Saturday, July 8, 2017

Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg

A biography of Charles Lindbergh, a prominent figure in American history that, I admit, I knew very little about before picking up this tome. Sure, The Spirit of St. Louis, everyone knows that, and the Lindbergh Baby, most people know that one, too. And a sizeable portion could probably cite something about his activities before, during and after World War II, where his views matured too late for most, especially given his status as an American Hero.

But other than that, what did I really know about Charles A. Lindbergh? Absolutely nothing.

Here, then, are four small anecdotes from one man’s life. I’m not sure they add up to anything, but they are the pieces that are most likely to stick with me.

The Baby

Here’s the grisly scene as Berg describes it.

The officers had a badly decomposed child’s body before them, face down in the dirt. The size of the body, the shape of the skull, the still golden, curly hair all suggested the Lindbergh baby. More police were summoned to the makeshift gravesite. They carefully turned over what proved to be an incomplete corpse. Not only had the figure blackened severely, but its left leg was missing from the knee down as was the right arm below the elbow and the left hand. The body parts had probably been eaten by animals, as had most of the viscera. But the eyes, the nose, and the dimpled chin left little doubt as to the corpse’s identity. The clothes were in bad condition, but intact.

This is 72 days after the crime, after “the most widespread search ever conducted in police history.” The small body was discovered accidentally by a motorist who had pulled over to relieve himself on the side of dark country road. The clothes would clinch it. The police had a detailed description of what the child had been wearing on the night he was abducted.

The officers returned to the corpse with Colonel Schwarzkopf [father of the Desert Storm general and head of the investigation]. Under his direction, an inspector cut and peeled off each layer of the baby’s clothes, manipulating the body with a stick. He accidentally pierced the softened skull, leaving a small hole below the right earlobe. Each article of clothing was exactly as Betty Gow [the child’s nurse] had described, down to the scalloped flannel undershirt with its blue thread. A visible skull fracture suggested a violent blow to the head had been the cause of death.

The subsequent autopsy would reach the same conclusion.

The autopsy by Dr. Charles H. Mitchell revealed no signs of strangulation or bullets. With so much decomposition to the body, there was little for him to add beyond the supposition that “the cause of death is a fractured skull due to external violence.” Because blood had been found nowhere near the crime-scene, not even on the chisel left behind, it seemed logical that when the ladder had broken, the baby had met his death smashing against the side of the house or onto the ground.

What a scene. Like something out of Coen Brothers movie, only real, horridly real, but a real tragic farce, all the same. The bumbling perpetrator, blinded by his own vision of the “fabled catbird seat,” doing the unspeakable, putting disastrous events and accidents into motion, bringing nothing but grief and death for himself and others. Imagine. On the way down the ladder, from the second story bedroom, the Lindbergh Baby clutched in one hand and a rough wooden rung in the other, it breaks, he falls, the baby smacks his head and dies. What does one do? What can one possibly do? Useless. Useless.

The Ladder

That may be the most grisly aspect of that colossally sad tale, but it is not nearly the most interesting.

Since the spring of 1932, the wood technologist Arthur Koehler had been analyzing the kidnap ladder. He began by completely disassembling it, numbering each rail and rung. Several types of wood -- pine, birch, fir -- went into the ladder’s construction, each with its own internal markings of rings and knots and its own external markings from the machinery that milled the raw timber into lumber and from the tools used to build the ladder. One piece of wood -- identified as “rail number 16” -- was especially interesting because it had four nail holes in it that had no connection with the making of the ladder, thus suggesting prior usage. Of low-grade sapwood, with no signs of weathering, it suggested that the rail had been previously nailed down indoors and used for rough construction, perhaps in the interior of a garage or attic.

This “wood technologist” Arthur Koehler was some kind of savant, the head of the Forest Service Laboratory of the Department of Agriculture in Madison, Wisconsin, who claimed that “lumber had specific markings as individualized as fingerprints, from which he could trace its history -- where it was grown, where it was milled, where it was sold.” He was about to prove it.

There were dozens of other clues that kept Koehler on the investigative trail. The rungs of this homemade ladder, for example, were of soft Ponderosa pine but showed no signs of wear, indicating that the ladder had been built for this particular job. The marks on those rungs from the planer that dressed the wood revealed an unusual combination of cutter heads. Koehler mailed a form letter to 1,600 lumber mills on the East Coast, asking if their lumber planers shared the same characteristics. Positive replies came from twenty-five mills, which were asked to send sample boards. From them, Koehler was able to identify the Dorn Lumber Mill in McCormick, South Carolina, as the source of the boards that became the ladder’s siderails. Twenty-five lumberyards had received shipments of Dorn’s southern pine since the fall of 1929. Through scientific deduction, Koehler whittled the list down to the National Lumber and Millwork Company in the Bronx, which had bought its shipment in December 1931, three months before the kidnapping.

