Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 34
WAR-FLYING is much like other business — one gets accustomed to all the incidents that attend its daily routine, its risks, its thrills, its dangers, its good and bad fortune. A strange sort of fatalism fastens to the mind of an aviator who continues to run the gauntlet of Archy. He flies through bursting shells without trying to dodge them, with indeed little thought of their menace. If a bullet or shell has his name written on it there is no use trying to avoid contact with it. If it has not — why worry?
To score a fatal hit these invisible missiles of death have a great space to fill when a small aeroplane and a still smaller pilot are at a height of ten or twelve thousand feet above earth. Even when flying through the defensive fire of a balloon battery at two or three hundred feet elevation or when cruising along the trenches but fifty feet above the rifles and machine guns of the enemy we learned to disdain the furious fire that was turned upon our swift flying planes. Experience had taught us that the non-flying sharpshooter is wofully ignorant of the rapidity with which we pass his aim when we are traveling at the rate of two miles a minute—exactly 176 feet each second! It requires a second or more for him to steady his aim. How many riflemen can compute the exact point 176 feet ahead of their gun-muzzle where the bullet and the pilot's head must meet in order to bring down the prize? Not one! Occasional hits are made at random, but the percentage is ridiculously low. When tracer bullets are fired at one's aeroplane it is amusing to see how far behind the tail of the machine the streams of bullets are passing. When hundreds of Archy shells are bursting about one's vicinity one of the flying fragments may, of course, happen to take the path that coincides with that of the pilot. Upon this problem no scientist would dare to assume a position of authoritative knowledge as to the chances or percentages of possible hits. To the pilot who has actually experienced these daily strafings by Archy the whole danger resolves itself into a question as to whether or not he will permit his imagination to terrorize him into fleeing away from so appalling but so futile a menace. In other words, he knows that the actual danger is almost nil. If a flying fragment of shrapnel happens to strike him it is bad luck. There is no way to avoid it. A hundred to one no hits will be received. Thus comes the fatalism that saves the experienced airman from worry.
On Sunday, October 27th, only a fortnight before the end of the war, Hamilton Coolidge, one of the best pilots and most respected men in the American Air Service, met an annihilating death from a direct hit by an Archy shell in full flight. The shell had not yet burst when it struck the Spad in which Coolidge was sitting. The aeroplane was moving forward at its usual fast speed when the mounting shell, probably traveling at the speed of 3,000 feet per second struck squarely under the center of the aeroplane's engine. Poor Coolidge must have been killed instantly. The Spad flew into fragments and the unfortunate pilot dropped like a stone to the ground.
Coolidge was one of the top-score aces of 94 Squadron and one of the most popular men in the service. A graduate of Groton and later of Harvard, he possessed all the qualifications of leadership and a brilliant career in any profession he might have chosen to adopt. In his work at the front he never shirked and never complained. The loss of Lieutenant Hamilton Coolidge was one of the severest that we had been called upon to suffer.
It was beginning to be a matter of constant conjecture among us as to just what day Germany would cave in and surrender. The collapse of Austria and the constant and obvious weakening of the Hun troops opposite our sector were well known to us. Hence it seemed doubly bitter that Ham Coolidge should meet death now, just as the end of the war was at hand. Especially tragic was it to all of us who knew Coolidge's fighting ability that he should be the one airman who should meet his end in this incredible manner. More than one pilot bitterly remarked that no German airman could down Ham Coolidge, so they had to kill him by a miracle!
And miracle it was, for no other American pilot, and but one or two other aviators during the whole course of the war were shot down from on high by an Archy in full flight. The shell had Hamilton's name written on it and there was no escape!
Coolidge, with his usual intrepidity was hurrying in to the assistance of a formation of American bombing machines which, after dropping their eggs on the enemy town of Grand Pre, as they started home, were in turn attacked by a large number of swifter flying Fokker machines. The Archy shells were directed at the bombers and not at the Spad of Ham Coolidge! After having scornfully passed through hundreds of barrages which were aimed at him our unlucky ace had collided with a shell not at all intended for him!
Although I did not see this ghastly accident to poor Coolidge, I was in the midst of the same barrage of Archy on the other side of Grand Pre at the same time.
The bombing machines above mentioned had not gained their objective without considerable fighting all the way over the lines.
