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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 8b - One Hundred Hours

For an hour after his return he was very happy. He had won his first victory, always the hardest to gain, and had been complimented by the commandant, by Lieutenant Nungesser, the Roi des Aces, and by other French and American pilots. There is no petty jealousy among airmen, and in our group the e'sprit de corps is unusually fine. Rivalry is keen, but each squadron takes almost as much pride in the work of the other squadrons as it does in its own.

The details of the result were horrible. The Albatross broke up two thousand metres from the ground, one wing falling within the French lines. Drew knew what it meant to be wounded and falling out of control. But his Spad held together. He had a chance for his life. Supposing the German to have been merely wounded—An airman's joy in victory is a short-lived one.

Nevertheless, a curious change takes place in his attitude toward his work, as the months pass. I can best describe it in terms of Drew's experience and my own. We came to the front feeling deeply sorry for ourselves, and for all airmen of whatever nationality, whose lives were to be snuffed out in their promising beginnings. I used to play "The Minstrel Boy to the War Has Gone" on a tin flute, and Drew wrote poetry. While we were waiting for our first machine, he composed "The Airman's Rendezvous," written in the manner of Alan Seeger's poem.

"And I in the wide fields of air Must keep with him my rendezvous. It may be I shall meet him there When clouds, like sheep, move slowly through The pathless meadows of the sky And their cool shadows go beneath, — I have a rendezvous with Death Some summer noon of white and blue."

There is more of it, in the same manner, all of which he read me in a husky voice. I, too, was ready to weep at our untimely fate. The strange thing is that his prophecy came so very near being true. He had the first draft of the poem in his breast-pocket when wounded, and has kept the gory relic to remind him—not that he needs reminding — of the airy manner in which he canceled what ought to have been a bona-fide appointment.

I do not mean to reflect in any way upon Alan Seeger's beautiful poem. Who can doubt that it is a sincere, as well as a perfect, expression of a mood common to all young soldiers? Drew was just as sincere in writing his verses, and I put all the feeling I could into my tin-whistle interpretation of "The Minstrel Boy." What I want to make clear is, that a soldier's moods of self-pity are fleeting ones, and if he lives, he outgrows them.

Imagination is an especial curse to an airman, particularly if it takes a gloomy or morbid turn. We used to write "To whom it may concern" letters before going out on patrol, in which we left directions for the notification of our relatives and the disposal of our personal effects in case of death. Then we would climb into our machines thinking, "This may be our last sortie. We may be dead in an hour, in half an hour, in twenty minutes." We planned splendidly spectacular ways in which we were to be brought down, always omitting one, however, the most horrible as well as the most common, —in flames. Thank Fortune, we have outgrown this second and belated period of adolescence and can now take a healthy interest in our work.

Now, an inevitable part of the daily routine is to be shelled, persistently, methodically, and often accurately shelled. Our interest in this may, I suppose, be called healthy, inasmuch as it would be decidedly unhealthy to become indifferent to the activities of the German antiaircraft gunners. It would be far-fetched to say that any airman ever looks forward zestfully to the business of being shot at with one hundred and fives; and seventy-fives, if they are well placed, are unpleasant enough. After one hundred hours of it, we have learned to assume that attitude of contemptuous toleration which is the manner common to all pilotes de chasse. We know that the chances of a direct hit are almost negligible, and that we have all the blue dome of the heavens in which to maneuver.

Furthermore, we have learned many little tricks by means of which we can keep the gunners guessing. By way of illustration, we are patrolling, let us say, at thirty-five hundred metres, crossing and recrossing the lines, following the patrol leader, who has his motor throttled down so that we may keep well in formation. The guns may be silent for the moment, but we know well enough what the gunners are doing. We know exactly where some of the batteries are, and the approximate location of all of them along the sector; and we know, from earlier experience, when we come within range of each individual battery. Presently one of them begins firing in bursts of four shells. If their first estimate of our range has been an accurate one, if they place them uncomfortably close, so that we can hear, all too well, above the roar of our motors, the rending Gr-r-rOW, Gr-r-rOW, of the shells as they explode, we sail calmly — to all outward appearances — on, maneuvering very little. The gunners, seeing that we are not disturbed, will alter their ranges, four times out of five, which is exactly what we want them to do.

The next bursts will be hundreds of metres below or above us, whereupon we show signs of great uneasiness, and the gunners, thinking they have our altitude, begin to fire like demons. We employ our well-earned immunity in preparing for the next series of batteries, or in thinking of the cost to Germany, at one hundred francs a shot, of all this futile shelling. Drew, in particular, loves this cost-accounting business, and I must admit that much pleasure may be had in it, after patrol.wtjThey rarely fire less than fifty shells at us during a two-hour patrol. Making a low general average, the number is nearer one hundred and fifty. On our present front, where aerial activity is fairly brisk and the sector is a large one, three or four hundred shells are wasted upon us often before we have been out an hour.

We have memories of all the good batteries from Flanders to the Vosges Mountains. Battery after battery, we make their acquaintance along the entire sector, wherever we go. Many of them, of course, are mobile, so that we never lose the sport of searching for them. Only a few days ago we located one of this kind which came into action in the open by the side of a road. First we saw the flashes and then the shell-bursts in the same cadence.. We tipped up and fired at him in bursts of twenty to thirty rounds, which is the only way airmen have of passing the time of day with their friends, the enemy anti-aircraft gunners, who ignore the art of camouflage.

But we can converse with them, after a fashion, even though we do not know their exact position. It will be long before this chap-ter of my journal is in print. Having given no indication of the date of writing, I may say, without indiscretion, that we are again on the Champagne front. We have a wholesome respect for one battery here, a respect it has justly earned by shooting which is really remarkable. We talk of this battery, which is east of Rheims and not far distant from Nogent l'Abbesse, and take professional pride in keeping its gunners in ignorance of their fine marksmanship. We signal them their bad shots — which are better than the good ones of most of the batteries on the sector —by doing stunts, a barrel turn , a loop, two or three turns of a vrille..

As for their good shots, they are often so very good that we are forced into acrobacy of a wholly individual kind. Our avions have received many scars from their shells. Between forty-five hundred and five thousand metres, their bursts have been so close under us that we have been lifted by the concussions and set down violently again at the bottom of the vacuum; and this on a clear day when a chasse machine is almost invisible at that height, and despite its speed of two hundred kilometres an hour. On a gray day, when we are flying between twenty-five hundred and three thousand metres beneath a film of cloud, they repay the honor we do them by our acrobatic turns. They bracket us, put barrages between us and our own lines, give us more trouble than all the other batteries on the sector combined.

For this reason it is all the more humiliating to be forced to land with motor trouble, just at the moment when they are paying off some old scores. This happened to Drew while I have been writing up my journal. Coming out of a tonneau in answer to three coups from the battery, his propeller stopped dead. By planing flatly (the wind was dead ahead, and the area back of the first lines there is a wide one, crossed by many intersecting lines of trenches) he got well over them and chose a field as level as a billiard table for landing-ground. In the very center of it, however, there was one post, a small worm-eaten thing, of the color of the dead grass around it. He hit it, just as he was setting his Spad on the ground, the only post in a field acres wide, and it tore a piece of fabric from one of his lower wings. No doubt the crack battery has been given credit for disabling an enemy plane. The honor , such as it is, belongs to our aerial godfather, among whose lesser vices may be included that of practical joking.

The remnants of the post were immediately confiscated for firewood by some poilus who were living in a dugout near by.


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