Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 13

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 13
Chapter 13 - America's First Ace

AT the close of the war 94 Squadron not only held first place among all American squadrons in length of service at the front, but we held the record in number of enemy planes brought down and the record number of aces for any one squadron as well. I believe no single squadron in the world has won similarly so many victories as the American 94 Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron had credited to it during the first six months of its existence. Our victories which were confirmed, totalled 69, ending with the last aerial victory of the war—that of Major Kirby, who shot down his first and last enemy machine just northeast of Verdun at about noon on Sunday, November 10th, 1918.

Many of the pilots who had gone out on their first patrols with me counted themselves later among the American Aces. While many Americans had secured five or more victories in the air before the pilots of 94 began their full strides, these early Aces, such as Lufbery, Baylies and Putnam of French escadrilles, and Warman, Libby and Magoun, who were enrolled with the British, all were trained under foreign methods and flew foreign machines. The first official American Ace is therefore claimed by our squadron. This simon-pure American air-fighter who entered the war with the Americans, received his training with Americans and did all his fighting with the Americans was Lieutenant Douglas Campbell of St. José, California.

Douglas Campbell was 22 years of age when he made his first trip over the lines. His father was the head of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, California. Douglas had received an unusually good schooling before he entered the war, being an old boy of Hotchkiss, and later graduating at Harvard with the class of 1917. The outbreak of the war caught him traveling in Austria with his family. They avoided the active theater of war by going through Russia and getting thence from Denmark to England.

After finishing his college course Doug began preparing for aviation by entering the ground school work at Cornell University. He was among the first cadets to be sent to France, arriving in Paris in August, 1917. He had not as yet received any training in flying but was thoroughly familiar with wireless operation, aerial navigation and aeroplane motors.

Made adjutant under Captain Miller, who was then in command of the American Flying School at Issoudun, Lieutenant Campbell had great difficulty in extricating himself from this indoors work, where every day's stay made him more and more valuable to his superiors. He determined to learn to fly, with the expectation that, once possessed of his wings, he might find his transfer to an active service at the front more quickly obtainable.

There were no beginners' training machines at Issoudun. Only the 23 Model Nieuports were there. Pilots were supposed to receive initial training on the slower Curtiss machines, or the Caudrons, before attempting to fly the fast Nieuports. But Campbell feared he would never get necessary permission to take this preliminary training, so he determined to get through without the beginner's course.

Little by little he edged his way into the advanced training school. He finally considered himself well enough schooled in the principles of flying to make his first essay on a solo flight. He went up all right, flew away all right, landed all right. In other words Lieutenant Campbell learned to fly alone on a fast scout machine—a feat I do not remember any other American pilot having duplicated.

Douglas Campbell was always a silent and selfpossessed fellow. He was popular among his fellows from his first appearance in 94 Squadron. Quiet and thoughtful in manner and gentle in speech when on the ground, Lieutenant Campbell in the air was quite a different character. He went after an enemy pilot like a tornado, often exposing himself to deadly openings. His very impetuosity usually saved him from danger unless his opponent was an old hand at the game and knew how to measure up the proper amount of defensive and offensive tactics in the same maneuver.

On May 31st, the day after our big celebration just recorded, Lieutenant Campbell went out on a voluntary patrol alone—i. e., Doug went out looking for trouble. He made quite a long flight inside the German lines at a great altitude, but discovering too many enemy aeroplanes aloft he decided to return back to the lines. When still three or four miles behind the German front, he discerned a German Rumpler machine evidently taking photographs of our advanced positions just south of Flirey. Flirey lies just inside our lines about half-way between Pont-à-Mousson and St. Mihiel.

The Rumpler aeroplane was the machine used by the enemy for observation and photographing. It was a two-seater and both the pilot and the observer who sat behind, had machine-guns so mounted that they covered both the front and the rear. The pilot's gun was fixed, that is, it lay flat on top of the engine hood and could not be raised or lowered. The pilot must raise or lower the nose of the aeroplane itself to bring his sights upon a target. The bullets shoot straight through the revolving propeller and the trigger of the gun is so connected with the propeller shaft by a synchronizing gear that the hammer of the gun falls only when the propeller blade is out of the way of the issuing bullets.