Thousands and thousands of German troops had been unloaded from trains during the previous night and were now hidden in Grand Pre and its neighborhood. The enemy fighting machines were out in force to defend this spot against bombing planes until these troops had an opportunity for moving and scattering themselves along their front. From every side Fokkers were piquing upon the clumsy Liberty machines which, with their criminally constructed fuel tanks, offered so easy a target to the incendiary bullets of the enemy that their unfortunate pilots called this boasted achievement of our Aviation Department their "flaming coffins." During that one brief fight over Grand Pre, I saw three of these crude machines go down in flames, an American pilot and an American gunner in each "flaming coffin" dying this frightful and needless death.
During the combats which followed I again succeeded in bringing down two of the red-nosed Fokkers. The first victim was on my tail when I first noticed him. With one backward loop I had reversed our positions and had my nose on his tail. One short burst from both my guns and he tumbled down through space to crash a few miles within the German lines.
The second combat occurred just a few minutes later. The last of the Liberty bombing machines had passed over the lines or had crashed in flames and I thought the day's work was over when I noticed some thing going on to the east of me in the region of Bantheville. I began climbing and speeding forward to get a look at this performance when to my surprise I discerned that one of the Liberty machines had been left behind and was in very evident distress. Fortunately there was but a single enemy Fokker on his tail. The Yankee pilot was kicking his machine about and the gunner at the rear was managing to keep his enemy at bay when, at a favorable elevation above them both, I found an opportunity to pique down and catch the Fokker, unaware of my approach. The Liberty motor, I discovered, was almost dud. It had either been struck by a bullet or had developed some interior trouble of its own. The pilot had all he could do to maintain headway and avoid the maneuvers of his enemy. Each time he banked the Liberty, it fell downwards two or three hundred feet. The Fokker had only to worry him enough and the American machine must drop into German territory, a captive.
As I began firing the German pilot, who had been so intent upon the capture of his prize that he had forgotten to watch his rear, zoomed suddenly up to let me pass under him. But that was too old a dodge to entrap me. I began a similar zoom just a fraction of a second before he started his and I was the first to come out — on top. As I again prepared to open fire I saw a curious sight. The Fokker with a red nose had not been able to complete his loop. He had stalled just at the moment he was upright on his tail, and in this position he was now hanging. And more extraordinary still, his engine had stalled and his propeller was standing absolutely still. I could see the color and laminations of the wood, so close had I approached to my helpless victim.
On March 10th, 1918, there is the following entry in my flight diary: "Resolved to-day that hereafter I will never shoot at a Hun who is at a disadvantage, regardless of what he would do if he were in my position."
Just what episode influenced me to adopt that principle and even to enter it into my diary I have forgotten. That was very early in my fighting days and I had then had but few combats in air. But with American flyers the war has always been more or less a sporting proposition and the desire for fair play— the anger it always arouses in a true American to see any violation of fair play — prevents a sportsman from looking at the matter in any other light, even though it be a case of life or death. However that may be, I do not recall a single violation of this principle by any American aviator that I should care to call my friend.
My Fokker enemy was now in a very ludicrous position. Of course he could not continue hanging on there forever with his nose pointing upwards, his tail to the ground and his propeller dead. He began falling with a tail slip. He was wondering why I didn't finish him or at least didn't begin some attack so that he might know which way to head his last dive. We were over ten thousand feet above ground, and looking down I saw that we were still two or three miles within German lines. Naturally enough the pilot will turn his nose homeward when he falls far enough to get headway for a glide. Accordingly I kept control of the situation by heading him off and firing a few shots to show him that I did not mean to let him escape.
Now the tables are turned. Instead of my Fokker friend nursing homewards to Germany a captured and crippled American machine, I am endeavoring to impress upon him that an American is desirous of escorting back to the American lines a slightly crippled but very famous Fokker with a red nose. What a triumphant entry I will make with one of Baron von Richthofen's celebrated fighting planes! I picture the flights over our field I will make with my prize to-morrow. The Boche pilot was satisfied that I had the upper hand and he was gliding along in the proper direction with admirable docility. We should clear the lines by at least five miles. I could steer him from behind by firing a few bursts ahead, which had the effect of pushing him over in the direction I wanted him to go. It was as simple as driving a tame horse to the creek.
