This Christmas my son, Tom, gave me Winston Groom’s terrific new book, The Aviators. Groom paints a detailed portrait of Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh.
Each was an extraordinary person. Besides their enormous personal courage , they displayed a generosity of spirit in their willingness to improve aviation, make better airplanes and instruments, test pilot experimental designs, and play key roles in aviation and space after the war – all for love of country.
Groom writes with the easy rhythm of a old storyteller about the historical events of the 20th century’s technological transformation, and studies the influences in the development of boy to man, and the personal struggles and triumphs of each of these iconic American heroes.
In exploring the inner lives of his subjects the author exhibits a good dose of fairness. This was never more true than how he handled the complex life of Charles Lindbergh.
Lindbergh, like Rickenbaker and Doolittle, began with the belief that aviation would change the world for the better. But as Lindberg’s life unfolded he experienced a series of blows that caused him to change his values nearly 180 degrees from where he started.
The first blow came not from his young son’s kidnapping and death (though personally traumatic), but from the American public’s relentless thirst for tabloid sensationalism. Haunted day and night, even suspected of murdering his own son, Charles and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, fled America to Europe for personal peace.
Groom then follows a complex series of invitations to the Lindberghs by heads of state – including Nazi leaders like Goering who asked him to fly various new planes Germany was turning out by the thousands.
Due to a series of events including a medal from Hitler in honor of his courage and accomplishments, Americans and especially FDR accused him of being a traitor to his own country – which only served to drive the Lindberghs into further isolation from the press.
Lindbergh opposed America’s participation in WWII because he observed first hand the superior technological capabilities of Germany in aviation. He believed America would suffer great losses. This opposition led to Lindbergh plummeting from national hero to villain in the minds of many Americans.
But Lindbergh joined in helping America after Pearl Harbor, even though the President would not let him reenlist (Lindbergh gave up his commission when he fled to Europe). Lindbergh worked for aircraft companies in the states and engineered improvements in aircraft that saved thousands of aviators’ lives and increased the capabilities of the US military.
After the war he was invited to reenlist, and during a top secret mission for the U.S. military, Lindbergh observed the terrible destruction of Europe. of the land, and was among the first eye witnesses to Nazi death camps. These experiences shook him to his core.
While reading Grooms’ magnificent book, I learned that Lindbergh asked the publisher William Jovanovich (a friend and publisher at Harcourt, Brace, and Janvanovich) to edit and publish essays and journal notes from across his life in a book after his death. Lindbergh had just learned he was dying from lymphoma.
The book chronicles the evolution of his ideas about technology and the environment. Lindbergh had become an advocate for wild lands and wildlife. The book that was published is Autobiography of Values. Lindbergh had spent years traveling the world learning cultural values from indigenous tribes.
He noted that in each culture the relationship with the land and with wildlife was very different than in the so-called civilized nations. He concluded that man’s pursuit of science must be guided by other, deeper values – values that relate to our responsibility to the land, wildlife, and each other. He described his journey as one of finding true values. (Read a perceptive book review in the New York Times from 1978.)
Visit the Lindbergh Foundation to see how Reeve Lindbergh – Charles and Anne’s youngest daughter – with notables like Neil Armstrong – has carried the traditions of her parents into the 21st century by establishing awards and collaborations supporting, among many exciting initiatives, development of an electric plane. The intent is to fly a plane from NY to Paris but with no gas! Explore the website to learn about many visionaries carrying the flame of innovation but with a new, informed set of values.
Thanks, Tommy. This gift given to honor your grandfather (a WWII bomber pilot) will always hold an important place in my heart. Its also a great read that I know I will return to again and again.