Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 35

Chapter 35 - The End Draws Near

OCTOBER was a month of glorious successes for 94 Squadron, having brought us thirty-nine victories with but five losses. For, besides Captain Coolidge and Lieutenant Nutt the Squadron had lost Lieutenant Saunders of Billings, Montana, shot down on the 22nd, when out after balloons with Cook and Jeffers. Cook on this occasion succeeded in setting fire to the balloon he was attacking, and Jeffers turning upon the Fokker which had just sunk Saunders, shot him down in flames sixty seconds later.

On the 29th, Lieutenant Garnsey of Grand Haven, Michigan, fell in our lines near Exermont, after having fought a brilliant combat against greatly superior numbers. Reed Chambers, after bringing down an enemy machine on the 22nd, which he attacked at the tail of a Fokker formation containing five aeroplanes, returned to the aerodrome in considerable pain from a sudden seizure of appendicitis and next day was sent to the hospital, where he had the appendix removed.

The Squadron had developed eight aces, including Lufbery, Campbell, Coolidge, Meissner and Chambers, all of whom were now absent, and Cook, Taylor and myself, who were left to carry on to the end of the war. Meissner was absent only in the sense that he was now in command of the 147th Squadron and his victories were going to swell the score for his newly adopted squadron instead of our own.

Many others were "going strong" at the end of October and needed but the opportunity to fight their way up into the leading scores of the group. Rain and dud weather kept us on the ground much of the time and when we did get away for brief patrols we found the enemy machines were even more particular about flying in bad weather than we were. None put in an appearance and we were forced to return empty-handed so far as fighting laurels were concerned.

Our first Night Flying Squadron had been formed early in October, under command of Captain Seth Low of New York, and had its hangars on our Group aerodrome. This was not a Squadron of bombcarrying aeroplanes, but one with which to attack bombing machines of the enemy and prevent their reaching their intended targets over our lines. The night-flying aeroplanes were the English Sopwith Camels, a light single-seater capable of extraordinary evolutions in the air and able to land upon the ground in the darkness at a very low speed. The British had inaugurated this special defense against the Hun bombers an their raids upon London. Later the same system was tried at the British front with such success that over a score of German bombers were brought down in a single month by one Squadron of Night Flying Camels.

Of course such a defense must have the cooperation, both of signaling and listening squads, to notify the Night Flyers as to just when and where an attack is threatened, and also the timely cooperation of the Searchlight squads is essential to enable the airmen to pick up the enemy machines in the darkness while at the same time blinding with the glare the eyes of the Hun pilots. Principally by reason of the lack of this cooperation our Camel Squadron, though it made several sorties along the lines during the month of October did not meet any enemy bombers and had no combats. Time and study of this problem would doubtless have made of the Squadron 185 a valuable defense to our sector of the front, including the cities of Nancy, Toul and Columbey-les-Belles, which were repeatedly visited at night by German Gothas.

Bombs were getting heavier and more destructive. More and more machines were being devoted to this branch of aviation. But now instead of the Germans monopolizing this terror-spreading game the tables were turned and the Allies dropped ten times the amount of bombs into German cities. Even the oldest residents were moving out of the beautiful cities of the Rhine.

On the next to the last day of October I won my 25th and 26th victories, which were the last that I was to see added to my score. Two others that I had previously brought down were never confirmed. After the deplorable death of Frank Luke, who had won eighteen victories in less than six weeks of active flying at the front, there were no other American air-fighters who were rivaling me in my number of victories. But ever since I had been Captain of the 94th Squadron the spur of rivalry had been entirely supplanted in me by the necessity of illustrating to the pilots under my orders that I would ask them to do nothing that I myself would not do. So covetously did I guard this understanding with myself that I took my machine out frequently after the day's patrol was finished and spent another hour or two over the lines. The obligations that must attend leadership were a constant thought to me. Greater confidence in my leadership was given me when I noticed that my pilots appreciated my activity and my reasons for it. Never did I permit any pilot in my squadron to exceed the number of hours flying over the lines that was credited to me in the flight sheets. At the close of the war only Reed Chambers' record approached my own in number of hours spent in the air.

I allude to this fact because I am convinced after my six weeks' experience as Squadron Commander that my obedience to this principle did much to account for the wholehearted and enthusiastic support the pilots of my Squadron gave me. And only by their loyalty and enthusiasm was their Squadron to lead all the others at the front in number of victories and number of hours over enemy's lines.

