Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 21
IT was not until July 31st that I was able to mount my Spad and again take my place in fighting formations. Even then I started out with much apprehension, for the doctors had told me that it was highly improbable that I should ever be able to fly again, owing to the condition of my ear.
To my delight I found that no ill resulted from this trial flight and I put my machine through all sorts of acrobatics, and landed with the satisfaction of knowing that I had fooled the doctors and was as good as new, in spite of my punctured ear.
That was a day of terrible losses to our group. Every squadron lost heavily, but the severest loss to the group was borne by Squadron 27.
Lieutenant John McArthur of Buffalo, New York, had up to that date destroyed five enemy machines in combat and promised to be one of the greatest fighting airmen in the American Army. Every one who knew him admired him immensely, and the pilots who had flown over the lines with him looked upon Jack McArthur almost with reverence. He was cautious, quick, a clever pilot and a dead shot. His judgment was good and he had every attribute that spells success. His example had made a wonderful organization out of the new pilots of No. 27.
Early in the morning of July 31st, McArthur led out his crack formation of six planes to try a strafing expedition upon the aerodrome and hangars of the Richthofen Circus, which had just moved back from Coincy and now occupied the aerodrome north of Fismes.
From this expedition only one of the formation ever returned.
Not until weeks later did we hear any news of this missing five. Then came a letter from one of them telling us what had occurred. They had reached their objective without mishap, and had strafed the hangars and billets of the Richthofen crowd until their ammunition was gone.
Whether or not any of the enemy machines came up to fight them, we did not learn. But the Richthofen aerodrome was twenty miles inside the lines and our aerodrome was thirty miles this side of the lines. When the strafers turned their noses homewards they found a forty mile wind against them. They had already been out over an hour and could hardly hope to reach the home field against this gale, before their fuel would be exhausted. They might easily reach some nearer aerodrome on our side of the lines, however, and towards this object they set their minds.
Half-way to the lines they encountered several formations of enemy planes who were fully aware of their predicament and were waiting for them to come out. Up and down, back and forth, McArthur led his little formation, seeking for a place to break through the enemy's ranks. Finding the Boche pilots too adroit for him, he finally resolved to break through, regardless of the tremendous odds against him.
McArthur led the attack, and like Horatius of old, he embraced all the spears in his own breast, to enable his comrades to pass through them. He fell, killed in air, and one of his pilots fell beside him. But even this heroic sacrifice was in vain.
The remaining three pilots of his formation passed the encircling enemy machines only to find that this protracted maneuvering had quite exhausted their fuel. One by one their motors spluttered and died. The entire formation dropped to earth, some landing safely, others crashing in shell holes, all of them finding themselves behind the German lines.
Squadron 94's greatest loss on that fatal day was Alan Winslow, the Chicago boy who had the honor of bringing down the first enemy machine conquered by the pilots of the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron. Winslow was a gallant lad and one of the most popular men in the squadron.
Late that evening he was seen by another member of his flight diving down upon a Fokker with which he had taken on a combat. The two machines continued downwards until the dusky ground swallowed both of them from view. The rest of Winslow's flight returned home and long did we sit up waiting for news of old Alan that night.
The pilots stood about under the stars pooping up Very lights into the clear sky, hoping that he might see the signal from afar and come roaring in. To every war pilot there is an extraordinary pathos about the flashes of these distant signal lights at night. I never see these bright balls of fire cut through the night sky without feeling a clutch at my heart— without remembering the anguish with which I have watched and waited and hoped for the return of some dear comrade in answer to their signal.
They rush from the mouth of the pistol with a noise like that of a child's popgun. The silvery ball climbs upward two or three hundred feet with a soft roar; there it gracefully curves in its trajectory and begins slowly to fall, shedding a powerful light upon the surrounding landscape and casting its beckoning signal for a score of miles around. On any fine night as one flies homeward from the lines these Very lights strike the eye from every aerodrome, both friendly and hostile. To a member of the mess they denote a warm welcome from his comrades. To a stranger comes the significant intimation that yonder some member of an expectant family is—still missing!
