Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: A time for heroes

In 1933 economic woes circled the globe. Europe was looking in desperation to dictators of the right and left who promised that totalitarian methods would solve their nation’s plight. In their words, some already heard the possibility of a second world war. The United States had just elected a new president who was adopting new and many controversial economic programs. Most were still untried, but everyone was willing to give them a try. Anything to end the stagnation that had griped the county since 1929 and put people back to work.

It was against this world of woes that those looking for heroes looked to the sky. And in 1933 for Americans and many around the world there was no bigger hero than Wiley Post, the pilot who was the first to fly solo around the world.

A former oil pipeline worker from Oklahoma who had seen the inside of a prison and had lost an eye in an industrial accident, Post had overcome those odds and become an international aviation pioneer. This was coupled with a modest “aw-shucks” manner that many found appealing. He was, it seemed, a hero meant for hard times. And so that is why on August 15, 1933 Allentown and the Lehigh Valley were overwhelmed with excitement when it was announced that Post would be flying into Allentown Airport- then a simple airfield outside the city- in the Winnie Mae, the plane that had taken him on his historic flight.

Post had seen his first airplane in 1913 and supposedly knew from that moment that he wanted to do nothing else.  During World War I he trained to be an Army pilot, but the fighting ended before he got into combat. Post went to work in Oklahoma oil fields, but the job was not steady. Desperate, he engaged in armed robbery. He was arrested and served more than a year in the Oklahoma State Reformatory. It was in 1926 that Post got his big break, but in many ways, it could hardly have been seen as luck. While working on a pipeline he was struck in the eye by a metal chip from a link pin he was hammering. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, they were unable to save the sight in Post’s left eye. The oil company gave him $1,800 as compensation. Post went out and bought his first airplane with his money.

It was also at this time that he met and became friends with Will Rogers, the humorist, Broadway stage star and best-known Oklahoma native in the country. It was perhaps through his connections with Rogers that several Oklahoma oil field owners got to know Post as well and by 1930 he was the personal pilot for two of them, Powell Briscoe and F.C. Hall. It was Hall who purchased that year a Lockheed Vega monoplane that he named Winnie Mae for his daughter. Post used this plane to enter and win the National Air Race Derby, traveling from Los Angles to Chicago on August 27, 1930 in 9 hours, 8 minutes and 2 seconds. This victory inspired Post to take on an even greater challenge: to be the first-person to pilot a plane around the world. It had been done by air before but that had been by the German airship the Graf Zeppelin.

On June 23, 1931 Post and his navigator Harold Gatty took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island in the Winnie Mae. They made stops along the way in Alaska where the Winnie Mae’s propeller had to be repaired and later replaced. They arrived back on July 1st 1931 after completing the journey in 8 days.

Perhaps it was just that the country, in the middle of the Great Depression, wanted something to cheer about, but the reaction equaled the reception given to Charles Lindbergh following his 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris. President Herbert Hoover had Post and Gatty to the White House for lunch and the next day New York gave them an enormous ticker tape parade welcome. Post’s goal following this flight was to establish an aeronautical school. But while admiring his personal achievement, potential backers shied away from funding Post due to his limited education. To prove he was a scientific pilot, in 1933 he repeated his round the world flight using an autopilot device instead of a human navigator.

Although the autopilot did not perform perfectly, when Post landed on July 22, 1933 to a crowd of 50,000 at New York’s Floyd Bennett Field, he had bested his previous record flying around the world in 7 days, 18 hours and 49 minutes. Among those who talked to Post after his return was Italian aviator General Italo Balbo. At roughly the same time as Post’s flight he had led a fleet of 25 military seaplanes from Mussolini’s Italy to Chicago for the celebration of the Century of Progress World’s Fair being held in the Windy City. Newsreel footage of its landing in New York Harbor on its way back to Italy is still as thrilling as its fascist saluting by New York fans of the Duce is frightening.

Stopping in New York and following a lunch at the White House with President Franklin Roosevelt and his own ticker tape parade, Balbo, as newsreel cameras whirred, is shown meeting with Post to hear personally about his flight and the autopilot. Balbo was so impressed with American technology that later he warned Mussolini that getting tied up with Hitler in a war with America was foolish, advice the Duce did not appreciate. In 1940 Balbo’s plane was shot down by “friendly fire” over Tobruk. 

There were several reasons given in the newspapers for Post’s visit to the Lehigh Valley. One was that he was invited by the Allentown Kiwanis Club to be a speaker for Ladies Night. Another was to represent the SOCNY (Standard Oil Company of New York) Vacuum Company as part of a national tour. And that John Henry Leh and his wife Dorothea of Allentown’s Leh’s Department Store family were prominent figures in the aviation field may also have been a factor.

