By David Schmidt
Main Line Life Correspondent
For Jim Wiggins, being in the 8th Air Force during World War II was very important.
He was a crew chief, and his job was to keep the airplanes flying making sure when the pilot showed up, his airplane was ready to fly, with fuel and munitions already loaded.
Sgt. Wiggins was raised in Lower Merion and knew that his big boss was, too. That man was general of the Army Air Corps, Harold Harley (Hap) Arnold. Wiggins is now on another mission to memorialize Arnold and other Lower Merion High School graduates who fought in World War II as part of America’s so-called “greatest generation.”
The general was born the house on the corner of Conshohocken State Road, now rectory of St. John Vianney Catholic Church, Gladwyne. While still a youngster, Hap’s family had moved to Ardmore, where he grew up. He graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1903.
He was a boy who loved life and who became a man of action. There are still archival pictures in the township of Arnold playing on the football team. Graduating from a prominent school such as Lower Merion prepared him for the U.S. Military Academy and a career in the military. He wasn’t actually the Arnold who was supposed to go to West Point; that was older brother Thomas.
But according to Air Force Major Dik Daso, a biographer and historian, Thomas declined, and so the younger Arnold at age 16 entered the Corps of Cadets, graduating in 1907. He would be carrying on the family’s military tradition that dated back to the Revolutionary War.
Hap, by the way, wasn’t referred to by that name until the 1930s, according to most recollections. As a boy, he was mostly called Harley. His mother always called him “Sunny,” probably for his pleasant disposition, which many commented upon. Harley, called “Pewt” and “Benny” by his friends at West Point, was quite a prankster and was noted for significant demerits. He didn’t know then that he was going to become a pioneer in aviation, then command the largest air armada ever created, including tens of thousands of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of men and women.
He thought he would be a cavalryman, the most swashbuckling and idealized branch of America’s army. At the beginning of the century, most military men still thought they were useful. But Arnold’s high spirits caught up with him, and the level of demerits, and less than spectacular academic performance got him assigned to infantry.
After serving for some time in infantry, and distinguishing himself, Arnold discovered airplanes and applied to be trained as a pilot. To some degree, this was a way to escape the infantry, but he ended up, against the advice of his commander, accepting orders for flight instruction. So in April 1911, Arnold was in Dayton, Ohio, to begin flying lessons at Simms Station, the home of the Wright Brothers’ flying school.
Normally Orville and Wilbur Wright taught these ground lessons personally, but Arnold’s flight instructor was Wright employee Al Welsh. In fact, it does not appear that Arnold ever took a flying lesson with Orville or Wilbur Wright.
Arnold had earned several aviation firsts: winning the first Mackay Trophy, setting several altitude records and accomplishing the first successful spin recovery in an airplane.
These successes meant that he became one of the men determining how the air power would operate within the American military. For his efforts he twice won the Mackay Trophy, awarded for the most significant accomplishment in aviation for the year.
By 1938 he was the chief of the Army Air Corps, and then when the war started, the name was changed to Army Air Forces. Arnold was the senior aviation officer for the American military, working closely with a man he had said 30 years before in the Philippines would eventually be chief of staff. He was more than that; he was the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s most senior military man, Gen. George Marshall.
Both would eventually wear five stars, a rank called “general of the army” because George Marshall refused to use an internationally accepted title for that rank, “field marshal.” He couldn’t accept being known as “Field Marshal Marshall.”
But back in Lower Merion, even when the war was starting, Arnold wasn’t well known.
“I graduated from Lower Merion High School in 1938 and my wife, Alice, in 1940, but it wasn’t until during the war that I discovered that he was a neighbor, so to speak,” Wiggins said.
After the war, Wiggins returned to Lower Merion and began working for the school district, eventually running the district’s chief of custodial services maintenance function.
After the war, Lower Merion certainly realized that Hap Arnold was perhaps the area’s most famous warrior and even the favorite son. With such an illustrious graduate, one thing the school could do was create a memorial to Arnold, which it did by naming the athletic fields in his honor. He even agreed to come to the dedication ceremony. “Unfortunately he died shortly before the event,” said Wiggins. “His widow did come, though.”
As a part of the relationship between the school and the Arnold family, she gave the school a number of Arnold’s artifacts. “The family gave the material for display to the school board,” he said. This wasn’t the bulk of Arnold’s personal archives; much of it went to the Air University and eventually also to the Air Force Academy.
But there were a lot of very personal items in what the school received. “It included his riding crop, pictures as a youngster, as a boy with his father and the two Mackay Trophies. There were even pictures of him and his wife,” Wiggins said.
According to him, the material was kept in a 7-by-4-foot case on the second floor of the Lower Merion High School’s administration building “just outside the conference room,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins retired and moved to Florida, and in doing so, discovered the 8th Air Force Heritage Museum in Puller, Ga. He became involved with the museum and an excited advocate for this memorial to a youth and unit of his own.
Remembering that there was a display of Arnold’s property down a dusty hallway in the school, he tried to get the material for this new museum. To his chagrin, the Arnold family decided to give it to the official Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson AFB near Dayton. The ties of both a common hometown and service during the war expanded into a love and respect for the man. To that end, Wiggins also learned more and more about the 8th Air Force.
Located in England during the war and responsible for American aerial warfare in Europe, more members of this one unit died during World War II than all the Americans killed in Vietnam.
Survivors of 8th Air Force were truly that, survivors, with a fierce loyalty to their comrades and their past. This emotional bond is so strong that it includes the British, who started their own museum to memorialize the unit. Located at Ducksworth, England, a former bomber base, the museum features the last flyable B-17 in the world. Wiggins may have lost the fight for Hap’s artifacts, but it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
To hear him describe the audiovisual presentation at the museum, where you sit in the belly of a B-17 and look out “windows” to participate in a complete bombing mission over Germany, makes you want to jump in a car and experience it yourself. “The best part of it is when they drop the bombs, and the floor under you opens up, and you are looking down as the bombs fall,” Wiggins said.
But he has a new project now, having moved back to Lower Merion several years ago. For him, Hap Arnold is one of a number of the school’s alumni who served in the Second World War, and they all should be remembered.
Now he wants to create a memorial to Lower Merion High School’s World War II veterans. Nearly 60 years after V-J Day, there are probably only a few high school students who realize that some of those who fought in the war are still alive. Unfortunately those men and women are aging, and many die each day. Wiggins would like to see the school remember those who are now in their 70s. Wiggins is pleased to be asked if he knew Arnold. “Oh, no, I was just a sergeant, and he was the big boss,” he said.
Big boss or not, now they are both the same, they are both men who put their life on the line for America’s freedom.