Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 1
AFTER days of schooling and nights of anticipation, I woke up one morning to find my dreams come true. Major Raoul Lufbery, the most famous of our American flyers, and the Commanding Officer of our group, announced that a flight would take off after breakfast for a look at the war across the German lines. He himself was to lead the flight. The patrol was to be over enemy territory in the Champagne sector.
"Who is to go?" was the thought in every pilot's mind, as we all stood by in more or less unconcealed eagerness. None of us had as yet caught a glimpse of our future arenas. We all had vague ideas of the several kinds of surprises in store for us over Hun lines and every one of us was keen to get into it.
Major Lufbery looked us over without saying much. Luf was very quiet in manner and very droll when he wanted to be. He had seen almost four years of service with the French Air Service and in the Lafayette Escadrille and had shot down seventeen Hun aeroplanes before the American Air Service began active work at the front. Every one of us idolized Lufbery.
"Rick!" said the Major casually, "you and Campbell be ready to leave at 8.15."
I tried to appear nonchalant as I replied, "Yes, sir."
Douglas Campbell put up a much better face than I did. The other boys crowded around and presented us with good advice, such as "Look out for Archy, mind," and one thoughtful fellow kindly cautioned me to crash in our lines if the Huns got me, so that he could personally put a cross over my grave.
That memorable morning was the 6th day of March, 1918. I had joined the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron just two days before at Villeneuve. We were then some twenty miles behind the lines and were well installed on an old aerodrome that had been used previously by several French Aero Squadrons. This expedition was to be the first essay over the lines by a made-in-America Squadron.
Sharp upon eight o'clock I walked into the 94th Squadron hangar and called my mechanics. We were flying the French single-seater Nieuport with a rotary motor, and every machine was kept in the pink of condition at all times. Nevertheless I wanted to make doubly sure that everything was right on this occasion, for Major Lufbery had a reputation for punctuality.
"Henry," I demanded, "how is my Number 1?"
"Best machine in the shop, sir," the mechanic replied. "She's been all tuned up since you came in last night and there's not a scratch on her."
"There will be when you see her again," I muttered. "Run her out on the field and warm her up."
I left the hangar and looked down the road for the Major. Campbell was already in his flying clothes. I wanted to be ready on the exact minute, but not too soon. So I lit a cigarette and kept an eye on the Major's door. All the boys came sauntering up, trying to look as though they were not half mad with envy over my chance to get my head blown off first. They wished me well, they said, but they would like to know what to do with my personal effects.
When Major Lufbery entered the hangar he found us ready for him. It takes about ten seconds to step into your Teddy-Bear suit, slip a flying helmet over your head and snap on the glasses. Campbell and I climbed into our Nieuports. The Major gave a few instructions to Lieutenant Campbell, then came over to me. I felt like a man in the chair when the dentist approaches. Of course I listened politely to his parting words, but the only thing that appealed to me in his discourse was the order to stick close to him and keep formation. He did not have to repeat that order. Never before did I realize how seductively cold death beckons a pilot towards his first trip over enemy lines.
Lufbery ran up his motor for a moment, then took off. Campbell followed upon his heels and then I opened up my throttle. I cast a last, longing glance at the familiar flying field as I felt my tail go up, the wheels began to skim the ground and with the wind in my teeth I pulled her up and headed after Campbell. What a devil of a hurry they were in! I knew I should never catch up with them.
The beautiful ruins of Rheims soon spread beneath my right wing. My machine was certainly not as fast as either Lufbery's or Campbell's. I continued to hang back far behind my formation. The lines of the enemy were approaching and Lufbery, my only salvation, as it appeared to me, was at least a mile ahead of me.
I shall believe to my dying day that Major Lufbery knew my thoughts at that moment. For just as I felt that he had forgotten all about me he suddenly made a virage and took up a position a few hundred feet from me, as much as to say, "Don't worry, my boy, I have an eye on you." Again and again this occurred.
It was with great difficulty that I tried to perform the same maneuvers that Major Lufbery executed with such great ease. I grew somewhat interested with my attempts to imitate his example in preserving our little flight formation, and this occupation of keeping within shouting distance of my companions made me forget entirely that old Mother Earth was some 15,000 feet underneath me and the trenches about the same distance ahead. The bitter, numbing cold which always prevails at these high altitudes was of course by this time an old and familiar experience to me.
