FROM the entries in my diary of this April period one would
get rather an unfavorable opinion of that quarter of France in which our
Squadron was located. " Rain and Mud! " " Dud Weather! " " No flying to-day! "
are a few of the samples. None of the pilots or enlisted men of our American
flying squadrons will be easily enraptured in the days to come with
descriptions of the romance of this part of La Belle France. The villages are
dismal and dirty. Every householder rejoices in the size and stench of his
manure heap, which always decorates the entire area in front of his house.
Sidewalks there are none. The streets slop with mud of the clinging variety,
and even in the larger cities themselves the American finds but little to
interest him. An overwhelming love for his own country is the most enduring
souvenir the American soldier in France gained from his visits to these towns
of the Vosges and the Meuse.
To add to our irritation, we felt that every day we lost by
bad weather was injuring American aviation in the eyes of our Allies. The
British and the French had had three years and more of air fighting and the
veterans of these squadrons looked upon the American pilots with something of
amusement and something of polite contempt. They had believed in the story of
our twenty thousand aeroplanes which had been promised by April. Here was April
at hand and we were flying ill-equipped machines that we fortunately had been
able to wangle out of the French and English. Our pilots were not trained under
the veteran leadership that England could provide and our methods were crude
and new. Our spirit and determination were perhaps never doubted by our Allies,
but we all of us felt that we must show these more experienced squadrons that
we could equal them in any department of aviation, even with our inferior
machines, if we only might have the opportunity for flying. And still the rain
The day after my first enemy machine was brought down we
were unable on account of the fog to carry out our air patrols. That afternoon
a group of American newspaper men came out to the aerodrome to talk to me about
my sensations in shooting down another man's machine. They took photographs of
me and jotted down notes and finally requested me to make a short flight over
the field and perform a few stunts. The weather was not too rough for such an
exhibition, so I gladly complied and for half an hour I rolled and looped and
dived about the clouds a thousand feet or so above the aerodrome. But the
visibility was so bad that I could not see the ground a mile away from the
On May first Major Lufbery and I made a little attempt to
get a Hun, but it ended in a somewhat ludicrous fiasco. Luf was attached to 94
at that time, not as a commanding officer, but as a pilot for instruction. He
was America's Ace of Aces and our most distinguished pilot. His long and
successful experience in air-fighting was naturally of the greatest benefit to
all of us younger pilots and every one of us considered it an honor to be sent
out on an expedition with him.
We were sitting about the hangars talking and smoking about
five o'clock that afternoon, when the telephone rang and Major Lufbery was
informed that a German aeroplane had been sighted over Montsec, just above St.
Mihiel. Lufbery hung up the phone, grinned his confident smile and began
pulling on his flying suit. I suspected something was up and walking quickly
over to where Lufbery was dressing I asked him if I might go with him.
" Where do you want to go? " asked Lufbery.
" Wherever you go ! " I replied.
My answer evidently pleased the Major, for he grunted his
customary chuckle and said, " Come ahead."
I was delighted at the opportunity of accompanying Lufbery
anywhere, and was inside my flying clothes as soon as he was. As we walked out
to our Nieuports, he told me we might get a Boche. All I had to do was to
follow him and keep my eyes open.
We flew over Montsec for half an hour without getting a sign
of a Hun. Thick as the day was, we would have been able to see the French
anti-aircraft shells bursting if any enemy aeroplanes had been in that sector.
So after cruising about once more over the German lines, Lufbery started for
home in the direction of Pont-à-Mousson. We passed directly over the
town at an altitude of 6000 feet. Suddenly Lufbery started diving directly
down. I immediately nosed over and followed in hot pursuit, thinking he had
spotted an enemy below was about to open an attack. But a minute later I saw
that the Major was very evidently in trouble. His propeller had stopped turning
and he was anxiously looking about and circling away for a favorable landing
Following him at a little distance behind I saw him settle
down into a very respectable field just south of Pont-à-Mousson. His
machine dropped gently down to the mud, rolled along a few feet, then to my
astonishment it stuck its nose into the mud, stood with tail pointing
heavenward, hesitated there for a second or two and, as I passed about a
hundred feet overhead, his Nieuport turned gently upside down and lay there on
its back. I dare say Lufbery was swearing softly to himself as he saw me glide
Circling back I was highly amused to see the Major crawling
out on his hands and knees through the mud. He waved a dripping hand to me to
indicate he was all right. I put on speed and hurried on home to send him help.
His machine had somersaulted less than three miles from the enemy's lines.
Major Huffer himself took down from my description the exact
location of the " panne," and jumping into a motor car he ran up to the spot I
had indicated. There he found Lufbery, none the worse for his forced landing,
excepting a slight scratch alongside his nose. One of his cylinders had blown
out and he had found himself at just a sufficient height to glide down and land
at a spot safely behind the observation of the enemy.
It was on the very next day that Lieutenant Jimmy Meissner
of Brooklyn had another very trying experience with the Nieuport machine. About
noon he and Lieutenant Davis were sent out to protect a French observation
machine which had been ordered to take photographs of the enemy's positions
back of Pont-a-Mousson. The photographing machine went down to seven or eight
thousand feet and was proceeding calmly on its work, leaving the matter of its
defense to the two American pilots sitting upstairs some four or five thousand
Suddenly Jimmy Meissner discovered two Albatros fighting
machines almost upon him, coming from out of the sun. They were already on the
attack and were firing as they dived swiftly upon the two Nieuports.
Jimmy made a quick maneuver and zoomed up above the nearest
Albatros. Instantly he utilized his advantage, now that he had the upper floor,
and in a trice he headed downwards upon the tail of the enemy, firing long
bursts from his machine-gun as he plunged after the fleeing Hun. But the
Albatros pilot was an old hand at this game, and before Meissner could overtake
him he had thrown his machine into a tailspin which not only presented a target
difficult to hit, but almost persuaded Jimmy that the machine was falling out
Jimmy had heard many stories of this sort of " playing
possum " however. He determined to keep after the spinning Albatros and see the
end of the combat. Accordingly he opened his throttle and dived headlong down.
One thousand, two thousandthree thousand feet he plunged, regardless of
everything but the occasional target that whirled periodically before his
sights. At last he got in a burst that produced immediate results. The Albatros
sent out a quick puff of smoke that was immediately followed by a mass of
flames. One of Meissner's tracer bullets had set fire to the fuel tank of the
enemy's machine. The plucky victor pulled up his Nieuport and took a
self-satisfied look about him.
There scarcely a thousand feet below him were the enemy's
lines. From various directions machine guns and short Archies were directing
their fire upon him He grinned at them contemptuously and looked away for the
expected view of Lieutenant Davis' Nieuport and the other Albatros. Neither was
to be seen. Perhaps they were on his other wing. One glance around to the left
and Jimmy's heart was in his throat.
He saw that the entire length of his left upper wing was
stripped of fabric! And as he turned a horrified gaze to the other wing, he saw
that its fabric too was even at that moment beginning to tear away from its
leading edge and was flapping in the wind ! So furious had been his downward
plunge that the force of the wind's pressure had torn away fragile covering on
both his upper wings. Without this supporting surface his aeroplane would drop
like a stone. Although it couldn't make much difference whether it dropped into
German lines or within his own so far as his life was concerned, Meissner
admitted later he always wanted a military funeral; so he eased off his speed
and tenderly turned about his wobbling machine and headed back towards France.
Giving the slightest possible engine power and nursing his
crippled little 'bus with great delicacy, Meissner succeeded in gaining No
Man's Land, then passed over the American trenches. He did not dare to alter
either his direction or speed. Less than half a mile further his machine glided
into the earth and crashed beyond repair. Meissner crawled forth from the
wreckage and felt himself all over carefully, to try to make himself understand
that he was in reality in the land of the living and free.
Such was the climax of James A. Meissner's first victory,
and the Squadron's fourth. Meissner lived to repeat his success many times and
to add much luster to the reputation of his squadron. But a narrower escape
from death has rarely favored any pilot at the front.
Again did the news of the squadron's victory precede the
arrival of the victor. When Meissner arrived at the aerodrome by automobile an
hour or two later, the American photographers and newspaper men had already
arrived and he was begged to stand for his photograph. Like an embarrassed
schoolboy Jimmy pushed them away, exclaiming,
"Nobody saw the machine fall in flames but myself. It may
not be confirmed."
Great was his surprise when he learned that a French
observation post had witnessed the whole combat and had already telephoned us,
not only the result of the fight, but the position where Meissner had been
forced to land. We all took a hand then and forced the embarrassed pilot to
stand and face the camera. It was a custom with which most of 94's pilots had
to become acquainted within the next six months.
But our happiness and satisfaction were short-lived. Later
in the afternoon Captain Peterson returned from his patrol over enemy's lines
and brought back with him but two of the three companions who had gone out with
him. We all walked out to get the news. Peterson had shot down another enemy
aeroplane in flames, totaling five for the squadron with this double in one
day. But during his combat, in which five Pfalz monoplanes had been attacked by
our four pilots, Captain Peterson saw one of his Nieuports pass swiftly by him,
ablaze from stem to stern. He collected his patrol quickly about him and
rapidly scanned their markings. Charley Chapman's was missing! All were present
but Chapman's well known machine.
Then Peterson remembered seeing Chapman leave the fight to
attack a two-seater German machine below him. Other pilots later filled in the
details that were lacking. Chapman had no sooner dived to the attack than one
of the hostile fighting machines was upon his trail. Chapman turned to meet his
pursuer and in doing so he brought himself full into the range of fire of the
two-seater. Set on fire by the first burst, the mounting flames soon were
quickly swept over the whole structure of Chapman's machine by the rush of the
It was our first loss in combat and sadly did we feel that
loss. Charley Chapman was one of the best loved of our little band and the
sudden pang came to each one of us that we would never see his jolly good
natured smile again. The horror of his fate was not lost upon us, one may be
sure. No form of death is so dreaded by the pilot as falling to the earth in
flames. Later on our most noted member leaped overboard to his death to avoid
the slower torture of being burnt alive.
One of the queerest boys who had been wished into our
squadron by an allwise Air Staff was one we will call " T. S." He was the
source of constant amusement to the rest of usamusement sometimes
tinctured by a spasmodic desire to turn him over to the enemy where he might
amuse the prison camps with his drolleries. We will call him T. S. because that
is not his name. T. S. came to us early in the training season and was
immediately marked as a pilot afraid of his medicine. He was frankly a coward
and he didn't care to conceal the fact. His very frankness on this subject was
very amusing to the rest of us, who were every bit as much afraid of bullets
and war as he was but who had a certain shame about admitting the fact. But T.
S. could see no use in playing the hypocrite about so deadly a business as
getting shot down from on high. Naturally it required some little attention to
keep T. S. up to the scratch when it came to patrol work over the lines. The
boy was a fair pilot and was a strapping big fellow who always was in the best
of health and spirits. But he did object to guns and ammunition.
The first occasion of his fluking a military job was one day
when he was left on the alert at the aerodrome. All the patrols were out and he
had the secondary responsibility of responding to a hurry call. The telephone
sergeant came running out to the hangar and confronted our shameless reserve:
"Who is on duty here this afternoon, sir?" inquired the man.
" I believe I am," returned Lieutenant T. S., languidly
eyeing the inquisitive sergeant. " Anything I can do for you? "
" Two enemy aeroplanes have been alerted over our lines,
sir, in the vicinity of St. Mihiel. They are two seater machines sent over by
the Germans to observe our positions." The sergeant saluted and made room for
the rush of events that usually followed the receipt of such intelligence.
