In the late winter of 2013 I gave this address at the 354th Fighter Wing Annual Awards Ceremony. I rarely write out the full text of talks I give. In this case, I’m glad I did.
Thank you for that introduction. It’s a pleasure being here tonight and being asked to speak at this event. Tonight we celebrate something our military in general and our Air Force in particular do exceedingly well. Tonight we gather to celebrate our meritocracy. We are here to recognize those who have performed at such a high level and on such a consistent basis that they have been called the best in their squadron, group, or functional category. We are in the company of the very best Airmen in the 354th Fighter Wing—the uber-Icemen, if you will. So tonight, in the midst of all this success…I’m going to talk about failure. We’ll call it constructive failure…and we’ll just see where it takes us.
Several years ago I stood on the Kill Devil Hills, faced into the constant wind, closed my eyes and imagined what it might have been like on that morning in December, 1903…tossing a coin into the air and letting gravity and chance determine for all posterity who the first man to experience powered flight might be. Orville and Wilbur knew a lot about failure on that morning…not a lot about success. Their airplane was so touchy and difficult to fly that a hundred years later veteran test pilot Scott Crossfield, the first man to go twice the speed of sound and perhaps at the time the greatest living pilot, found it difficult to teach members of the Wright Flyer centennial project to fly it as Orville did that blustery morning at Kitty Hawk. Just over a decade after those first halting starts into the air, as the guns of August, 1914, began their low rumbling tone, the airplane was a new and deadly weapon of war. It doesn’t take long for men to turn scientific success into new tools for killing. Pity. But I don’t want to get too philosophical here…catch me at the bar later for that.
I want to tell you a story. It’s a coming of age story in more ways than one and I’d say it’s born of constructive failure. Sometime in August of 1944 my grandfather inherited one of those new weapons of war. It was a B-17 Flying Fortress. He showed up to 381st Bomb Group at Ridgewell Field in East Anglia, England. A charming little town, quaint church in the middle, surrounded by farmland that used to house a portion of the military strength of the US Army Air Forces. In the years between “the Great War”—the war supposed to end all wars—and WWII, in the mid-1930s, great minds, and some not so great, at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, dreamed up something that had never been thought of before. It was called High altitude daylight precision bombing (HADPB). It was, perhaps, the one leading concept that brought your United States Air Force into being as a separate service…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Interestingly, HADPB was the result of a glaring failure at the ACTS. The overarching lesson of airpower in WWI was of the efficacy of direct support to ground forces. Sure the airplane was pretty good for spotting and that led to the inevitable attempts to shoot down the enemy’s airplanes, but the main lesson of the Great War was that the airplane was best at Close Air Support. The lesson for air services was of their complete subservience and tether to a ground commander. There were a few counter-culture instructors at the ACTS, guys that for some reason I tend to identify with—one notable one named Claire Chennault—but Lt Col Harold George, Maj Edgar Gorrell, and Maj Donald Wilson were the architects of a systematic plan, with 154 named targets, to use aircraft to break the will and capability of a rising Germany’s military might. These men, in a vacuum of evidence, ignoring the lessons of history, without the technological means to achieve the accuracy required, with what MG (ret.) Haywood Hansell (the man who brought theory to execution under Air War Planning Document (AWPD)-42), what Hansell called a “fanatical belief” in the defensive firepower American bombers. These men at the ACTS, with all of this and a complete disregard for the importance of fighter escort, literally willed strategic bombing into existence. It was soon to be tested, leaping from the pages of theoretical texts and into the pages of history, but as you might know…it was not an immediate success.
In the early war years losses often exceeded 20%—a 10% rate is known as decimation and it’s something not many ground commanders would be willing to continue to suffer. The life expectancy of 8th Air Force crews was not very long. Getting your 25 missions (later increased to 35) and being allowed to rotate home was, in the mind of many an Airman, quite a long shot. But constructive failure, particularly when men are dying, tends to force tactical and operational innovation.
My grandfather showed up after many of the hard lessons were learned. As the “old man” of the crew at twenty-one, he was the aircraft commander in charge of 8 other men. They flew as a combat crew. Those 8 men had been his men since training, and it was his job to bring them together and make his Fortress, first named the “Ft Lansing Emancipator” and later “Honey,” an effective weapon of war.
Now in a B-17 there’s a pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator, and a bombardier in the officer ranks, then there is an engineer, a radio man, and three gunners. The B-17 has guns all over it—as my maintainers know an airplane without a gun is not one I ever want to fly. To take advantage of all those guns, tacticians came up with the three plane formation as the basic flying unit. A formation flew 50 feet apart from wingtip to wingtip and nose to tail. Two three plane formations make a flight or squadron. Three squadrons make a group, each squadron separated high and low by 150 feet from the lead squadron and 100 feet back. These formations allowed for overlapping fields of fire from the Fortress’s guns and led to that “fanatical belief” in defense. The failure of the ACTS to listen to those counter-revolutionaries like Claire Chennault almost cost the success of HADPB…but just in time and through the forceful hand of Lt Gen Dolittle fighter tactics and capabilities matured to allow escort to and from targets deep in Germany. With this three-plane formation, hundreds of squadrons and groups could be formed together for huge formations of American airpower. On Christmas Eve, 1944 my grandfather flew in the largest formation the 8th AF had put up to date—there were 2000 bombers and 900 fighters in the air…19,000 Airmen on a single mission. I want you to take a moment and just consider that. 19,000 Airmen…one purpose. That is nearly transcendent. Sublime. All nine on my grandfather’s crew had to do their part, all nine on the other 1,999 heavy bombers had to do their part, all 900 fighter pilots had to do their part…failure simply was not an option. The targets that day were German lines of communications at the seam between the US 1st and 3rd Armies near Kirch-Gons, GE. It was my grandfather’s twentieth mission. As he had done on every one before, he flew with one of my dad’s baby shoes tied to his parachute and, when safely back at Ridgewell, wrote the name of the target on the one he always left in his room to await the next time it would be separated from its match while my grandfather was called on to do his nation’s bidding.
