Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 11

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 11
Chapter 11 - Squadron Festivities

THE monotony of dud days on the aerodrome exacts a cost from aviators which can not be computed nor definitely ascertained, but seasoned squadron commanders have learned that their pilots live longer and fight better if they are helped through these dull periods with occasional amusements. Especially is this true where leaves of absence are infrequent. The British, who are past masters in this art of caring for their men, not only established a regular schedule of holidays for their pilots, but even while they lived on aerodromes all pilots were required to take part in a certain amount of athletic sports, games and friendly visits back and forth between squadrons. Movie shows, whist tournaments, long walks and other methods of inducing the pilots to take their minds off their work served to produce a morale and esprit in the British aviators that has not its equal in the world.

With the American forces several influences prevented this happy solution to a trying problem. We were new to the game and had not yet learned to study the psychology of the flyer; we had too few aviators at the front to permit them regular and frequent leaves of absence; we had pressing work before us that could not be disturbed for experimentation. Those high in authority considered it more necessary to ship infantry to France than to increase the number of pilots in aviation; consequently the few that were first sent to the front served steadily through to the end, almost without a day's leave being granted for rest and recuperation of spirits.

It is said that the work of the war-pilot exacts more strain from the individual than is the case with his brothers-at-arms in any other arm of warfare. Perhaps he does live under a more constant strain. I cannot judge of the truth of this, for I am not familiar enough with all the details of the other man's work. But the fact that the aviator knows he is constantly under the possibility of sudden death every time he sets foot in his machine, whether it be death from bullets and shells or from the possible collapse of his machine in mid-air—this constant nerving of mind and body against the daily perils which surround him undoubtedly counts heavily against his strength after many weeks of daily service. The wise commanding officer therefore provides as much amusement and recreation for his pilots as the circumstances of war permit.

On May 25th, our squadron adjutant, Lieutenant Smith, had the good fortune to meet in Menil-la-Tours the two Herring sisters from the old U.S.A., who were at the front giving entertainments for our soldiers in France under the auspices of the Red Cross organization. Lieutenant Smith immediately called upon the two young ladies and secured a promise from them to come out to Toul and give us a performance at our aerodrome. They very kindly agreed to come the very next afternoon.

Upon receipt of the news we began our preparations at the field. One of the largest French hangars, which was then in use by a photographing squadron, was emptied of its machines and equipment and was cleaned up for the occasion. Everybody enthusiastically turned in to help and after a few hours' work we had the theater ready. A stage was set up at one end and electric lights were arranged with artistic theatrical effect. A captured German piano was brought over from one of the messes and the dirt floor was swept and polished.

The Misses Herring arrived at four o'clock and found officers and men all impatiently awaiting them. Even the Frenchmen who still occupied part of our aerodrome were on hand, anxious to see and hear this "All-American" show.

It was a wonderful entertainment for all of us and I am sure the Misses Herring have never received more enthusiastic and sincere applause from any audience. After the "show" was over we invited the girls over to our squadron mess and at the end of a very merry meal we all went out to put them in their car and see them safely started on their way.

Just as the car was starting, I put my head inside the curtains and inquired of them their next destination. They told me they were going to Langes, a town not many miles distant from Toul, and very cordially invited me to come over and see them and have dinner with them some evening during the following week. I naturally accepted with every indication of pleasure and proceeded to make definite arrangements with them as to just what afternoon I should arrange for a flight and come down a panne in neighborhood of Langes, when I heard a chuckle behind me. I withdrew my head from the curtains and found myself face to face with the C.O. Major Huffer eyed me for a moment with the ghost of a smile on his face, as much as to say: "I overheard everything, my boy, and I don't think you will 'panne' near Langes during the next week." C.O.'s can take a lot of joy out of life!

Next day Douglas Campbell, who was running neck and neck with me for the squadron record, won a celebrated victory. He went out on a little private expedition of his own and while in the vicinity of Pont-à-Mousson he saw a formation of the British Independent Air Force coming home from a bombing raid on Thionville, an important railway town some thirty miles north of Metz. Some of these British bombing squadrons occupied an aerodrome only a few miles south of our own and we frequently met them going or coming across the lines. They flew De Haviland two-seaters with the Liberty motor and each machine carried almost a ton of bombs. About twenty of these bombing squadrons were under command of General Hugh Trenchard, the greatest authority on war aviation in the world, in my opinion, and they were designated as the Independent Air Force because they were not subject to any army orders. Their one function was to drop bombs on German cities.

Lieutenant Campbell noticed one of the British machines had dropped back almost a mile behind the others as they were returning homeward from their expedition. No fighting machines ever accompanied these bombers. They relied solely upon their close flying formation to beat off all attackers. Evidently this straggler had motor trouble for he could not keep his altitude and was slowly dropping farther and farther behind his formation. To make his situation more desperate he was at that moment being attacked simultaneously by three Pfalz fighting planes.