Unfortunately, National Lumber and Millwork was mostly a cash business, and few records were kept as to who its customers were. But then, a search of the suspected kidnapper’s house turned up an interesting discovery.

Although the lead detective from New Jersey had been in [the] attic several times, he had not previously noticed one of the pine planks in its southwest corner was shorter than the other boards by a good eight feet. This detective suddenly recalled the wood expert, Arthur Koehler, commenting that rail 16 of the ladder had some prior use. Rail 16 was brought to the Bronx and laid across the crossbeams of the attic floor. Four holes in the rail lined up exactly with four nailholes in the floor joists.

Arthur Koehler was summoned. Although a little more than an inch of wood had been cut away between the rail and the original floor plank, the number, color, dimension, and pattern of the rings indicated to him that the one piece of wood had been cut from the other. Koehler also examined a hand plane taken from [the suspected kidnapper’s] garage, whose blade markings, he said, revealed that it had been used in making the ladder.

Astounding. Not only did the poorly constructed ladder fail on the kidnapper, breaking on his nefarious descent, causing him to lose the precious cargo of both his and the Lindberghs’s dreams, but the same ladder then seems to betray him, revealing its secrets to a wood necromancer and the world. At the trial, Koehler’s testimony was as incontrovertible as it was devastating. This reader, 80 years after the fact, was just as mesmerized by its exactitude and resistless logic.

In the end, Koehler’s testimony had been so dumbfounding in its precision that there was little for the defense to challenge. As Ford Madox Ford observed in a column for The New York Times, Koehler “was like the instrument of a blind and atrociously menacing destiny. You shuddered at the thought of what might happen to you if such a mind and such an inconceivable industry should get to work upon your own remote past -- a man who searched 1,900 factories for the traces of the scratches of your plane on a piece of wood. It was fantastic and horrifying.”

Indeed. It still is.

The War

Somewhat famously, Charles Lindbergh opposed America’s entry into the Second World War. Some thought him a German sympathizer, others an apologist for the atrocities of the Nazi regime. My jury remains out. According to what I read, he was clearly a leading figure in the America First movement, sincerely believing that it was more patriotic to keep America out of the entanglements of European Wars. He was certainly not the only one who felt that way.

But when the War came, Lindbergh was as equally patriotic in his desire to fight, to offer his aid to his country in its time of need. He was, after all, a pioneer of world aviation. The Spirit of St. Louis was just the beginning. He likely knew more about the aerial combat capabilities of the different belligerent nations than anyone else on earth. But to oversimplify the situation, he had angered FDR with his pre-war rhetoric -- especially given the size of the platform he launched it from -- and he was only allowed to play a minor role in America’s aerial action against the Germans and the Japanese.

At it was in the Pacific theater that he first saw the true horrors of war.

[The Japanese stronghold of] Biak also provided Lindbergh with the most grotesque images of war he had ever seen, visions that would haunt him forever. On Monday, July 24, 1944, Lindbergh and several officers drove a jeep to the Mokmer west caves, where the enemy had waged one of its most stubborn stands. They went as far as they could up a crude military road, then walked the next few hundred feet towards the caves. Going down a hill, they came to a pass with bodies of a Japanese officer and a dozen soldiers “lying sprawled about in the gruesome positions which only mangled bodies can take.” Several weeks of weather and ants had eaten most of the flesh from the skeletons. The sight of skulls smashed to fragments prompted one officer to say, “I see that the infantry have been up to their favorite occupation,” namely, knocking out gold-filled teeth for souvenirs.

In a way, the reaction that Lindbergh describes next is understandable.

At the side of the road, they passed a bomb crater in which lay the bodies of another half-dozen Japanese soldiers, partly covered with a truckload of garbage Allied troops had dumped on top of them. “I have never felt more ashamed of my people,” Lindbergh wrote in his journal. “To kill, I understand; that is an essential part of war. Whatever method of killing your enemy is most effective is, I believe, justified. But for our people to kill by torture and to descend to throwing the bodies of our enemies into a bomb crater and dumping garbage on top of them nauseates me.”

But in another way, I think it is hideous, revealing an almost childlike morality at work in his mind, where killing people in whichever way is most effective is “justified,” simply because your nation is at war with their nation. Killing them is justified, but dumping garbage on their corpses is nauseating.

And contrast that to the very next paragraph.

On July 28, 1944, Lindbergh joined up with the 433rd Fighter Squadron, as observer in the No. 3 position of an eight-plane sweep. Their mission was to bomb and strafe “targets of opportunity” on Amboina, a small, Japanese-held island off the southwest coast of Ceram.

Well, that’s okay, right? After all, dropping bombs on people is justified because it is a very effective way of killing your enemies. Just make sure you don’t cover their dead bodies with your garbage when you’re done with them. You land that plane and make sure they get the burial your touching respect for the dignity of human life demands.