The observer in the rear seat, however, is able to move his twin guns about and point them in any direction. An attack is therefore usually made upon such a machine from a position under its tail. If an attack comes from below the fusilage the observer cannot shoot without cutting holes through his own tail. The forward pilot cannot use his guns at all. The only defense against such an attack is a quick swing to the left or right so that the observer can see the attacking enemy and bring his guns into action. This move the attacking aeroplane must anticipate.

Campbell was coming into the enemy's range from a very favorable direction. He had the sun at his back and moreover, he was coming from Germany into France. His presence in that direction would not be suspected.

Maneuvering until he was sure of his position Lieutenant Campbell first tried a diving attack, from above and behind the Rumpler. He had an excellent chance of killing the observer with the first burst long before the latter could swing his guns around and aim them. But no such easy victory awaited him.

As he began his dive he began firing. Six or seven shots issued from the Nieuport's single gun, and then it jammed. The observer turned around and saw the diving Nieuport almost upon him. He quickly seized his own gun mount and got to work. Campbell was compelled to fly a wide circle away out of range while he worked the breechblock of the Vickers and freed the jam. Now it must be a contest between a one-man scout and a two-man fighting 'bus. The best pilotage and the coolest nerve must win.

As Doug returned to the attack he discovered at once that he had a veteran pilot against him. The Rumpler crew showed no sign of panic or fear. The Heinies did not even propose to retreat!

Campbell approached somewhat warily and began a study of the enemy's tactics. The Nieuport could turn and twist with much greater agility than the heavier machine. It had greater speed and a faster dive. Underneath the Rumpler was a safe position from which the American could keep out of view and occasionally point up his nose and let go a burst of bullets through the enemy's floor. Campbell darted in, braving a few hurried shots, and secured his position. But he didn't keep it long!

With a skill that won from Campbell still greater respect for his pilotage, the German pilot suddenly banked over, giving his observer an excellent shot at the Nieuport below. It was no place to linger in and Douglas quickly vacated. He dived again and came away at a safe distance. Again he turned the proposition over in his mind. These fellows were evidently desirous of a real battle. Well, thought Campbell to himself, let the best man win. Here goes!

Circling the enemy again and again at such speed that no careful aim at him was possible, Campbell smiled grimly to himself as he saw the observer frantically continue his firing. At this rate he must soon exhaust his ammunition and then Campbell's turn would come. Doug continued his maneuvers, at times firing a shot or two to tempt the Boche into still greater activity. Round and round they went, the Hun pilot attempting to kick his tail around to keep pace with the quicker circles of the flitting Nieuport. The pilot was surely a wonder. The observer, however, was not in the same class as an air-fighter.

For fifteen minutes Campbell continued these maneuvers. So far as he knew not a single bullet had entered his plane. Then suddenly he noticed that the pilot had changed his tactics. Instead of trying to keep the Nieuport within range of the observer, the German pilot was now keeping his tail behind him and sought always to get a shot himself with his forward gun. Campbell flew in closer to the tail to get a look at this situation.

Coming in towards the observer from a diagonal direction Campbell approached to within fifty feet of the enemy and saw a curious sight. The observer was standing proudly upright and his arms were folded! From the edge of his cockpit the empty ammunition belt floated overboard and flapped in the wind. He had indeed exhausted his ammunition and now stood awaiting his doom without a thought of asking for mercy. He wore a haughty expression on his face as he watched the American approach. As Doug said later, he was so impressed with the bravery of the action that he felt he could not continue the combat against an unarmed enemy. The Prussian's expression seemed to say: "Go ahead and shoot me! I know you have won."

Upon second thought Lieutenant Campbell realized this was not a game in which he was engaged. It was war. These men had photographs of our positions within their cameras which might be the death of hundreds of our boys. They had done their best to kill him and he had endured their bullets in order to obtain just this opportunity. And the pilot was still continuing his effort to outwit the American and get him beneath his guns.

With his next maneuver Campbell began firing. With almost his first burst he saw that he had won. The machine of the enemy suddenly descended very rapidly, the next second it began falling out of control, and a few minutes later Lieutenant Campbell saw its last crash in our lines, a few hundred yards north of the little village of Menil-le-Tours.

Campbell returned to the field and immediately jumped into a car and drove over to the scene of the crash. Here he quickly found the mangled Rumpler and in the midst of the débris were the bodies of the two late occupants with whom he had had such a prolonged duel. Both had been killed by the fall.

The brave observer whose demeanor had so aroused Campbell's admiration was in truth a Prussian lieutenant. The pilot held the same rank. Both were subsequently given a military funeral and their personal effects were sent back to Germany in their names.

Lieutenant Campbell detached from the conquered Rumpler the black crosses which decorated its wings and brought them home with him as first evidence of his well won victory. As the machine crashed within our lines it required but a few more hours in which to have Lieutenant Campbell's victory officially confirmed. It was his fifth! He had been the first American pilot to win five official confirmations. Douglas Campbell that night received the heartiest congratulations from all the boys in the squadron as the first American Ace. The news was telegraphed to the whole world and for a month the congratulations of the world came pouring in upon him. Almost self-taught and equipped with not the safest machine at the front, Douglas Campbell had within six weeks of his first flight over the lines fought five successful duels with the boasted air-fighters of the Germans.

During the early hours of the same day on which Campbell was bringing this distinguished honor to the 94th Squadron an episode occurred which illustrates the great aid that aeroplanes give to the land forces in warfare. Sadly enough this illustration is negative rather than affirmative, for it shows the misfortune that resulted from the failure of our troops always to use our aeroplanes before a contemplated advance.

Northwest of Seicheprey a small offensive movement had been planned by the American infantry. By some means or other the enemy had received advanced information of this attack and had prepared a trap for them.

According to the pre-arrangements our artillery began the show with a terrific bombardment of shells along the German trenches. Something like 20,000 shells were poured into a small area of ground inside of one hour. Then the doughboys got the word and went over the top.

They raced along across No Man's Land, dropped into the first line trenches of the Germans, crawled out of them and went on to the second. All the way on to the third line trenches of the Germans they continued their victorious course. When they arrived there they counted up their prisoners and found the whole bag consisted of but one sick Heinie, whom the Germans had been unable to remove!

While they were scratching their heads over this extraordinary puzzle German gas shells began to drop among them. The enemy had calculated to an inch the exact positions they had just evacuated and they quickly filled the trench lines with deadly fumes. Over 300 of our boys were gassed more or less seriously before they had time to meet the devilish menace. Then they realized they had wasted their ammunition upon vacant trenches and had blindly walked into a carefully prepared trap!

One single preliminary aeroplane flight over this area before beginning the offensive would have disclosed to our troops the whole situation. In fact I believe this function of "seeing for the army" is the most important one that belongs to the aviation arm in warfare. Bombing, patrolling and bringing down enemy aeroplanes are but trivial compared to the vast importance of knowing the exact positions of the enemy's forces and "looking before you leap."

On the morning of June first I had an interesting little fracas with an enemy two-seater Rumpler some distance within the German lines. But this pair of Boche airmen was evidently not related to the team that Doug met on the day before. They dived for the ground and continued their course homeward regardless of my earnest invitations to come back and fight it out. Much disappointed with a fruitless day's work I went home and arranged to take a little joyride by automobile over to Nancy, the principal city in this part of France.

Nancy is a city of thirty thousand or thereabouts and is called by Frenchmen "the Little Paris of the East." After four years of war its shops are now almost empty and its glory considerably dimmed; but a visit and walk about the city's streets did all of us good after so many weeks standing on the alert.

We heard rumors there that the American aeroplane squadrons were to be moved soon to another sector of the front to meet a "big push" on Paris that was anticipated. Rumors were rife in Nancy on every topic, however, so we were not fully convinced by them. Nancy is darkened by night, as is every city or village so near the front where bombing raiders may be expected. Nothing daunted by this possibility of a raid however, we investigated the chances for a good meal as dinner time approached. Imagine our gratification when we stepped into a restaurant on Stanislas Plaza and found a list of good old American dishes on the menu!

Upon inquiry we found that the place was called "Walter's" and was quite the most pretentious café in Nancy. I called for the proprietor and learned that his name was Walter. He had formerly been the Chef at the Knickerbocker in New York. Visiting his old home in France Walter had been caught by the war, joined the infantry and after a few months at the front was wounded and retired from service.

Being a native and a lover of France, he decided to stay and see the war out. Accordingly he selected "little Paris in the East" and opened up a first-class restaurant which has now become the favorite rendezvous for the many American officers who find their headquarters in this vicinity.