Robert A. Lovett - Naval Aviator #66

Robert Abercrombie Lovett was the patrician of the group.  Wiser than his years, eyes firmly set on the future, Lovett was the inscrutable taskmaster.  Lovett held nothing above duty and honor – not his friends, not even the secret society of Skull and Bones.  Impeccably tailored and mannered, his gentlemanly reserve was often mistaken for snobbishness and sometimes infuriated those close to him.  The only time he let his guard down and released himself, it seems, was over enemy targets on bombing runs, which he insisted on executing if he was to command them.  The skills he developed over the skies of Europe would influence military tactics and American foreign policy for the rest of the 20th century.  

His father, Robert Sr., was a Horatio Alger story of small-town Texas lawyer turned railroad magnate.  He represented Southern Pacific when Edward Harriman combined it with the Union Pacific to form the world’s largest transportation network.  Harriman brought Lovett to New York to serve as his general counsel.  When Harriman died, Lovett took over as president of the huge Harriman System.  

Though Lovett Sr. had only finished high school, his only child was groomed by America’s finest.  Eschewing athletics, Robert Jr. was active in the arts at Yale, singing tenor in the freshman glee club and managing the Dramat Club while walking the boards as an actor.  He was also roundly thought to be the smartest young man at Yale.  He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and voted by his classmates “most scholarly,” “most brilliant,” and “hardest working.”  When his Latin teacher took ill during Christmas of his freshman term, Lovett taught the class for the rest of the year.  But he was bored at Yale.  Perhaps his last major accomplishment was being floor manager of the Junior Promenade.  Lovett would return from the War, but he never returned to finish Yale.  

During the summer of 1915, while Trubee Davison was driving ambulances in Paris in the second year of the Great War, Lovett and Edward Harriman’s son - Roland - raced cars and motorcycles through the mountains of Switzerland, blissfully ignoring the strife across the border.  It may have been Lovett’s love of fast machines that inspired Trubee to call on him that fall with the idea of forming an aero club.  As Davison recalled, perhaps with a reference to Lovett’s favorite author, Shakespeare, “I picked out Bob Lovett and poured it in his ear.  We made a sort of compact that if war came we should go into aviation.”  Lovett lined up a floating hangar near his home in Locust Valley, Long Island, and with funding from Davison’s father, the two boys began organizing the First Yale Unit.  

After a year of organizing and training on Long Island and Palm Beach, the pilots of the First Yale Unit of the Navy Air Reserve were ready to take their flying tests for their navy Wings.  As the chief officer, Trubee Davison would lead into the air, followed by senior members Bob Lovett and Di Gates.  July 28, 1917, would become the fateful milestone for the rest of their lives.  Davison taxied out, with Lovett and Gates following.  What happened next, Lovett wasn't sure.  Inexplicably, Davison crashed on his water landing, while Lovett and Gates landed to the sight of his wrecked and sinking plane.  Lovett and Dave Ingalls made a mad dash to New York in Curt Read’s Marmor roadster to alert the family doctor.  Police chased them at first, but became their escort once they were alerted to the emergency.  They met the rescue ship at the dock in the East River.  Trubee had broken his back.  He would remain a stateside civilian for almost the entire duration of the war.  

Shaken as they were, the rest of the 28 pilots passed their test that day, with Gates qualifying first in the Unit as Navy Aviator Number 65.  Lovett was next at Number 66.  A little more than two weeks later, on August 15, Lovett and Gates, 21-year-old ensigns, boarded the St. Paul and were the first Yale Unit members to head overseas for war.  After zigzagging across the ocean and the English Channel to avoid German U-boats, they reached Paris on August 30 to find a completely dispirited capital.  The country was exhausted by fighting in the trenches and Germany was master in the air war.  Lovett and Gates were sent to a French flight school on the French Riviera.  

Whether honed in the Dramat Club or managing the junior prom, Lovett’s leadership skills were quickly noticed by the brass overseas, and he was given responsibility much beyond what he felt qualified.  But practically, there were few Americans who knew more about naval aviation and his time spent with his father inspecting railroads served him well.  Lovett worked like a man possessed.  He was sent to the new American Naval Air Station at Moutchic, an uncleared lakefront site thirty miles from Bordeaux.  He helped fell trees and build hangars and personally assembled the first of the crated French FBA flying boats that arrived.  On September 27 he tested one of the planes, marking Moutchic’s inaugural flight and the first flight ever by a naval aviator at an overseas American base.  