Without hesitation Doug dived down to his rescue.

Keeping the eastern sun at his back, Campbell executed a long but rapid circle which brought him onto the rear of the enemy formation without being seen. He aimed for the nearest Pfalz and neatly shot him down with almost his first burst. Turning savagely upon the other two Pfalz machines, he gave them burst after burst. Both turned tail and began diving for safety.

Chasing the two Huns back for a few miles until he was satisfied they would not check their speed this side their aerodrome, the American turned back and quickly overtook the crippled British De Haviland. Escorting the pilot and observer well back to their destination, Campbell waved them good-by and made for home.

An hour later the Commanding Officer of the English squadron telephoned us, asking for the name of our plucky pilot who had downed one Hun and driven away from their intended victim two others. He stated that the British pilot and the observer had both been wounded by the Pfalz attackers and had it not been for the timely arrival of Lieutenant Campbell both would undoubtedly have been killed.

The next morning Lieutenant Campbell and I started out together on a voluntary patrol to see if we couldn't bag a few Hun machines. It was May 28th. We set out from the aerodrome at about nine o'clock under a beautiful clear sky and drove straight for the lines in the direction of Pont-à-Mousson. We were careful to keep inside our own lines so that the Hun Archy would not betray our presence to the enemy aeroplanes. Four or five patrols were made, back and forth, back and forth, between Pont-à-Mousson and St. Mihiel.

About an hour after we had left home I noticed a formation of machines approaching us from the vicinity of Mars-la-Tour. It was evident that they must be enemy machines since they came from that direction and were attracting no bursts of Archy from the German gunners of that locality. I dropped a signal to Campbell and began a southerly climb for greater altitude.

Reaching 18,000 feet I turned and headed back towards the enemy's lines. Now the members of the advancing formation were quite distinguishable and I made out two Albatros two-seater fighting machines coming towards us at about 16,000 feet and above them four Pfalz single-seater fighting machines were accompanying them as protectors. Undoubtedly the expedition was planned for taking important photographs and a strong defense had come along to enable the Albatros to accomplish their missions despite any attacks from our side.

We had about 2,000 feet altitude over them, but we needed all the advantage we could possibly get against such odds. So I withdrew, still into the sun, and waited until the whole formation had crossed the lines and were well on our side before turning for the attack.

As soon as we began our dive we were observed. The two Albatros immediately turned tail and started for the lines. The four fighting planes drew closer their formation and also turned back, keeping themselves between us and the machines they were protecting. Although the long range was hopeless Campbell and I both fired occasional bursts as we continued after them, always preserving our advantage in altitude and never permitting them a shot at us. In this fashion we all crossed the lines again and soon were above the city of Thiaucourt, Campbell and I still holding the upper floor.

Apparently the Huns began to tire of this humiliating game, for at this juncture we suddenly noticed a breaking up of their formation, the two Albatros machines began circling back of Thiaucourt, while the four Pfalz struck off for the east and began climbing towards the Moselle valley. We watched this neat little maneuver for a few moments. Then to test the crafty trap which was so evidently being laid for us we suddenly dived, or made a feint at a dive, upon the two abandoned Albatros machines. Campbell went straight down upon the nearest one while I stayed above him and kept an eye upon the four fighting machines.

Instantly the four fighting planes reversed their direction and came hurrying back for a rescue. Douglas zoomed craftily back to a position just below me and we continued a slow retreat towards our lines. The Pfalz maintained a safe position well in our rear.

Again the tricky Huns undertook a fancy maneuver. We saw one of the Albatros suddenly draw away towards the west, flying directly towards St. Mihiel, while the other ceased its circling and hastened to overtake the four fighting planes ahead of him. They waited until he had overtaken them; then all five turned to the east towards the Moselle leaving the lone Albatros an attractive bait for us some two miles in their rear.

With extreme care we estimated the exact distances that now separated us. Fully aware of the new trap that was laid for us, it was only a question of our ability to get down at the bait and dispose of him and then regain our altitude before the superior enemy formation could descend upon us. Our judgment was as good as theirs. Our position was a little better, for we could estimate better than they the distance from our point in the sky to the slow moving Albatros left as a decoy in the west. Better still, we knew to an inch the capabilities of our Nieuports and perhaps the Huns would underestimate our speed. A fraction of an instant was all the mistake they need make. And they made it!

Like a flash we turned our aeroplanes and side by side dived swiftly down at the lone Albatros with our throttles full open. The Pfalz machines instantly turned to the pursuit. But even as they did so they must have realized the futility of the chase, for not only did we have a mile or more handicap, but we rapidly increased this distance between us. As we neared our target we nursed our machines until our gun sights were directly upon the enemy Albatros. About one hundred shots each we fired before we eased off our machines and began to climb away to regain our altitude. Looking back we saw we had done a complete job with our Albatros. It swooped one way and then the other and, finally falling into a last vrille, we saw it crash at the edge of the town of Flirey just inside the Ratta Woods.

