The excitement of that first combat patrol, coupled with the double victory of Lieutenants Campbell and Winslow was quickly tempered by two weeks of frustration for Eddie Rickenbacker and the other would-be aces of the 94th Aero Squadron. In the weeks before that first Hat In The Ring victory, impatient weeks of waiting for machine guns for the squadron's Nieuports, Lieutenant Paul Baer of the 103rd Aero Squadron claimed four victories. On May 21 the famed Red Baron was shot down and killed, and two days later Lieutenant Baer got his fifth victory to become the first ace of the American Army Air Service. (This distinction is often erroneously credited to Eddie Rickenbacker.)
In the matter of intra-squadron rivalry, the 103rd now had 14 victories compared to the 94th Aero Squadron's two victories from April 14th, and besides Lieutenant Baer's role as the first American Ace, Major William Thaw of the 103rd had three victories and Captain James Hall had two.
On the same day Baer became an ace Major Lufbery did his best to raise the score for his squadron when he attacked an enemy bi-plane, only to return empty handed after firing just five rounds. The 94th Aero Squadron's Nieuports had received their guns, but all too often the pilots still found themselves flying unarmed. Time after time the guns jammed at the most inopportune moment. This mechanical failure was second in severity only to the tendency of the canvas covering the Nieuport's wings to shred when the plane was put into a steep dive. Both equipment handicaps were frustrating; either could be fatal.
The pilots of the Hat In The Ring Squadron poked their heads out the door of their quarters at 6:00 a.m. to check the weather. Since Major Lufbery's aborted mission six days earlier it had rained almost incessantly. For several days, not a single mission had been mounted. Once again, disappointment hushed the normal banter of the eager pilots over breakfast.
Shortly after noon the sun finally broke through the clouds, and hope mounted for some activity. Rickenbacker was scheduled for an afternoon flight with Captain Hall who had been transferred from the 103rd shortly after his second victory. The captain's experience and combat record had impressed Rickenbacker, and he was excited to be teamed with the man who had become a friend and mentor. They were standing by in their flight suits when, at five o'clock, a call came through from French headquarters at Beaumont to alert the pilots at the aerodrome that an enemy two-seater was heading their way. Five minutes later the two American pilots were airborne and weaving among the scattered clouds looking for the intruder.
Rickenbacker spotted it first, a small moving speck in the distance. He dipped his wings towards Captain Hall to get his attention, then darted back and forth towards the enemy aircraft to point his flight leader in the proper direction. The frustration continued to mount as Captain Hall kept flying straight ahead towards enemy lines, instead of breaking off to pursue the distant invader. Finally Rickenbacker broke away. He'd go after the enemy airplane alone.
Coaxing his engine to maximum speed, Rickenbacker sped closer towards the distant airplane, carefully maneuvering his own bi-plane for maximum tactical advantage in the attack. The enemy plane stayed its course, apparently unaware that it was now practically in the gun sights of the American pilot. Rickenbacker smiled to himself. The French observers who had phoned in the report had been wrong, it wasn't a two-seater. It was a large, three-seat plane with big guns pointing in all directions.
Rickenbacker closed in, zooming upwards for the kill, his finger tensing on the triggers of his own guns. The fuselage was directly in front of him. This was going to be all too easy. Squinting across the nose of his Nieuport he prepared to release a deadly volley when his eyes noticed the circular cocard pained under each wing. No wonder the big airplane hadn't been concerned about his presence. It was a FRENCH airplane!
Rickenbacker cursed his folly as he veered away. No wonder he couldn't get Captain Hall to break away. The veteran pilot must have realized the distant speck was an ally. Now he probably was laughing his head off at Rickenbacker's rookie mistake.
Scanning the distant skies over the German lines, Rickenbacker searched for Captain Hall. In the distance he could see the unmistakable puffs indicating Archie beyond the lines. The German ground forces were shooting at something in the air, and that something could only be Captain Hall. Rickenbacker quickly sped that direction. As the range closed he found his mentor, calmly doing acrobatic maneuvers over the German batteries, dodging their sharpshooters and taunting them to waste even more ammunition. Captain Hall was, in Rickenbacker's opinion, the epitome of the American fighter pilot.
As Rickenbacker's Nieuport approached, Hall veered away from the enemy fire to join his partner. Apparently he had been waiting for Rick to realize the error of his earlier zeal, and had been amusing himself more than a mile inside enemy territory with his loops, barrels, side-slips and spins directly over the heads of the gunners on the ground. Now Captain Hall changed direction and began climbing into the sun. Rickenbacker followed close behind, surmising that the veteran had a good reason for the maneuver. Minutes later he realized his assumption was indeed correct. An enemy scout was flying towards the duo's position, and this time the sleek lines of a German Pfalz was unmistakable.
The enemy plane was on a course that would take it directly into the path of the two Americans and Rickenbacker hung close to Hall, hidden by the fading sun to the west. When Captain Hall put his plane into a dive on the Pfalz below, Rickenbacker wisely stayed above to cut off any attempted retreat.
The enemy pilot saw Rickenbacker first and pulled back on the stick to begin a rapid climb for battle. Suddenly Hall opened up with his own guns, and the German pilot realized for the first time that the odds were two-to-one against him. He lost all heart for the fight and started to turn for home. It was exactly what Rickenbacker expected, the move he had positioned his Nieuport to prevent. As the Pfalz went into a steep dive, Rickenbacker was on his tail and lining up his guns. When he was within 150 yards he pulled the triggers, sending a stream of deadly bullets into the enemy airplane's tail. This time there were no jams as the machinegun hammered the Pfalz. Rickenbacker pulled out of his dive and leveled to watch as the doomed enemy circled slowly out of control and crashed into the forest below. Captain Hall had his third victory, Rickenbacker his first. More importantly, the 94th Aero Squadron had moved two notches closer to the 103rd Squadron's impressive tally.
World War I aerial victories were counted differently, depending upon which allied nation a pilot flew for. The earliest pilots flew either for the French or the British. British pilots used a fractionalized counting system (if two pilots shot down one airplane or balloon, each got a half of the victory); while the French counted a downed airplane or balloon as a full victory for each person involved. If two, 2-seater French airplanes (with both a pilot and observer in each) combined to shoot down one enemy aircraft, each man in each plane was credited with the victory (4 credits for one downed enemy).
When the U.S. Army Air Service began operation, its squadrons opted for the more liberal French count. Under this method, the Pfalz shot down by Captain Hall and Lieutenant Rickenbacker on April 29th counted as one victory for each. By extension then, it also counted as TWO victories for their squadron.
During World War II the Army Air Corps reverted to the WWI British model of fractionalizing each victory. Under that system, two pilots involved in a single shoot-down would each get credited with a HALF victory.
In Pursuit of First Place
At the beginning of May 1918, all but one of the 19 American aerial victories had been scored by either the 103rd Aero Squadron (14 victories) or the 94th Aero Squadron (4 victories). The only Ace among them remained Paul Baer. Over the following 31 days the pilots of the Hat In The Ring were determined to try and become the leading squadron in the new Army Air Service.
The month started on an ominous note when Major Lufbery and Lieutenant Rickenbacker teamed up for the first mission of the new month. The only victory scored that day would be the loss of an American airplane, not that of an enemy. When the engine on Lufbery's Nieuport failed, the American Ace of Aces (he had achieved 16 victories with the Lafayette Escadrille), crashed and rolled. Fortunately, the Major survived unscathed.
The following day Lieutenant James Meissner was flying with a 3-plane patrol when he and his comrades attacked three enemy bi-planes. Meissner netted the fifth victory for the 94th Aero Squadron, but almost at the loss of his own life. Following his vanquished foe in a steep dive, the entire left, upper wing of his Nieuport was stripped of its canvas while he was well beyond friendly lines. Only Meissner's skill as a pilot enabled him to carefully nurse his airplane across the lines to crash in friendly territory.
On May 3 Captain David Peterson and Lieutenants Chapman and Loomis engaged five enemy scout planes. Loomis' machineguns jammed, though the intrepid pilot continued to engage the enemy as if he were still armed in order to render some confusion to the dogfight. Captain Peterson scored one victory as did Lieutenant Chapman, though the latter victory was unconfirmed. Worse, before the battle ended, Chapman was himself shot down. Later that same day, Lieutenant Winslow was taking off for a mission when his engine failed, causing him to crash. In the first three days of the month the 94th had scored two confirmed victories, while losing two aircraft to mechanical failure and a third to enemy bullets.
On May 5 the 1st Pursuit Group headquarters was established at Gengault, France where the 95th Pursuit Squadron arrived after aerial gunnery school, and the 94th Aero Squadron was moved to the new aerodrome. From that date on the two squadrons remained together throughout the war, and the competition for first place became a 3-way race between the two squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group and the 103rd Aero Squadron (3rd Pursuit Group).
Calamity continued to detract from the Hat In The Ring Squadron's efforts to overtake the 103rd for first place. Two days after moving to the aerodrome at Gengault, Captain Hall and Lieutenants Rickenbacker and Eddie Green attacked three enemy scouts near Preny. Rickenbacker destroyed a Fokker monoplane, though it wasn't confirmed or credited until six months later, and Green shot down an enemy Pfalz that was never confirmed or credited. Captain Hall dove on an enemy Fokker so intent on victory he did not notice the fabric stripping away from his wings. The problem was compounded when a dud anti-aircraft shell further damaged his wing, and the popular pilot and well known American author crashed behind the lines. Wounded, he was taken prisoner. He survived the war to write again, penning the popular book Mutiny on the Bounty, among others.
During yet another flight that same afternoon, Major Lufbery shot down an enemy scout plane (unconfirmed). Returning from a mission, Lieutenant James Meissner hit a hole while taxiing across the field and flipped his Nieuport over. By the day's end, none of the 94th's three victories had been confirmed or credited, and the squadron had lost two aircraft and one veteran pilot. The 1st Pursuit Group's 147th Aero Squadron also suffered its first casualty on this day when Private Henry Black, a member of the ground crew, was struck by lightening and killed.
On May 8 Lieutenant Paul Baer of the 103d had a double victory, destroying two enemy airplanes after a 10-minute dogfight and boosting his tally to seven victories. The next day the 94th Aero Squadron destroyed two more aircraft, but once again it was THEIR OWN. Captain Kenneth Marr and Lieutenant Thorne Taylor landed at the field from opposite directions and in the confusion, collided head-on sending both airplanes spinning. Fortunately both pilots walked away from their shattered Nieuports.
The comedy of errors was not confined to the 94th. On May 10th the 147th squadron, which had suffered its first casualty less then a week earlier to lightening, received its first type XXVIII Nieuports. Upon landing, one of the new airplanes sank in a mud hole, destroying the undercarriage. Two days later Lieutenant James Healy crashed on landing, destroying another of the new Nieuports. Though injured, once again the pilot survived.
During that second week of May many missions were flown, and enemy aircraft attacked. Rickenbacker and two other pilots of the 94th engaged an enemy Fokker near Thiaucort on May 11, but the results were inconclusive. On May 13 Lieutenant Campbell shot down an enemy single-seater while well inside German territory. The victory went unconfirmed. Finally, on May 15, things began to improve. Captain David Peterson shot down two German bi-planes raising the 94th's tally to 8 (not counting Rickenbacker's unconfirmed victory of May 6th), and becoming the first pilot in the 94th to get a double victory in a single day. In the afternoon Captain Peterson, Captain Hall (MIA), and Lieutenants Rickenbacker, Meissner, and Charles Chapman (KIA) were presented the French Croix-De-Guerre for their earlier victories. After an impressive ceremony Rickenbacker joined Major Lufbery and Colonel Billy Mitchell in a 20-minute air show for the crowd. After the ceremony the new hero of the 94th, Captain Peterson, was transferred to the 147th Aero Squadron. Two days later he gave his new command its first aerial victory.
If the awards ceremony had been intended as an incentive, it certainly worked. When the ceremony was over Lieutenant Meissner grinned at Rickenbacker and said, "I feel that 'Hate-the-Hun' feeling creeping over me. What do you say to going up and getting a Boche?" Rickenbacker was more than ready and the two took off shortly thereafter. They even found and attempted to engage two enemy aircraft, but returned empty handed at the end of the day.
On May 17th Rick went hunting enemy airplanes with a vengeance. Climbing to a chilly 18,000 feet he shook off his discomfort to circle the skies well inside the enemy lines, crossing into Germany as far east as Metz. Patiently he clung to the ceiling as he scanned for a target. As the morning wore on, so too wore Eddie's deliberate patience. Down to less than an hour of fuel, disappointment began creeping in when at last he noted three German Albatroses take off for a reconnaissance over the French lines. Rick remained high above as the three aircraft spread out, then pushed the stick forward to begin his dive on the trailing airplane. Without even checking his speed, he estimated that the dive had granted him as much as 200 miles per hour (top speed for the Nieuports was close to 120 mph). Without wavering he kept the nose pointed at his enemy and, when at last the quarry noted the hunter and went into his own steep dive, Rickenbacker stayed his course. Closing within 50 yards, Rickenbacker pulled the trigger and watched a stream of flaming bullets pierce the enemy airplane's back seat. The German pilot slumped over the controls and continued his dive to its conclusion on the ground.