By the time my grandfather arrived in theater in 1944, the air war had become what no airpower theorist would ever have postulated. Funny how our ideas about how war is supposed to go never come to fruition. It was a war of attrition not unlike the trench warfare of the Great War. Gone were hopes for swift capitulation under air attack. Evidence for the idea of breaking the will and morale of a belligerent was shattered, but it’s a lesson we have still not fully grasped. What made AWPD-42 and later the Combined Bomber Offensive a success was the continuous pounding of industrial, electrical, and POL targets, and military equipment in the field. The US Army Air Force was conducting long-range strike and air superiority operations—operations that would finally set its forces apart in such a way as to scream for the parity of separate-service status. No other U.S. force, in fact no other force on the planet, could provide such capabilities to a nation. These new-found functions were supported by a global mobility machine that would soon prove its worth in the Berlin Airlift, a rudimentary beginning to command and control of air assets—those radio men like the one on my grandfather’s crew—and by small steps into the important realm of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, what we now call ISR.
It’s interesting…the new Vision Statement of the US Air Force came out just a few weeks ago. It lists 5 things the Air Force is singularly postured to do for our nation. They are air and space superiority, global attack, global mobility, ISR, and command and control. We’re back to our roots. Our service was born of constructive failure and tactical innovation and forged in our early institutions of higher learning and the white hot caldron of mortal combat over seventy years ago. Welcome back to where we began, Airmen. Welcome home.
So tonight as we honor individual success, let’s be mindful of the ever-present possibility and sometimes necessary failures along the way. Wilbur could have been first…he won that coin toss…it was 14 December, 1903. But he stalled on takeoff and damaged the Flyer. Code 3…parts plus 2 days. Orville got the second chance…and he made it count. True success is rarely achieved without first risking greatly and coming to terms with the consequences of possible failure. Success is born of bold thinking and bold leadership. Those thinkers at the ACTS, then-Col Haywood Hansell, and the leaders of the Air Warfare Planning Division certainly fretted about their theories. They must have wondered if they were right. They surely understood the risks involved and the costs if they were not…but in the face unimaginable aggression and the sheer human cost of tyranny—real tyranny—they knew the only failure would have been not to try. That’s an important lesson as we are faced with an increasingly uncertain future. And as we walk in the footsteps of the ACTS dreamers, perhaps trying many times before we achieve success, as all of tonight’s nominees clearly have, even then our task is not done. Success is not a destination—it’s a journey.
We make much of individuality and making our own way in our country. It’s part of what makes us great, but in our chosen profession we rise and fall as one. We succeed or fail because we are interdependent, intricately linked, each one relying on the fortitude and technical skill of the other. We cannot function as a squadron, group, wing, numbered air force, major command, or Air Force without the collective effort of the whole in the same way the “Ft Lansing Emancipator” could not function without the full effort of her entire crew.
My grandfather completed 35 missions in the B-17, his last one was February 26th, 1945…to Berlin. His waist gunner was sick that day and couldn’t fly. He had to fly his 35th mission later with another crew. When my grandfather went to pack for the trip home, his locker had been broken into and the baby shoe tied to his parachute was nowhere to be found. He had to leave England thinking he would never see it again. Years later, the two old crewmembers tracked each other down and my grandfather made the short drive from northeast Texas to Oklahoma to see his mate. The gunner, now frailer with effects of time, pulled my dad’s shoe out of a pocket and, explaining there was no way in hell he was going to fly that last mission without it, tried to return it. The gesture was refused. It had clearly served them both well exactly as it was. The shoe that always waited for my grandfather’s return to England is now in my father’s house, pinned against a silk map of WWII Germany and hanging from the wings of H.B. Riza, 1st Lt, United States Army Air Forces. Those shoes, separated today by choice instead of by the persistent call of duty, carry the faded names of 36 European towns, written by the hands of two old soldiers and Airmen who now belong only to the ages.
I congratulate our nominees tonight, but we, your fellow Airmen, charge you with another duty and responsibility. Your success is not free and it cannot be yours alone. We charge you to take what you know of your own successes and failures and pass them along to those around you. Pay it forward and reinvest in this great Air Force so that it can always remain so. Live up to your legacy, a small portion of which I have tried to convey tonight. Teach your peers so that when they have to fly that mission without you, a piece of your knowledge, your wisdom, your experience, our success goes with them…like a small leather shoe that at one time, long ago, gave a few ordinary men the courage to do the extraordinary.
Thank you. And have a good night.