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

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Survival and Rescue at Sea: The First Mission of Ensign Kenneth R. Smith, USN

Kenneth Smith (R) and Henry Davison with
Their Squadron Mascot

Newly commissioned Kenneth Smith was a 1917 graduate of Yale University and member of the First Yale Aviation Unit.  The story of his first combat mission is an epic one. On 22 November 1917, a French Tellier seaplane flown by him was forced down at sea on his flight out of Naval Air Station Le Croisic at the mouth of the Loire River to investigate a report of German submarines south of Belle Isle. Two days later and minutes before his aircraft sank, he and his crew of two were rescued by a French destroyer. It was U.S. Naval Aviation’s first airplane to crash land while on a combat patrol in Europe in WW I. The communication and air/sea rescue techniques were a far cry from the effective speed of such operations today. His base at the time of the crash was a little fishing village of about 3,000 inhabitants 18 miles from St. Nazaire, called Le Croisic. The United States had established there on the French coast its first Naval Air Station overseas as a part of WW I operations. 

Early 1917—The Yale Aviation Group Joins the War Effort


In extending the American naval air service on the French coast, it was decided to place a station close to the harbor of Brest, the most crowded of all ports in the gigantic disembarkation of troops and supplies. The U.S. Navy began patrol operations from Naval Air Station, Le Croisic, France, in November 1917, utilizing 34 French Tellier flying boats.To Ensign Kenneth Smith was assigned the task of organizing the flight patrols of this new station.  

The first flight from Le Croisic was made on 13 November 1917, and it was  five days later that the first patrol flight  was made and operations officially started. From that date, weather permitting, patrol and convoy flights were made regularly with six French seaplanes of the Tellier type. Communication facilities were inadequate, and since the time and position of passing convoys were uncertain and there were no adjoining air stations to cooperate in escorting convoys along the coast, long flights were necessary.

The Mission

On 20 November, when two German mines were reported off Les Grands Cardinaux, two seaplanes were sent out and the district was patrolled, but the mines were not discovered. On 22 November, submarines were sighted south of Belle Isle and a seaplane was sent out on patrol, piloted by Ensign Kenneth R. Smith with Homer N. Wilkinson, Electrical Mechanic, and T.J. Brady, MM2C.


The Tellier, which carried only enough fuel for a four-hour flight, failed to return. The search was begun, but even with some idea of where the aircraft might be, it could not be found. 

Meanwhile, on the Tellier as the hours passed, so did hope. Thinking they faced death, pilot Smith wrote an account of what had happened. The very use of the past tense reflected his sense of finality. His notes are now part of naval history.

Le Croisic Naval Air Station

Thursday, Nov. 22, 1917

Weather conditions were not ideal for flying, clouds being very low and quite a sea running. After leaving Le Croisic, we started south steering course 195. On reaching Ile d’Yeu, found our drift to be considerably to the East. After picking up Point Breton on Ile d’Yeu, we sighted a four-masted bark, in ballast with auxiliary engine, to the N.E. We circled over her a number of times, increasing our radius on each turn until we were nearly out of sight of Ile d’Yeu. We then left the bark and headed for Ile d’Yeu. After searching the shore for mines and submarines, returned to Pt. Breton.

From Pt. Breton we steered course 29 for 45 minutes. We then headed due East for 30 minutes at altitude 50 meters. [The] motor died and we were forced to make a tail-to-wind landing. We found it possible to land the Tellier in rough water. Dispatched at 2:30 P.M. pigeon with following message:

Left Ile d’Yeu at 1:10 P. M., headed 29 for 45 minutes. Then direct East 30 min. had to come down, big sea running. Send all aid. . . .

Could not tell for certain our location. We took watches during the night. One bailed while the other two slept. As we could not get motor started, we thought over all possible things that could happen to it. Wilkinson found left gas tank had not been feeding; but too late to fix it as we could not see. Passed a very uncertain night. We knew they would do all possible things to help us.

Friday, Nov. 23, 1917

Sent pigeon at 7:40 A.M. and message as follows:

Sighted last night two lighthouses on starboard bow which we considered Ile d’Yeu. Send torpedo boats and aeroplanes. Have no food. We are taking in water. We are not positive of our location, but are going to sea. Send help. If you should not find us, say we died game to the end.

Put in a new spark plug, cleaned magneto, shifted gasoline from left to right tank. We were all so seasick that we could not work to best advantage. Bailed water out of boat. Wilkinson finally got motor started at 11:40 A.M. Saw hydroplane and “blimp” to the North of us. Did not give up hope. Beautiful day. Got motor going and started to taxi towards Ile d’Yeu. We were not making much headway on account of the sea. Our left pontoon had filled with water.

Finally decided our only hope was to try and get machine off water. As a result of trying, I broke left wing and got ourselves into a hell of a shape. Things began to  look black.   There was no finding fault with anyone. Could not help marveling at the morale of the men. It was a case of heroic bravery on their part to see their only hope smashed.

We took watches during the night, first lying on wing, then bailing, then sleeping. Wilkinson turned to and got all ready to cast adrift the left wing. We all decided to die game to end . . . .

Wing began to crumble. We all decided to let it stay on as long as possible. Sea began to grow bitter towards evening, and the water began to come in. We all hoped that we would be able to ride out the night. Very uncomfortable night and we were all growing very weak. Very long night. Our hopes were beginning to go very low, but no one showed it. 

Tellier Flying Boat Similar to Smith's Aircraft

Saturday, Nov. 24, 1917

Day finally came. Wing getting near to boat as it crumpled. It was heart-rending. We had to bail and stay out on wing-tip. As waves came over, we began to feel lower and lower. It was finally decided to cast off wing, and let what might come. We tried to get other wing ready to cast off, but we could not get off nuts as we were so weak and tools were very inadequate.

We were going over gradually on starboard side. We were all on port side trying to keep her righted. We then saw that there was no hope of us staying up much longer unless we could get wing off. We had just about given up everything when Wilkinson let out a yell that something was in sight. We were not able to believe our eyes. We thought it was a submarine, but we did not care. If it was a submarine, we hoped it would blow us up and end it all.

IT WAS no U-boat. It was a French destroyer that picked up Smith and his two companions southeast of Rochebonne and took them to La Pallice. Along with patrol boats, motor torpedo boats and destroyers in the area, the French [destroyer] had heard of the missing seaplane via telephoned requests for search all along the coast.

The rescue destroyer had arrived none too soon, The badly damaged plane sank within minutes after the crew was taken off. The men suffered from exposure, but all recovered.


Machinist Wilkinson, in making a report after the rescue, wrote, “[Mr. Smith] was brave and courageous from the first. I never heard a whimper from anyone no matter how close we were to death. The accident was no one’s fault . . . .”

The officer, who had assigned Ken Smith and his crew to the patrol said, “We learned to equip our planes . . . with every possible emergency appliance.” The lesson, “hammered in by experience,” taught the Le Croisic officers that signaling devices, a sea anchor and emergency rations were absolute musts, and that since three men constituted too heavy a load, only two should be sent. “All of which was a darned good thing for the rest of us, but rather tough on Ken. He had to be the goat.” 

Later after promotion to lieutenant, Smith would receive a Navy Cross for his skill in attacking and damaging a German submarine off France in April 1918. After the war, he became a stockbroker on Wall Street.  In World War II, he re‐entered the navy, rose to commander, and was based in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Kodiak, Alaska. He  retired from his business  in 1974 and died in 1976. 

Sources:  Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum; New York Times Obituary; The First Yale Unit by Ralph D. Paine; Naval Aviation in World War I

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