Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 10

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 10
Chapter 10 - Lufbury is Killed

LIEUTENANT WALTER SMYTH, of New York, came to me on the morning of May 10th, 1918, and said:

"Rick, where do you find all these Boches of yours over the lines?"

I asked him what he meant by "all."

"Why," he said, "I've been over the lines two or three times and I haven't had a single look at an enemy machine. I would like to go across with some one like you who always gets into some fun. Will you take me with you on a voluntary patrol?"

This was the spirit I liked to see in a pilot and I immediately told Smyth I would take him over at nine o'clock this very morning if he could get ready. My regular patrol was not on until late in the afternoon, so I had all the morning to myself. Smyth was delighted with the invitation and immediately made himself ready.

We left the field together and sped quickly towards St. Mihiel. Our altimeters indicated l7,000 feet as we finished our first patrol and found ourselves over the city of Pont-à-Mousson. No enemy machines had been encountered.

Considering it quite probable that a Rumpler might be coming out for photographs on such a nice morning as this, I determined to cut a slice off the German territory on our next patrol and run directly from Pont-à-Mousson to Verdun. Accordingly I set off with Smyth close by my right wing. A slight northerly course brought us directly over Mars-la-Tour, where I knew was located a fighting squadron of Germans. We should satisfy Smyth's curiosity even if we had to descend onto the Hun aerodrome.

As we crossed the little town of Mars-la-Tour I detected a German two-seater making off towards Verdun almost directly ahead of us. It was an Albatros and was several thousand feet below us, and about two miles ahead. We were in excellent position, for not only was our presence entirely unsuspected so far in his rear, but once discovered we had the sun at our backs and had the advantage in height and in numbers. I felt certain of the outcome of the fight and was warmly congratulating Smyth upon his good judgment in picking me as his leader in to-day's expedition as I dipped him a signal and began setting our course into the sun. By the time we reached Conflans I was just above the enemy's tail and in an excellent position. As yet we had remained unperceived.

I stuck down my Nieuport and began my dive. My tracer bullets sped by the startled observer and gave him the first intimation he had of my proximity. The German pilot must have seen them flash past too. For the next thing I knew was that in some way or other I had passed the Albatros and was still wildly firing into vacancy, while the two-seater enemy machine by one masterful maneuver had given me the go-by and was now on top of me. Clearly he was an old hand at this game and it behooved me to be careful.

I zoomed up again and got the upper berth. But this time I found it extremely difficult to get into a position for shooting. The pilot kicked around his tail so adroitly that every time I prepared to dive upon him I found the observer coolly sighting a brace of machine-guns full into my face. Moreover, I found that at this high altitude the Albatros could maneuver as well or just a little better than could my lighter Nieuport. Once I tried to make a sharp bank to the right. I had quite forgotten the rarity of the air and, instead of a virage, I found I had thrown my machine into a vrille. Two complete revolutions were made before I could get myself straightened out. Then looking about me for my enemy I found the Albatros nearly a mile away from me making a fast spurt for home. Smyth was composedly sailing along above me, appearing to be quite enchanted with the entertainment.

I had encountered an expert pair of airfighters on the Albatros and I looked after their departing shadow with some admiration salving my disappointment. Then much of my self-satisfied abandon evaporated instantly when I began to realize that Smyth and I were over twenty-five miles inside Germany. I decided to retreat while retreating was good, fully satisfied that I had given Smyth his money's worth in the shape of a "first show."

As we passed over St. Mihiel on our way home I perceived white Archies bursting, back in the direction of Verdun. Closer scrutiny disclosed the same Albatros two-seater quietly riding the air-bumps and making steadfastly for our side of the lines. The pilots thought they had me bluffed and were going on with their work in full view of Smyth and myself.

I wiggled a signal to Smyth and started again in pursuit of the foxy Albatros. But immediately the enemy made an about face and reentering the barrage of Archy set out at a stiff gait for Mars-la-Tour and home. I swerved a bit to the right to cut him off and glanced about me as I did so to ascertain the exact position of Smyth. He was nowhere in sight!

Below me was Etain. I was at least ten miles back of the lines. When had Smyth left me, and in what direction had he gone? Feeling more than a little uncomfortable in my thoughts at having neglected to look out for him in the last few minutes I made a half bank and set my course straight for home. As I learned, late that afternoon, Smyth had landed inside our lines with motor troubles and was unable to reach our aerodrome until near nightfall.

As I neared our aerodrome, I saw a large crowd gathered together on the center of the field. It was just ten-fifty in the morning when I landed beside them and hastened up to learn what calamity had overtaken my poor friend Smyth. If through my carelessness Smyth had become engaged in an unequal combat and had been wounded or had crashed upon landing, I could not escape the responsibility for his loss. I hurried over to the hangars, filled with apprehension.