Determined to follow his victim towards the ground, Rickenbacker maintained his own dive to the last minute, then pulled back on the stick. There was a loud crash and for the first time he became aware of his own precarious situation. Looking to his right he was horrified to see that all the fabric of his upper wing had been ripped away. The Nieuport rolled to its side, then began its own tailspin to doom. The other two German airplanes dove in to apply the coup de grace. Bullets whined around the cockpit as Rick fought the controls. He didn't begrudge the enemy for attacking his already wounded airplane, though he later said he was critical of their bad judgment in wasting ammunition on a plane that was already destroyed. Perhaps at last the enemy pilots recovered their good judgment, for with the Nieuport continuing to spin earthward, they at last broke off contact to continue their mission.
Having dropped 15,000 feet in a matter of minutes, Lieutenant Rickenbacker watched the ground spin dizzily towards him and wondered if he would survive the crash to have his shattered body imprisoned by the Germans below. From less than 3,000 feet he could see people on the ground, watching his demise. The stick fought his hand as he tried to control the floundering Nieuport when, with a total disregard for the consequences, he pulled open the throttle. The sudden burst of speed suddenly leveled the airplane, and the rudder began responding to the stick. The enemy airplanes had vanished in the distance. Now it was only Rickenbacker and his desperate attempts to climb. It proved useless, with wind whipping through the barren right wing he could only manage a semi-level flight at low altitude. Then the German Archie began, and explosions burst around him.
At under 1,000 feet the Nieuport slipped across no man's land and into allied territory. With the engine running wide open, Rick came in for a landing. The Nieuport pancaked to the soft mud, destroyed beyond repair, but miraculously, Eddie Rickenbacker walked away. Almost as amazing, the dead pilot of the Albatross he had nearly given his life to destroy had fallen across the stick of his own in such a way that the doomed enemy plane had also glided across the lines to crash in France. Eddie's victory was verified, his third downed airplane (his second confirmed kill).
Despite such problems, the tide was turning for the young American pilots. The day after Rickenbacker's near-fatal combat mission, Lieutenant Doug Campbell attacked an enemy bi-plane near Verdun. When the Hat In The Ring pilot's guns jammed after a few bursts, the intrepid airman bluffed his way through a series of aerial maneuvers until he had cleared his guns to score his own second victory. Campbell caught up to his friend Rick the next day when he scored his third, again only after his guns jammed on the first assault and he had made a series of courageous maneuvers while working to free up his weapons.
Unreliable engines, fragile wings, and temperamental machineguns made fighting the German pilots difficult. The Nieuport 28 was fast and maneuverable, but its other drawbacks had caused the French and British air services to reject it. The fact that these airplanes were then passed off on the new United States Air Service reflects much of the greatest battle the early American combat pilots faced, not aerial combat against armed Germans, but a political war for recognition in the traditional halls of the U.S. military. Air power was not seen as an important factor by American military war planners. A squadron would be formed on paper, then wait for weeks for the arrival of airplanes cast off by other air services, and then have to fly unarmed while awaiting a requisition of armament.
The French, the British and the Germans worked hard to improve their airplanes, their weapons, and their aerial tactics. American pilots were assigned to squadrons, provided cast-off machines and materials, and expected to survive on their intrepid spirit alone. Before the war, Rickenbacker had been stunned by the Army's response to his attempt to build a squadron from the ranks of race car drivers. It had been scoffed at, largely because the Army felt a knowledge of engines would be detrimental to a pilot and temper their zeal in battle or make them hesitant to fly if an engine sounded less than up-to-par. Such sheer idiocy went even further, and was more deadly. Rickenbacker always claimed he was happy to see a parachute unfurl beneath one of his victims. His war was against machines, not men. French and British pilots were also often known to have parachuted to safety from a shot up airplane. American pilots didn't even HAVE parachutes.
"We air-fighters cannot understand why we cannot have parachutes fitted on our aeroplanes to give the doomed pilot one possible means of escape from this terrible death. Pilots sometimes laugh over the comic end of a comrade shot down in course of a combat. It is a callousness made possible by the continuous horrors of war. If he dies from an attack by an enemy it is taken as a matter of course. But to be killed through a stupid and preventable mistake puts the matter in a very different light."
Fighting the Flying Circus
The tragedy that befell the 94th Pursuit Squadron on May 19 brought Rickenbacker face to face with the parachute issue. While Doug Campbell was bagging his third victory, two German 2-seaters were engaged in a dogfight near the aerodrome with two green American pilots. When it appeared that the enemy aircraft would escape the novice Americans, it was more than Major Lufbery could stand. The now famous pilot jumped into a nearby airplane and gave chase.
Lufbery made one round of the two machines as the ground crews watched from the distant American aerodrome. Suddenly he veered away as if to clear a jamb in his guns. Looping back into battle, enemy rounds raked his airplane, puncturing the fuel tank. The ground crews watched in horror as the flames spread, and Major Lufbery slid back along the fuselage of his burning plane towards the tail. Moments later, from a height of about 1,000 feet, America's first Ace of Aces leaped from his nearly incinerated Nieuport. The plane crashed in a field near a river, and it was later speculated that Lufbery was trying to leap into the water from that height himself. Instead his body plummeted to earth to fall on a picket fence. If the great Ace had possessed a parachute, he might well have survived that day. The following morning he was buried in the Aviators Cemetery at Sebastapol, France with full military honors.
At one point during the summer Rickenbacker confronted a major at Air Service headquarters in Paris regarding the parachute matter. He was told that the parachutes were too large and heavy for the small fighters. Rickenbacker knew this was not true, the Germans had developed parachutes small enough for THEIR pilots. "Rickenbacker," the Major finally stated coldly, "if all you pilots had parachutes, then you'd be inclined to use them on the slightest pretext, and the Air Service would lose planes that might otherwise have been brought down safely." It took all of Rick's will-power to keep his temper from exploding at that.
The death of Major Lufbery was a severe blow to the psyche of the men of all three active American pursuit squadrons. Somehow the intrepid young men rose above it. To Lieutenant Paul Baer of the 103rd was bequeathed the title American Ace of Aces, and on the day they buried an aerial legend, Baer added to his own enviable record by achieving his eighth victory. The next day, Rickenbacker got his fourth (third confirmed) and Baer shot down his ninth...and last, enemy plane. Baer had been Ace of Aces for but two days before he was shot down, wounded and captured. His title, a deadly one to be sure, passed on to Lieutenant Frank Bayliss, an American pilot with the French Escadrille of the Cigognes, Spad 3. Bayliss would achieve a total of 13 victories before he was killed on June 17.
