Hydrofoil Pioneers...

A Hydrofoil Evening With Paulette Goddard

by Bob Johnston

(Last Update 26 Mar 01)


A 1990 Associated Press article, datelined Geneva, Switzerland reporting the death of Paulette Goddard, reminded me of how the world of hydrofoils presented the opportunity to spend an evening with this famous movie actress. To those who may not remember Paulette, or have not seen her in the American Movie Classics on television, a little background may be helpful. Her second husband was Charlie Chaplin, with whom she co-starred in such films as "The Great Dictator" in 1940, and "Modern Times" in 1936. During the early 1940s, she appeared with Bob Hope in "The Cat and the Canary," "The Ghost Breakers" and "Nothing But the Truth." She continued to star in films throughout the 1940s.

Paulette Goddard (1911 - 1990)

Paulette's marriage to Charlie Chaplin ended in divorce in 1942. She was married to actor Burgess Meredith for a short time until they broke up in 1944. In 1953 Miss Goddard was living in Switzerland with Erich Maria Memarque, the German-born American novelist. He became famous in the 1920s for his antiwar "All Quiet on the Western Front," which was banned in Nazi Germany. They resided in Ronco, Switzerland, a picturesque village overlooking Lago Maggiore where they were married in 1958. In 1970 Remarque died, and Paulette continued to live in Ronco until her death.

With this background, we can now fit in how Paulette Goddard became acquainted with hydrofoilers. In 1953 the US Navy determined that a review should be made of European progress in the development of hydrofoils. A visit was organized to England, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy with the late Phil Eisenberg (then Head of the Office of Naval Research's Mechanics Branch) and me as the Navy's investigators. Some development work was going on in all the named countries. Professor Wienblum of Hamburg, Germany was retained to assist us in Germany and Switzerland. Professor Wienblum had been involved with the World War II German hydrofoil war effort working with the Sachsenberg-Schertel team. After the war, Wienblum had come to the United States as a paperclip scientist, working at the David Taylor Model Basin where he had established an outstanding technical reputation. Baron von Schertel had escaped from Germany and had gone to Switzerland where he helped found Supramar. Many of the Sachsenberg-Schertel team had been captured by the Russians and were working in their hydrofoil effort, but those who managed to evade the Russians had joined Supramar in Switzerland. During the summer of 1953, Supramar had built and introduced a commercial hydrofoil on Lago Maggiore between Locarno, Switzerland and Stresa, Italy. This is considered to be the first successful commercial hydrofoil operation. This vehicle, designated as PT 10, was of particular interest to the US Navy, which made Lago Maggiore a principal stop on the Navy's team visit.

The PT 10 was a typical early Supramar design. It held about 32 passengers in the cabin with an open cockpit in the fore part of the craft where the Captain and a crew member were stationed. It is remembered that on Lago Maggiore, the Captain played a musical horn as he approached each stop on the run around the lake. The service quickly gained popularity as the roads around the lake were quite slow.

Our visit was in mid-October, which was well past the tourist season, but Supramar had kept the boat onroute in order to demonstrate it to us. The day before we arrived, autumn rains had dislodged some large tree trunks from the mountainside, and they had washed down into a semi-submerged condition in the lake. With a load of passengers, the craft had hit a trunk at foilborne speed. No damage had been done, no passengers were hurt, the trunk was washed clear upon backing down and the trip had continued on schedule. This answered, in dramatic fashion, one of our questions as to what happens if you hit something with the foils.

We made the last passenger run with the boat and then it was turned over to us for trials and demonstrations. We spent four or five days with the boat, its designers and promoters. The highlights of our learning experience were as follows:

We were staying in the village of Ascona, a Swiss village with palm trees on the Southern side of the Alps, heated by the winds from the Sahara. The village was deserted by the summer vacationers reducing the population to a few year-long residents and some late Fall visitors such as ourselves. In the evening about the only entertainment was found at a small village tavern that featured local red wine and chestnuts. The proprietor was a veteran of the Swiss Air Corps and his wife was the proprietress. Everyone sat at small tables around a huge open fire which was used for roasting the chestnuts. The proprietress prepared the chestnuts by wrapping them in a burlap bag soaked in wine and roasting them in a large iron skillet. When they popped, she dumped them on your table and with a glass of good wine and good conversation, it made for a very pleasant evening. Many stories were told and many problems of the world were resolved around that big fireplace.

One story I have never forgotten was told by the proprietor, the ex-Swiss Air Corps Pilot: During World War II, practically every mountain top in Switzerland had an anti-aircraft battery to protect Swiss neutrality against all invaders of their air space. On one occasion, a squadron of US bombers was over-flying the Swiss territory. The Swiss commander radioed the squadron that they were over Swiss territory. The American squadron commander replied, "We know." The Swiss came back with the warning, "If you continue we shall have to open fire." The American reply was "We know." At this point the Swiss opened fire. The American leader radioed back, "You're firing too low." The Swiss reply was "We know."

But, back to Paulette Goddard. On the evening of note a special closed meeting at the tavern was arranged. The group invited included Erich Remarque, his friend Paulette Goddard, Baron von Schertel, a Swiss munitions executive and his live-in friend, an ex-German industrialist of World War II, an Austrian brain surgeon, Professor Wienblum, Phil Eisenberg, and me. And so began our evening with Paulette Goddard, highlighted with good food, good wine and good conversation. The most interesting discussions related to the world's post-war problems of 1953. Of all those present, Paulette had the least to say, but because of her beauty and reserve she added much sparkle to the evening. So much so that I have always remembered this event as a momentous occasion. To say the least, if we could have transmitted our conclusions of the evening to our respective country leaders, the political process of the 1950s would have been materially expedited. I also think the group would have voted an "Oscar" for Paulette that evening just based on her quiet charm.

Wisely, we did not dwell on the events of this particular evening in our report to the Secretary of the Navy. However, this trip was the US Navy's first post-WWII look at hydrofoil development in Europe. A recommendation was made for the US Navy to purchase one of the Supramar craft for evaluation. At that time, the price was most attractive, $45,000 delivered in New York.


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