Lost Legend – Paul Redfern and the Birth of Aviation in Columbia, South Carolina

While reading Bill Bryson’s excellent new book “One Summer” about the momentous and much celebrated summer of 1927, I stumbled across a story that seemed almost too fantastic to believe. That summer a daring young aviator by the name of Paul Redfern attempted a 4,600 mile flight from Georgia to Rio de Janeiro – a flight that would have broken Charles Lindburgh’s freshly minted long distance flight record by more than a thousand miles. He was 27 years old, the same age as Lindburgh, weighed a paltry 108 pounds and hailed from my hometown of Columbia, S.C. Intriguing enough in and of itself, but it gets better.

Paul Brunswick

Redfern was the son of the dean of historically black Benedict College in Columbia and to say he was fascinated with aviation is to dabble in reckless understatement. As a teenager he was known to wear an aviator’s goggled helmet while going about his daily business – an eccentricity that must have caused great amusement as he strolled the campus of old Columbia High School. During his sophomore year there, he built a full-sized plane of his own design, modeled after the popular Curtiss Jenny planes. His industrial arts teacher recognized his potential and had the plane hoisted atop the gymnasium rafters at the University of South Carolina nearby. As a senior, he assembled and flew a small bi-plane of his own design, made from spare parts and a used WW I aircraft engine. Upon graduation, he established the first commercial airfield in Columbia on the site of present day Dreher High School. (By way of review, Redfern had built two airplanes and established the first airfield in South Carolina’s capital city by his early twenties, reminding me what a mouth breather I was at that age.)

Prior to his graduation, Redfern took a break from high school with the grudging approval of his parents in order to gain some real-life experience in the aviation industry. According to the South Carolina Aviation Administration’s web entry on Redfern, he went to work for the Army Air Corps as a production inspector at Standard Aircraft Company’s Elizabeth, New Jersey plant. Following the closing of the plant at the conclusion of WW I, Redfern extended his interlude from high school by traveling the country on a barnstorming tour, stopping at county fairs, giving rides to curious spectators and working on his piloting skills.

Possessing a mischievous sense of humor, Redfern was arrested following one of his airshows after dropping a life-sized dummy from 2,000 feet, causing wide spread fainting and considerable angst among the unsuspecting and horrified onlookers. Interestingly enough, considering his own brush with the law, he worked for a spell as a Revenue agent, (this was during the dark days of Prohibition), spotting illegal stills from his plane. Legend has it that he busted forty stills in one weekend outside of Columbia – no doubt, disrupting supply and creating a minor panic in the speakeasy’s clustered around the red light district of Park Street in today’s Vista area.

Between Lindburgh and Earhart lies oblivion

It is impossible to overstate just how famous Charles Lindburgh was in the summer of 1927. He went from near total anonymity to worldwide fame almost overnight when he became the first person to safely cross the Atlantic in his Spirit of St. Louis that May. Aviation was still in its infancy at this time and the public’s fascination with flight can best be compared to its later fascination with the astronauts of the 1960’s (or with Kim Kardashian’s rear end today). Lindburgh’s stunning achievement no doubt fired the already ambitious imagination of young Redfern and appealed to his swashbuckling tendencies.

Looking to top Lindburgh and carve out his own piece of history, Redfern, with the support of wealthy backers in Brunswick, GA, announced that he would fly his Stinson Detroiter from Brunswick to Rio de Janeiro – a flight that would take him over the Caribbean Sea and thousands of miles of mountainous jungle. It was audacious, brave and unmistakably foolhardy – classic 1920’s aviator bravado. On August 27th, 1927, carrying meager survival supplies, twenty sandwiches, two quarts of coffee and two gallons of water, Redfern took off for what would be a 60 hour flight.

Paul Redfern - Port of Brunswick

According to Bryson, he was lost before he had even cleared the Caribbean (there were no navigational instruments in those days). Flying low over a Norwegian freighter, the Christian Krohg, Redfern dropped a message which promptly bounced off the deck of the ship and into the sea. Thankfully the message was gamely retrieved by one of the ship’s seaman – it read: “Point ship to nearest land, wave flag once for each 100 miles. Thanks, Redfern.” Obligingly, the ship’s captain pointed him in the right direction and a thankful Redfern departed “…with a snappy wave” toward South America.