The exclamations I heard only bewildered me the more. Major Lufbery's name was on everybody's lips. I asked if any one had seen Lieutenant Smyth come in. The boys only looked at me vacantly and made no reply. Finally I demanded the reason for this extraordinary gathering on the field. The answer left me dumb with dismay and horror.

Our beloved Luf was no more! Major Raoul Lufbery, the American Ace of Aces, the most revered American aviator in France had just been shot down in flames not six miles away from our field!

This sad story is so well known to the whole world that I would not repeat here the details of Lufbery's last fight were it not for the fact that numerous false stories of his heroic death were spread broadcast throughout America immediately after the news of his loss had been cabled home. Several of these garbled accounts later came to my attention.

As our Commanding Officer, Major Huffer, tells the story, it was about ten o'clock when the anti-aircraft guns on top of Mt. Mihiel began belching great white puffs of smoke overhead at a very high altitude. An alerte came to us immediately that a German photographing machine was coming our way and was at that moment almost directly over our field.

Lieutenant Gude was the only pilot on the field ready for flight. He was sent up alone to attack the intruder, an incident which brought vastly regrettable results. It was Gude's first actual combat. His encounter with the enemy was plainly seen by all the spectators who gathered about our hangars.

Just as Gude left the ground the French Archy ceased firing. Evidently they had scored a hit, for the German observing machine at that moment began a long vrille, spinning faster and faster as it drew nearer to the ground. Just as the onlookers were convinced that the enemy machine was falling for its last crash the Albatros recovered its poise, straightened out at less than 200 feet above earth and turned back towards the German lines. Almost immediately Lieutenant Gude flew in to the attack.

Gude began firing at an impossible range and continued firing until his ammunition was exhausted, without inflicting any appreciable injury upon the two seater Albatros. As he came flying home the Archy batteries in the neighborhood again took up the battle and poured up a violent barrage, which surrounded and encompassed this lone enemy on every side. But all to no purpose. The Albatros continued steadily on its retreat, climbing slightly and setting a course in the direction of Nancy.

In the meantime, Major Lufbery, who had been watching the whole show from his barracks, jumped on a motorcycle that was standing in the road and rushed to the hangars. His own plane was out of commission. Another Nieuport was standing on the field, apparently ready for use. It belonged to Lieutenant Davis. The mechanics admitted everything was ready and without another word Lufbery jumped into the machine and immediately took off.

With all his long string of victories, Lufbery had never brought down an enemy aeroplane within the allied lines. All seventeen of his early successes with the Escadrille Lafayette and his last success—when he had gone out to avenge Jimmy Hall—all had been won across the German lines. He had never seen the wreckage of a single one of his victories. Undoubtedly he seized this opportunity of engaging in a combat almost within sight of our field with impetuous abandon. Knowing nothing of the condition of his guns nor the small peculiarities of his present mount, Lufbery flew in to the attack.

With far greater speed than his heavier antagonist, Major Lufbery climbed in pursuit. In approximately five minutes after leaving the ground he had reached 2,000 feet and had arrived within range of the Albatros six miles away. The first attack was witnessed by all our watchers.

Luf fired several short-bursts as he dived in to the attack. Then he swerved away and appeared to busy himself with his gun, which evidently had jammed. Another circle over their heads and he had cleared the jam. Again he rushed the enemy from their rear, when suddenly old Luf's machine was seen to burst into roaring flames. He passed the Albatros and proceeded for three or four seconds on a straight course. Then to the horrified watchers below there appeared the figure of their gallant hero emerging in a headlong leap from the midst of the fiery furnace! Lufbery had preferred to leap to certain death rather than endure the slow torture of burning to a crisp. His body fell in the garden of a peasant woman's house in a little town just north of Nancy. A small stream ran by at about a hundred yards distant and it was thought later that poor Lufbery seeing this small chance for life had jumped with the intention of striking this water. He had leaped from a height of 200 feet and his machine was carrying him at a speed of 120 miles per hour! A hopeless but a heroic attempt to preserve his priceless life for his needy country!

While I was listening to the details of this shocking story the telephone rang. We were informed by a French officer of the exact spot upon which our late hero had fallen. Jumping into a motor we sped across the intervening miles at a prodigious rate and arrived at the scene of the tragedy less than 30 minutes after Luf had fallen. But already loving hands had removed his body. The townsfolk had carried all that remained of poor Raoul Lufbery to their little Town Hall and there we found him, his charred figure entirely covered with flowers from the near-by gardens.

I remember a conversation we had had with Major Lufbery on the subject of catching afire in the air a few days previous to this melancholy accident. I had asked Luf what he would do in a case of this kind— jump or stay with the machine? All of us had a vast respect for Major Lufbery's experience and we all leaned forward to hear his response to this question.

