Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 15

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 15
Chapter 15 - Campbell's Last Flight

SHORTLY after I had left the aerodrome that morning for my second rendezvous with my bête noire, No. 16, Jimmy Meissner and Doug Campbell had followed me on a little expedition of their own. They had chosen the vicinity to the east of Pont-à-Mousson.

Doug and Jimmy were two of the best pals in the world. Indeed it would be a very difficult matter for anybody to be in Jimmy Meissner's company for more than an hour without becoming his pal. Both these boys had companionable natures. They were constantly in each other's company, Jimmy and Douglas, and very frequently they went off on these special hunting parties together.

On this occasion it appears that after a short tour together back of the lines they became separated. Jimmy went off on a wild goose chase of his own, leaving Lieutenant Campbell reconnoitering back and forth over the same locality to the east of Pont-à-Mousson. Upon one of his patient tacks Campbell discovered a Rumpler coming from Germany and evidently aiming towards the vicinity of Nancy. He hid himself in the sun and awaited its approach.

The actual encounter took place at about the same time I was fighting my No. 16 some twenty miles to the west of them. Douglas began his battle with everything in his favor. He caught the Boches completely by surprise and put enough bullets into the enemy craft to sink an ordinary 'bus. But the Hun wouldn't drop. He simply sailed along and continued to pot Doug's Nieuport every time he swung in for an attack. They had very much the same sort of a running fight as I was having with my antagonist, No. 16.

Finally Meissner saw something going on over the Nancy sky and came speeding back in to take a hand in the combat. Just as Jimmy drew near to the scene of the scrap, he saw that he was diverting some of the pilot's attention to himself. Campbell saw this too and immediately took advantage of the opportunity.

Coming diagonally in towards the observer from behind, Doug suddenly changed his course and swerved around to the front for a shot at the preoccupied pilot. He got in a fairly long burst before he was compelled to turn aside to avoid a collision. Though he had not touched the pilot, he had the good fortune to shower the motor with bullets; and to his great joy he saw that the machine was really out of control. The pilot, unable to maintain headway and maneuver at the same time, had put down his nose and was gliding northwards for his lines.

At this juncture Jimmy took a hand in the scrap, and both the pilot and observer had their hands full to prevent a surprise attack from one of the two circling Nieuports.

But the Americans' time was short. The lines were but half a dozen miles away. With his present height the German pilot could glide his machine well behind his own lines. The coup-de-grace must be delivered at once if the Americans were to prevent the morning's photographs from falling into the hands of the enemy.

There was no way of communicating a plan of simultaneous attack between the two Nieuports. But both pilots had the same intention and watched each other jockeying around the Rumpler until a favorable opening presented itself. Suddenly both Meissner and Campbell came in upon the enemy from opposite sides. Campbell got a faster start and braving the fire from the observer, dived below for a hundred feet, only to zoom suddenly upwards and direct another long burst through the floor of the Rumpler. Swerving then off to the right he again came by the side of the observer. The latter unfortunately had changed his position to fire at Meissner after Campbell had darted below him on the other side. As Doug now reappeared from below the Rumpler, he came full into range of the observer's guns.

Doug was just coming out of his zoom and beginning a flat circle to the front when a loud explosion at the small of his back told him that he had been hit. He felt a burning pain run up the length of his spine. He was still some two miles above Mother Earth and his first thought was to retain his senses until he could bring his machine safely to ground. He immediately flew for home, leaving the outcome of the battle to his comrade.

Meissner saw Campbell draw away and immediately jumped to the conclusion that he had been wounded. He had not seen the bullets strike him, however, and there was always the chance that merely an engine failure had compelled Doug to withdraw. No matter what was the cause, Jimmy's duty was to prevent the safe return of the enemy machine to its own lines. He could be of no help to his companion anyway. He continued his harassing of the pilot and so occupied that gentleman with maneuvers that by the time the trenches were reached Jimmy had the satisfaction of seeing that the Rumpler could not possibly get to a safe zone for landing.

Just a hundred yards beyond the German first-line trench the Rumpler crashed. Both the pilot and observer scrambled from their seats and ran for their lives. Our doughboys gave them a shower of bullets which greatly accelerated their speed. The Boche soldiers in their trenches stood up and leveled a machine gun fire at our men to protect their aviators' foot-race for safety. The next moment the American artillery directed a heavy shell-fire of high explosive against the abandoned Rumpler. These were better marksmen than the last I mentioned. After half a dozen shots nothing but fragments remained.

All this spectacle Jimmy gleefully observed before he turned his machine homewards and hastened to find out what had happened to Douglas Campbell. He reached the aerodrome just about the same time I did. Doug was safely landed and had climbed out of the machine without assistance. Although suffering much pain, he would not leave the field until he had learned just how he had been hit. A short inspection disclosed the whole story.

