Aviation PioneerEnshrined 1986 1917 - 1997
Gerhard Neumann was born on October 8, 1917, in Frankfurt an de Older, Germany. His father, Siegfried, and his mother, Frieda, were of Jewish parentage. However, they did not practice Judaism and considered themselves “Jewish Germans”. Siegfried operated the North German Feather Products Company in Frankfurt. During World War I, he served with the German Army in France. After the war, he returned to the feather processing business. Gerhard had two older sisters: Ulla who died in 1932 and Annelie who married a dental surgeon and moved to Jerusalem.
Gerhard spent the first 21 years of his life in Germany under strict Prussian discipline. “First the work, then the pleasure” was the rule. In 1927, he entered the boys’ Gymnasium School in Frankfort, where he studied Latin, French, English, mathematics, physics, geography and athletics. The same year, Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris enthralled him and he took his first airplane flight.
When he was 12, Gerhard became fascinated with his parents’ radio, for it could receive Rome, Paris, London, Moscow and even New York. Then when he was 24 he bought a kayak. First, however, his father required that he learn to swim and pass the national lifeguard test. He used the board whenever possible for the next 6 years. When he was 15, he participated in a glider-building project at the Gymnasium and was the second student to solo in it in 1932. Neumann began a 3-year automobile mechanic apprenticeship under the tutelage of Alfred Schroth in his garage in Frankfort. Schroth taught Gerhard his trade well. At the time, he also attended a local trade school that taught both theoretical and practical courses. When he was 16, he acquired his first motorcycle, a damaged one. But he soon had it in excellent running condition.
In 1935, Neumann entered Ingenieurschule Mittweida, German’s oldest technical college. There his grades were recorded as “Excellent”. During his summer vacations, he worked in Ehrenstein’s Garage in Berlin. Like every other male over 20, he registered for military service in 1937. However, engineering students were deferred from immediate induction. He was still in college when Hitler invaded Austria and then grabbed most of Czechoslovakia in 1937.
In late 1938, Gerhard learned that Nationalist China needed mechanical engineers. Germany was supplying China with military equipment and advisors for its repulsion of Japanese invaders and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek needed engineers to teach his soldiers how to maintain these weapons. A job in another place faraway, China seemed exciting and he visited the Chinese Embassy in Berlin. There he quickly accepted the employment offer that included deferment from German military service, a good salary, and travel to Hong Kong with all expenses paid.
After saying goodbye to his family and friends, Neumann flew to London in May 1939. There he boarded an Air Force airliner and began a 8-day journey to a strange new world, with stops in France, Tunisia, Tripolitania, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Burma, Siam, French Into-China and finally Hong Kong, where he was to contact the Chinese Southwest Transport Company for instructions.
Life began in earnest for Gerhard when he found that the Company had left Hong Kong without leaving a forwarding address. Greatly concerned, he reported to the German Embassy and also wrote to the Chinese Embassy in Berlin asking for instructions. Fortunately, he met Claude White, the American manager of Far East Motors, who hired him as a mechanic and got him a visa to stay in Hong Kong. Within 3 months, his wages had been tripled because Hong Kong’s wealthy flocked to the garage when they learned that there was “a white man working there with his hands”, an unheard of thing in the Far East at the time.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and two days later World War II erupted. That very day, Neumann was interned in La Salle College facilities in Kowloon with about a hundred other German nationals. Later they were released, but restricted as “enemy aliens” to their places of work and residence.
Everything went along fine until the end of June in 1940. Suddenly, Gerhard was ordered to leave Hong Kong within 48 hours or face internment in Ceylon. France had fallen and Britain wanted no potential “fifth column” in her colonies. However, the British refused to return his German passport. In desperation, he visited the various foreign embassies, but none would admit him without a passport. Then, by a stroke of luck, he met W. Langhorne Bond of the American-controlled Chinese National Aviation Corporation operating the CNAC airline in China. Bond not only hired him temporarily, but also arranged for him to enter China without a passport and to be flown to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, where he could contact the Chinese Air Force.