By the end of May the two squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group were competing fiercely for first place. The 95th Pursuit Squadron ended the month with fourteen victories, the 94th with eighteen. On the next-to-the-last day of the month Rickenbacker got his fifth confirmed victory to become the second American Ace of the war, and the following day Lieutenant Campbell got his fifth, making the Hat In The Ring Squadron the only American squadron with two Aces. The 103rd Pursuit Squadron of the 3rd Pursuit Group still held first place in the victory category with 21.
Despite all the problems with airplanes, guns and weather, in the first 10 weeks on the front the three American Aero Squadrons had claimed 53 victories over the enemy.
During the month of June the action slowed down somewhat. For Rickenbacker, his 6th victory (5th confirmed) achieved on May 30th would be his last for three and a half months. The 103rd kept its lead intact though only achieving three victories for the month. The 94th crept closer after four victories though the 95th managed to muster only one. The new pretender for the crown appeared to be the newly arrived 27th Aero Squadron. Recognizable for the eagle with spread wings painted on the side of their Nieuports (claimed to have originated on the side of an Annhauser Busch Beer Wagon), the Eagle Squadron managed thirteen victories.
By July 1 the 1st Pursuit Group's fourth squadron, the 147th, was ready for action. The tally of aerial credits was as follows:
1st Pursuit Group
6 23 15 0 24
NOTE: The numbers used in this and successive tables reflect the victory credits based upon Historical Study 133 which was prepared by the US Air Force in 1966. As such, it lists victory credits for a given month that include victories not verified until later months, or even after the war had ended. Historical records therefore, may show one squadron having led all others on a particular date, when in fact on that date the pilots themselves may have been aware of a different set of numbers.
On July 2 a patrol of nine planes from the 27th Aero Squadron attacked nine planes of the infamous Richthofen Flying Circus. Six pilots contributed to two downed aircraft, raising the Eagle Squadron's tally by a dozen. The same day pilots from the 147th engaged in two separate actions, netting six victories for the new arrival.
For more than three months the Hat In The Ring Squadron had been trying hard to overtake the 103d, and trailed by only one victory going into July (since Rickenbacker's May 7th victory still hadn't been confirmed, the recognizable difference on that date was actually a two-victory margin on the books). On July 7 the 94th added five more victories to its tally, pulling into the lead for the first time. It was the event the pilots of the squadron had worked so hard to achieve for months. The 95th Aero Squadron had ambitions of its own, raising its tally to 18 on July 5, then scoring two more victories the following day.
The single victory scored by the 95th on July 10 still left the Kicking Mule Squadron seven victories behind the 95th, but it was notable for a different reason. The Fokker that was destroyed near Chateau-Thierry that day fell victim to one of the most popular and well-known flight leaders in the squadron. Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt was the youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Quentin had arrived with the 95th Aero Squadron on May 6th when it had joined the 94th at the forward aerodrome. Due his famous name, the squadron commander had made the young pilot a flight leader, even before he had ever made a flight over the lines. Quentin protested, advising that his lack of experience could be a danger to his men, but the squadron commander insisted. It was a novelty to have the son of an American president leading a flight of experienced fighter pilots.
The next morning Quentin and three of his men prepared to take off for their first mission. Quentin called his pilots together and inquired who among them had the most experience. "As soon as we leave the ground," Lieutenant Roosevelt informed his men, "the man with the most experience will take the lead and I will fall back into his position. 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." And that was exactly how Quentin Roosevelt operated until his death on July 14. During his tenure on the front, though ordered to the role of flight leader by his superiors, not once did Quentin occupy that role in the air. His death, like that of Lufbery, was a heart-rending tragedy for the entire American Air Service.
On the last day of July the 95th had a great day, earning seven victories and taking first place among the squadrons. On the morning of August 1 the tally sheet read:
1st Pursuit Group
29 28 31 26 27
The 95th's tenure in first place was short lived. August 1 was a disastrous day for the pilots of the 27th. Six pilots were shot down in an action that made it one of the deadliest days in the air of the war. Though the loss of six pilots demoralized the survivors and halted missions for nearly a week, pilots of the Eagle Squadron did claim six victories of their own, eclipsing the lead of the 95th. For nearly 2 1/2 months the 27th would continue to be the front-runner in victories, much of that time thanks to Frank Luke. When at last the 94th would regain the lead it held for most of the month of July, it would be primarily because of Eddie Rickenbacker.
For his own part Lieutenant Rickenbacker was quickly becoming the most popular pilot in his squadron. From his first mission on March 6 until his last flight over the lines on November 11, he logged more hours in the air than perhaps any other American pilot, certainly more than any pilot in the 1st Pursuit Group. Through the period he engaged in 134 air battles by his own count, shot down 26 enemy planes, held the title Ace of Aces in two separate periods, and earned an unprecedented NINE Distinguished Service Crosses.
In those months of combat he survived engine failures, shredded wings, sheets of flaming Archie, and thousands of enemy bullets. He flew dozens of one-man volunteer missions behind enemy lines, single-handedly engaged enemy flights that outnumbered him as much as seven-to-one, and returned to the aerodrome repeatedly in aircraft so full of bullet holes and shrapnel punctures that the aircraft was beyond repair. Amazingly, though it all, the intrepid airman was not even slightly wounded one time. That amazing record is what made his series of hospital confinements during the summer of 1918 so incongruous.
During June, Rickenbacker missed much of the action when a fever sent him to the hospital in Paris. It was while writing a letter from his hospital bed that he innocently enough made the change in the spelling of his name that made headlines and forever marked him as Rickenbacker instead of Rickenbacher. He was finally released from the hospital on July 4 and went into Paris to celebrate. The following day, before returning to his squadron, he decided to visit the American experimental supply aerodrome at Orly. It was a most fortunate decision.
For several weeks the American pilots had heard reports of a new French airplane capable of speeds faster than their Nieuports. These were purportedly aircraft that could climb to higher altitudes yet were durable enough to survive fast dives or tricky aerial maneuvers. Built by the Societe pour L'Aviation et ses Derives, it became known as the SPAD, and sitting on the field at Orly were three brand new ones. Rick noticed one had the numeral "1" painted on its side.
"Is this one of the new planes meant for the 94th Aero Squadron?" he asked a mechanic, who affirmed that indeed it was. "Well, I'm with the 94th," Rick told him and, in his characteristic style of doing what needed to be done first, then asking permission, he strapped himself in and flew it back to his aerodrome at Touquin. To his delight upon his return, Major Kenneth Marr who was now commanding the squadron, congratulated him for acquiring the sleek new airplane and assigned it to Rickenbacker. Rick knew he could have perhaps, been court-martialed for his impulsive actions that day.
Returning to the air, Rick was thrilled with his new SPAD and its capabilities; but one old problem and one new problem began to plague his efforts. The old problem was the continuing tendency of the aircraft's machineguns to jamb. Much of this was due to improper sized shell casings. Rickenbacker did his best to alleviate this by creating a die to measure each shell, then personally loaded his guns before each mission. As a fail-safe measure, he had his mechanic attach a leather strap to a large wooden mallet, which he then hung around his wrist. Thereafter, when a shell hung in his guns, he cleared it with a quick rap from the mallet. Most of the time it worked.
The new problem was more personal. Upon his return to the air Rick began experiencing a sharp pain in his ear. On July 10 he was sent back to Paris where it was lanced and didn't fly again until the end of the month. Even then, the pain persisted and became worse. For days he continued to ignore the pain, an often difficult effort when it was compounded by the chill and pressure of high altitudes.
On August 8 Rickenbacker shot down a Fokker but the victory was never confirmed. The one piece of good news during these otherwise dismal month was that at last the entire squadron was finally outfitted with the new SPADs. Ten days later the Mastoiditis in Rick's ear was so bad he couldn't get out of bed. He was quickly sent back to the hospital and Eddie Green replaced him as flight leader for that day's scheduled mission, flying SPAD number 1. Eddie regained his consciousness on Sunday enough to recognized Captain Marr standing by his bed. Marr came to bring the sad news that Green and Walter Smythe, perhaps Rick's closest friend in the squadron, had collided in the air and plummeted to their deaths. It was yet another sad moment for Rick, more so in the knowledge that had the men been allowed parachutes, both would probably have survived to fly again.
The tragedy of such needless losses, coupled with mechanical failures, lack of proper supplies and support at the top, all made worse by the fact that during the month of August the entire 1st Pursuit Group had only achieved ten victories, was driving morale low. During the last week of August Rickenbacker was recovering from his second ear operation when his friends from the squadron came to visit him in the hospital. They shared with Rick how badly things were deteriorating among the pilots and wished him a speedy recovery. They also told Eddie that when he returned, they wished he would return as the commander of the 94th Aero Squadron. Eddie informed that that if ordered to command the squadron, he would accept the position, but they might not like the results. As commander he would be tough, demanding, and determined to make the squadron the best in the American Air Service. It was the news his friends were hoping to hear.
St. Mihiel Offensive
The new Army Air Service had indeed been vastly overlooked by most of the American Army's higher command. There was however, one highly placed ally, the commander of the Air Service and Rick's friend Colonel William Billy Mitchell. Mitchell had been the first American to fly over enemy lines and, though never credited with a combat victory, spent his share of time away from his desk and on the field at the aerodromes throughout France or in the cockpit of an airplane.
During the last week of August while Rick was recovering in the hospital Colonel Mitchell was eagerly trying to give his pilots a fighting chance to prove their full worth. Germany's spring offensive had been crushed and the enemy routed. Now Allied war planners were setting the stage for the first major offensive of the war involving the American Expeditionary Force. Mitchell had earnestly promoted a campaign that would involve a combined air-ground assault, the first in history. Ultimately the plan was approved and the flamboyant Air Service commander began assembling the largest aerial armada in history: seven hundred fighters, four hundred observation planes and four hundred bombers. It was a gamble which, if it failed, would have confirmed the attitude of the traditional military commanders that airplanes provided only a minor and insignificant role in the process of war. The ultimate success of Mitchell's intrepid airmen during the months of September and October 1918 indisputably proved the value of the Army Air Service.
Plans for the campaign that became known as the St. Mihiel Offensive were made with great secrecy, but the men of the A.E.F. could sense that something big was in the offing. When all the squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group, now called the 1st Pursuit Wing, were moved to a forward aerodrome at Rembercourt on September 3, everyone knew the tone of the war was about to change. Learning of his squadron's move to the Verdun sector, Rickenbacker pronounced himself cured and requested permission to rejoin the squadron. His ear was indeed cured, and never bothered him again. Rick headed for Aviation Headquarters in Paris, from which he drove the staff car of Colonel Mitchell to the aerodrome at Rembercourt. He arrived back in the field on September 11, the day before the St. Mihiel Offensive was to begin.
Much had changed during Rick's brief absence. Major Carl Spaatz had transferred from the 94th to a new job as Chief of Staff for the 1st Pursuit Wing, now commanded by Major Harold Hartney of the 27th. Lieutenant Alfred "Ack" Grant had assumed command of the 27th and had his hands full with a boisterous young pilot named Frank Luke. Rick's good friend Jim Meissner had assumed command of the 147th Aero Squadron.
The offensive began right on schedule at 5 a.m. the following day, the American artillery and infantry hampered but not precluded from action by the rainy weather. The pilots, eager to enter the fray and prove their value to the offensive, were not so lucky. One flight of eight airplanes from the 27th managed to get airborne after daylight, but most planes were grounded until afternoon. Lieutenant Luke of the 27th managed to shoot down a German observation balloon, the first confirmed victory of his soon-to-be impressive streak, but it was the only victory scored by any member of the 1st Pursuit Wing.
Elsewhere American pilots faired somewhat better on the first day of the offensive, knocking down 12 airplanes in addition to Luke's balloon. Lieutenant David Putnam of the 139th had held the title American Ace of Aces since the death back in June of Frank Bayless. On September 12th Putnam shot down his twelfth enemy aircraft to increase his tally. It was his last victory, for before the day ended Putnam was himself shot down and killed.
Rickenbacker's tally stood at five confirmed victories so the title Ace of Aces was temporarily held by Lieutenant Edgar Tobin of the 103rd Aero Squadron, 3rd Pursuit Wing who had six.
On Day 2 of the offensive the 103rd, operating under the 1st Pursuit Wing, destroyed seven enemy planes, five of which were confirmed. They were the only victories of the day, but on September 14 things began to happen quickly. The brash Frank Luke of the 27th knocked down two more balloons while Eddie Rickenbacker pulled even with Ace of Aces Lieutenant Tobin when he shot down a Fokker near Villey Waiville. It was Rick's his sixth confirmed victory.
On September 15 Rickenbacker shot down his second Fokker in two days, becoming the leading American Ace with seven victories. It was the same day the incredible Frank Luke shot down three balloons to become an Ace in just four days, but no one would ever have expected such a run of "luck" to continue. To the amazement of all, and to some degree to the chagrin of Ack Grant who had to exercise authority over the free-thinking and sometimes rebellious Luke, Luke went out the very next day to bag two more balloons and tie his record with that of the Air Service's leading ace.
