Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 19

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 19
Chapter 19 - The Chateau-Thierry Salient

THE scene of 94 Squadron's operation now changes from the Toul sector to the Château-Thierry region. On June 27th, 1918, all four of our American Fighting Squadrons were ordered to Chateau-Thierry. We were now four in number, for Squadron 27, commanded by Major Harold E. Hartney, and Squadron 147. commanded by Major Bonnell, had recently completed training and had moved in alongside 95 Squadron and our little Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron.

Toul is a city of some 20,000 inhabitants and would be quite the metropolis of its region, were it not for the larger city of Nancy which lies but fifteen miles east. It has certain quaint and interesting aspects, including a well preserved and ancient moat and battlements which surround the old city, a picturesque plaza in the center of the town, and several venerable old buildings dating well back into ancient history. Moreover, Toul had shops and busy streets where over-tired aviators could stroll about and make purchases and gaze upon the shifting crowds.

Our new surroundings were of rather a different character. We settled upon an old French aerodrome at Touquin, a small and miserable village some twenty-five miles south of Château-Thierry and the Marne River. The aerodrome was large and smooth and abundantly equipped with the famous French hangars which consist of steel girders with walls and roofs of canvas. They were very spacious, quite cool in summer and camouflaged admirably with the surrounding scenery.

But no provision had been made at Touquin for the pilots and officers.

All of our aeroplanes flew from Toul to Touquin, while the rest of the aerodrome impedimenta was carted rapidly away to the new quarters in lorries, trucks and trailers. The pilots of Squadrons 27 and 147 were rather new at that time; and it was thought wise to assign some of the older pilots of 94 and 95 Squadrons to the task of leading them through the air to the new field.

I was assigned to fly Major Atkinson's Nieuport and was directed to bring up the rear of the aerial procession so as to keep an eye upon those who might fall by the wayside. I found that I had more than I could handle on that occasion.

Lieutenant Buford of 95 Squadron had a reputation of scorning the use of a map in flying over France. He had been selected to lead the pilots of 27 Squadron to Touquin on that morning. I saw him leave the ground with his twenty-odd machines and disappear in the distance. When I arrived at Touquin I learned that none of Lieutenant Buford's Flight had yet put in an appearance. Late that night they all arrived safely. Upon being questioned as to their day's joyride, they told us that Buford's celebrated sense of direction had taken the entire Squadron directly south instead of east. After flying until their fuel had given out, they all landed upon an aerodrome which at that moment fortunately appeared below them. Here they learned they were at Lyons, in the south of France, instead of Touquin! After filling up with petrol and securing maps, they again set off and eventually arrived at their proper destination. Buford later had several very remarkable recurrences of this erratic homing instinct of his.

Many instances occurred that illustrate how easily a pilot can be lost in the air, notwithstanding a clear sky and a brilliant sun shining in its proper position. A few days before we left Toul I took Lieutenant Tittman out for his first trip over the lines. Reed Chambers accompanied us and we cautioned Tittman to keep close alongside us and in case of a battle to stay above us and simply look on without attempting to take any part.

We had scarcely arrived over Pont-à-Mousson when we discovered a Boche photographic machine proceeding towards Nancy. Reed and I made a circumspect attack, both of us keeping one eye upon our new pilot and the other constantly searching the skies for fear some roving Fokker might pounce upon Tittman while we were engaged with the Albatros.

The consequence was we lost our Albatros and found that Tittman had in the meanwhile implicitly obeyed instructions and had at no time been in any danger. Consequently, when another enemy plane appeared a few minutes later Chambers and I rushed in to a vigorous attack, without very much concern for Tittman's safety. Again the enemy escaped, owing to the misfit of our cartridges with the resultant jamming of all four of our guns. We returned to pick up our protege and found that he had disappeared!

Upon landing with very poignant fears concerning Tittman, we were told that our balloon headquarters had telephoned in, stating that a chasse machine had just gone down in flames a short distance north of Nancy! Our worst fears seemed confirmed! Reed and I felt much like murderers.

Imagine our relief when a day or two later Tittman came walking into our mess. He told us rather shamefacedly that he had lost us during our combat and had decided to fly home and land. Although the sun was shining full in the south at noonday, Tittman flew directly east. He had flown until his petrol had given out and still had found nothing but trees below his sinking planes.

With his heart in his throat he let his Nieuport take its own place for landing. One spot looked as fatal to him as another. He crashed in the treetops, rolled through the branches and bounced upon the ground, his aeroplane in several fragments but himself absolutely unhurt.

After an hour's walk, which might easily have taken him into the Boche camp, he found that he was very near the lines and but a few kilometers from Switzerland. Had his petrol lasted another five minutes he would have landed there and have been interned by the Swiss authorities!

