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Introduction


 The Birth of Military Aviation 

 

 

Sergeant Rickenbacker tried to steady himself against the bob and swell of the lumbering ship that carried the first American soldiers of General John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Force to France.  Despite the fact that The Great War had been fought for three years already, Pershing's AEF would be the inaugural American military presence on the battlefield.

Rickenbacker himself was a raw recruit.  Fame as an American race car driver had granted him friends in the right places; which in turn had given him the opportunity to join the contingent whose headquarters' commander was a young captain named George S. Patton, Jr.   The call had come just two days earlier from Burgess Lewis in New York:  "Eddie, we're organizing a secret sailing to France.  We need staff drivers.  Would you like to go?"

"It sounds wonderful, Burgess," Rickenbacker replied.  "I'd like to think about it overnight.  Give me a call again at 8:00 in the morning."  When the call came right on schedule, Rickenbacker lined up another driver for his scheduled run in Cincinnati's Memorial Day 500 race and joined the troupe of other recruited staff drivers, all of them sergeants, as they boarded for their Atlantic passage.

Sergeant Rickenbacker's excitement at being among the first American soldiers to land on French soil since the United States formally declared war on the German Empire the previous month, was quickly tempered by the condition of his accommodations.  The sergeant drivers were billeted on hammocks loosely strung in steerage.  The ship was filthy and when Rickenbacker went for his meals in the mess hall, he found it even dirtier.  Oilcloth covered the spartan tables, and beneath these crawled hordes of bugs.  The man who throughout his life proclaimed "I'd rather have a million friends than a million dollars" was beginning to wonder what a friend had gotten him into.

After forcing down a meal, the dubious sergeant headed for the deck and some fresh air, where he met a doctor he knew, whom he soon learned had garnered a second-class cabin.  "You're a sergeant just like me," Rickenbacker stated quizzically, "so how do you rate this when I'm down in the hold with the bugs?"

"I'm a sergeant first class," the other replied, making Sergeant Rickenbacker aware for the first time that there were different types of sergeants in the United States Army.

Next to General Pershing himself, the next highest ranking officer aboard was Major Townsend F. Dodd, Pershing's aviation officer.  Prior to his abrupt enlistment in the Army, Rickenbacker had met Major Dodd and fixed his airplane motor.  Rickenbacker, never shy about asking for what he wanted, went in search of the Major and his first promotion...."After all, I had been in the Army for 48 hours."

Major Dodd took in the request with a dutiful ear, then said, "Promotions come through meritorious service, Eddie.  Now how do you intend to go about that?"

"I don't know, Major," Rickenbacker replied flatly.  "That's why I brought YOU along."

When the Colonel finished laughing, Sergeant Rickenbacker was spot promoted to Sergeant First Class Rickenbacker and assigned to a second-class cabin.

 

The men who gave birth to American air power were often considered a new breed of soldier:  inventive, impetuous, independent, innovative, and perhaps just a bit brash.  Had they been any other, world history may have turned out far different throughout the conflicts and victories of the 20th century.  Sergeant First Class Edward Vernon Rickenbacker may well have exemplified all that the American airman was in the beginning, then matured in to all that it would become in the decades that followed.

Even as Sergeant Rickenbacker was sailing to France and into American legend and lore, aviation was as green in the world's annals of military history, as the impetuous young sergeant was among the ranks of the U.S. Army.  Less than 14 years had passed since that historic moment at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina when Orville Wright had, by the fateful turn of a coin toss, become the first man to pilot a heavier than air motorized vehicle through the skies for twelve incredible seconds.  In those fourteen years, aviation technology had advanced slowly, but it had advanced.  Great strides had been made in Europe, largely due to the ongoing war with the German Empire.  Only the United States lagged behind other world powers in its development of the airplane as a military weapon, or for that matter, as even a viable means of transportation.  A list of certified pilots at the beginning of 1911 reflected the following statistics:

Nation Pilots
France
England
Germany
Italy
Belgium
United States
Austria
Holland
Switzerland
Denmark
Spain
Sweden
353
57
46
32
27
26
19
6
6
3
2
1

The low number of certified American pilots can not be interpreted as a total lack of interest in aviation in the United States.  Shortly after the historic moment at Kitty Hawk, the United States Army demonstrated an interest in the airplane as a tool for its Signal Corps, already well immersed in tactics from the heavens. 

