Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 7
IT was on May 8th, 1918, the day following the melancholy disappearance of Captain Jimmy Hall that I was notified that I was to take his place and henceforth was to command Number I Flight in our squadron. While very much gratified by this promotion I could not help realizing that before the day was over some other man in my Flight might be taking over the command in my place just as I was taking it from Captain Hall.
Many small ideas that might enable me to prolong my life in aviation had made indelible impressions upon my mind during he past weeks. Several of them had come to my attention through the ludicrous blunders I had been making. The more foolish I had felt over each mistake, the deeper became the lesson to me. I resolved as soon as I became Flight Commander, that I should begin by schooling the pilots under my care in some of the life-saving tricks that I had learned. The dangerous frailty of the Nieuport's wings was one item to bear in mind.
Another of these little precautions that might spell the difference between life and death was the habit I forced upon myself always to make one or two complete circles of the aeroplane before landing at the end of a patrol. The necessity for such a trifling precaution is reasonable. Diving swiftly and suddenly from 15,000 feet altitude where the air is thin and very cold, to the ground level where the change in the pressure - upon the temples is often severe, may very easily make the airman dizzy. He may misjudge his distance above the earth and crash violently when trying only to skim the ground. A circuit or two just above the surface of the landing field will give him time to adjust his vision and accustom himself to the change in the air pressure. It takes but a minute and may save a life. Incidentally one can look about and see that no other planes are preparing to land in the same spot at the same time.
Two days after assuming my new command I was returning with my Flight late in the afternoon from a patrol. As we circled about our field I noticed a plane flattening out for a landing below me. I watched him for a moment and saw that he was coming in perfectly. The next instant I noticed another plane coming in to land from exactly the opposite direction. The wheels of both machines touched earth at the opposite ends of the field at approximately the same moment. I was powerless to do more than watch the climax of this stupid proceeding, though I believe I did try to shout to each of them to look out for the other fellow. Of course I could not make myself heard by anybody, but I couldn't help shouting, for I knew instinctively that they were in for a jolly good crash.
The two machines sped gracefully towards each other head on, very much like a staged railroad collision at a county fair. Exactly in the middle of the field they met, the two wings embraced each other in an "aleman left" figure of the lancers and around and around they went, spinning like a top. In the midst of the revolving dance the synchronizing mechanism on Captain Marr's machine-gun became involved and flaming tracer bullets and incendiary bullets shot out of the merry-go-round at the rate of 650 shots per minute. From my box seat above it looked very much like a Fourth of July celebration, with a gigantic pin wheel shooting out living sparks in every direction.
Fortunately not a soul was hurt during the entire celebration, as seems to be the usual lucky outcome of mimic war maneuvers. Both pilots crawled out of the wreckage, shook hands and walked over to the hangars to tell the men in shelter that the show was over. Then we made our landing.
Next day Reed Chambers accompanied me on a patrol across the German lines and we made another rather interesting discovery. Four splendid Albatros machines were approaching us from over Thiaucourt, which was about four miles inside the enemy's territory. They were in good formation and were at about our altitude. I wigwagged over to Reed and he wigwagged back to me. We both understood each other. We were two against the enemy four, but the two on our side had full confidence in each other and both were fairly well bucked up over the recent successes of our Squadron. Perhaps the opposing four might be lacking in this mutual confidence. At any rate, it was worth the chance of trying a bluff to see if we could not get them separated.
It is half the game to know thoroughly one's partner and his capabilities in air-fighting, as it is in any other accomplishment. Reed Chambers was a dare-devil to all appearances, and was always an eager flyer, but I had noticed that he combined a rare caution with his recklessness, making him an excellent and reliable comrade in a fight. Subsequently Reed accumulated seven official victories to his credit and at the end of the war he stood next to me in the number of hours' flying over enemy's lines.
