Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 23

Chapter 23 - Back Close to Verdun

ONE of the extraordinary things about life at the front is the commonplace way in which extraordinary things happen to one. And though one may wonder and be greatly perplexed over it, there are no intervals for giving due thought to the matter. Thus a day or two after my last experiences, while I was refilling my tank at Coincy preparatory to another flip over the lines, I met two American doughboys there who told me that my brother was in camp but a few miles north of me.

My brother had been at the front with the Signal Corps for three or four months, and though I had repeatedly tried to find his address I had not been able up to this time to locate him.

I immediately obtained permission to take an afternoon off; and borrowing a motor car from one of the officers there, I set off to the north in quest of my brother's camp.

The roads to the north had but a fortnight ago been in full possession of the enemy troops. Signs along the way pointed out the next village in unmistakable fashion. All were in quaint German script. The Huns had whitewashed the most conspicuous corner at the approach to every village and crossroads, and there upon a white background was painted in high black letters the name of the present locality. A few yards further on was an equally glaring sign pointing out the next point of topographical interest in every direction. The distance in kilometres to each place was indicated with correspondingly large numerals. Any motor driver could pick up his directions without any slackening of speed.

The highway I was traversing led to Fere-en-Tardenois and had been badly worn by the retreating enemy artillery and wagons. American shells had landed at precise intervals along the line of their retreat. Hurried replacements of surface had evidently been made by the Germans in order to permit the continued use of this road. And now our own doughboys were busily at work repairing these same roads, so that our own artillery might go on in pursuit of the fleeing Boches.

As my car approached these groups of busy workers my chauffeur blew them a long blast of warning. They withdrew to the edge of the road and watched me pass, with an expression of mingled irony and respect. I tried to assume the haughty mien of a Major General while under their brief scrutiny and was beginning to feel highly pleased with myself when I suddenly heard one of the doughboys call out,

"Hullo, Rick!"

I looked around, stopping the car by simply cutting off the spark. An undersized doughboy had dropped his shovel and was running forward to overtake me. As he came up, I recognized him as an old friend of mine from my home town.

"Gee Whiz! Rick," he said, "where the dickens are you going?"

"Oh, up the road a ways to see my brother," I replied, "I just heard he was at the next village. How are you, Bob? When did you get over here to La Belle France?"

"'Bout a month ago. Hell of a way to come to break rock, isn't it? Well, so long! I've got to get back on the job!"

He squeezed my hand and hurried back. I never saw him again.

As I proceeded onwards along my way, I continued to marvel at this peculiar coincidence. For months I had been making new friends, had been completely immersed in this new life - had seen nothing of my old friends. And now within a single hour I had found myself bumped suddenly alongside my own brother and against an old schoolboy friend! Within another hour we would all be flung widely apart; perhaps all three of us would be among those reported missing. I began speculating which would be the first! War is a funny thing.

After a very brief visit with my brother I returned home, passing through Fere-en-Tardenois and southwards along the same roads I had so recently traversed. Even in the short interval of my passing a marvelous amount of work had been accomplished. Huge roadrollers were crushing down the gravel, and several miles of the surface had been smoothed. When a people really want a good road built they can finish it in an incredibly short space of time.

Along both sides of the highway were piled heterogeneous masses of materials that had been abandoned by the enemy. Our salvage squads were scouring the adjoining fields and woods, collecting and bringing to the roadsides all the valuable articles for transportation to the rear. Other squads were picking up the dead, searching their blood-drenched clothing for data of identification and stretching them out in methodical rows, duly numbering each corpse and preparing it for the last rites.

Rows upon rows of three-inch shells were stacked up within convenient reach of the army lorries. Their willow and straw baskets, each containing a single German shell, formed a regular row six feet high and fifty feet long. Then came a space filled with huge twelve-inch shells all standing upright upon their bases. Next were stacked boxes of machine-gun ammunition, hundreds and hundreds of them, occasionally interspersed with stray boxes of rockets, signal flares, Very lights and huge piles of rifles, of machine-guns and of empty brass shells of various sizes. The value of an average German city lay spread along that road all worthless to the former owners -all constructed for the purpose of killing their fellow men!

I had an unusual experience in the air the following day. It is worth narrating, simply to illustrate the extent to which the Flight Leader of a squadron feels himself morally bound to go.

Six of my Spads were following me in a morning's patrol over the enemy's lines in the vicinity of Rheims. We were well along towards the front when we discovered a number of aeroplanes far above us and somewhat behind our side of the lines. While we made a circle or two, all the while steadily climbing for higher altitude, we observed the darting machines above us exchanging shots at one another. Suddenly the fracas developed into a regular free-for-all.