The first humans to view Earth's landscape from above were the Montgolfier brothers who, in November 1783, floated the first balloon 3,000 feet into the skies above Paris.  In the century that followed, lighter than air balloons gained increasing interest from the world's military tacticians. 

In the early 1860s Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, a balloon enthusiast and would be world traveler in his lighter-than-air creations, found in the American Civil War some of the first military uses for aircraft.  Met with great skepticism, on June 18, 1861 he rose above our Nation's capitol with a telegraph operator as a passenger, to transmit a message half-a-mile below to President Abraham Lincoln.  A few days later, following the Battle of Bull Run, from his perch among the clouds Lowe was able to ease worries in the Capitol by reporting that there were no Confederate movements towards Washington, DC.  On July 25th, less than two months later, Lowe met with the President who noted his impression of the experiment by establishing a Balloon Corps.

Lowe is often called the Father of Army Aviation, and certainly was the first major proponent of the use of air craft in warfare.  In his own day however, despite successful uses of his balloons to observe and report on Confederate troop movements, every advance for his Balloon Corps was made only with great effort.  He once said, "I would rather have faced the entire Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Richmond, than one Union Lieutenant, defending his own small bureaucratic territory."  The struggle to build an American air force would continue for nearly a century, and more than one proponent of air power would feel the truth of his telling observation of warfare traditionalists.

Thaddeus Lowe continued to be an innovator, developing the first aircraft carrier - a barge that could ferry everything necessary to operate his balloons over land.  He was unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the military of the value of aerial photography, however.  Perhaps his greatest success came on July 4, 1863 when President Lincoln personally promoted him to the rank of Colonel, and the Balloon Corps was officially attached as a branch of the Army Signal Corps.  Thus began the link between airmen and the Signal Corps that would endure until the United States Army Air Service became its own branch within the US Army on May 20, 1918.

For the next forty years the use of observation balloons for military purposes continued to grow beyond Lowe's early concepts.  At the turn of the century the eminent secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel P. Langley, sought to create a motorized balloon, utilizing the new combustion engines developed for the automobile.  He called his creation an Aerodrome, from the Greek word for "air runner", and launched it to great hype in October, 1903.  The utter failure of his effort caused the editorial board of the New York Times to write, "The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one to ten million years."  Two months later, it was accomplished at Kitty Hawk by two self-taught mathematicians and machinists from Dayton, Ohio named Orville and Wilbur Wright.

In 1905 the Wright brothers offered their aeronautical invention to the US Government while awaiting the patent on their flying machine.  Twice the government declined the offer, failing to see any value in the airplane.  The following year the brothers received their patent, followed by the interest of a powerful ally.  Rumors of the new flying machine had reached the White House, and President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army to review the matter.  On December 23, 1907, Specification No. 486 was issued for a "heavier-than-air flying machine".  The result was the development of the future Air Force's first official individual title, Aeronautical Section of the Signal Corps.

On August 20, 1908 Orville Wright brought his 1908 Flyer to Fort Myer, Virginia where he began regular public flights two weeks later.  On September 9 Army Lieutenant Frank P. Lahm flew with the young inventor, becoming the first Army officer to fly as a passenger in an airplane. A week later, on September 17, Orville was flying with yet another Army officer as his passenger when the right propeller got caught in a guy wire causing the 1908 Flyer to crash.  Wright was seriously injured, his passenger Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge died as a result of his own injuries.  It was the first recorded airplane fatality.

