Behind the Wings®
The Podcast – Episode 1
Wings sat down with the CEO of the General Carl Spaatz National USAAF Museum, Keith Seiwell, to learn more about Spaatz’s life and legacy.
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About the Episode
General Carl A. Spaatz was the first chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and one of the most influential people in early U.S. Air Force History. Born in Boyertown, Penn. on June 28, 1891, Spaatz had a full career, beginning with the newly formed air corps and was one of the first military aviators in the U.S. Army. In this episode, we look at Spaatz’ biography, but also what his story meant for the formation of the U.S. Air Force that we know today.
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- Keith Seiwell established the Carl Spaatz National USAAF Museum in 2017 to tell the story of Carl Spaatz
- Spaatz helped set up the USAF by setting up Logistics, infrastructure and training
- Spaatz helped develop aerial refueling that enabled air strategies that before weren’t possible
- Spaatz led a strategic bombing campaign against German oil resources in 1944
- Spaatz was appointed Chief of Staff of the Air Force in September 1947. He retired in June of 1948.
A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Rick Crandall (Host): Before we jump into General Spaatz, how about you share a little bit about you and your career and how you ended up where you are?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): I joined the Marine Corps and stayed in for 30 years. I retired in 2009 from the Marines as a colonel and did a couple of other great transition jobs. And then I basically stumbled into Boyertown one day. I was looking around for the Spaatz Museum that I knew had to be there, but there was no museum. And that’s actually the first time I came up with the idea of wanting to change that because he had done so much. And it would be great to have a museum that would really be established on the basis of Spaatz’ legacy.
John Barry (Host): So, Keith, what year did you start the museum?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Well, I had the Articles of Corporation in August of 2017. We did a groundbreaking ceremony of a building on October 17, 2018. We actually started a demolition of that building and taking over the 5000 sqft that were allotted to us probably in January of 2019. And then through a lot of hard work and a lot of great support, we opened on October 2 of 2021 right around two years later.
Rick Crandall (Host): So I know when we talked about creating this podcast, john was pretty excited about Carl Spaatz for the 75th anniversary commemoration of the US air Force and fairly insistent that we include them early on in this schedule. When I started looking to get ready to talking with you, just what this man accomplished, I mean, forget Chief of Staff of the US air Force. Everything he had done prior to that would have been enough for a career.
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Yeah, he really packed a lot into basically a standard 35-year career. It was pretty amazing, especially a kid from a small town like Boyertown who did so many wonderful things and stood toe to toe with great luminaries like Winston Churchill, Eisenhower, Roosevelt and so forth. He was the only American officer present at all three surrender ceremonies. He’s got an amazing legacy.
John Barry (Host): Let’s go back to the beginning because it’s pretty impressive. In fact, he graduated from West Point in 1914 and then shortly after that he was part of the beginning of the Air Corps. I mean, can you give us a little bit of that very beginning?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Sure. Well, again, like you said, he graduated in 1914 and was actually commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry. And his first duty assignment was at the 25th ID out in Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. And I think some things happened to him at West Point that made him decide he really didn’t want to stay in the infantry for so long. Young men at that time, they’re very enamored with this new service. He joins the air service, and not too long after that, he gained his first significant incident action in the Mexican service campaign that went on when Poncho Villa was making these raids across the United States on the southern border. And he came into contact with many people that would be great luminaries of their own. MacArthur was down there at that time. Patton, as well as Blackjack Pershing, which is really interesting. Spaatz wanted to get General Pershing up into the air and show him what he could do. And he kept badgering General Pershing, and finally Pershing got a little abrupt with them, said, no, I’ll let you know when I want to go.
