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The Vindication of Squier and Deeds

The Vindication of Squier and Deeds

What Really Happened to the Billion Dollar Aircraft Appropriation


By John K. Barnes
Copyright 1921


(Note by Dayton Books Online- This story originally appeared in “World’s Work” magazine, July 1921 issue, then was later privately reprinted by Colonel Edward Deeds in booklet form)


In June, 1917, newspaper headlines announced: "Greatest of Aerial Fleets to Crush the Teutons;" "United States to Start Making 2,000 Planes a Month." By the middle of the next year these headlines had changed to read, "America's Airplane Programme a Failure;" "Billion Dollar Waste in Aircraft Production;" "No American Fighting Planes at the Front." Following one senatorial inquiry after another came the Hughes investigation and report; and when the war ended, the public turned its attention from this new, spectacular arm of modern warfare with a bad taste in its mouth for our part in it, and with more or less suspicion concerning those who had played leading parts in the production programme.

Yet as the public turned toward other things the people close to the facts in Washington, who knew what had actually happened, spoke with more and more respect of what had been done by the Aircraft Production Board. It was in fact one of the great American achievements made all the more dramatic by the fact that the men who accomplished it were attacked by Congress, more or less abandoned by the War Department, and misunderstood by the public.

The story really begins way back in 1908 when George 0. Squier, then a major in the Signal Corps, drew up the first specifications for a military airplane ever issued by any government. In September of that year Mr. Orville Wright demonstrated that he could meet these specifications by staying up in the air one hour and forty minutes. Following that successful test Major Squier declared: "This country is forced to an immediate and serious consideration of this subject in order to be prepared for any eventuality."

But, to quote General Squier again ten years later: "The outbreak of the war found the United States with but a handful of fliers and very few training planes. There was no aviation industry in this country, and the number of professional men trained as aeronautical engineers and designers was so small as to be practically negligible. In this respect the problem of developing the air programme was unique. The United States had built ships before, had manufactured clothing, guns, munitions, built cantonments, etc., and had a splendid body of men trained in these professions and employments, but, outside of a few men, there was no one in the United States with experience in the design or building of even training planes."

When the war broke out Squier, then a colonel, was Chief of the Signal Corps and as balloons were mentioned as a part of the equipment of the Signal Corps, the Air Service became part of the Signal Corps organization. Squier was given this task along with the Signal Corps work proper, which is likewise a man's task in time of war, and which incidentally, was carried out with very remarkable efficiency.

At this time the General Staff was making tables of organization which called for a certain proportion of aircraft to infantry, artillery, etc. Squier who had been military attaché in London during the first years of the World War and who had often visited the front and studied the conditions, knew very much better than this. His picture of the situation as he expressed it to his chief of aircraft production, Colonel Deeds, was: "There is only one programme. That is made from day to day by the German army and we don't hear about it until the next day. You go figure out the biggest programme you can think of; then double it. Still you won't have enough." That was the vision General Squier injected into the aircraft work. But Squier had more than a vision:  He did not merely submit a memorandum to his superiors of what he thought ought to be done, he took over the responsibility of starting its accomplishment. And this kind of initiative is also of the utmost value and is as rare as it is valuable. If at this time Squier had been willing to accept the standards which the General Staff or his superiors laid out for him, he would probably have come through personally without much criticism and with a perfect alibi, but without having really served his country. Having visualized the size of his problem, and convinced his superiors of the necessity of attacking it in this large way, his first problem was to get the money from Congress.

At that time there was cooperating with General Squier in the Aircraft Production Board, Mr. Howard E. Coffin, vice-president of the Hudson-Motor Car Company. Mr. Coffin had had unusual success in arousing the press of the country to the necessity for some industrial organization prior to our entry into the war. While the Government had done little or nothing along this line, Squier and Coffin decided to call on the press to help get the necessary money from Congress for the great aircraft programme. The press was eager to help, and immediately the country was flooded with articles on aviation. Congress was treated meantime to moving picture shows of airplanes abroad, and in record-breaking time the willing legislators voted $640,000,000 without a dissenting voice. And the appropriation not only was a record of quickness and vast in amount, but also it contained some unusual stipulations.

