The following is an excerpt from An Incipient Mutiny by Dwight R. Messimer (January 2020).
Chapter 3: Paul Ward Beck, 1911-1912
First Lt. Paul W. Beck was either a far-sighted prophet or a manipulative politician out for personal gain. The truth is that he was probably both. But whatever his true character was, Lieutenant Beck was the man who made the first attempt to put army aviation on the road to becoming an independent air force, the fourth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Paul Beck was born on 1 December 1876 at Fort McKavett, Texas. His father, William Henry Beck, was a first lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry, which is famous for having been one of the army’s black cavalry units, the so-called Buffalo Soldiers. During the Apache Wars (1871–87) Paul’s father served with many officers who later rose to high rank in the army, and during the Spanish-American War (1898) he made several important political connections. The military and political connections that the senior Beck made were passed on to his son.
On 20 April 1896 Congressman Finis E. Downing informed Paul that he was the alternate candidate for an appointment to West Point for the academic year beginning in September 1897. All that Paul had to do was pass the entrance examination, which was to be administered at Jefferson Barracks, Virginia, on 1 March 1897, and hope that the regularly appointed candidate, Charles Burnett, would fail. At the time Paul received the alternate appointment, he was living on the Winnebago Indian Reservation, Nebraska, and had lived only briefly in Franklin, Illinois. Nevertheless, on 9 July 1897 he signed an affidavit stating that he had been a legal resident of the Sixteenth Congressional District in Illinois for nineteen years and seven months. He asked the secretary of war to send all future correspondence to his Winnebago address. The change of address did not cause a problem, but something else did.1
In May 1896, one month after he had been notified that he was an alternate candidate, Paul got Ruth Everett pregnant. Ruth was two years older than Paul and a schoolteacher. Contrary to nineteenth-century custom, Paul did not marry Ruth, because he was only nineteen and his parents would not give their consent. But he did not abandon her.
In January 1897 Paul and Ruth moved to Fort McPherson, Georgia, where Paul had obtained a job as a civilian clerk in the Adjutant General’s Office, Mail and Record Division. On 20 January he wrote to the secretary of war, asking that his place of examination be moved from Fort Jefferson, on the Dry Tortugas, to Fort McPherson.2 But Paul Junior’s birth on 27 February 1897 effectively ended the senior Paul’s chances of becoming a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. In any event, the regularly appointed candidate, Charles Burnett, passed the entrance examination, so having an illegitimate child did not become an issue for Paul.
His congressional appointment to West Point was out the door, but there was another, though less certain, way for Paul to obtain a commission. He could enlist as a private, serve two years, and take a competitive examination for a commission as a second lieutenant. Having an illegitimate child would not pose a problem for an enlisted man, since the regulation required only that the enlisted man be “a citizen of the United States, unmarried, and under 30 years of age.”3 But there was, nevertheless, a problem with that solution—Paul was underage for enlistment.
On 7 August 1897 1st Lt. William Horne, the 9th Cavalry recruiting officer at Fort Duchesne, Utah, sent a telegram to the adjutant general requesting authority to enlist Paul, who was underage. He added that Paul’s parents consented. The adjutant general, at the direction of the secretary of war, refused the request. On 11 August Capt. William Beck wrote to Col. J. C. Gilmore, the assistant adjutant general, asking his help in getting the secretary of war to grant Paul an exception. On 20 August Colonel Gilmore informed Captain Beck that Secretary of War Russell A. Alger would not allow an exception to regulations forbidding enlistment of minors between eighteen and twenty-one.4
The failure of their second plan to have Paul commissioned did not deter the Becks. In April 1898 Paul’s father, his mother, Rachel, and Paul launched a letter- writing campaign to secure a direct commission for Paul.5 The letter-writing campaign lasted two and a half years. William Beck worked the army’s old- boy circuit and called on his congressional friends for help, while Rachel used her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution to reach President William McKinley. William Beck gained support and letters of recommendation for Paul from several high-ranking officers, including Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood and Maj. Gen. Joe Wheeler. Paul’s mother actually got President McKinley to take an interest, with the result that Paul’s name was placed on the preferred list of applicants.6
In the meantime, Paul moved to Denver, Colorado, where he took a job as a reporter for the Denver Times, and in April 1898 he married Ruth Everett, eliminating the obstacle of having an illegitimate son.7 While he was in Denver, Paul developed a close relationship with Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, who commanded the Colorado Department, making the first in a lengthy list of highly placed contacts. But Paul also exhibited what at best could be called questionable ethics.8
On 1 July 1898 Paul wrote to Brig. Gen. Henry C. Corbin, adjutant general of the army, asking for his help in obtaining a direct commission. In his letter he wrote, “Having no political influence and possessing some experience in military affairs from having been brought up on the frontier with regular troops, participating in a number of scouts in Arizona and Utah, I take the liberty of addressing you in the hope that you may see fit to assist me.”
The claim that he participated in a number of scouts in Arizona and Utah is hard to believe, since he would have been only twelve years old when the Apache Wars ended, and most of his time after the close of the Apache Wars was spent on the Winnebago Indian Reservation and attending high school in Sioux City, Iowa.
