 572. ISBN 978–1–61251–060–6.

 

 
 

 
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