ONE of the extraordinary things about life at the front is
the commonplace way in which extraordinary things happen to one. And though one
may wonder and be greatly perplexed over it, there are no intervals for giving
due thought to the matter. Thus a day or two after my last experiences, while I
was refilling my tank at Coincy preparatory to another flip over the lines, I
met two American doughboys there who told me that my brother was in camp but a
few miles north of me.
My brother had been at the front with the Signal Corps for
three or four months, and though I had repeatedly tried to find his address I
had not been able up to this time to locate him.
I immediately obtained permission to take an afternoon off;
and borrowing a motor car from one of the officers there, I set off to the
north in quest of my brother's camp.
The roads to the north had but a fortnight ago been in full
possession of the enemy troops. Signs along the way pointed out the next
village in unmistakable fashion. All were in quaint German script. The Huns had
whitewashed the most conspicuous corner at the approach to every village and
crossroads, and there upon a white background was painted in high black letters
the name of the present locality. A few yards further on was an equally glaring
sign pointing out the next point of topographical interest in every direction.
The distance in kilometres to each place was indicated with correspondingly
large numerals. Any motor driver could pick up his directions without any
slackening of speed.
The highway I was traversing led to Fere-en-Tardenois and
had been badly worn by the retreating enemy artillery and wagons. American
shells had landed at precise intervals along the line of their retreat. Hurried
replacements of surface had evidently been made by the Germans in order to
permit the continued use of this road. And now our own doughboys were busily at
work repairing these same roads, so that our own artillery might go on in
pursuit of the fleeing Boches.
As my car approached these groups of busy workers my
chauffeur blew them a long blast of warning. They withdrew to the edge of the
road and watched me pass, with an expression of mingled irony and respect. I
tried to assume the haughty mien of a Major General while under their brief
scrutiny and was beginning to feel highly pleased with myself when I suddenly
heard one of the doughboys call out,
Hullo, Rick! "
I looked around, stopping the car by simply cutting off the
spark. An undersized doughboy had dropped his shovel and was running forward to
overtake me. As he came up, I recognized him as an old friend of mine from my
" Gee Whiz! Rick," he said, " where the dickens are you
" Oh, up the road a ways to see my brother," I replied, " I
just heard he was at the next village. How are you, Bob? When did you get over
here to La Belle France? "
"'Bout a month ago. Hell of a way to come to break rock,
isn't it? Well, so long! I've got to get back on the job! "
He squeezed my hand and hurried back. I never saw him again.
As I proceeded onwards along my way, I continued to marvel
at this peculiar coincidence. For months I had been making new friends, had
been completely immersed in this new life - had seen nothing of my old friends.
And now within a single hour I had found myself bumped suddenly alongside my
own brother and against an old schoolboy friend! Within another hour we would
all be flung widely apart perhaps all three of us would be among those reported
missing. I began speculating which would be the first ! War is a funny thing.
After a very brief visit with my brother I returned home,
passing through Fere-en-Tardenois and southwards along the same roads I had so
recently traversed. Even in the short interval of my passing a marvelous amount
of work had been accomplished. Huge roadrollers were crushing down the gravel,
and several miles of the surface had been smoothed. When a people really want a
good road built they can finish it in an incredibly short space of time.
Along both sides of the highway were piled heterogeneous
masses of materials that had been abandoned by the enemy. Our salvage squads
were scouring the adjoining fields and woods, collecting and bringing to the
roadsides all the valuable articles for transportation to the rear. Other
squads were picking up the dead, searching their blood-drenched clothing for
data of identification and stretching them out in methodical rows, duly
numbering each corpse and preparing it for the last rites.
Rows upon rows of three-inch shells were stacked up within
convenient reach of the army lorries. Their willow and straw baskets, each
containing a single German shell, formed a regular row six feet high and fifty
feet long. Then came a space filled with huge twelve-inch shells all standing
upright upon their bases. Next were stacked boxes of machine-gun ammunition,
hundreds and hundreds of them, occasionally interspersed with stray boxes of
rockets, signal flares, Very lights and huge piles of rifles, of machine-guns
and of empty brass shells of various sizes. The value of an average German city
lay spread along that road all worthless to the former owners -all constructed
for the purpose of killing their fellow men!
I had an unusual experience in the air the following day. It
is worth narrating, simply to illustrate the extent to which the Flight Leader
of a squadron feels himself morally bound to go.
Six of my Spads were following me in a morning's patrol over
the enemy's lines in the vicinity of Rheims. We were well along towards the
front when we discovered a number of aeroplanes far above us and somewhat
behind our side of the lines. While we made a circle or two, all the while
steadily climbing for higher altitude, we observed the darting machines above
us exchanging shots at one another. Suddenly the fracas developed into a
Reaching a slightly higher altitude at a distance of a mile
or two to the cast of the melee, I collected my formation and headed about for
the attack. just then I noticed that one side had evidently been victorious.