Reaching a slightly higher altitude at a distance of a mile or two to the cast of the melee, I collected my formation and headed about for the attack. just then I noticed that one side had evidently been victorious. Seven aeroplanes remained together in compact formation. The others had streaked it away, each man for himself.

As we drew nearer we saw that the seven conquerors were in fact, enemy machines. There was no doubt about it. They were Fokkers. Their opponents, whether American, French or British, had been scattered and had fled. The Fokkers had undoubtedly seen our approach and had very wisely decided to keep their formation together rather than separate to pursue their former antagonists. They were climbing to keep my squad ever a little below them, while they decided upon their next move.

We were seven and they were seven. It was a lovely morning with clear visibility and all my pilots, I knew, were keen for a fight. I looked over the skies and discovered no reason why we shouldn't take them on at any terms they might require. Accordingly I set our course a little steeper and continued straight on towards them.

The Spad is a better climber than the Fokker. Evidently the Boche pilots opposite us knew this fact. Suddenly the last four in their formation left their line of flight and began to draw away in the direction of Soissons - still climbing. The three Fokkers in front continued towards us for another minute or two. When we were separated by less than a quarter of a mile the three Heinies decided that they had done enough for their country, and putting down their noses, they began a steep dive for their lines.

To follow them was so obvious a thing to do that I began at once to speculate upon what this maneuver meant to them. The four rear Fokkers were well away by now, but the moment we began to dive after the three ahead of us they would doubtless be prompt to turn and select a choice position behind our tails. Very well! We would bank upon this expectation of theirs and make our plans accordingly!

We were at about 17,000 feet altitude. The lines were almost directly under us. Following the three retreating Fokkers at our original level, we soon saw them disappear well back into Germany. Now for the wily four that were probably still climbing for altitude!

Arriving over Fismes I altered our course and pointed it towards Soissons, and as we flew we gained an additional thousand feet. Exactly upon the scheduled time we perceived approaching us the four Fokkers who were now satisfied that they had us at a disadvantage and might either attack or escape, as they desired. They were, however, at precisely the same altitude at which we were now flying.

Wigwagging my wings as a signal for the attack, I sheered slightly to the north of them to cut off their retreat. They either did not see my maneuver or else they thought we were friendly aeroplanes, for they came on dead ahead like a flock of silly geese. At two hundred yards I began firing.

Not until we were within fifty yards of each other did the Huns show any signs of breaking. I had singled out the flight leader and had him nicely within my sights, when he suddenly piqued downwards, the rest of his formation immediately following him. At the same instant one of my guns-the one having a double feed-hopelessly jammed. And after a burst of twenty shots or so from the other gun it likewise failed me! There was no time to pull away for repairs!

Both my guns were useless. For an instant I considered the advisability of withdrawing while I tried to free the jam. But the opportunity was too good to lose. The pilots behind me would be thrown into some confusion when I signalled them to carry on without me. And moreover the enemy pilots would quickly discover my trouble and would realize that the flight leader was out of the fight. I made up my mind to go through with the fracas without guns and trust to luck to see the finish. The next instant we were ahead of the quartet and were engaged in a furious dog-fight.

Every man was for himself. The Huns were excellent pilots and seemed to be experienced fighters. Time and again I darted into a good position behind or below a tempting target, with the sole result of compelling the Fritz to alter his course and get out of his position of supposed danger. If he had known I was unarmed he would have had me at his mercy. As it was I would no sooner get into a favorable position behind him than he would double about and the next moment I found myself compelled to look sharp to my own safety.

In this manner the whole revolving circus went tumbling across the heavens - always dropping lower and steadily traveling deeper into the German lines. Two of my pilots had abandoned the scrap and turned homewards. Engines or guns had failed them. When at last we had fought down to 3,000 feet and were some four miles behind their lines, I observed two flights of enemy machines coming up from the rear to their rescue. We had none of us secured a single victory - but neither had the Huns. Personally I began to feel a great longing for home. I dashed out ahead of the foremost Spad and frantically wigwagging him to attention I turned my little 'bus towards our lines. With a feeling of great relief I saw that all four were following me and that the enemy reinforcements were not in any position to dispute our progress.

On the way homeward I struggled with my jammed guns - but to no result. Despite every precaution these weapons will fail a pilot when most needed. I had gone through with a nerve-racking scrap, piquing upon deadly opponents with a harmless machine. My whole safety had depended upon their not knowing it.

This sort of an experience serves to bring home to an aspiring pilot the responsibilities of the Flight Leader. I considered this fact somewhat seriously as I flew homewards that night and later made out my report. I wanted to be Squadron Commander, as every other pilot desires this promotion. Yet on this day I began to have an inkling of what it meant to be saddled with such a responsibility.

