University of Miami band blared its music through the majestic
Biltmore Hotel as 44 khaki-clad
cadets marched onto
the stage of the big ballroom. It was a historic occasion
because we were first graduating class of professional aerial
navigators for the United States’ military services. We were to
become known as the Class of 40-A. On stage with the 44 of us
were representatives of the University of Miami at Coral Gables,
Florida, the United States Army Air Corps, and Pan American
Airways – the organizations that had put together America’s
first navigation training program. It was among the first
programs of World War II in which business, military, and
university personnel combined efforts in the interest of
The date was 12 November
1940. World War II had been raging in Europe for more than a
year, and Adolph Hitler had sent his troops into Poland, Norway,
Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Fighting, death, and
destruction were far away from US shores. America was enjoying
peace with a president named Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had
vowed that he would never send an American boy to die on foreign
soil. Congress had passed laws enacting the draft, but the men
on the platform in Coral Gables were not concerned about that.
There were all volunteers who anticipated one thing: to fly!
We came in early August
1940 to what became the fountainhead of navigational knowledge.
Few people traveled by commercial airlines in those days. We
came by bus, boat, train, and automobile from the crowded
streets of New York City, the lonely rangelands of Montana, and
the peaceful small towns of the Midwest.
Many of my classmates were first and second generation Americans
of Serbian, Jewish, Italian, Polish, and English extraction. It
was an all-American group including, among others, the family
names of Markovich, Berkowitz, Boselli, Vifquain, and Meenagh.
The class members were
young men in their early twenties, bright-eyed and eager to
succeed in navigation school so they could fly. We had only a
vague idea of the complexities of celestial navigation. None of
us had ever known an aerial navigator nor could have had any
idea of the perils the future held for us. We could not have
envisioned that we would be flying courses where no man had ever
flown, dropping bombs on civilian cities around the world and
seeing our classmates shot out of the sky.
Theodore J. Boselli, a former champion bantamweight boxer from
Clemson University, would later navigate the first presidential
plane. Walter E. Seamon, son of the mayor of West Jefferson,
Ohio, would also be assigned to the president’s plane. George
Markovich, a brilliant graduate of the University of California
at Berkeley, would guide a plane called the
Bataan for the great
Gen Douglas MacArthur in his flights around the Southwest
Pacific. Russell M. Vifquain, the blonde-headed son of an Iowa
college professor, had led Iowa State University to be runner-up
in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) gold
competition. In the years ahead he would be with Gen Curtis
LeMay dropping tons of incendiary bombs into the crowded heart
of Tokyo, Japan. Jay Horowitz, a happy Jewish boy from
Sweetwater, Tennessee, would suffer more agony as a prisoner at
the hands of the Japanese than anyone could have imagined.
These and many others were my classmates as we entered into the
academic phase of celestial navigation.
But it was 1940, and we
were in the city of Coral Gables. The US was at peace and our
thoughts were not of war. Our home during the 12-week course of
training was the stately San Sebastian Hotel at the corner of Le
Jeune and University streets. In our first military formations
we wore T-shirts, civilian clothes, and a variety of uniforms
from previous military organizations. We were a second “Coxey’s
Army” ready to be molded into military men and more importantly,
Capt Norris B. Harbold, a
1928 product of the United States Military Academy at West
Point, was in charge of the detachment. He had a history of
efforts to promote celestial navigation training in the Air
Corps. We conducted close-order drill formations on the streets
near the hotel where there was scant vehicular traffic. Coral
Gables on the outskirts of Miami was a sleepy and almost
desolate city after the big land development boom and later
depression of the 1930s. There were dozens of city blocks where
streets, sidewalks, curbs, and fire hydrants supported vacant
lots overgrown with weeds.
The cadets marched in
ragged military formations across the street to the “Cardboard
College” – a group of buildings intended to serve the University
of Miami until a new campus was established. The university’s
grandiose plans for new buildings had stopped dead with the
advent of the big depression. But the temporary facilities were
adequate for our 240 hours of ground training in navigation and
The development of
the navigation training program had come about in a very unusual
way. Gen Delos Emmons, chief of General Headquarters of the US
Army Air Corps, had been aboard a giant Pan American clipper on
a fact-finding mission to Europe in 1939. All night the big
silver clipper lumbered along on its flight from New York to the
island of Horta in
the Azores. While other passengers dozed, General Emmons
observed the plane’s navigator industriously plotting his course
by celestial navigation. The general stood on the flight deck
in awe of the proficiency of the work. Then as the stars faded
away in the light of a new day, the navigator pointed to a dark
mound on the distant horizon dead ahead of the aircraft.
