Story by Kevin McCarthy, photos courtesy of the South Pacific WWII Museum.
It would be no exaggeration to say American aviator Charles Lindbergh was, for a time, the most famous man in the world. Yet, just 15 years after he made the first successful solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic, akin to a moon mission, he was flying in the shadows. His secret mission – to help America win a war, a task that carried him to the shores of Espiritu Santo and beyond.
Lindbergh is one of a remarkable cavalcade of famous people who came to the northernmost large island of Vanuatu, Espiritu Santo, between 1942 and 1945. His story and those of others will form part of the new South Pacific WWII Museum to be built in the town of Luganville. For many of those characters, their fame was in the present; for others, it lay still far in the future. But for one man, Charles Lindbergh, his fame lay in his past. To some in wartime America – including the very President himself – the name even meant infamy.
In 1927 Lindbergh had made his epic Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St Louis. It was a feat of applied engineering genius, understanding how to coax the required miles from the fuel that could be carried, all while navigating over a vast expanse with no hope of rescue. 3600 miles, and 33 ½ hours, alone.
It was a recipe for instant celebrity, but tragedy would stalk the Lindbergh family. In 1932 his 20-month old son was kidnapped. The boy’s body was found 10 weeks later. Devastated and hounded by gratuitous media coverage, the Lindberghs fled to Europe. Still famous, he was wooed by the French and Nazi German governments, and even accepted a medal from prominent Nazi Hermann Goering, a controversial step too far for some back in the United States. While others would later paint him as a Nazi sympathizer, Lindbergh feared what he had seen first-hand of the resurgent German Luftwaffe, and would write detailed technical reports on what the United States needed to prepare for.
The Lindberghs returned to the US in 1939, and in 1941 he became the leading spokesman for the America First Committee, which opposed America becoming embroiled in the spreading war in Europe. That put him violently at odds with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR would accuse Lindbergh of near treason, prompting the latter to resign his commission in the US Army Air Force. However, when Japan’s surprise attack on December 7th, 1941 plunged the US into conflict, Lindbergh reversed course and volunteered to enlist once more and defend his country. Lindbergh said “there is nothing to do under these circumstances except to fight”. But President Roosevelt was in no mood to forgive, and forbade that happening.
So it was left for Lindbergh to enter the war by the backdoor as an aviation consultant for the companies that were turning out what would eventually be the war-winning planes of the Pacific War. The very skills that had made him world famous were those which could take new designs and work out fixes for the inevitable teething problems. It was a serious business; pilots could die in accidents before ever seeing the enemy.
It was in the consultant’s role that he came to Espiritu Santo in 1944, then home to four giant airfields and the second largest US base in the Pacific, second only to Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of missions were flown every week while squadrons rotated into and out of air battles over the Solomons. The jungle of the island still bears witness to planes and pilots who never made it home. Fighter pilots in Santo were flying a revolutionary new plane, the Corsair, but the distinctive aircraft had some dangerous habits.
That was where Lindbergh’s aviation genius came into play, and he worked with the US 11th Marine Air Group on Espiritu Santo to troubleshoot and fix issues. He was not content to stay on base though, and accompanied a search party that combed the dense jungle, unsuccessfully, for one of the planes that had failed to return home.
He was only on the island for less than two weeks, but found time to help a New Zealand squadron who were experiencing vibration problems with their Corsairs. Lindbergh immediately flew several, assessing the problem as a combination of unbalanced propellers and ignition breakdown. Elsewhere on Espiritu Santo, Marine Corsair pilots were trying to convert their fighters into dive-bombers, so Lindbergh worked to get them proper bomb racks and engineered techniques that worked. His methods sometimes baffled the pilots around him, who were half his age. They couldn’t understand until later why he would, for example, go through long pre-flight checks. But they soon learned to appreciate his skills.
As he left the island for other squadrons further north, Lindbergh was now in the combat zone. And amazingly, still as an unenlisted man, he went on to fly 50 missions, mostly in the famed P38 Lightning. Inevitably, the word got out that Lindbergh was in the theatre, and he was ordered to fly to Australia to meet another US figure of world prominence – General Douglas MacArthur. When MacArthur asked Lindbergh if there was anything he could do for him, George Kenney, the top US air general in the South West Pacific, butted in and said Lindbergh would be ideal to show pilots how to get more range out of their P38 Lightning fighters. MacArthur agreed saying that it would be “a gift from heaven”, and sent Lindbergh on his way. The mission however remained secret.
General Kenney got what he wanted as Lindbergh squeezed hundreds of miles of extra range out of the planes, something the general credited with shortening the war. That same general, however, had to balance the clear benefits of Lindbergh’s genius with the danger that he would one day be shot down if he persisted flying and shooting down enemy planes in combat zones. Especially given that President Roosevelt remained quite unaware of Lindbergh’s wartime mission. Eventually he ordered Lindbergh not to fight unless in self-defence. Lindbergh responded “I don’t like to get shot at unless I can shoot back”.
Yet Lindbergh was no warmonger. One encounter he repeatedly mentioned post-war was swooping on a lone Japanese soldier on a beach who refused to run for cover and kept walking. Struck by “his bearing, his stride, his dignity,” Lindbergh chose not to fire, and let the soldier be.
Lindbergh would continue to fly in dangerous situations and had several close calls. Eventually it became too much for his superiors, with his squadron commander being grounded for 60 days for allowing Lindbergh to do combat sorties. On a final meeting with the top brass in Australia, General Kenney asked Lindbergh to keep secret the fact that he had been in combat until the war ended.
Lindbergh then left for the United States, touching down once more for a short time on Espiritu Santo. It had been a short and remarkable mission that as far as the world knew, had never taken place. It was not the end of his wartime service however, and he would travel once more to Nazi Germany to witness the collapse of the regime.
Post-war, he remained still involved in aviation, even regaining his reserve officer status in the US Air Force. But Lindbergh also devoted himself to conservation issues, and finding a compromise between technology and the natural world. He would seek to assist peoples such as those he had met in the Solomons and New Guinea. It was his belief that “all the achievements of mankind have value only to the extent that they preserve and improve the quality of life”. Charles Lindbergh would die in 1974. While the story of his wartime exploits had eventually come out, and often in lurid and inaccurate fashion, it then faded once more. It has become, once more, one of the untold tales of the war in the South Pacific.
Kevin McCarthy is working at the South Pacific WWII Museum project office in Luganville, Espiritu Santo. He is part of the Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) programme which helps deliver New Zealand aid in the Pacific. You can learn more about the museum project at southpacificwwiimuseum.com. The project team is there to welcome visitors during weekdays and when cruise ships are in town.