“F” Is for Franklin

His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie. 

Frankie on the gridiron

He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.

He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942. 

Aviation Cadet Frankie

In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England. 

They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours. 

His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh. 

Janet’s Dream and her crew, Frankie second from left

Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.

Hap Arnold’s letter

Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.

“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally. 

“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”

Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.

Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless. 

I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos. 

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All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?

Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla. 

Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.

Second Lieutenant Franklin W. Sommers

My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story. 

Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization. 

Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past. 

I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their  baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less. 

You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer. 

You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.

That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

He Gave Us Wings

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

For Pan American World Airways, the shadow was that of Juan Trippe. He, more than anybody else, invented not only Pan American but the airline industry of which it was a part. 

Juan Trippe on the cover of Time magazine, July 1933. Public Domain.

Despite his Latin-sounding name, Juan Terry Trippe was strictly Anglo. Scion of an old, well-to-do family, he was a great-great-grandson of naval hero John Trippe, who had fought France and the Barbary Pirates around 1800.

Juan was born on the eve of the twentieth century. He enrolled at Yale in 1917 but left to join the Navy, with many of his classmates, when the United States entered World War I. After training, he was commissioned an ensign and designated a Naval Aviator. The war ended before Trippe could get into action. But in his brief naval service, the aviation bug had bitten him.

He returned to college, organized the Yale Flying Club, entered and won an Ivy League intercollegiate air race. On graduation, he sidestepped the family’s traditional business of banking. Instead, he sold stock to his Yale classmates and started an air-taxi service called Long Island Airways. 

The tiny airline soon folded, but Trippe had gained valuable experience and expanded his vision. He arranged to fly the United Fruit Company’s shipping documents over rugged mountains in Honduras, from the port of Tela to the capital at Tegucigalpa—a 90-minute flight that eliminated an overland trek of three days. 

Tycoon in the Making

In the 1920s, Juan Trippe organized or purchased a string of small airlines: Alaskan Air Transport, Buffalo Airlines, Eastern Air Transport, Colonial Air Transport, and others. He applied himself to buying new and more capable aircraft, securing landing rights and airmail contracts with U.S. and foreign governments, and recruiting a corps of able associates. In 1927, just six years out of college, Trippe formed the Aviation Corporation of America on $300,000 raised from thirteen of his wealthy Yale friends. Almost immediately, the company managed to acquire a newly-organized airline called Pan American Airways, Inc. That October, Pan American made its first regular flight, a mail run from Key West to Havana.

Though a qualified aviator, Trippe resisted the urge to be a swashbuckling pilot-entrepreneur. Instead, he majored in running the business. He became an ace negotiator, driving shrewd bargains with a mix of stubbornness and patience. He had a sure vision for where the airline business would be two to five years in the future. He ordered planes and developed routes accordingly.

The young airline mogul also was a genius at what today we call branding. As Pan Am’s routes expanded around the hemisphere, to many cities which had no airports but did have decent fresh or salt water harbors, Trippe came to rely on seaplanes. He bought ever-larger flying boats from builders Igor Sikorsky, Glenn Martin, and William Boeing. 

“The walls of the den of his Long Island weekend home bore prints of the American clipper ships that had once crossed the oceans at the fastest speeds of the day. Trippe determined that henceforth all Pan Am airliners would be called Clippers . . . . Aboard, all would be as nautical as Trippe’s men could make it. The pilot henceforth would be called captain, and the copilot would be called first officer. Speed would be reckoned in knots, and time according to bells. . . . As aboard any ship, life rings would hang from the walls of the lounge.”

Daley, Robert, An American Saga—Juan Trippe and His Pan Am Empire. Riviera Productions Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Trippe was targeting well-heeled travelers who regularly cruised the oceans on sumptuous White Star and Cunard ships. He wanted Pan Am to provide a familiar experience.

Sikorsky S-42, the Brazilian Clipper, 1934. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Public Domain.

His S-40 Clippers from Sikorsky pioneered air service over a large Caribbean and Latin American route system. They were soon supplanted by the larger S-42s, by Martin M-130s and finally, by Boeing B-314s, the most formidable of the flying boats. Trippe’s endless appetite for bigger and longer-range planes set the industry’s course through the 1930s.

