SEPTEMBER 25th, 1918, was my first day as Captain of 94
Squadron. Early that forenoon I started for the lines alone, flew over Verdun
and Fort Douaumont, then turned east towards Etain. Almost immediately I picked
up a pair of L. V. G. two-seater machines below me. They were coming out of
Germany and were certainly bent upon an expedition over our lines. Five Fokker
machines were above them and somewhat behind, acting as protection for the
photographers until the lines were reached.
Climbing for the sun for all I was worth, I soon had the
satisfaction of realizing that I had escaped their notice and was now well in
their rear. I shut down my motor, put down my head and made a bee line for the
I was not observed by the enemy until it was too late for
him to escape. I had him exactly in my sights when I pulled both triggers for a
long burst. He made a sudden attempt to pull away, but my bullets were already
ripping through his fusilage and he must have been killed instantly. His
machine fell wildly away and crashed just south of Etain.
It had been my intention to zoom violently upwards and
protect myself against the expected attack from the four remaining Fokkers as
soon as I had finished the first man. But when I saw the effect of my attack
upon the four dumbfounded Boches I instantly changed my tactics and plunged
straight on through their formation to attack the photographing L. V. G's
ahead. For the Heinies were so surprised by finding a Spad in their midst and
seeing one of their number suddenly drop that the remaining three viraged to
right and left. Their one idea was to escape and save their own skins. Though
they did not actually pique for home, they cleared a space large enough for me
to slip through and continue my dive upon the two-seaters before they could
recover their formation.
The two-seaters had seen my attack and had already put down
their heads to escape. I plunged along after them, getting the rear machine in
my sights as I drew nearer to him. A glance back over my shoulder showed me
that the four Fokkers had not yet reformed their line and were even now
circling about with the purpose of again solidifying their formation. I had a
few seconds yet before they could begin their attack.
The two L. V. G. machines began to draw apart. Both
observers in the rear seats were firing at me, although the range was still too
long for accurate shooting. I dove more steeply, passed out of the gunner's
view under the nearest machine and zoomed quickly up at him from below. But the
victory was not to be an easy one. The pilot suddenly kicked his tail around,
giving the gunner another good aim at me. I had to postpone shooting until I
had more time for my own aiming. And in the meantime the second photographing
machine had stolen up behind me and I saw tracer bullets go whizzing and
streaking past my face. I zoomed up diagonally out of range, made a
renversement and came directly back at my first target.
Several times we repeated these maneuvers, the four Fokkers
still wrangling among themselves about their formation. And all the time we
were getting farther and farther back into Germany. I decided upon one bold
attack and if this failed I would get back to my own lines before it was too
Watching my two adversaries closely, I suddenly found an
opening between them. They were flying parallel to each other and not fifty
yards apart. Dropping down in a sideslip until I had one machine between me and
the other I straightened out smartly, leveled my Spad and began firing. The
nearest Boche passed directly through my line of fire and just as I ceased
firing I had the infinite satisfaction of seeing him gush forth flames. Turning
over and over as he fell the L. V. G. started a blazing path to earth just as
the Fokker escort came tearing up to the rescue. I put on the gas and piqued
for my own lines.
Pleased as I was over this double-header, the effect it
might have upon my pilots was far more gratifying to me.
Arriving at the aerodrome at 9:30 I immediately jumped into
a motorcar, called to Lieutenant Chambers to come with me and we set off at
once to get official confirmation for this double victory. We took the main
road to Verdun, passed through the town and gained the hills beyond the Mouse,
towards Etain. Taking the road up to Fort de Tavannes we passed over that
bloody battlefield of 1916 where so many thousand German troops fell before
French fire in the memorable Battle for Verdun. At the very crest of the hill
we were halted by a French poilu, who told us the rest of the road was in full
view of the Germans and that we must go no farther.
We asked him as to whether he had seen my combat overhead
this morning. He replied in the affirmative and added that the officers in the
adjacent fort too had witnessed the whole fight through their field glasses. We
thanked him and leaving our car under his care took our way on foot to the
Two or three hundred yards of shell-holes sprinkled the
ground between us and the Fort. We made our way through them, gained admittance
to the interior of the Fort and in our best Pidgin French stated our errand to
M. le Commandant. He immediately wrote out full particulars of the combat I had
had with the L. V. G., signed it and congratulated me upon my victory with a
warm shake of the hand. Having no further business at this place, we made our
adieus and hastened back to our car.
Plunging through the shallowest shell-holes we had traversed
about half the distance to our car, which stood boldly out on the top of the
road, when a shrill whining noise made us pause and listen. The next instant a
heavy explosion announced that a shell had landed about fifty yards short of
us. Simultaneously with the shower of gravel and dirt which headed our way we
dropped unceremoniously on our faces in the bottom of the deepest shell-hole in
The Huns had spotted our car and were actually trying to get
Two or three times we crawled out of our hole, only to duck
back at the signal of the next coming shell. After six or eight shots the Boche
gunners evidently considered their target too small, for they ceased firing
long enough for us to make a bolt across the intervening holes and throw
ourselves into the waiting automobile. I most fervently wished that I had
turned the car around before leaving it, and I shall never forget the frightful
length of time it took me to get our car backed around and headed in the right
direction. We lost no time in getting down that hill.