With Reed Chambers' forced absence at the hospital the leadership of our First Flight was put in charge of Lieutenant Kaye. On October 30th I had been out on two patrols in the forenoon, both of which had been without unusual incident or result. When Kaye left the field with his Flight at three o'clock in the afternoon I decided to accompany him to observe his tactics as Flight Leader. This formation, composed of only four machines, two of which were piloted by new men, was to fly at only 2,000 feet elevation and was to patrol to enemy's lines between Grand Pre and Brieulles. I took my place considerably in their rear and perhaps 1,000 feet above them. In this position we reached Brieulles and made two round trips with them between our two towns without discovering any hostile aeroplanes.

As we turned west for the third trip, however, I noticed two lone Fokkers coming out of Germany at a low elevation. From their maneuvers I decided that they were stalking Lieutenant Kaye's Flight and were only waiting until they had placed themselves in a favorable position before beginning their attack. I accordingly turned my own machine away into Germany to get behind them, still keeping my altitude and trusting that they would be too intent on the larger quarry to notice me.

I had hardly begun to turn back when I saw that they had set their machines in motion for their attack. Opening up myself I put down my nose and tried to overtake them, but they had too great a start. I saw that Kaye had not seen them and in spite of the odds in our favor I feared for the two new men, who were at the end of the formation and who must assuredly bear the first diving assault of the Fokkers. Fortunately, Kaye saw them coming before they had reached firing range and he immediately turned his formation south in the direction of home. "Cook is with Kaye and those two will be able to defend the two youngsters if the Fokkers really get to close quarters," I thought to myself. I could not hope to overtake them myself, anyway, if they continued back into France. So, after a little reflection I stayed where I was, witnessing a daring attempt of the Fokkers to break up Kaye's Formation which, nevertheless, was unsuccessful. Both Fokkers attacked the rear Spad, which was piloted by Lieutenant Evitt, one of our new men. Instead of trying to maneuver them off he continued to fly straight ahead, affording them every opportunity in the world of correcting their aim and getting their bullets home. Evitt discovered upon landing that one of his right struts was severed by their bullets!

After this one attack the Fokkers turned back. I was in the meantime flying deeper into Germany, keeping one eye upon the two enemy machines to discover in which direction they would cross the lines to reach their own side. They seemed in no hurry to get back, but continued westward, heading towards Grand Pre. Very well! This suited me perfectly. I would make a great detour, coming back out of Germany immediately over Grand Pre with the hope that if they saw me they might believe me one of their own until we got to close quarters.

But before I reached Grand Pre I noticed them coming towards me. I was then almost over the town of Emecourt and quite a little distance within their lines. They were very low, and not more than a thousand feet above ground at most. I was quite twice this heighth. Like lambs to the slaughter they came unsuspectingly on not half a mile to the east of me. Letting them pass I immediately dipped over, swung around as I fell and opening up my motor piqued with all speed on the tail of the nearest Fokker. With less than twenty rounds, all of which poured full into the center of the fusilage, I ceased firing and watched the Fokker drop helplessly to earth. As it began to revolve slowly I noticed for the first time that again I had outwitted a member of the von Richthofen crowd. The dying Fokker wore an especially brilliant nose-piece of bright red!

As my first tracer bullets began to streak past the Fokker his companion put down his nose and dived for the ground. As he was well within his own territory I did not venture to follow him at this low altitude, but at once began climbing to avoid the coming storm of Archy and machine-gun fire. Little or none of this came my way, however, and I continued homeward, passing en route over the little village of St. George, which was then about two miles inside the enemy lines. And there directly under my right wing lay in its bed a German observation balloon just at the edge of the village. On a sudden impulse I kicked over my rudder, pointed my nose at the huge target and pulled the triggers. Both guns worked perfectly. I continued my sloping dive to within a hundred feet of the sleeping Drachen, firing up and down its whole length by slightly shifting the course of my aeroplane. Not a human being was in sight! Evidently the Huns thought they were quite safe in this spot, since this balloon had not yet been run up and its location could not be known to our side. I zoomed up and climbed a few hundred feet for another attack if it should be necessary. But as I balanced my machine and looked behind me I saw the fire take effect. These flaming bullets sometimes require a long time to ignite the balloon fabric. Doubtless they travel too fast to ignite the pure gas, unmixed with air.

The towering flames soon lit up the sky with a vivid glare and keeping it behind me, I speeded homeward, with many self-satisfied chuckles at my good fortune. But too much self-satisfaction always receives a jolt. I had not gone ten miles before I received the worst kind of a scare.

It had become quite dark and I was very near to the ground. Still some distance inside the German lines, for I had kept east in the hope that another Hun balloon might be left for my last rounds of ammunition, I thought of looking at my watch to see how late it really was. I had fuel for only two hours and ten minutes. A vague sort of premonition warned me that I had been overlooking something of importance in the past few minutes. One glance at my watch and I realized exactly what had been weighing in the back of my mind. The time indicated that I had now been out exactly two hours and ten minutes.