We had been sailing along at this dizzy height for some thirty minutes between Rheims and the Argonne Woods when it occurred to me to look below at the landscape. And such a spectacle spread itself out before my eyes when I at last did look over the side of my little office!
The trenches in this sector were quite old and had remained in practically the same position for three years of warfare. To my inexperienced view there appeared to be nothing below me but old battered trenches, trench works and billions of shell holes which had dug up the whole surface of the earth for four or five miles on either side of me. Not a tree, not a fence, no sign of any familiar occupation of mankind, nothing but a chaos of ruin and desolation. The awfulness of the thing was truly appalling.
Perhaps this feeling got the best of me for a moment. I don't know of what Campbell was thinking and I suppose Major Lufbery was far too accustomed to the situation to give a thought to it.
But just when I had gained enough equilibrium of mind to keep my place in formation and at the same time take an interest in the battlefields below me, I began to feel a terrible realization that seasickness had overcome me. A stiff wind was blowing all this time and no ship upon the high seas ever rolled and pitched more than my Baby Nieuport did this 15,000 feet above No Man's Land, while I was attempting to follow Major Lufbery's evolutions and maneuvers.
I didn't want to confess even to myself that I could get sick in the air. This was what would be expected from a brand new aviator on his first trip over the lines. It would be wonderfully amusing to Lufbery and the rest of the boys in the Squadron when I got back to the field—if I ever did—to advise me to take along a bottle of medicine next time I tried to fly. I grew cold with the thought of it. Then I set my teeth and prayed that I might fight it off. I determined to look straight ahead and fly straight ahead and to concentrate my whole mind on the task of sticking it out, no matter how I felt.
I had hardly got control of myself when I was horribly startled by an explosion which seemed only a few feet in my rear. I didn't even have time to look around, for at the same instant the concussion caught my plane and I began to roll and toss much worse than I had ever realized was possible. The very terror of my situation drove away all thoughts of sickness. In the midst of it several more shocks tipped my machine and repeated sounds of nearby explosions smote my ears. No matter what happened, I must look around to see what awful fate was overtaking me.
All that I could see were four or five black puffs of smoke some distance behind and below my tail.
I knew what they were right enough. They were "Archy"! They were eighteen-pound shells of shrapnel which were being fired at me by the Germans. And the battery which was firing them was only too well known to me. We had all been told about the most accurate battery that allied aviators had met in this sector. It was situated just outside of the town of Suippe. And there was Suippe down there just under my left wing. A mile north of Suippe as the exact location of this famous shooting battery. I looked down and picked it out quite clearly. And I knew they could see me and were seeing me much more plainly than I was seeing them. And probably they had quite a few more of those shells on hand which they were contemplating popping up at me.
I shall never forget how scared I was and how enraged I felt at the old pilots at home, who pretended to like the Archies. The latter were bursting all around me again and were terribly close and I felt a vengeful desire to get home just once more in order to take it out on those blasé pilots, who had been telling us newcomers that anti-aircraft guns were a joke and never did any damage. They used to count up the cost of each shell at five or ten dollars apiece and then figure that they had cost the German Government about a million dollars for their morning's amusement in flying over the Archy batteries, with never a hit. And I had been fool enough to believe them. Any one of those shells might happen to hit me just as well as happen to burst a hundred yards away. It was due entirely to my own good luck, and not at all to those scoffers' silly advice, that one of them hadn't hit me already. I was more indignant with the boys who had been stuffing me with their criminal wit than I was with the Boche gunners who were firing at me.
Never before did I, and never again will I quite so much appreciate the comfort of having a friend near at hand. I suddenly noticed that Major Lufbery was alongside me. Almost subconsciously I followed his maneuvers and gradually I began to realize that each maneuver he made was a direct word of encouragement to me. His machine seemed to speak to me, to soothe my feelings, to prove to me that there was no danger so long as I followed its wise leadership.
Little by little my alarm passed away. I began to watch the course of the black puffs behind me. I grew accustomed to the momentary disturbance of the sea after each explosion and almost mechanically I met the lift of the machine with the gentle pressure of my joystick, which righted my Nieuport and smoothed its course. And a rush of happiness came over me with the assurance that I was neither going to be sick nor was I any longer in any terror of the bursting shells. By Jove, I had passed through the ordeal! A feeling of elation possessed me as I realized that my long dreamed and long dreaded noviciate was over. At last I knew clear down deep in my own heart that I was all right. I could fly! I could go over enemy lines like the other boys who had seemed so wonderful to me! I forgot entirely my recent fear and terror. Only a deep feeling of satisfaction and gratitude remained that warmed me and delighted me, for not until that moment had I dared to hope that I possessed all the requisite characteristics for a successful war pilot. Though I had feared no enemy, yet I had feared that I myself might be lacking...