In Kumming, Neumann met Colonel Claire Lee Chennault, who had been called to China in 1937 by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek to help establish the Chinese Air Force. Chennault said that at the moment Gerhard could best serve China by helping to maintain its ground transportation system. He then arranged for Neumann to be hired by the French Renault/Tessier Truck assembly plant in Kumming. There he found 20 trucks being prepared for the first trip over the nearly completed Burma Road, China’s lifeline to the west. When the plant manager asked Neumann if he would be willing to lead the convoy that would be carrying tin and tungsten bars to Burma and returning with barrels of aviation gasoline, diesel oil and ammunition, he agreed. Three weeks later he led the convoy on its 8-day journey covering 580 miles to Wanting on the Burma border. In route, only one truck was lost due to a rock slide. The return trip was made without a loss.
Word soon got around that Neumann was an excellent mechanic and before long many of Kumming’s 150 cars were awaiting his repair. As a result, he opened Reliable Auto Service and took in as a partner Bob Angle, a CNAC pilot who brought in needed parts on his flights to Rangoon. The police chief of Kumming was so grateful for the repair of his 1940 Buick that he gave Gerhard his 1939 Peugot. It was the first car that Neumann ever owned!
On December 8, 1941, Chennault told Neumann that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that the U. S. was at war with the Axis Powers. He also said that three squadrons of P-40 Tomahawk fighters, flown by American volunteers, would be landing at Kumming and that he was their commanding officer. The group would form the first “American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force.” When Chennault asked Gerhard to join his group as a mechanic, he agreed to do so on the spot. Later, he said it was “the best rash decision I ever made.” He soon moved in with the arriving AVG and they gave him the nickname “Herman the German.”
By May, 1942 the ACVG had become known as the Flying Tigers and they painted shark teeth on the noses of their P-40’s. They also became heroes in China and the U. S. because of their dramatic 14 to 1 kill ratio over the enemy, despite the fact that Japanese Zero was more maneuverable than their heavier P-40. The Japanese respected the Flying Tigers so much that they challenged them to a duel over Kweilin. Chennault accepted and in the battle 14 Zeros and 4 P-40’s went down, but all of the American pilots were saved. However, despite its excellent records, the AVG was replaced by the U.S. Army’s China Air Task Force and Brigadier General Chennault became its commander. Then, with the approval of Secretary of War Stinson, Neumann was sworn in as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, even thought he was theoretically an enemy national. However, only 35 of the 255 AVG members joined the U.S. Army in China. The rest took jobs all over the world.
Neumann began his service with the Army Air Corps as engineering chief of the 6th Fighter Squadron of the 23rd Fighter Group under command of Colonel Robert L. Scott, who reported to Chennault in Kumming. Then in October 1942 Chennault asked Gerhard to assemble a Japanese Zero from several damaged ones so its flight characteristics could be accessed. After two months of hard work at an airstrip near the enemy lines, he and his crew completed the tedious task without the benefit of power tools, lights or a hangar. Then Major John R. Alison, the first Army Air Forces ace in China, flew Zero back to Kweilin. However, upon landing, the right gear collapsed and the plane was damaged badly. Chennault ordered Gerhard to rebuild the Zero. But while working on it he came down with typhus, malaria, and jaundice simultaneously and was hospitalized. Three weeks later he was back directing the work from a cot. Two weeks after that, the plane was flown to Kumming and put through its test flights. It was found that the Zero had no protective armor for its pilot, no self-sealing fuel tanks and no electric starter. Also, it could not dive fast because of its lightweight construction. As a result, American pilots were told to make a fast pass at a Zero and then drive away from it. After Neumann completed an intelligence report on the Zero, it was shipped to the U.S. However, despite General “Hap” Arnold’s orders, Neumann was unable to accompany it because he was still considered an enemy national.
