The Martin B-26 Marauder Bomber Helped Propel Sen. Harry Truman To The White House, Where His First Major Decision Was To Drop Atomic Bombs On Imperial Japan
The letter was from Benedict K. Zobrist, then Director of the Harry S. Truman Library at Independence. MO in response to an earlier request from this writer for information on a certain controversial subject: “We are unable to find any documentary material in President Truman’s papers relating to Glenn L. Martin.”
The reply was puzzling, particularly in light of the fact that not only was the Martin Company a major American aircraft manufacturing firm throughout the entirety of Mr. Truman’s brief Vice Presidency (under the dying President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), but also during all of his own years in the Oval Office, from 1945-53.
In addition, rumors from some Martin sources claimed that the legendary “Glenn L.”---as he was affectionately known to his upper level managers at his plant at Middle River, MD---had had a run-in with the feisty Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri, and had even reportedly had him thrown off his property!
Since many former Martin’s employees had stressed to me the gentle nature of Glenn L. Martin, what had happened to occasion the apparent outburst with Sen. Truman, and why did the two men become enemies? And---more importantly to the overall Martin saga---did this divide in their relationship hurt the company after Truman became first Vice President and then President---stunning developments that were hardly to be foreseen in the early days of the American involvement in World War II when Truman
and Martin began working together, ostensibly at least, to win the global war against the Axis Pact powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan and their various satellites.
Was it no accident, either, that the very years of the Truman tenure at the White House coincided precisely with the years of the initial decline of the Martin Company’s former productivity and garnering of the lucrative government contracts that employed thousands at the Middle River production hub?
Interviews with former Martin Company employees revealed there had, indeed, been a serious rift---over a dispute concerning the famed Martin B-26 Medium Bomber that first flew in 1939. That uproar helped launch then-obscure Sen. Truman to the very pinnacle of American power---the Presidency of the United States.
Here is what happened:
According to Truman’s daughter Margaret (later a successful murder mystery novelist and formerly a concert signer as well), in her 1973 biography of her late father, Harry S. Truman, he was concerned about the effect on American society that the prewar military build-up would have.
“My father, watching the mushroom growth of Army camps, the multiplication of battleships and merchant ships, the retooling of thousands of factories for war work, became more and more worried about this vast national effort. He feared it would either
collapse in chaos or produce mass delusion, when its inevitable corruption and mismanagement was revealed to a shocked public.
“He knew---from memory of World War I days---that this is what had happened in the early 1920s. Congress had waited until after the war to start digging into the contracts between government and businessmen,” she wrote. “After he was sworn in for a second time” (to the US Senate) “on Jan. 3, 1941, my father departed from Washington for a month-long, 30,000-mile personal inspection tour of the defense program.
“He roamed from Florida to Michigan. On Feb. 19th, he was back in Washington, and he rose to make a fateful speech in the Senate. I say fateful because it was to change all our lives. He told his fellow Senators of staggering waste and mismanagement he had seen with his own eyes.” (As a Missouri county judge before coming to the Senate in 1934, Truman had been responsible for awarding and overseeing local road-building contracts, so he knew his contracts.)
“On the day he spoke,” Margaret Truman continued, “the (US) House (of Representatives) voted to raise the ceiling on the national debt to $ 65 billion. This vast spending spree needed a watchdog. In Senate Resolution 71, he recommended the creation of a committee of five Senators who would shoulder this large responsibility…”
Two decades later---retired and out of office---former President Truman talked with television producer Merle Miller about how “The Truman Committee”---as it was called in the press of the day---was formed and of the newspaper headlines that it generated. When Miller asked HST about the “Truman Committee,” the tart-tongued and salty Harry S. responded sharply, “That wasn’t the name of it. It was called the Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program.
“Of course, later they gave it that shorter name, but I couldn’t put a stop to it” asserted the man who later could---and did---fire a recalcitrant General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. “Eventually, we had a dozen or so investigators, and the committee went from five members to nine---and we went ahead and did our job…”
Apparently, under the auspices of the investigative committee, Truman came to Maryland to inspect the mammoth Martin plant at Middle River, and the tour resulted in an exchange with Glenn L. Martin subsequently at a Congressional hearing in Washington.
