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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 5a - Our First Patrol

We got down from the train late in the after noon at a village which reminded us, at first glance, of a boom town in the Far West. Crude shelters of corrugated iron and rough pine boards faced each other down the length of one long street. They looked sadly out of place in that landscape. They did not have the cheery, buoyant ugliness of pioneer homes in an unsettled country, for behind them were the ruins of the old village, fragments of blackened wall, stone chimneys filled with accumulations of rubbish, garden-plots choked with weeds, reminding us that here was no outpost of a new civilization, but the desolation of an old one, fallen upon evil days.

A large crowd of permissionnaires had left the train with us. We were not at ease among these men, many of them well along in middle life, bent and streaming with perspiration under their heavy packs. We were much better able than most of them to carry our belongings, to endure the fatigue of a long night march to billets or trenches; and we were waiting for the motor in which we should ride comfortably to our aerodrome. There we should sleep in beds, well housed from the weather, and far out of the range of shell fire.

"It is n't fair," said J. B. "It is going to war de luxe. These old poilus ought to be the aviators. But, hang it all! of course, they couldn't be. Aviation is a young man's business. It has to be that way. And you can't have aerodromes along the front-line trenches."

Nevertheless, it did seem very unfair, and we were uncomfortable among all those infantrymen. The feeling increased when attention was called to our branch of the service by the distant booming of anti-aircraft guns. There were shouts in the street, "A Boche!" We hurried to the door of the cafe where we had been hiding. Officers were ordering the crowds off the street. "Hurry along there! Under cover! Oh, I know that you're brave enough, mon enfant. It is n't that. He's not to see all these soldiers here. That's the reason. Allez! Vite!"

Soldiers were going into dugouts and cellars among the ruined houses. Some of them, seeing us at the door of the cafe, made pointed remarks as they passed, grumbling loudly at the laxity of the air service.

"It's up there you ought to be, mon vieui, not here," one of them said, pointing to the white eclatements.

"You see that?" said another. "He's a Boche, not French, I can tell you that. Where are your comrades?"

There was much good-natured chaffing as well, but through it all I could detect a note of resentment. I sympathized with their point of view then as I do now, although I know that there is no ground for the complaint of laxity. Here is a German over French territory. Where are the French aviators? Soldiers forget that aerial frontiers must be guarded in two dimensions, and that it is always possible for an airman to penetrate far into enemy country. They do not see their own pilots on their long raids into German territory. Furthermore, while the outward journey is often accomplished easily enough, the return home is a different matter. Telephones are busy from the moment the lines are crossed, and a hostile patrol, to say nothing of a lone avion, will be fortunate if it returns safely.

But infantrymen are to be forgiven readily for their outbursts against the aviation service. They have far more than their share of danger and death while in the trenches. To have their brief periods of rest behind the lines broken into by enemy aircraft—who would blame them for complaining? And they are often generous enough with their praise.

On this occasion there was no bombing. The German remained at a great height and quickly turned northward again.

Dunham and Miller came to meet us. We had all four been in the schools together, they preceding us on active service only a couple of months. Seeing them after this lapse of time, I was conscious of a change. They were keen about life at the front, but they talked of their experiences in a way which gave one a feeling of tension, a tautness of muscles, a kind of ache in the throat. It set me to thinking of a conversation I had had with an old French pilot, several months before. It came apropos of nothing. Perhaps he thought that I was sizing him up, wondering how he could be content with an instructor's job while the war is in progress. He said: "I've had five hundred hours over the lines. You don't know what that means, not yet. I'm no good any more. It's strain. Let me give you some advice. Save your nervous energy. You will need all you have and more. Above everything else, don't think at the front. The best pilot is the best machine."

Dunham was talking about patrols.

"Two a day of two hours each. Occasionally you will have six hours' flying, but almost never more than that."

"What about voluntary patrols?" Drew asked. "I don't suppose there is any objection, is there?"

Miller pounded Dunham on the back, singing, "Hi-doo-dedoo-dum-di. What did I tell you! Do I win?" Then he explained. "We asked the same question when we came out, and every other new pilot before us. This voluntary patrol business is a kind of standing joke. You think, now, that four hours a day over the lines is a light programme. For the first month or so you will go out on your own between times. After that, no. Of course, when they call for a voluntary patrol for some necessary piece of work, you will volunteer out of a sense of duty. As I say, you may do as much flying as you like. But wait. After a month, or we'll give you six weeks, that will be no more than you have to do."

We were not at all convinced.

"What do you do with the rest of your time?"

