Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 5

Chapter 5 - Jimmy Meissner Strips his Wings

FROM the entries in my diary of this April period one would get rather an unfavorable opinion of that quarter of France in which our Squadron was located. "Rain and Mud!" "Dud Weather!" "No flying to-day!" are a few of the samples. None of the pilots or enlisted men of our American flying squadrons will be easily enraptured in the days to come with descriptions of the romance of this part of La Belle France. The villages are dismal and dirty. Every householder rejoices in the size and stench of his manure heap, which always decorates the entire area in front of his house. Sidewalks there are none. The streets slop with mud of the clinging variety, and even in the larger cities themselves the American finds but little to interest him. An overwhelming love for his own country is the most enduring souvenir the American soldier in France gained from his visits to these towns of the Vosges and the Meuse.

To add to our irritation, we felt that every day we lost by bad weather was injuring American aviation in the eyes of our Allies. The British and the French had had three years and more of air fighting and the veterans of these squadrons looked upon the American pilots with something of amusement and something of polite contempt. They had believed in the story of our twenty thousand aeroplanes which had been promised by April. Here was April at hand and we were flying ill-equipped machines that we fortunately had been able to wangle out of the French and English. Our pilots were not trained under the veteran leadership that England could provide and our methods were crude and new. Our spirit and determination were perhaps never doubted by our Allies, but we all of us felt that we must show these more experienced squadrons that we could equal them in any department of aviation, even with our inferior machines, if we only might have the opportunity for flying. And still the rain continued!

The day after my first enemy machine was brought down we were unable on account of the fog to carry out our air patrols. That afternoon a group of American newspaper men came out to the aerodrome to talk to me about my sensations in shooting down another man's machine. They took photographs of me and jotted down notes and finally requested me to make a short flight over the field and perform a few stunts. The weather was not too rough for such an exhibition, so I gladly complied and for half an hour I rolled and looped and dived about the clouds a thousand feet or so above the aerodrome. But the visibility was so bad that I could not see the ground a mile away from the field.

On May first Major Lufbery and I made a little attempt to get a Hun, but it ended in a somewhat ludicrous fiasco. Luf was attached to 94 at that time, not as a commanding officer, but as a pilot for instruction. He was America's Ace of Aces and our most distinguished pilot. His long and successful experience in air-fighting was naturally of the greatest benefit to all of us younger pilots and every one of us considered it an honor to be sent out on an expedition with him.

We were sitting about the hangars talking and smoking about five o'clock that afternoon, when the telephone rang and Major Lufbery was informed that a German aeroplane had been sighted over Montsec, just above St. Mihiel. Lufbery hung up the phone, grinned his confident smile and began pulling on his flying suit. I suspected something was up and walking quickly over to where Lufbery was dressing I asked him if I might go with him.

"Where do you want to go?" asked Lufbery.

"Wherever you go!" I replied.

My answer evidently pleased the Major, for he grunted his customary chuckle and said, "Come ahead."

I was delighted at the opportunity of accompanying Lufbery anywhere, and was inside my flying clothes as soon as he was. As we walked out to our Nieuports, he told me we might get a Boche. All I had to do was to follow him and keep my eyes open.

We flew over Montsec for half an hour without getting a sign of a Hun. Thick as the day was, we would have been able to see the French anti-aircraft shells bursting if any enemy aeroplanes had been in that sector. So after cruising about once more over the German lines, Lufbery started for home in the direction of Pont-à-Mousson. We passed directly over the town at an altitude of 6000 feet. Suddenly Lufbery started diving directly down. I immediately nosed over and followed in hot pursuit, thinking he had spotted an enemy below was about to open an attack. But a minute later I saw that the Major was very evidently in trouble. His propeller had stopped turning and he was anxiously looking about and circling away for a favorable landing place.

Following him at a little distance behind I saw him settle down into a very respectable field just south of Pont-à-Mousson. His machine dropped gently down to the mud, rolled along a few feet, then to my astonishment it stuck its nose into the mud, stood with tail pointing heavenward, hesitated there for a second or two and, as I passed about a hundred feet overhead, his Nieuport turned gently upside down and lay there on its back. I dare say Lufbery was swearing softly to himself as he saw me glide past.

Circling back I was highly amused to see the Major crawling out on his hands and knees through the mud. He waved a dripping hand to me to indicate he was all right. I put on speed and hurried on home to send him help. His machine had somersaulted less than three miles from the enemy's lines.

Major Huffer himself took down from my description the exact location of the "panne," and jumping into a motor car he ran up to the spot I had indicated. There he found Lufbery, none the worse for his forced landing, excepting a slight scratch alongside his nose. One of his cylinders had blown out and he had found himself at just a sufficient height to glide down and land at a spot safely behind the observation of the enemy.

It was on the very next day that Lieutenant Jimmy Meissner of Brooklyn had another very trying experience with the Nieuport machine. About noon he and Lieutenant Davis were sent out to protect a French observation machine which had been ordered to take photographs of the enemy's positions back of Pont-a-Mousson. The photographing machine went down to seven or eight thousand feet and was proceeding calmly on its work, leaving the matter of its defense to the two American pilots sitting upstairs some four or five thousand feet overhead.

