Hap Arnold - Nothing is impossible
Hap Arnold in his Sonoma home
Index-Tribune file photo
Hap Arnold, Five Star General, commander of the largest and most powerful Air Force the world will ever see, author, visionary and finally Sonoma Valley rancher, would have celebrated his 125th birthday on June 25.
By 1946, when my grandfather and my grandmother Eleanor "Bee" Arnold moved to Sonoma, Hap Arnold was one of best known figures in the United States and around the world. He had been on the cover of Time, Look, Colliers and many other widely read magazines. He had appeared in newsreels.
Even today, he appears on the Military channel several times a day by mention or on film. Just about every Air Force Base around the world has an Arnold Avenue or Street. Arlington National Cemetery does too.
But a question I am asked, particularly by young people, is "Who was he?"
Born in Ardmore, Penn., son of a country doctor, Hap Arnold would play a vital role in the story of aviation, particularly military aviation, almost from its start, through its dramatic growth to the end of the 1940s. His influence continues on to today.
A West Point graduate, he would give up his dream of riding in the US Cavalry and become one of the first two Army pilots trained by the Wright Brothers at their school in Dayton, Ohio, now one hundred years ago this past April.
His early list of firsts is considerable: first mail carried by an airplane, first stuntman, pilot of course, in the movies, first use of goggles by a pilot after nearly crashing his Wright flyer when a dragon fly smacked into his face, temporarily blinding him, while aloft. The list is long. His experience became wide and deep.
And along the way, he thought about all of what he saw. And he dreamed about it. And then he did things about it. He was a doer with restless energy and impatience.
By the late 1930s, Hap Arnold knew on a close personal level almost all the designers, manufacturers, researchers and pioneer pilots in the flying game. He had written a series of aviation books, including novels for young boys about the adventure of flight. His career had survived the court-martial of his mentor Billy Mitchell that had earned Hap Arnold the personal animosity of President Calvin Coolidge and political exile from Washington.
Overcoming obstacles that would have convinced most to leave the service, he saw and understood the gathering storm of war in Europe and the Far East. He decided to remain in the Army and, over opposition, became the chief of the Army Air Corps.
Under Hap Arnold's leadership, World War II saw the expansion of the Air Force to 2.5 million men and, at its peak, more than 79,000 aircraft with worldwide operations. The entire combined military of the United States today is a fraction of that number and today's Air Force has about 5,000 aircraft of all types.
Now on a world stage, Hap Arnold would meet, advise and work with FDR, Winston Churchill and even, on two occasions, Joseph Stalin. His close associates included George Marshall, famed woman aviator Jackie Cochran, aircraft designer Donald Douglas and scientist Theodore von Karman.
In 1944, he would achieve the rank of five-star general of the Army, one of only nine men ever to achieve such a level in the U.S. Military. In 1949, he would receive that rank a second time when, by Act of Congress, he made five-star general of the Air Force. This makes him the only man in history to have that rank twice.
By war's end, Hap Arnold's close relationship with scientists created institutions that prosper today, such as Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech and the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica. All of these initiatives and many more mark him as a visionary far beyond any of his generation.
Hap and Bee Arnold ended up in Sonoma after Bee, in 1943, visited her friend Mrs. Frank Bartholomew who, with her husband, had bought property and had begun to restore the old Buena Vista Winery. Bee Arnold found a 40-acre ranch property the Arnolds dubbed "El Rancho Feliz," a play on Hap Arnold's famous nick name.
The two of them loved Sonoma. The family hangouts included Pinelli's Mission Hardware on the Plaza, Jack's Bar in the Toscano Hotel and the Marioni's Swiss Hotel. When famous folks, including Jimmy Doolittle, Lowell Thomas, George Marshall and many others visited Hap Arnold, he would take them to meet his Sonoma friends in these and other local landmarks.
Along the way, Hap and Bee Arnold had four children: Lois, Hank, Bruce and David. All three boys became West Point graduates and retired with the rank of colonel. Both my father, Bruce, and David, would serve in the independent Air Force after 1947. All would spend much time in Sonoma and make many friends here.
Sadly, Hap Arnold's time here would be short. The stress of the war, and his refusal to take any recovery time from a series of heart attacks, had left him with fragile health that even his drive and iron will could not overcome.
He died at his ranch in January 1950. His friend President Harry Truman sent his personal aircraft to bring the family to Washington for a state funeral. After lying in state at the Capitol, he was buried in Arlington Cemetery. Bee Arnold would become a successful real estate agent and live on the family ranch until her death in the 1970s. She then joined Hap Arnold in Arlington.
Today, their graves look out on the towering Air Force Memorial just outside the cemetery's grounds. How it managed to be placed right there in 2006 is a long story for another time, but many wonder just how Hap Arnold managed that too.
My grandfather always said that his motto, learned from his time and long relationship with the Wright Brothers, was that "nothing is impossible." His life and career are a testimony to that.