After recuperating in a Calcutta hospital, Neumann returned to the 76th Fighter Squadron, which subsequently moved to Hengyang in central China in the fall of 1943. From there, he and his mechanics were secretly flown to an airstrip at Swichwan in southeastern China. The next day, flights of P-38, P-40 and P-51 fighters and B-25 bombers landed. After Gerhard and his men had them ready, they took off on Thanksgiving Day and struck at Formosa, which was being used as a staging base. The raid was total success, as 63 enemy planes were destroyed and many more damaged without a single American casualty.
In late 1943, Neumann joined the 322nd Troop Carrier Squadron as a flight engineer. As a result, he flew into all the air bases in China. Then, because he could speak the Chinese soldier’s G.I. language, he joined the 5329th Air Ground Forces Resource and Technical Staff, a branch of the Office of Strategic Services. For the next 11 months he reported an the activities of both the Japanese and the Chinese ally. He made numerous trips close to or behind the enemy lines. He posed as a coolie, ate whatever he could find and slept in farmhouses. He also directed air strikes against the enemy by giving radio instructions. Boats loaded with Japanese troops, tanks or cavalry were his favorite targets.
Despite these efforts, the Chinese captured large areas of China and made a deliberate effort to drive the Americans from it. In mid-October, Chennault dispatched Neumann to Washington, D.C. “To carry out secret verbal” instructions by the Commanding General of the 14th U.S. Army Air Forces and report to General “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the OSS. He also sent along a recommendation that Gerhard be commission as an officer because he was handling classified material.
Neumann’s journey took him to Assam in northern India, then on to Casablanca, and finally across the Atlantic to New York, where he landed on October 26, 1944. It was his first visit to the U.S. and he could hardly believe all that he saw! When he arrived in Washington D.C. he met with General Donavan and gave him a first-hand report on the desperate situation in China. Then Donovan asked his aide to arrange for commissioning Gerhard, as Chennault requested. During a subsequent 6-week leave, Neumann met Clarice. She was an attractive attorney with the Justice Department. When he reported back to General Donovan, he learned that despite the best efforts of the War Department, he could not be commissioned an officer because he was still legally an enemy alien. But Donovan promised to resolve the impasse, even if it took an Act of Congress!
In March 1945, at his own request, Chennault ordered Neumann back to China and assigned him to the newly-formed 118th Reconnaissance Squadron. Then in May Gerhard received a cable: “CITIZENSHIP BILL INTRODUCED IN CONGRESS TODAY. CONGRATULATIONS. CLARICE.” General Donovan had kept his promise? Soon after, the war in Europe ended victoriously for the Allies. Now Japan began to retreat in China and the American airfields were retaken. But in August, after the dropping of two atomic bombs, Japan also surrendered. But before that, General Chennault resigned from the Army Air Forces for “Medical reasons” in June 1945. Before his departure he gave Gerhard a letter recommending him to any employer “after the war.”
Neumann was one of the first from the 14th Air Force to return to the States in August 1945. After being discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he went to Los Angeles. Although Chennault’s letter opened the door at Douglas Aircraft, it could not hire Gerhard as he was still an alien. However, since his naturalization bill was pending, he was told that the job would be held open for him. While he waited, he got a job as an auto mechanic. He also attended the engineering refresher course at UCLA and took the Federal Aviation Agency aircraft and engine mechanics course and received his FAA license. Then, after President Truman signed his naturalization bill on June 25, 1946 Neumann went to work at Douglas on various research projects.
The out of the blue, Neumann received a cable from Chennault offering him an engineering position with the airline he was forming in China with 24 war-surplus C-46 transports. Soon afterwards, Clarice returned from Germany, where she was working for the Justice Department and flew to Los Angeles. There she and Gerhard were married in October 1946. With that, Neumann cabled his acceptance to Chennault and packed their belongings for shipment to China. Then in January 1947, he flew to Honolulu and Clarice boarded a ship bound for China.
