ON the afternoon of October 10th the 94th Squadron received
orders to destroy two very bothersome enemy balloons, one of which was located
at Dun-sur-Meuse, the other at Aincreville. The time for this attack was fixed
for us at 3.50 P. M. sharp. A formation of defending planes from 147 Squadron
was directed to cover our left wing while a similar formation from the 27th was
given the same position on our right. I was placed in command of the expedition
and was to arrange all minor details.
Selecting Lieutenants Coolidge and Chambers to act as the
balloon executioners, I sent orders to all the pilots who were to accompany our
secret raid to assemble their formation at 3,000 feet above Montfaucon at 3.40
o'clock precisely. Then with Coolidge and Chambers ahead of us, the united
force would proceed first to the Dun balloon, where we would protect the two
Strafers against Hun aeroplanes while they went in to attack their objective.
Then, after destroying the first, if circumstances permitted, we should proceed
on to Aincreville, destroy that balloon and beat a retreat straight for home.
If Coolidge and Chambers encountered any hostile aircraft they were instructed
to avoid fighting, but retire immediately to the protection of our formation.
A clear afternoon made it certain that the Boche machines
would be thick about us. According to our Secret Intelligence Reports the enemy
had here concentrated the heaviest air force against the Americans that had
ever been gathered together since the war began. Both the Richthofen Circus and
the Loezer Circus were now opposed to us and we had almost daily seen the
well-known red noses of the one and the yellow-bellied fusilages of the other.
Also we had distinguished the Checker-Board design of the No. 3 Jagstaffel and
the new scout machines which the Huns had but lately sent to the frontthe
Sieman-Schuckard, which was driven by a four-bladed propeller and which had a
much faster climb than had the Spad. Further reports which came to us stated
that the new Fokkers now arriving at the front had four instead of two guns
mounted forward, two as of yore fastened along the engine top and two others
attached to the top wing. Personally I have never seen one of these " Roman
Candle " affairs which so startled several pilots who reported having fights
with them. They may have been in use along our front, of course, but I have
never met one nor seen a pilot who was certain that he had met one. It was said
that when all four guns began firing their tracer bullets at an enemy machine,
the exhibition resembled the setting off of Fourth of July Roman Candles, so
continuous a stream of tracer bullets issued from the nozzles of the four
This heavy consolidation of enemy aircraft along our front
was necessary to the Germans for two reasons. The retreating Hun infantry must
hold the Meuse front until they had time to withdraw their troops from Belgium
and the north or the latter would be cut off; secondly, the allied bombing
squadrons which were now terrifying the Rhine towns were all located along this
front and must be prevented from destroying those Prussian cities so dear to
the heart of the Hun. General Trenchard of the British Independent Air Force
proved he was right when he demonstrated that his bombing of enemy cities would
necessarily withdraw from the battle front much of the enemy's air strength to
defend those helpless cities against such attacks.
So it is not necessarily to be believed that Germany was
actually in such fright over the appearance of the American airmen that she
straightway sent all her best aviators to the Verdun region to oppose us. She
really had quite other objects in view. But such a move nevertheless resulted
in filling the skies opposite us with the best fighting airmen in the German
service. It promised to be a busy month for us.
Fourteen of my Spads then left the ground on October 10th at
3.30 in the afternoon, with eight of 147's machines and seven of those from 27
Squadron taking their places on the right and left of us as arranged. I pushed
my Spad No. 1 up several thousand feet above the flotilla to watch their
progress over the lines from a superior altitude. The enormous formation below
me resembled a huge crawling beetle, Coolidge and Chambers flying in exact
position ahead of them to form the stingers. Thus arranged we proceeded swiftly
northwest in the direction of Dun-sur-Meuse.
We arrived over the lines to be welcomed by an outlandish
exhibition of Archy's fury, but despite the large target we made no damage was
received and none of our Spads turned back. Reaching a quieter region inside
German territory I looked about me. There indeed was our Dun balloon floating
tranquilly in the sunshine. It was 3.40 by my watch. We had ten minutes to
maneuver for position and reach our objective. I looked down at my convoy and
found that 147's Formation at the left had separated themselves somewhat widely
from the others. Then studying the distant horizon I detected a number of
specks in the sky, which soon resolved themselves into a group of eleven
Fokkers flying in beautiful formation and evidently just risen from their
aerodrome at Stenay, a dozen miles beyond Dun. They were approaching from the
west and must reach the detached formation of 147's pilots before the rest of
my flight could reach them, unless they immediately closed up. I dived down to
dip them a signal.
On my way down I glanced around me and saw approaching us
from Metz in quite the opposite direction another formation of eight Fokkers.
Certainly the Huns had wonderful methods of information which enabled them to
bring to a threatened point this speedy relief. While I debated an instant as
to which danger was the most pressing I looked below and discovered that the
enemy balloon men were already engaged in pulling down their observation
balloon, which was the object of our attack back of Dun-sur-Meuse. So they
suspected the purpose of our little expedition! It lacked yet a minute or two
of the time set for our dash at the balloon and as I viewed the situation it
would not be wise for Coolidge and Chambers to take their departure from our
formation until we had disposed of the advancing Fokkers from the west.
