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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 5b - Our First Patrol

In this connection I can't forbear quoting from another, one of the brightest pages in the journalistic history of the legendary Escadrille Lafayette. It is an account of a sortie said to have taken place on the receipt of news of America's declaration of war.

"Uncle Sam is with us, boys! Come on! Let's get those fellows!" These were the stirring words of Captain Georges Thenault, the valiant leader of the Escadrille Lafayette, upon the morning when news was received that the United States of America had declared war upon the rulers of Potsdam. For the first time in history, the Stars and Stripes of Old Glory were flung to the breeze over the camp, in France, of American fighting men. Inspired by the sight, and spurred to instant action by the ringing call of their French captain, this band of aviators from the U.S.A. sprang into their trim little biplanes. There was a deafening roar of motors, and soon the last airman had disappeared in the smoky haze which hung over the distant battle-lines.

We cannot follow them on that journey. We cannot see them as they mount higher and higher into the morning sky, on their way to meet their prey. But we may await their return. We may watch them as they descend to their flying-field, dropping down to earth, one by one. We may learn, then, of their adventures on that flight of death: how, far back of the German lines, they encountered a formidable battle-squadron of the enemy, vastly superior to their own in numbers. Heedless of the risk they swooped down upon their foe. Lieutenant A— was attacked by four enemy planes at the same time. One he sent hurtling to the ground fifteen thousand feet below. He caused a second to retire disabled. Sergeant B— accounted for another in a running fight which lasted for more than a quarter of an hour. Adjutant C— ,although his biplane was riddled with bullets, succeeded, by a clever ruse, in decoying two pursuers, bent on his destruction, to the vicinity of a cloud where several of his comrades were lying in wait for further victims. A moment later both Germans were seen to fall earthward, spinning like leaves in that last terrible dive of death. "These boys are Yankee aviators. They form the vanguard of America's aerial forces. We need thousands of others just like them ." etc.

Stories of this kind have, without doubt, a certain imaginative appeal. J. B. and I had often read them, never wholly credulous, of course, but with feelings of uneasiness. Discounting them by more than half, we still had serious doubts of our ability to measure up to the standard set by our fellow Americans who had preceded us on active service. We were in part reassured during our first afternoon at the front. If these men were the demons on wings of the newspapers, they took great pains to give us a different impression.

Many of the questions which had long been accumulating in our minds got themselves answered during the next few days, while we were waiting for machines. We knew, in a general way, what the nature of our work would be. We knew that the Escadrille Lafayette was one of four pursuit squadrons occupying hangars on the same field, and that, together, these formed what is called a groupe de combat, with a definite sector of front to cover. We had been told that combat pilots are " the police of the air," whose duty it is to patrol the lines, harass the enemy, attacking whenever possible, thus giving protection to their own corps-d'armee aircraft— which are only incidentally fighting machines —in their work of reconnaissance, photography, artillery direction, and the like. But we did not know how this general theory of combat is given practical application. When I think of the depths of our ignorance, to be filled in, day by day, with a little additional experience; of our self-confidence, despite warnings; of our willingness to leave so much for our "godfather" Chance to decide, it is with feelings nearly akin to awe. We awaited our first patrol almost ready to believe that it would be our first victorious combat. We had no realization of the conditions under which aerial battles are fought. Given good-will, average ability, and the opportunity, we believed that the results must be decisive, one way or the other.

Much of our enforced leisure was spent at the bureau of the group, where the pilots gathered after each sortie to make out their reports. There we heard accounts of exciting combats, of victories and narrow escapes, which sounded like impossible fictions. A few of them may have been, but not many. They were told simply, briefly, as a part of the day's work, by men who no longer thought of their adventures as being either very remarkable or very interesting. What, I thought, will seem interesting or remarkable to them after the war, after such a life as this? Once an American gave me a hint: "I'm going to apply for a job as attendant in a natural-history museum.

Only a few minutes before, these men had been taking part in aerial battles, attacking infantry in trenches, or enemy transport on roads fifteen or twenty kilometres away. And while they were talking of these things the drone of motors overhead announced the departure of other patrols to battle-lines which were only five minutes distant by the route of the air. For when weather permitted there was an interlapping series of patrols flying over the sector from daylight till dark. The number of these, and the number of avions in each patrol, varied as circumstances demanded.

On one wall of the bureau hung a large-scale map of the sector, which we examined square by square with that delight which only the study of maps can give. Trench-systems, both French and German, were outlined upon it in minute detail. It contained other features of a very interesting nature. On another wall there was a yet larger map, made of aeroplane photographs taken at a uniform altitude and so pieced together that the whole was a complete picture of our sector of front. We spent hours over this one. Every trench, every shell hole, every splintered tree or fragment of farmhouse wall stood out clearly. We could identify machine-gun posts and battery positions. We could see at a glance the result of months of fighting; how terribly men had suffered under a rain of high explosives at this point, how lightly they had escaped at another; and so we could follow, with a certain degree of accuracy, what must have been the infantry actions at various parts of the line.

The history of these trench campaigns will have a forbidding interest to the student of the future; for, as he reads of the battles on the Aisne, the Somme, of Verdun and Flanders, he will have spread out before him photographs of the battlefields themselves, just as they were at different phases of the struggle. With a series of these pictorial records, men will be able to find the trenches from which their fathers or grandfathers scrambled with their regiments to the attack, the wire entanglements which held up the advance at one point, the shell holes where they lay under machine-gun fire. And often they will see the men themselves as they advanced through the barrage fire, the sun glinting on their helmets. It will be a fascinating study, in a ghastly way; and while such records exist, the outward meanings, at least, of modern warfare will not be forgotten.

Tiffin, the messroom steward, was standing by my cot with a lighted candle in his hand. The furrows in his kindly old face were outlined in shadow. His bald head gleamed like the bottom of a yellow bowl. He said, "Beau temps, monsieur," put the candle on my table, and went out, closing the door softly. I looked at the window square, which was covered with oiled cloth for want of glass. It was a black patch showing not a glimmer of light.

The other pilots were gathering in the messroom, where a fire was going. Some one started the phonograph. Fritz Kreisler was playing the " Chansons sans Paroles." This was followed by a song, "Oh, movin' man, don't take ma baby grand." It was a strange combination, and to hear them, at that hour of the morning, before going out for a first sortie over the lines, gave me a "mixed-up" feeling, which it was impossible to analyze.

Two patrols were to leave the field at the same time, one to cover the sector at an altitude of from two thousand to three thousand metres, the other, thirty-five hundred to five thousand metres. J. B. and I were on high patrol. Owing to our inexperience, it was to be a purely defensive one between our observation balloons and the lines. We had still many questions to ask, but having been so persistently inquisitive for three days running, we thought it best to wait for Talbott, who was leading our patrol, to volunteer his instructions.

He went to the door to look at the weather. There were clouds at about three thousand metres, but the stars were shining through gaps in them. On the horizon, in the direction of the lines, there was a broad belt of blue sky. The wind was blowing into Germany. He came back yawning. "We'll go up—ho, hum!"— tremendous yawn — "through a hole before we reach the river. It's going to be clear presently, so the higher we go the better."

The others yawned sympathetically.

"I don't feel very pugnastic this morning"

"It's a crime to send men out at this time of day — night, rather."

More yawns of assent, of protest. J. B. and I were the only ones fully awake. We had finished our chocolate and were watching the clock uneasily, afraid that we should be late getting started. Ten minutes before patrol time we went out to the field. The canvas hangars billowed and flapped, and the wooden supports creaked with the quiet sound made by ships at sea. And there was almost the peace of the sea there, intensified, if anything, by the distant rumble of heavy cannonading.

Our Spad biplanes were drawn up in two long rows, outside the hangars. They were in exact alignment, wing to wing. Some of them were clean and new, others discolored with smoke and oil; among these latter were the ones which J. B. and I were to fly. Being new pilots we were given used machines to begin with, and ours had already seen much service. Fuselage and wings had many patches over the scars of old battles, but new motors had been installed, the bodies overhauled, and they were ready for further adventures.

It mattered little to us that they were old. They were to carry us out to our first air battles; they were the first avions which we could call our own, and we loved them in an almost personal way. Each machine had an Indian head, the symbol of the Lafayette Corps, painted on the sides of the fuselage. In addition, it bore the personal mark of its pilot, — a triangle, a diamond, a straight band, or an initial, — painted large so that it could be easily seen and recognized in the air.

The mechanicians were getting the motors en route, arming the machine guns, and giving a final polish to the glass of the wind-shields. In a moment every machine was turning over ralenti, with the purring sound of powerful engines which gives a voice to one's feeling of excitement just before patrol time. There was no more yawning, no languid movement.

Rodman was buttoning himself into a combination suit which appeared to add another six inches to his six feet two.. Barry, who was leading the low patrol, wore a woolen helmet which left only his eyes uncovered. I had not before noticed how they blazed and snapped. All his energy seemed to be concentrated in them. Porter wore a leather face-mask, with a lozenge-shaped breathing-hole, and slanted openings covered with yellow glass for eyes. He was the most fiendish -looking demon of them all. I was glad to turn from him to the Duke, who wore a passe-montagne of white silk which fitted him like a bonnet. As he sat in his machine, adjusting his goggles, he might have passed for a dear old lady preparing to read a chapter from the Book of Daniel. The fur of Dunham's helmet had frayed out , so that it fitted around the sides of his face and under the chin like a beard, the kind worn by old-fashioned sailors.

The strain of waiting patiently for the start was trying. The sudden transformation of a group of typical-looking Americans into monsters and 'devotional old ladies gave a moment of diversion which helped to relieve it.

I heard Talbott shouting his parting instructions and remembered that I did not know the rendezvous. I was already strapped in my machine and was about to loosen the fastenings, when he came over and climbed on the step of the car.

"Rendezvous two thousand over field!" he yelled.

I nodded.

"Know me—Big T—wings—fuselage. I'll — turning right. You and others left. When —see me start—lines, fall in behind—left. Remember stick close—patrol. If—get lost, better—home. Compass southwest. Look care- fully—landmarks going out. Got—straight?"

I nodded again to show that I understood. Machines of both patrols were rolling across the field, a mechanician running along beside each one. I joined the long line, and taxied over to the starting-point, where the captain was superintending the send-off, and turned into the wind in my turn. As though conscious of his critical eye, my old veteran Spad lifted its tail and gathered flying speed with all the vigor of its youth, and we were soon high above the hangars, climbing to the rendezvous.


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