In Honolulu, Neumann picked up one of the C-46s Chennault has bought to form his Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Airline and flew it across the Pacific to Canton with four stops enroute. Three weeks after settling in Canton, he welcomed Clarice to China. However, they soon moved to Shanghai where Chennault established CNRRS’s main base. There Gerhard supervised the mechanics servicing the C-46s now carrying weapons and ammunition to the Chinese Nationalist fighting the Chinese Communists advancing down from the north. When the Communist could not be stopped, Chennault moved his base back to Canton after marrying Peking born; Hong Kong educated Anna Chan just before Christmas, 1947. But it soon became apparent that Canton would fall and the Neumanns decided to return to the states.
The Neumanns chose an unbelievable route home. After Clarice suggested they drive to Europe or North Africa and catch a boat to the States, Gerhard was stunned at first. But then he enthusiastically agreed. He bought two used Royal Air Force Jeeps in Hong Kong and built one good one from them in Claude White’s garage. Then on October 7, 1947, a freighter took them to Bangkok, Thailand. There they began an incredible 10,000 mile journey across Asia over the most rugged roads in the world!
First they headed for Rangoon, Burma, but the raging Mae River forced them back to Bangkok. They headed north and reached Mandalay in 2 weeks. From there they made a 6-day trip down the Irrawady River and up the Chindwin River to a road leading to Imphal. Beyond, they climbed the Kahima Pass into India and cross the Brahmaputra River on a barge. At Siliguri, they caught a glimpse of Mount Everest, Near Tibet, they swung southward and crossed the Ganges River on a railroad bridge before arriving at Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal. From New Deli, they cross the frontier between Pakistan and Hindustan by talking warring soldiers into a truce while they took their pictures. Then they went over the Kyber Pass into Afghanistan and encountered snow at Kabul. Crossing into Iran beyond Herat, they arrived in Teheran. They then drove north to Tabiz, only to learn that roads into Turkey and Iraq were blocked by snow. Undaunted, they retreated and crossed into Iraq near Hamadan. They reach Baghdad on December 31, 1947. Afterwards, they crossed the Euphrates Rover and reached Amman, Jordan. A British convoy escorted them safely across the Jordon River into Palestine. After selling their jeep in Jerusalem they escaped an Arab ambush and reach Tel Aviv. From there they flew to Italy and France and finally sailed aboard a ship to New York.
In March 1948 Neumann became an engineer at the General Electric Company’s Aircraft Gas Turbine Division at Lynn, Massachusetts. His first job was to test experimental jet engines, which gave him an opportunity to learn about their design and performance. Then he worked on designs of more powerful engines. Next, he took over the compressor research laboratory and put it into operation and embarked on vital research. Subsequently, as head of a Preliminary Design Group, he invented an engine compressor with “variable” stators that greatly improved its performance. He received his first patent on this concept, which became universally used.
In 1950, G.E. moved its Aircraft Gas Turbine Division to Evendale, Ohio. There Neumann was in charge of designing the world’s first nuclear-powered jet engine in the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Department. The engine operated successfully in 1954, but never went into production. Meanwhile, in 1952 Gerhard led a design team developing a new Mach-2 variable stator engine that was smaller, lighter, and superior in performance to competitive engines. One year later the GOL-1590 was ready for its first test run. It started immediately and gained speed so fast that a bracket broke and dropped the front end of the engine on the test floor. Three weeks later, it bettered every design goal Neumann has been given and G.E. was given an Air Force contract to develop it for production as the J79. Later, it was proven in Air Force and Navy supersonic fighters, bombers and missiles and set 5 world records in a few month’s time. Between 1955 and 1962, over 19,000 J79’s were produced by G.E. and its licensees around the world. It became the most reliable jet engine ever built and the genesis for a whole family of variable stator engines.
