Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Peterson Space Observer

Thomas J. Watson Jr. – Lessons learned in the air and shared for a lifetime

Capt. Tom Watson (left) was a B-24 Liberator pilot in the Army Air Forces who went on to become the president of IBM. (Courtesy photo)

Capt. Tom Watson (left) was a B-24 Liberator pilot in the Army Air Forces who went on to become the president of IBM. (Courtesy photo)

Commentary by

Retired Lt. Gen. John S. Fairfield

IBM Strategic Business Relationships Team

LEESBURG, Va. (AFNS) — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz declared 2009 to 2010 as the Year of the Air Force Family. He knew, as leaders before him realized, that without the care and genuine concern for not only Airmen, but for those family members who support their Airmen, mission effectiveness could be compromised.

Tom Watson Jr. learned this lesson well during his days as a B-24 Liberator pilot in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He learned to fly at the age of ten and like all Airmen, he embraced this opportunity. He didn’t stand out in college. He didn’t really want to follow in his famous father’s footsteps into IBM. Instead, he joined the National Guard as a pilot and eventually was promoted to captain.

In 1940, his unit was mobilized and Captain Watson found himself patrolling the California coast looking for a possible submarine attack on the days following Pearl Harbor. Wanting more action, he found himself assigned as a pilot and aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Follett Bradley, then the Army’s inspector general.

General Bradley was assigned the task of establishing an Alaska-Siberia ferry route to deliver planes and equipment to the Soviets. This mission required Captain Watson to fly the general into many airfields not used to servicing a B-24 and to work out the detailed enroute logistics and servicing needs of the air armada that soon would follow to allow the Soviets to hold out against the invading Germany army.

General Bradley soon was dismayed over the inability of his airplane to be ready when he needed it at a moments notice. Asking Captain Watson about this, the captain replied that it was the crew’s fault as they didn’t seemed to be as focused on the mission.

General Bradley then ordered Captain Watson to take several days off with his aircrew and the ground support crew. He was to spend all this time with them, to take them to dinner, to learn their first names, the names of their families, what schools they attended and what sports they liked. Only then was Captain Watson to tell them of their mission and its importance.

When Captain Watson reported these details back to General Bradley, he commented on what great people these Airmen were. Captain Watson reported more than the details. He had learned of their passions and desires and what it took to get the mission done right the first time.

That plane never again missed a take off, and the enroute structure General Bradley put in place through remote Siberia was done in time to help the Soviets defeat Hitler’s aggression in Russia and ultimately lead to the Allied victory.

As Tom Watson, by now a lieutenant colonel, was leaving the Army, General Bradley asked what his post-war intentions were. Colonel Watson replied that he would like to join Eddie Rickenbacker and support the fledging idea to form Eastern Airlines into a commercial opportunity. General Bradley suggested that Colonel Watson apply what he had learned about taking care of people and go back to IBM. Tom Watson did this and went on to achieve tremendous success as the head of IBM.

During this post-war time, Tom Watson never lost sight of those who served, and along with Eddie Rickenbacker, he responded to General Eisenhower’s request and formed the Air Force Aid Society to support those Airman and their families who deserved the recognition and support that such a organization would provide.

Tom Watson remained on the Air Force Aid Society’s board of directors for more than 24 years. He never lost sight of the clear lesson that his wartime leadership experience taught him: if you take care and recognize people who are responsible for mission success, the mission will be successful.

Tom Watson applied this though out his life, honoring those who served in the Air Force and in the leadership he demonstrated in IBM.

He has been recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. During this 100th year of IBM, it is fitting to pause and to celebrate what Tom Watson learned as a pilot and how it changed his life and the lives of many forever.

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