Undeniably there are several ways for airmen to get into trouble. Half a dozen of our group experienced motor trouble in that flight to Touquin, and among them were some of the best pilots in our squadron. But all eventually arrived, eager to learn what new experiences this change of front would bring to us and full of great expectations for the morrow.

We found delightful quarters for 94 Squadron's officers in an old abandoned château a few miles south of the field. It had been evacuated by its owners in 1914, when the Huns had made their first rapid advance beyond the Marne. Gorgeously furnished and surrounded by wonderful scenery, it was by far the finest habitation a body of pilots ever found. Our regrets in leaving Toul were quickly banished when we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by all this beauty. Unfortunately enough I had but little opportunity to enjoy its comforts, for during the greater part of our stay in this delightful spot I occupied a cot in a nearby hospital, where a bad case of pneumonia was narrowly averted.

On the day of our moving from Toul I had felt a return of the fever. Upon landing at Touquin I realized that I had a serious chill. There was nothing for it but a report to the doctor.

From June 28th to the 2nd of July I lay by myself in a quiet room of the hospital. And there I did a deal of thinking. It was the first real opportunity for thinking things over I had found since the rush of war began. I had enlisted in the Signal Corps in New York and the next day sailed with General Pershing for the front. From that day to this I had been always striving for something that had seemed mythical and indefinite. I now determined to analyze the whole situation and try to catch up again with myself.

Aviation had always been a mystery as well as a delight to me. The rush of an aeroplane through the sky awoke within me every instinct of sportsmanship and desire. With my rather intimate knowledge of motors and engines I had always felt certain that I should find it easy to fly. My experiences in racing contests led me to believe that in the air, as on the race course, I should find a great difference in individual antagonists. Some of them would be better than I, some of them poorer: from all of them I would be able to pick up, here and there, certain tricks and improvements which gradually might improve my own abilities. There was but one element in this game of war-aviation that troubled me.

Could I play my part in a life-and-death contest such as had been going on in the air over France for the past three or four years? Had these successful German, British and French aviators a particular gladiatorial characteristic which made it possible for them to conquer in air combats—but which might be lacking in me?

The answer to this question I did not know. I had begun my flying full of misgivings, full of a sense of my inexperience and incompetence. I had seen one cherished theory after another of mine go tumbling into space on my homeward journeys from my early combats. Through the favor of my lucky star I had survived numerous incidents—incidents that had miserably terminated other pilots' careers. And now I had actually passed through a score or more of deadly combats on aeroplanes, had been victorious in several and had escaped any injury whatsoever from the assaults of my adversaries. I wondered if I could not now begin to answer this perplexing question! Was I in that strange class of men who have plumbed the possibilities of danger in the air—who have mastered to the limits the powers of aeroplanes and aeroplane guns, who know that they are personally superior to their antagonists for this very reason—who are therefore superior in truth because of the self-confidence that this knowledge brings them?

Cautiously and impartially I set my mind upon this problem. I felt that now was the time to make sure of myself for myself. If I could disabuse my mind of the impression that some mysterious power accounted for the successes of the famous air-fighters of the enemy service, I would be able to meet them with far greater confidence in my own merely human powers.

I reviewed the various combats in which I had taken a part. Here and there I detected mistakes that I had made—mistakes of which I should never again be guilty. Over and over again I had failed to get a victory because of a stupid jamming of my guns. Was there no way of removing this sorry impediment? I would examine every single detail of my guns myself in the future. Every cartridge that the armorers gave me would receive a strict examination and testing before I left the field. That would certainly minimize the possibilities of gun failures at critical moments.

Next, the principal fear that hampered me in the midst of a combat was the knowledge that the Nieuport's wings might give way under the stress of a necessary maneuver. Constantly I was limited in essential movements by this fear. Was there no way to strengthen these wings ? Why couldn't we get the Spads that had been promised us? If I could only get a machine built according to my own designs!

I imagined how I would throw terror into the enemy formations if I could only hurl my machine about them with the headlong impetuosity that I craved to let go! I lay staring at the ceiling for some time, picturing myself in pursuit of the whole German air force who were fleeing in terror before my ideal aeroplane. Then with a shrug I pulled myself together and forced myself once more to face the realities.

My gun-jammings I could and would remedy. There was no reason why I should not have less jams than any other pilot in the service, provided I put adequate attention to the matter. The limitations of my Nieuport I must bear in mind, and endure them until the authorities found means to procure Spads for us. Above all, I must constantly remember to remain within those limitations even if the enemy escaped me. Otherwise I should never live to continue to fight within the pilot's seat of the coveted Spad!