But, Lindbergh saw even worse things in Germany, and these began to change his thinking on these subjects.

The next day was even more phantasmagoric. Intimations of what lay ahead came at breakfast, as members of Lindbergh’s party discussed alleged savageries at Camp Dora. “That’s where the Germans had furnaces that were too small to take a whole body, so they used to cut the arms and legs off and stuff ‘em in that way,” said one man. “The prisoners were so badly starved that hundreds of them were beyond saving when the Americans came,” added another.

I’ll admit, I’m fascinated by the horrors of war -- the savage details that are so often missing from a society’s abstract exploration of the subject -- and I think I’m fascinated by them because I believe they have to be better remembered. They have to be remembered in way they seldom are when the next call for war comes marching down the street. I offer only that as my justification for transcribing what comes next.

A short time later, Lindbergh and his party had made their way up the mountainside above the camp, off the road so that they might reach a low, factory-like building. The diameter of its brick smokestack was disproportionately large for its height. At one end of the building, he saw two dozen stretchers, soiled and bloodstained -- “one of them showing the dark red outline of a human body which had lain upon it.” Upon entering the building they saw a plain black coffin with a white cross painted on it. Beside that, covered in canvas on the concrete floor, lay what was unmistakably a human body. In a moment, Lindbergh realized exactly what kind of “factory” he had entered.

Moving into the main room of the building, Lindbergh saw two large furnaces, side by side, with steel stretchers for holding the bodies protruding through the open doors. “The fact that two furnaces were required added to the depressing mass-production horror of the place,” Lindbergh would note. The sight appalled him. “Here was a place where men and life and death had reached the lowest form of degradation,” he wrote. “How could any reward in national progress even faintly justify the establishment and operation of such a place. When the value of life and the dignity of death are removed, what is left for man?”

In these comments, I think, we can see Lindbergh’s moral understanding beginning to change, shoved, as it was, from its position of superiority by the mechanical brutality that surrounded him. But here’s not there, yet. Onward.

A figure walked through the door, something between a young boy and an old man. It was a seventeen-year-old Pole, wearing a striped prison uniform, cinched at the waist but otherwise much too large for his skeleton of a body. Speaking German to Lieutenant Uellendahl, he pointed to the furnaces and said, “Twenty-five thousand in a year and a half.” Then he ushered the two Americans into the room they had first entered, and he lifted the canvas from the corpse on the floor.

“It was terrible,” the boy said, his face contorted in anguish. “Three years of it.” Pointing to the bony cadaver, he added, “He was my friend -- and he [was] fat.” As though sleepwalking, Lindbergh followed the boy outside, his mind “still dwelling on those furnaces, on that body, on the people and the system which let such things arise.” He was jerked back to reality by Uellendahl’s translating again: “Twenty-five thousand in a year and a half. And from each one there is only so much.” the boy cupped his hands together, then looked down. Lindbergh followed his gaze and realized they were standing at the edge of a pit, eight feet by six feet, and possibly six feet deep. It was filled to overflowing with ashes and bone chips. Lindbergh noticed two oblong mounds of clay nearby, evidently pits that had been capped. The boy reached down and picked up a knee joint, which he held out for Lindbergh’s inspection.

Yes. A human knee joint. How could someone not be forever affected by such an experience?

The horrors were not lost on Lindbergh. “Of course, I knew these things were going on,” he would write in his journal on June 11, 1945; “but it is one thing to have the intellectual knowledge, even to look at photographs someone else has taken, and quite another to stand on the scene yourself, seeing, hearing, feeling with your own senses.” His mind flashed back to the rotting Japanese bodies he had discovered in the Biak caves and the load of garbage he had seen dumped on dead soldiers in a bomb crater. He thought in rapid succession of stories he had heard of Americans machine-gunning prisoners on a Hollandia airstrip, of Australians pushing Japanese captives out of transport planes, of American soldiers probing the mouths of Japanese soldiers for gold-filled teeth, of pictures of Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their feet. “As far back as one can go in history,” he told himself, “these atrocities have been going on, not only in Germany with its Dachaus and its Buchenwalds and its Camp Doras, but in Russia, in the Pacific, in the riotings and lynchings at home, in the less-publicized uprisings in Central and South America, the cruelties of China, a few years ago in Spain, in pogroms of the past, the burning of witches in New England, tearing people apart on the English racks, burnings at the stake for the benefit of Christ and God.”

The rhetoric is rising. Is it all just poetry? Or will he make the difficult connection?