“That is the island of
Horta,” announced Charles J. Lunn, the navigator.
“Amazing!” exclaimed the
“It would be more amazing
if it were not there,” replied Lunn matter of factly.
General Emmons had more
than a passing interest in this feat of expertise in celestial
navigational. Axis victories in Europe suggested alarming
possibilities for US involvement in the European war. The Air
Corps urgently needed a lot of well-trained and highly skilled
navigators. General Emmons knew that there was no program in
the Air Corps to do the job although the Air Corps had tried on
several occasions to establish celestial navigation schools. At
that time, most military flights were conducted within the
continental limits of the United States. Therefore, there was
little stimulus for flying officers to do more than make a hobby
of celestial navigation. A few officers including Norris B.
Harbold, Eugene L. Eubank, Albert F. Hegenberger, Glenn C.
Jamison, Lawrence J. Carr and Curtis Le May had taken particular
interest in celestial navigation; but by the spring of 1940, the
Army Air Corps had only 80 experienced celestial navigators. It
would need thousands to man the new bombers on order for the Air
“How many men could you
teach to do this?” Emmons asked Lunn.
“Just as many as could
hear my voice,” was Lunn’s succinct reply.
The conversation planted
an idea in the general’s mind. With whatever else he may have
learned on his fact-finding mission to Europe, he came back to
Washington, D.C., with an idea for training navigators.
Upon his return, he
contacted Juan Tripp, president of Pan American Airways and Dr.
B.F. Ashe, president of the University of the Miami. Their
meetings culminated in an agreement whereby Pan American would
provide navigational training with Charles J. Lunn as the chief
navigation instructor. The University of Miami would provide
food, housing, and classrooms for instruction at the rate of
$12.50 per cadet per week. The cadets were in place, and the
program was under way even before the agreement was signed.
Charlie Lunn seemed the
most unlikely person to be teaching a university class. His
academic credentials were woefully deficient. He had no college
degrees whatsoever. He had never attended a college or
university. The fact was Charles J. Lunn, chief navigator
instructor at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida,
in 1940, had failed his sophomore year at Key West High School.
He was a high school dropout.
Charlie and his sister had
stood at the head of their classes in grammar school and in high
school until Charlie’s interests turned to girls and
basketball. At 16 years of age, he was a good enough athlete to
draw $10 a game playing for the Key West Athletic Club team.
However, as a result of his extracurricular activities, his
academic standing declined to the point that he decided to leave
Nineteen years later, he
found himself standing before a class of college-trained and
educated students from all parts of the United States. Many of
them had college degrees in engineering, education, and a
variety of other fields. It was Charlie’s job to train them in
the complicated art of celestial navigation.
When Charlie left high
school, his father made it clear to him that he was to get
himself reinstated in high school or get a job to support
himself. Since he had grown weary of dull classroom life,
Charlie set out to find a job.
In 1921 there were few
employment opportunities in Key West, Florida for a 16 year old
school drop out. Sponging (gathering sponges from the sea) and
fishing were about the only jobs available on the island and
such jobs were not attractive to young Lunn. The 7th
US Navy Base, where many naval vessels stopped for fuel and
water, was one of the chief employers in Key West. Charlie was
unable to find a job there because 18 was the minimum age for
employment with the government.
Like other boys his age,
he was fascinated by the ships which came into the Key West
Harbor. He had talked to sailors about their voyages to far
away ports and learned that it would be possible to get a job as
an oiler on an oceangoing ship.
So at the age of 16,
Charlie took his first job oiling the engine on a freighter ship
of the P & O Steamship Company plying between Key West, Tampa
and Havana. It did not take the lad very long to grow tired of
his work in the steaming hot and smelly bowels of the ship. If
there was any romance and adventure in that life, it completely
escaped him. After a couple of trips he applied for a job
working on the top deck where he would have more opportunity to
learn about sailing.
As a deck hand, Charlie
was industrious and inquisitive. He asked questions and he
studied books until, at the age of 18, he became third mate on
From childhood, Charlie
had heard stories of shipwrecks all along the Florida Keys.
