In these days of instant news and on-line access to archives and old photos, it is extremely rare to come across something so unexpected and rare that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. That’s what happened to me at a recent Howard Hughes award dinner when I was shown the document below, and no, I wasn’t reacting badly to the food.
A friend who works for Boeing, Erik Simonsen, opened up a file and showed me a yellowing Western Union telegram dating from July 13, 1942. It had been recently discovered by company historians who have been sorting through decades of North American Aviation files inherited with Boeing’s 1996 takeover of Rockwell’s aerospace and defense arm. What he showed me was, in a way, the ‘birth certificate’ of the Mustang, Mitchell and Texan.
Authored by the legendary James ‘Dutch’ Kindelberger, the ebullient president of North American, it was addressed to the “US Army Air Forces” public relations chief, Col. Arthur Ennis. In it, Kindelberger essentially tells the “Air Forces” what it should officially call his most famous wartime products, the P-51, B-25 and AT-6.
In fact, up to that time the USAAF (as the service had been renamed in 1941) had not adopted official names for its aircraft, leaving that job to the manufacturers. The Royal Air Force, by contrast, identified its own aircraft by name.
Kindelberger agreed with the Royal Air Force’s nomenclature for two of North American's aircraft, suggesting the British names “Mustang” and “Mitchell” be officially adopted for the P-51 and B-25 respectively. Reasonably, perhaps, since the Mustang had been developed to meet a British requirement.
However when it came to the AT-6 he balked at the British name ‘Harvard’. He suggested the name ‘Texan’. “We are particularly anxious to drop the name ‘Harvard’ previously used by British for North American trainers in favor of the name ‘Texan’ in-as much as all trainers are now built in our Texas plant and we believe it would be an excellent tribute to the splendid production job they are doing.”
Of more than 43,200 North American-built aircraft during the full extent of World War 2, around 17,000 were Harvards – sorry, Texans (or SNJs if you’re a Naval aviator). That was a splendid production job indeed!
For more on ‘Dutch’ and his legacy visit the Aerospace Legacy Foundation or Boeing's archives.