Lindbergh never considered that his ignoring -- or his ignorance of -- the Nazi slaughter was tantamount to condoning it. Instead, he stood ready to accept only collective blame, as an American and a member of the human race. “It seemed impossible that men -- civilized men -- could degenerate to such a level,” he wrote. “Yet they had. Here at Camp Dora in Germany; there is the coral caves of Biak. But there, it was we, Americans, who had done such things, we who claimed to stand for something different. We, who claimed that the German was defiling humanity in his treatment of the Jew, were doing the same thing in our treatment of the Jap.”

There. At last. A fully mature moral reflection. There is a universal depravity in man, certainly more fully expressed in some instances than in others, but present across all cultures and typically hidden in one own’s cultural context. The fight is not always against the other. Sometimes, and frequently most importantly, the fight is to keep from seeing the other at all.

Unfortunately, this stroke of conscience came much too late for many people of his time and, I’m afraid, for me. Even much later, when Lindbergh had become a crusader for environmental causes, people questioned his zeal.

Some, particularly Jews, found Lindbergh’s newfound passion disconcerting, especially when he flung around such phrases as, “I don’t want history to record my generation as being responsible for the extermination of any form of life.” Longtime editorial writer Max Lerner, for one, wondered, “Where the hell was he when Hitler was trying to exterminate an entire race of human beings?”

The Man

The most interesting part of this biographical journey for me was, I think, the slow and slogging realization that Lindbergh was not a great man. Many biographies put their subject on a pedestal, explaining and often excusing their subject’s human failings as some part of the mystic alchemy that our culture requires for greatness. But not here. Berg maintains a editorial distance throughout, showing Lindbergh, as much as possible, as the man he was.

And, in that respect, there are two episodes from late in Lindbergh’s life that are worth remembering.

In October 1965, Lindbergh invited each of his children and their spouses to join him for several weeks camping in southern Kenya. He and Anne offered to cover most of the costs. Lindbergh flew ahead, on the new weekly Pan American flight from New York to Nairobi, arriving on December eleventh. Over the next few weeks, Jon and his wife, Barbara, left their five children behind on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where they had settled; Anne [Lindbergh’s daughter] and Julien Feydy flew down from Paris with Scott, who had transferred to Cambridge University; and Anne [Lindbergh’s wife] arrived with Reeve, a student at Radcliffe. Only Land -- with his wife and two children on their four-thousand-acre ranch on the Blackfoot River in Montana -- politely declined the offer, anticipating several strained weeks marching to the relentless beat of his father’s drum. “I’m not going,” he told his wife, “--too many people and too tight a schedule.”

Lindbergh, evidently, was a difficult man to be around, even in the opinion of his son. And, as the next episode reveals, also in the opinion of his wife.

Charles assured Anne that she would come to care for Hawaii once Argonauta was completed and that he intended to spend more time with his wife there. He misled her on both counts. It rained steadily the first week in January 1971, when they returned to Hawaii to move into their newly completed house; and they quickly discovered the roof leaked. Worse than that, despite Charles’s admonitions, the architect and contractor had failed to create proper drainage for the house. A torrential downpour awakened them their first night; and muddy streams, just as Charles had foretold, sluiced through the house. They spent the next few hours out in the storm, he digging channels with a bucket while she built a mud dam. The house had not even dried out when they were invaded by armies of ants, spiders, cockroaches, lizards, rats, even a mongoose. And the Lindbergh was summoned to an emergency meeting of the Pan American board in New York.

Anne was, as she scratched in her diary, “furious to be left at this point in this place in this state. A place which is not of my choosing. I do not have friends, family, or interests here. It is not a place I would normally choose to live in alone. I only came for him -- because he loves it & said he expected to be here with me. I am angry not only at him but at myself for hoping that he would at least stay here.” Argonauta did not even have a telephone, and the nearest people were ten minutes away through the mud. Propane gas motors generated electricity -- one for lights, the other for appliances; but, she wrote Lucia Valentine, she would gladly trade her few modern conveniences for a little company. What she found most discouraging was “the pattern of being left” and -- after all her years of weeping to her therapist and wailing in her diary -- her own inability to walk away from such unacceptable behavior.

As Anne alludes above, this was not the first time Lindbergh had acted with such willful disregard to her and her feelings. It was simply the latest example in what was by then more than forty years of marriage.

When they were together, he expected her attention to be focused on him, his self-absorption reaching comical proportions. He sometimes forbade her to pick up the telephone when it rang; and if he found her spending too much time gabbing to friends, he sometimes grabbed his gun from the closet and threatened to shoot the phone. When Anne replaced some seventy-five-year-old mattresses in the guestroom with a new set -- bought on sale at Bloomingdales -- it sparked a sermon on her contributing to the fall of civilization. He became obsessed with the general breakdown of law and order and the upsurge in anarchy, and he often groused about “what’s happening to the country.”

He was, I came to understand, in many respects a cantankerous old man, his mental faculties fading and regressing closer and closer to the baseness of his own self-centered personality.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment