Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Captain Vernon W. Castle, RFC

Contributed by James Patton

Vernon and Irene Castle
Vernon Castle was born Vernon W. Blythe in 1887 in Norwich, England, part of a theatrical family. As a youngster he performed in music halls; he could sing, play the piano, dance, conjure, and joke. He briefly studied electrical engineering but left for New York in 1906, where he was an immediate hit in vaudeville. He changed his name because his sister was a successful actress. He often played the "second banana" in comedies and, tall (for his era) and rail thin, he was a smooth dancer. In June 1910 Vernon was teamed up with dancer Irene Foote, the 17-year-old daughter of a Long Island physician. In just a few years they became pop superstars as the inventors of modern-style ballroom dancing. The secret to their success was that their new dances were socially "modest" and yet worked with the popular syncopated rhythms. They were young, rich, and famous, and they authored books, starred on Broadway and in silent movies, and sold their names and faces to everything from record players to shoes to cigars.

In 1915 Vernon took flying lessons in Virginia and left for Europe in January 1916, walking away from a hit Broadway show. Strings were pulled and he was commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 4 March. Soon he joined No. 1 Squadron, an observation unit based at Bailleul in the Ypres salient. His celebrity was quickly noticed. From his letters: 

"The officers here have been making me teach them the Fox-Trot, etc., and now every evening they have dances and dance with one another. At any other time it would seem terrible to see two men dancing together, but when you know that every one of them is a real man and faces death pretty nearly every day, it doesn't seem at all out of place that they should dance, and they welcome me as a Godsend."

Much of his service was on photographic, bombing, or gun-spotting missions, flying a Nieuport 12. Again from his letters: 

Royal Flying Corps Badge
(from author's collection)
I had to get up at 3.30 so that I could fly and drop some bombs on a railroad before it got too light. It wasn't a very nice morning, but I went up, and then it came over very cloudy, and I got lost in the clouds. I couldn't see a speck of ground, so after flying a bit I shut off the engine and dived down, but on coming out through the clouds I was immediately shelled. Having no idea where I was except that I was not over a friendly country, I climbed back into the clouds again. I decided that I had been flying for about twenty-five minutes, so I pointed my machine due west and flew for about thirty-five minutes. When I came down again, by a great stroke of luck, I was almost over our own aerodrome. I landed, but not without a great deal of fear, because I still had under the machine the bombs that I was supposed to drop on the rail road.   I enclose a sketch showing you the position of the bombs, and as they are exploded by contact, you will see that it was no fun landing with them. 

More from his letters:

It was a terribly cold day, and I was detailed to go up on a patrol. I had just got into my machine and started up the engine when I suddenly realized I hadn't my little prayer around my neck. Of course I am far too superstitious to go up without it, so I stopped my engine, got out of the machine, and went to my hut where I found it. I was too bundled up and had no time to undress, so I tied it round my wrist. Well, I got up in the air about 10,000 feet when I suddenly spotted four Huns. Then I was glad I had gone back for my prayer, because I thought to myself: 'Here's where I get it.' I beetled off after the Huns, who were well over our side of the lines and only a few miles from the aerodrome. I gradually caught them up, and when they saw me the two behind turned on me, and as they were higher, they started to dive at me, one from the front and the other from the back… 

Capt. Castle & Jeffrey
in front of a Curtiss JN-4
My observer opened fire at the one diving at the back and apparently frightened him away or wounded him, because he beat it. The Hun in front of me had me cold, really, because I couldn't tilt my machine up enough to get range on him, but I fired my gun anyway, and he like a fool turned off, which gave me the opportunity I wanted, which was to get under his tail. Now we were like this:   He was going for all he was worth for Hun land, I after him, both blazing away. Presently he stopped firing, and I guess I must have either hit the observer, or his gun just jammed. Then the Hun pilot tried to turn and shake me off his tail, but he couldn't, and every time I could get the light on him I blazed away. By this time we were across the lines on his side, and the Hun Archies were firing at me, but I was so darned excited both blazing away that I didn't notice anything. Well, we kept on for some time when suddenly his machine tipped over sideways and downward, and then started spinning like a top. I knew I had hit him. He fell right through some clouds, and I lost sight of him forever. "When I came home I reported it, but of course as I didn't actually see him hit the ground, I couldn't very well claim him as a certainty; but while I was at lunch one of our pilots who was working with the artillery in that vicinity said he saw the machine come through the clouds and crash into the ground. So after it was verified I got full credit for it. It was very exciting because all the chaps on the aerodrome could see the fight. I don't like killing things, as you know, but I certainly saw red that time. Gee, I was excited.

In all, Castle logged over 300 hours in combat in over 150 sorties, was credited with two German planes downed and was shot down twice by AA fire. He was injured twice and received a Croix de Guerre. 

After his second crash in March 1917 he was assigned to instructor status in Canada. When he left No. 1 Squadron after about nine months, there was only one pilot with longer service. 

Following the U.S. declaration of war, the RFC agreed to train U.S. Army pilots in Canada, and in return, the U.S. Army agreed to construct three fields near Ft. Worth, Texas, for joint use. 

The fields became known as the "Flying Triangle" and were named Taliaferro, Barron, and Carruthers. The RFC arrived in November 1917, bringing with them 254 Canadian-built Curtiss JN-4s and instructor Captain Vernon Castle. Barron and Carruthers were used by the RFC, while Taliaferro was U.S. Army except for the RFC School of Aerial Gunnery. 

On 15 February 1918, a JN-4 carrying Castle and a student was landing at Carruthers when another cadet-piloted plane took off in front of them. Castle attempted an Immelmann turn, but the plane stalled and crashed nose-first. Castle was in the front seat and was killed. The student and Castle’s pet monkey, Jeffrey, were slightly injured. This was Castle’s second crash as an instructor; his first was in Canada, where the student was killed. It is said that Carruthers Field had the most fatal crashes of any training field in the U.S. during WWI. 


Irene’s mother also wrote a tribute to Vernon:

Tulips and lilies on a sunny slope
Hide now the spot where your dear form is laid, since Easter Day. 
Encased in stone, protected from the horrors of the earth, 
And wrapped in the great glory of your flag. 
My selfish heart protests against "God's way.

 Dear Heart! I should not grudge to you this sudden rest, 
For you are honored more than any king; 
And all the world proclaims you Hero now. 
While your brave spirit inspires fighting men 
To give their all — as you gave everything. 
What joy there must have been in that great space 
That we call Heaven — to see you come 
On glorious wings of Duty and great love; 
Taking your place among the countless dead 
Who hover o'er this sad and blood-stained earth, 
Beseeching us to lift our eyes above. 
I was your mother only in the law; 
But I adored you always; and could feel
Each ray of happiness that lit your mobile face 
Reflected in my heart; as did each creeping shadow 
Leave on me its trace. 

How proud I was you chose my family tree for yours; 
For I could read your heart, and tell 
That all your manly traits were gentle-born 
And all your faults were those of over-tenderness to every living thing. 
How few could walk the path of fame so well! 
This bed of blossoms thru' my tear-dimmed eyes 
Spreads out and up to the horizon's rim. 
And when I cross it — who can tell how soon? 
I'll look for you among my beloved dead; 
Sure of the outstretched arm and tender smile 
you always gave to me — your "Mother Dear."


Castle was buried under a small Doric-style temple in historic Woodlawn Cemetery (left), near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Irene posed for a nude, life-size bronze of herself kneeling in mourning, sculpted by Sally James Farnham, which is atop Vernon's tombstone. A marker (right) was also erected at the Texas site of Castle’s death in 1919 and replaced by the current monument in 1966, a concrete pylon topped by a small sculpture of a metal biplane by local resident David Crutchfield. The monument is incongruous in this mid-20th-century housing development and is dwarfed by a large water tank almost directly behind it. Another local resident named Ruth Finley penned an ode in 1918 which is quoted on the monument. The first stanza reads: 

He danced and gave his dearest gift; 
That little children yet unborn; 
May dance with gay, unshackled feet; 
To tunes not piped by Battle's horn.

5 comments:

  1. I knew about Vernon and Irene Castle as dancers, but knew nothing about Vernon's significant role in WWI. Thank you so much for your work to tell the forgotten stories of the Great War.

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  2. Where in TX is the monument and water tank? Do we have location of Barron and Crruthers Fields?

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    Replies
    1. The Vernon Castle crash site monument is in Benbrook, TX, at the site of Carruthers Field. The site of Barron Field is in Everman, TX.

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  3. I believe the movie on Irene and Vernon Castle told the tale of Vernon's death.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this story. I learned of Vernon Castle for his death in Benbrook Texas before learning about his dance career
    A. futch.

    ReplyDelete