John Barry (Host): That’s a good story. And then, of course, during World War One, he started out as a fighter pilot and got three kills, as we understand. So, can you tell us a little bit about his early combat experience?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Interestingly enough, he was signed to a fighter squadron in France, as you stated. But when he got there, just like all the other Americans, they wanted to get up in the air and knock down some German airplanes, but they said, “Not so fast, Carl. What you’re going to do instead is you’re going to develop the training school, and you’re going to be responsible for building the grounds, worry about flying an airplane later”. And of course, he didn’t like that too much. He took a job that nobody wanted and made lemonade out of lemons. And that actually was the building block for his future as a career officer, because he did that pretty much everywhere he went. That’s how he built his reputation.
Rick Crandall (Host): Strategic is the word that keeps coming back to me. He had an innate sense of how things would play out, it seems like he was about 10 miles down the road, further than anybody else was, as he was seeing what was about to happen in North Africa, in the Mediterranean.
Keith Seiwell (Guest): If we could go back to the 1920s, he did see a lot of things. Of course, he’s in the air service. It was brand-new technology. It was a brand new environment, really. And so, they were allowed to think way out of the box. For examples, before airplanes came around, nobody thought about aerial refueling. Why would you need to, right? Because there weren’t any airplanes. After World War One, some people started to think about it, but really, it wasn’t until 1920s that people thought, hey, maybe we can get these airplanes up in the air a little bit longer if we refuel them somehow. In the 1920s, the longest record for keeping an airplane in flight up, until Spaatz took his crack at it, was 45 hours. They actually smashed that record and did 150 hours plus.
John Barry (Host): To put that in context 150 hours is more than six days in the air. You have to eat, you have to stay awake, all those kinds of things that need to be done. You mentioned about the fact that he was a major. We have to understand the days and the times. He graduates from West Point 1914, and he’s a major by 1920. Okay, but he’s not a lieutenant colonel until 1935, 15 years later. Any insight there?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Part of it was World War One, because when the United States Army expanded to the level that it did, it gave people a lot of temporary ranks. The rank structure was based totally on seniority back then, so it was very slow.
Rick Crandall (Host): I’m curious about the perception of these flyboys by the military at that time. When Spaatz was coming up through, he’s wasn’t getting unlimited support. I suspect there’s some pushback from Marines and army and the folks on the ground. By comparison I think of the Space Force today and some of the pushback they get from the regular Air Force guys who are like, what’s this all about? Was there some of that?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Oh, absolutely. Because you have the air service now coming out of nowhere and an unproven air arm. The only thing anybody thought it could be used for was observation, because we had done that in the Civil War with balloons. World War I changed that quite a bit. And then the regular army still looked at the Air Force’s competitor for its own internal money. Then you also had inter-service rivalries because you had the Navy who was thinking in ways of aircraft carriers and so everybody was just vying for resources. And don’t forget, after 1929 you had the stock market crashed in October of ‘29 and then resources were continuously really difficult to obtain by any of the services just to survive.
John Barry (Host): Let’s move towards to World War Two. In 1929, he was switching over into the bombardment side as opposed to the fighter side and again he was doing those odd jobs and picking up the responsibility. But what I found fascinating was that he was over there in England during the Battle of Britain in 1939, even before the United States entered in the World War II. So can you give us a little insight between those may the late 1920s to the beginning of World War II?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): The Army Air Corps at that particular time was looking at strategic bombing and why was that going to be a big deal. They had a hedge on things because when you’re looking at the United States after World War I, it became very isolationist. The reason was because of the outcome of World War One, because there was no lasting peace. It wasn’t the war to end all wars, but they certainly wanted it to be for the US. So, there was not a large outpouring from the American people to increase an offensive capability. And those who had the foresight to see the level of importance that the bombers could make have to try and put it in a defensive method. That’s why the Flying Fortress was really conceived not necessarily as an overseas bomber, but really as a defensive bomber for the United States, able to hit ships out of the ocean. And that’s really one of the first reasons why it was called the Flying Fortress, because it was supposed to take up the defensive concept of a fortress, but this one a flying one instead of big concrete one on the ground on our coast.
