General Electric has fallen on hard times, but it has some valuable assets. Of those operations that will remain following the spinoffs and divestitures, the crown jewel is, by general agreement, the jet engine business. I’m reminded of Gerhard Neumann, who played a major role in creating that business and who wrote a wonderful memoir.
This is the autobiography of a man who was born to a Jewish family in Germany, apprenticed as an auto mechanic, attended engineering school, moved to China in 1938, was interned by the British as an enemy alien in 1939, transferred to the American forces, joined Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, repaired the first Japanese Zero fighter to be captured in potentially-flyable condition, became a U.S. citizen by special act of Congress, and went on to run GE’s entire jet engine business, which he played a major role in creating. (The preceding may be the longest single sentence I’ve ever written in a blog post.) The book should be of interest to those interested in aviation, technology, management, social history, the WWII era, and/or China.
Gerhard Neumann was born in Frankfurt/Oder in 1917, where his father was owner of a factory that processed feathers and down. Gerhard’s parents were Jewish but nonpracticing–a Christmas tree was traditional in the Neumann home–and their approach to child-raising was closer to stereotypically Prussian than to stereotypically Jewish: “You did exactly as you were told by your parents. There was no such thing as saying no to them!…You were not to have a hand in your pocket while talking to grown-ups…Showing any emotion in Prussia was considered sissy-ish. There was no kissing between parents and children–only a peck on the cheek before going upstairs punctually at nine o’clock; and there was absolutely no crying.”
On the other hand, Neumann could do pretty much what he wanted with his spare time. In 1927, at the age of 10, he rode his bike out to a grass strip where someone was giving airplane rides for 5 marks, which he paid with money from his piggy bank. His parents weren’t angry at him for taking this flight without permission; indeed, they were so entranced with his description of the way the town looked from the air that they soon took an airplane ride themselves! At the age of 13, Neumann bought a folding kayak and, with some camping gear and a 12-year-old friend, took long journeys on the Oder River, all the way to the Baltic Sea. Few parents in America today–or in Germany either, I’d bet–would now allow this level of independence to a 12- or 13-year old.
Neumann had no interest in the family feather business; he wanted to be an engineer. A 2- or 3-year machinist or mechanic apprenticeship was mandatory for admission to any German engineering academy: Neumann’s father asked the 10 cab drivers of Frankfurt/Oder to recommend the garage where they thought the boy would learn the most, and the answers were unanimous: Albert Schroth’s. So began Gerhard Neumann’s apprenticeship, which, other than the technologies involved, could have been something out of the Middle Ages. “In winter my hands were frozen purple. Wear work gloves? ‘What’s the matter, boy, are you a girl?’ When my hands were bleeding, Herr Schroth pointed to the large bottle of iodine in the backroom and mumbled something about faules Fleisch (lazy flesh.) No Band-Aids, no pitying, no time out.”
At first, Neumann had second thoughts about the path he had chosen. “My friends were still continuing at the Gymnasium, spending their days in comfortable and clean surroundings; here I was, accustomed to a fine home and the luxury of two maids and a chauffeur, becoming a grease monkey for three long years.” But Neumann found the work interesting, and took pride in the high reputation of the shop.
At the conclusion of the three-year apprenticeship, Herr Schroth said “Thank you, Neumann”…the only time that he had ever said “thank you” to his apprentice, or called him anything other than “boy”…and sent a bouquet of flowers to Neumann’s mother. “I felt sincerely grateful when I, in turn, thanked Herr Schroth–the man whom I had always addressed as Meister and who had given me a solid groundwork for what I hoped would be a rewarding engineering future.”
Neumann says that up to the time he left Frankfurt to attend engineering college in the mid-1930s, he encountered no open anti-Semitism at all. Even at the Mittweide engineering college, where he was one of three Jewish students (each of their fathers had been soldiers in the First World War, which made them eligible for a college education), he says that he was never insulted by Nazi fellow students. Even allowing for the fact that attitudes toward Jews did differ considerably in different parts of Germany, these statements are hard to believe given that the Hitler regime had been in place since 1933.
About 15% of the Mittweide students were foreign, and they were exempt from the requirement, binding for German students, to have previously undergone an apprenticeship. “Because they had never dirtied their hands or bloodied their knuckles in apprentice-type training, they did not benefit from the Mittweida-type education anywhere as much as did a German student.” The Mittweida approach to engineering education included drawings in which errors had been deliberately inserted–“We were taught to ‘get a feel’ for drawings laid before us. The question constantly posed was, Would it really do the job if it were built just as shown on this drawing?”
Engineering students were exempt from the draft while in school, but not after graduation. A few weeks before the end of 1938, Neumann noticed an item on the college bulletin board: the Chinese government was looking for German mechanical engineers. And the Chinese Nationalist government had arranged with the German Nazi government that these engineers would have their German military service requirement deferred.