An explosive bullet fired by the observer had come through the floor of Campbell's machine just at the instant he was making a turn. It had penetrated the bottom of the fusilage, gone through the bottom of his seat and then had struck a wire which had exploded the missile not three inches from Campbell's back.

The fragments had scattered backwards and to the side, riddling the framework and fabric which covered the fusilage behind the seat. Very few of the fragments had gone forward. This miraculous circumstance had undoubtedly saved Doug's life.

Jimmy and I gazed with stupefaction at the smiling and imperturbable Doug. He stood beside us refusing all aid and appeared more deeply interested in the condition of his machine than in his own wounds. In the back of his Teddy-bear suit a long jagged tear showed us where the missile had entered his body. Frightful blood stains covered his back. Yet he was deaf to all our entreaties and refused to let us lead him away.

I asked what had been done about getting an ambulance down and found that Campbell had sent for a motorcycle! I could not help laughing at this childish desire to avoid making a scene, which I very well knew had actuated Doug's request for a motorcycle. I immediately commandeered an automobile, and, putting Douglas carefully in it, several of us accompanied him to the hospital.

With continued fortitude Doug refused an anesthetic while the surgeon was removing the bullet. It was found that the steel nose itself had been deflected by the wire into Doug's back. By some miracle it had not touched his spinal column but had traveled up alongside it for five or six inches and finally buried itself in the muscles under the shoulder! This little memento Doug now preserves as his most cherished souvenir of the great war.

With splendid grit Doug smiled and talked while the doctor proceeded with the operation. He drew all the details of the finish of the Rumpler from Jimmy and learned with great satisfaction that this was his sixth official victory. In reality Douglas Campbell's victories total seven, but for one which was downed to my certain knowledge he never received official confirmation.

Had it not been for this unfortunate accident Lieutenant Douglas Campbell would undoubtedly have one of the highest scores of victories claimed by any air-fighter, for he was just entering upon his full stride. As it was, he never fought again. Upon his return in November from America, where he was sent to recover his strength after leaving the hospital, Doug rejoined his old squadron, only to find that its days of fighting were over.

The subject of my encounter with Rising Sun No. 16 occasioned no end of amusement about the mess and many bets were laid as to the outcome. I dreamed about No. 16 at night and was up bright and early on the lookout for him every morning. I took a few of the bets myself naturally enough. I never in my life wanted anything so much as those orange-colored insignia as decorations for my quarters. I planned to build a house some day suitably designed to set off those works of art to the best advantage.

The fates were surely laughing at me all this time. My further adventures with No. 16 would have appeared comic to me if they had not been so infuriating.

The very next day I went up in my own machine with just the one resolve burning in my brain. I saw nothing else in the sky and searched for nothing else. In fact I had scarcely gained my very topmost altitude and set forth in the direction of what I now knew was the favorite path of this daily visitor before I saw him coming to meet me. It was almost as though we had met by appointment.

As I have said, I reached my very highest altitude before going forth to this tryst. Some Nieuports have a higher ceiling than others. It depends upon the quality and natural fitness of the motor. My 'bus reached 18,000 feet that morning. It had just been fitted with two Vickers guns instead of the one it formerly carried. This additional weight of thirty or forty pounds hampered the climb somewhat and lowered my ceiling by at least 500 feet.

Try as I would I could get her no higher. As we approached each other, No. 16 and I, the Rumpler was at 20,000 feet and was still climbing. My Boche friends knew perfectly well they could climb higher than any Nieuport. It might make their photographs a little indistinct but even those were better than our own taken from 12,000 feet. They came steadily on and I turned as they passed me and continued a parallel course some two thousand feet below them. The railroad stations at Nancy and Toul were their objectives this morning. Without deigning to pay any attention to me they proceeded over their course and deliberately snapped their pictures. Occasionally the observer amused himself with a little target practice at me. At such times I realized that he had nothing else to do, so concluded obviously that he did not desire photographs of those parts of his voyage.

I too fired vain long bursts upwards. I had no idea of hitting them at that long range. It merely served to keep them informed that I was still in their company. They knew they had me at their mercy as far as giving me a chance at a combat.

So we continued along all over the northeast of France. I suppose most of the films they developed that afternoon showed the wings of my Nieuport below them.

My one chance was to keep below them and follow them until they came down. As there is no record of any German machine not coming down finally I determined to follow the Boches back to Berlin if necessary, in order to get a shot at them when they passed my level. Thus we crossed the lines and proceeded steadily northwards. I could outfly the Rumpler and outdive him, but his superior engine power and greater wing spread gave him a much higher ceiling.

After seeing mile after mile slip away beneath my wings and still no evidence of change of heart in my antagonists I began to speculate upon the quantity of gasoline the Rumpler carried. I knew too well the limits of the Nieuport's fuel supply. And the disadvantage again lay with me. For if we both became exhausted at the same time the Rumpler would be in his own territory while I would be many hostile miles from my own.

