Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
12 Nov. 2021
Review by James Streckfuss, University of Cincinnati
An Incipient Mutiny: The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Pilot Revolt
By Dwight R. Messimer
Lincoln, NB: Potomac Books, 2020. Pp. ix, 283. ISBN 978–1–64012–212–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War I, Air Warfare Print Version

Most students of early American aviation history (from the Wright Brothers through World War I) blame the patent wars for the United States' failure to keep pace with European technology and innovation. The Wrights fiercely protected their patents, waging legal battles with anyone they thought to be infringing on their aeronautical ideas, especially Glenn Curtiss. But US patent law did not prevent European aviation pioneers and manufacturers from "borrowing," and perhaps improving on, the Wrights' work. Hence, progress on the airplane proceeded much more rapidly in France, Germany, and Great Britain than in the United States. The US Army failed to keep pace because, it is said, feuding American aeronautical companies remained isolated from the European arms race. That simple explanation makes it pointless to seek additional causes within the Army. Or does it?

With An Incipient Mutiny, military historian Dwight Messimer[1] rejects received opinion by mining Army personnel and court-martial records to reveal forces that affected American aeronautics inside the Army. He opens with the Army's first forays into the air in balloons and the shoehorning of its aeronautical activities into the Signal Corps. This had seemed to make sense in the late nineteenth century. But the advent of powered aircraft changed the game altogether.

With the purchase of the first airplane in 1909, the Aeronautical Division's focus had shifted to the airplane. But the shift in focus did not include an interest in developing the airplane's offensive capability. The stumbling block was the dominant position the balloon fraternity held in the Aeronautical Division's administration, all of whom believed that reconnaissance was aviation's primary mission. The fact was that many senior army officers agreed … that the airplane was just another reconnaissance vehicle, but one with greater mobility than a captive balloon. (52–53)

Beyond the Aeronautical Division, higher levels of Army leadership and Congress were confused about what to do with the airplane and in no hurry to find a solution: they answered budget requests with mediocre funding (not enough in today's dollars to buy a single airplane much less fund an entire aviation program). This lack of interest led to the purchase of inferior equipment.

[Chief Signal Officer Brig. Gen. James] Allen remained wedded to the idea that the airplane was just another observation, reconnaissance, and communications vehicle. During his time as CSO, the airplanes the army bought were unreliable, dangerous, and generally unimproved from 1909 to 1914, so Allen shared the conventional wisdom that balloons and dirigibles were more practical than airplanes. As a result, he did not provide the leadership and direction necessary to develop military aviation along the offensive lines then being pursued in Europe. (14)

Signal Corps' aeronautical problems did not end with its senior command. The few junior officers assigned to aviation became restless and began to plot ways to establish an independent air branch. Conspiracies nearly always lead to trouble and this one was no exception. Personal aspirations added to the drama. One especially ambitious officer, Paul Beck (not Billy Mitchell, who entered the story later) engaged in politicking outside the chain of command, publishing his views in the national press and directly lobbying Congress. Others made questionable monthly claims for "flight pay" based on their supposed efforts to learn to fly; these often amounted to no more than taking the occasional ride with someone else at the controls. One of those guilty of collecting undeserved flight pay, Capt. Arthur Cowan, had a run-in with a subordinate, Lt. Lewis Goodier, who wrote to his father to complain. Lt. Col. Lewis Goodier Sr., happened to be Judge Advocate for the Western Military District and had court-martial jurisdiction over Cowan's command at San Diego. The story now enters an even more tangled web of backstabbing, conspiracies, and intrigue that led to the senior Goodier's court-martial and set the stage for aviation's detachment from the Signal Corps.

The Goodier court-martial shone light on the problems plaguing Army aviation. Messimer's astute explanations of the testimony and evidence presented at the trial expose the ignorance, immaturity, and disorganization that crippled American military aeronautics in its formative years. By the time the courtroom drama concluded (Nov. 1915), the Great War was well underway in Europe. The press and public scrutiny churned up by the trial inevitably prompted a Congressional inquiry, which lasted well into 1916. By then, the United States was dealing with a presidential re-election campaign that pitted "he kept us out of war" pacifists against those clamoring for military preparedness (in case the nation had to intervene in Europe); and, too, the Mexican Punitive Expedition was launched in response to Pancho Villa's raids against the United States. The latter included the first operational deployment of US Army aviators.

The 1st Aero Squadron, commanded by Benjamin Foulois, went to Mexico as part of the force under the command of Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, who a year later led the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. The already outdated aircraft of the 1st Aero soon fell victim not to enemy action, but to mechanical breakdowns and the Mexican heat, exposing the massive shortcomings of the US Army's aerial program. These events stirred enough response in the United States that, by the end of 1916, congressional and military leaders were desperately trying to make up for lost time before intervention in the European war was inevitable. But this was too little too late. During the year-and-a-half US involvement in World War I, American aviators flew aircraft designed by French and British engineers and built in France and Britain. In a belated response to the United States' lack of preparation and failure to design and build military aircraft, owing to "inexperience at all levels" (222), military aviation at last won independence from the Signal Corps. That said, independence from the Army and the birth of the US Air Force would have to await the conclusion of the Second World War.

In his epilogue, Messimer sketches the later careers of the men involved in the Goodier court-martial and the campaign for separation from the Signal Corps. Some stayed in aviation, one went on to a career in broadcasting with RCA. Another was accidentally shot during the war, one was burned to death when his DH-4's gas tank erupted following a crash. Another fell victim to an affair of the heart—an Oklahoma court acquitted the jealous husband who dispatched him, because state law in the 1920s gave the aggrieved party the right to kill his wife's lover.

With An Incipient Mutiny, Dwight Messimer has broadened our understanding of American aviation in World War I. In particular, his account of the Goodier court-martial and its consequences will force readers to reconsider their earlier conclusions. As it happens, the Wright Brothers were not alone in causing the United States' failure to deliver on its promise to build an aerial fleet that would conquer the skies of Europe. It turns out that the Army must shoulder a good deal of the blame as well.

[1] After twenty-three years as an officer and detective on the San Jose, CA Police Department, Messimer turned to military history. He was a history lecturer at San Jose State University and has written many books, including Find and Destroy: Antisubmarine Warfare in World War I (Annapolis: Naval Inst Pr, 2001) and Verscholen: World War I U-Boat Losses (id., 2002).

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