"Sleep," said Dunham. "Read a good deal. Play some poker or bridge. Walk. But sleep is the chief amusement. Eight hours used to be enough for me. Now I can do with ten or twelve."

Drew said: "That's all rot. You fellows are having it too soft. They ought to put you on the school regime again."

"Let 'em talk, Dunham. They know. J. B. says it's laziness. Let it go at that. Well, take it from me, it's contagious. You'll soon be victims."

I dropped out of the conversation in order to look around me. Drew did all of the questioning, and thanks to his interest, I got many hints about our work which came back opportunely, afterward.

"Think down to the gunners. That will help a lot. It's a game after that: your skill against theirs. I could n't do it at first, and shell fire seemed absolutely damnable."

"And you want to remember that a chasse machine is almost never brought down by anti-aircraft fire. You are too fast for them. You can fool 'em in a thousand ways."

"I had been flying for two weeks before I saw a Boche. They are not scarce on this sector, don't worry. I simply could n't see them. The others would have scraps. I spent most of my time trying to keep track of them."

"Take my tip, J. B., don't be too anxious to mix it with the first German you see, because very likely he will be a Frenchman, and if he is n't, if he is a good Hun pilot, you'll simply be meat for him — at first, I mean."

"They say that all the Boche aviators on this front have had several months' experience in Russia or the Balkans. They train them there before they send them to the Western Front."

"Your best chance of being brought down will come in the first two weeks."

"That's comforting."

"No, sans blague. Honestly, you'll be almost helpless. You don't see anything, and you don't know what it is that you do see. Here's an example. On one of my first sorties I happened to look over my shoulder and I saw five or six Germans in the most beautiful alignment. And they were all slanting up to dive on me. I was scared out of my life: went down full motor, then cut and fell into a vrille. Came out of that and had another look. There they were in the same position, only farther away. I did n't tumble even then, except farther down. Next time I looked, the five Boches, or six, whichever it was, had all been raveled out by the wind. Eclats d'obus."

"You may have heard about Franklin's Boche. He got it during his first combat. He did n't know that there was a German in the sky, until he saw the tracer bullets. Then the machine passed him about thirty metres away. And he kept going down: may have had motor trouble. Franklin said that he had never had such a shock in his life. He dived after him, spraying all space with his Vickers, and he got him!"

"That all depends on the man. In chasse, unless you are sent out on a definite mission, protecting photographic machines or avions de bombardement, you are absolutely on your own. Your job is to patrol the lines. If a man is built that way, he can loaf on the job. He need never have a fight. At two hundred kilometres an hour, it won't take him very long to get out of danger. He stays out his two hours and comes in with some framed-up tale to account for his disappearance: 'Got lost. Went off by himself into Germany. Had motor trouble; gun jammed, and went back to arm it.' He may even spray a few bullets toward Germany and call it a combat. Oh, he can find plenty of excuses, and he can get away with them."

"That's spreading it, Dunham. What about Huston? is he getting away with it?"

"Now, don't let's get personal. Very likely Huston can't help it. Anyway, it is a matter of temperament mostly."

"Temperament, hell! There's Van, for example. I happen to know that he has to take himself by his bootlaces every time he crosses into Germany. But he sticks it. He has never played a yellow trick. I hand it to him for pluck above every other man in the squadron."

"What about Talbott and Barry?"

"Lord! They haven't any nerves. It's no job for them to do their work well."

This conversation continued during the rest of the journey. The life of a military pilot offers exceptional opportunities for research in the matter of personal bravery. Dunham and Miller agreed that it is a varying quality. Sometimes one is really without fear; at others only a sense of shame prevents one from making a very sad display.

"Huston is no worse than some of the rest of us, only he has n't a sense of shame."

"Well, he has the courage to be a coward, and that is more than you have, son, or I either."

Our fellow pilots of the Lafayette Corps were lounging outside the barracks on our arrival.

They gave us a welcome which did much to remove our feelings of strangeness; but we knew that they were only mildly interested in the news from the schools and were glad when they let us drop into the background of conversation. By a happy chance mention was made of a recent newspaper article of some of the exploits of the Escadnlle, written evidently by a very imaginative journalist; and from this the talk passed to the reputation of the Squadron in America, and the almost fabulous deeds credited to it by some newspaper correspondents. One pilot said that he had kept record of the number of German machines actually reported as having been brought down by members of the Corps. I don't remember the number he gave, but it was an astonishing total. The daily average was so high, that, granting it to be correct, America might safely have abandoned her far-reaching aerial programme. Long before her first pursuit squadron could be ready for service, the last of the imperial German air- fleet would, to quote from the article, have "crashed in smouldering ruin on the war-devastated plains of northern France."


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