Suddenly Jimmy Meissner discovered two Albatros fighting machines almost upon him, coming from out of the sun. They were already on the attack and were firing as they dived swiftly upon the two Nieuports.

Jimmy made a quick maneuver and zoomed up above the nearest Albatros. Instantly he utilized his advantage, now that he had the upper floor, and in a trice he headed downwards upon the tail of the enemy, firing long bursts from his machine-gun as he plunged after the fleeing Hun. But the Albatros pilot was an old hand at this game, and before Meissner could overtake him he had thrown his machine into a tailspin which not only presented a target difficult to hit, but almost persuaded Jimmy that the machine was falling out of control.

Jimmy had heard many stories of this sort of "playing possum" however. He determined to keep after the spinning Albatros and see the end of the combat. Accordingly he opened his throttle and dived headlong down. One thousand, two thousand—three thousand feet he plunged, regardless of everything but the occasional target that whirled periodically before his sights. At last he got in a burst that produced immediate results. The Albatros sent out a quick puff of smoke that was immediately followed by a mass of flames. One of Meissner's tracer bullets had set fire to the fuel tank of the enemy's machine. The plucky victor pulled up his Nieuport and took a self-satisfied look about him.

There scarcely a thousand feet below him were the enemy's lines. From various directions machine guns and short Archies were directing their fire upon him He grinned at them contemptuously and looked away for the expected view of Lieutenant Davis' Nieuport and the other Albatros. Neither was to be seen. Perhaps they were on his other wing. One glance around to the left and Jimmy's heart was in his throat.

He saw that the entire length of his left upper wing was stripped of fabric! And as he turned a horrified gaze to the other wing, he saw that its fabric too was even at that moment beginning to tear away from its leading edge and was flapping in the wind ! So furious had been his downward plunge that the force of the wind's pressure had torn away fragile covering on both his upper wings. Without this supporting surface his aeroplane would drop like a stone. Although it couldn't make much difference whether it dropped into German lines or within his own so far as his life was concerned, Meissner admitted later he always wanted a military funeral; so he eased off his speed and tenderly turned about his wobbling machine and headed back towards France.

Giving the slightest possible engine power and nursing his crippled little 'bus with great delicacy, Meissner succeeded in gaining No Man's Land, then passed over the American trenches. He did not dare to alter either his direction or speed. Less than half a mile further his machine glided into the earth and crashed beyond repair. Meissner crawled forth from the wreckage and felt himself all over carefully, to try to make himself understand that he was in reality in the land of the living and free.

Such was the climax of James A. Meissner's first victory, and the Squadron's fourth. Meissner lived to repeat his success many times and to add much luster to the reputation of his squadron. But a narrower escape from death has rarely favored any pilot at the front.

Again did the news of the squadron's victory precede the arrival of the victor. When Meissner arrived at the aerodrome by automobile an hour or two later, the American photographers and newspaper men had already arrived and he was begged to stand for his photograph. Like an embarrassed schoolboy Jimmy pushed them away, exclaiming,

"Nobody saw the machine fall in flames but myself. It may not be confirmed."

Great was his surprise when he learned that a French observation post had witnessed the whole combat and had already telephoned us, not only the result of the fight, but the position where Meissner had been forced to land. We all took a hand then and forced the embarrassed pilot to stand and face the camera. It was a custom with which most of 94's pilots had to become acquainted within the next six months.

But our happiness and satisfaction were short-lived. Later in the afternoon Captain Peterson returned from his patrol over enemy's lines and brought back with him but two of the three companions who had gone out with him. We all walked out to get the news. Peterson had shot down another enemy aeroplane in flames, totaling five for the squadron with this double in one day. But during his combat, in which five Pfalz monoplanes had been attacked by our four pilots, Captain Peterson saw one of his Nieuports pass swiftly by him, ablaze from stem to stern. He collected his patrol quickly about him and rapidly scanned their markings. Charley Chapman's was missing! All were present but Chapman's well known machine.

Then Peterson remembered seeing Chapman leave the fight to attack a two-seater German machine below him. Other pilots later filled in the details that were lacking. Chapman had no sooner dived to the attack than one of the hostile fighting machines was upon his trail. Chapman turned to meet his pursuer and in doing so he brought himself full into the range of fire of the two-seater. Set on fire by the first burst, the mounting flames soon were quickly swept over the whole structure of Chapman's machine by the rush of the wind.

It was our first loss in combat and sadly did we feel that loss. Charley Chapman was one of the best loved of our little band and the sudden pang came to each one of us that we would never see his jolly good natured smile again. The horror of his fate was not lost upon us, one may be sure. No form of death is so dreaded by the pilot as falling to the earth in flames. Later on our most noted member leaped overboard to his death to avoid the slower torture of being burnt alive.