This feeling of self-confidence that this first hour over the Suippe battery brought to me is perhaps the most precious memory of my life. For with the sudden banishment of that first mortal fear that had so possessed me came a belief in my own powers that knew no bounds. I loved flying. I had been familiar with motors all my life. Sports of every sort had always appealed to me. The excitement of automobile racing did not compare with what I knew must come with aeroplane fighting in France. The pleasure of shooting down another man was no more attractive to me than the chance of being shot down myself. The whole business of war was ugly to me. But the thought of pitting my experience and confidence against that of German aviators and beating them at their own boasted prowess in air combats had fascinated me. I did not forget my inexperience in shooting. But I knew that could be learned easily enough. What I hungered to ascertain was my ability to withstand the cruelties and horrors of war. If that could be conquered, I knew I could hold my own with any man who ever piloted an aeroplane.
This confidence in myself must have aided me considerably in my learning to fly. After twelve flights in a machine in France, I went aloft for a flight alone. After that first solo flight, I tried several different types of machines with never any feeling of insecurity.
I was floating along through enemy skies in ecstatic contemplation of these thoughts when I suddenly discovered that Major Lufbery was leading us homewards. I glanced at the clock on my dashboard. It was nearly ten o'clock. We had been out almost two hours and our fuel supply must be running low. These fast-flying fighting machines cannot carry a large supply of gasoline and oil, as every pound of weight counts against the speed and climbing powers of the aeroplane.
Gradually we descended as we approached the vicinity of our aerodrome. This lovely section of France, as yet undevastated by war, spread below the wings of our little Nieuports in peaceful contrast to the ugliness that lay behind us. Some snow still filled the hollows as far as the eye could reach, for a severe storm had raged over this section of the country but a few days before.
We circled once about the field and, shutting off motor, slid gently down into the mud which quickly brought the machines to a full pause. Quickening the speed of the propellers we taxied one by one towards the door of the hangar before which every pilot and mechanic stood awaiting us with open-armed expectancy. They were eager to hear the details of our first flight into enemy territory and to see how two beginners, like themselves, had stood the experience.
Both Campbell and I wore satisfactory countenances of bored indifference. We had had a little flip around over the Hun batteries and it had been most droll seeing the gunners wasting their ammunition. We must have cost the Kaiser a year's income by our little jaunt into his lines. As for enemy aeroplanes, none of them dared to venture up against us. Not a plane was in our vicinity.
Just here Major Lufbery broke into the conversation and asked us particularly what we had seen. I didn't like the sound of his customary little chuckle on this occasion. But we both repeated as easily as we could that we hadn't seen any other aeroplanes in the sky.
"Just what I expected. They are all the same!" was the Major's only comment.
We indignantly asked him what he meant by addressing two expert war pilots in such tones.
"Well," said Lufbery, "one formation of five Spads crossed under us before we passed the lines and another flight of five Spads went by about fifteen minutes later and you didn't see them, although neither one of them was more than 500 yards away. It was just as well they were not Boches!
"Then there were four German Albatros two miles ahead of us when we turned back and there was another enemy two-seater nearer us than that, at about 5,000 feet above the lines. You ought to look about a bit when you get in enemy lines..."
Campbell and I stood aghast, looking at each other. Then I saw he was thinking the same thoughts as I. The Major was ragging us from a sense of duty, to take some of the conceit out of us. But it was only after weeks of experience over the front that we realized how true his statements probably were. No matter how good a flyer the scout may be and no matter how perfect his eyesight is, he must learn to see before he can distinguish objects either on the ground or in air. What is called "vision of the air" can come only from experience and no pilot ever has it upon his first arrival at the front.
Then sauntering over to my machine the Major bucked me up very considerably by blandly inquiring, "How much of that shrapnel did you get, Rick?" I couldn't help laughing at his effort to put me in a heroic picture-frame for the benefit of the boys who were listening. Imagine my horror when he began interestedly poking his finger in one shrapnel hole in the tail; another fragment had gone through the outer edge of the wing and a third had passed directly through both wings not a foot from my body!
The boys told me afterwards that I stayed pale for a good thirty minutes and I believe them, for a week passed before the Major suggested to me that I again accompany him into the German lines.