Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 2

Chapter 2 - The Aerodrome

I OFTEN wondered whether the mothers and friends of our pilots formed a true conception back home of the surroundings and daily doings of their loved ones in France. Even the term "Aerodrome," where it is known aeroplanes are landed and kept and cared for and where the pilots live and start from in their trips over the lines and where they are anxiously awaited at the end of their patrol by their comrades —even "Aerodrome" must convey a more or less uncertain picture to those who have never actually seen one. Picture in your minds a smooth field covered with sod and occupying a situation near a town and good highway. It is on comparatively level ground and is square in shape and each of the four sides is about half a mile in length. Such a field accommodates very nicely four squadrons of fighting machines, which means 80 or so aeroplanes and as many pilots. The road skirts one side of the square. Close to the road in each corner of the square are placed two large sheds, or hangars, to house the aeroplanes. Each hangar will hold comfortably ten or twelve machines of the small type. There they spend the night and each machine is carefully inspected by the mechanics who "belong to it." Each pilot has three mechanics who are responsible for his aeroplane, and it is seldom that any defect can escape their jealous attention.

Around the edges of the field, then, these eight or ten large hangars stand facing inwards, with wide open doors through which the aeroplane can pass onto the ground. A short distance away the mess and sleeping quarters for the officers of each squadron are situated. As there are but twenty pilots to each squadron, the officers of two squadrons frequently mess together. The enlisted men, including the mechanics, truck drivers, workmen and servants, occupy quarters of their own at a little distance behind the hangars. As each squadron requires almost two hundred enlisted men to take proper care of its many details it is seen that the entire personnel of the average aerodrome group numbers quite one thousand men when the Headquarters, Searchlight Company, Telephone Squad, Lighting Plant, Red Cross and Y.M.C.A. personnel are added to it. The anti-aircraft gunners who have charge of the defense of the aerodrome against enemy raids are not attached to the Air Service and are not properly part of the aerodrome membership.

Such then is the rough arrangement of the pilots' aerodrome. From the sky an aerodrome can be seen many miles away by an experienced observer and although every effort is made to camouflage hangars, buts and aeroplanes, no flying fields can long be in use by either side before they are discovered by the enemy.

We were but three weeks in the Villeneuve aerodrome and during that time the weather was so severe that comparatively little flying was undertaken by the first of our American pilots, who formed this unit. March, 1918, had snow storms, heavy rains and high winds. Our aeroplanes were not of the best and they had not yet been fully equipped.

An amusing episode occurred in this connection, which seems funnier now than it did at that time. The French authorities very kindly made arrangements to help train the new pilots of our Squadron in combat fighting over the lines. Accordingly every day or two an experienced French airman would drop down upon our field and take away with him two of our inexperienced freshmen for a trip into Germany, just as Major Lufbery had taken Campbell and myself. Naturally all of our pilots were anxious to go.

After two weeks' patrolling over enemy territory in this manner, you can imagine the consternation of these French flight leaders when they discovered that the American machines which had accompanied them carried no aeroplane guns! Our machine-guns had not yet arrived!

Fortunately the Boches didn't know it and no encounters had taken place. But the idea of this dummy fleet carrying on such a gigantic bluff over enemy lines was as comic to us as was the story of the wooden ships of the British Navy which had deterred the German fleet from leaving harbor. The Frenchmen however couldn't understand this sense of humor.

It was at this period that we lost one of my dearest friends and a commander who was respected and loved by all the pilots. Captain James Miller had left family and home and a prosperous business in New York to serve his country over the battlefields of France. He was a light-hearted, lovable companion, but I had long ago discovered the stern, determined qualities of his character. He had often told me his greatest desire was to go into the skies and win a combat against an enemy aviator. The long delays in Paris irritated him, and his work in organizing the Aviation School at Issoudun for the training of American pilots did not satisfy him. He burned for an opportunity to get over the lines in a fighting plane.

I found Captain Miller at the Villeneuve aerodrome when I arrived there on March 4th, 1918. He had command of the fighting squadron adjoining mine, the 95th. But he had no machines and no equipment and apparently he was as remote from air combats there as he had been in Paris. Still dominated with the one idea of getting into a fight with the enemy, it was especially difficult for him to be patient.

One day towards the middle of March we received a visit from Major Johnson and Major Harmon, who were then temporarily attached to one of the French Spad Squadrons in the vicinity. I shall never forget the boyish delight with which Captain Miller came to me after their departure and confided to me what he considered the most cherished secret in his life. Major Davenport Johnson had promised him that he might call at his aerodrome the following day and take a flight over the lines in one of their machines. He was ecstatically happy over the prospect.

I never saw him again. The following evening we were notified through military channels that Captain James Miller was missing. Not until several days later did I learn the details of his disappearance. Then I learned that Major Johnson himself had accompanied Miller on his first flight and that they had passed over Rheims and proceeded towards the Argonne Forest—the very same patrol on which Lufbery had taken me but a few days before.