One of the queerest boys who had been wished into our squadron by an allwise Air Staff was one we will call "T. S." He was the source of constant amusement to the rest of us—amusement sometimes tinctured by a spasmodic desire to turn him over to the enemy where he might amuse the prison camps with his drolleries. We will call him T. S. because that is not his name. T. S. came to us early in the training season and was immediately marked as a pilot afraid of his medicine. He was frankly a coward and he didn't care to conceal the fact. His very frankness on this subject was very amusing to the rest of us, who were every bit as much afraid of bullets and war as he was but who had a certain shame about admitting the fact. But T. S. could see no use in playing the hypocrite about so deadly a business as getting shot down from on high. Naturally it required some little attention to keep T. S. up to the scratch when it came to patrol work over the lines. The boy was a fair pilot and was a strapping big fellow who always was in the best of health and spirits. But he did object to guns and ammunition.

The first occasion of his fluking a military job was one day when he was left on the alert at the aerodrome. All the patrols were out and he had the secondary responsibility of responding to a hurry call. The telephone sergeant came running out to the hangar and confronted our shameless reserve:

"Who is on duty here this afternoon, sir?" inquired the man.

"I believe I am," returned Lieutenant T. S., languidly eyeing the inquisitive sergeant. "Anything I can do for you?"

"Two enemy aeroplanes have been alerted over our lines, sir, in the vicinity of St. Mihiel. They are two seater machines sent over by the Germans to observe our positions." The sergeant saluted and made room for the rush of events that usually followed the receipt of such intelligence.

But T. S. never moved an eyelash. He looked the sergeant up and down, finally speaking deliberately and with finality.

"Well," he said, "let them observe! If you think I am going over there to get shot down myself, you are mistaken!"

When questioned later by the Commanding Officer, the lieutenant unblushingly repeated his statement.

"I am simply scared to death at the thought of getting into all those Archies and things over the lines," he admitted, "and I'm not going to do it if I can get out of it. There are plenty of fellows here who do not mind them and they are the ones you ought to send."

The Officer stared at T. S. in amazement, unable to criticize the faultless logic of this frank soldier. After thinking it over, it was decided to send T. S. out in patrols with veteran leaders until he had somewhat accustomed himself to the terrors of Archy. By this means a valuable pilot might be saved for the government.

Accordingly one afternoon Lieutenant T. S. was ordered to accompany Captain Hall and myself, in response to an alert that had just come in. Two enemy observation planes had been reported crossing our lines north of Nancy at an altitude of only eight thousand feet. Captain Hall directed T. S. to stick in formation close behind his left wing, while I was to occupy the same position on his right. The Captain was the flight leader and we were to obey his signals and directions.

We got away from the field without delay and streaked it across the sky in a perfect V formation. Straight towards the lines we flew, climbing as we advanced. As we neared the lines, we searched the neighboring skies but could discover no aeroplanes in sight, enemy or otherwise. So over the lines we went. We had reached a spot almost two miles behind the front, when all of a sudden a dozen magnificent Archies burst simultaneously under, above and all around us. The Germans had planned the whole show, to catch us in just this kind of trap. They had counted upon our coming over at the same altitude at which the two decoy planes had traveled and had prepared their anti-aircraft guns and time fuses thoroughly to drench this certain spot with flying shrapnel.

Fortunately no direct hits were made. But I noticed one shell explode under the tail of T. S.'s machine, lifting his bus suddenly and violently into the air, where it hung suspended for a moment with the tail pointing heavenward. The next moment he had recovered control of his Nieuport and making a short half turn, he headed for home and opened up his throttle to its full. Straight for Nancy he flew, looking neither to the right nor the left. Captain Hall and I followed after him, the Captain making desperate efforts to overtake him, all the while dipping his wings and trying to summon the frightened airman back to the formation. But it was no use. In two minutes T. S. was out of sight, with an unusually vigorous engine turning up at least l700 revolutions of his propeller per minute. We abandoned our pursuit and continued on our patrol.

An hour later we landed at our aerodrome and inquired for T. S. Nothing had been seen or heard of him. Somewhat alarmed at this strange climax to the afternoon's performance, we telephoned all over the country for news of him, but only to learn that he had not landed at any of our aerodromes near the front. Dinner passed and still no news of T. S. We decided he had become confused in his location and had landed by mistake in an aerodrome of the Germans. The lines from Nancy to Switzerland ran in such an irregular fashion that such a mistake would be quite possible..

Not until late the following afternoon was our anxiety relieved. Then came a telephone call from Lieutenant T. S. himself. He had landed quite safely at a French aerodrome just south of Nancy and but a dozen miles from our own field. He informed us that he would fly back to us at the earliest possible moment. Pressed as to why he had kept us in such long suspense about him, he replied with great indignation that he considered he was doing pretty well to have sufficiently recovered from shell-shock within twenty-four hours to get to the telephone!

The very rarity of such an example in American aviation makes this story worth the telling. Heroic conduct in war has become so usual and ordinary a thing that such a career as that of T. S. seems incredible and even amusing. The very contrast indicates how thoroughly American boys have smothered their natural desire for "living through the war" and have hurled themselves with supreme self-sacrifice into the thick of dangers over the battle lines.