Truman related the exchange to Miller in 1961, six years after Martin’s death: “Glenn Martin was making B-26 bombers, and they were crashing and killing kids right and left, so I said to Martin, ‘What’s wrong with these planes?’ He said, ‘The wingspread isn’t wide enough.’ So I said, ‘Then why aren’t you making them wider?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have to. The plans are too far along---and besides, I’ve got a contract.’
“So I said, “All right. If that’s the way you feel, I’ll see to it that your contract is cancelled, and you won’t get another!’ He said, ‘Oh, if that’s the way it’s going to be, we’ll fix it,’ and he did. I just don’t understand people like that! He was killing kids, murdering kids, and he didn’t give a damn! I never will understand people who do a thing like that!”
Earlier, in his 1955 published Presidential memoirs, volume one, Year of Decisions, Truman had given virtually the same account, but in a somewhat sanitized version, which added, “I had an engineering survey made of the B-26 Martin bomber, and it was found that the wingspread was too short.
“This technical miscalculation had been responsible for a number of fatalities among our Air Force” (Corps, really) “personnel. Glenn Martin, testifying at one of the hearings, said that the blueprints of this plane were already on the boards and that he would have to go through with the project…”
If true, this incident is a shocking revelation, and yet, it seems to be totally at odds with all the taped interviews conducted by me with former Martin plant employees---from management to riveter, all of whom had only good things to recall about their beloved “Glenn L.”
Without exception, the Glenn L. Martin who emerged from their own, personal, on-site recollections of the man was not at all the cold, unfeeling “robber baron” portrayed so icily in Truman’s postwar accounts, in which other great Americans---such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. MacArthur---had also found themselves skewered.
Their Glenn L. Martin was a caring, compassionate man who truly worried over the welfare of all his employees, creating for them---in addition to jobs---a baseball team, a band, and even inexpensive company-built housing near the plant that still exists today and is also inhabited, long after his demise.
Was this the same man who would send their kids off to war in faulty airplanes? It seems hard to believe, and yet the Marauder had been called many derisive names, among them being “The Widow Maker,” and the Army Air Corps had, indeed, suspended production for a time during World War II because of these allegations.
Interestingly, the only available, full-scale biography on Martin himself, To Ride the Wind by Henry Still, doesn’t even list Truman’s name in the index, much less his committee, but it does tell what went wrong with the B-26, and it also tells how
the plane’s problems were corrected, how it was saved, and how it went on to become one of the truly great aircraft of the Second World War.
And how did this flap affect the fortunes of one Harry S. Truman? According to writer Bert Cochran’s 1973 study, Harry Truman and the Crisis Presidency,, “He had become in the space of four short years a respected national figure. A newspaperman called his odyssey ‘A cockeyed Horatio Alger story’---an apt characterization.”
The work of the Truman Committee aided the US war effort rather than embarrassed the Administration of fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Committee brought Sen. Truman to the attention of the President himself---who was seeking a new running mate to replace then-Vice President Henry Agar Wallace for the upcoming 1944 Presidential election, his last of five national races since 1920.
Stunning everybody, FDR chose Truman, who reluctantly “Took that job that I never wanted,” as he ever afterwards said of it, because he was certain that Roosevelt was dying; he---HST---didn’t want to be President, or so he claimed.
But Truman became the Chief Executive anyway, on Apr. 12, 1945, and the Martin B-26 Marauder bomber had played an important role in his unlikely rise to power, alas.
Soon afterward, the new President, 63, held his first Cabinet meeting with Roosevelt’s---and now his---government. As Truman recalled a decade later in his memoirs Year of Decisions, “The first meeting…was short, and when it adjourned, the members rose and silently made their way from the room---except for Secretary (of War Henry) Stimson. He asked to speak to me about a most urgent matter. Stimson told me he wanted me to know about an immense project that was underway---a project looking to the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power. That was all he felt free to say at the time, and his statement left me puzzled. It was the first bit of information that had come to me about the atomic bomb, but he gave me no details.”
