American Eagles in WWI
By: Paul Hannah.
American aviation in WWI was a pretty sorry affair. While the US Army
Air Force had 280 aircraft in 1917 – none of them had ever had a
machine gun fitted, none had dropped or even could drop a bomb – they
didn’t even have cameras for photo reconnaissance work. What is more,
all of those aircraft were in the United States, a very long way from
the trenches of Belgium and France. The total number of pilots in the
USAF (as it would become) was only 131 officers and half of those were
reservists. None had any training in combat tactics and most had only
basic flying skills. The American industrial machine was gearing up to
produce front line aircraft but these would prove not be ready before
the end of the war. When the men arrived at the front, all they had to
fly was only those aircraft that the French and British no longer wanted. Consequently relative novices flew outdated and under-performing aircraft against veterans with years of experience who were flying some of the best aircraft in the world.
The legends of WWI pilots as portrayed in the newspapers of the day
were all about the glamour, gallantry and heroics of these knights of
the air. One aspect of flying that none of the stories present was a
side effect of flying those old machines – diarrhoea. The engines of
the day were lubricated with castor oil and as the cockpits were open
and the engines in front, pilots would land covered in excess oil,
some of which they involuntarily ingested with predictable results.
Despite these handicaps, bravery and a substantial helping of luck
created a number of excellent American combat pilots. Probably the
most famous was Eddie Rickenbacker (pictured in a French Spad) , one
of America’s flying aces who finished the war with a Medal of Honor
and 26 confirmed victories.
In his book, Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker tells the story
of a comrade in the 95th squadron, Lt Cassegrain of Detroit, Michigan.
Cassegrain who flew a French Nieuport 28, a scary combination of wood,
wire and canvas. One of it’s less endearing characteristics was the
tendency of the fabric on the wings to tear off if the aircraft was in
a steep dive for too long. As you can imagine, few aircraft perform
well when a substantial portion of their wings goes flying off
independently. He was on his first flight over enemy lines and
participated in a dogfight that brought down a German 2 seater.
In the heat of combat, he forgot the warnings of his more
experienced comrades, dove too fast for too long and inevitably, a
great deal of the canvas tore off his wings. Cassegrain, thinking he
was over his side of the line, put his machine into a shallow dive and
landed in a convenient open space. He got out and was looking at his
map when he had to revise his location estimation as a couple of hundred yards away, German infantry started shooting at him. Thinking he was behind enemy lines, he raised his arms, walked towards them and surrendered. In fact, he could have just as easily ran the other way to safety, as he had landed right in the middle of No Man’s Land.
As luck would have it, his machine stopped right in front of a battery
of newly arrived American artillery. Partly for practice and partly to
deny the Germans access to an American machine, the battery opened
fire on the aircraft. These artillery men were in grave need of the
practice as they shot at it all day and missed every time. That night
the Germans snuck out into No Man’s Land and retrieved the aircraft.
They dismantled it, removed one of the good wings and placed it
vertically in their forward trench with the red white and blue round
wing insignia facing the Americans, as if to say “Here is your target,
can you hit it now?”
(c) Paul Hannah