Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 6
ON Monday, May 6th, 1918, the monotony of another "dud" day was happily broken by the arrival at our aerodrome of our old comrades of the 95th Squadron, who had been with us at Epiez. They had just completed their gunnery training at Cazeau and were now ready for the great war. From that day to the end of the conflict Squadrons 94 and 95 continued to occupy the same aerodrome. No other two American squadrons in France ever equaled their victories and number of hours flying over the lines.
Squadron 95 contained much the same quality of material as was found in my own squadron. John Mitchell of Boston, now the Captain of the Squadron, was an old boy from Fay School, St. Mark's and Harvard.
Quentin Roosevelt was one of the newly assigned pilots in 95. Both the enlisted men and his fellow pilots found that Quent relied upon his own attainments rather than upon the reputation of his celebrated father; and it is safe to say that Quent Roosevelt was easily the most popular man in his Squadron. To indicate Quentin's love for square dealing and fairness, I may divulge a little secret that were Quentin still living might not be told.
His commanding officer, moved perhaps by the fact that Quentin was the son of Theodore Roosevelt, made him a Flight Commander before he had ever made a flight over the lines. Quentin appreciated the fact that his inexperienced leadership might jeopardize the lives of the men following him. He accordingly declined the honor. But his superiors directed him to obey orders and to take the office that had been assigned to him. A trio of pilots, all of whom had had more experience in war flying than had Quentin so far received, were placed under his command. And an order was posted directing Lieutenant Roosevelt's Flight to go on its first patrol the following morning.
Quentin called his pilots to one side.
"Look here, you fellows, which one of you has had the most flying over the lines? You, Curtis?"
Curtis shook his head and replied:
"Buckley, or Buford,—both of them have seen more of this game than I have."
Quentin looked them all over and made up his mind before he spoke.
"Well, any one of you knows more about it than I do! To-morrow morning you, Buckley, are to be Flight Commander in my place. As soon as we leave the ground, you take the lead. I will drop into your place. We will try out each man in turn. They may be able to make me Flight Commander in name, but the best pilot in my group is going to lead it in fact."
Until the day he died a gallant soldier's death, Quentin Roosevelt continued to fly under the leadership of one of his pilots. He himself had never led a flight.
Sumner Sewell, of Harvard, Bill Taylor, later killed in combat, old Heinie Heindricks, later shot down with ten wounds and made a prisoner in Germany, and a dozen other choice spirits combined to make of Squadron 95 an aggregation second to none other in the world —excepting that of my own, the 94th.
About eight o'clock in the morning of May 7th, 1918, the French alerted us by telephone. Four enemy aeroplanes were flying over Pont-à-Mousson and were headed for the south. The First Flight—my own— was on duty at the time— very luckily for us, as Jimmy Hall, Eddie Green and I thought. We jumped for our machines and anxiously watched the mechanics swinging the propellers
"Switch off!" yelled the mechanic.
"Coupez!" I replied as I cut the switch with one finger while wriggling the rest of them into my fur gloves. Three or four downward strokes of the stick and the mechanic paused a second to look over the fusilage into my face.
"Contact?" he yelled determinedly.
"Contact it is!" I called back, snapping on the switch. The well groomed motor caught with a roar at the first heave and at almost the same time I saw that Hall and Green were in equal readiness for the business of the day. A moment later and the three machines lifted their spinning wheels from the ground and heading straight towards the little city of Pont-à-Mousson on the Moselle, we began climbing as we flew.
When I looked down and found the roofs of Pont-à-Mousson below me, my altimeter indicated an elevation of 12,000 feet. Nothing appeared to be in sight inside the German lines, so I turned my scrutiny to the west towards St. Mihiel. The winding river there traced an indistinct line around the hills about St. Mihiel, and finally disappeared near distant Verdun. I drew my focus a little closer and instantly detected a moving shadow some two or three miles inside our lines in the vicinity of Beaumont, about half-way to St. Mihiel. It was a Boche—this I saw at the second glance. Looked like a two-seater and was very evidently regulating the Huns' artillery fire against some American position back of Beaumont. I dipped my wings to signal the news of my discovery to my companions and as I did so I saw Jimmy Hall's Nieuport play the same maneuver. The three of us began our direct pique together.
As we neared the vicinity of our unsuspicious prey I noticed a German Archy shell break, not near me but in close proximity to their own machine. The Hun shells emit a black smoke upon bursting, which distinguishes them from the Allies' shells, which show a white smoke. Instantly the two-seater Albatros turned and dived for Germany.