Accordingly I kept my altitude and set my machine towards the rear of the
Stenay Fokkers, which I immediately observed wore the red noses of the von
Richthofen Circus. They were heading in at the 147 Formation which was still
separated almost a mile away from our other Spads. Lieutenant Wilbur White of
New York was leading No. 147's pilots. He would have to bear the brunt of the
Evidently the Fokker leader scorned to take notice of me, as
his scouts passed under me and plunged ahead towards White's formation. I let
them pass, dipped over sharply and with accumulated speed bore down upon the
tail of the last man in the Fokker formation. It was an easy shot and I could
not have missed. I was agreeably surprised, however, to see that my first shots
had set fire to the Hun's fuel tank and that the machine was doomed. I was
almost equally gratified the next second to see the German pilot level off his
blazing machine and with a sudden leap overboard into space let the Fokker
slide safely away without him. Attached to his back and sides was a rope which
immediately pulled a dainty parachute from the bottom of his seat. The umbrella
opened within a fifty foot drop and settled him gradually to earth within his
I was sorry I had no time to watch his spectacular descent.
I truly wished him all the luck in the world. It is not a pleasure to see a
burning aeroplane descending to earth bearing with it a human being who is
being tortured to death. Not unmixed with my relief in witnessing his safe jump
was the wonder as to why the Huns had all these humane contrivances and why our
own country could not at least copy them to save American pilots from being
burned to a crisp!
I turned from this extraordinary spectacle in midair to
witness another which in all my life at the front I have never seen equaled in
horror and awfulness. The picture of it has haunted my dreams during many
Upon seeing that my man was hit I had immediately turned up
to retain my superiority in height over the other Huns. Now as I came about and
saw the German pilot leap overboard with his parachute I saw that a general
fight was on between the remaining ten Fokkers and the eight Spads of 147
Squadron. The Fokker leader had taken on the rear Spad in White's Formation
when White turned and saw him coming. Like a flash White zoomed up into a half
turn, executed a renversement and came back at the Hun leader to protect his
pilot from a certain death. White was one of the finest pilots and best air
fighters in our group. He had won seven victories in combat. His pilots loved
him and considered him a great leader, which he most assuredly was. White's
maneuver occupied but an instant. He came out of his swoop and made a direct
plunge for the enemy machine, which was just getting in line on the rear Spad's
tail. Without firing a shot the heroic White rammed the Fokker head on while
the two machines were approaching each other at the rate of 230 miles per hour!
It was a horrible yet thrilling sight. The two machines
actually telescoped each other, so violent was the impact. Wings went through
wings and at first glance both the Fokker and Spad seemed to disintegrate.
Fragments filled the air for a moment, then the two broken fusilages, bound
together by the terrific collision fell swiftly down and landed in one heap on
the bank of the Meuse!
For sheer nerve and bravery I believe this heroic feat was
never surpassed. No national honor too great could compensate the family of
Lieutenant White for this sacrifice for his comrade pilot and his unparalleled
example of heroism to his Squadron. For the most pitiable feature of Lieutenant
White's self-sacrifice was the fact that this was his last flight over the
lines before he was to leave for the United States on a visit to his wife and
two small children. Not many pilots enter the service with loved ones so close
This extraordinary disaster ended the day's fighting for the
Hun airmen. No doubt they valued their own leader as much as we did Lieutenant
White, or perhaps they got a severe attack of " wind-up " at witnessing the new
method of American attack. At any rate they withdrew and we immediately turned
our attention to the fight which was now in progress between the Spads of 27
Squadron at our right and the Hun formation from Metz. It looked like a famous
As I came about and headed for the mixup I glanced below me
at Dun and was amazed to see one of our Spads piquing upon the nested balloon
through a hurricane of flaming projectiles. A " flaming onion " had pierced his
wings and they were now ablaze. To add to his predicament, a Hun machine was
behind his tail, firing as he dived. I diverted my course and started down to
his rescue, but it was too late. The fire in his wings was fanned by the wind
and made such progress that he was compelled to land in German territory, not
far from the site of the balloon. In the meantime other things were happening
so rapidly that I had little opportunity to look about me. For even as I
started down to help this balloon strafer I saw another Spad passing me with
two Fokkers on his tail, filling his fusilage with tracer bullets as the
procession went by. A first glance had identified the occupant of the Spad as
my old protege the famous Jimmy Meissner! For the third time since we had
been flying together Providence had sent me along just in the nick of time to
get Jimmy out of trouble. Twice before on the old Nieuports Jimmy had torn off
his wings in too sudden a flip and his unscrupulous antagonists had been about
to murder him as he wobbled along, when I happened by. Now, after a four
months' interlude Jimmy comes sailing by again, smiling and good-natured as
ever, with two ugly brutes on his tail trying their best to execute him.
I quickly tacked onto the procession, settling my sights
into the rear machine and letting go a long burst as I came within range. The
Hun fell off and dropped down out of control, the other Fokker immediately
pulling away and diving steeply for home and safety.