Shortly after Rickenbacker had been acclaimed the new Ace of Aces he had told his good friend Reed Chambers: "Any other fellow can have the title any time he wants it, so far as I am concerned."
"Mingled with this natural desire to become the leading fighting Ace of America was a haunting superstition that did not leave my mind until the very end of the war. It was that the very possession of this title - Ace of Aces - brought with it unavoidable doom that had overtaken all of its previous holders. I wanted it and yet I feared to learn that it was mine! In later days I began to feel that this superstition was almost the heaviest burden that I carried with me into the air. Perhaps it served to redouble my caution and sharpened my fighting senses. But I never was able to forget that the life of a title-holder is short."
Fighting the Flying Circus
Rick bore that burden, or at least shared that burden with Frank Luke, for one more day. The St. Mihiel offensive ended on September 16, the day after Rick became America's leading Ace and the same day on which Luke pulled even with him. American forces, well supported by Colonel Mitchell's Air Service, pushed the German army more than 10 miles backward, leaving the enemy forces in disarray. Mitchell himself was rewarded with promotion to Brigadier General.
Meanwhile, aerial action began to slow down in and around Verdun, but not enough to slow the rampage of the intrepid Frank Luke. On September 18 Luke did something seldom accomplished by any pilot in WWI or any war since...FIVE victories (3 planes and 2 balloons) in a single day. After destroying 12 aircraft in seven days he was the undisputed leading American Ace, a title Rickenbacker was more than happy to pass on to him.
What did bother Rickenbacker was that, thanks to Frank Luke, the 27th Pursuit Squadron was the leader among all of the Air Service's squadrons, a position Rick had always expected his own Hat In the Ring Squadron to hold. While not necessarily sorry to see the burden of the Ace of Aces title pass to another, Rick was determined to do whatever it took to see his squadron reclaim its role as America's leading fighter squadron. By the unofficial tally at the time, the 27th lead the 94th by SIX victories.
On September 24 Major Marr returned from Air Service Headquarters in Paris to advise the men of his squadron that he had been ordered to the 2nd Pursuit Group as its commander. That evening Lieutenant Rickenbacker called the 19 pilots of the Hat In The Ring Squadron together to address them for the first time as their new commander. "I want no saluting," he told them, "no unnecessary deference to rank. What I want is VICTORIES! We're all in this together, pilots and mechanics. We need each other and we're going to work together as equals, each man doing his job." Rickenbacker further assured his pilots that he would lead them from the cockpit of an airplane, not from a desk. He would lead by example.
Returning to his billets after similarly addressing his mechanics and ground crews, he wrote in his personal diary:
"Just been promoted to command of 94th squadron. I shall never ask a pilot to go on any mission I won't go on.
"I must work now harder than I did before."
September 25, 1918
Lieutenant Rickenbacker had the early morning skies to himself as he winged his way on a solo, volunteer flight east of the lines at Verdun. Foremost on his mind was his speech the night before, and the responsibility he had set for himself to lead by example. After patrolling among the clouds for a time, he suddenly noticed two large specks in the distance. Maneuvering his SPAD closer, the specks became recognizable as large, German Halberstadt photographic planes. Flying protection for them were five German Fokkers. Rick was outnumbered seven-to-one.
Heedless of the odds, Rickenbacker remained high above, hidden by the sun, until the enemy formation had passed below. Then he pushed the stick forward and nosed down in a steep dive, directly into the trailing Fokker. He noticed the enemy pilot turn his head as SPAD 1 closed the distance but it was too late. Rick's finger was on the trigger, his aim true, and the Fokker was soon spiraling towards the ground trailing black smoke.
The other four Fokkers panicked and the formation was immediately splintered, allowing Rickenbacker to continue his dive unfettered until he was on the tail of one of the Halberstadts. Noses down, the pilots of the photographic planes were diving for safety as SPAD 1 followed them relentlessly. From their seats behind the pilots, the observers of the Halberstadts were firing backward at the American. Rickenbacker dived beneath the nearest airplane, then zoomed up under its belly.
The enemy pilot appeared to be a wise veteran, for he kicked his tail around to give his gunner a good position from which to rain fire on the attacker. Rickenbacker broke off to dive, only to find the second Halberstadt on his tail and a stream of bullets streaking past his face.
The three pilots dodged and weaved in their aerial joust, but Rick knew his time was running out. Fuel was low and the four Fokkers were recovering from the initial shock and turning back towards the battle. Rickenbacker maneuvered until the Halberstadts were only about 50 yards apart and directly below him, then sideslipped to the right. The nearer Halberstadt shielded him from the second, making the contest of the gunners a one-on-one battle. Rick leveled out, kicked his nose to the left, and pulled the trigger. The nearer photographic plane passed directly through the stream of bullets, and in minutes burst into flames and plummeted to earth like a falling comet.
With the four recovered Fokkers now diving on top of him, Rick opened his engine and began a mad dash for home. The other pilots of the Hat In The Ring squadron had just finished eating when SPAD 1 taxied to a stop. Their new commander had demonstrated his promise to lead by example and earned a double victory before many of them had finished breakfast.
Scourge of the Sky
When the successful St. Mihiel offensive had ended weeks earlier, the German forces had been pushed ten miles back to their last line of fortifications along the Hindenburg Line and the Argonne Forest. On the morning of September 26 the Allies launched the Meuse-Argonne Offensive to dislodge the German forces from this this last region. In six weeks the success of this final campaign was so successful that Germany was crushed to its knees and the war was ended. The role of the Army Air Service in the success of that offensive can not be understated. Much of the credit for swiftly ending the war must be given to the brave pilots who flew deep into Germany to bomb its cities and destroy its war machine. The Kaiser committed much of his own air power to the task of shooting down these bombers before they could reach their targets. The fighter pilots of the US Army Air Service met them head-to-head, flying protection for the bomber pilots.
On the first day of the Argonne Offensive the 94th Aero Squadron was assigned its first-ever balloon patrol mission. Rickenbacker himself led the 6-plane flight which lifted off at 5:20 a.m. to attack two different Drachens. To Rick's delight, despite the difficulty of bagging the large, well protected observation balloons, his pilots succeeded in destroying both. Returning to the field as dawn was breaking, he was so absorbed in thoughts of pride in his pilots, he didn't notice the German Fokker that shadowed him until the distance between the two was less than 100 yards. The German pilot angled towards Rickenbacker as his machineguns opened up, and for a moment it appeared that if neither pilot hit the other with his bullets, the two airplanes would certainly crash together. At the last minute the German pilot dove and Rick was on top of him. A stream of flaming incendiary bullets, loaded that morning for the balloon attack, quickly destroyed the Fokker. Meanwhile, Rick's own SPAD began to shudder and shake from the effects of its own wounds. Carefully the Hat In The Ring commander nursed his vibrating craft back to the aerodrome. Upon landing it was found that one blade of the propeller had been completely severed by the Fokker's machinegun rounds. Once again however, Rick walked away from a shot-up airplane without a scratch.
Lieutenant Frank Luke returned early from his well-earned leave in Paris to fly again on the first day of the new offensive. On that day his wingman was shot down, the second such tragedy that had befallen the great American Ace, and one that prompted his decision to fly strictly lone-wolf missions. On September 28 he had another double victory, flaming his eleventh balloon and his fourth airplane. On the same day, Eddie Rickenbacker bagged his FIRST balloon, his eleventh confirmed aerial victory.
On September 29th Luke flew a voluntary night mission against three enemy balloons along the Marne river. By the time he was done his victory score stood at eighteen. In the eighteen days from September 12 to 29, and despite the fact that there was one week therein when he didn't fly, Luke had claimed more victories than even the great Raoul Lufbery had in the entire war. Those last three balloons were costly. Luke never returned, and once again Lieutenant Eddie Rickenbacker had to deal with the inherent danger of being America's Ace of Aces.
The month of October was a good month for Hun hunting all across the Western Front. On October 1 Rick got his second balloon and on October 2 he had a double victory, first destroying an enemy Rumpler near Clery-le-Grand, then teaming with his good friend Lieutenant Reed Chambers to shoot down a large Hanover. It was the first enemy airplane among Rickenbacker's fourteen confirmed victories to land inside friendly lines, and Rick and Reed were quick to claim it as a war trophy, painting their names on its side.
The following day Rickenbacker shot down a Fokker and then teamed with Lieutenant Coolidge to destroy a large Halberstadt. The official tally was up to sixteen. Like the famed Red Baron whose presence in the sky had instantly generated both fear and challenge in his adversaries, Eddie Rickenbacker and his now famous SPAD 1 had become the American response to a German legend. But, though SPAD 1 was proving unstoppable to the Germans, the Autumn weather of northern France did what nothing else could do. After the double victory of October 3 the Hat In The Ring Squadron was stymied for five days. As the weather improved slightly on October 9, SPAD 1 was back at work and the night skies were brilliantly lit by a burning Drachen, Rickenbacker's third balloon and his seventeenth official victory. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker had finally equaled the record of his own personal hero, Major Raoul Lufbery.
October 10 was notable for many developments:
On that day Eddie Rickenbacker claimed two more victories, surpassing both Lufbery and Luke to become the most victorious airman of the war.
It was a day during which he learned a vivid lesson about the responsibilities of command from the 147th's Lieutenant Wilburt White.
It was a day on which he witnessed an act about which he later wrote: "For sheer nerve and bravery, I believe this heroic feat was never surpassed."
It was also the day of ....
The BIG Dog Fight
The day's mission began as an effort to destroy two German balloons at Dun-sur-Meuse. The 94th Squadron fielded 14 SPADs from the aerodrome, taking off at 3:30 in the afternoon. To fly protection for the pilots of the Hat In The Ring who were assigned the task of shooting down the two Drachen, eight planes of the 147th flew on one flank with seven planes from the 27th covering the other. It was one of the largest aerial armadas Captain Rickenbacker had ever seen as he climbed several thousand feet above his pilots to observe the mission.
As quickly as the 30 airplanes passed the lines they were met with heavy Archie, but the flight leaders maintained their formations flying deeper into Germany until the first of the two balloons could be seen floating in the distance.
Captain Rickenbacker scanned the distance and soon noted the approach of eleven German Fokkers bearing down on the seven planes of the 147th, now separated somewhat from the rest of the flight. Rick dipped his wings and dove to warn the pilots, noting as he did, the approach of another eight Fokkers from the direction of Metz. He halted his dive to keep his altitude while he assessed the situation and planned the best avenue of attack. When the first enemy flight passed beneath him he noted the bright red noses that marked them as airplanes of the infamous Flying Circus.
When the enemy formation had passed Rick dipped over and dove on the trailing Fokker. His first burst of machinegun fire ripped into the gas tank and the enemy airplane burst into flames to plunge earthward. Rick noticed the German pilot leap from the inferno and, moments later, float safely earthward beneath the canopy of his parachute. The American pilots had heard reports of German pilots parachuting safely from destroyed aircraft on the Italian front, but this was the first time it had ever been witnessed on the Western Front. Rickenbacker watched the amazing escape for a moment, even wondered to himself, "Why the Huns had all these humane contrivances and why our own country could not at least copy them to save American pilots from being burned to a crisp!" Then he resisted the temptation to watch the miraculous escape to its conclusion, wished the enemy pilot well, and turned back into the foray below. There, an equally incredible display was unfolding.
Nearly two dozen aircraft dodged and weaved through the skies over Germany in a classic jousting match by the Knights of a new generation, while an almost equal number was poised in the distance for similar combat. What he saw next he later described as an "extraordinary spectacle in midair...which in all my life at the front I have never seen equaled in horror and awfulness. The picture of it has haunted my dreams during many nights since."
Lieutenant White was the perfect man to lead his planes of the 147th in this unprecedented aerial battle. He was experienced, an Ace with 7 victories, and a well-liked and admired leader. The mission this day would be his last before returning to the United States to visit his wife and two small children. Before going home however, he had to see his young pilots safely through one more battle.
The lead Fokker was lining up behind the tailing SPAD in White's formation even as Rickenbacker turned away from the scene of his recent victory. White noted the threat to one of his pilots, came out of his own swoop, and dove on the enemy. It looked to be too late as the German prepared to open fire on the trailing SPAD. White's airplane continued its course, two airplanes approaching each other at more than 100 miles an hour. Before the German could pull the trigger to flame the young pilot of the 147th, Lieutenant White intervened. Never wavering, his own airplane slammed into the German machine, telescoping both in a grinding crunch of fabric and metal. As the spared young pilot flew out of harms way, Lieutenant white and his German counterpart crashed together in the forest below.
Rickenbacker was not the only pilot in the air stirred and stunned by Lieutenant White's heroic sacrifice to save a comrade. The horrible scene took all desire for the fight from the Germans, and the remaining Fokkers broke away and headed for home. Rickenbacker banked and headed to the other flank where the seven SPADs of the 27th Squadron were tangling with the eight Fokkers from Metz. As he did he noted one of his own airplanes had been hit as it dove on the targeted Drachen. Rick raced to the rescue but it was too late. The hapless American did his best to control his flaming airplane and somehow managed to make a rough landing in German territory.
Rick looked around briefly and as he did, noted another SPAD diving past him with two enemy Fokkers on his tail. It was his good friend and Ace pilot Jim Meissner. For the third time in nearly as many months, Rick came to the rescue of his old protégé, flaming one of the Fokkers and forcing the other to turn away.
By the time the great dog fight over Germany concluded the pilots of the 1st Pursuit Wing scored more than a dozen victories. For Rickenbacker the tally was now up to nineteen confirmed victories, more than any other American pilot of the entire war.
On October 19 Rickenbacker and several other pilots of the Wing were ordered to Souilly for a grand and impressive ceremony. As a list of names was read Major General Mason Patrick, Chief of Air Service, presented nearly two dozen awards of the Distinguished Service Cross. Lieutenants James Meissner and Ralph O'Neill each received two awards. When Captain Rickenbacker's name was called he was presented a Distinguished Service Cross with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters. Each oak leaf represented an additional award of this distinguished honor--one award for each of his first five confirmed victories in April and May. (The Fokker Rick had destroyed on May 7 remained unconfirmed until November 16, 1918 so was still not counted among his list of victories.)
By the time World War I ended Captain Rickenbacker would earn an unprecedented NINE awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, a record that has never been equaled in U.S. military history.
The ceremony of October 19 was inspiring, impressive, and moving. For Rick it was a moment of great pride in his squadron, his personal record, and the new United States Air Service. It was also a time of reflection and some sadness:
"I could not help thinking of the absent pilots whose names were being read out but who did not answer, and for whom decorations were waiting for deeds of heroism that had ended with their death. There was White, for whom the whole Group mourned. What a puny recognition was a simple ribbon for heroism such as his! There was Luke--the most intrepid air fighter that ever sat in an aeroplane. What possible honor could be given him by his country that would accord him the distinction he deserved.
"One thing was certain. The reputation of these great American airmen would live as long as the comrades who knew them survived. Perhaps none of us would ever live to see our homeland again. I glanced down the line of honor men who were standing immobile in their tracks, listening to the last notes of 'The Star Spangled Banner'! Who will be the next to go, I wondered, knowing only too well that with ever fresh honor that was conferred came a corresponding degree of responsibility and obligation to continue to serve comrade and country so long as life endured."
Fighting the Flying Circus
The Finish Line
Rick returned to the air as the war quickly wound to a close. On the ground American Doughboys were pushing the German forces steadily backward, buying each yard of gained territory with their blood, but emerging from each battle victorious. In the air the U.S. Army Air Service ruled the skies, but not without casualties themselves. Like the men on the ground, every step forward came at a great price.
On October 22 Captain Rickenbacker shot down an enemy Fokker near Clery-le-Petit, then repeated that success the very next day opver LeGrande Carre Farme. Four days later he flamed two more Fokkers bringing his official record at the time to 22 victories (with two more that had not yet been confirmed). On October 30 he engaged the two Fokkers of the famed Flying Circus over St. Juvin, destroying one and sending the other scurrying home. Returning home he destroyed the Drachen at Remonville to achieve his last aerial victory. It was enough...a valiant record by one man of firm conviction and dedication to service.
On November 10 Captain Rickenbacker was awarded two more Oak Leaf Clusters for his Distinguished Service Cross, these for his victories of September 14 and the following day. Two more Oak Leaf Clusters would follow, one for his September 25 double-victory when he attacked alone against seven-to-one odds, the last for his victory the next day.
Apprehension and some sadness hung over the ceremony that day that also saw DSCs awarded to Reed Chambers, Douglas Campbell and others of Rick's friends. Four planes from the 94th Pursuit Squadron had been missing for nearly 24 hours, and Rick feared he had made one of his worst errors as a squadron commander.
The weather during those early days of November had been terrible, continuous rain and heavy fog that made flying difficult. Everyone knew that the war was quickly coming to a close, and pilots were frustrated at their inability to get their flight time before the war ended. The previous day three of Rick's pilots had virtually begged him to allow them to take off into a heavy fog to attack a Drachen. Rick resisted at first, but their eagerness and their arguments finally persuaded him to consent. As the three prepared to take off, Rick was approached by Major Maxwell Kirby, a newcomer on the scene. Major Kirby had never flown over enemy lines, but was scheduled to assume command of a new group of Squadrons. Kirby wanted experience before taking his new position, and requested permission to join the other three pilots. Rickenbacker grudgingly consented, then watched with intrepidation as the four took off into the fog. That night he cursed himself when none of them returned to the aerodrome. He was certain he had, at a time when peace was imminent, needlessly sent four men to their doom.
Up to and immediately after the 10 a.m. decorations ceremony, no word had arrived regarding the fate of the four Americans. Not until after lunch did Rick note SPAD 3, belonging to one of the missing pilots, on the field. Optimism returned when he learned its pilot had been forced to land in friendly territory to spend the night, but had managed to return home that morning. One of the other missing pilots had phoned in with a similar story. Lieutenant Dewitt had crashed inside allied lines the previous evening, but walked away safely and would return by car later in the day.
A short time later Major Kirby phoned in. His first flight over the lines had left him lost in the fog, and he was forced to land at the first field he saw. That very morning, while Rick was receiving his sixth and seventh awards of the DSC, Kirby had taken off from the distant field to return home. En route he had again become lost in the fog. While searching for his way back he suddenly noticed a Fokker flying almost beside him. Both pilots were surprised by the presence of each other and simply stared for a moment. Then the German put his airplane into a dive and Major Kirby dove in behind him, firing all the way. The Fokker crashed in the fog, and Kirby pulled up within 50 feet of the ground to avoid the same fate. Later he claimed he "had scared the (enemy) pilot to his death."
The first American aerial victory of World War I was claimed by Alan Winslow and Douglas Campbell of the 94th Aero Squadron on April 14. Major Kirby's victory on November 10 was to be the last of The Great War. The Hat In The Ring Squadron had started the fight...and finished it.
On the morning of November 11 only one plane could be found in the skies near Verdun. All flights had been grounded for weather, and the previous evening the word had reached the men in the field that an armistice had been reached to end The War to End All Wars. Rickenbacker couldn't resist one last flight however, and left the aerodrome at 10 a.m. Shortly before the 11 a.m. he was over the lines, looking below at German and American infantrymen huddled in their foxholes and trenches, weapons poised and ready to fire on anyone foolish enough to encroach. As he winged over the German troops at only 500 feet, some dared to shoot his way, but the fire was half-hearted.
"I glanced at my watch. One minute to 11:00, thirty-seconds, fifteen. And then it was 11:00 a.m., the eleventh hur of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man's-land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men pour out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer's seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man's-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.
"Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.
"Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field.
"The war was over."
Rickenbacker, An Autobiography