Turning simultaneously towards the Albatros group, we put on our motors and headed directly into them. We didn't swerve an inch from our parallel course as we shot straight at the center of the approaching quartet. Whether they thought we were two furious expert fighters from the United States or two crazy amateurs who might ram them in mid-air I do not know, but before we had arrived within fair shooting range the leader banked over, turned tail and, the rest of the formation sheepishly following him, they all four dived steeply down into Germany, leaving us a vacant sky over Thiaucourt. We had bluffed out a superior formation through sheer impudence.
May 12th was "dud" as far as aviation was concerned, but it was brightened with one of the pleasantest incidents that marked my stay in France. Colonel Mitchell telephoned over to the aerodrome to invite several of us to make a call with him at Château Sirur, a magnificent estate of an old French family, situated some fifty miles south of our aerodrome. Major Huffer, with several other officers from our squadron, left the mess with me immediately after lunch and we reached the Château within a few minutes of the arrival of Colonel Mitchell and Major Hall. The Countess gave us a most cordial greeting, then took us over a part of the estate, which consisted of a park some ten miles square. The grounds were heavily wooded and beautifully kept. Through the woodland curved a winding stream which was spanned at intervals with quaint and ancient stone bridges. Fish ponds and shooting preserves provided the Château with wild game the year around. Several wild boars crossed our road a few paces in front of us during our walk. Shooting wild boar, we were told, was one of the favorite pastimes of the occupants of the Château.
The Château itself contained many palatial rooms. A dimly lighted little chapel occupied one corner of the Château and this part of the building, we learned, dated back to the days of the Romans. During tea the Countess very graciously invited us to make this magnificent old castle our home if at any time American aviators became worn out with work at the front. I must confess to the good Countess some day that a scandalous number of our over-tired aviators and perhaps still greater a number of not-at-all tired American aviators did subsequently avail themselves of her very generous invitation.
After cordial good-bye to our hospitable hostess we motored back to Chaumont where we dined with Colonel Mitchell; and then with another long drive we finally reached home tired but happy at 3.30 in the morning. There staring me in the face was an order directing me to lead my patrol over the lines in the morning at five o'clock, sharp! An hour and a half sleep for an utterly worn out aviator!
Heaven must have heard my prayers for rain that night, for the next morning when I woke up at eleven o'clock and rushed to the window I found the rain falling in sheets. The orderly had omitted to call me at the appointed hour, because he saw that the weather was too thick for flying. Decorations for valor and heroism were coming to several of the boys in our squadron on May 15th; and we all woke up that morning to find a beautiful day dawning. While we all of us assumed a truly American disdain for performances of this kind, we nevertheless clearly indicated by our nervousness the pride which we really felt in receiving this award.
General Gerard, Commander of the 6th French Army, was to arrive at our field shortly after lunch. All the forenoon I tried to avoid my gallant messmates, who were continually seeking me out to advise me to shave again and to use plenty of powder on the cheeks where the General would kiss me. Both Lieutenant Jimmy Meissner and I were quite new to this decoration business and we were nicely stuffed by all the other fellows who claimed to know all about it. Major David Peterson was also receiving the Croix de Guerre, but he had been through many ceremonies of this kind and was little worried by the prospect. Captain James Norman Hall, whom we considered killed in combat, and Lieutenant Charles Chapman, who had been shot down a fortnight before, were both summoned to appear for their well earned distinctions, but neither, alas, could answer to his name.
Shortly after one o'clock three companies of a crack Poilu regiment marched onto our field behind a gorgeous French military band of music. Then came several more companies of infantry from the famous American 26th Division, the New England boys. They had a good snappy American band at their head. Both French and American soldiers drew up their ranks in the form of a hollow square in the center of our aerodrome.
In the meantime we had run out all the Nieuports from the hangars and they stood cheek by jowl across the field, shining brightly with their red, white and blue markings in the sunlight. All the mechanics and enlisted men formed ranks behind the aeroplanes and stood awaiting the beginning of the ceremony.
