Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 16
PARIS in wartime is well enough known to millions of my fellow countrymen, but the scene that presented itself to my astonished eyes as I alighted at the Gare de l'Est on the morning of June 6th, 1918, merits a description. That date, it will be remembered, marked probably the lowest ebb in the spirits of the Parisian populace.
The Germans were along the Marne and but thirty miles from the capital. Château-Thierry was in their hands. The villagers in that vicinity who had braved four years of adjacent warfare were now swept away from their homes. Thousands of these poor refugees were arriving in Paris on the morning I entered it.
Used as I was to the various horrors of war, there was a terror in the countenances of these homeless people that made a new impression upon me. Old women, young women, all clothed in wretched garments and dishevelled head-gear wandered blindly through the streets adjoining the stations, with swarms of crying children clinging to their skirts. Pathetic as this scene was, it had its comic features in the extraordinary articles that these fleeing peasants had chosen to carry with them.
Umbrellas seemed to be the most precious thing that they had tried to save. A little bundle, probably containing a loaf of bread and a few articles of clothing was carried by each woman. The children were loaded down with such strange treasures as axes, parrot cages, wooden buckets and farm implements. The few old men who accompanied them hobbled along empty-handed, with the utmost patience and abandon. Evidently the whole care of the migration was left to the energetic women of France.
They had, all been walking for many miles; this was very evident. Their clothing was dusty, worn and crumpled. Their faces were pinched and wretched and an indescribable look of misery and suffering filled every face. The pathos of this scene will never leave my memory.
And here I desire to express my appreciation of the magnificent work of the American Red Cross and American Y. M. C. A. organizations. In that one case of the Château-Thierry refugees these American societies repaid their American subscribers for the sacrifices they made to support them. Indeed, without the help of this American agency I can easily imagine that the French capital, overwhelmed and crushed under the burden and horror of these calamities would long since have abandoned all hope, and riots and disorders would have prostrated the authorities in control of the nation.
Thousands of refugees swarmed throughout a more or less demoralized Paris. They had no money, no food, no idea of where they wanted to go. The spirit was gone from their bodies. Only the call of hunger served to remind them that they still must live.
Preparations were immediately made to care for this new demand upon the American charitable organizations. It was a very critical period of the war. Every available soldier was at the front and these must have the undivided attention of the supply officers, the commissary department and government authorities. Refugees were of no consequence towards winning the war. They deserved pity but could not be permitted to divert the attention of the defenders of a nation.
How dangerous this subtle menace might have been will never be known, for the American Red Cross threw itself into the situation and cared for this increasing army of unfed in Paris. Had they been neglected a day or two longer such riots might have been started in Paris as would have demoralized the whole system of the French organization.
The secret of their success was undoubtedly due to the elasticity and absence of red tape in their organization. But whatever it may have been, the fact that the American Red Cross did successfully feed and clothe these bedraggled thousands was in itself a marvel and made me appreciate how valuable an asset our Red Cross Society was and is in war time.
At the aerodromes and at other military camps all along the front I had abundant opportunities to appreciate this unofficial, or rather unmilitary, aid that was given to the soldiers by these organizations. At our group aerodrome the Red Cross later established a small club-room for the pilots and officers. Here hot chocolate and toast was served in the afternoon and a cheery fire always was found to tempt us out of the mud and rain for a few minutes of recreation. Card tables and writing tables were there; and a piano and phonograph, together with all the old magazines that were sent over by American readers, whiled away many a "dud" afternoon which must have otherwise been spent in more or less solitary confinement within a dripping billet.
The Y. M. C. A. authorities provided in a similar way for the enlisted men. Candy, tobacco and toilet articles were provided at these places at a lower figure than they would have cost at home. Most of these things were absolutely unattainable at the stores in France.
After a good night's sleep far away from the customary roar of artillery, I woke up to find the sun shining in my Paris window and a fine day well progressed. After breakfast I took a stroll along the Champs Elysées under the Arc de Triomphe and through the beautiful walks of the Bois de Boulogne. It was easy to read upon the faces of the people one met the deadly fear that gripped them. Thousands had already fled from Paris. The authorities were even that morning considering again moving the seat of the government to more distant Bordeaux. The capture of Paris before the American aid could arrive was a possibility that worried every Parisian.
I tried to fancy the exulting German officers walking down these same beautiful avenues, driving their motor cars through these splendid woods and occupying such of these magnificent palaces as happened to tempt their cupidity. Then I thought of the "Spirit of the Marne" which had so strengthened the French people in those cruel days of 1914. Studying the set faces of these passers-by I could discover that the same indomitable spirit still held them. Their faces held something of the same expression that was pictured on that famous French Liberty Loan poster—a Poilu standing with fixed bayonet defending his native land. Underneath the poster was written that immortal phrase, "Ils ne Passeront Pas!"
