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Rickenbacker: Fighting the Flying Circus
Chapter 29 - A Night Mission


AVIATORS are conscious of an antagonistic feeling towards them in the minds of the infantrymen in the trenches who, covered with mud and trench insects, frequently overworked and underslept and always facing imminent death from enemy's bullets, find an ironic pleasure in contrasting their hard lot with the life of ease and excitement led by the young officers of the flying corps.

To see an aeroplane cavorting about over their heads fills them with bitterness at the thought that these well dressed men are getting paid for that pleasant sport, while they are forced to work like beasts of burden in the rain. Infantry officers have told me that rarely have they seen an American aeroplane over them when it was needed to chase away enemy machines, and that Huns repeatedly came over them at low altitudes strafing the troops with machine-gun fire, to their great injury and demoralization.

It is not difficult to understand this bitterness under the circumstances. Much of this feeling might be cleared away, however, if the infantrymen realized that while enemy machines are strafing them, our airmen are retaliating probably twofold upon the enemy troops beyond the lines. Every day our machines were engaged in this hazardous work of trench strafing. Much of the success of our infantry advances was due to the cooperation of our air forces behind the front and beyond the vision of our doughboys in the trenches. Admitting as they do the disastrous effect of aeroplane attacks upon their own lines, they can easily imagine how terrified their enemy infantrymen became at the daily appearance of our fighting planes in their midst.

As to the comparative risks of injury in these two arms of warfare, I believe even the most skeptical doughboy would admit after reflection that an airman's daily duties surround him every moment with the possibilities of death. Comfort and dress, entertainments and good food are all in our favor, of course. But I have yet to meet a pilot of any nation at war who does not try to balance this advantage with a whole-souled admiration and praise of his less fortunate brother-in-arms, who does so much more than his share of the " dirty work."

Much of this jealousy and misunderstanding is due to the fact that the man on the ground can never see and never know anything of the things the airman is doing for him. It is a pity that such must be the case, for, while rivalry between different branches of the Army may be beneficial, bitterness is not.

While sitting at dinner about sundown on the evening of September 30th, discussing the latest victory claimed that afternoon by Lieutenant Kaye and Lieutenant Reed Chambers who had destroyed a Fokker aeroplane over Romaigne, an orderly brought me a note from the C.O. of the Group, requesting me to select two volunteers for a most important mission and report at Headquarters with them forthwith. It was then 6:30 and quite dark.

We were naturally excited at this sudden summons and I wondered what extraordinary necessity called for aeroplanes at this late hour. I selected Ham Coolidge and Wierd Cook out of the men who volunteered for this unknown mission, and setting off with our flying kit in our hands we hastened over to Major Hartney's office.

There to our great surprise we found General Mitchell impatiently pacing the floor while awaiting our coming. He immediately welcomed us and began at once to explain the object of our hurried summons.

Our troops were at that time engaged in the attack on Montfaucon and were advancing up the ten-mile valley that runs between the edge of the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. Montfaucon occupied the crest of the loftiest hill in this valley and was situated almost in its exact center. From this favorable spot the Crown Prince of Germany had viewed the battles for Verdun and the country to the south during those fierce days of 1916. Later I visited the massive headquarters of the Crown Prince and marveled at the extensive view of the surrounding landscape one obtained from this site.

For four days our doughboys had flung themselves courageously upon the well prepared defenses of the enemy along this valley. Costly gains were made and valuable territory was slowly yielded to our victorious troops by the Germans. Between the old line and the new line from Grand Pre to the Meuse two different American Divisions named the defile through which they had separately fought, " Death " Valley. From their superior heights beyond the Meuse the enemy artillery swept their roads with a pitiless hail of shrapnel. An occasional rush was made by isolated regiments of our men, which gained them the shelter of intervening hills. And thus just under the crest of Montfaucon our aeroplanes had discovered a body of several thousand American doughboys who had been marooned for thirty-six hours, entirely without food or ammunition, except the small supply they had carried in with them. A thick curtain artillery fire had been placed behind them by the enemy, cutting all the roads in several places and rendering even a retreat difficult.

Major Hartney had already discussed with our Group Captains the advisability of carrying food to these troops by aeroplane on the morrow. The Army Headquarters expected confidently that they would be able to break through to the relief of these starving troops during the night. If this failed we should devote ourselves to their victualing by aeroplane, beginning at daybreak.