By the end of the year 1910, the airplane was seven years old and maturing rapidly.  During that year the Wright brothers signed their contract with  the Signal Corps; former President Theodore Roosevelt took to the air at St. Louis; and an airplane manufacturer named Glenn Curtiss earned a  prize as the first aviator to fly from Albany, New York to New York City.  The $10,000 award, offered by the New York World, prompted rival publisher Randolph Hearst to offer a $50,000 prize to the first aviator to cross the American continent in thirty days or less.  Also in 1910, on August 20, Lieutenant Jacob E. Fickel fired the first shot from an airplane, aiming his semi-automatic pistol at a 3'x5' target at Sheepshead Bay race track near New York City, from an altitude of 100 feet.  

Italy was first to engage the airplane in military operations, using them for reconnaissance flights in its 1911 Italo-Turkish war in North Africa.   The Italian airmen became the first bombardiers in the same conflict on November 1, and the following January dropped the first propaganda leaflets from an airplane. 

In the first month of the year 1914, the Navy aviation unit from Annapolis, Maryland set up its first flying school in Pensacola, Florida.  This was the same year that the Navy sent a force to Mexico oust General Victoriano Huerta who had seized power after a bloody coup d'etat.  On April 25 Navy Lt.(j.g.) P.N.L. Bellinger flew his Curtiss AB-3 flying boat to search for sea mines in support of the American action at Vera Cruz.  It was the first operational air sortie flown by an American aviator against a foreign nation.  On July 18, 1914 the United States Congress established the Aviation Section (Signal Corps), authorizing 60 officers and 260 enlisted men.  

By August of 1914 the fledgling American air force had six airplanes, in contrast to the rapid development of military aviation in Europe.  At the time, the three major powers were well ahead of the United States military with:

Germany 180 Airplanes
France 136 Airplanes
England 48 Airplanes

On July 28, 1914 Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and in the following month the European powers began aligning themselves for war.  In the frantic week that followed, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized in support of its Balkan ally, and Germany declared war on Russia and France before marching into strategically vital Belgium.  This act prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany for violating Belgium's neutrality, and the Central Powers (German and Austria) aligned themselves in war against the Allies (England, France, and Russia).  In the Western Hemisphere President Woodrow Wilson called on the American people: "To be neutral in fact as well as in name...impartial in thought as well as in deed."

It had been less than 11 years since the historic flight at Kitty Hawk and the airplane had grown from infancy to the edge of adolescence.  The rapid growth and changes this maturing process generates in the passage from infancy to maturity in the organic world, would not be lost on the grown of military aviation.  In the organic world the changes are called "puberty", for military aviation it would be called:


World War I

 

On the ground the foot-soldiers mobilized by the warring nations of the War to End all Wars slugged it out across muddy fields, through dense forests, and across fire-swept plateaus.  Traditional warfare had advanced rapidly from the days of single-shot muskets and slow firing cannon, to deadly hails of machinegun fire and devastating artillery.  It was a brutal way to do battle.

As the commanders on the ground moved their troops like pawns on a chess board, positioning their units for maximum advantage, high above flew the prying eyes of enemy observers.  Unlike the observation balloons of the previous wars, the airplane gave enemy planners a highly mobile means of learning what their foe was doing so that they could move quickly to counter-act.  Balloons were a useful tool, and were used extensively throughout the war.  But balloons were tethered by cable to a ground support unit, which meant they were only effective when a unit was close to the front.  The observation airplane could fly well beyond enemy lines to locate enemy artillery positions, direct friendly artillery fire, and catch shifts in strategy in its earliest stages.

Somewhere over the German lines of advance, a French airplane flew through the August skies to view, record, and report the direction of the war.  As the pilot enjoyed the brisk breeze that swept through his open cockpit, it was hard to connect to the death and tragedy that was unfolding on the ground below.  To some degree, the euphoria associated with being among the first to fly, could easily overcome what was happening in the real world.

Returning to his airfield when his fuel tank had nearly expended its supply, he crossed the lines to see a German observation plane returning from his own mission over the French lines.  Passing in the wind the two aviators gave each other a thumbs up, wagged their wings, and continued to their respective landing strips.  There was little more that they could do.  Both airplanes were unarmed.  Both pilots were observers, not combatants.  Though enemies on the ground, they were brothers of the sky working similar missions and writing a new history in aviation.

The scene would play out each day, almost like a routine, until one day when the German pilot forgot to give the thumbs up or wiggle his wings.  Perhaps he'd had a bad day, and even made an angry gesture towards the French pilot.  Angry now himself, the French pilot reached beneath the seat in his cockpit to withdraw the hammer left there by his mechanics, and hurled it at the enemy fliers.

Before taking off the following day, the German pilot shoved a brick behind his seat, ready to give the Frenchman a "taste of his own medicine".  As the Hun brick ripped through the fabric on the wing of his Newport that day, the French pilot went home to arm himself.   The following day the German flier's insults would be met with hot lead from a Frenchman's pistol.


 

 

No one knows exactly how aerial combat was born, though it probably came about in a fashion quite similar to the above postulation.  War in the air developed quickly, almost comically, as each side responded to the other by leaning out of open cockpits to toss wrenches, bricks, and eventually bullets at each other.  Russian aviator Petr Nikolaevich Nesterov was a talented flier known for his acrobatics, having become the first aviator to perform a normal loop (subsequently called the Nesterov loop).  As aerial combat  developed, Nesterov started letting out weighted tables from his own airplane to smash into the canvas of his enemies.  On August 26, 1914 Staff Captain Nesterov was attacked by three Austrian planes near the town of Sholkiv in Galicia.  Nesterov gained immortality that day as the first Russian air hero when he rammed one of the enemy planes, destroying it in the first true dog fight, at the loss of his own life as well.

As these early fighter pilots struggled to develop their methods, tactics and skills, a French pilot named Lieutenant Roland Garros was working on his own innovation.  A former stunt pilot, Garros had mounted a Hotchkiss machine gun on the nose of his Morane-Saulnier Type L monoplane to shoot straight ahead instead of sideways in the cockpit.  The idea was not new, others had considered the advantage of aiming at the enemy by flying directly towards them, only to see the rain of automatic fire shred their own propeller.  

Prior to the war Raymond Saulnier had worked on an interrupter gear to synchronize the cycle of the machinegun's fire between the revolutions of the prop.  This had proved ineffective and Saulnier's work was briefly haulted until Garros revived it with a twist...steel deflector plates on his propeller to deflect errant rounds.  On April 1, 1915 Lieutenant Garros downed a two-seat German Albatros with his nose mounted gun, quickly adding four more kills to his tally to become an ACE.   On April 19 Garros lost a battle when hit by ground fire while strafing a German infantry unit near Coutrai.  Unable to destroy his airplane when forced to land in enemy territory, his modified airscrew wound up in the workshop of a Dutch engineer named Anthony Fokker.

Fokker was quick to improve on Roland Garros' concept, soon arming German airplanes with synchronized Spandau machine guns.  For months until the technology of the Allies caught up, the Fokker Scourge ruled the skies with impunity.  When at last George Constantinesco gave Allied pilots a semi-reliable, forward mounted machinegun, the field of battle equalized to some degree, and aerial combat  became a true art of warfare.


 

To say that these advances in both aviation and combat in the early days of World War I bred a NEW kind of fighting man in the annals of military history sounds catchy, though it is probably grossly in error.  It would perhaps, be more accurate to say that aerial combat REVIVED A LOST breed of fighting man.