After a few days in Paris I returned to my aerodrome by way of Army headquarters, then situated in Chaumont just south of Toul. Good news awaited me at my mess. I learned that General Foulois had been out to see us, and after hearing the repeated stories of the narrow escapes we had had with the fragile Nieuports, he had promised to secure Spad aeroplanes for our whole squadron. They were to be driven with the 220 horsepower Hispano-Suiza motor and would serve to equip us second to none of the squadrons in France.
Furthermore, confirmations had been secured for my fifth victory and several cablegrams from America were handed me, congratulating me on becoming the second American Ace. The news had reached the States before it had found me in Paris!
We had had another victory too. Jimmy Meissner, Alan Winslow and Thorn Taylor had encountered a Hanover two-seater on June 13th, and after a ten minute combat had the satisfaction of seeing the enemy go down in flames and crash just north of Thiaucourt. The boys were very much elated over the additional news of our contemplated removal to a busier sector of the front. Hunting had become very poor along our old sector. The enemy machines were infrequently met and almost no fighting machines of the Germans were now opposing us. An occasional observing machine came our way and he usually fled long before we had an opportunity for an attack.
We had been for two months on this sector and had received all the preliminary practice fighting that we desired. All the boys were restless and were anxious to get to the thick of the battle down on the Marne where the "Big Push" was now taking place. Fresh from the rumors of Paris, I naturally inflamed their appetite for the contest by picturing to them the state of affairs as I had seen it in the capital. We all felt that we could intercept the Hun invasion and save Paris, if we but had the chance.
At this period we began to notice that the German air tactics seemed to pin all hopes for success upon formation flying. Larger and still larger numbers of enemy aeroplanes clung together when they ventured into hostile skies. From flights of three to five machines in one formation, their offensive patrols now included whole squadrons of twenty or more machines in one group.
Certain advantages undoubtedly accrue to such formations. Mere numbers serve to scare away the more cautious air-fighters, and even the most daring find themselves confronted with such a bewildering and formidable number of antagonists that to attack one must necessarily include defending oneself against several. The Germans were limited in the territory they covered by thus combining their aeroplane strength, but while directing their attack upon one especial sector, such as the Château-Thierry sector, they could operate very successfully with these large formations, and were able to sweep away all opposition from their paths.
Squadron 94 therefore began sedulously to practice flying in similar large formations. Day after day we called together all our available machines and took the sky together, met at a designated altitude and forming a compact group we circled about, executed the various maneuvers that must attend an offensive or defensive movement, and strove always to keep all our aeroplanes in such a position that no single one could ever be cut out and subjected to an attack by an enemy formation. This was a valuable lesson to all of us, and later on we accumulated quite a respectable number of victories by reason of our familiarity with this method of squadron formation flying. Especially valuable is this formation flying to the inexperienced pilot. One illustration will serve to demonstrate my meaning.
On the evening of June 18th, 1918, a few days after I had returned to the command of my First Flight in Squadron 94, we were notified by the British bombing squadrons that they were undertaking a raid upon the railroad yards of Thionville that evening at seven thirty o'clock. Thionville, or Diderhofen as it is called by the Germans, lies west of Metz and is the favorite gateway to the front from the German interior in the direction of Coblenz and Cologne. Huge supplies were kept there and several squadrons of enemy machines were always on the alert to repel these bombing raids upon their city.
Calling the boys together, I asked for volunteers to go with me on this protective mission for the British. Six pilots stepped forward and we immediately prepared our plans.
Lieutenant Hamilton Coolidge had just joined our group and had not yet made his first trip over the lines. He asked permission to accompany us, and thinking this would be a good opportunity to keep an eye upon him, I consented to his going. We were to meet the bombing machines over Thionville at seven-thirty sharp, and at an altitude of 16,000 feet. We arranged to get above our field and circle about at 2,000 feet until all were ready, then form our positions and fly over in close formation.
As we were getting off the field I noticed that Squadron 95 was likewise sending up a number of machines. Later I learned that they too had heard of this bombing expedition of the British and were going over to see it safely home. Unfortunately they had picked upon the same altitude and the same place for their rendezvous that I had selected.
