Academic journal article Air Power History

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

Academic journal article Air Power History

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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