A moment later three more German shells burst ahead of the retreating two-seater. And these three bursts were at about our present altitude. It seemed to be a previously arranged method of conversation which the gunners below were carrying on with the aeroplane high above them. They were telling the Albatros that our three fast fighting machines were approaching from the east, and they indicated by the smoke-bursts the precise altitude at which we were flying.
Many times since have I noticed this marvelous signaling arrangement between the anti-aircraft gunners and the German aeroplanes. Upon one occasion I saw shell-bursts informing the Boche pilots of my presence above a cloud when I was hiding and planning a surprise party for the oncoming Huns. This admirable liaison between German artillery and their aviators might be imitated with great advantage by our own army. For not only does the threatened machine get this valuable warning, but aeroplane reinforcements far distant can see these smoke-bursts and fly to the rescue with full information as to the number, altitude and perhaps the type of hostile machines ahead of them. Almost invariably an overpowering enemy formation appeared shortly after these signals were sent up.
Still another signal was adopted by the Hun batteries to indicate the formation of our machines to their pilots. Through their powerful telescopes they ascertained the relative position of each machine in our formation. If one of our machines climbed high above the rest of the formation in order to perch well upstairs and guard against a surprise from the ceiling, this maneuver was communicated to the Boche pilots by sending up one shell which burst well above the others. Immediately the Boche pilots were on their guard against an antagonist who was hiding in the glare of the sun and could not be seen by them. The single high burst notified them that he was there.
As Captain Hall, Lieutenant Green and myself drew nearer to the slower two-seater machine, another smoke-burst signal came from the batteries below. I turned my head and looked about me to see if enemy machines were coming in answer to these signals. Back towards Pont-à-Mousson I thought I saw something in the sky. Keeping my gaze fixed in that direction, my suspicions were soon verified. Four Pfalz scouts were in hot pursuit after us and were diagonalling our course so as to cut off our retreat.
Sheering in ahead of Captain Hall, I wigwagged my wings and headed away to the right. This is the signal given to the leader of a flight, to draw his attention to a danger that he has overlooked. The next moment Captain Hall had again taken the lead and all three of our machines had turned and were headed eastward. The oncoming enemy formation was flying much below us, which gave us a decided advantage. We could dive down to the attack when we chose and could keep out of their reach so long as we kept above them. Our machines were at that time some three of four miles inside the German lines.
For some unexplained reason Captain Hall began turning more and more into Germany. I wondered what could be the trouble. Either he saw something in that direction, or else he still was ignorant of the near presence of the four Pfalz machines. I debated the matter for an instant, then darted in ahead of Jimmy and gave him another signal. Fully convinced now that he must see the Boche formation which was hardly more than a mile from us, I came out of my virage and headed down for the attack. With a man like Captain Hall behind me, I did not fear for the outcome. His machine followed close behind mine.
From our superior height we soon accumulated a speed which brought us into a very favorable position I selected the rear Pfalz scout and got my sights dead upon him and prepared to shoot. My aim never wavered as the distance between us narrowed. At 200 yards I pressed my trigger and watched my tracer bullets speeding ahead into the Pfalz's wings. My gun continued to fire steadily until I had approached to within 50 yards of the Pfalz. Then the enemy machine turned over and fell into a vrille. I did not dare to follow him farther. I zoomed up until I stood fairly upright on my tail, in which position I looked swiftly around me.
My first thought was that during the intentness of my pursuit against my victim one of his companions might be getting a similar position over my tail. To my great relief no enemy was behind me. But off to the right, not a hundred yards away, I saw a Nieuport diving steeply clown, and on his tail was a diving Pfalz pouring streams of living fire into the fusilage and cockpit of the American machine. Even as I watched this frightful death chase, the tables were suddenly turned. Hall or Green, whichever it was, seeming to tire of the monotony, zoomed quickly upwards and looped his machine completely over, coming out of the loop just as the Pfalz went under him. In a twinkling the situation was reversed and the Nieuport was pouring bullets at the rate of 650 per minute into the Boche machine, ahead.
The Boche fell and I piqued down and flew alongside the victorious Jimmy Hall. My surprise can be imagined when I discovered not Hall, but Green looking across at me from his seat! And no other machine was in the sky. What could have happened to Jimmy Hall ?
We flew homewards together, Green and I, encountering a furious storm of Archy as we crossed the trenches. Arrived at the landing ground, I immediately ran over to Green to inquire for news of Jimmy. My heart was heavy as lead within me, for I was certain as to what the answer would be.
