In the lead up to the Second World War, it quickly became clear that aviation would be a critical front. It was also apparent that the United States Army Air Corps needed pilots, and lots of them. In 1939, the Air Corps had some 20,000 men and a few thousand planes. By 1945, those numbers had swelled to 80,000 planes and some 2.4 million personnel. Playing no small part in this massive expansion process was the then-senator from Missouri, Harry S Truman. Truman was instrumental in regulating the civil aviation industry, including the launching of the Civilian Pilot Training Programme in 1938, with the ostensible purpose of increasing the number of civilian pilots. In reality, the programme existed to prepare the United States for war in the air.
Pilots and planes were only part of the equation, and the American military quickly found that it needed whole quartermaster depots’ worth of stuff to keep everything up in the air — including watches. Time, and tracking it accurately, was critical for a range of navigational tasks, not to mention the more mundane role of keeping track of the actual time across the globe.
Enter Léon Gallet. In the mid-1930s, Gallet was one of the many venerable La-Chaux-de-Fonds-based makers who, like the rest of the industry, spent the first half of the 20th century pivoting from the pocket to the wrist. According to the most widely accepted version of the story, Léon, the scion of the clan, was acquainted with Harry S Truman prior to the latter’s career in politics. So when the time came for Gallet to pitch for a lucrative US-military contract to make pilot’s watches, Léon made the most of his relationship with Truman.
The watch that Gallet had in mind was quite impressive for the time: a modified Venus 150 chronograph movement in the brand’s robust and water-resistant “Clamshell” case. The real innovation, though, was a rotating external bezel graduated with a 12-hour scale, which, when combined with the city ring printed on the outer section of the watch’s dial, allowed for the wearer to calculate the time across the globe quickly. Truman, who had served in a field artillery regiment in the First World War, had his own suggestion as to the design of this multi-purpose pilot’s watch, based on his experience — the addition of a central tacheometry scale. Unfortunately for Léon, his watch cost more than the United States military was comfortable spending on a mass-issued timepiece. So, even with Senator Truman’s endorsement, the watch was only available on an as-needed basis, and initially available only to flight officers, which is where the model’s name (also referred to as the “Flying Officer”) came from.
By Gallet’s own estimation, hundreds of these watches were used by American (and British) aviators in the Second World War, but it wasn’t until 1945 that the watch achieved real fame, once again courtesy of Harry S Truman. Truman was sworn in as president on April 12th, 1945, months before the end of the war. And President Truman was known to wear a Gallet Flight Officer regularly. His watch, which is now part of the collection of the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Missouri, was an early serial number 64112. The caseback also bears the inscription “Col. Truman From Vic Paul”, apparently two of his senate staffers.
The story of the Flight Officer doesn’t end with President Truman. In fact, the hard-wearing and practical little 34.5mm watch went on to have a long and distinguished career, both civilian and military. In 1953, the third generation of the model increased the case dimensions to 37mm. From the 1960s until production ceased in 1979, the watch was issued to the Swiss military, and offered in a range of sizes and configurations. Along the way, the ageing Venus 150 was replaced by a manual Landeron 149, and even a Valjoux 7735.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the Flight Officer today. The clean case lines, pump pushers and practical dual-time bezel have inherent charms. The dial, which might lack some of the name cachet of other military watches of the same era, more than makes up for it with the sheer amount of other purposeful printing on the dial.
For a vintage pilot that flies a little different, keep an eye out for the Gallet Flight Officer.