Jimmy Meissner and I stood shaking in our well polished boots, while our cheery comrades came by for a last word of comforting advice. Then, with Major Peterson beside us, we waited for the fatal word of advance into the awful presence. Suddenly, midst a blare of both bands, the General's party appeared from behind one of the hangars where they had been in hiding all this time. I tried one minute to think of how proud my old mother would be of me and the next would attempt to stretch my face up to such a height that no ordinary general would ever be able to reach it with his lips. This was the last piece of excellent advice that a delegation of my oldest friends had crossed the aerodrome to give me.
Suddenly a faraway band began playing something that sounded somewhat familiar. It turned out to be the National Anthem, "Oh! Say! Can you See . . . ?" Everybody jerked to attention and stood at the Salute until it ended. Then from far away in front of me Colonel Mitchell, the Head of our Air Service, began a brief speech congratulating us upon the honors which the French Army was conferring upon us. And then General Gerard, a kindly looking man with a businesslike military efficiency in his features and movements, approached our little line of three. He was carrying in his hands the Croix de Guerre and a printed list of citations from the French Army. Pausing immediately in front of us, he began reading them aloud in French.
The Croix de Guerre is a beautiful medal in bronze, artistically designed and executed. It hangs suspended from a ribbon of striped red and green upon which are fastened the palms or stars for each particular citation given by the army or division. If any individual soldier is mentioned for an act of heroism in especial terms by an army order he is presented with an additional palm for each of such citations. Some of the French airmen have received so many citations that the medal itself would hang down below the waist if the ribbon were properly lengthened to accommodate every palm awarded. I have seen René Fonck, the French Ace of Aces, who has been cited 29 times for his victories, wearing his Croix de Guerre in two sections so as to accommodate all the palms that must be worn upon ceremonial occasions. If the citations come from a division instead of an army the decoration to be worn above the Croix de Guerre is a star instead of a palm. Colonel William Thaw wears two stars and three palms among his many other decorations.
With a quick fastening of the much prized honor upon the breast of our tunics and a hearty handclasp of congratulations General Gerard left us, with a very dignified salute which we all returned simultaneously. The discriminating Commander had not made an attempt to kiss us at all!
Within five minutes the field was cleared and we were running up our motors for a pre-arranged exhibition in stunt-flying, formation flying, farce combats and acrobatics. We flung our lithe little Nieuports about the warm sky in every variety of contortion for half an hour, at the end of which we landed and again received a hand-shake and a smile of thanks from this most courteous of French officials. The troops disappeared behind the dying strains of the "Sambre et Meuse" march, the mud-splashed automobiles bore away the last of our distinguished visitors, the mechanics reappeared in their grease-covered overalls and began trundling in the machines.
Suddenly Jimmy Meissner stood by my side, grinning his most winsome grin. "Rick," said he, "I feel that 'Hate-the-Hun' feeling creeping over me. What do you say to going up and getting a Boche ?"
"Right!" I called back over my shoulder. "Come along. We'll take a real ride."
As luck would have it, we had hardly left the ground when we saw a Hun two-seater, probably a Rumpler machine, very high above us. The Rumpler has the highest ceiling of any of the German twoseaters and frequently they sail along above us at an elevation quite impossible for the Nieuport to reach. It is maddening to attain one's maximum height and see the enemy still sailing imperturbably along, taking his photographs and scorning even to fire an occasional burst at one. We climbed at our fastest to overtake this fellow before he could reach his safety spot. Evidently he got "wind up," for after a few minutes climbing he sheered off towards Germany and disappeared from our view. We completed our patrol of the lines without finding another enemy in the sky and returned to our field, where we landed with the mutual vow that on the morrow we would begin seriously our palm collecting shows until we might dangle our new Croix de Guerre well down below our knees.
Jimmy looked contemplatively down at my long legs.
"Have a heart, Rick!" he said softly, "think of the cost of the red tape!."