Spanish sea captains with millions of dollars in treasure had
lost their ships in those waters as they made their way back
toward Spain. He also knew the nineteenth century tales of how
some Key West natives had ridden mules in the shallow waters
along the reefs at night and had held lanterns high on poles to
confuse pilots into navigating vessels onto the coral reefs. As
a result, many Key West merchants sold a variety of exotic
merchandise from such wrecked ships. Wrecking ships, recovering
the cargo, and selling it resulted in a thriving business in old
These stories gave young
Lunn a good sense of the value of accurate navigation. He
became obsessed with the importance of being able to navigate by
the stars as a means of maintaining an accurate course on the
sea. He studied the stars and he studied navigation books until
spherical trigonometry became common place as he worked to
master his favorite subject. His diligence in learning the ways
of the sea qualified him to be captain of his own ship at the
age of 26.
In the early 1930s, an
important part of the P & O Steamship Company’s business was
hauling trains from Key West to Havana. Cubans loaded the
trains with sugar. P & O ships then transported the railroad
cars laden with sugar back to Key West. From there they
traveled on the railroad across the Florida Keys to US markets.
In Havana, Charles met two
people who changed his life forever. The first was an
attractive, green-eyed, blonde English girl who worked as a
secretary in the P & O Office in Havana. After a year-long
romance with the handsome young sea captain, she became Mrs
Charles J. Lunn. The other person to change his life was
Patrick Nolan, a captain for the Pan American Airways Company.
When Pan American pilots
moored their flying boats in the Havana Harbor, they were
generally near the P & O steam ships. It was a custom for the
aircrews to go aboard the ships to visit and enjoy good, well
prepared American food. It was on such visits that Captain
Nolan became acquainted with Charlie Lunn and his expertise as a
“Why don’t you come up to
Miami and make application for a job as a navigator with Pan
American?” Nolan asked Lunn.
Lunn said he would have to
think about that for awhile. He did think about it. In 1935 a
disastrous hurricane swept across the Florida Keys destroying
the rail line that had previously brought the trains to Key
West. The P & O lines moved their operation from Key West to
Fort Lauderdale. It was then that Charlie made up his mind to
apply for a job as a navigator with the Pan American Airways
Company in Miami.
At that time, Pan American
was extending its aerial routes to distant cities of the world.
Among the first people to navigate their big flying boats were
Charlie J. Lunn and Fred Noonan. The latter name is indelibly
written in the aviation history as the navigator who accompanied
Amelia Earhart on her ill-fated effort to fly around the
world. Although Charles J. Lunn is less well known, he had
navigated the big Pan American clippers for five years before
his fateful meeting with Gen Delos Emmons.
Classes began on Monday,
12 August 1940, with Charlie Lunn as the chief performer. He
stood pleading with his fledgling cadets to understand the
complicated procedures that he was explaining. There were no
teachers’ manuals. He was teaching what he had learned at sea
and then modified so he could navigate flying machines. Great
minds like Nathaniel Bowditch, John Hamilton Moore, Pytheas of
Massalia, and many others had unlocked the secrets to using the
stars for navigation. Lunn was the link between them and the
thousands of young men who would be flying military missions
around the world using celestial navigation.
With his fine six-foot physique,
Charlie was a handsome figure in his Pan American Airways
uniform. However in the classroom at the university, he often
appeared in front of his class clad in a round-neck,
short-sleeved, knit shirt that exposed the brawny, tattooed arms
of a son of the sea.
“Don’t write that down,”
he would plead. “You’ve got to get it up here in your head.
Your notes and papers won’t do you any good when you’re out over
the ocean some night.” Navigating over the ocean at night
seemed more like a dream than a reality to the cadets. None of
us had even been “out over the ocean” in a plane at night.
Nevertheless, Charlie doggedly transferred his grasp of
celestial navigation to his struggling students. Little by
little we became skilled at celestial navigation.
We received 50 hours of
in-flight navigation training flying from the Pan American
seaplane base at Dinner Key.
The base was located on the coast five miles from the
university. There Pan American converted five of its
twin-engine Sikorsky and Consolidated flying boats into flying
classrooms for day and night training missions. There were 10
large tables in each plane with maps of the Caribbean Sea area.
Each table contained an altimeter, a compass, and an airspeed
indicator. A large hatch open to the sky was used for taking
It was said that the
ancient flying boats would take off at 115 miles per hour,
cruise at 115 miles per hour, and land at 115 miles per hour.