Seven aeroplanes remained together in compact formation. The others had
streaked it away, each man for himself.
As we drew nearer we saw that the seven conquerors were in
fact, enemy machines. There was no doubt about it. They were Fokkers. Their
opponents, whether American, French or British, had been scattered and had
fled. The Fokkers had undoubtedly seen our approach and had very wisely decided
to keep their formation together rather than separate to pursue their former
antagonists. They were climbing to keep my squad ever a little below them,
while they decided upon their next move.
We were seven and they were seven. It was a lovely morning
with clear visibility and all my pilots, I knew, were keen for a fight. I
looked over the skies and discovered no reason why we shouldn't take them on at
any terms they might require. Accordingly I set our course a little steeper and
continued straight on towards them.
The Spad is a better climber than the Fokker. Evidently the
Boche pilots opposite us knew this fact. Suddenly the last four in their
formation left their line of flight and began to draw away in the direction of
Soissons - still climbing. The three Fokkers in front continued towards us for
another minute or two. When we were separated by less than a quarter of a mile
the three Heinies decided that they had done enough for their country, and
putting down their noses, they began a steep dive for their lines.
To follow them was so obvious a thing to do that I began at
once to speculate upon what this maneuver meant to them. The four rear Fokkers
were well away by now, but the moment we began to dive after the three ahead of
us they would doubtless be prompt to turn and select a choice position behind
our tails. Very well! We would bank upon this expectation of theirs and make
our plans accordingly!
We were at about 17,000 feet altitude. The lines were almost
directly under us. Following the three retreating Fokkers at our original
level, we soon saw them disappear well back into Germany. Now for the wily four
that were probably still climbing for altitude!
Arriving over Fismes I altered our course and pointed it
towards Soissons, and as we flew we gained an additional thousand feet. Exactly
upon the scheduled time we perceived approaching us the four Fokkers who were
now satisfied that they had us at a disadvantage and might either attack or
escape, as they desired. They were, however, at precisely the same altitude at
which we were now flying.
Wigwagging my wings as a signal for the attack, I sheered
slightly to the north of them to cut off their retreat. They either did not see
my maneuver or else they thought we were friendly aeroplanes, for they came on
dead ahead like a flock of silly geese. At two hundred yards I began firing.
Not until we were within fifty yards of each other did the
Huns show any signs of breaking. I had singled out the flight leader and had
him nicely within my sights, when he suddenly piqued downwards, the rest of his
formation immediately following him. At the same instant one of my guns-the one
having a double feed-hopelessly jammed. And after a burst of twenty shots or so
from the other gun it likewise failed me! There was no time to pull away for
Both my guns were useless. For an instant I considered the
advisability of withdrawing while I tried to free the jam. But the opportunity
was too good to lose. The pilots behind me would be thrown into some confusion
when I signalled them to carry on without me. And moreover the enemy pilots
would quickly discover my trouble and would realize that the flight leader was
out of the fight. I made up my mind to go through with the fracas without guns
and trust to luck to see the finish. The next instant we were ahead of the
quartet and were engaged in a furious dog-fight.
Every man was for himself. The Huns were excellent pilots
and seemed to be experienced fighters. Time and again I darted into a good
position behind or below a tempting target, with the sole result of compelling
the Fritz to alter his course and get out of his position of supposed danger.
If he had known I was unarmed he would have had me at his mercy. As it was I
would no sooner get into a favorable position behind him than he would double
about and the next moment I found myself compelled to look sharp to my own
In this manner the whole revolving circus went tumbling
across the heavens - always dropping lower and steadily traveling deeper into
the German lines. Two of my pilots had abandoned the scrap and turned
homewards. Engines or guns had failed them. When at last we had fought down to
3,000 feet and were some four miles behind their lines, I observed two flights
of enemy machines coming up from the rear to their rescue. We had none of us
secured a single victory - but neither had the Huns. Personally I began to feel
a great longing for home. I dashed out ahead of the foremost Spad and
frantically wigwagging him to attention I turned my little 'bus towards our
lines. With a feeling of great relief I saw that all four were following me and
that the enemy reinforcements were not in any position to dispute our progress.
On the way homeward I struggled with my jammed guns - but to
no result. Despite every precaution these weapons will fail a pilot when most
needed. I had gone through with a nerve-racking scrap, piquing upon deadly
opponents with a harmless machine. My whole safety had depended upon their not
This sort of an experience serves to bring home to an
aspiring pilot the responsibilities of the Flight Leader. I considered this
fact somewhat seriously as I flew homewards that night and later made out my
report. I wanted to be Squadron Commander, as every other pilot desires this
promotion. Yet on this day I began to have an inkling of what it meant to be
saddled with such a responsibility.
