In the late spring of 1927, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams.
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
Charles was born on February 4, 1902 and spent most of his childhood in Little Falls, Minnesota. Son of a local attorney, and later congressman, Charles was described as both reserved and withdrawn – character traits for which he was known for the rest of his life. In the summer of 1912, at age 10, Charles’ mother took him to the air races. Charles was hooked. After failing out of the Engineering program at the University of Wisconsin, in April of 1922 Charles moved to Lincoln, Nebraska and enrolled in a local flight school. When the school closed shortly thereafter, he joined a barnstorming operation, billing himself as the “Aerial Daredevil Lindbergh.” As a daredevil, Charles not only walked on the wings of flying aircraft and performed parachute stunts, but he did mechanical work on the planes as well.
In March of 1924, tired of the hand-to-mouth income of a daredevil, Charles enrolled in the Army Air Service Cadet Program in San Antonio, Texas. Determined to earn his wings and make aviation his career, he dedicated himself to his studies, graduating first in his class in March of 1925. Later that spring, he got his chance – he became the chief pilot on a new airmail route between St. Louis and Chicago. Airmail service was relatively new and particularly dangerous. Thirty-one of the first forty pilots hired to fly mail routes perished in crashes. Yet Charles appreciated and welcomed such challenges. Of them, he wrote: “the best way to cope with danger is to keep in contact with it.” As a U.S. airmail pilot, Charles first learned of the Raymond Orteig Prize – a $25,000 cash purse for the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris or vice versa.
Learning from the errors of the other pilots who had attempted – and failed – to cross the Atlantic, Charles solicited $15,000 from backers in St. Louis and commissioned the construction of his own plane. The plane, which he dubbed “The Spirit of St. Louis” in honor of his contributors, was specially designed to maximize fuel capacity; it contained neither accommodations for a co-pilot nor a radio nor even a parachute. On May 21, 1927, Charles landed safely at Le Bourget Field outside Paris, having traversed over 3,600 miles in roughly 33.5 hours. Charles returned to the U.S. a national hero – he was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor. In addition he was promoted to Colonel. On a subsequent good-will tour, Charles flew to Mexico City at the invitation of U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow. During the trip, he met the Ambassador’s daughter, Anne Morrow.
It took Charles 10 months to ask Anne Morrow for a date. By their third date, however, he proposed and she accepted. Charles and Anne were wed in a small ceremony at the Morrow estate in New Jersey on May 27, 1929. Together, they had 6 children – four of whom are still living. In the early days of their marriage, Charles taught Anne how to fly and brought her with him on global expeditions on which he charted potential commercial airline and air mail routes. Although the couple were a media sensation wherever they landed, Charles disliked the uncompromising attention the press lavished on them. In 1931, they began building a secluded estate in Hopewell, New Jersey, not far from the Morrow family home.
The kidnapping and murder of their first child, Charles A. Lindberg, Jr., on March 1, 1932 from their new home in Hopewell, New Jersey and the trial which followed was a tragedy which not only compelled the Lindberghs to abandon the home and ultimately seek refuge abroad, but it caused Charles to question the viability of democracy as well. To him, the crime was a product of American moral decay; he no longer felt safe in the United States. On December 31, 1935, the Lindberghs and their new child quietly set sail for Europe – where they would remain for 3 years.
While in Europe, Charles was invited to evaluate the German Air Force. Impressed with both the German military and the German people, Charles publicly praised Hitler as a “great man” and expressed his intention to move his family to Berlin. Although he found certain aspects of a totalitarian state appealing, the Lindberghs returned to the United States in the spring of 1939, having come to the conclusion that a European war was inevitable. Upon his return to the United States, Charles became the spokesman for America First, an isolationist organization which advocated neutrality. In this capacity, he made many public pronouncements against American involvement, invoking the ire of the Roosevelt administration. Having been labeled both a defeatist and a traitor by ranking administration officials, including the President himself, Charles resigned from the Army Air Corps Reserve.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Charles attempted to re-enter the Army Air Corps. His effort was rebuffed by the Roosevelt administration. Nonetheless, he was sent to the South Pacific theatre as a test pilot. Once there, he not only tested aircraft for the military and instructed pilots on how to increase the range of their aircraft, but he flew combat missions as well, winning the praise of General Douglas MacArthur. In the Fall of 1944, he returned home to New Jersey. Less than a year later, however, the U.S. Navy called upon him to travel to Germany to assess German aeronautical advancements. After the war, Charles served both the U.S. Air Force and Pan-American Airlines as an aviation consultant.
In 1953, Charles completed a memoir of his historic transatlantic flight. For the work, titled simply “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Charles received the Pulitzer Prize. The following year, in 1954, he was recommissioned in the U.S. Air Force and appointed to the rank of Brigadier General by President Eisenhower. In his later years, Charles became an active advocate of conservation, believing that the quality of life could only be preserved and improved through a successful balancing of technology and conservation. To this end, he endeavored to help indigenous tribes in the Philippines and Africa and campaigned to protect endangered species. Charles A. Lindbergh died in Maui, Hawaii on August 26, 1972 at the age of 72.