Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 1
AIR SERVICE BOYS OVER
"Here they come back, Tom!"
"Yes, I see them coming. Can you count them yet? Don't tell me any of our boys are missing!" and the speaker, one of two young men, wearing the uniform of the Lafayette Escadrille, who were standing near the hangars of the aviation field "somewhere in France," gazed earnestly up toward the blue sky that was dotted with fleecy, white clouds.
There were other dots also, dots which meant much to the trained eyes of Tom Raymond and Jack Parmly, for the dots increased in size, like oncoming birds. But they were not birds. Or rather, they were human birds.
The specks in the sky were Caudrons. A small aerial fleet was returning from a night raid over the German ammunition dumps and troop centers, and the anxiety of the watching young men was as to whether or not all the airmen, among whom were numbered some of Uncle Sam's boys, had returned in safety. Too many times they did not—that is not all—for the Hun anti-aircraft guns found their marks with deadly precision at times.
The Caudrons appeared larger as they neared the landing field, and Tom and Jack, raising their binoculars, scanned the ranks—for all the world like a flock of wild geese—to see if they could determine who of their friends, if any, were missing.
"How do you make it, Tom?" asked Jack, after an anxious pause.
"I'm not sure, but I can count only eight."
"That's what I make it. And ten of 'em went out last night, didn't they?"
"So I heard. And if only eight come back it means that at least four of our airmen have either been killed or captured."
"One fate is almost as bad as the other, where you have to be captured by the Boches," murmured Jack. "They're just what their name indicates—beasts!"
"You said something!" came heartily from Tom. "And yet, to the credit of airmen in general, let it be said that the German aviators treat their fellow prisoners better than the Hun infantrymen do."
"So I've heard. Well, here's hoping neither of us, nor any more of our friends, falls over the German lines. But look, Tom!" and Jack pointed excitedly. "Are my eyes seeing things, or is that another Caudron looming up there, the last in the line? Take a look and tell me. I don't want to hope too much, yet maybe we have lost only one, and not two."
Tom changed the focus of his powerful glasses slightly and peered in the direction indicated by his chum. Then he remarked, with the binoculars still at his eyes:
"Yes, that's another of our machines! But she's coming in slowly. Must have been hit a couple of times."
"She's lucky, then, to get back at all. But let's go over and hear what the news is. I hope they blew up a lot of the Huns last night."
The aircraft were near enough now for the throbbing of their big motors to be heard, and Tom and Jack, each an officer now because of gallant work, hurried across the landing field.
It was early morning, and they had come, after a night's rest, to report for duty with others of the brave Americans who, during the neutrality of this country in the great conflict, went to France as individuals, some to serve as ambulance drivers, others to become aviators.
The Caudron is the name given to one type of heavy French aeroplane carrying two or more persons and tons of explosive bombs.
An air raid on the German lines by a fleet of these machines had been planned. It had been timed for an early hour of the night, but a mist coming up just as the squadron of heavy machines, each with two men and a ton or more of explosives, was ready to set out, the hour had been changed. So it was not until after midnight that the start had been made.
And now the boys were coming back—that is all who were able to return. One machine was missing. At least, that was the assumption of Tom and Jack, for they could count but nine where there should have been ten. And of the nine one was coming back so slowly as to indicate trouble.
One by one the machines, which ordinarily came back before daybreak, landed, and the pilot and the observer of each climbed clumsily down from their cramped seats. They were stiff with cold, in spite of the fur-lined garments they wore—garments that turned them, for the moment, into animated Teddy bears, or the likeness of Eskimos.
Their faces were worn and haggard, for the strain of an airship bombing raid is terrific. But they were quiet and self-possessed as they walked stiffly across the field to make a report.
"Any luck?" asked Tom, of one he knew; a Frenchman noted for his skill and daring.
"The best, mon ami," he replied with a smile—a weary smile. "We gave Fritz a dose of bitter medicine last night."
"And he gave us a little in return," sadly added his companion. "Quarre and Blas—" he shrugged his shoulders, and Tom and Jack knew what it meant.
They were the men in the missing machine, the Caudron that had not come back.
"Did you see what happened?" asked Jack.
Picard, to whom Tom had first spoken, answered briefly.
"They caught them full in the glare of a searchlight and let them have it. We saw them fall. There didn't seem to be any hope."
"But the battery that did the firing—it is no more," added De Porry, the companion of Picard. "The bombs that Quarre and Blas carried went down like lead, right on top of the Hun guns. They are no more, those guns and those who served."
"It was a retributive vengeance," murmured Picard.