Two squadrons of enemy machines were discovered some distance within the enemy lines and Miller, not observing them, flew in and was attacked. The enemy aeroplanes were two-seaters, carrying machine-guns in front and behind. Major Johnson did not warn Miller, but returned to his field and landed, stating that his guns had jammed. Captain Miller was never seen again.

A month later a German official report reached us that Captain James Miller of the American Air Service had been wounded in combat and had fallen within German territory, where he died a few hours later.

Poor Jim! His was the first and most sorrowful loss that had come to our new group. Then it was I learned that I must not permit myself to cherish friendships with my pilot comrades so intimately that their going would upset the work I had to do. For every aviator's day's work included the same risks that had cost Jim Miller his life. If one permitted constant anxiety for friends to weigh down one's spirits one could not long continue work at the front.

These days of March, 1918, were trying ones for our Allies in the British and French armies. It was known that the enemy was preparing for a conclusive and tremendous push within a few days, with which to gain the Channel ports against the British, before the troops from the United States could be in position to aid them.

The Germans knew better than our own countrymen at home knew just how difficult would be our preparations for a really important force of aeroplanes. They had seen the spring months pass; and instead of viewing with alarm the huge fleet of 20,000 aeroplanes sweeping the skies clear of German Fokkers, they had complacently witnessed the Fokkers occupying the air back of our lines whenever they desired it, with never an American plane to oppose them.

On March 21st, 1918, the great German attack was launched against the British in the north. We heard serious rumors about the numbers of prisoners captured by the Huns and the rapid advances they were making in each push.

Our aerodrome at Villeneuve was at that time but 18 miles from the lines. In clear weather we could distinctly see our line of observation balloons, which stretched along the front between us and the lines. The booming of guns sounded continuously in our ears. On March 30th we were ordered to move our squadrons to another aerodrome farther away from the front. We went to Epiez that day, where we found ourselves about 30 miles from the lines and still with no machines with which we might hope to help stem the alarming advance of the enemy.

Here at Epiez the 84th Squadron was joined by Captain James Norman Hall, the author of "Kitchner's Mob" and "High Adventure"; also Captain David McK. Peterson, of Honesdale, Pa. Both of them were experienced pilots who had become celebrated for their air work in the Escadrille Lafayette and who did much to enhearten us and instruct us during this forlorn period. We had all heard of these boys and idolized them before we had seen them. I cannot adequately describe the inspiration we all received from the coming of these two veteran air-fighters to our camp.

A day or two after we had settled down in our new aerodrome we heard the buzzing of an approaching machine. All hands rushed out to see what it meant. A Nieuport bearing American colors assured us it was a friend and probably another new member of our squadron, since he was preparing to land on our field.

He shut off his motor and glided down until his wheels skimmed the ground. The next instant her nose struck the mud and in a twinkling the machine had somersaulted over onto her back and slid along towards us tail foremost. We walked out to the wreck to secure the remains of the raw pilot who hadn't learned yet how to land a machine, and some of us made rather caustic comments about the authorities sending us such unsophisticated aviators. Imagine our stupefaction when we discovered the grinning face of Captain Hall himself looking at us upside down!

Fortunately he wasn't hurt in the slightest, and I think he would be glad if he could know how much good it did all of us young pilots to discover that even the best airmen can sometimes come a cropper.

Captain Hall climbed out of his wreckage and coming over to me told me that there was another machine still at our old aerodrome which must be flown over. I was directed to get a motor car and drive back to Villeneuve and, after making certain that everything was in order with the Nieuport, fly home with it on the morrow.

I accordingly got myself ready and set out. It was late at night when we started. Shortly before midnight we entered a small village just south of Châlons on the Marne River. Suddenly we noticed people running excitedly about the streets and as they came under the glare of my headlights I saw they were absolutely stricken with terror. I stopped the car, as an old man came running up to me, and asked him what was the trouble.

"The Boches are overhead!" was his reply, pointing upwards into the night. "Please, M'sieu', put out the lights of your car!"

I snapped out the headlights and stood there for a moment, watching those poor people scurrying about for shelter. Old women whose backs were bent with age and toil were running helter-skelter through the streets for the open country, small children clinging to their skirts. They did not know where they were going, and many of them ran into each other as they crossed to and fro. Their one idea was to get away from their beds, where they imagined the bombs from the Hun aeroplanes would be certain to find them. In truth that would have been the safest place for them to remain.

We proceeded through the village and a moment later came to a rise in the ground from which we could see the anti-aircraft shells bursting above the city of Châlons, a few miles ahead of us. Many sweeping searchlights were searching the heavens with yellow fingers itching to grasp the path where the enemy planes were pursuing their way. For almost an hour we stood on this hill and regarded the spectacle with the same critical interest we had often experienced in watching an opera. Then suddenly the lights were extinguished and the booming of exploding shells ceased. We regretfully climbed back into our car and continued on our way. The show was over!

