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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Spring 1918: The U.S. Air Service Takes Off, Part II

Continued from yesterday...

French Spad XIII from the U.S. 22nd Aero Squadron (Smithsonian Collection)

By Patrick Gregory


Despite those limitations, the U.S. air effort proper did finally get underway in early 1918, albeit in small, incremental stages. The first personnel of the First Pursuit Group began to assemble in January and early February at the Villeneuve-les-Vertus aerodrome in the Champagne sector south of Reims. The 95th "Kicking Mule" and 94th "Hat in the Ring" squadrons reported for duty there between mid-February and early March.

On 19 February some of the famous Lafayette Escadrille 124 began operations as an American unit, with Major William Thaw leading 17 of his transferred pilots to form the new 103rd Pursuit Squadron with a new group of American mechanics. 

In time, a number of his veterans would go on to become squadron leaders of other units being assembled, forming an important spine of the fledgling service. But for the next five months, the 103rd would actually remain outside U.S. Air Service control, continuing to operate under the banner of the French Air Service. So the distinction of being the first actual air service unit into action fell to a balloon observation crew of the 2nd Balloon Company, which was moved into position some 100 miles to the east of the others at Royaumeix near Toul on 26 February.

When German forces launched their first spring offensive in late March, the only mainstream units of American planes in any way capable of combat operations were three observation squadrons – although even they were still going through final training – and the two pursuit squadrons of the 94th and 95th. As it happens, the offensive saw the latter pair moved from their Villeneuve base to make way for French and British night bombardment squadrons.

But even before their move, fresh teething problems had seen some of their number take off on their first patrols in an oddly vulnerable position. Pilots of the 95th Aero did so without guns in their new Nieuport 28 planes because the weapons had not yet arrived; others had yet to receive the necessary gunnery training. Sixteen pilots were ordered to Cazaux in southwest France to complete their courses.

The first to do so were transferred to the 94th Squadron. Under the watchful eye of Major Raoul Lufbery, a key figure and top ace of the old Lafayette Escadrille, the "Hat in the Ring" benefited from a new consignment of machine guns finally arriving in late March. 

Aerial photograph of a U.S. military observation balloon flying near Pont-à-Mousson, France

So it was that the stage was finally set for a combat-capable air service to take to the skies with some degree of assuredness. Within weeks the 94th had recorded its first kills. On Sunday morning 14 April 1918, Lieutenants Alan Winslow and Douglas Campbell shot down two German fighter planes near their new Gengault airbase outside Toul.

Just over a fortnight later, Eddie Rickenbacker had followed suit. Late in the afternoon of 29 April the call went out that a German plane had been spotted crossing enemy lines and heading south not far from the 94th’s base. Scrambling up in the air and flying alongside Lafayette veteran James Norman Hall, Rickenbacker maneuvered with Hall around a German Pfalz pursuit plane. Within minutes they had brought it down. Six weeks later, the 94th had notched up 17 official kills and several other unconfirmed victories. Rickenbacker himself would go on to achieve 26 victories in the war in his own right.

The U.S. Air Service had finally arrived.

Patrick Gregory is co-author with Elizabeth Nurser of An American on the Western Front: The First World War Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber 1917–18  (The History Press) American on the Western Front , @AmericanOnTheWF.

Source: Originally presented in Centenary News, 29 April 2018, by permission of the author

1 comment:

  1. The U.S. Navy procured 26 pontoon equipped Hanriot HD-2 pursuits from the French in Sept of 1917 and, under the command of Lt. Kenneth Whiting, immediately operated them in pairs as escorts for other U.S.N navy aviators flying Donnet-Denhaut and Tellier seaplanes on anti-sub patrols out of Naval Station, Moutchic, France from that September of 1917, until the end of the war. Historically,this strongly suggests that U.S.N. Hanriots,and not the Nieuport 28's, of the First Pursuit Group of the U.S.A.S., were our nations first pursuits (later 'fighters').

    Author Marc Wortman's 'The Millionaire's Unit' is a excellent work about a major cadre of Whitings command who were 'Yalies'. These young men, who paid for their own flight training and were commissioned as U.S. Naval aviators 'en masse', when the U.S. entered the war. In Wortman's excellent book, there is no mention of the Hanriot as being 'our first fighter aircraft' and no awareness suggested that the 'Yalies' were the last in a long tradition of civilian organized groups ('local militias?) to be inducted as a group into a branch of our military. The biographical details and the daily wartime life of these early volunteers, is well told. Among the foremost of these young men was David Ingalls who was detached, with several others, to serve in SPAD equipped RFC units. Ingalls, serving with the RFC, became our navy's only WWI pilot to be accredited as an 'ace'. A worthwhile documentary film, also named 'Millionaire's Unit' is available.