And now General Mitchell had motored over to impart to us some startling news. The Army Intelligence Bureau had reported that eleven troop trains had left Metz at noon carrying to the Montfaucon front the famous Prussian Guard for an attack upon our entrapped doughboys. Immediate confirmation of this fact was desired, and late as it was, aeroplanes were the only means of obtaining this confirmation and they must be sent. Owing to the darkness the flight would be an extremely hazardous one and only experienced pilots should be permitted to go. The searchlight would throw its beam up into the night during the entire time we were away and we should be able to see its signal for many miles within Germany. It was imperative that the aviators should know the location of all the railway lines leading to the front from Metz and likewise necessary that they should succeed with their mission and return safely with the desired information. He would not order any individual to go, but would be pleased to have two volunteers.

I replied that every man in the 94th Squadron was anxious to go. I had selected Coolidge and Cook as two of my best men and both were not only familiar with the enemy railroad lines but could find their way home if anybody could.

" Very well," said the General. " Strike the main railroad line on the Meuse, follow it up as far as Stenay and from there go to Montmedy and on to Metz. Note carefully every moving thing on that route if you have to fly as low as the treetops. Locate the time and the place of every train, how many cars it has, which way it is headed and the nature of its load, if you can. I will wait here until you return."

Three would be better than two, I thought to myself as I accompanied Cook and Coolidge out to their machines. I saw them off and then ordered the mechanics to run out my Spad. A few minutes later I taxied down the field, turned and headed for our row of signal lights. The motor roared as I opened up my throttle and sped swiftly back for a take-off. The tail lifted, the wheels skimmed the ground, then cleared it, and slightly elevating the controls I saw the ground lights disappearing under my lower wing.

Above all was blackness. Away to the north fitful flashes of fire dotted the ground. Over my head our aerodrome searchlight cut a yellow slice of ever widening sky, until it lost itself among the stars. Several other searchlights were also playing about the heavens. I noted carefully the angle ours made with the horizon so that I should recognize it from any distance.

" How are those boys faring to-night, I wonder?" thought I to myself as I flew at a 500 foot level over the marooned doughboys' heads. For I had left Verdun to my right and was on a route straight over Montfaucon. I must have passed over the marching thousands who were advancing under cover of the night to get a favorable position for the next day's work. On the roads below me I saw occasional lights where bridges were being stealthily repaired and shell-holes refilled with earth and rock by our engineers. So congested were these roads and so badly torn by the enemy's fire that our supplies could not be brought up fast enough to keep our front line going. Our own artillery was well advanced but had no shells to fire! Even during the pauses in the enemy's barrage no food could be taken to those regiments that were cut off, because the roads had been almost obliterated by the bursting shells of the enemy.

Later on I heard of the herculean efforts made by our Engineer Corps to repair these roads by night. Enlisted men were sent up from miles behind the lines to assist in this emergency. Even one elderly Colonel, who happened along and discovered the situation, took the post of an able-bodied Military policeman and ordered the younger man to work on the roads. And all through the night the German shells continued to drop in their midst, undoing their frantic construction and killing many of the workers in the process.

Against this point the Prussian Guards were coming for an attack! I wondered how Headquarters got that information and how the Huns knew we were in such a bad situation in Death Valley! Aeroplanes, probably, had brought the information to both sides. Grimly I assured myself that aeroplanes would prevent some of the Prussians from ever reaching their objective, if we should discover their coming this night.

Turning east I soon discerned the Meuse River shining in the starlight, and following its course at three or four hundred feet above its surface I flew on deeper and deeper into hostile territory. Barring motor failure, I had little to fear. No enemy searchlights appeared ahead of me and so far as I know not a bullet was fired at me. There is a distinctive sound to the Hispano-Suiza motor that should have betrayed its nationality to any attentive Hun ear familiar with aeroplane engines, but despite this fact and the low altitude at which I was compelled to fly to find my way, my passing seemed to arouse no interest. Soon I passed the wide lagoons of Mouzay and realized that I was almost forty miles behind our lines. And there between me and the next town of Stenay I saw the glare of an engine box on the tracks ahead of me. Dropping still lower down, I prepared to count the coaches as they passed under me when I discovered it was only a short freight train which was proceeding away from the front instead of towards it. Paying no further attention to its progress, I continued along over the tracks until I reached the station at Stenay. Back and forth over the sidings and switches I flew, one eye upon the dusky ground and one in the direction of the enemy aerodrome which I well knew occupied the hilltop just east of the town. No unusual aggregation of railroad cars were on the tracks and no activity whatever in railroad circles appeared doing in Stenay this night. Picking up the main line to Montmedy, I cast one more glance behind me at the Fokker aerodrome and faded away into the night unpursued.

