In the Museum

Paul Garber: Eyewitness to History

During World War II, Navy Commander Paul Garber developed a target kite (bearing the silhouette of a Japanese aircraft) for U.S. Navy ship-to-air gunnery practice. (NASM (SI NEG. #SI-2002-12355~PM))
Air & Space Magazine

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When Charles Lindbergh took off on May 20, 1927, on his solo transatlantic flight, Garber asked the Smithsonian’s acting Secretary, Charles Abbot, to send a cable to the young aviator requesting the Spirit of St. Louis be donated to the national collection. Abbot balked, reminding Garber that Spirit was still flying over New England and might not reach its destination. Garber persevered; Abbot sent the cable, and the aircraft was given to the Smithsonian, arriving on April 30, 1928. Recalled Garber in 1974, “I had it ready for exhibition on May the 8th, and when we opened the doors—and that was a Sunday—there was a mob out here extending all over the Mall!”

Garber obtained the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae—the airplane in which Wiley Post made the first flight around the world—in 1937, two years after the aviator died in a crash along with Will Rogers. (Garber had met Rogers some 10 years earlier, when he asked the American humorist to donate a stagecoach to the Smithsonian.) When Garber went to collect the airplane after Post’s death, he said, “I remember as I walked out to the field and saw the Winnie Mae in its hangar, there was a large black shroud on the propeller hub—just as a reverent gesture by his many friends.”

In late 1935, explorer and World War I pilot Lincoln Ellsworth and Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon attempted a trans-Antarctic flight in the Northrop Gamma Polar Star. (The two were meant to travel from Dundee Island in the Weddell Sea across Antarctica to Little America; lack of fuel forced them down 25 miles short of their destination. They then walked for six days, settling down in a camp abandoned by Admiral Byrd some years earlier.) After his rescue, Hollick-Kenyon recovered the Polar Star; Garber accepted it into the Smithsonian’s collection in April 1936.

During a training exercise in enemy waters, Garber’s target kites helped save an aircraft carrier from enemy attack, said Vice Admiral DeWitt Clinton Ramsey during World War II. Because they were engaged in gunnery practice, alert shooters saw two Japanese torpedo bombers approaching, and quickly switched from the targets to the enemy aircraft, blasting them into the water.

In 1910, the Garbers were visiting Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Paul Garber visited the hangar of Walter Wellman (prior to the journalist’s attempted crossing of the Atlantic in the airship America in October)—and saw mission mascot Kiddo the cat asleep on a chair.

In 1934, Garber met Robert H. Goddard. He donated an A-series rocket, the first liquid-fuel rocket the collections had received; the scientist stipulated that under no circumstances was it to go on display without his consent (or, in the case of his death, the consent of Harry Guggenheim and Charles Lindbergh).

The rocket was stored in a basement corridor for many years, finally appearing in a postwar display of Goddard’s technology—after his death.

In the 1930s, Garber broadcast a series of radio programs with World War I ace and commanding officer of the First Pursuit Group Harold E. Hartney.

The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Navy Commander Luis de Florez telephoned Garber to ask if he could borrow his display of contemporary military aircraft, as the Navy needed the models to train pilots and sailors in aircraft recognition. (In 1943, de Florez would win the Collier Trophy for his work in training combat pilots through flight simulators.)

In 1941, at the request of chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Admiral John Towers, Garber produced a 1:16-scale model of the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Garber’s work so impressed the Navy that he was made a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve; he spent the next five years developing models for the Navy.

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