In 1953, Neumann became head of the Preliminary Design Engine Section of the Flight Propulsion Laboratory Department at the Aircraft Gas Turbine Division and was responsible for keeping G.E. a front runner in engine technology. Then in 1955 he became the general manager of G.E.’s Jet Engine Department at Evendale.
In October 1958, Neumann took over the Small Aircraft Engine Department in Lynn, Massachusetts, which was designing and building small jet engines for training planes and fighters and gas turbines. Though he inherited many problems in his move and had to lay off 1,000 people and survive a 6-week strike, he managed to overcome all of these problems and keep production of the J85 jet engine going. He was able to capture 85 percent of the jet business in the 1960’s and supply engines for every commercial jet helicopter around the world.
In March 1961, Neumann became general manager of the Flight Propulsion Division with 20,000 employees. It was responsible for G.E.’s total jet engine business, aircraft accessories, research and development and marine and industrial equipment.
He kept his residence in Swampscott Massachusetts and commuted between offices in Lynn and Evendale. One of his major decisions was to recentralize the division’s five departments into one functional entity. Then in 1963, he was elected a corporate vice president of G.E., as his manufacturing facilities, service shops, and sales offices were expanded all over the world. To gain firsthand knowledge about how G.E. engines performed, he took flights in jet-powered fighters at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Then he organized a special Super-Sonic Transport engine project in a race for a potential multi-billion dollar business. G.E. was selected to develop the engines, but Congress killed the SST program.
In the early 1960’s G.E. research engineers proposed a jet engine with a large fan in its inlet, with about 7/8th of its air bypassing the engine and exiting through a nozzle surrounding the jet engine. It promised to save 25 percent in fuel consumption. A year later, the first test engine confirmed this prediction and G.E. won a $459 million contract to provide the engine for the huge C-54A military transport plane. G.E. also developed engines for the proposed B-1 bomber, and modified the C-5A engine into the commercial CF6 engine for the Douglas DC-10, the Airbus A300 and Boeing’s improved 747’s.
In 1967 and in 1969, Neumann spent several weeks in Vietnam to gain first-hand knowledge about the performance of G.E. jet engines, which he later shared with the Pentagon. Then in 1968 he became Group Executive of G.E.’s Aircraft Engine Group with 31,000 employees, as G.E. commercial jet engines gained worldwide acceptance. He also instituted a joint venture with SNECMA in France to develop the CFM 56 jet engine. However, the inevitable stress resulting from constant business pressure took its toll in 1977 when he underwent a heart bypass operation and the insertion of a plastic heart valve. In1978, he advised G.E. corporate heads of his decision to retire after a smooth transition of his responsibilities to others was accomplished. He retired from General Electric on January 1, 1980, after 32 years of dedicated service with the company.
During his career, Gerhard Neumann received eight patents on his inventions. He also received the nation’s three top aviation awards: the 1958 Collier Trophy for his work on the J79 jet engine; the 1970 Goddard Gold Medal; and the 1979 International Guggenheim Award. In 1972, he was selected to present his former commander, employer, confidant and friend General Claire Lee Chennault, for enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Neumann is an Honorary Member of the National Academy of Engineering, and an Honorary Member of the Faculty of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. In 1971, he was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor. In 1978 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was the 1981 recipient of the International Institute’s Golden Door Award. In 1982 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and in 1983 he was invested in General Electric’s Hall of Fame at the Epcot Center of Walt Disney World in Florida. In 1984 he wrote his autobiography titled, “Herman the German” and he was named the “Elder Statesman of Aviation” by the National Aeronautic Association. In 1986, he was officially elected an Honorary Member of the Daedalians. In 1993, he received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in recognition of his significant service of enduring value to aviation in the U.S.
Gerhard Neumann was inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1986 for his contribution to the advancement of aviation in the United State of America.
At the age of 80, Gerhard Neumann passed away on November 2, 1997 from complications of leukemia.