A real terror seized me for a moment. I was not up far enough above earth to glide for any distance when my motor stopped. Even as I banked over and turned southward I wondered whether my motor would gasp and expire in the turning. I feared to climb and I feared to stay low. I gazed over the sides of my office and tried to make out the nature of the landing ground below. Throttling down to the slowest possible speed to save fuel I crept towards the lines. It was dark enough to see that suspicious Heinies below were shooting at me on the chance that I might be an enemy. Glad I was to see those flashes receding farther and farther to my rear. I had passed the lines somewhere west of Verdun and now must chance any open field I came to when the engine gave its last cough. Why didn't it stop? I wondered. It was now five or six minutes overdue. In miserable anticipation of the lot Fate had in store for me I struggled on, noting with additional gloom that the searchlight that should long ago be pointing out the way to my aerodrome had not been lighted. I could not be more than ten miles from home. Why couldn't those men attend to their business when pilots were known to be out? I took out my Very pistol and fitted in a red light. That would notify them at home that I was in trouble and in a hurry to land.

Just as I fired the second Very light I heard the motor begin its final sputtering. And then just as I felt cold chills running up my back the blessed landing lights flashed out and I saw I was almost over the field. Forgetting all my recent joy I made myself as wretched as possible the following few seconds in concluding that I could not by any possibility reach the smooth field. It seemed to work — the treatment. I had expatiated my sins of over-confidence and appeased the Goddess of Luck, for I cleared the road, landed with the wind and struck the ground with a quiet thud less than a hundred feet from the entrance to 94's hangar—right side up! But I walked over to mess with a chastened spirit.

The following morning was rainy and all the afternoon it continued to pour. Just before dusk we received orders to have our whole force over the lines at daybreak to protect an infantry advance from Grand Pre to Buzancy. We all felt that we were to witness the last great attack of the war. And we were right.

A heavy fog of the genuine Mouse Valley variety prevented our planes leaving the ground until the middle of the forenoon. All the morning we heard the tremendous artillery duel at the north of us and very impatiently waited for a clearing of the weather. That dull morning was somewhat relieved by our receipt of newspapers stating that Turkey had surrendered unconditionally and that Austria was expected to follow suit the following day. Placing about a hundred of these journals in my plane, I set out for the lines with our patrol at 9:30 o'clock.

Arrived over the front lines near the town of Lapelle, I flew at an altitude of only a hundred feet from the ground. And there I saw our doughboys after their victorious advance of the morning crouching in every available shell-hole and lying several deep in every depression while looking forward for a snipe shot at any enemy's head that came into view. Others were posted behind woods and buildings with bayonets fixed, waiting for the word to go forward. As I passed overhead I threw overboard handfuls of morning papers to them and was amused to see how eagerly the doughboys ran out of their holes to pick them up. With utter disdain for the nearby Hun snipers, they exposed themselves gladly for the opportunity of getting the latest news from an aeroplane. I knew the news they would get would repay them for the momentary risk they ran.

Dropping half my load there I flew on over the Mozelle valley where I distributed the remainder of the papers among the men in the front line trenches along that sector. Returning then to the region of Buzancy I first caught sight of a huge supply depot burning. A closer view disclosed the fact that it was German and German soldiers were still on the premises. They were destroying materials that they knew they would be unable to save. In other words they were contemplating a fast retreat.

A few dashes up and down the highways leading to the north quickly confirmed this impression. Every road was filled with lorries and retreating artillery. All were hurrying towards Longuyon and the German border.

All the way up the Meuse as far as Stenay I found the same mad rush for the rear. Every road was filled with retreating Heinies. They were going while the "going was good" and their very gestures seemed to indicate that for them it was indeed the "finis de la guerre." I hurried home to make my report which I felt certain would be welcome to those in authority.

The following day I obtained permission to visit Paris on a three days' leave. For the first time since I had been in France I found the streets of Paris illuminated at night and gaiety unrestrained possessing the boulevards and cafes. With the Place de la Concord and the Champs Elysees crammed with captured German guns and German aeroplanes, with flags and bunting astream everywhere it looked here too that people thought it was the "finis de la guerre." I am told that Paris did not go raving mad until that unforgettable night of the signing of the Armistice; but from the street scenes I saw there during those first days of November while the Huns were in full retreat from the soil of France that had so long been polluted by their feet it is difficult to imagine how any people could express greater happiness.

Personally I am glad that I was with my Squadron instead of in Paris on the night the war ended. For great as were the sights there, none of them could have expressed to an aviator such a view of the sentiment and feeling of aviation over the termination of this game of killing as was exhibited at our own aerodrome on the night the official order "Cease Firing!" came to us.