John Barry (Host): And then what did he do between the time that he finished the war and became head of the Air Force as the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 1947?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Let me just back up real quick to 1944. One of the interesting things is Spaatz really did believe in air power and gained eventually air supremacy over the Germans. And that allowed him to advocate the critical vulnerability that the Germans had, and that was not their mobility, but their critical vulnerability was fuel oil. And Spaatz pushed for the destruction of the oil and synthetic oil production capability of Germany almost right away. And fast forward, he did that. Now, at the same time, the war in Europe was just about winding down and finishing up. Obviously, the war in the Pacific was really just starting to get overly hot. So there was an interesting little break at the end of the war. He was able to come back to the United States and had the welcome home parties and the parades and things like that, but he didn’t have a lot of time to rest and relax because he was over in the Pacific pretty quick.
John Barry (Host): I think our audience would be interested in understanding a little bit about his time as Chief of Staff. He was appointed by Truman to be head of the Air Force as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in September 1947. He retired in June of 1948. So I didn’t have it quite two years. But you can see what’s happening with the Space Force now. You got to get a new uniform, you got to get a flag, you got to get a song, you got to get different ranks and figure all that out. Can you give us maybe some insight on that time while he served as Chief of Staff?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): His job as Chief of Staff Staff was really in developing and seeing through the transition between the Army Air Force and into the United States Air Force. That was part of his to-do list. What kind of uniform we’re going to wear? How long is it going to take to transition to uniform? Fortunately for him, he was surrounded by a lot of great general officers. So he was able to really focus on the transition, and two years was not a lot of time to do that. I think his legacy, he understood, was coming to an end as far as his active service, and he was just busy passing the football onto everybody else, making sure that they understood what he wanted to do and what his vision was.
Rick Crandall (Host): Now as we kind of get towards the end of the program, the Air Force now and how much it differs from the Air Force that Carl Spaatz saw. Would this be the Air force that he would have foretold? Does it look like what he might have imagined it would grow into?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Yes, I think so. He’s not known as the father of American refueling for nothing. And I would say that capability the United States had, nobody else could match that in the world. So everything that we see today with our Air Force, the amazing strategic capability to project power worldwide because of aerial fueling, the Strategic Air Command that Lemay took over, well, that’s a direct line construct from the development of those things that Spaatz put in action. So it really is just fascinating to think that if we didn’t have him, maybe somebody else would have thought of concepts, maybe they wouldn’t have, I don’t know what would have happened. But today’s, modern air Force with its tremendous capability and I think even pushing it further into space, that’s a natural line that, to me, extends from January 1, 1929. The ability to have a vision, to take that vision, turn into results and use the technology that you have as the leverage to project power to make it into a strategic advantage that nobody else can match throughout your own country’s future, it’s hard to beat.
Rick Crandall (Host): I’m curious, what were the last couple of years of his life like? He passes away in 1974, it’s post-Vietnam. He’s been a man of air war his entire life. And was it quiet at the end? Did he have time to sit and reflect?
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Yeah, I guess he did. He was an editor for Newsweek. He was military editor for Newsweek magazine at the time, and he kept busy doing that and he became very involved in the civil air patrol. And I think he was really big on understanding that the youth is obviously the key to our future.
Rick Crandall (Host): John, I think maybe it’s time for us to let Keith go before we do. Keith, though, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t give you just a quick chance for anybody listening who may be in the neighborhood of Boyertown are headed that way over the summer, passing through. Let them know where this museum is and how to get to you.
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Thank you. The museum is located in Bordertown, Pennsylvania at 28 Warwick Street. It’s an educational institution that has really developed to teach them about General Spaatz, what he did, what it was like to be in the Army Air Forces and the legacy of the men and women who contributed to victory in World War II. Please go to our website, www.spaatzmuseum.org.
Rick Crandall (Host): Well, I can’t imagine if the general wasn’t here to tell his own story, he’s got a pretty good person doing the job for him. I think this was wonderful. Thank you very much.
Keith Seiwell (Guest): Thank you, John. Thank you, Rick. And it was my pleasure.
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