“The notice was vague about the jobs, which apparently were somewhere in the interior of the Chinese mainland and were connected with defense. A job in faraway China sounded incredibly exciting…”
Incredibly exciting it turned out to be, and most of the book is concerned with Neumann’s remarkable adventures in China. It was also, surely, lifesaving–had Neumann remained in Germany, it is most unlikely he would have survived the Holocaust.
In October 1944, by which time Neumann was working with the American Flying Tigers unit, General Claire Chennault sent him to the U.S. to give a report to OSS head Bill Donovan. After reporting to the general in Washington, he looked up the “chess-playing girl” whose name and address had been given to him by a soldier he met on the trip. Her name was Clarice and she turned out to have many other good attributes in addition to chess-playing. After the end of the war, Neumann returned to the US again, married Clarice, and moved with her back to China, where Chennault was establishing a new airline.
But it soon became clear that the Communists would dominate China, and the Neumanns needed to once again return to the United States. How? “Why don’t we drive home?” suggested Clarice. Across Siam, Burma, India, Afghanistan, and Iran…it seemed impossible, but Neumann was inspired by a National Geographic map showing Genghis Khan’s route from Iran to China. “If Genghis without a four-wheel drive Jeep did it, why couldn’t we?”
So that’s what they did, with their dog Mr Chips. The trip included transiting a one-and-a-half-mile railroad bridge over the Ganges..bumping across the ties..an encounter between Mr Chips and some monkeys, a visit to the Taj Mahal, and being shot at by a sniper on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The car was sold in Jerusalem, and they went by air to Paris, where “Chipsy celebrated his second birthday at the American PamPam restaurant, where a French chef, in a spotless white uniform and high hat, served him a bowl of thick soup on the floor in the middle of the restaurant before a group of applauding customers,” and then by ship to New York.
Neumann interviewed with GE in Lynn Massachussetts and was told that they’d be back to him in 30 days…his response was that he’d be in California by then, given his definite offer from Douglas Aircraft. The interviewers decided to make an immediate decision and offered him a job at $425 a month. The jet age was just beginning, and GE was transitioning from centrifugal-compressor engines, which had been used for the first British and American combat jet aircraft, to axial-flow engines, which are used to this day. After a project in which he identified the problem leading to high fuel-flow readings on the military J47 engine (the measurement setup was wrong), he was assigned to take over the compressor research facility. “Building 29G became my world for fourteen months–an exciting, fascinating, and challenging assignment. My junior engineers, the unionized workers and I were left totally alone. We developed into a high-spirited bunch, precision-coordinated like the crew of a submarine. We met our schedules, and we learned much: amongst other things, that the operation of our laboratory was affected by the phases of the moon, by spring and winter.”
During this assignment, Neumann invented the variable-stator jet engine, a vital improvement for engine performance and efficiency. He was soon promoted to project manager for a Mach 2 engine, running a team that included both engineering and manufacturing employees. “Drawings were hand-carried into the machine shop; orders for hardware were placed over the phone rather than by mail. The whole project operation reminded me of the Flying Tigers in China, who were also undermanned, overworked, and successful! (He notes that when the team decided to take a few hours off for a pre-Christmas party, every hotel and restaurant refused to accommodate them because a black engineer was a member of the group. This was not in the Deep South but in Cincinnati Ohio in 1952. Their black colleague offered not to come so the rest of the group could have their party. “It was our southern gal who climbed on her desk and proposed to all that ‘none of us goes if Cal doesn’t!’ Everyone cheered.” (They eventually found a veterans’ hall that would take the whole group.)
By 1955, Neumann was general manager for the GE Jet Engine Department, responsible for 5,000 people. The book includes much discussion of his management style, conflicts with the union, competitive battles with other companies, and his response to the threatened Arab League boycott because of GE’s engine sales to Israel. One interesting vignette deals with his serial promotion of a shop foreman named Bud Bonner, who became manager of a field service shop and later General Manager of the entire marine & industrial gas-turbine business. “Bonner is truly self-made; he never finished high school because he was brought up in an orphanage that could not support him beyond the age of sixteen…In 1978, I recommended Bonner’s promotion to corporate vice president, but was doubtful of the outcome…Our personnel people felt strongly that a degree from a reputable institution of learning was a minimum requirement for someone to become an officer of the General Electric Company.” GE CEO Reg Jones overruled the personnel people, though, and Bonner got his promotion.
As an autobiography, this book isn’t quite up there with Tom Watson Jr’s exceptional work Father, Son, & Co….for one thing, Neumann comes across as a little less thoughtful, introspective, and self-critical than does Mr Watson. But it is very informative and entertaining, often quite funny, and is very much worth reading.
Originally posted at Chicago Boyz