With savage realization that I was again defeated I turned around and took my way homewards. I could imagine my two Boche adversaries laughing at me as I gave up the chase. They began to glide downwards as soon as I turned my back. I sheered back at them just to have the satisfaction of showing them I was still their master. Very obediently they altered their tactics and again climbed for their superior ceiling.

When I reached camp I scoured the hangars for information of the highest climbing machine on the aerodrome. My comrades followed me about, supplying me with much gratuitous information and advice. They advised me to leave off both guns next day which might permit me to reach 20,000 feet. Or if I took no fuel along I might go to 30,000 feet. Uncomplimentary references to the weight of my shoes and the heaviness of my grouch aided me considerably.

The result of my researches indicated that Captain Marr's machine had the best reputation for climbing and I immediately set off to obtain his consent for the loan of his Nieuport on the morrow. He readily consented to let me have it, adding that he knew I could reach 22,000 feet with it if I coaxed it properly. I assured him I would coax it all right and left to make my preparations.

The ideal fighting machine is of course one that will outperform every enemy machine in every variety of movement. And there are several kinds of performances that are almost equally valuable in combat fighting. A swift speed is essential. A rapid climb, the ability to dive directly down without overstraining the structure or ripping off the fabric by too sudden an alteration of direction; a high ceiling, which necessitates high engine power and perfect carburetion; quick maneuverability—all these characteristics if combined would make an ideal fighting machine.

This naturally is just what the fighting nations were striving to obtain. Each machine had a superiority in some one particular but failed in another. The famous German Fokker held the skies in 1916 and 1917 for it combined more of these essential details than did any one fighting craft of the Allies. Then came the Spad which the French designed to out-speed and out-maneuver the Fokker, but still the Fokker had a higher ceiling and a swifter dive.

The British produced the S.E. 5 in 1918 which outdove and out-maneuvered the Fokker, but could not overtake it on a flat race nor out-climb it. The Sopwith Camel likewise came from England and proved superior to the best German fighting machines except in the matter of diving and high-ceiling. As for the Americans, we had to take what machines the Allied nations could spare us. Naturally they kept the best for themselves; and our squadrons of American pilots did the best they could with the second best.

It was at this time that we heard rumors of a new English fighting machine called the Snipe. Like the Camel, it was a Sopwith production. A new engine that was shrouded in much secrecy and mystery was reputed to have carried this little scout machine to the incredible altitude of 33,000 feet. And the speed with which it made this climb broke all the world's records. Our boys of 94 Squadron were naturally desirous of providing themselves with a quantity of these wonderful machines and then trying a few combats with the Richthofen Circus Fokkers.

For the present, however, we had to take what was given to us. We felt that we were not fulfilling the expectations of the people back home, who had been told that we had 20,000 of the best aeroplanes in the world, and all made in America. The truth is that not one American-made fighting machine came to the front, until the war was ended.

Considerably discouraged over the prospects of securing my bedroom trophies from Rising Sun No. 16 I nevertheless climbed into Captain Marr's machine the next morning at exactly 8.15 and amid the cheers of the boys who gathered to see me off I bade the mechanics to pull away the chocks. I made a direct path to our rendezvous of yesterday, climbing as I flew northward and east.

Like every enthusiastic owner, Captain Marr had given his 'bus all the credit that he consistently could. I have driven automobiles whose owners got a regular performance of twenty miles to a gallon of gasoline, but try as one might it would make but about one half that mileage for anybody else.

I put Captain Marr's Nieuport up to a little over 19,000 feet that morning, and there she hung. Every artifice that ever moved an engine was experimented in but without increasing her capacities an inch. Just as I had satisfied myself that I had exhausted her possibilities, I discovered my old friend, No. 16, winging his way calmly towards me. He was certainly prompt and business-like in the way he kept his appointments.

Just as yesterday, the Rumpler was some two thousand feet above my highest possible elevation. With rare magnanimity my old friends kindly came down a few hundred feet to keep me company. I joined in the procession as of yore and the two machines made another grand tour of the northeasterly cities of France where we photographed all the railroad lines and canals, took a turn over several aerodromes, French, British and American, surveyed the charming landscape in all directions and finally decided to call it a day and go home. My presence served to prevent our batteries from firing noisy shells at my friends, and they must have appreciated this act of courtesy on my part, for during the whole morning's promenade they did not fire a single shot at me from the machine-gun which I could plainly see protruding out of the belly of the monster overhead.

I accompanied them back to their aerodrome, sedulously maintaining the proper distance between us. Seeing they wanted to alight and mindful of their most delightful courtesy to me throughout the day I turned about and made for home. That night I came down with the fever and was immediately sent to Paris on leave.