A month later one of the members of our Squadron met in London Alan Winslow's brother, Paul Winslow, a member of the most famous of Great Britain's fighting Squadrons, No. 56. Asked if any news had been received of Alan, Paul Winslow replied simply, "He went West!"
Upon returning to the Squadron, however, a letter was found awaiting him from Alan Winslow himself! He wrote from a German hospital, stating that he had been wounded in the combat, had received a bullet in the left arm which had shattered it. The arm was amputated above the elbow and he was quite contented to find himself so well out of the occurrence!
The sorrows, the surprises—the joys of war-flying are legion!
The next day after the fall of Alan Winslow, a formation was sent out from our Squadron under the leadership of Lieutenant Loomis to protect a photographing expedition of three French Breguet machines. Although far from being in condition, I resolved to tag along behind them in my Spad and see what happened. I got to an altitude of 15,000 feet, which was about 5,000 feet higher than the others, and from this front row in the gallery I had a wonderful view of an amazingly interesting little scrap.
The Breguets had not proceeded very far into Germany before a Fokker formation appeared upon the scene. Of course the Fokkers saw the Nieuports, but they also saw the Breguets; and the German pilots knew that those Breguets with their photographs were the important targets for their flaming bullets. I sat above them and followed them in the various maneuvers to get in between Lewis and his convoy.
Back and forth they circled, all the members of both formations keeping always in their proper positions. Although the Fokkers were seven to the Nieuports' five, the former did not appear very desirous of forcing a way through them to get at close quarters with the Frenchmen. Thus maneuvering, the whole circus passed further and further along into Germany, until they gradually neared the landscape which the French machines wished to photograph. This objective was the city of Fismes, the railroads and highways leading into it and the positions of any batteries of artillery that might be concealed from the naked eye, but which could scarcely escape revealment by the powerful lenses of the cameras.
Plenty of other aeroplane formations were in the vicinity. I discerned hostile planes and friendly planes, American, British and French. It was evident that the Fokkers below desired to attract to their aid one or more of their adjacent squadrons before attempting to force a battle with 94's Nieuports. Lieutenant Loomis, on his part, had no desire to press matters. His instructions were to defend the Breguets, not to take on any combats that happened to offer themselves. If the Fokkers refused to come in and attack them, Lieutenant Loomis's Formation would have no fighting to do.
I watched the distant enemy formations with considerable interest, ready to fly in and give warning should any of them make a move to attack Loomis. But they apparently had their hands full watching out for their own safety, for the further we moved into German territory the thicker did we find the sky filled with cruising aeroplanes. Only a little rumpus was needed to start one of the choicest dog-fights that ever was seen.
With much amusement I noticed that our Frenchmen were now over Fismes and had begun taking their photographs. Evidently the Fokker leader discovered their industry at the same moment I did, for with a curt dip to his wings he started his flight on a headlong dive in the direction of the Breguets.
But Loomis was then ready and anxious for the fight. Enough photographs had been taken to relieve him of the responsibility of spoiling the fun of the Frenchmen. Quickly he reversed his direction, all his flight falling neatly into position, and leaving the Froggies in the lurch, he swept forward to engage with the Fokkers. The latter seemed rather startled for a moment, wavered a bit in their course, and in the next instant the fight was on.
The Americans had the advantage from the first, for Loomis had kept his Nieuports at a good altitude above the Breguets and the Fokkers had tried to attack them from below. Loomis dived steadily at the tail of the nearest Fokker. This latter had no course open but to try and outdive him. Another Fokker got on Loomis's tail and another Nieuport followed on his tail. Soon the whole menagerie was streaming along in this fashion, every machine pouring streams of tracer bullets into the machine ahead of him. It was a splendid spectacle to witness, but I knew it would be of short duration.
One Fokker had already dropped towards earth and two of our bright colored Nieuports were streaking it for home in the wake of the disappearing Breguets. Either these two pilots had wounds or engine trouble or else considered the wisest policy was to get out of this hurricane of flaming bullets. I looked for Loomis. There he was, way down below, with three Fokkers on his tail. He was vainly attempting to reform his scattered formation and but two of his machines remained. Even as I watched them I saw several other enemy machines drawing nearer them from the north. It was high time to get down to their aid.