"I should always stay with the machine," Luf responded. "If you jump you certainly haven't got a chance. On the other hand there is always a good chance of side-slipping your aeroplane down in such a way that you fan the flames away from yourself and the wings. Perhaps you can even put the fire out before you reach the ground. It has been done. Me for staying with the old 'bus, every time!"

What an irony now to recall old Luf's instructions! His machine had received a flaming bullet in the fuel tank. The same bullet evidently cut away the thumb of his right hand as it clasped the joystick. The next instant the little craft was but one mass of flame, from which there was no means of escape.

Leaving instructions to send the body to the American Hospital near our aerodrome, we returned to our field. There we learned one or two climaxes to Lufbery's combat and death.

Captain DeRode, the Commanding Officer of a French escadrille near by, met us and stated that one of his pilots, in fact his leading Ace, had witnessed the death of Lufbery and had immediately taken up the pursuit of the Albatros to revenge him. At the first attack he too was shot through the heart and fell immediately. His machine had crashed but a mile or two from the spot where Luf had fallen. But the German machine was finally shot down by another French machine, and it fell a mile inside our lines, where both pilot and observer were captured.

Upon inquiring for Doug Campbell, we then learned he too had gone up to seek revenge for Major Lufbery's death. An hour later he returned and reported that the Albatros had secured too great a start for him, but that he had encountered a two-seater Rumpler, over Beaumont and after a brisk combat he had killed the rear gunner and wounded the pilot. The machine fell within our lines, both wings having been torn off in its rapid descent without control.

Stoically receiving our congratulations, Douglas assured us that this Rumpler was but one of many that the Huns would give us in the attempt to pay for the loss of Raoul Lufbery. And well has Douglas Campbell kept his promise!

His brother came to lunch with us that day. Doug had expected him. His brother was an officer in a corps of engineers which was stationed but a short distance away, at Gondrecourt, and Douglas had invited him over to mess with us on this particular day.

As soon as he arrived, Lieutenant Campbell informed Douglas that it was very gallant of him to go up and shoot down an enemy aeroplane before his very eyes on this day of his luncheon party. He said he would like to drive over and see what the wreck of the German aeroplane looked like after falling 16,000 feet. So immediately after lunch Major Huffer took the two Campbells and myself in his car and we crawled up to the front and parked the car in some woods as near to Beaumont as we could get. Our own big guns were well behind us, sending their long whining shells over our heads about ten every second.

We walked forward half a mile with due caution, and finally came to the spot where Douglas Campbell's victims lay. Two or three French poilus had been placed on guard over the wreckage by the French Colonel in charge of this sector. The wings lay several hundred feet away from the fusilage.

We collected some souvenirs of Doug's victory and made our way homeward. It was rare enough that an aviator ever set eyes upon any part of the machine he had shot down. Usually the enemy machine fell far within the German lines, for the German policy was to fight only above their own territory. If we were ever fortunate enough to catch a Boche inside our lines and down him there the last scrap of his machine was carried away by the men in the trenches or by the lorry drivers, who, happened to be in the vicinity, long before the victorious pilot appeared upon the scene. As we reached home with our enemy souvenirs we were again faced with the sorrowful realization that old Luf would never more sit in the group around our cheerful mess table.

It was on the following day, May 20th, that the last remains of our beloved hero was to be laid away in our little "Airman's Cemetery." Already the little plot bore this name, and quite half a dozen of our fellows lay side by side in this foreign clay, so far distant from the land and dear ones they loved. They were now to be joined by one whom all France and America considered preeminent in aviation.

General Gerard, Commander of the Sixth Army, arrived with his entire staff at one o'clock. General Liggett, commanding the 26th Division, came with Colonel William Mitchell, commanding the Air Forces of America. All bore with them quantities of beautiful flowers. Hundreds of officers from all branches of the service came to pay their last act of respect to the memory of America's most famous aviator.

I watched the great assemblage gather. Their flowers covered the casque of the dead airman and formed a huge pyramid beside it. At one-thirty I hurried back to the aerodrome. I had one last flight to make in conjunction with my comrade of so many patrols...

The pilots of Flight No. 1 were strapped in seats and awaiting me. Our mechanics silently handed us our baskets of flowers. Leaving the field in flight formation we circled over the hospital plot until five minutes to two. The last of the procession had passed up the short stretch of road and the aviators' last resting place was filled with Lufbery's friends.

I flew my formation twice across the mass of uncovered heads below, then glided with closed engine down to fifty feet above the open grave. As his body was being slowly lowered I dropped my flowers, every pilot behind me following in my wake one by one. Returning then to our vacant aerodrome we sorrowfully faced the realization that America's greatest aviator and Ace of Aces had been laid away for his last rest.