A "Pretty Damn Able Commander" Lewis Hyde Brereton: Part I.

Author:Miller, Roger G.
 
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On the early afternoon of Tuesday, November 4, 1941, the pulsing drone of air craft engines pierced the quiet air over Manila, capital city of the Philippine Islands, treating local citizens to a spectacular sight. One after the other, in vees of three, forty-two Curtiss P-40 and Seversky P-35 pursuit aircraft passed over the city, while twin-engine Douglas B-18s and four-engine Boeing B-17s flew high above the fighters. It was a dramatic display of the rapidly expanding air power in the islands, and of its kind, the last. One observer, Capt. Allison Ind, later wrote, "We were never again to see so many friendly airplanes over Manila." [1] The armada of aircraft formed a welcoming committee for the Pan American Clipper flying boat due in from the United States after a delayed trip across the Pacific Ocean. Great expectations accompanied the Clipper, for it carried the new commanding general of what would soon be designated Far East Air Force, a brusque, feisty experienced airman, Maj. Gen. Lewis Hyde Brereton. [2]

The officer who emerged from the flying boat presented a compact figure of less-than-medium height. Despite spectacles--a rarity among air officers that gave him a somewhat professorial air--Brereton exuded military polish. He dressed immaculately, carried himself with soldierly bearing, and walked with a quick, impatient step that would prompt British officers in North Africa to nickname him "Hot foot Louie." His speech was clear and pungent, and often as not he expressed himself in staccato bursts of words liberally laced with profanity. Captain Ind described the general as "a square-rigged, stout hulled believer in action" [3] and found him blunt, assertive, and pugnacious: "Clipped and final were his sentences, sweeping were his concepts, and sudden were his decisions." [4] New York Times military correspondent Hanson Baldwin wrote that Brereton was "dynamic to the point of exhaustion," and that he personified a "reckless, restless vigor." [5] Brereton was social and convivial, had an eye for the ladies, and enjoyed the prerogatives of his rank. When roused, he displayed a fierce temper. "'Louie' Brereton pulls no punches," Baldwin concluded; "he is aggressive and quick in sizing up a tactical and strategic situation and he can be frank to the point of tactlessness." [6] Unfortunately, the next seven months would provide the general with an abundance of opportunity for tactlessness, temper, and profanity.

During World War II, Lewis Brereton earned a number of distinctions. He was one of the few senior American commanders who served in com bat theaters continuously from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the German surrender, and he saw action in more theaters, perhaps, than any other senior officer. He began the war as commander of Far East Air Force (FEAF) until driven out of the Philippines, then took the remnants of his force south where he served as deputy air commander in the short-lived American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM). When ABDACOM collapsed and Java fell, Brereton flew to India where he took command of the newly formed Tenth Air Force and participated in the fighting in Burma and the Indian Ocean. When Gen. Erwin Rommel drove British forces in North Africa almost to Cairo in the early summer of 1942, the War Department ordered Brereton to Egypt where he organized Ninth Air Force. In late 1943, he moved to England where he reconstituted Ninth as a tactical air force to support the invasion of Europe. And in mid-1944, he assumed command of First Allied Airborne Army, a unique experiment that combined British and American airborne divisions and air transport units into a single organization. Along the way, Brereton was involved in several of the most debated events of the war, including the destruction of much of FEAF on the ground in the Philippines, Operation Tidalwave, the low-level attack on the Ploesti oil production facilities; Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy; and Operation Market-Garden, the airborne assault in Holland. Shortly after the war, Baldwin would justly describe him as "one of the Air Forces' best known and most controversial figures." [7]

Despite this extensive resume, however, Brereton's name faded rapidly from public memory, and he is remembered today primarily because he wrote The Brereton Diaries, a standard source for historians of the air war. The Brereton Diaries and an article, "Faded Reputation: Brereton of the Allied Airborne Army," by Roger A. Beaumont are virtually the only historical pieces devoted specifically to Brereton. The Brereton Diarie s has the built in biases of a first person account and also fails to reflect Brereton's dynamic personality. [8] Beaumont's article contends that Brereton was one of William "Billy" Mitchell's key disciples and an expert on aerial bombing, and that his ultimate disappearance from public awareness was a kind of punishment--almost Shakespearean in irony--for his association with the flamboyant advocate of strategic bombardment. [9] Most histories of World War II and especially those recounting the campaigns in Europe in 1944-1945 mention Brereton, and some have reasonably thorough depictions of his actions, usually based upon The Brereton Diaries. Otherwise, a handful of contemporary articles round out the secondary works available on Brereton. [10] These provide, at best, an uneven, incomplete view of the general.