"Went down in a tail spin with his upper wing gone!" Green informed me without my speaking. "I saw him dive onto a Boche just as I began my attack. The next I saw of him, he was going in a vrille and the Boche was still firing at him as he was falling. He must have struck just back of those woods behind Montsec."
I cannot describe the joy that came to the squadron about a month later when we received a letter from Jimmy Hall himself. He wrote from a hospital in Germany, where he was laid up with a broken ankle. He had not been shot down in the combat, as we had supposed, but had dived too swiftly for the weak wing structure of a Nieuport. His upper wing had collapsed in full flight; and not until he had almost reached the ground had he been able to straighten out his aeroplane. In the crash he had escaped with merely a cracked ankle. In another fortnight he hoped he would be as good as ever.
On November 19th, 1913, when the day came for the French army to march in and occupy the fortress and city of Metz, several of the officers from our squadron flew over from our aerodrome at Rembercourt to witness the ceremony. We appeared to be the first Americans that the Metz populace had seen. One of the first citizens that spoke to us while we were overlooking the triumphal procession through the Plaza, asked us if we knew an American aviator named Captain Hall. We immediately gathered around him and drew him one side.
"Well," he said, half in French and half in German, "your Captain Hall was confined in the hospital here for many weeks and then was in a prison. Only yesterday the Germans evacuated Metz and all their prisoners were set at liberty. Captain Hall left here yesterday in the direction of Nancy. He walked away quite nicely with the aid of a cane, and perhaps he will be able to get a ride part of the way."
Upon our return to the aerodrome from Metz next day, we learned that Jimmy Hall had indeed come through the lines. He had gone to Paris for a rest. A number of his old friends immediately got into their machines and flew to Paris, where they greeted their long lost comrade with appropriate ceremonies at the justly celebrated Inn of Monsieur de Crillon— that American aviator's rendezvous and oasis in Paris.
And from Jimmy Hall himself we learned the true facts of his accident that day over Montsec. He had overtaxed his Nieuport by too fast a dive. A wing gave way and threatened to drop him into the woods below. But by nursing his machine along with engine half on he was succeeding, just as Jimmy Meissner had done the day before, in making appreciable headway towards home, when he felt a violent blow on his engine. His motor stopped dead. Again he dropped utterly out of control and eventually crashed in an open field, suffering a badly broken ankle.
One of the pilots with whom we had just been fighting landed near by and came over and made him prisoner. A brief inspection of his motor showed that the violent blow he had felt in mid-air was the result of a direct hit by a dud shell! By some miracle it had failed to explode!
The Pfalz pilot took Captain Hall to his own Squadron quarters where he dined that night with the German aviators. They admitted to him that they had lost two machines in the fight with our formation that day.
Two machines! Green shot one down, but who got the other? I had seen my man fall in a vrille, but having no time to follow him down, I had concluded that he was shamming and was in reality quite unhurt. I had not even thought that I had won a victory in that combat. Imagine my surprise when Captain Hall later described how he himself had seen my antagonist burst into flames and crash, burnt to a crisp! And the surviving pilots of his Squadron admitted to Captain Hall that they had lost two machines in that day's fight! Thus do victories sometimes come to the airfighter without his realizing it. This enemy machine was never claimed and never credited to me.
Captain Hall's disappearance that day was known to the whole civilized world within twenty-four hours. Widely known to the public as a most gifted author, he was beloved by all American aviators in France as their most daring air-fighter. Every pilot who had had the privilege of his acquaintance burned with a desire to avenge him.
Within fifteen minutes after I had landed from Hall's last patrol I encountered old Luf walking towards the aerodrome with a set look of determination on his usually merry features that denoted no mercy to the enemies he had in mind. He was, I knew, one of Jimmy's very intimate friends. For many months they had flown together in the famous old Lafayette Escadrille..
His mechanics, seeing his approach, anticipated his wishes and began pushing out his plane and collecting his flying equipment for him. Without uttering a word Lufbery pulled on his flying suit, climbed into his machine and set out towards Germany.
He flew for an hour and a half without encountering an enemy plane. Then with but half an hour's petrol remaining he flew deeper into Germany to attack singlehanded three fighting machines which he detected north of St. Mihiel. One of these he shot down and the others took to their heels. The following day his gallant victory was confirmed by an advanced Post which had witnessed the combat.
Pathetic and depressing as was the disappearance of James Norman Hall to all of us, I am convinced that the memory of him actually did much to account for the coming extraordinary successes of his squadron. Every pilot in his organization that day swore to revenge the greatest individual loss that the American Air Service had yet suffered.