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Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Nashville’s Leader Among Men

My favorite uncle, Maxwell Andrews, to me, was the single most prominent leader ever to come from Nashville. He, like my dad, James David Andrews, Jr. and another brother, William Valerie Andrews, was a career military officer, eventually rising to command the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. It is for him that Andrews Air Force Base in our nation’s capital is named. Their father, James David Andrews, was a newspaper publisher and real estate dealer, who, incidentally, proposed and assembled the land that is now Berry Field, the Nashville International Airport.

As a student leader at Montgomery Bell Academy, he captained the 1900 undefeated football team as quarterback, and the next year he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. When America entered World War I, he entered the aviation section of the Signal Corps, and, along with his friend Billy Mitchell, trained pilots at home. As commander of the Advanced Flying School, he earned the reputation as an aviator with unequaled flying skills. In 1927, after being acknowledged as a uniquely qualified leader his entire career, he began his preparation to assume major command, a role he was born to play. He attended the Air Corps Tactical School, The Army Command and General Staff School and the Army War College. After the War College, he served in the War Department’s Operations and Training Branch, participating in the reorganization of the Army Air Corps and in planning for the establishment of the Army General Headquarters Air Force. For all practical purposes, he was the author of that plan, which was a turning point for the Air Corps, and he was subsequently named acting commanding officer of the GHQ Air Force. In March, 1935, he became its commanding general when he was appointed to the temporary rank of brigadier general. By the end of that year, he had become a major general.

A proponent of the new, big bombers, he began to make politicians and the military establishment nervous by the late 1930s, not only for his stands on air power and these planes, but his growing belief that world events as they were unfolding would lead to a second world war. He fell out of favor with both the White House and the War Department in 1939 because of his stance on the impending war and was demoted to colonel and exiled to San Antonio. He spent his time in San Antonio fine tuning plans for the war he was certain was to come. When his friend, General George C. Marshall was named chief of staff of the Army, he ended my uncle’s exile, promoted him back to general and appointed him to the War Department General Staff in Washington. He was elevated to Lieutenant General in 1940 and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and shortly thereafter, the Distinguished Flying Cross. When the Allies invaded North Africa, Uncle Maxwell was named Commander of the U. S. Forces in the Middle East. Faced with naming either General Dwight D. Eisenhower or General Frank Andrews to lead the Allied command in Europe, Marshall and President Roosevelt gave the nod to my uncle. He was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, headquartered in London.

Then, tragically, in May , 1943, my Uncle Maxwell was killed in the crash of his Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber in Iceland, the re-fueling station between London and Washington. Ironically, he was returning to Washington for official installation as allied commander. Although there was worldwide shock and dismay, a total blackout of the tragedy occurred, and from a media standpoint, Maxwell Frank Andrews had not existed. His successor, Ike Eisenhower, received the focus. The reason for the obliteration was that the powers-that-be felt that the nation’s morale would be compromised by dwelling on the demise of a hero in such perilous times.

Military historians give him credit for the planning of the war in Europe, but his critical role in the development of air power and his place in history are barely recognized. Although Andrews Air Force Base, nine miles outside Washington, DC, and a building at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida are named for him, he basically has remained a forgotten man in military annals.

He was also my personal hero. A early and avid air power enthusiast, Uncle Maxwell gave me my first airplane ride in the spring of 1937--I got to fly co-pilot--when I was about ten years old. No other kid I knew had ever flown in an airplane at that time. I’m sure the flight was in no way authorized, but that wouldn’t have bothered Uncle Maxwell, who didn’t always play by the rules.

When I was around him, he made me feel I was the most important person in the world. I know now that everybody felt that way in his presence, because he was the most charismatic person I’ve ever known.

On the first Saturday in May, 1941, I had won a pool by being the only one to pick Whirlaway as the Kentucky Derby winner, and to celebrate, I stayed up to be amongst the adults, which dwindled to my dad and Uncle Maxwell. The conversation between the two brothers, with me off in a corner, evolved into a series of late-night sessions-- a series of events that changed much of my focus on life. He described in detail the condition of the world, from a military standpoint, talked about the war in Europe and mentioned names I had only read or heard about--President Roosevelt, George Marshall, Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower among others. I subsequently became a current events junkie because of my uncle, as well as a pilot of helicopters.

No official biography of Maxwell Frank Andrews has ever been written, although his impact on aviation is chronicled in two books, including A Few Great Captains. In Nashville, there is a Tennessee State historical marker on Lea Avenue and the MBA soccer field bears his name. In the public sense, as far as I know, no other local recognition exists. But my Uncle Maxwell made an indelible mark on the nation and on the man his nephew would become.

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