Trippe started planning transoceanic service before ocean-capable aircraft existed. Manufacturers scrambled to meet his needs. When Sikorsky’s S-42 opened the possibility of crossing the Atlantic, Trippe found the way barred by legalities. The British, still developing their own long-range flying boats, would not grant landing rights in their domains until they were in a position to run a competing or at least complementary service. But Trippe already had S-42s and Martin M-130s arriving in his fleet. He needed an ocean to cross, pronto.

In desperation he looked westward. But the Pacific was wider than the Atlantic. The S-42 might, with some difficulty, be made to fly 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After refueling, it could cross 1,300 miles of ocean to the tiny Midway Atoll. But then came a 2,600-mile stretch from Midway to Guam—an unbridgeable gap. In the New York Public Library, Trippe pored over navigation logs of 19th-century clipper ships and found his answer: Wake, an uninhabited coral atoll even smaller than Midway but perfectly located, almost halfway from Midway to Guam. If Wake became a port for flying boats, Pan American could fly from California to the Philippines and on to China.

Aerial view of Wake Island August 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo. Public Domain.

Trippe chartered a freighter, S.S. North Haven, filled it with equipment, supplies, and college men eager for adventure, and sent it to Wake with instructions to make a harbor. He had passenger seats stripped out of a Sikorsky S-42 and replaced with extra fuel tanks. The plane, commanded by Captain Edwin C. Musick, began trial runs for long-range flying out of Alameda on San Francisco Bay. 

Meanwhile Trippe induced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to place Wake and Midway under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy, with which Trippe was on good terms. From its beginnings, Pan American had been treated well by the United States government, which found it a useful cat’s paw in the ambiguous realm of international affairs. Pan Am had been formed by Army aviators, including Henry (“Hap”) Arnold and Carl (“Tooey”) Spaatz, mainly for the patriotic purpose of countering the growth of German influence in the Caribbean and Central America. 

America’s Airline

Unlike other nations, the U.S. had no state-sponsored airline. Thus, Pan Am—as America’s unofficial, that is, quasi-official, state airline—was ideally suited to project a private U.S. presence in the face of Japan’s quest for hegemony in the Pacific. So FDR willingly gave Trippe all the support needed to knit a web of passenger service over what was becoming, arguably, an American pond.

In April 1935, Musick and a crew including crack navigator Fred Noonan took an S-42 from Alameda to Pearl Harbor. A few days later, they flew back, nearly running out of fuel because of stiff and prolonged headwinds. Nevertheless, the era of transpacific air service had begun. 

Pan American Airways (PAA) construction workers lighter building materials from the SS North Haven to the dock at Wilkes Island, Wake Atoll, 23 May 1935. National Air and Space Museum Archives. Public Domain.

In a dizzing succession of events, Pan Am cleared a deep enough channel inside the reef at Wake to make flying boat landings practical; the Martin Company delivered the first three M-130 flying boats, which were christened China ClipperPhillipines Clipper, and Hawaii Clipper, respectively; Trippe caused hotels with Simmons beds, private baths, and hot showers to be constructed on both Midway and Wake; the U.S. government awarded Pan Am the U.S.-China mail contract; and Trippe skilfully maneuvered the British government into granting landing rights at Hong Kong.

Martin M-130, the China Clipper, 22 November 1935. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. Public Domain.

Pan Am Clippers had been delivering the mail from San Francisco to Manila for eleven months. At last, on October 21, 1936, full Clipper service was initiated for both mail and passengers all the way to Hong Kong. Technically, China Clipper was only the name of the first M-130 airplane delivered to Pan American. Because the China Clipper received great fanfare in the press, with thousands of people attending its inaugural takeoffs and landings; and because the full extent of the service was from the United States to China; that service itself became identified with the China Clipper, and the great heyday of transpacific flying boats—which would last only about five years, until the outbreak of war in the Pacific—has come down to us as the “Era of the China Clipper.”

“Orient Express” by Pauline Darley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

The China Clipper—the plane itself, as well as the service—was both romantic and historic. Think of it as America’s westbound answer to the Orient Express. It was expensive and luxurious. The world’s movers and shakers rode it. It became, inevitably, a setting for exotic intrigues in the international power games. 

Elsewhere I have mentioned my late uncle, Pan American Captain Edward F. Sommers. What I did not say was that, in his early years as a pilot, he flew the giant flying boats, first in South America and then in the Pacific. One of his interesting experiences was flying the Anzac Clipper, inbound for Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Tune in here next Tuesday, and I’ll tell you more.

Next Tuesday: Day of Infamy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author