A survey of secondary literature suggests the following. First, opinions about the general vary dramatically. As in the case of colorful figures like Clair L. Chennault, George Patton, Curtis LeMay, and others, little room seems to exist for neutral opinions about Brereton's reputation. Second, earlier historians generally have had a more favorable view of his performance; more recent historians have given him less credit for ability. Third, and closely related to the previous point, historians who have tended to give Brereton higher marks for competence, especially concerning the events in the Philippines, have largely been those, like Robert F. Futrell and Richard L. Watson, who have written extensively on the history of air power. Fourth, an individual's view about Brereton's actions in the Philippines are generally the reverse of his view of Gen. of the Armies Douglas MacArthur. Pro-MacArthur historians tend to condemn Brereton; anti-MacArthur historians are generally pro-Brereton. Many of the most serious assaults on Brereton's reputation have thus originated from those who have risen to MacArthur's defense. An extreme example is provided by author Geoffrey Perret who presented a balanced portrayal of Brereton in his history of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Winged Victory, published in 1993. His biography of MacArthur, Old Soldiers Never Die, three years later, however, condemned Brereton both person ally and for his role in the Japanese bombing of Clark Field on December 8. Perret accompanied this book with an article in American Heritage that included a venomous attack on Brereton's ability and integrity. William H. Bartsch has effectively responded to Perret's condemnation of Brereton, as well as to other misinterpretations of the events in the Philippines in 1941 that appear in Old Soldiers, so there is little reason to do so here; however, it is clear that a more detailed evaluation of Brereton and his background would be of great interest. [11]

Comparatively few primary historical resources are available on Brereton. Most important, a major collection of personal papers has yet to be found. Brereton was divorced twice, moved often like all servicemen, and appears to have been something less than a "pack rat." The personal and professional papers that might have proven attractive to a biographer appear to have disappeared. Further, despite his ubiquity, Brereton was one of the less prominent commanders of the war, and he passed away in 1967, before historians began exploring lesser known air leaders such as Elwood "Pete" Quesada, Hoyt Vandenberg, and Kenneth Walker. By the time Murray Green, D. Clayton James, DeWitt S. Copp, and other authors began conducting extensive interviews with participants in the war, Brereton had passed away. [12] Otherwise, a handful of official documents scattered through many archives, reminiscences by veterans, and some obituaries round out the primary sources available. Doing research on Brereton is thus less like mining a vein of gold and more like scavenging a beach for unbroken sea shells following a hurricane. One exception to the above exists. Brereton's official personnel file has been ignored by or was unavailable to previous historians. Some six inches thick, it provides the only extensive collection of material that covers Brereton's military career. The great advantage of this document is that, with few exceptions it includes the "who," "what," "when," and "where" of the historical equation. The great disadvantage is that it seldom answers the "why" part of the formula.

This study represents an effort to correct misconceptions about Lewis Brereton that have entered the public record and to present a more comprehensive picture of his life. Part I explores his experience prior to World War II; Part II concentrates on his experiences during the first seven months of the war. Future work will be necessary to assess his proper role and stature during the campaigns in North Africa and Europe, although some preliminary comments on these events will be included where appropriate.

Lewis Brereton was the second of two sons in a small, upper-middle class family. His father, William Denny Brereton, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1861, became a successful mining engineer, and married Helen Hyde, an indulgent, fun loving English woman. Their eldest son, William Denny Jr., was born on December 15, 1886, in Globe, Arizona. By the time Lewis Hyde was born on June 21, 1890, however, the family had returned to...

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