He was later spotted by a fisherman off the coast of Venezuela, so we know he made it that far – becoming the first person to fly across the Caribbean Sea. It is believed he went down somewhere in the jungles of Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). For years, reports came back from missionaries and other visitors to the interior of Dutch Guiana about a white man living among the Indians. It was said that he had taken a wife and was living peaceably – even being treated as a divinity because he had dropped from the sky on the local tribes. More than a dozen search parties were organized and two men even died during the many quests but there were no confirmed sightings.

Ten years later, in 1937 – the same year that Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean – Redfern’s (American) wife filed a petition to declare him dead. And so, between the legends of Lindburgh and Earhart, Redfern’s story fell into deep oblivion – even in Columbia.

I asked my Dad about it – knowing he is a Columbia High graduate, history buff and accomplished pilot in his own right – and he had heard of Redfern’s exploits. But it astounded me that I had not, and it reminded me that even the most spectacular stories – the most daring exploits – are by and large lost to the unyielding passage of time. Thanks to Bill Bryson for blowing the dust off this amazing story for me.

I cannot help but grin and think about Redfern and the possibility, though slight, that he lived out his life contentedly among the natives in Dutch Guiana. In my mind, that’s how it ended for him.

History at an 8:30 pace – Part I – The Backdrop

History at an 8:30 pace – Part I

Last month I had the opportunity to combine two of my greatest passions – history and running – in an unforgettable run around the Gettysburg National Military Park – the nation’s shrine to the turning point in our history as Americans. The Battle of Gettysburg, which took place over the course of three days in early July, 1863, is bookended (almost precisely in the middle) by the first shot at Fort Sumter in April, 1861 and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April, 1865. On a grander, more sweeping scale, it marks the end of the first third of the “American Experiment” and the beginning of the most recent two thirds. North vs. South, Blue vs. Gray, Meade vs. Lee, brother against brother – 72 hot and dusty hours, culminating in the mind-boggling slaughter of over 40,000 men – nearly equally distributed between Union and Confederate forces.

It was the “high water mark” of the Confederacy, when the rebels took the fight to Northern soil. Commanding General Robert E. Lee fervently believed that “The Late Unpleasantness” would cause the citizenry of the North to tire of the war, resulting in a political crippling of Lincoln and his generals. More importantly, Gettysburg was possibly the last great Union stronghold separating the Confederates from Washington, D.C. and Southern victory. The South had dominated the first part of the war, thanks to the brilliant leadership of its general officers, but was swiftly falling victim to cold statistics. In terms of population, the North outnumbered the South 22 million to 9 million (3.5 million of whom were slaves). Industrially it was even bleaker. In 1860, the North manufactured 97 percent of the country’s firearms, 96 percent of railroad locomotives, 94 percent of its cloth, 93 percent of its pig iron and over 90 percent of its boots and shoes. The North had twice the density of railroads per square mile. Moreover, there was not even a single rifle works in the entire South. Since gunpowder ruled the day and gunpowder was imported, the South was at an even greater disadvantage as the Union possessed overwhelming naval strength and could blockade the strategic ports of Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah and Mobile almost at will. It is a testament to Southern leadership and resourcefulness that the war lasted as long as it did.

Map of Gettysburg Battlefield

The North faced its own struggles as well. Unlike the Gettysburg scenario, the Army of the Potomac was the invading force for a vast majority of the war and as in any war, the invading army stands to face far greater casualties than the defending army. The Confederacy made up an area larger than all of Western Europe which created a logistical nightmare as the Union army had to invade and occupy the South in order to win the war, while the South simply had to outlast popular support for the war which was tenuous in the North even at the beginning of the conflict. Union leaders had the difficult task of motivating Northern farm boys and factory laborers far from home to take the fight to an enemy they did not hate in a war they may not have even understood. America as idea – a collective – as we know it today was still an emerging concept at the time. The emphasis then was devotion to State and to community. For the South, motivation was easy – “defend the homeland!” Great Britain and other European powers, eager to see a still-young American nation humbled, offered overtures of support to the upstart Confederates. Overly cautious, often ineffectual generals and an impatient, highly critical President led to a revolving door of commanding officers, grinding instability and increasing public frustration with the Union war effort that most thought would last a only few weeks early on.

Enter the theretofore unassuming Southern Pennsylvania crossroads known as Gettysburg. A Union army in dire need of a big win, desperately attempting to defend the capital and turn the tide of the war – A Southern army at its zenith, facing dwindling resources, wild-eyed with anticipation, looking for the knockout blow.

Next, The Run