Cadet Harold McAuliff described the noise the clipper made in
landing as being like the sound of a truck dumping a load of
gravel on a tin roof. Antiquated as they were, the planes
provided a real-life environment for practicing celestial
Before a cadet set foot in the big
clipper training ships, he had to spend many hours atop the San
Sebastian Hotel at night. There he got acquainted with the best
friends he would ever had - the stars and planets. Cadets
learned the names and the relative locations of the 50 brightest
stars and the planets. Betelqeuse, Arcturus and Canopus became
as familiar as the names of the streets back in their
In the classrooms, there were “dry
runs” across the Atlantic Ocean from Miami to Lisbon and from
Lisbon, Portugal, and from Lisbon to New York. These were
routes which Charlie Lunn had flown many times. Charlie
provided columns of figures representing the altitudes of given
stars in degrees, minutes, and seconds. He also provided
columns of figures representing the hour, minute, and seconds of
each observation. These were to be added and averaged manually
before using the almanac and tables to establish celestial fixes
along the course. Neither averaging devices nor computers were
in use at the time. Navigation was an exercise in mental
gymnastics that seemed to have no ending.
Academic training quickly revealed
that the plane’s airspeed indicator did not really measure how
fast the plane was traveling. The compass did not tell the
exact direction the plane was traveling, and the altimeter did
not mark the actual altitude of the aircraft. As an aircraft
moves through the air, navigators have to make corrections for
such things as temperature, atmospheric pressure, magnetic
variation, deviation, precession, and refraction. These were
things that Charlie Lunn had learned for himself when he left
marine navigation and took to the air.
Days and nights of work
and study filled the cadets’ lives. As busy as they were the
cadets found time for recreation at the beautiful Venetian
Swimming Pool and the then uncrowded and uncluttered Miami
beach. There were University of Miami football games at the
Orange Bowl and dances under the stars at the Coral Gables
Country Club. In addition there were many attractive coeds on
the campus to keep company with the cadets in their various
Then after 12 short weeks
of Charlie Lunn’s intensified navigation training, there came
the November graduation exercises held at the stately Biltmore
Hotel in Coral Gabels. Forty-four cadets sat on the stage at
the graduation exercises. We listened to speeches by Dr Ashe,
Pan American Capt Carl Dewey, and Gen Davenport Johnson. The
general, resplendent in his dress blue uniform, spoke for the US
Army Air Corps. Several hundred invited guests attended the
ceremonies, but few family members of the cadets were present.
The country was still in the grips of the depression. Few
people could afford the trip from remote parts of the country
even for such an important affair.
Gen Davenport Johnson, in
his wisdom, spoke of the future and of our mission. “Time is of
the essence,” he said. “Our Air Force will be called upon to
operate over much larger ranges than is the case in European
operation today. If the United States should be become involved
in the present world turmoil and be forced to defend the Western
Hemisphere, we must be able to reach out from our coastal
frontiers to discover, locate, and destroy the enemy before he
can get in striking distance of vital objectives within the
On that happy and peaceful
night in Florida surrounded by the luxury and grandeur of the
stately Biltmore Hotel and the music of the university band,
General Johnson, even with a prophet’s mind, could not have
understood the significance of the event. In the months ahead,
Charlie Lunn’s 44 cadets would be navigating missions of
inestimable significance. Passengers on their planes would
include such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Madame and
Generalissimo Chiang-Kai-shek, Presidents Herbert Hoover,
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and
Lyndon Johnson and Generals Douglas MacArthur, George C.
Marshall, and Curtis E. LeMay.
Within one year, instead
of defending our shores, many of us would be navigating across
the world to “locate and destroy the enemy.” Classmates would
fly combat missions on every battlefront in World War II: in
the frigid Aleutian Islands, across the sand-blown deserts of
North Africa, in distant Rangoon, Saipan, and Germany. They
would navigate on the first aerial attack on Japan and later
with the B-29s burn Japanese cities. They would “seek out and
destroy” V-1 and V-2 launching pads and submarine pens on the
continent of Europe and help soften up the beaches of Normandy
for the D day invasion. They would be prisoners of the Japanese
and the Germans, and internees of the Turks. They would help in
the project to dig the tunnel for the great escape from Stalag
Luft III in Germany. They would travel the brutal Bataan Death
Match and lose classmates in the horrible Japanese prison camps.
At the commencement
exercises of the celestial navigators of the Class of 40-A,
General Johnson could have said, “These navigators will follow
the stars on a path of tragedy and glory unique in the annuals
of American military history.”
Army Air Forces. “Flying Training Command Historical
Reviews,” 1 January 1939-30 June 1946, held by Historical
Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
Pan American Airways, Inc., New Horizons, New York, December