When General Squier asked the committee of the House for the appropriation of $640,000,000 for the Air Service, which he got on July 24, 1917, he insisted that he be given the personnel to handle the expenditure of this money. It is safe to say that if Government red-tape had not been cut and modern business methods applied to the aircraft job, it would have been impossible to handle it. Time was the most precious thing these men had to deal with. Before the appropriation was granted, and in anticipation of it, they had already started the training of men in ground schools; they had begun the buying of land and the building of flying fields; arrangements were being made for our great Liberty engine production, which involved the expenditure of vast sums by automobile manufacturers; the whole aircraft programme was under way. From the time these men at the head of it got their enormous vision of what was to be done, and before they got money from Congress to do it, they had the Government so far committed that no amount of red-tape could hold them. They cut it completely and ran the whole job. The Air Service was, in fact, a separate department of the Government during the war.

By the end of July, therefore, Squier and his board, starting with nothing, had had the rare vision to see their task in a perspective which was adequate until the end of the war, had had the initiative to start their programme and get the money to carry it through and also an authorization of Congress to short-cut the usual government methods of doing business. With these things done they were faced with the problem of actually building the planes. And Squier had also the task of carrying on the other activities of the Signal Corps.

The way in which General Squier mastered these two jobs was one of the great personal achievements of the war. An ordinary man would have gone down under them. It was one of those remarkable exhibitions of herculean labor to which Dr. Harry F. Keller referred, in presenting General Squier with the Franklin Medal awarded by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, when he asserted: "Under the stress of great national crises individuals are often stimulated to almost super-human performance, and tasks which in normal times it would require decades to accomplish, are then done, and well done, by such men in a few months or years."

General Squier himself summed up the general principles that governed him in the handling of his work. His part, as he saw it, was: "To foster individual talent, imagination, and initiative, to couple with this a high degree of cooperation, and to subject these to a not too minute direction; the whole vitalized by a supreme purpose which serves as the magic key to unlock the upper strata of the energies of men." In other words, personnel was the first consideration. This was his "victory creed."

As chief of aircraft production he chose Col. Edward A. Deeds of Dayton, Ohio, who had been highly successful in building up new businesses. Colonel Deeds had been brought to Washington by Mr. Coffin before we got into the war to serve on a munitions standards board. When the Aircraft Production Board was established at the outbreak of the war, he was made a member of that. This board's functions were purely advisory. It tried to steer a forward course amid the growing confusion in Washington and against the network of Government red-tape which it had no power to cut. One day Mr. Deeds (he was not then in service) was changing cars at York, Pa., on his way to Washington, and saw two drunken men get off the rear of a train and try to make it go by pushing it.

While they were making futile efforts to start the train, a uniformed conductor came out of the station, waved his hand and the train started. The drunken men shouted in triumph—the train pulled out without them. Mr. Deeds kept thinking of this after he got on his train. Then he realized that all the work done on the train was by men in uniform. The meals were cooked and served by men in uniform. When he wanted to go to bed, he could not even make up his own berth; that was done for him by a man in uniform. By the time he got to Washington the experience of the two drunkards- had convinced him He told the others, "We have got to get into uniform or we will be about as effective in this war as those two drunken men and the war will go on and leave us behind."

Colonel Deed's assistant was Col. Sidney D. Waldon, who had a first-hand know-ledge of our complete unpreparedness in regard to aircraft, and possessed the ability to put down on paper, so others could visualize them definite plans for the part we should play in this important branch of the service. There was, Mr. Howard E. Coffin, a member of the Council of National Defense, who became head of the Aircraft Production Board.  These, with General Squier, were the principal characters in the aircraft story at the beginning – other important ones came later.  Except for General Squier, they were all in civil life at the time we entered the war.

With this vision, organization, and spirit Squier, Deeds, Waldon, and the Aircraft Board set to work. To get some idea of the difficulties these men faced, one must not only realize the complete state of inexperience in this country regarding aircraft production, but must visualize the situation in Washington following our entrance into the war. No one in this country had ever produced a fighting plane, and very few had ever seen one equipped with all the instruments of military aviation. After our entrance into the war Colonel Waldon made a survey of the entire country and found but six minds—not plants—that he felt could be counted upon to render real assistance in solving the aircraft problem. A realization of this situation led to the important decision to send a com-mission to Europe to study conditions at the front and in the aircraft industry in the Allied countries. This commission was to direct our entire programme regarding service planes. It was headed by Col. R. C. Boiling and included some of our best trained aeronautical engineers. It sailed June 17, 1917. Meanwhile the representatives of the foreign engine makers had gone to leading American automobile builders with their designs, and soon these able and patriotic citizens descended on Washington with plans for making various and sundry foreign engines as their contribution toward winning the war.