At first the event was billed as a dinner to be held at the Americus Hotel. But by August 17, 1933 it had blossomed into a parade that was opened to the entire Lehigh Valley. To control the crowds that were expected, Allentown mayor Fred Lewis contacted the governor to get State Highway Patrol officers to escort the Post motorcade from the Allentown Airport. State Police officers would be on hand at the airport.

Starting at 1:00 p.m. busses were to leave the Center Square monument every 15 minutes to take people to the airport to see Post fly in in the Winnie Mae. Entertainment was provided to keep the crowd in a festive mood.

“The parade in the city,” noted the Morning Call, “will leave Fifth and Linden streets as close to 4:45 as possible, proceeding south to Hamilton to Fifteenth to Turner, to Sixth and south to the Americus.”

The participants in what the newspapers called the “procession” from the airport included the American Legion’s Herbert Paul Lentz Post’s Drum and Bugle Corps, and the Slatington Drum and Bugle Corps. Post would be in the lead, sitting in the back seat of an open car. Twenty-five cars with local officials would follow and those who wanted to join the motorcade on their own could.

At 3:00 p.m. on August 17, 1933 the phone in Jim Christman’s office at the Allentown Airport began to ring. As airport manager he was not surprised to hear that the Winnie Mae had just taken off from Scranton’s airfield bound for Allentown. Quickly Christman spread the word to the four planes of the 103rd Observation Squadron of the Pennsylvania National Guard that were to provide an air escort. Then he got into his own plane and, followed by the local pilot Bert Goldsmith, took-off to greet Post in the air. Post arrived over Bethlehem at 4:00 and reached Allentown around 4:30. The crowd at the airport began to shout as they heard the Winnie Mae’s engine roar as Post swept overhead and then came in for a landing.  State Police officers held back the crowds as they strained at the fence as Post emerged from his plane.

Familiar from many newsreels, the jaunty pilot with his eye-patch waved as he headed for the open car that was to take him into the city. Before he stepped into the car, he was greeted by Allentown Mayor Fred Lewis who extended his hand to the flyer. The band from Slatington played but their music was almost drowned out by the sound of the crowd. It took some time to get the band into the cars that would drive them into the city. When all was in order the car carrying Post, John Henry Leh and Col. C.J. Smith, president of the Allentown Airport, led the way.

The parade route was packed. “The picture the column presented as it was going up Hamilton Street was one the like of which Allentown had never seen,” noted the press. “It was the first time that New York’s reception to heroes of the day was emulated in this community (with ticker tape) and the bales of debris for collection were the lot of the city staff charged with keeping the streets clean.”

Finally, at 5:15 Post’s car pulled up at the Americus Hotel, where he would spend the night and attend the Allentown Kiwanis Club’s dinner. Over 700 guests had signed up. General Harry C. Trexler was among the local luminaries at the head table. John Henry Leh was toastmaster. Flags of nations Post had flown over hung throughout the hotel’s ballroom. Behind him on the wall was a huge map that showed his round the world route. Light jazz was added by Roxy Reiff and his orchestra, local baritone John Mealey sang solos. The Allentown Lions Club presented Post with a floral tribute in the shape of an airplane and a shotgun for duck hunting.

After the dinner and introductions Post said he would not give a speech but was more than willing to take questions. His most significant comment was to note on the progress that aviation was making. He predicted it would not be too far in the future before a plane that would fly as fast as between 700 and 900 miles per hour. Asked what he was going to do after his tour, Post said, “rest and then rest again and then go back to work.” Was he planning on any other record setting flights? “No, I can’t. The folks at home will not let me,” he said with chuckle. “They tell me to slow down because they are getting tired just trying to keep track of me.”

After spending the night at the Americus, Post was up early the next morning. But before he flew out of the Lehigh Valley he had one more stop to make, this time without bands or tickertape. He was driven out to a hospital where he greeted and shook hands with the disabled World War I veterans residing there.

People in the Lehigh Valley and the rest of the country continued to follow the flyer’s daring experiments in aviation, particularly in testing the limits of high altitude flying in a pressurized suit that allowed him to reach 50,000 feet. He is also given credit by some sources for discovering the jet stream.

Then on August 17, 1935, two years to the day he had been hailed in the Lehigh Valley, came the unbelievably tragic news that Post, and his friend Will Rogers had died in the crash of experimental plane in Alaska. He was 36.

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