It took us an hour to wake up the landlady in the best hotel in Châlons that night. When we finally found the night bell and kept a resolute finger upon the button until the storage battery threatened to become exhausted, the good woman appeared in negligée and asked us if we wanted to come in. She apologized most heartily when she discovered we were not Germans but Americans—her beloved Americans, she called us—and we were soon tucked away in her best beds, covered with mountainous eider-downs which reached half-way to the low ceiling.

The next morning we proceeded on to the old aerodrome where I found the last of our Nieuports and had it run out and tested. After half an hour's inspection I found everything right and climbed aboard the little bus and waved my two mechanics good-by. In 30 minutes I was over the Epiez field, having covered the same road which had consumed four and a half hours by motorcar, the night before.

Up to this time—April 3rd, 1918, only my squadron (the 94th, commanded by Major John Huffer. One of the old Lafayette flyers), and Captain James Miller's squadron, the 95th, were at the front. Both squadrons had been together at Villeneuve and together had moved to Epiez. None of the pilots of either squadron had been able to do any fighting at the front, owing to the lack of aeroplane guns. In fact the pilots of Squadron 95 had not yet been instructed in the use of aeroplane guns, although this squadron had been sent to the front a short time before 94 Squadron had arrived there. We of 94 Squadron however had been diverted to the Aerial Gunnery School at Cazeau for a month early in the year and were now ready to try our luck in actual combat fighting over the lines. But we had no guns on our machines.

Then suddenly guns arrived! All sorts of wonderful new equipment began pouring in. Instruments for the aeroplanes, suits of warm clothing for the pilots, extra spares for the machines. And at the same moment the foolish virgins of Squadron 95 who hadn't yet learned how to shoot in the air were sent back to the Cazeau School, while old 94, destined to become the greatest American squadron in France in the number of its victories over the enemy, was ordered to vacate the Epiez aerodrome and move on eastward and north to Toul. On April 10th, 1918, we took our departure, flying our Nieuports over to an old aerodrome east of Toul which had been vacated by the French for our use. Supplies, beds, mess-furniture, oil and gasoline and all the multitudinous paraphernalia of an aviation camp followed us in lorries and trucks. For a day or two we had our hands full with settling ourselves in our new quarters and acquainting ourselves with our sector of the map. We were two miles east of Toul, one of the most important railroad connections on our side of the front and a town that the enemy tried almost daily to demolish with aeroplane bombs. We were barely 18 miles from the lines and in a country covered with rolling hills and extensive forests.

Nancy lay fifteen miles to the east of us, Lunéville 12 miles farther east and the highway from Toul to Nancy to Lunéville lay parallel to the enemy lines and ;within easy shelling distance of the Hun guns. But along this highway one would not have realized that a war was on. East of this point no efforts had been made at an offensive by either side. Business went on as usual in Lunéville. Children played in the streets and traffic pursued its leisurely way. An occasional German sentry faced a French sentry along the lines from Lunéville to Switzerland, at intervals of a hundred yards or so, but it was said that these sentries messed together and slept together for the sake of companionship. This unnatural situation was considerably altered later, when the Americans came in. The country of the Vosges Mountains was thought to be too rough to permit invasion by either side.

North and west of our Toul aerodrome lay Verdun. Verdun, the sine qua non of German success! Under the Verdun citadel, built in 1863, lay an underground army of seventy thousand men. No use to attempt to go around Verdun and leave seventy thousand attackers in their rear. Verdun must ever be threatened, even while desperate attacks were being launched against Amiens, Ypres and the Marne. Consequently considerable aeroplane activity was indulged in by the pilots of the Huns in this sector, and here the first American fighting squadron was sent to demonstrate to the world the air ability of American flyers, in combat fighting. And 94 got that chance!

The Squadron at that time was commanded, as I have said, by Major John Huffer. He was one of America's best pilots and finest fellows, but curiously enough, he had been born in France and had never been in America nor in any English speaking country, though he has traveled extensively abroad and speaks English like a Harvard man. Major Huffer had served in the Ambulance Division since the early days of the war, later joining the Foreign Legion with William Thaw, Victor Chapman and other American boys. When the American Escadrille was formed, he entered aviation and thus was a veteran war pilot long before America came into the war.

When he discovered that our beloved squadron was to receive the distinction of being the first actually to begin fighting for America, the question of a significant and proper squadron insignia became of prime importance to us. We were busy those first days in Toul, painting our machines with the American Red, White and Blue, with our individual markings and with the last finishing touches which would prepare them for their first expedition over the lines. Then came the ideas for our insignia !

Major Huffer suggested Uncle Sam's Stovepipe Hat with the Stars-and-Stripes for a hatband. And our post Surgeon, Lieutenant Walters of Pittsburgh, Pa., raised a cheer by his inspiration of the "Hat-in-the-Ring." It was immediately adopted and the next day designs and drawings were made by Lieutenant John Wentworth of Chicago, which soon culminated in the adoption of the bold challenge painted on the sides of our fighting planes, which several scores of enemy airmen have since been unfortunate enough to dispute. Toul then saw the launching of America's first Fighting Squadron. And it was from this aerodrome that I won my first five victories in the following 30 days.