That was the situation in Washington during the first months after we entered the war. To understand it fully one must realize that our contribution was to be in quantity production—the thing in which we lead the world. To produce in quantity effectively we had to settle on only a few types of planes and engines. For when it comes to the upkeep of aircraft at the front it takes a production of 80 to 90 per cent of spare parts to maintain an airplane in military service. When there were thirty or forty types of planes and engines, as with the British and the French, confusion was inevitable. So the Boiling mission was sent over to choose the best of these for us to put in production.

One of the chief things that was constantly urged on the Aircraft Board was that it should not experiment with a new engine but should copy proven foreign engines and start producing them in quantity. Those who urged that had no conception of the difficulties that attend the placing in production in this country by our ma-chine tool methods—which make quantity production possible—an engine of foreign design which is largely built by hand. But the Aircraft Board knew this; they had before them the proof. The Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation of New Brunswick, N. J., had acquired the American rights for the French Hispano-Suiza 150-horsepower engine in 1915, and started on the Americanization of this motor in January, 1916. They had a contract to produce them for the French Government. It was not until February, 1917, however, thirteen months later, after great effort and the expenditure of millions of dollars, that the first engine came through.

But it must not be assumed that no air-plane production was started in this country during those early months. Training planes were our first requirement, and the original programme called for an increasing production of these until the requirements of our training fields were met, when the output of these was to be reduced to the amount needed to replace losses and the released manufacturing capacity turned over to the production of service planes. Production of primary training planes started in June, 1917, and reached the maximum in March, 1918; production of advanced training planes started late in November, 1917, and reached its maximum in July of the next year. Failure to appreciate the great need of spare parts at this early date and difficulties in getting them later handicapped the effectiveness of this production. Up to the signing of the Armistice we had produced 7,602 training planes, and 15,450 engines for them.

It was on fighting planes, however, that public attention centred; or rather on the engines for them. No one knew anything about the building of planes, but the automobile people thought they knew a good deal about building engines. And they did; but the motors they were building for automobiles weighed ten or more pounds to the horse-power while the airplane motor needed at the front at that time must weigh about two. Our Henry M. Lelands and our Henry Fords, however, had confidence that they could build any kind of a power plant if they were told what to build, and they were anxious to be helping to win the war. This was the situation in May after we had been in the war less than two months. The Boiling commission was leaving for the front, but it would be months before it could study conditions and report back what we should do. Then there would be the inevitable delay in getting samples and drawings over here and in putting a foreign motor into production in this country. This was the confused and nebulous situation that faced the Aircraft Production Board late in May. It had the vision of what was to be done; it had the initiative to go ahead; it did not have the money, but was counting on it, and time was more valuable than money; it had the best talent of the country eager to be set to work. It was into that situation that Colonel Deeds looked with his clear business vision and determined on the Liberty engine. Then began that historic session in a room in the Willard Hotel in Washington at which the Liberty engine was born. It was in the afternoon of Saturday, May 29th, that Colonel Deeds took Mr. E. J. Hall, of the Hall-Scott Motor Car Company of Berkeley, Cal., and Mr. J. G. Vincent, chief engineer of the Packard Motor Car Company, to his apartment in the hotel, explained to them what was wanted, and told them, "You two are going to stay right here in this room and out of you we are going to get the design of the engine we want." The first condition, which he impressed upon them, was that there was to be nothing new or untried in the engine. "You will have to show me where everything you put in has been used and used successfully. The first one who reaches out for an original idea or an untried principle will have his hands cut off." There was no time for experiments; what Deeds wanted was an engine that he knew would run. He believed Vincent and Hall were the two best men in the country to design it. If he had known of any better he would have gotten them.

In two days the rough design had been made. Then such practical engineers as H. M. Crane, of the Wright-Martin Company, David Ferguson, of the Pierce-Arrow Company, and Fekete of the Hudson Motor Car Company, were called to Washington to go through the engine and find the "bugs" in it. From these men came some valuable suggestions regarding bearings and other matters. Then production experts were called in to see that no manufacturing difficulties were involved in the engine and to make it a machine-tool "job."