Over the lines we passed, the Fokker gliding steadily along ahead of me, no other aeroplanes in the sky. Under the impression that I knew this country better than my companion might know it I compelled him to steer for the Exermont field, which lay just about four miles behind our front line trench. He willingly complied, immediately heading in the desired direction and apparently quite content to play fair with me and spare me his Fokker, since I had spared him his life. Of course, I was fully aware that he might attempt to set fire to his machine as soon as he touched the ground. I should have done the same had I been in his place. But I did not intend that he should have this opportunity. With his dead engine he could not change his course once he began to settle to the ground. I would put myself immediately behind him and if he attempted to do any injury to his aeroplane I would shoot him on the spot. With this plan in mind I left him a moment when he was making his last circle over the field at about 300 feet altitude and withdrew so that I might turn and land my machine in such a position that he must come to a stop just ahead of me. And then I received one of the worst disappointments of my whole life.
A Spad aeroplane suddenly appeared from out of the sky just as I turned away from my convoy. The unknown idiot in the Spad began firing a long burst into my helpless captive. I did not suspect his presence until I heard him firing. Whipping madly back I piqued down and intervened between the malignant Spad and my protege, even firing a short burst to warn the intruder away. The latter understood me well enough, for he left us and did not return. The marks on his machine were not familiar to me and to this day I do not know whether this interfering person was an American or a Frenchman. But whichever he was, he had absolutely ruined all my chances of a capture.
The Fokker pilot had been at the outside of his turn when this unexpected attack was received. The Spad had headed him off, compelling him to turn to the right instead of to the left in the direction of the field. Now he was so low that it would be suicide to attempt to make the field. Trees and rough ground were beneath him and the only safe course would be to pancake as flatly as possible in the rough open ground directly ahead of him. All my hopes vanished as I saw the nature of his landing place. I circled above him until after the crash. He had over-shot his mark a little and ended up against the edge of the opposite bit of woods. My red-nosed prize was scattered in pieces over the ground!
To my genuine joy I saw the pilot disentangle himself from the wreckage and walk out upon the ground. An officer on horseback and some of our doughboys were advancing on the run to make him a prisoner. He waved his thanks to me as I passed overhead and I waved back in the most friendly manner. Inwardly I was furious with him, myself and most especially with the wretched pilot of the unknown Spad. So nearly had I succeeded in capturing intact a most valuable Fokker from Germany's most famous Squadron! So near and yet —
Returning home I was somewhat mollified to learn that my belated commission as Captain had just arrived. I had been acting Captain for several weeks and had been told that my commission was on its way, but these rumors often proved unfounded. But it had arrived at last and I would this night add an extra bar to each shoulder. And then I was told of the awful loss of poor Hamilton Coolidge. Surviving six months of very active flying over enemy's lines, fighting nearly a hundred combats and escaping without a single wound while he brought down confirmed eight enemy aeroplanes, our gallant comrade had been suddenly swept away by a catastrophe that appalled us to contemplate!
Early next morning I secured a Staff car and proceeded up to the front to find the spot where lay the last remains of my dear friend. We reached Montfaucon and turned northwest around the edge of the Argonne Forest, passing on the way the wreckage of my red-nosed Fokker just outside the town of Exermont. Arrived to within a mile of our front line, sheltered all along the road by hanging curtains of burlap and moss, part of which had been left by the Hums and partly our own concoction of camouflage, we were halted by an officer who told me we could move no further without coming under shell fire from the enemy guns.
Abandoning the car at the roadside, we skirted the edge of woods that adjoined the road and made our way on foot to the flat lands just across the Aire River from the opposite town of Grand Pre. And here in the bend of the Aire, almost in full sight of the enemy, we came upon the body of Captain Coolidge. A lieutenant in infantry who had seen the whole spectacle and had marked down the spot where Ham's body had fallen, accompanied us and it was through his very kind offices that we reached the exact spot without much searching. The Chaplain of his regiment likewise accompanied us. And there, not sixty yards behind our front lines, we watched the men dig a grave. The Chaplain administered the last sad rites. Amid the continuous whines of passing shells we laid the poor mangled body of Captain Hamilton Coolidge in its last resting place. Over the grave was placed a Cross suitably engraved with his name, rank and the date of his tragic death. A wreath of flowers was laid at the foot of the cross. Then with uncovered head I took a photograph of the grave, which later was sent "back home" to the family who mourned for one of the most gallant gentlemen who ever fought in France.