Long before the final crash of our victim Campbell and I had regained our former altitude. Then came the surprise of the day!

Instead of dashing after us to wreak their well earned revenge, the four Hun fighters returned hastily to their remaining Albatros and surrounding it began carefully conducting it northwards still deeper within their own territory! Many times later did I observe this craven characteristic of the enemy air-fighters. No matter what their superiority in numbers or position, if we succeeded in bringing down one of their number the others almost invariably abandoned the combat and gave us the field. It may be military efficiency but it always appeared to me to be pure yellowness.

Campbell and I were both content to let them go. No sooner had the Pfalz machines pulled away than the Archy batteries below us began target practice. They had had time to calculate our position to a relative nicety in all this time and they got in some really creditable work. I sheered off towards home, but Campbell, who comes from the same breed as Jimmy Hall, made me wait for him while he returned into the barrage and captivated the German gunners below with his American aerial contortions, the barrage of shrapnel in the meantime getting very much like an Iowa hail-storm. After satisfying himself that they understood his contempt for them Doug consented to come along home with me. We crossed the lines without suffering a hit and soon were taxying our victorious little Nieuports across the field to the doors of our hangar.

We had scarcely gotten out of our seats when Douglas received news that completely dissipated the joy of his victory. Lieutenant John Mitchell, a brother of our colonel and dear chum of Douglas Campbell had been killed that morning in landing his machine at Columbey-les-Belles. Campbell and Mitchell were college chums, had entered aviation together and had sailed for France from New York on the same steamer. They were inseparable and all their friends thought of them as two brothers. Poor Doug was inconsolable.

Friendships in flying squadrons are curious affairs. Where it is one's daily business to go out looking for trouble it is plainly imperative that one keep oneself always fit and clear-minded. It would never do so to occupy one's mind with emotions of love or friendship that one's fighting perceptions are dulled. The enemy's mind can be counted upon to be burdened with no such heavy weight. It is a matter of life or death to every airfighter—this quick-thinking, unburdened mind.

Hence I had steeled my heart against that intimate kind of friendship with my comrades that prostrates one upon the death of a friend. When Jim Miller went down I learned that necessary stoicism. Later Jimmy Hall went, and Lufbery. Many others were to follow and well I knew it. Close as our friendships were, living and working side by side with common purposes and mutual interdependence, all the pilots of 94, I believe, eventually came to look with a callous indifference upon the sudden death of their dearest chum. This necessity is to my mind one of the greatest horrors of the war.

Lieutenant Smyth used to talk to me about his old mother in New York. She was a widow and he an only son. She was in ill health and he was haunted with the belief that a visit from him would do much to bring her back to good health and spirits. I liked Smyth immensely from the first, possibly at first because he had so flattered me with his request to go with me on voluntary patrols, but subsequently I found that he had the ability and character of a wonderful pilot and he was a reliable companion in a fight. Various men in my squadron appealed to me in various ways, but Smyth got so close to me by some attractive quality in his nature, that I sometimes dreamed of him at night, picturing him battling against desperate odds in the air or being shot down in flames.

Smyth had an unfailing fund of good nature and humor. One morning shortly after my last exploit with Douglas Campbell, Lieutenant Smyth again came to me and asked me to take him on a second expedition. We agreed to go on the following morning at four o'clock.

I might say for the benefit of those who have never been out of bed at four o'clock that it is always raw and chilly at that hour in the morning. And when one climbs up 20,000 feet in the air and cruises about for an hour or so with nothing more than a cup of coffee under one's belt it requires some little enthusiasm in one's nature to derive unmixed pleasure out of it.

On this morning in question Smyth and I got up to 22,000 feet over Pont-à-Mousson and Flirey. The temperature at this altitude was probably close to fifty degrees below zero. We expected to find some early bird of the Germans coming over the lines to take their customary photographs, and it was necessary for us to have the topmost ceiling to escape his attention.

After an hour of fruitless searching, I led off again to the west, this time a little deeper within the German lines. To my surprise I noticed Smyth suddenly turn towards home and soon disappear from my sight. Supposing he had been let down by a faulty motor, I continued my patrol for another hour, saw one enemy plane which also saw me and escaped me without a combat, until finally despairing of finding any game before my fuel was completely exhausted I returned to the field after almost two and one-half hours in the air.

Lieutenant Smyth came up to my machine as I shut off the motor.

"Hello! Esquimo!" he greeted me with some savageness. "Why didn't you stay up all day.?"

I asked him why he had come down. He looked at me a moment and then began to laugh.

"Rick!" he said, "I am frozen so stiff yet that if I laugh out loud I will break in two. I don't know just how high up we were but I'll swear that I saw the sun rising for to-morrow morning!"

The Nieuport is a cold berth in high altitudes and one must dress for the part. When I learned that Smyth had worn only his ordinary clothing I could easily fancy that to-day's sun might look to him like the one due a week hence.