An Incipient Mutiny
The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Pilot Revolt
Dwight R. Messimer
Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2020, 328 pages
Book Review published on: May 15, 2020
Dwight R. Messimer’s latest book, An Incipient Mutiny: The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Pilot Revolt, is subtitled as the story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps pilot revolt, but it is much more than that. It is the chronicle of early Army aviation, of military aircraft development, the cradle of aviation doctrine, and perhaps more than anything else, the culture of the pre-World War I officer corps. It is a surprising human-interest story. To the professional officer today, this officer corps reads like an alien nation, with its disputes, backbiting, selfish service, and political alignments. It reminds why the ethic of selfless service is a bedrock Army value today. Messimer is a military historian, having taught at San Jose State University, an Army veteran, a diligent researcher, and writer with a flair for mining human experience: sinking ships, survival at sea, prison camp escapes, submarine operations, and military trials. He brings out the human side in the story of the Signal Corps pilots.
The basic outline of An Incipient Mutiny is to tell the story of how Army aviation came to be separated from the Army Signal Corps through a sequence of events from the Army’s use of balloons, through the creation of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Aeronautical Division to the establishment of the Air Service of the National Army in 1918. Messimer then traces the life stories of the main characters in his drama through the rest of their military careers as an epilogue, a postscript to the drama. The themes that work through An Incipient Mutiny tell the story of a different world. The development of early military aviation had significant influence from civilian organizations such as the Aero Club of America who credentialed military pilots. There were not enough airplanes to adequately train with, and military models lagged those emerging in civilian aviation in both safety and performance. Military aircraft were intended for reconnaissance, not attack. There was no early doctrine for bombing. Military fliers fell into competing camps with the developers of the aircraft that they flew, whether Curtis or Wright, and did not know how to fly the aircraft of the other camp. This reduced the overall effectiveness of the Signal Corps pilot corps. Military aviators detailed from other branches to the Signal Corps for aviation duty had to return to their parent branches. Though welcomed back, this did nothing for increasing the flight proficiency of Signal Corps aviators. Military aircraft were so deadly that pilots could not get life insurance. (Kelly, Call, and Love Fields in Texas were all named after military fliers killed in aviation accidents.) An accomplishment of the period was to garner congressional approval for flight pay. This was a different world of Army aviation under Signal Corps rule. Its frictions and failures eventually led to the creation of a separate air arm during World War I.
The Signal Corps pilot revolt that Messimer details began when junior pilots filed court martial charges against their company commander in San Diego in 1915. They revolted against poor leadership and the general regressive state of Army aviation. Messimer is ingenious in his research into officer personnel and court-martial records to bring to life the human drama of these events. The company commander in question, Arthur Cowan, falsely drew aviation pay for years and certified a subordinate, Arthur Lay Patterson, as a military flier when he did not know how to fly. The charges against Cowan, in the twisted system of officer politics, ultimately led to the court-martial of the Western Military Department Staff Judge Advocate Lt. Col. Ned Goodier, the father of one of the pilots.
Throughout the book, Messimer exposes poor leadership, alignments of officer factions, even cultivation of favoritism with military superiors and congressman. It is a world full of intrigue and makes the system of regular board promotions and centralized assignments of today a welcome contrast. The names in this drama form a list of the early pioneers of military aviation: Hap Arnold, Billy Mitchell, and Benjamin Foulois. It also includes some actors now lost to history: Paul Beck and Townsend Dodd. Messimer’s ability to create personal historical narrative brings the character and relationships of these officers to light and weaves a sorry tapestry of personal interest and self-promotion.
An Incipient Mutiny: The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Pilot Revolt will be of particular interest to those who study American airpower, aircraft development, the rise of professionalism in the U.S. Army, the prewar officer corps, military justice and human resource management, and military biography. Messimer successfully brings to light the early development of American military aviation and the state of the U.S. Army officer corps before World War I.
Book Review written by: Col. Dean A. Nowowiejski, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas