LIEUTENANT WALTER SMYTH, of New York, came to me on the
morning of May 10th, 1918, and said:
" Rick, where do you find all these Boches of yours over the
lines ? "
I asked him what he meant by " all."
" Why," he said, " I've been over the lines two or three
times and I haven't had a single look at an enemy machine. I would like to go
across with some one like you who always gets into some fun. Will you take me
with you on a voluntary patrol? "
This was the spirit I liked to see in a pilot and I
immediately told Smyth I would take him over at nine o'clock this very morning
if he could get ready. My regular patrol was not on until late in the
afternoon, so I had all the morning to myself. Smyth was delighted with the
invitation and immediately made himself ready.
We left the field together and sped quickly towards St.
Mihiel. Our altimeters indicated l7,000 feet as we finished our first patrol
and found ourselves over the city of Pont-à-Mousson. No enemy machines
had been encountered.
Considering it quite probable that a Rumpler might be coming
out for photographs on such a nice morning as this, I determined to cut a slice
off the German territory on our next patrol and run directly from
Pont-à-Mousson to Verdun. Accordingly I set off with Smyth close by my
right wing. A slight northerly course brought us directly over Mars-la-Tour,
where I knew was located a fighting squadron of Germans. We should satisfy
Smyth's curiosity even if we had to descend onto the Hun aerodrome.
As we crossed the little town of Mars-la-Tour I detected a
German two-seater making off towards Verdun almost directly ahead of us. It was
an Albatros and was several thousand feet below us, and about two miles ahead.
We were in excellent position, for not only was our presence entirely
unsuspected so far in his rear, but once discovered we had the sun at our backs
and had the advantage in height and in numbers. I felt certain of the outcome
of the fight and was warmly congratulating Smyth upon his good judgment in
picking me as his leader in to-day's expedition as I dipped him a signal and
began setting our course into the sun. By the time we reached Conflans I was
just above the enemy's tail and in an excellent position. As yet we had
I stuck down my Nieuport and began my dive. My tracer
bullets sped by the startled observer and gave him the first intimation he had
of my proximity. The German pilot must have seen them flash past too. For the
next thing I knew was that in some way or other I had passed the Albatros and
was still wildly firing into vacancy, while the two-seater enemy machine by one
masterful maneuver had given me the go-by and was now on top of me. Clearly he
was an old hand at this game and it behooved me to be careful.
I zoomed up again and got the upper berth. But this time I
found it extremely difficult to get into a position for shooting. The pilot
kicked around his tail so adroitly that every time I prepared to dive upon him
I found the observer coolly sighting a brace of machine-guns full into my face.
Moreover, I found that at this high altitude the Albatros could maneuver as
well or just a little better than could my lighter Nieuport. Once I tried to
make a sharp bank to the right. I had quite forgotten the rarity of the air
and, instead of a virage, I found I had thrown my machine into a vrille. Two
complete revolutions were made before I could get myself straightened out. Then
looking about me for my enemy I found the Albatros nearly a mile away from me
making a fast spurt for home. Smyth was composedly sailing along above me,
appearing to be quite enchanted with the entertainment.
I had encountered an expert pair of airfighters on the
Albatros and I looked after their departing shadow with some admiration salving
my disappointment. Then much of my self-satisfied abandon evaporated instantly
when I began to realize that Smyth and I were over twenty-five miles inside
Germany. I decided to retreat while retreating was good, fully satisfied that I
had given Smyth his money's worth in the shape of a " first show."
As we passed over St. Mihiel on our way home I perceived
white Archies bursting, back in the direction of Verdun. Closer scrutiny
disclosed the same Albatros two-seater quietly riding the air-bumps and making
steadfastly for our side of the lines. The pilots thought they had me bluffed
and were going on with their work in full view of Smyth and myself.
I wiggled a signal to Smyth and started again in pursuit of
the foxy Albatros. But immediately the enemy made an about face and reentering
the barrage of Archy set out at a stiff gait for Mars-la-Tour and home. I
swerved a bit to the right to cut him off and glanced about me as I did so to
ascertain the exact position of Smyth. He was nowhere in sight!
Below me was Etain. I was at least ten miles back of the
lines. When had Smyth left me, and in what direction had he gone? Feeling more
than a little uncomfortable in my thoughts at having neglected to look out for
him in the last few minutes I made a half bank and set my course straight for
home. As I learned, late that afternoon, Smyth had landed inside our lines with
motor troubles and was unable to reach our aerodrome until near nightfall.
As I neared our aerodrome, I saw a large crowd gathered
together on the center of the field. It was just ten-fifty in the morning when
I landed beside them and hastened up to learn what calamity had overtaken my
poor friend Smyth. If through my carelessness Smyth had become engaged in an
unequal combat and had been wounded or had crashed upon landing, I could not
escape the responsibility for his loss. I hurried over to the hangars, filled
The exclamations I heard only bewildered me the more. Major
Lufbery's name was on everybody's lips. I asked if any one had seen Lieutenant
Smyth come in. The boys only looked at me vacantly and made no reply. Finally I
demanded the reason for this extraordinary gathering on the field. The answer
left me dumb with dismay and horror.
Our beloved Luf was no more! Major Raoul Lufbery, the
American Ace of Aces, the most revered American aviator in France had just been
shot down in flames not six miles away from our field!
This sad story is so well known to the whole world that I
would not repeat here the details of Lufbery's last fight were it not for the
fact that numerous false stories of his heroic death were spread broadcast
throughout America immediately after the news of his loss had been cabled home.
Several of these garbled accounts later came to my attention.
As our Commanding Officer, Major Huffer, tells the story, it
was about ten o'clock when the anti-aircraft guns on top of Mt. Mihiel began
belching great white puffs of smoke overhead at a very high altitude. An alerte
came to us immediately that a German photographing machine was coming our way
and was at that moment almost directly over our field.
Lieutenant Gude was the only pilot on the field ready for
flight. He was sent up alone to attack the intruder, an incident which brought
vastly regrettable results. It was Gude's first actual combat. His encounter
with the enemy was plainly seen by all the spectators who gathered about our
Just as Gude left the ground the French Archy ceased firing.
Evidently they had scored a hit, for the German observing machine at that
moment began a long vrille, spinning faster and faster as it drew nearer to the
ground. Just as the onlookers were convinced that the enemy machine was falling
for its last crash the Albatros recovered its poise, straightened out at less
than 200 feet above earth and turned back towards the German lines. Almost
immediately Lieutenant Gude flew in to the attack.
Gude began firing at an impossible range and continued
firing until his ammunition was exhausted, without inflicting any appreciable
injury upon the two seater Albatros. As he came flying home the Archy batteries
in the neighborhood again took up the battle and poured up a violent barrage,
which surrounded and encompassed this lone enemy on every side. But all to no
purpose. The Albatros continued steadily on its retreat, climbing slightly and
setting a course in the direction of Nancy.
In the meantime, Major Lufbery, who had been watching the
whole show from his barracks, jumped on a motorcycle that was standing in the
road and rushed to the hangars. His own plane was out of commission. Another
Nieuport was standing on the field, apparently ready for use. It belonged to
Lieutenant Davis. The mechanics admitted everything was ready and without
another word Lufbery jumped into the machine and immediately took off.
With all his long string of victories, Lufbery had never
brought down an enemy aeroplane within the allied lines. All seventeen of his
early successes with the Escadrille Lafayette and his last successwhen he
had gone out to avenge Jimmy Hallall had been won across the German
lines. He had never seen the wreckage of a single one of his victories.
Undoubtedly he seized this opportunity of engaging in a combat almost within
sight of our field with impetuous abandon. Knowing nothing of the condition of
his guns nor the small peculiarities of his present mount, Lufbery flew in to
With far greater speed than his heavier antagonist, Major
Lufbery climbed in pursuit. In approximately five minutes after leaving the
ground he had reached 2,000 feet and had arrived within range of the Albatros
six miles away. The first attack was witnessed by all our watchers.
Luf fired several short-bursts as he dived in to the attack.
Then he swerved away and appeared to busy himself with his gun, which evidently
had jammed. Another circle over their heads and he had cleared the jam. Again
he rushed the enemy from their rear, when suddenly old Luf's machine was seen
to burst into roaring flames. He passed the Albatros and proceeded for three or
four seconds on a straight course. Then to the horrified watchers below there
appeared the figure of their gallant hero emerging in a headlong leap from the
midst of the fiery furnace! Lufbery had preferred to leap to certain death
rather than endure the slow torture of burning to a crisp. His body fell in the
garden of a peasant woman's house in a little town just north of Nancy. A small
stream ran by at about a hundred yards distant and it was thought later that
poor Lufbery seeing this small chance for life had jumped with the intention of
striking this water. He had leaped from a height of 200 feet and his machine
was carrying him at a speed of 120 miles per hour! A hopeless but a heroic
attempt to preserve his priceless life for his needy country!
While I was listening to the details of this shocking story
the telephone rang. We were informed by a French officer of the exact spot upon
which our late hero had fallen. Jumping into a motor we sped across the
intervening miles at a prodigious rate and arrived at the scene of the tragedy
less than 30 minutes after Luf had fallen. But already loving hands had removed
his body. The townsfolk had carried all that remained of poor Raoul Lufbery to
their little Town Hall and there we found him, his charred figure entirely
covered with flowers from the near-by gardens.
I remember a conversation we had had with Major Lufbery on
the subject of catching afire in the air a few days previous to this melancholy
accident. I had asked Luf what he would do in a case of this kind jump or
stay with the machine? All of us had a vast respect for Major Lufbery's
experience and we all leaned forward to hear his response to this question.
" I should always stay with the machine," Luf responded. "
If you jump you certainly haven't got a chance. On the other hand there is
always a good chance of side-slipping your aeroplane down in such a way that
you fan the flames away from yourself and the wings. Perhaps you can even put
the fire out before you reach the ground. It has been done. Me for staying with
the old 'bus, every time! "
What an irony now to recall old Luf's instructions! His
machine had received a flaming bullet in the fuel tank. The same bullet
evidently cut away the thumb of his right hand as it clasped the joystick. The
next instant the little craft was but one mass of flame, from which there was
no means of escape.
Leaving instructions to send the body to the American
Hospital near our aerodrome, we returned to our field. There we learned one or
two climaxes to Lufbery's combat and death.
Captain DeRode, the Commanding Officer of a French
escadrille near by, met us and stated that one of his pilots, in fact his
leading Ace, had witnessed the death of Lufbery and had immediately taken up
the pursuit of the Albatros to revenge him. At the first attack he too was shot
through the heart and fell immediately. His machine had crashed but a mile or
two from the spot where Luf had fallen. But the German machine was finally shot
down by another French machine, and it fell a mile inside our lines, where both
pilot and observer were captured.
Upon inquiring for Doug Campbell, we then learned he too had
gone up to seek revenge for Major Lufbery's death. An hour later he returned
and reported that the Albatros had secured too great a start for him, but that
he had encountered a two-seater Rumpler, over Beaumont and after a brisk combat
he had killed the rear gunner and wounded the pilot. The machine fell within
our lines, both wings having been torn off in its rapid descent without
Stoically receiving our congratulations, Douglas assured us
that this Rumpler was but one of many that the Huns would give us in the
attempt to pay for the loss of Raoul Lufbery. And well has Douglas Campbell
kept his promise!
His brother came to lunch with us that day. Doug had
expected him. His brother was an officer in a corps of engineers which was
stationed but a short distance away, at Gondrecourt, and Douglas had invited
him over to mess with us on this particular day.
As soon as he arrived, Lieutenant Campbell informed Douglas
that it was very gallant of him to go up and shoot down an enemy aeroplane
before his very eyes on this day of his luncheon party. He said he would like
to drive over and see what the wreck of the German aeroplane looked like after
falling 16,000 feet. So immediately after lunch Major Huffer took the two
Campbells and myself in his car and we crawled up to the front and parked the
car in some woods as near to Beaumont as we could get. Our own big guns were
well behind us, sending their long whining shells over our heads about ten
We walked forward half a mile with due caution, and finally
came to the spot where Douglas Campbell's victims lay. Two or three French
poilus had been placed on guard over the wreckage by the French Colonel in
charge of this sector. The wings lay several hundred feet away from the
We collected some souvenirs of Doug's victory and made our
way homeward. It was rare enough that an aviator ever set eyes upon any part of
the machine he had shot down. Usually the enemy machine fell far within the
German lines, for the German policy was to fight only above their own
territory. If we were ever fortunate enough to catch a Boche inside our lines
and down him there the last scrap of his machine was carried away by the men in
the trenches or by the lorry drivers, who, happened to be in the vicinity, long
before the victorious pilot appeared upon the scene. As we reached home with
our enemy souvenirs we were again faced with the sorrowful realization that old
Luf would never more sit in the group around our cheerful mess table.
It was on the following day, May 20th, that the last remains
of our beloved hero was to be laid away in our little "Airman's Cemetery."
Already the little plot bore this name, and quite half a dozen of our fellows
lay side by side in this foreign clay, so far distant from the land and dear
ones they loved. They were now to be joined by one whom all France and America
considered preeminent in aviation.
General Gerard, Commander of the Sixth Army, arrived with
his entire staff at one o'clock. General Liggett, commanding the 26th Division,
came with Colonel William Mitchell, commanding the Air Forces of America. All
bore with them quantities of beautiful flowers. Hundreds of officers from all
branches of the service came to pay their last act of respect to the memory of
America's most famous aviator.
I watched the great assemblage gather. Their flowers covered
the casque of the dead airman and formed a huge pyramid beside it. At
one-thirty I hurried back to the aerodrome. I had one last flight to make in
conjunction with my comrade of so many patrols..
The pilots of Flight No. 1 were strapped in seats and
awaiting me. Our mechanics silently handed us our baskets of flowers. Leaving
the field in flight formation we circled over the hospital plot until five
minutes to two. The last of the procession had passed up the short stretch of
road and the aviators' last resting place was filled with Lufbery's friends.
I flew my formation twice across the mass of uncovered heads
below, then glided with closed engine down to fifty feet above the open grave.
As his body was being slowly lowered I dropped my flowers, every pilot behind
me following in my wake one by one. Returning then to our vacant aerodrome we
sorrowfully faced the realization that America's greatest aviator and Ace of
Aces had been laid away for his last rest.
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