Lovett had taken Trubee Davison’s crash very hard.  Davison had not only been the leader but the inspiration behind the First Yale Unit.  “I had hoped to come over under your leadership and inspiration,” Lovett wrote to his friend soon after he had been released after six weeks in St. Luke’s Hospital.  Acknowledging he was now stepping in to the leadership role, he considered himself, “a pretty rotten substitute.”  In truth, Lovett had learned a great deal from Trubee and the Davison family about service to something other than himself and his social status at Yale.  He closed his letter: “I only pray I can look any misfortune in the face in the same way you have done….I take my hat off to you.”  

Lovett next moved up to Felixstowe, the Royal Navy Air Service base on the North Sea.  There he met up with John Vorys and Al Sturtevant, chosen as the first American officers to serve with the British, flying escorts for the convoys and “spider patrols” searching for German U-boats.  They were training on large H12 and H16 flying boats, and Lovett was broadening his knowledge by touring other fields and bases to learn how the different pieces of military aviation fit together.  But it was decided by aviation chief Captain Hutch Cone that Lovett was too valuable to fly, and he would be trained as a C.O. to run one of the American flight stations.  Lovett was sorry to leave what they called “single-seater” work, piloting his own fighter, but was flattered at the promotion.  That Christmas, Lovett, Vorys, and Sturtevant joined Crock Ingalls, Kenney MacLeish, and Shorty Smith, who had all just arrived in London.  

Captain Cone moved Lovett to Paris to work as his aid. When Cone left for an inspection tour in February, the twenty-two-year-old was temporarily put in charge of all naval aviation operations in Europe.  He moved up to Couderkerque, outside of Dunkirk, preparing to fly heavy land bombers.  Something new was in the works, but Lovett was mum, much to the annoyance of his fellow Bonesman, Di Gates, who groused to Trubee: “The same old Bob, very secretive and chasing all over the country with the wildest stories that never seem to match up.”  

The secret was the formation of the Northern Bombing Group.  Lovett noted that of the treacherous German U-boats that had been so deadly to Allied shipping, 85% of them were docked at any one time.  Searching for them and trying to destroy them while deployed in the open sea was much less efficient than bombing them in port.  He wrote a long memo to Navy Department.  

While the strategy may have sounded obvious, attacking the lair was not as simple as it was logical.  The problem was resources, and the United States was the only country in the position to deliver.  To find out just how practical it might be, Lovett signed on as a gunner in a group of four British-made Handley-Page bombers.  With a full payload they could only fly 7,000 to 8,000 feet, which necessitated bombing from a glide at about 5,000 to 6,000 feet over the target.  The well-guarded submarine pens at Bruges were considered the most dangerous objectives in the entire European theater, and from this altitude the planes were completely vulnerable to the German air defense system.  The missions were so dangerous that any pilot who completed seven of them was automatically awarded Britain’s Distinguished Service Cross.  

The plan was to fly at night, both for safety and to carry less armaments and more payload.  On the evening of March 23rd, 1918, Lovett climbed into the upper-rear cockpit of his plane, and the four lumbering bombers with their 100-foot wingspans and 1,750 pounds of bombs lifted into the night sky over the North Sea and headed for the submarine canals at Zeebrugge and Ostend.  Once overhead, the antiaircraft batteries came alive with scores of guns flashing from the ground, pummeling the planes with concussions from the “Archies” bursting around them.  Ghastly “flaming onions” flung their green, phosphorous jelly toward the wood and fabric wings and hulls of the planes.  The planes glided into a cordon of fire and shrapnel.  They dumped their payloads and watched as ammunition stores were hit and seemed to lift the base into the sky.  Lovett fired tracers down into the search lights until they winked out and the barrel of his gun glowed red with the heat.  Then they turned their shredded planes toward home.  Even after landing Lovett was shaking with nerves and exhilaration.  To his fiancée, Adele Brown, he declared it was “the greatest experience of my life.”  