I thought of the insolence of the high-flying Rumplers, with a return of my craving for an aeroplane of my own design. My old friend—Number 16, of the Rising Sun Squadron! How I should love to give him a little surprise on our next meeting! I would design a fighting plane that would fly faster, that would out-climb, out-dive and out-maneuver any machine or machines that the Boches owned. And it would have a higher ceiling than the Rumpler. It was all possible. If I could only get it done!

The result of my long cogitations and self-study was a determination to begin afresh my career in the air. I convinced myself that I had fairly well solved the puzzles that had deterred me from several successes in my more immature past. Merely human qualities dominated aviators, after all. I had seen enough of the Boche tactics by now to understand that there surely was no mystery about them. Caution was one very essential element that I must never forget. With that determination I dropped to sleep, and awoke with a feeling that a great load had been lifted from my mind.

On July 4th, a day which the Americans intended to celebrate in Paris with much magnificence, I obtained permission to visit the Capital. Captain Kenneth Marr and several of our pilots went in with me to see the celebration. They returned early the following day, leaving me to take my own time in rejoining my squadron.

Hardly had they gone when the impulse came to me to go down to Orly, where the American Experimental Aerodrome was located, and see for myself just what the situation was in regard to our Spad aeroplanes. I called upon the Major in charge of the Supply Depot, and there learned to my delight that he had actually begun arrangements for the immediate equipment of the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron with the long deferred Spads. At that moment, he told me, there were three Spads on the field that were designated for our use.

With rather a short farewell to the Major, I hastened to the field. And there I found three of the coveted fighting machines that I knew had many accomplishments superior to the rival Fokkers. The nearest machine to me had the initial figure "I," painted on its sides. I asked the mechanics in charge if this machine had been tested.

"Yes, sir! All ready to go to the front!" was the reply.

"Is this one of the machines belonging to 94 Squadron?" I enquired.

"Yes, sir. There are two more over there. The others will be in here in a few days."

"Well, I am down here from 94 Squadron myself," I continued, a sudden wild hope entering my brain. "Is there any reason why this machine should not go to the Squadron to-day?"

"None that I know of, sir I" the mechanic answered, thereby forming a resolution in my mind that I very well knew might lead me to a court martial, provided my superior officers chose to take a military view of my offense.

Inside ten minutes I was strapped in the seat of the finest little Spad that ever flew French skies. I have it to this day and would not part with it for all the possessions in the world. Without seeking further permission or considering stopping to collect my articles at my hotel, I gave the signal to pull away the blocks, sped swiftly across the smooth field, and with a feeling of tremendous satisfaction I headed directly away for the Touquin aerodrome.

Not until I had landed and had begun to answer the questions of my comrades as to how I got possession of the new machine, did I begin to realize the enormity of the offense I had committed. I did not contemplate with any pleasure the questions that the Commanding Officer would hurl at me, on this subject.

But to my joy no censure was given me. On the contrary I was given this first Spad to use as my own! Within an hour my mechanics were fitting on the guns and truing up the wings. In the meantime I decided to go out for the last time on my oldtime mount, the Nieuport.

During my absence the Group had suffered two losses and had won three victories. Lieutenant Wannamaker of 27th Squadron was from my home city of Columbus, Ohio, and he, I learned, had gone out on patrol on the 3rd of July and had been shot down above Château-Thierry. For weeks we feared he had been killed, but finally we received word from the Red Cross in Switzerland that Wannamaker had merely been forced down within enemy territory and had been captured unhurt.

It was at this period of the American offensive, it will be remembered, that the final German retreat began at Château-Thierry. Our aerodrome at Touquin was located so far behind the lines that we were limited to very short patrols over enemy territory. As the Hun continued to withdraw farther and farther back it was evident that we must abandon our magnificent chateau at Touquin and move nearer the front. Every day the German Rumplers came over our field and blandly photographed us while our Archy batteries poured up a frantic lot of useless shells. I doubt if the enemy remained in ignorance of our change of location a single day. For as soon as we began settling at the Saints aerodrome a few miles nearer the lines, we again noticed the visits of the high-flying Rumplers.

In fact one of our Squadron pilots, who was captured at this period, later told me, after his release, that the German Intelligence Officer exhibited to him a full list of the names of all of our pilots. The officer kindly inquired after the health of Major Hartney, who had seen distinguished service with the British before joining the American Air Service, and then he asked if Rickenbacker had been formulating any new balloon plans! Since the only plan that I had ever formulated was the ridiculous failure of our balloon attack of the week previous, I naturally felt somewhat aggrieved at this officer's low humor. But it astonished me to learn of the precise information possessed by the enemy in regard to our movements and personnel.

My feelings were somewhat restored by hearing of the opinion this same officer expressed as to the efficiency of the American air fighters. Before one can appreciate the significance of his remark it is necessary to understand the character of the famous German fighting squadrons who now confronted us.