Next day was to be an important one for us and for the whole
American Army. Officially it was designated as " D " day and the " Zero hour,"
by the same code, was set for four o'clock in the morning. At that moment the
artillery barrage would begin and forty thousand doughboys who were posted
along the front line trenches from the Meuse to the Argonne Forest would go
over the top. It was the 26th day of September, 1918.
Precisely at four o'clock I was awakened by my orderly who
informed me that the weather was good. Hastily getting out of doors, I looked
over the dark sky, wondering as I did so how many of our boys it would claim
before this day's work was done! For we had an important part to play in this
day's operations. Headquarters had sent us orders to attack all the enemy
observation balloons along that entire front this morning and to continue the
attacks until the infantry's operations were completed. Accordingly every
fighting squadron had been assigned certain of these balloons for attack and it
was our duty to see that they were destroyed. The safety of thousands of our
attacking soldiers depended upon our success in eliminating these all-watching
eyes of the enemy. Incidentally, it was the first balloon strafing party that
94 Squadron had been given since I had been made its leader and I desired to
make a good showing on this first expedition.
Just here it may be well to point out the difficulties of
balloon strafing, which make this undertaking so unattractive to the new pilot.
German " Archy " is terrifying at first acquaintance. Pilots
affect a scorn for it, and indeed at high altitudes the probabilities of a hit
are small. But when attacking a balloon which hangs only 1,500 feet above the
guns (and this altitude is of course known precisely to the anti-aircraft
gunner) Archy becomes far more dangerous.
So when a pilot begins his first balloon attacking
expeditions, he knows that he runs a gauntlet of fire that may be very deadly.
His natural impulse is to make a nervous plunge into the zone of danger, fire
his bullets, and get away. Few victories are won with this method of attack.
The experienced balloon strafers, particularly such daring
airmen as Coolidge and Luke, do not consider the risks or terrors about them.
They proceed in the attack as calmly as though they were sailing through a
stormless sky. Regardless of flaming missiles from the ground, they pass
through the defensive barrage of fire, and often return again and again, to
attack the target, until it finally bursts into flame from their incendiary
The office charts informed me that day would break this
morning at six o'clock. Consequently we must be ready to leave the ground in
our machines at 5:20, permitting us thirty minutes in which to reach our
objectives, and ten minutes in which to locate our individual balloons. For it
is essential to strike at these well defended targets just at the edge of dawn.
Then the balloons are just starting aloft, and our attacking aeroplanes are but
scantily visible from below. Moreover enemy aeroplanes are not apt to be about
so early in the morning, unless the enemy has some inkling of what is going on.
I routed out five of my best pilots, Lieutenants Cook,
Chambers, Taylor, Coolidge and Palmer; and as we gathered together for an early
breakfast, we went over again all the details of our pre-arranged plans. We had
two balloons assigned to our Squadron, and three of us were delegated to each
balloon. Both lay along the Meuse between Brabant and Dun. Every one of us had
noted down the exact location of his target on the evening before. It would be
difficult perhaps to find them before daylight if they were still in their
nests, but we were to hang about the vicinity until we did find them, if it
took all day. With every man fully posted on his course and objective, we put
on our coats and walked over to the hangars.
I was the last to leave the field, getting off the ground at
exactly 5:20. It was still dark and we had to have the searchlights turned onto
the field for a moment to see the ground while we took off. As soon as we
lifted into the darkness the lights were extinguished. And then I saw the most
marvelous sight that my eyes have ever seen.
A terrific barrage of artillery fire was going on ahead of
me. Through the darkness the whole western horizon was illumined with one mass
of sudden flashes. The big guns were belching out their shells with such
rapidity that there appeared to be millions of them shooting at the same time.
Looking back I saw the same scene in my rear. From Luneville on the east to
Rheims on the west there was not one spot of darkness along the whole front.
The French were attacking along both our flanks at the same time with us in
order to help demoralize the weakening Boche. The picture made me think of a
giant switchboard which emitted thousands of electric flashes as invisible
hands manipulated the plugs.
So fascinated did I become over this extraordinary fireworks
display that I was startled upon peering over the side of my machine to
discover the city of Verdun below my aeroplane's wings. Fastening my course
above the dim outline of the Meuse River I followed its windings down stream,
occasionally cutting across little peninsulas which I recognized along the way.
Every inch of this route was as familiar to me as was the path around the
corner of my old home. I knew exactly the point in the Meuse Valley where I
would leave the river and turn left to strike the spot where my balloon lay
last night. I did not know what course the other pilots had taken. Perhaps they
Just as these thoughts were going through my mind I saw
directly ahead of me the long snaky flashes of enemy tracer bullets from the
ground piercing the sky. There was the location of my balloon and either Cook
or Chambers was already attacking it. The enemy had discovered them and were
putting up the usual hail of flaming projectiles around the balloon site. But
even as the flaming bullets continued streaming upwards I saw a gigantic flame
burst out in their midst! One of the boys had destroyed his gas-bag!
Even before the glare of the first had died I saw our second
enemy balloon go up in flames. My pilots had succeeded beyond my fondest
expectations. Undoubtedly the enemy would soon be swinging new balloons up in
their places, but we must wait awhile for that. I resolved to divert my course
and fly further to the north where I knew of the nest of another German
observation balloon near Damvillers.
Dawn was just breaking as I headed more to the east and
tried to pick out the location of Damvillers. I was piercing the gloom with my
eyes when again straight in front of my revolving propeller I saw
another gush of flame which announced the doom of another enemy balloon
the very one I had determined to attack. While I was still jubilating over the
extraordinary good luck that had attended us in this morning's expedition, I
glanced off to my right and was almost startled out of my senses to discover
that a German Fokker was flying alongside me not a hundred yards away! Not
expecting any of the enemy aeroplanes to be abroad at this early hour, I was
naturally upset for the moment. The next instant I saw that he had headed for
me and was coming straight at my machine. We both began firing at the same
time. It was still so dark that our four streams of flaming bullets cut
brilliant lines of fire through the air. For a moment it looked as though our
two machines were tied together with four ropes of fire. All my ammunition was
of the incendiary variety for use against gas-bags. The Hun's ammunition was
part tracer, part incendiary and part regular chunks of lead.
As we drew nearer and nearer I began to wonder whether this
was to be a collision or whether he would get out of my way. He settled the
question by tipping down his head to dive under me. I instantly made a
renversement which put me close behind him and in a most favorable position for
careful aim. Training my sights into the center of his fusilage I pulled both
triggers. With one long burst the fight was over. The Fokker fell over onto one
wing and dropped aimlessly to earth. It was too dark to see the crash, and
moreover I had all thoughts of my victory dissipated by a sudden ugly jerk to
my motor which immediately developed into a violent vibration. As I turned back
towards Verdun, which was the nearest point to our lines, I had recurring
visions of crashing down into Germany to find myself a prisoner. This would be
a nice ending to our glorious balloon expedition!
Throttling down to reduce the pounding I was able just to
maintain headway. If my motor failed completely I was most certainly doomed,
for I was less than a thousand feet above ground and could glide but a few
hundred yards without power. Providence was again with me, for I cleared the
lines and made our Verdun aerodrome where one flight of the 27th Squadron was
housed. I landed without damage and hastily climbed out of my machine to
investigate the cause of my trouble.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one blade of my
propeller had been shot in two by my late adversary! He had evidently put
several holes through it when he made his head-on-attack. And utterly
unconscious of the damage I had received, I had reversed my direction and shot
him down before the weakened blade gave way! The heavy jolting of my engine was
now clear to meonly half of the propeller caught the air.
Lieutenant Jerry Vasconcelles of Denver, Colorado, was in
charge of the Verdun field on which I had landed. He soon came out and joined
me as I was staring at my broken propeller. And then I learned that he had just
landed himself from a balloon expedition. A few questions followed and then we
shook hands spontaneously. He had shot down the Darnvillers balloon himself
the same one for which I had been headed. And as he was returning he had
seen me shoot down my Fokker! This was extremely lucky for both of us, for we
were able each to verify the other's victory for him, although of course
corroboration from ground witnesses was necessary to make these victories
His mechanics placed a new propeller on my Spad, and none
the worse for its recent rough usage the little bus took me rapidly home. I
landed at 8:30 on my own field. And there I heard great news. Our Group had
that morning shot down ten German balloons! My victory over the Fokker made it
eleven victories to be credited us for this hour's work. And we had not lost a
As the jubilant and famished pilots crowded into the mess
hall one could not hear a word through all the excited chatter. Each one had
some strange and fearful adventure to relate about his morning's experiences.
But the tale which aroused howls of laughter was the droll story told by
Lieutenant White of the 147th Squadron.
White had searched long and earnestly for the balloon that
he desired to attack. He thought himself hopelessly lost in the darkness, when
off to one side he distinguished the dark outline of what he thought was his
balloon. Immediately redressing his machine he tipped downwards and began
plugging furious streams of flaming bullets into his target. He made a
miscalculation in his distance and before he could swerve away from the dark
mass ahead of him his machine had plunged straight through it!
And then he discovered that he had been piquing upon a round
puff of black smoke that had just been made by a German Archy!
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