During one raid on a railway junction, a 250-bomb was stuck in the rack of Lovett’s bomber.  As the searchlights pierced the open bomb bay door, he swung down and dislodged the bomb over the target as the wind threatened to suck him out of the belly.  Back at his gun, he fired into the search lights while singing maniacally, “Have you seen the ducks go by for their morning walk?  Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack.”  On ground, Lovett and his pilot did a hopscotch dance, giddy over their luck and success.  

For six weeks Lovett and his crews cheated death over enemy lines.  They returned to Bruges four times over a five-day period, and each time the antiaircraft response was dimmed.  Lovett’s theory that sustained bombing drained the enemy’s strength to make war was proving to be true, and all of his recommendations were accepted for America’s first strategic bombing force.  The Northern Bombing Group now became a priority for the Navy, and would prove to be “the most ambitious and the most enterprising” aviation undertaking of the war.  Not only did it help win the war, this model would be followed by military powers for the rest of the 20th century.  The German U-boat threat was no longer impenetrable.  

Lovett would spend the rest of the war struggling to get the NBG fully equipped and supported, while at the same time trying to pull the Unit members in under its umbrella.  His dreams of an overwhelming strategic bombing force would have to wait 25 years to become fully effective.  As the war began to wind down and victory was palpable, even without a fully supported NBG, Lovett had become the point person for the FYU as his friends met their destinies.  David Ingalls, at 19, quickly became the Navy’s only war ace with five confirmed kills.  But Di Gates and Kenney MacLeish were not so lucky.  Both were shot down within days of each other, and Lovett and their friends and families spent anxious weeks until the armistice waiting to hear if they had been taken prisoner.  

Trubee Davison hobbled over to London to actively lead the search for his friends.  The Great War ended at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918.  Four days later, an elated Di Gates was released from prison camp.  But it wouldn’t be until the day after Christmas that a Belgian landowner would find the body of Kenneth MacLeish in a swampy no-man’s-land.  Robert Lovett wrote a letter to his brother, Archibald MacLeish, about Kenney’s refusal to take a promotion if it would keep in out of the action.  

“I fairly crammed the squadron down his throat, when any other man in the whole service would have sold his last package of chocolates to win the job.  Then the answer came back, only a few lines, but I’ll never forget them.  It began, ‘Bob – There’s no use trying to make a commanding officer out of me if I can’t fight and fly all I want when I want.  Some people were born to paint, some to write, some to lead, and some to just plain go out and do-it-all-by-yourself.’  I believe he was the best we had in the line of a pilot, and I don’t want a finer pal than a man who can give up everything for his idea of service and honor.”  

Robert Lovett fairly gave his all to serve.  After the war, he tried Harvard Law School and Business School, but neither could hold his interest.  He went to Wall Street where he became a partner at his wife’s father’s bank, Brown Brothers, merging it with Harriman to become the world’s largest private banking firm.  He followed his father to become chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and sat on the board of Di Gates’ New York Trust Bank.  Gates, in turn, served on the Union Pacific board.  

In 1940, as war clouds were again gathering over Europe, Lovett travelled to Milan on business where he overheard drunken Luftwaffe officers boast of Germany’s military might.  Hurrying home, he made an inspection of the Union Pacific rail lines and met with airplane contractors.  The United States completely lacked the infrastructure to mass produce military aircraft, and Lovett drafted a memo stating as much and passed it to his friends in Washington.  Secretary of War Henry Lewis Stimson convinced Lovett to serve as his Assistant Secretary of War for Air.  As such, Lovett made sure American air power wouldn’t lack for resources in the coming war and in two years helped build the United States’ air forces from the weakest of the warring powers to the strongest.  

After the war, Lovett served as undersecretary to General George C. Marshall at the State Department.  Dubbed a member of the “Wise Men,” along with Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan, he helped formulate the Cold War strategy and became acting Secretary of State during the Soviet Union’s blockade of Eastern Europe.   Lovett was called back from Wall Street in 1951 to serve as Secretary of Defense during the Korean War.  Finally, Lovett declined John Kennedy’s offer of a cabinet post, saying “My bearings are burnt out.”  Until the end, he advocated air superiority as the surest way to keep the United States strong and safe.  

The Millionaires’ Unit – The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power by Marc Wortman
The Wise Men – Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas

Photo: Courtesy Daniel Davison

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