On June 4th, the Army and Navy Technical Board approved the design of the engine and authorized the construction of five each of the 8-and 12-cylinder sizes. On July 3rd, the first 8-cylinder engine was delivered in Washington. Its production within a month was made possible by the enthusiastic cooperation of some ten manufacturers, each of whom produced those parts for which he was best fitted.

By August 25th, the first 12-cylinder engine had finished its fifty hour endurance test in about fifty-five hours elapsed time - a record breaking performance in itself to be added to the production records already made. The Liberty engine was a proved success less than three months after Colonel Deeds saw amid all the confusion of the situation the one big thing for this country to do, and immediately started doing it. Admiral Taylor, Chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair of the Navy, who was one of the members of the Aircraft Production Board, has written, in the introduction to "Wings of War" by Theodore M. Knappen, "The entire American aviation programme centred in the conception, development, and production of the Liberty motor, and this I consider one of the outstanding achievements of the war."

Those in charge of aircraft production also started to put the Rolls-Royce engine into production here. This was generally acknowledged to be one of the best high powered engines at the front. Arrangements were made through Lord Northcliffe in the first months of the war to have Mr. Claude Johnson, managing director of the Rolls-Royce Company, come to this country with complete sets of jigs and fixtures for producing his engine in this country. Mr. Johnson promised delivery of only five hundred of these engines by July, 1918. A month earlier than that, within a year from the day when Messrs. Vincent and Hall first met and started a preliminary drawing 1,100 12-cylinder Liberty engines had been produced. By the end of another six months the total had reached 15,000. This was because it was a machine-tool job and because such men as Henry M. Leland believed in it from the first and produced it. The maximum production of Rolls-Royce engines in England, during four and one half years of war, never exceeded seventy per week. For six weeks before the Armistice we produced 151 Liberty engines a day. Within sixty days, or by January 1, 1919, this would have been raised to 300 a day, in order to fill the demands of over Allies for Liberty engines. Before the signing of the Armistice our government was making fixed price contracts for Liberty engines at ten dollars a horse-power as compared with the cost of the British and French governments of more than twenty dollars per horse-power for engines manufactured in those countries.

By the signing of the Armistice we had supplied our forces abroad with nearly six thousand Liberty engines, and the British and French with more than a thou-sand, and the quantity production of the Liberty engine—the best engine then on the front—assured our armies and those of the Allies of a large preponderance, in this important particular, over the Germans

The production of planes was a more difficult undertaking for us than that of building engines. We had not the experience in this that we had in the motor field The Curtiss plant at Buffalo had been making training planes for the Canadian Government, and it was started at once on primary training machines for our training fields. The Wright-Martin Co. was given a contract for advanced training planes to be equipped with the Hispano-Suiza 150-horsepower engine which it had just gotten into production. The Standard Aero Corporation, of Plainfield, N. J., which had been developing its Standard J plane for more than a year, was given an order for those equipped with the Hall-Scott engine. But not until August 1917, did instructions come from France, as a result of the Boiling commission's investigations, to adopt the De Haviland 4 as the type of service plane for observation and day-bombing purposes.

A sample of this plane had arrived in Washington late in July. It was the first service plane of any kind to reach America. It was without engine or ordnance and lacked some of the instruments of operating equipment without which an airplane by that time was of little use at the front. No one in America knew just what this equipment should be. No one had ever seen a fully equipped service plane in this country.

This De Haviland plane had to be redesigned to take the Liberty engine, and altered to take the four Marlin and Lewis machine guns with which it was to be equipped. It was shipped to the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company and arrived in Dayton on August 18, 1917. On October 29th, an American-made copy of it, with a Liberty engine, but without equipment, was flown at Dayton. But this was a hand-made product. The difficulties of getting ma-chine tool production were enormous. Many of the same problems that delayed the Americanization of foreign engines were also encountered here. The Liberty engine has 3,327 parts of which 433 are different; the De Haviland 4, in addition to the engine has 35,330 separate parts, of which 7,350 are different. This does not include any of the equipment. Quantity production of De Haviland 4's, fully equipped, started in April, 1918. By June the Dayton-Wright Company was turning out fifteen a day. At the signing of the Armistice it had reached forty a day. The Fisher Body Company, the largest maker of automobile bodies in the world, was then turning out thirty-five. More than two thousand of these machines had been started on their way to France; one thousand four hundred and forty-three had been received in France. This was enough to equip sixty flying squadrons. On Armistice Day, 196 of these were actually with the American armies, with 602 in reserve.  These are official figures. There were on the docks in Hoboken, awaiting their turn for shipment, about 600 completed planes.

Our complete inexperience in regard to fighting planes was nowhere as evident as in the case of the Bristol two-seated fighting plane. The sample of this arrived in Washington September 5, 1917. Many engineering cooks worked on the redesigning of it to take the Liberty engine, but the marriage of the plane and the engine was not a successful one, and in June, 1918, after there had been serious accidents, the Bristol fighter was abandoned.

The Boiling commission soon after reaching Europe had decided that this country could do little more than keep up with its requirements for training planes at home, and could not hope to keep pace with the progress of development in fighting planes at the front before July, 1918.  So in August, 1917, orders were placed in France for nearly six thousand airplanes to meet all the requirements of the American Expeditionary Forces up to that date. We were to supply the material for these, and France was glad to take the orders. By December 31, 1918, about five thousand airplanes had been supplied to us by the French.

All this explains why "no American-made fighting plane reached the battlefront," a point that the critics are still harping on. (The De Haviland 4, although a good fighting machine, is not so classed.) Fighting planes made from American material were at the front in accordance with the plans of the production department. On the day of the Armistice there were forty-five American air squadrons with the Army in France. Thirty-three of these were equipped with foreign-made airplanes, and twelve were operating or equipping with American De Haviland 4's. "And equipment was on hand," continues an official statement, "both foreign and American, for further squadrons as soon as they could complete training, organize, and get to the front. On Armistice Day there were 740 airplanes actually with the American armies…1,688 airplanes had been outfitted with radio equipment, and 1,444 had been armed."

The final figures for aircraft expenditures are now available and should put at rest forever the canard that more than a billion dollars was spent for airplanes. These official figures are worthy of attention: 13,894 planes were built in this country at a cost to the Government of $113,721,043 exclusive of the engines; 41,953 engines were built at a cost of $244,838,162. The equipping with guns and operating instruments brought the total cost up to nearly $400,000,000. There was spent for construction of thirty flying schools and fields in this country, for warehouses and depots, for balloons and other items, about $78,000,000; and in Europe for 5,229 airplanes, 7,059 engines, eleven flying and balloon schools, seven airdromes, eight depots, an enormous assembly plant and many other items, a further $139,000,000, making a total expenditure under the aircraft production programme of $617,500,000. From this there is deducted $19,500,000 for surplus property sold, leaving the total cost of the whole air programme $598,000,000. In other words, more than half of the $1,200,000,000 appropriated for this purpose by Congress was returned to the Treasury.

America paid high for her Air Service— due to her unpreparedness at the start. But she was willing to pay. There were mistakes made but not in the important decisions. The delays were inevitable. An army had to be sent into the Northwest under General Disque to get out a hundred million feet of spruce for ourselves and the Allies. A cotton airplane fabric had to be developed and manufactured to meet the need for seven million yards.  A new chemical industry was created to supply dope" for the wings. These accomplishments are all stories in themselves. They were undertaken to help the Allies as well as ourselves; it was all to "win the war. "

And in all the investigations it was not found that one cent of the money spent had been misappropriated.

Colonel Deeds and General Squier need no other vindication than time will bring from a realization of the great work they did. Neither of them are any more concerned in this particular now than they were while the investigations were going on and taking their time from their work. But some of the friends of Deeds, on whom the criticism fell heaviest because of his former business connections, feel it for him. Mr. Orville Wright, who is well qualified to speak regarding the job Deeds did, and who has known him intimately for years said recently, "One of the greatest crimes of the war was the attack made on Deeds. The job he did in Washington was the best one done there as far as I know anything about the others. Those who know the sacrifices he made and the actual cost in money to him know the attack was absolutely unjustified. He spent a large amount of his own money and lost the opportunity to make millions. His business associates, to whom he sold his stocks at cost made large sums during the war, but Deeds got none of this."

It was the organization that Squier and Deeds built up in a few months, starting with nothing, that carried the aircraft job to the end. They had the vision of the thing to be accomplished, they had the courage and initiative to tackle it, they secured the best men for the work, and then drove ahead, regardless of investigations or anything else, to accomplish the impossible. The sustaining influence through all the criticism that followed was their own conscience, and their own knowledge that they had done a great work well. Against that the opinions of other men cannot prevail.


The End