Over Montmedy ten minutes later I found one train going towards Stenay and one towards Metz, but neither was a troop train. No other coaches whatever occupied the sidings. I began to think that Intelligence Bureaus might sometimes be mistaken, and in spite of myself I felt a little disappointed. For I had an extra supply of machine-gun ammunition with me and had pictured to myself the amount of damage one small aeroplane might do to the gentlemen of the Prussian Guard inside the windows of their troop trains. All the way along the main line from Montmedy to Metz I hoped rather than feared that I would meet the expected guests of the evening. But I was doomed to disappointment. The nearer to Metz I got the more I realized that if their trains had left Metz at noon, as advertised, they must certainly have reached or passed Montmedy by now. I was absolutely positive that not a single coach had slipped under me unnoticed, for most of the way along I had flown scarcely high enough to clear the telegraph wires that occasionally crossed the tracks.

Glancing at my compass I swung off to the right and left the tracks. It was quite evident that the Prussian Guards scare was a false alarm. In five minutes I should be over Verdun.

Ten minutes passed — and then twenty, and still no Verdun. If I had been misled by my compass and had kept too far to the west — even so I should have crossed the Meuse long ago. I leaned over and shook the compass. It whirled a few times, then settled itself in exactly the opposite direction! Again I shook it and again it pointed to a new direction. Never have I seen a compass — except those captured from Boche machines — that even pretended to disclose the direction of north! Mingled with my rage was a fear that was getting almost panicky. I searched the horizon for our searchlight but not one was in sight. Thinking I might be in ground mist I rose higher and circling about scanned the horizon and blackness below. Not even the flash of a gun that might direct me to the battlefront was visible!

Three-quarters of an hour of gasoline remained to me. And a much over-rated sense of direction — and no compass. Then I thought of the north star! Glory be! There she shines! I had been going west instead of south and would have had two hundred miles or so of fast flying before striking the British lines near Ypres on my present course. Keeping the star behind my rudder I flew south for fifteen minutes, then dropping down, almost immediately found myself above a bend in a stream of water that resembled a familiar spot in the River Mouse. With a sudden return of self-confidence I followed the river until I struck Verdun — picked up our faithful searchlight and ten minutes later I landed safely below the row of lights that marked the edge of our aerodrome.

My mechanics assured me that both Coolidge and Cook had returned. Hastening to the operations office I made my report that no Hun trains were coming our way, which General Mitchell received with a simple, " Thank God! " The next day our advancing troops caught up with the marooned doughboys and sent them for a much deserved rest to the rear.

As I walked across the field to my bed I looked up and recognized my friend the North Star shining in my face. I raised my cap and waved her a salute and repeated most fervently, " Thank God! "

On the following day, which was October 1st, a large formation of 94 pilots crossed the lines and cruised about for nearly two hours in German lines without a fight. We scared up one covey of Fokkers, but were unable to get them within range.

Changing machines, I went back alone late in the afternoon and hung about the lines until it began to grow dusk. I had spotted a German balloon down on the ground back of the Three-Fingered Lake and was convinced that it would be inadequately guarded since it was not doing duty and was supposed to be hidden from view. Sure enough, when I arrived at its hiding place I found no anti-aircraft gunners there to molest me. It was too easy a job to be called a victory, for I merely poked down my nose, fired a hundred rounds or so and the job was done. The balloon caught fire without any coaxing and I calmly flew on my way homewards without molestation.

Without molestation, that is, from the enemy. I turned back across our lines at Vigneulles and there on our own side of the trenches I met the attention of two searchlights and a furious barrage of flaming projectiles from our own guns. The latter all passed well behind my tail, as I could see them plainly leaving the ground and could trace their entire progress in my direction. The American gunners had not had the long experience of the Hun Archy experts and I saw at a glance that they were all aiming directly at my machine instead of the proper distance ahead of me. Their aim was so bad that I did not even feel indignant at their over-zealousness. Later I learned that this area was forbidden to our aeroplanes and the gunners there had been ordered to shoot at everything that passed overhead after dark.

My successful expedition against the balloon was known at the aerodrome when I arrived. The glare of its fire had been seen on the field and later telephonic reports from our observing posts duly confirmed its destruction.

That night around the mess one of the boys read aloud from the Paris Herald that the British Independent Air Force had sent a large formation of planes over Cologne-on-the-Rhine the night before and had dropped hundreds of heavy bombs into the city. Jimmy Meissner, the Captain of 147 Squadron was with us, paying a visit to the old Squadron that he has always considered his own. Jimmy appeared to be pondering deeply over the reading of this particular news. When it was finished he exclaimed: —

"Gee Whiz! I hope they didn't kill my aunt! She lives in Cologne! "

For a moment everybody looked at Jimmy in astonishment. Then we roared with laughter. Jimmy Meissner, with his German name and his aunt in Cologne, had shot down eight enemy aeroplanes! How many such anomalies must have amused our mess halls now that American soldiers of German ancestry found themselves fighting against the former fatherland of their grandfathers.


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