This whole period of what we called the "Chateau Thierry" show became somewhat chaotic to me. Briefly, it lasted from July 2nd to September 3rd, 1918. I had missed much of it in the hospital. The little flying I had done over the lines had not been especially satisfactory. And now I began to feel a recurrence of my ear trouble. The constant twisting of my neck in air, turning my head from side to side to watch constantly all the points of the compass had affected in some mysterious way my former malady. On August 18th I suffered actual agony and was unable to get out of bed.

This was a sad day for our happy mess. Two of our pilots, one the same Lieutenant Smyth that had made so many patrols with me, the other an equally popular fellow, Lieutenant Alexander B. Bruce, of Lawrence, Massachusetts - these two pilots while patrolling over the enemy's lines at a very high altitude had collided. With wings torn asunder both machines had dropped like plummets to the distant ground below. The news came in to us while I was in bed. I had actually just been dreaming that Smyth was up with me fighting Fokkers. And I had dreamed that he had just been shot down in flames!

When Captain Marr came in to see how I was getting along, he told me about this horrible catastrophe. Smyth had appealed to me in many ways. He had told me that he had been in the French Ambulance Service since early in the war. He had transferred to our aviation when we entered the war. His father had died while he was with us and he had vainly attempted to get home to see his mother in New York who was then critically ill. But mothers are not considered by those in authority - his application was denied.

Bruce I had not known so well, as he had been with us but a few days. But the whole frightful episode really constituted a considerable shock to the nerves of our squadron. Lieutenant Green who bad been leader of this formation came in a few minutes later and confirmed the sad intelligence we had received by telephone from the French artillery battery which had witnessed the collision in mid-air.

The fighters on the front can never understand why the authorities back home deny them necessary arms and ammunition. We air-fighters cannot understand why we cannot have parachutes fitted on our aeroplanes to give the doomed pilot one possible means of escape from this terrible death. Pilots sometimes laugh over the comic end of a comrade shot down in course of a combat. It is a callousness made possible by the continuous horrors of war. If he dies from an attack by an enemy it is taken as a matter of course. But to be killed through a stupid and preventable mistake puts the matter in a very different light.

For the past six months the German airmen had been saving their lives by aeroplane parachutes. A parachute is a very cheap contrivance compared to the cost of training an aviator. Lufbery and a score of other American aviators might have been saved to their country if this matter of aeroplane equipment had been left to experienced pilots.

During the following week Paris surgeons operated upon my troublesome ear at the hospital. It has never bothered me since. As soon as I was able to get about I maneuvered for my speedy return to the front; for I had heard that the Americans were about to begin a tremendous drive on the St. Mihiel salient, near Verdun, and that our air force would be of great importance in its success.

And it was during this week in the Paris hospital that it was first suggested to me that I should write a book of my experiences in the air. I began this work then and there, and from that time on I kept a more complete diary of my day's work. Naturally I did not know that the bulk of my victories were to come. Nor did I know that I should ever live to receive the command of the best Air Squadron in the American service.

One of the prizes offered by the Duchesse Tallyrand for shooting down enemy machines had come to me. I had more victories to my credit than any other American pilot in our service, though several American aviators then in the French Squadrons exceeded my score. Later Frank Luke, who in my opinion was the greatest fighting pilot in the war, passed me when he shot down in flames thirteen balloons in six days! A record that has never been equaled by any other pilot!

On September third I learned that 94 Squadron had moved back to the Verdun sector. That indicated to me that plans were ripening for the St. Mihiel offensive by the Americans. I obtained permission to leave the hospital as cured and hastened to our Aviation Headquarters to obtain my orders to return to the front. There I was told that General Mitchell's motorcar was in Paris ready to be sent to his headquarters and would I care to drive it back? The quickness of my acceptance can be imagined!

My Squadron was already at home on the famous old highway that had saved Verdun. About fifteen miles south of Verdun at a little town named Erize-la-Petite the aerodrome covered the crest of a hill that two years before had been in the possession of the Germans. Number 95 Squadron was there, together with 27 Squadron and 147 Squadron. The lines of the enemy ran south from Verdun along the Meuse until they reached St. Mihiel, scarcely twelve miles straight east from us. The crump - crump - of the guns was constantly in our ears.

This aerodrome, which had been constructed and used by the French escadrilles, was now to be occupied by our little group until the end of the war. During the coming month of September I was to win four more victories in the air and then to be given the greatest honor that has ever come to any pilot-the command of the Squadron that he truly believes to be the finest in the whole world, his own!