From 1914 to 1918, in the skies over France for perhaps the first time since the Medieval Period, fighting men went to war in a long forgotten manner of military tournament.  Mounting machine-born steeds of canvas and pipe, these warriors rode aloft to do battle, one-on-one with their enemy, while their prowess was viewed from a distance.  The battles were no less dangerous than had been the jousts of old,  indeed were certainly far more deadly.  Like the ancient warriors of the Roundtable however, adventurous young men from both sides rose to the challenge, to become the

Knights of the Skies!

 

.

 

Manfred von Richthofen
The Red Baron

"I have not gone to war to collect cheese and eggs," the 23-year old German quartermaster wrote in his request for assignment to a flying unit. After a relatively nondescript tenure of duty on the Russian Front during the early days of the war, followed by several months in the rear, Manfred von Richthofen was pleading for a chance to do what soldiers are trained to do...fight.

By May 1915, less than a year after The Great War began, the man who would become a legend to both his friends and his enemies was at last flying.  A junior observer on reconnaissance and then bombing missions, he finally entered flight training the following October, graduating on Christmas Day.  Over Verdun on April 26, 1916 Mafred von Richthofen sighted a French Newport and opened fire.  As the French fighter dived into the ground, von Richthofen had his first kill (though he didn't get official credit for the victory). In the two years that followed, von Richthofen would hone his aerial skills in a cool, calculating manner that would be unprecedented and unequalled.

September 17, 1916

"In a fraction of a second I was at his back (the pilot of an RAF two-seat FE-2 airplane.) I gave a few bursts with my machine gun. I had gone so close that I was afraid I might dash into the Englishman.  Suddenly, I nearly yelled with joy for his propeller had stopped turning.  I had shot his engine to pieces; the enemy was compelled to land, for it was impossible for him to reach his own lines.

"The Englishman landed close to one of our squadrons.  I was so excited that I landed also and in my eagerness, I nearly smashed up my machine.  The English airplane and my own stood close together.  I had shot the engine to pieces and both the pilot and observer were severely wounded.  The observer died at once and the pilot while being transported to the nearest dressing station.  I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave."

Manfred von Richthofen

Within six weeks of this action, Richthofen was a double-ace with 10 victories, and poised for his greatest victory to date.  On November 23 he claimed his 11th airplane, downing British hero and Victoria Cross recipient Major Lanoe George Hawker.  "He was a brave man, a sportsman, and a fighter," Richthofen wrote of the battle between two skillful men that resulted in the death of the commander of Great Britain's Number 24 Squadron.  Upon downing his 16th enemy airplane, Richthofen was awarded the Pour le Merite (The Blue Max) and allowed to organize his own Jagdstaffel 11, which journalists soon began calling "The Flying Circus".   Baron von Richthofen painted his own airplane red, and came to be known as "The Red Baron".

In the first three months of 1917 the Baron and his signature all-red, brand new Albatros D III airplane became one of the most sought after targets, and one of the most feared sights in the skies.  By March 26 his tally reached thirty-one Allied planes shot down.  As the winter weather that had hampered flying for months cleared in April, aerial missions for both sides increased.  The Red Baron claimed an amazing 20 victories in that one bloody month alone, making him an Ace ten times over.  

Von Richthofen scored five more victories before the odds caught up with him on July 2, 1917 when he encountered the British RFC 20th Squadron.  A bullet creased his skull splintering bone, and the Red Baron spiraled to earth in a crash he would survive, but with a wound from which he would never fully recover.  For the remaining year of his life he suffered horrible headaches that plagued his waking moments and may have hampered his brilliant aerial tactics.

By September the German legend had recovered enough to return in his famous red Fokker Dr. I triplane and bring his score to an unprecedented 60 victories.  During the winter months aerial missions slowed again due the weather, but the count rose slowly.  Victory number 64 was 2nd Lieutenant H.J. Sparks who was wounded but survived his crash.  When the Red Baron learned that the British flier was recovering in a hospital, he sent the man a box of cigars.  By mid-April of 1918 von Richthofen brought his final tally to 80 confirmed victories, a record unequalled in aviation history. 

 

 

While the Red Baron was ruling the skies over Europe, the United States was being drawn ever closer to abandoning its position of neutrality.  The May 7, 1915 U-boat sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania killing more than 1,000 people including 128 Americans strained efforts at neutrality.  The tension eased only when the German government agreed to rein in its submarine fleet.

The  avoidance of war was largely welcomed in the United States, which had problems to contend with on its own shores, some of which had recently prompted the creation of the U.S. Coast Guard on January 28, 1915.  In September U.S. Marines landed at Haiti to restore and preserve order.  The following year on March 9 a Mexican revolutionary named Pancho Villa crossed the southern US border with more than 500 men to raid Columbus, New Mexico.  The death of 17 Americans forced General John J. Pershing to send troops to protect the border, as well as to mount a punitive expedition supported by the first American tactical air unit ever placed in the field, the 1st Aero Squadron.


 

Meanwhile on the European battlefront,  young Americans were getting their first taste of aerial combat in a most unorthodox fashion designed to avoid violation of US neutrality.  The 38 volunteer pilots were all American citizens, most of them Ivy League college graduates who believed strongly in fighting to preserve the rights and freedoms of other nations.  The men flew French aircraft, wore French uniforms, and served under the leadership of French Captain Georges Thenault.  They organized in April 1916, as the Escadrille Americaine, "American Squadron".  The German government soon complained to Washington, DC that the unit was a violation of American neutrality, prompting a name change in December.  The first fearless American fighter pilots thus became known as:

Lafayette Escadrille

Though the Escadrille Americaine was authorized by the French government on March 21st, the unit did not organize formally until April 20, when these volunteer American aviators were placed on front-line duty at Luxeuil-les-Bains near Switzerland.  The unit flew its first mission on May 13, and five days later in yet another aerial mission, Kifflin Rockwell shot down an LVG reconnaissance airplane to score the first victory by an American-born fighter pilot.  Forty days later his friend Victor Chapman was shot down, the first American pilot to be killed in action.

In the months that followed, the now-combat-experienced pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille were rotated among other French units, which were absorbing a fresh crop of volunteer American pilots into its Lafayette Flying Corps (often erroneously confused with the Lafayette Escadrille).  In all, more than 200 Americans served as members of the French flying forces.

From its organization on April 20, 1916 until it was absorbed by the newly arrived United States Army on February 18, 1918 the men of the Lafayette Escadrille were engaged in every major battle.  The squadron downed 57 enemy aircraft, and lost nine of its own pilots in battle.  Of the 200 American fliers of the entire Lafayette Flying Corps, eleven became aces.  The leading figure among them and the man who would be called America's first Ace of Aces was a French-born American citizen from Wallingford, Connecticut.

Raoul Lufbery
A hero to TWO Countries

Raoul Lufbery was over age 30 when he joined the Lafayette Escadrille on May 24, 1916 just one month after the unit was organized.  Already he was a combat veteran and an experienced pilot, two qualities sorely lacking among the unit of American volunteers.

Born in France, Lufbery's father came to America shortly after his son was born, leaving young Raoul in the care of his grandmother.  When Raoul was  nineteen years old, he sailed for America.  Ironically, on the very day Raoul departed, his father returned  to Europe and the two never saw each other again.

A stint of service in the United States Army, coupled with a tour of duty in the Philippines, netted Raoul Lufbery American citizenship.  When World War I erupted, Lufbery felt a responsibility to defend the land of his birth, while prizing his U.S. citizenship.  He resolved the situation by joining the French Foreign Legion as an infantryman, which would not jeopardize that citizenship.

Lufbery got his first aerial victory on July 30, 1916, and his second victory later the same day.  Over the next two months he shot down three more enemy airplanes to become an ace and the leading flier of the Lafayette Escadrille.  When the Escadrille was absorbed by the United States Army in 1918, Raoul Lufbery was the Ace of Aces for two nations, the country of his birth and the country in which he held citizenship.  As an American pilot in a French uniform he had shot down 16 enemy aircraft.

 

 

 

Saving Democracy

Nearly a century after The Great War, most Americans think of World War I as a long period of protracted warfare similar to the World War II experience.  For the European nations of the Central Powers and the Allied Forces, this was true...four years of bitter fighting.  For nearly three-fourths of that war however, the United States maintained its neutrality.  Not until April 6, 1917 did the United States Congress, by a vote of 373 to 50, pass a resolution of war.  The Senate had approved the measure two days earlier by a vote of 90 to 6.

Even then, the United States entered the war with great reluctance following the impassioned speech by President Woodrow Wilson:

"The world must be made safe for democracy.  It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, the most terrible of wars.  But the right is more precious that the peace, and we shall fight for the things that we have always carried nearest our hearts...FOR DEMOCRACY...for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."

The following month saw Staff Sergeant Eddie Rickenbacker en route to Europe as a member of General Pershing's Expeditionary Force.  Pershing's force arrived in France late in June, and participated in a grand parade through Paris on July 4th, to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette who had figured so prominently in the United States own victory during the American Revolution.  Media reports announced worldwide that historic moment as Pershing stood before the tomb to announce, "Lafayette, we are here!"  (General Pershing subsequently denied speaking perhaps the most famous phrase of World War I, crediting it instead to his aide, Colonel Charles Stanton.)

The arrival of fresh American combatants, eventually five full divisions, brought a new sense of hope and relief to the Allies.  Even so, it was several months before American combat units were placed on the front lines.  On October 20 the First Division (Big Red One) assumed a combat position  near Luneville.  During the period the Aviation Section spent most of its time training and preparing for war.  Things were relatively quiet for the A.E.F. in 1917.  All that would change with the thaw of the winter of 1918.


Hat In the Ring

Early in 1918 the Army organized two brand new squadrons of American fliers for combat. They were given the designation of the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons.  The idol of two countries, Raoul Lufbery was absorbed by the U.S. Army and granted the rank of Major, who then assumed command of the 95th Aero Squadron on January 28.  Among that veteran combat pilots' green recruits was Lieutenant Eddie Rickenbacker.

The 94th and 95th were assigned to the aerodrome near Villeneuve, about fifteen miles from the front lines.  As winter thawed and weather permitted increased flying time, historical events began unfolding rapidly.

On March 6 Major Lufbery led a flight of three aircraft in the first all-American flight across the lines by an American trained squadron.  The two pilots he chose to accompany him were 1st Lieutenants Douglas Campbell and Eddie Rickenbacker.   Five days later Lieutenant Paul F. Baer gave the 103rd Aero Squadron the first victory of any American squadron during the war when he downed an enemy airplane near Rheims.  For his action, he became the first aviator to earn the Distinguished Service Cross.   The following day Captain Phelps Collins of the same squadron crashed while on a combat patrol near Paris, the first member of the Aviation Section to die in a war zone.  

On April 10 an aerial legend was born with the first appearance of the 94th Aero Squadron's new emblem.  Suggested the previous month by Captain Paul Walters of the Medical Corps and drawn by 1st Lieutenant John Wentworth, it featured Uncle Sam's trademark hat with a ring around it.  The ring had been suggested by Walters, based on the American tradition of throwing a hat into the ring as an invitation to battle.

On April 12 Major Lufbery threw his hat in the ring in the skies over Epinez, shooting down his 17th enemy aircraft, though the victory was not confirmed.  Rickenbacker flew for the first time with the squadron's new emblem emblazoned on his own Newport two days later on the first combat mission ever ordered by an American commander of an American squadron of American pilots.  Rickenbacker would return empty handed but Lieutenants Campbell and and Alan Winslow scored a double victory that sent a ripple of excitement around the world and made headlines at home.  The day following the exciting victory for American fighter pilots, 1st Army commander Brigadier General Liggett and the Chief of Air Service, 1st Army A.E.F. Colonel William Billy Mitchell visited the Hat in the Ring Squadron to observe their progress and congratulate the men for their success.