This whole period of what we called the " Chateau Thierry "
show became somewhat chaotic to me. Briefly, it lasted from July 2nd to
September 3rd, 1918. I had missed much of it in the hospital. The little flying
I had done over the lines had not been especially satisfactory. And now I began
to feel a recurrence of my ear trouble. The constant twisting of my neck in
air, turning my head from side to side to watch constantly all the points of
the compass had affected in some mysterious way my former malady. On August
18th I suffered actual agony and was unable to get out of bed.
This was a sad day for our happy mess. Two of our pilots,
one the same Lieutenant Smyth that had made so many patrols with me, the other
an equally popular fellow, Lieutenant Alexander B. Bruce, of Lawrence,
Massachusetts - these two pilots while patrolling over the enemy's lines at a
very high altitude had collided. With wings torn asunder both machines had
dropped like plummets to the distant ground below. The news came in to us while
I was in bed. I had actually just been dreaming that Smyth was up with me
fighting Fokkers. And I had dreamed that he had just been shot down in flames!
When Captain Marr came in to see how I was getting along, he
told me about this horrible catastrophe. Smyth had appealed to me in many ways.
He had told me that he had been in the French Ambulance Service since early in
the war. He had transferred to our aviation when we entered the war. His father
had died while he was with us and he had vainly attempted to get home to see
his mother in New York who was then critically ill. But mothers are not
considered by those in authority - his application was denied.
Bruce I had not known so well, as he had been with us but a
few days. But the whole frightful episode really constituted a considerable
shock to the nerves of our squadron. Lieutenant Green who bad been leader of
this formation came in a few minutes later and confirmed the sad intelligence
we had received by telephone from the French artillery battery which had
witnessed the collision in mid-air.
The fighters on the front can never understand why the
authorities back home deny them necessary arms and ammunition. We air-fighters
cannot understand why we cannot have parachutes fitted on our aeroplanes to
give the doomed pilot one possible means of escape from this terrible death.
Pilots sometimes laugh over the comic end of a comrade shot down in course of a
combat. It is a callousness made possible by the continuous horrors of war. If
he dies from an attack by an enemy it is taken as a matter of course. But to be
killed through a stupid and preventable mistake puts the matter in a very
For the past six months the German airmen had been saving
their lives by aeroplane parachutes. A parachute is a very cheap contrivance
compared to the cost of training an aviator. Lufbery and a score of other
American aviators might have been saved to their country if this matter of
aeroplane equipment had been left to experienced pilots.
During the following week Paris surgeons operated upon my
troublesome ear at the hospital. It has never bothered me since. As soon as I
was able to get about I maneuvered for my speedy return to the front; for I had
heard that the Americans were about to begin a tremendous drive on the St.
Mihiel salient, near Verdun, and that our air force would be of great
importance in its success.
And it was during this week in the Paris hospital that it
was first suggested to me that I should write a book of my experiences in the
air. I began this work then and there, and from that time on I kept a more
complete diary of my day's work. Naturally I did not know that the bulk of my
victories were to come. Nor did I know that I should ever live to receive the
command of the best Air Squadron in the American service.
One of the prizes offered by the Duchesse Tallyrand for
shooting down enemy machines had come to me. I had more victories to my credit
than any other American pilot in our service, though several American aviators
then in the French Squadrons exceeded my score. Later Frank Luke, who in my
opinion was the greatest fighting pilot in the war, passed me when he shot down
in flames thirteen balloons in six days! A record that has never been equaled
by any other pilot!
On September third I learned that 94 Squadron had moved back
to the Verdun sector. That indicated to me that plans were ripening for the St.
Mihiel offensive by the Americans. I obtained permission to leave the hospital
as cured and hastened to our Aviation Headquarters to obtain my orders to
return to the front. There I was told that General Mitchell's motorcar was in
Paris ready to be sent to his headquarters and would I care to drive it back?
The quickness of my acceptance can be imagined!
My Squadron was already at home on the famous old highway
that had saved Verdun. About fifteen miles south of Verdun at a little town
named Erize-la-Petite the aerodrome covered the crest of a hill that two years
before had been in the possession of the Germans. Number 95 Squadron was there,
together with 27 Squadron and 147 Squadron. The lines of the enemy ran south
from Verdun along the Meuse until they reached St. Mihiel, scarcely twelve
miles straight east from us. The crump - crump - of the guns was constantly in
This aerodrome, which had been constructed and used by the
French escadrilles, was now to be occupied by our little group until the end of
the war. During the coming month of September I was to win four more victories
in the air and then to be given the greatest honor that has ever come to any
pilot-the command of the Squadron that he truly believes to be the finest in
the whole world, his own !
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