As I dropped down to their vicinity I saw Loomis fire three or four short bursts at his antagonists and then, swerving away to the south, he put on the sauce and rapidly drew away from their pursuit. His pilots had fortunately observed his departure and hastened to overtake him. The Fokkers kept up a short pursuit, then seeing me above them feared they were getting into another ambush, and the next moment were diving with all speed to the protection of their own landing field. I was frankly glad to let them go, for after three weeks' absence I felt little inclined to take on anything against odds.
Turning back to join my fellows, I was startled to discover that Loomis was very plainly sinking to earth. His propeller was slowly turning and I knew instinctively that he had been struck in some vital part of the engine. I overtook him and quickly measured the distance that separated him from the distant trenches. He was only seven or eight thousand feet above the ground and the lines were some six miles distant. Evidently he was fully aware of the tightness of his predicament, for he was nursing along his powerless aeroplane and sailing on as flat a level as the Nieuport could possibly maintain.
Generally speaking an aeroplane can sail along for a mile without losing more than a thousand feet altitude. Thus Loomis could make eight miles without engine power provided he were eight thousand feet above ground. Provided also that no contrary wind was blowing him backwards during this time—and also providing that no rifle and machine-gun bullets were able to terminate his progress as he drew nearer and nearer to the ground.
I flew above him, absolutely powerless to do more than wish him luck. Archy took up the chase with malevolent delight and sprayed both of us impartially with shrapnel.
I lost all interest in the angry bursts about me, in the complete fascination of Loomis's struggle for the lines. He was holding on to every inch of his altitude, with the skill of a Cape Cod skipper. At times I felt certain that he was holding her up too much. He must lose speed and headway with too great a curb on the bridle.
The ground drew closer and closer to his hanging wheels. I saw the rear trenches of the Germans pass below him. I believed he was doomed to strike the next trench, three hundred yards ahead. I wondered if I could possibly render any assistance by flying down and spraying bullets behind him until he had a chance to run to safety. No! Such a plan was foolish! There would be a hundred machine-guns turned upon him the instant he crashed, a thousand rifles would be shooting at him from concealed positions. I could not possibly do him any good.
The second line of German trenches appeared below the sinking Nieuport and I held my breath as the dainty little bird neatly skimmed over them. With rare good fortune the way ahead seemed comparatively smooth. Loomis might coast along the intervening space and roll smack into the front line trench of the Huns. There was no doubt about it. He couldn't possibly make another rod!
Just at that moment his Nieuport hit the ground, bounded up, struck again some thirty feet ahead and with another bound actually hopped over the narrow front line trench and rolled along some thirty or forty yards across No Man's Land! I yelled a little to myself in my excitement, as I saw Loomis throw himself from the still moving machine. In a trice he was streaking it for the American trenches, with Boche bullets accelerating his speed by lifting his heels just ahead of little clouds of dust.
Loomis is very fast on his feet—even in flying costume. He covered that hundred yards in something under ten seconds. He left my aeroplane far in the rear and I had to hurry up to see his finish at the bottom of the front-line American trench.
The doughboys covered his last dash with a splendid fusillade of bullets directed into the German trenches. Both sides were standing up and exposing themselves to enemy fire in the excitement of Loomis's homerun.
I saw him tumble safely into the deepest part of the trench and lie there, probably panting for breath, for apparently he hadn't received a scratch. As I considered this was the end of the morning's entertainment, I put on the gas and pushed on for home.
I walked into the Adjutant's office and made out a report of what I had seen. An hour later we were delighted to receive a telephone call from Loomis himself, which instantly relieved our anxiety about his condition. He was entirely well in body, he reported, but had not yet fully recovered his breath!
Then came another telephone call from the French headquarters, thanking 94 for bringing down one Fokker aeroplane, whose destruction they would be happy to confirm, and repeating their thanks for the protection Loomis's formation had given their photographers. Very valuable photographs had been obtained, it appeared, both of enemy positions and of the movements of their troops. Within an hour after snapping the photographs the completed pictures were in their commanding officer's hands!