A LITTLE more than a year after our first meeting in the
Paris restaurant which has so many pleasant memories for us. Drew completed his
first one hundred hours of flight over the lines, an event in the life of an
airman which calls for a celebration of some sort. Therefore, having been
granted leave for the afternoon, the two of us came into the old French town of
Bar-le- Duc, by the toy train which wanders down from the Verdun sector. We had
dinner in one of those homelike little places where the food is served by the
proprietor himself. On this occasion it was served hurriedly, and the bill
presented promptly at eight o'clock. Our host was very sorry, but "les sales
Boches, vous savez, messieurs ? They had come the night before: a dozen houses
destroyed, women and children killed and maimed. With a full moon to guide
them, they would be sure to return to-night. "Ah, cette guerre! Quand
sera-t-elle finie?" He offered us a refuge until our train should leave.
Usually, he said, he played solitaire while waiting for the Germans, but with
houses tumbling about one's ears, he much preferred company. "And my wife and I
are old people. She is very deaf, heureusement. She hears nothing."
J. B. declined the invitation. "A brave way that would be to
finish our evening!" he said as we walked down the silent street. " I wanted to
say, 'Monsieur, I have just finished my first one hundred hours of flight at
the front.' But he would n't have known what that means."
I said, "No, he wouldn't have known." Then we had no further
talk for about two hours. A few soldiers, late arrivals, were prowling about in
the shadow of the houses, searching for food and a warm kitchen where they
might eat it. Some insistent ones pounded on the door of a restaurant far in
"Dites done, patron! Nous avons faim, nom de Dieu!
Est-ce-que tout le monde est mort ici ? " "
Only a host of phantom listeners,
That dwelt in
the lone house then,
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
that voice from the world of men."
It was that kind of silence, profound, tense, ghostlike. We
walked through street after street, from one end of the town to the other, and
saw only one light, a faint glimmer which came from a slit of a cellar window
almost on the level of the pavement. We were curious, no doubt. At any rate, we
looked in. A woman was sitting on a cot bed with her arms around two little
children. They were snuggled up against her and both fast asleep; but she was
sitting very erect, in a strained, listening attitude, staring straight before
her. Since that night we have believed , both of us, that if wars can be won
only by haphazard night bombardments of towns where there are women and
children, then they had far better be lost..
But I am writing a journal of high adventure of a cleaner
kind, in which all the resources in skill and cleverness of one set of men are
pitted against those of another set. We have no bomb-dropping to do, and there
are but few women and children living in the territory over which we fly. One
hundred hours is not a great while as time is measured on the ground, but in
terms of combat patrols, the one hundredth part of it has held more of
adventure in the true meaning of the word than we have had during the whole of
our lives previously.
At first we were far too busy learning the rudiments of
combat to keep an accurate record of flying time. We thought our aeroplane
clocks convenient pieces of equipment rather than necessary ones. I remember
coming down from my first air battle and the breathless account I gave of it at
the bureau, breathless and vague. Lieutenant Talbott listened quietly, making
out the compte rendu as I talked. When I had finished, he emphasized the
haziness of my answers to his questions by quoting them: " Region: 'You know,
that big wood!' Time: 'This morning, of course!' Rounds fired: 'Oh, a lot!'"
Not until we had been flying for a month or more did we
learn how to make the right use of our clocks and of our eyes while in the air.
We listened with amazement to after-patrol talk at the mess. We learned more of
what actually happened on our sorties, after they were over than while they
were in progress. All of the older pilots missed seeing nothing which there was
to see. They reported the numbers of the enemy planes encountered, the types,
where seen and when. They spotted batteries, trains in stations back of the
enemy lines, gave the hour precisely, reported any activity on the roads. In
moments of exasperation Drew would say, "I think they are stringing us! This is
all a put-up job !" Certainly this did appear to be the case at first. For we
were air- blind. We saw little of the activity all around us, and details on
the ground had no significance. How were we to take thought of time and place
and altitude, note the peculiarities of enemy machines, count their numbers,
and store all this information away in memory at the moment of combat? This was
a great problem.
"What I need," J. B. used to say, "is a traveling private
secretary . I'll do the fighting and he can keep the diary."
I needed one, too, a man air-wise and battlewise, who could
calmly take note of my clock, altimeter, temperature and pressure dials,
identify exactly the locality on my map, count the numbers of the enemy,
estimate their approximate altitude, all this when the air was
criss-crossed with streamers of smoke from machine-gun tracer bullets, and
opposing aircraft were maneuvering for position, diving and firing at each
other, spiraling, nose-spinning, wing-slipping, climbing, in a confusing
intermingling of tricolor cocards and black crosses.
We made gradual progress, the result being that our patrols
became a hundred-fold more fascinating, sometimes, in fact, too much so. It was
important that we should be able to read the ground, but more important still
to remember that what was happening there was only of secondary concern to us.
Often we became absorbed in watching what was taking place below us, to the
exclusion of any thought of aerial activity, our chances for attack or of being
attacked. The view, from the air, of a heavy bombardment, or of an infantry
attack under cover of barrage fires, is a truly terrible spectacle, and in the
air one has a feeling of detachment which is not easily overcome.
Yet it must be overcome, as I have said, and cannot say too
many times for the benefit of any young airman who may read this journal.
During an offensive the air swarms with planes. They are at all altitudes, from
the lowest artillery reglage machines at a few hundreds of metres, to the
highest avions de chasse at six thousand meters and above. Reglage,
photographic, and reconnaissance planes have their particular work to do. They
defend themselves as best they can, but almost never attack. Combat avions, on
the other hand; are always looking for victims. They are the ones chiefly
dangerous to the unwary pursuit pilot.
Drew's first official victory came as the result of a
one-sided battle with an Albatross single-seater, whose pilot evidently did not
know there was an enemy within miles of him. No more did J . B. for that
matter. "It was pure accident," he told me afterward. He had gone from Rheims
to the Argonne forest without meeting a single German. "And I did n't want to
meet one; for it was Thanksgiving Day. It has associations for me, you know.
I'm a New Englander." It is not possible to convince him that it has any real
significance for men who were not born on the North Atlantic seaboard. Well,
all the way he had been humming
"Over the river and through the wood
grandfather's house we go,"
to himself. It is easy to understand why he did n't want to
meet a German. He must have been in a curiously mixed frame of mind. He covered
the sector again and passed over Rheims, going northeast. Then he saw the
Albatross; "and if you had been standing on one of the towers of the cathedral
you would have seen a very unequal battle." The German was about two kilometres
inside his own lines, and at least a thousand metres below. Drew had every
"He did n't see me until I opened fire, and then, as it
happened, it was too late. My gun did n't jam!"
The German started falling out of control, Drew following
him down until he lost sight of him in making a virage.
I leaned against the canvas wall of a hangar, registering
incredulity. Three times out of seven, to make a conservative estimate, we
fight inconclusive battles because of faulty machine guns or defective
ammunition. The ammunition, most of it that is bad, comes from America.
While Drew was giving me the details, an orderly from the
bureau brought word that an enemy machine had just been reported shot down on
our sector. It was Drew's Albatross, but he nearly lost official credit for
having destroyed it, because he did not know exactly the hour when the combat
occurred. His watch was broken and he had neglected asking for another before
starting. He judged the time of the attack, approximately, as two-thirty, and
the infantry observers, reporting the result, gave it as twenty minutes to
three. The region in both cases coincided exactly, however, and, fortunately,
Drew's was the only combat which had taken place in that vicinity during the
LAST CHAPTER ° NEXT