When describing his accomplishments Paul frequently used the ploy of claiming to be more that he was. In most cases, his claims had a degree of plausibility. His technique was to imply something that no one would bother to check. But in this case his letter went beyond simply overstating his experience. He used stationary bearing the letterhead of the State of Colorado, Supreme Court Chambers, Denver. Beck was not a court employee, and he listed his return address as “in care of the Times,” meaning the Denver Times. That was not the only time he used purloined stationery to write a letter. On 9 August 1898 he wrote to Secretary of War Alger. This time he used the letterhead of the Treasury Department, State of Colorado, and restated what he had written to Brigadier General Corbin.9
By 1899 the Becks’ letter-writing campaign was starting to take effect. Several congressmen and senators had written letters supporting Paul’s direct commission, and on 9 May 1899, President McKinley directed the secretary of war to appoint Beck a second lieutenant, “subject to the usual examination.” The examination was set for 29 May 1899 at Fort Monroe, Virginia.10
At the time Beck was again employed as a civilian clerk in the Adjutant General’s Office, Mail and Record Division, this time in Washington DC. On 15 May he took a twenty-one-day leave to prepare for the written exam, but fate intervened. He came down with epididymitis, an inflammation of the testicles, which his mother described as a “severe sprain.” By 27 May he was forced to ask for a postponement to 15 June. The adjutant general granted the postponement.11
But Paul’s health problems were not over by 15 June, and when he took the physical as directed on 15 June, he failed. The doctors judged him unfit due to being “anemic and underweight resulting from epididymitis,” which he still had. The medical board noted that his condition was temporary and set his reexamination date for 15 August 1899.12
By 21 June Paul was still sick and had exhausted his paid sick leave. He requested and received a two-month extension without pay. Three weeks later he contracted typhoid fever and was hospitalized at the General Hospital, Washington Barracks, in Washington DC. While he was there the Adjutant General’s Office extended his unpaid sick leave one month and set a new date, 5 September, for his reexamination.13
Still not fully recovered, Paul again failed the physical examination due to being fifteen pounds underweight. He was five feet, eleven inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. But this time the medical board waived the deficiency and recommended that he be allowed to take the written examination, which Paul barely passed on 15 September. But close was good enough and on 18 September 1899 he accepted his commission as a second lieutenant in the 5th Infantry and signed his oath of office.14
1. Hon. Finis E. Downing to Secretary of War, 20 April 1896, and Paul W. Beck to Adjutant General, U.S.A., 7 July 1896, in Beck, Military Records, Records of the Adjutant General, 1783–1928, RG94, National Archives at College Park, Maryland (hereafter cited as RG94).
2. Paul W. Beck to Adjutant General, U.S. Army, 10 January 1897; Paul W. Beck to Adjutant General, U.S. Army, 11 January 1897; and Adjutant General to Paul W. Beck, 13 January 1897, RG94.
3. U.S. War Department, Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1910, corrected to 20 June 1913, article 5, paragraph 28.
4. Recruiting Officer, Ft. Duchesne, to Adjutant General, telegram, 7 August 1897; Assistant Adjutant General to Commanding Officer, Ft. Duchesne, telegram, 9 August 1897; William H. Beck to Col. J. C. Gilmore, 11 August 1897; Assistant Adjutant General to Captain Beck, telegram, 20 August 1897, RG94.
5. Direct commissions were available to civilians on a very limited basis and were made only after West Point graduates and enlisted candidates had been commissioned. If there were any vacancies left, civilians could be commissioned to fill them. Until 1913, authority for commissioning civilians was found in article 5 of the U.S. War Department’s Regulations for the Army of the United States, though the specific paragraph number might change from one edition to another. The basic requirements up to 1913 were that a civilian had to be an unmarried U.S. citizen between twenty-one and twenty-seven years of age. The testing and physical examination process was the same as for enlisted men. U.S. War Department, Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1910, corrected to 20 June 1913, article 5, paragraphs 27 and 34.
6. William H. Beck to Adjutant General, 24 April 1898; William H. Beck to Adjutant General, 5 May 1898; Paul W. Beck to Honorable Russell A. Alger, Secretary of War, 9 August 1898; Rachel Longate Beck to William McKinley, President of the United States, 28 December 1898, RG94.
7. “Wedding Announcement,” Denver Post, 20 April 1898.
8. Brig. Gen. E. V. Sumner to Secretary of War, 14 December 1898, RG94.
9. Paul W. Beck to Adjutant General, 1 July 1898; and Paul W. Beck to Adjutant General, 17 August 1898, RG94.
10. Adjutant General to General Schwan, memorandum, 9 May 1899, RG94.
11. Paul Beck to Brig. Gen. J. Schwan, 12 May 1899; Mr. Chew to Assistant Adjutant General, typed note, 27 May 1899, RG94.
12. Maj. Charles Richards, MD, physical examination of Paul W. Beck, 15 June 1899; and Proceedings of a Board of Officers Convened at Fort Monroe, VA, 15 June 1899, rg94.
13. Paul W. Beck to Chief Clerk, M & R Division, 21 June 1899; Paul W. Beck to Chief Clerk, Adjutant General’s Office, 22 July 1899; and Assistant Adjutant General to Paul Ward Beck, 16 August 1899, RG94.
14. Proceedings of a Board of Officers Convened at Washington Barracks, DC, 5 September 1899; and Oath of Office, 18 September 1899, RG94.