Then they passed on, and others, landing, also went to make their reports.
Some of them had reached their objectives, and had dropped the bombs on the German positions in spite of the withering fire poured upward at them. Others had failed. There is always a certain percentage of failures in a night bombing raid. And some were unable to say with certainty what damage they had caused.
The last slowly flying machine came to a landing finally, and there was a rush on the part of the other aviators to see what had happened. When Tom and Jack saw a limp form being lifted out, and heard murmurs of admiration for the pilot who had brought his machine back with a crippled engine, they realized what had happened.
The two brave men had fulfilled their mission; they had released their bombs over an important German factory, and had the terrible satisfaction of seeing it go up in flames. But on their return they had been caught in a cross fire, and the observer, who was making his first trip of this kind, had been instantly killed.
The engine had been damaged, and the pilot slightly wounded, but he had stuck to his controls and had brought the machine back.
There was a little cheer for him, and a silent prayer for his brave companion, and then the night men, having made their reports, and having divested themselves of their fur garments, went to rest.
"Well, what's on the programme for to-day, Tom?" asked Jack, as they turned back toward the hangars where they had their headquarters with others of their companions in the Lafayette Escadrille and with some of the French bird-men.
"I don't know what they have on for us. We'll have to wait until the orders come in. I was wondering if we would have time to go and see if there's any mail for us."
"I think so. Let's go ask the captain."
They had, of course, reported officially when they came on duty, and now they went again to their commanding officer, to ask if they might go a short distance to the rear, where an improvised post-office had been set up for the flying men.
"Certainly, messieurs," replied the French captain, when Tom proffered the request for himself and his chum. "Go, by all means." He spoke in French, a good mastery of which had been acquired by our heroes since their advent into the great war. "Your orders have not yet arrived, but hold yourselves in readiness. Fritz is doubtless smarting under the dose we gave him last night, and he may retaliate. There is a rumor that we may go after some of his sausages, and I may need you for that."
"Does he mean our rations have gone short, and that we'll have to go collecting bolognas?" innocently asked a young American, who had lately joined.
"No," laughed Tom. "We call the German observation balloons 'sausages.' And sometimes, when they send up too many of them, to get observations and spoil our plans for an offensive, we raid them. It's difficult work, for we have to take them unawares or they'll haul them down. We generally go in a double squadron for this work. The heavy Caudrons screen the movements of the little Nieuports, and these latter, each with a single man in it, fire phosphorus bullets at the gas bags of the German sausages.
"These phosphorus bullets get red hot from the friction of the air, and set the gas envelope aglow. That starts the hydrogen gas to going and—good-night to Mr. Fritz unless he can drop in his parachute. A raid on the sausages is full of excitement, but it means a lot of preparation, for if there has any rain or dew fallen in the night the gas bags will be so damp that they can't be set on fire, and the raid is off"
"Say, you know a lot about this business, don't you?" asked the young fellow who had put the question.
"Nobody knows a lot about it," replied Jack. "Just as soon as he does he gets killed, or something happens to him. We're just learning—that's all."
"Well, I wish I knew as much," observed the other enviously.
Tom and Jack walked on toward the post-office, being in rather a hurry to see if there was any mail for them, and to get back to their stations in case their services were needed.
As they went along they were greeted by friends, of whom they had many, for they had made names for themselves, young as they were. And, as a matter of fact, nearly all the aviators are young. It takes young nerves for the work.
"Here's one letter, anyhow!" observed Tom, as he tore open a missive that was handed to him. "It's from dad, too! I hope he's all right. He must have been when he wrote this, for it's in his own hand."
"I've got one from my mother," said Jack. "They're all well," he went on, quickly scanning the epistle. "But they haven't received our last letters."
"That isn't surprising," said Tom. "The mail service is fierce. But I suppose it can't be helped. We're lucky to get these. And say!" he exclaimed excitedly, as he read on in his letter. "Here's news all right—great news!"
Jack looked at his chum. Tom's face was flushed. The news seemed to be pleasurable.
Jack was about to ask what it was, when he saw a messenger running from the telephone office. This was the main office, or, at least, one of the main offices, in that section, and official, as well as general, news was sometimes sent over the wire.
The man was waving a slip of paper over his head, and he was calling out something in French.
"What's he saying?" asked Jack.
"Something about good news," answered Tom. "I didn't get it all. Let's go over and find out. It's good news all right," he went on. "See! they're cheering."
"More news," murmured Jack. "And you have some, too?"
"I should say so! Things surely are happening this morning! Come on!" and Tom set off on a run.