But T. S. never moved an eyelash. He looked the sergeant up
and down, finally speaking deliberately and with finality.
" Well," he said, " let them observe! If you think I am
going over there to get shot down myself, you are mistaken! "
When questioned later by the Commanding Officer, the
lieutenant unblushingly repeated his statement.
" I am simply scared to death at the thought of getting into
all those Archies and things over the lines," he admitted, " and I'm not going
to do it if I can get out of it. There are plenty of fellows here who do not
mind them and they are the ones you ought to send."
The Officer stared at T. S. in amazement, unable to
criticize the faultless logic of this frank soldier. After thinking it over, it
was decided to send T. S. out in patrols with veteran leaders until he had
somewhat accustomed himself to the terrors of Archy. By this means a valuable
pilot might be saved for the government.
Accordingly one afternoon Lieutenant T. S. was ordered to
accompany Captain Hall and myself, in response to an alert that had just come
in. Two enemy observation planes had been reported crossing our lines north of
Nancy at an altitude of only eight thousand feet. Captain Hall directed T. S.
to stick in formation close behind his left wing, while I was to occupy the
same position on his right. The Captain was the flight leader and we were to
obey his signals and directions.
We got away from the field without delay and streaked it
across the sky in a perfect V formation. Straight towards the lines we flew,
climbing as we advanced. As we neared the lines, we searched the neighboring
skies but could discover no aeroplanes in sight, enemy or otherwise. So over
the lines we went. We had reached a spot almost two miles behind the front,
when all of a sudden a dozen magnificent Archies burst simultaneously under,
above and all around us. The Germans had planned the whole show, to catch us in
just this kind of trap. They had counted upon our coming over at the same
altitude at which the two decoy planes had traveled and had prepared their
anti-aircraft guns and time fuses thoroughly to drench this certain spot with
Fortunately no direct hits were made. But I noticed one
shell explode under the tail of T. S.'s machine, lifting his bus suddenly and
violently into the air, where it hung suspended for a moment with the tail
pointing heavenward. The next moment he had recovered control of his Nieuport
and making a short half turn, he headed for home and opened up his throttle to
its full. Straight for Nancy he flew, looking neither to the right nor the
left. Captain Hall and I followed after him, the Captain making desperate
efforts to overtake him, all the while dipping his wings and trying to summon
the frightened airman back to the formation. But it was no use. In two minutes
T. S. was out of sight, with an unusually vigorous engine turning up at least
l700 revolutions of his propeller per minute. We abandoned our pursuit and
continued on our patrol.
An hour later we landed at our aerodrome and inquired for T.
S. Nothing had been seen or heard of him. Somewhat alarmed at this strange
climax to the afternoon's performance, we telephoned all over the country for
news of him, but only to learn that he had not landed at any of our aerodromes
near the front. Dinner passed and still no news of T. S. We decided he had
become confused in his location and had landed by mistake in an aerodrome of
the Germans. The lines from Nancy to Switzerland ran in such an irregular
fashion that such a mistake would be quite possible..
Not until late the following afternoon was our anxiety
relieved. Then came a telephone call from Lieutenant T. S. himself. He had
landed quite safely at a French aerodrome just south of Nancy and but a dozen
miles from our own field. He informed us that he would fly back to us at the
earliest possible moment. Pressed as to why he had kept us in such long
suspense about him, he replied with great indignation that he considered he was
doing pretty well to have sufficiently recovered from shell-shock within
twenty-four hours to get to the telephone!
The very rarity of such an example in American aviation
makes this story worth the telling. Heroic conduct in war has become so usual
and ordinary a thing that such a career as that of T. S. seems incredible and
even amusing. The very contrast indicates how thoroughly American boys have
smothered their natural desire for " living through the war " and have hurled
themselves with supreme self-sacrifice into the thick of dangers over the
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