Two other Fokkers fell in that dog-fight, neither of which I
happened to see. Both Coolidge and Chambers, though they had been cheated of
their balloon, brought down a Fokker apiece, which victories were later
confirmed. The Spad which had dropped down into German hands after being set
afire by the flaming onions belonged to Lieutenant Brotherton, like White and
Meissner, a member of the 147th Squadron. Four more victories were thus added
to 94's score by this afternoon's work. We did not get the balloons but we had
done the best we could. I was never in favor of attacking observation balloons
in full daylight and this day's experience the aroused suspicions of the
observers, the pulling down of the balloon as strong aeroplane assistance at
the same time arrived, and the fate of Lieutenant Brotherton, who tried
unsuccessfully to pass through the defensive barrage is a fair
illustration, I believe, of the difficulties attending such daylight strafings.
Just at dawn or just at dusk is the ideal time for surprising the Drachen.
Our captured Hanover machine, it will be recalled, had been
brought back to our aerodrome and by now was in good condition to fly. We left
the Hun Maltese Cross and all their markings exactly as we found them and after
telephoning about to the various American aerodromes in our vicinity that they
must not practise target shooting at a certain Hanover aeroplane that they
might encounter while wandering over our part of the country, we took the
machine up to see how it flew. The Hanover was a staunch heavy craft and had a
speed of about one hundred miles an hour when two men (a pilot and an observer)
were carried. She handled well and was able to slow down to a very comfortable
speed at landing. Many of us took her up for a short flip and landed again
Then it became a popular custom to let some pilot get aloft
in her and as he began to clear the ground half a dozen of us in Spads would
rise after him and practise piquing down as if in an attack. The Hanover pilot
would twist and turn and endeavor to do his best to outmaneuver the encircling
Spads. Of course, the lighter fighting machines always had the best of these
mock battles, but the experience was good for all of us, both in estimating the
extent of the maneuverability of the enemy two-seaters and in the testing of
our relative speeds and climbings.
While engaged in one of these mock combats over our field
one afternoon we came down to find Captain Cooper, the official Movie Picture
expert, standing below watching us. He had his camera with him and had been
attempting to grind out some movie films while we were flying overhead. He
spent the night with us and after some planning of the scenario we decided to
take him up in the rear seat of a Liberty aeroplane and let him catch with his
camera a real movie of an aeroplane combat in mid-air. All the details
carefully arranged, we gathered next morning on the field, put him in the rear
seat of the Liberty and helped him strap in his camera so that the pressure of
the wind would not carry it overboard. Jimmy Meissner was to be his pilot.
Jimmy climbed in the front seat, warmed up his motor and when everything was
ready and we other " actors " were sitting in our seats waiting for him to get
away, Jimmy gave the signal, opened up his motor and began to taxi over the
grass. Several hundred feet down the field he turned back, facing the wind,
which was blowing from the west. Here he prepared for his real take-off. His
machine rushed along with ever quickening speed until the tail lifted, the
wheels next skimmed the ground and the Liberty rose gradually into the air.
Just as they approached the road which skirts the west side of the aerodrome,
the Liberty's engine stopped. A line of wires ran along the roadside some
fifteen feet above ground. Jimmy saw them and attempted to zoom over them
but in vain. The Liberty crashed full in the middle of the highway,
bounded up a dozen feet and after a half somersault, stuck her nose in the
ground the other side of the road and came to a rest.
We hurried over, expecting to find the occupants badly
injured, as the Liberty herself appeared to be a total wreck. But out stepped
Jimmy and Captain Cooper, neither of them the worse for their experience. And
to complete our surprise, the camera, although covered with the debris of the
machine, was quite unhurt!
That ended our little movie show for this day. We had no
other two-seater machine on hand. But we were delighted to find that Captain
Cooper, in spite of his narrow escape, was quite determined to go through with
the show. So we went to the Supply Station for another machine and again put
the Captain up for the night while awaiting its coming.
Next day, October 19th, I was directed to appear before
General Patrick at Souilly to receive the American decoration, the
Distinguished Service Cross, with four oak leaves. These oak leaves
represent-the number of citations in Army Orders that the wearer of a
decoration has received.
The usual formalities, which I have already described,
attended the ceremony. Over twenty pilots of the American Air Service were
presented with the D. S. C. by General Patrick, after which the military band
played the National Anthem while we all stood at attention.
I could not help thinking of the absent pilots whose names
were being read out but who did not answer, and for whom decorations were
waiting for deeds of heroism that had ended with their death. There was White,
for whom the whole Group mourned. What a puny recognition was a simple ribbon
for heroism such as his! There was Luke the most intrepid air- fighter
that ever sat in an aeroplane. What possible honor could be given him by his
country that would accord him the distinction he deserved!
One thing was certain. The reputation of these great
American airmen would live as long as the comrades who knew them survived.
Perhaps none of us would ever live to see our homeland again. I glanced down
the line of honor men who were standing immobile in their tracks, listening to
the last notes of " The Star Spangled Banner "! Who will be the next to go, I
wondered, knowing only too well that with every fresh honor that was conferred
came a corresponding degree of responsibility and obligation to continue to
serve comrade and country so long as life endured.
LAST CHAPTER °
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