ON APRIL 21 AN AERIAL LEGEND DIED!

Canadian Captain Roy Brown was leading the flight of fifteen Sopwith Camels as cover for photo planes when they were jumped by an equal number of German Fokkers and Albatroses.  As 30 pilots dodged and weaved among the clouds in one of the classic dog fights of the war, an all-red triplane spiraled to earth.  To this day no one knows for sure who was responsible for the victory, but when the German airplane plowed into the ground near a position held by Australian soldiers, it was found to contain the body of Manfred von Richthofen.  The Red Baron was dead.

The following day the British held a grand funeral for the man who had been their greatest adversary, complete with six RAF Captains as pallbearers and a fourteen-man firing party.  All flights of the 17th Aero Squadron of the United States Army contributed to the floral arrangement that covered his casket.  Photographs were taken of the last farewell to perhaps the greatest ace of all time, then dropped over his airdrome at Cappy with the message:

TO THE GERMAN FLYING CORPS:

Rittmeister Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in aerial combat on April 21st, 1918.  He was buried with full military honours.

From the British Royal Air Force

 

One month later on May 19, another legend died.  Rickenbacker had just returned from a patrol to hear the news that Raoul Lufbery had been shot down in a field near Nancy.  In his autobiography Rickenbacker  recounted the scene:

"He held the plane on a straight course (after being hit) for about five seconds. Then, from the ground, eyewitnesses saw him squirm out of the blazing cockpit and climb onto the fuselage. Straddling it, he pushed himself back toward the tail.  He rode in this position for several seconds as the flames fanned back over him.  Then he jumped.

"I returned from patrol to hear this shocking story.  A phone call came in with the exact location of the spot where he had landed.  A group of us jumped into a car and drove to the spot.  He had fallen in a lovely little garden in a small town near Nancy.  Nearby was a small stream; he may have been trying to land in the water.  Instead his body had been impaled on a picket fence.  Death must have been instantaneous."

The loss of two of the greatest icons in World War I aviation served as a vivid reminder to the young men of what had now become the United States Army Air Service, that aerial combat was not a game.  It was a dangerous experience with  deadly consequences.  By July the individual American squadrons were in fierce competition to be the best, while watching sadly as more and more fellow fliers fell to enemy pilots or even ground fire.  New heroes emerged, new aces arose, and new exploits were recorded, but none could compare to the legendary status of the Red Baron or Raoul Lufbery.  Their deaths had left a void that could only be filled by some as yet undiscovered new legendary Knight of the air.

Another disheartening blow struck the heart of the Army Air Service on July 14 when a 20-year old Lieutenant was shot down in flames over German lines.  The body of the young pilot was photographed in the most grotesque and macabre positions of his  death, and then circulated back in the United States by German propagandists.  

The young officer was First Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of the former American president.

 

By the end of July those men of the American Aero Squadrons who had survived their months of combat were seasoned veterans, many of them aces.  After the death of Lufbery, Eddie Rickenbacker attained the title of American "Ace of Aces", but despite the heroic sorties and valiant tournaments among the clouds, no American flier had risen to legendary proportions of the two lost icons among the Knights of the Skies.  If ever a new hero was desperately needed to boost morale, it was now, and the American pilots were ready for him to appear.

When the swaggering blonde cowboy from Arizona arrived, he was ready to rise to that challenge.  The only problem was, the seasoned pilots of his squadron were not ready for HIM!

 

Frank Luke

The Balloon Buster

 

Sources:

Ault, Phil, By the Seat of Their Pants, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1978
The Literary Digest
, Vol. 93, No. 13, June 25, 1927
Rickenbacker, Edward V.,  Rickenbacker, Prentice Hall, 1967

 


Part I

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Part II
World War Two
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Part III
US Air Force

 

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