Later, when he learned more, Truman was amazed that the secret had been kept from Congress so well, particularly since his own Senate Committee had heard nothing about the top-secret Manhattan Project while it toured defense plants all across the country.
At that time, then-Sen. Truman suspected that something important was going on when the Secretary of State came to see him at his office about a planned investigation of plants in Tennessee and Washington State. “’Senator,’ the Secretary told me as he sat beside my desk, ‘I can’t tell you what it is, but it is the greatest project in the history of the world! It is the most top secret. Many of the people who are actually engaged in the work have no idea what it is, and we who do would appreciate your not going into those plants.’”
Sen. Truman agreed, and called off the investigation immediately. On Apr. 13, 1945, Secretary of State James Byrnes told HST in the Oval Office “That we were perfecting an explosive great enough to destroy the whole world,” but crusty Navy Adm. William D. Leahy didn’t agree, bluntly stating, “That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done! The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives!”
Concerned about the upcoming San Francisco Conference, the new President put thoughts about what would later be called simply “the bomb” into the back of his mind.
In her biography of her father, daughter Margaret wrote of his meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to plan the proposed two, successive invasions of Japan---codenamed Operations Olympic and Coronet respectively: “They handed him plans for a Nov. 1st assault on the Japanese Home Island of Kyushu with a total force of 76,000 men. Some of the Chiefs predicted light casualties, but Adm. Leahy strongly disagreed. He pointed out that in the bloody Okinawa campaign just ending, American losses (41,700) had been 35% of the attacking force. The Japanese still had an estimated 5,000 planes ready for kamikaze (suicide) attacks.
“There were an estimated 2,000,000 troops in the Japanese Home Islands. Facing the Americans on Kyusu would be 17 well-equipped, battle-ready divisions. If the capture of Kyushu, the westernmost Japanese island, did not persuade Japan to surrender, in the spring of 1946 there were plans for a landing on Honshu, the main Japanese island, where a climactic battle would be fought on the Tokyo Plain. On both Kyushu and Honshu,Japan’s soldiers would, if their performance on Okinawa was any indication, fight with total fanaticism to defend their sacred soil. Based on this assumption, Gen. George C.Marshall predicted that the total American dead on land and sea might reach 500,000 men.
“Moreover---and this was a very big moreover---the entire American battle plan was based on the assumption that Russia would enter the war before the American invasion. This would pin down Japan’s crack one-million-man Manchurian Kwantung Army, as well as the additional one million troops on the Asian Mainland fighting the Chinese. If substantial portions of these troops could be shuttled back to Japan---by no means an impossibility, in spite of our air and sea superiority---American losses might be many times that already appalling figure. More than anything else, these facts explain Dad’s policy toward the Russians during these critical months.
“The atomic bomb was not mentioned at this conference. It continued to be a question mark. No one really knew whether it would really work…”
In 1961, while preparing a television show about then ex-President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, the late Merle Miller had an opportunity to speak at length with HST on the subject. In 1974, Miller published his bestselling book based on these earlier conversations, calling the work Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman.Plain.
“If there was one subject on which Mr. Truman was not going to have any second thoughts, it was the bomb. If he’d said it once, he’d said it a hundred times, almost
always in the same words. “The bomb had ended the war. If we had to invade Japan, half a million soldiers on both sides would’ve been killed and a million more ‘Would have been maimed for life.’ It was as simple as that. That was all there was to it, and Mr. Truman had never lost any sleep over that decision…”
Miller proposed a program whereby the retired HST would actually visit Hiroshima, the first city in Japan---and the world---to be A-bombed. ‘I’ll go to Japan if that’s what you want,’ he said, ‘but I won’t kiss their ass!’…He wasn’t going to apologize for it, wasn’t going to say he had been wrong, and for all I know, he wasn’t wrong. Maybe it did save lives, ours and theirs.”
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