In ten minutes more I realized that there would be a hopeless tangle of the two formations if I persisted in collecting my followers at the prearranged rendezvous. All the machines were circling about the same position and collisions would be inevitable if the newer pilots were permitted to maneuver about in all this confusion. I accordingly flew about in a wide circle, signalling to my pilots to draw away and follow me. Time was pressing and we must get to Pont-à-Mousson by seven-thirty, even if we were not in our best formation. Two or three of the pilots understood my signals and followed after me. The others got into the other formation and came with it. Some of the inexperienced pilots, including Ham Coolidge, lost both formations and came on alone.
Arriving over the Moselle River at Pont-à-Mousson exactly on the minute, I saw in the direction of Metz a heavy Archy fire. This meant that allied machines were there and were attracting German fire. I flew in to see what it was all about and found a single Salmson machine, belonging to the American Number 91 Squadron falling in a sharp vrille. At 4,000 feet he picked himself up and regaining control of his machine he leveled off for home. I accompanied him back over the lines and saw him safely off for his aerodrome and then turned my attention again to the British bombing machines. Near St. Mihiel I found part of my formation following Lieutenant Loomis. Ham Coolidge had attached himself to this party.
We cruised about together until dusk began to gather, and still there was no sign of the British machines. Suddenly Loomis left me and started for home with Coolidge in his wake. I decided one or both of them had experienced motor trouble and watched them disappear with no misgivings. It was indeed time we got in as the ground would be considerably darker at this hour than one would expect to find it, with the western sun still shining in one's eyes at 15,000 feet elevation. I dropped down over Pont-à-Mousson and getting fairly into the twilight, turned my machine towards home.
Arriving in the vicinity of my landing field, I was suddenly surprised to see a Nieuport flash past me going in exactly the opposite direction. I didn't know who it could be, but it was now so dark that longer flying would be almost suicidal. Feeling instinctively that it might be one of the new pilots, I banked over and started in pursuit. A mile or so this side of the lines I overtook him.
Swerving in closely ahead of the stranger, I wigwagged my wings and circled back. To my great relief, I saw that he understood me and was following. We soon made our way back to the Toul aerodrome and landed without accident. Getting out of my machine I went over to ascertain the identity of my companion. It was Hamilton Coolidge.
After a question or two Ham admitted that he had become confused in the darkness, had lost sight of Lieutenant Loomis and for some reason or other became convinced that he was flying in the wrong direction. He had reversed directions and was flying straight into the enemy's lines when I had so fortunately passed near by and had intercepted him.
Formation flying then has its uses in other ways than in combat fighting. We had made a confused mess of our formation on this occasion and but for a miracle it would have ended in the loss of a new pilot who later was to become one of the strongest men in 94 Squadron.
One of the comic little incidents that are always rising unexpectedly out of the terrors of war came from my meeting that day with the Salmson machine from Squadron 91. I was just going to bed that night when they called me to the telephone. A member of 91 Squadron wanted to know who was in the Nieuport machine that had escorted him across the lines that evening from the vicinity of Metz. I told him I thought I was the man he sought.
"Well," he said, "I am Lieutenant Hammond of the 91st, and I want to thank you for your help."
I told him there had been very little to thank me for, since there were no enemy aeroplanes about, but I thanked him for calling me up. Then I asked him what had caused him to fall into a vrille.
"Those blooming Archibalds!" he informed me. "They've got the finest little battery over that vicinity that I've ever seen. I was coming peacefully home with all my photographs when hell suddenly busted loose below me. Their first shell exploded just under my tail and I went up a hundred feet tail first. Then I began to fall out of control. Evidently my control wires had been severed, for I couldn't get her out of the spin for four or five thousand feet. Just as I finally straightened out along came another shell and did the same thing to me all over again.
"I fell again, this time feeling certain that I was a goner. You came along while I was going down the second time. I managed to get her straightened out, as you know, when you and I crossed safely over the lines without any more hits.
"But say, Rickenbacker," he went on, "do you know what I'm going to do ? I've got a sharpshooter's badge that I won while I was in the Light Artillery. I've wrapped it up in a small package and tied a long streamer on to it. I've written a note and put it in, telling those Heinies that they are more entitled to that badge than I am—and here it is. Come along and go with me tomorrow morning and we'll drop it down on their battery !"
I laughed and told him I would be ready for him to-morrow morning over my field at eight o'clock. We would go over and brave the Archy sharpshooters once more, just for the satisfaction of carrying out a foolish joke.
But the next morning I was awakened at three o'clock by an orderly who told me Major Atkinson wished to talk to me over the telephone. Even as I stood by the telephone I could hear a tremendous barrage of artillery fire from the German lines. Something big was on.