Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 24

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 24
Chapter 24 - The St. Mihiel Drive

ALTHOUGH we did not know it at the time, we were now on the last laps of the war. Every taxi- driver or waiter in Paris could have told one just where the Americans were concentrating for their great attack on the St. Mihiel salient. The number of guns, the number of troops and just where they were located, how many aeroplanes we had and similar topics of war interest were discussed by every man on the streets.

Consequently I was much amused when I was arrested at the outskirts of Bar-le-Duc by a suspicious member of our Military Police-"the M. P.," as he is called at the front -and very closely questioned as to my character and identity. He informed me later that every person entering or leaving Bar-le-Duc was given the same searching examination. Spies were abroad and he was taking no chances of letting information leak out as to what was going on. I assured him I would not tell a soul and was permitted to drive on.

These extraordinary precautions always seemed more or less ridiculous to men who had been close to the fighting lines during the war. The nearer one gets to the lines the simpler appears the matter of espionage. Doubtless scores of Germans crossed the lines every night, arrayed themselves in the uniform of dead American or French soldiers and mingled freely and unsuspected with our troops until they desired to return to their own side. As there are hundreds of our soldiers wandering about looking for their regiments a few extra wanderers create no suspicion. Yet if one of these should venture to Bar-le-Duc or any other city far away from the actual scene of activities - Heaven help him.

At the aerodrome I was welcomed by my old friends with a heartiness known only to flying squadrons. A peculiar and lasting friendship is created between boys who fight in the air. No other fraternity upon earth is like it.

Jimmy Meissner I found was now in command of No. 147 Squadron. Al Grant of Austin, Texas, had command of 27, succeeding Major Hartney, who had been promoted to the command of the whole group at this aerodrome. 95 Squadron was still under Major Peterson who, with his galaxy of "stout fellows," including Bill Taylor, Sumner Sewell, Ted Curtis, Harold Buddy, Jack Mitchell and Benny Holden, led the four squadrons in their number of victories. This squadron rivalry led to great efforts upon the part of all our fighting flyers. Later, principally through the extraordinary prowess of Frank Luke, his Squadron, the 27th, for a time led our group in the number of its victories. But before the end of the war the highest score came to the Squadron which knew all along that they could win it -old 94, with its Hat-in-the-Ring. My squadron did a famous lot of fighting during the month of October. It passed the other squadrons of our group as well as all the other American squadrons at the front.

At dinner that night - the night of my arrival word came to us that the Big Show was to start at five o'clock the following morning.

Precisely at five o'clock I was awakened by the thundering of thousands of colossal guns. It was September 12, 1918. The St. Mihiel Drive was on!

Leaping out of bed I put my head outside the tent. We had received orders to be over the lines at daybreak in large formations. It was an exciting moment in my life as I realized that the great American attack upon which so many hopes had been fastened was actually on. I suppose every American in the world wanted to be in that great attack. The very sound of the guns thrilled one and filled one with excitement The good reputation of America seemed bound up in the outcome of that attack.

Dressing with great haste I ran over through the rain to the mess hall. There I found groups of the fellows all standing about impatiently awaiting the chance to get away. But the weather was certainly too bad to attempt any flight to the lines. We were compelled to wait until daylight to see the true state of the heavens.

About noon word came to us that the attack was progressing quite favorably. None of our machines had been able to get up. It was still raining but the visibility was getting better. We could see that the clouds were nearly a thousand feet above the ground.

Taking Reed Chambers one side, I proposed to him that despite the rain we try a short flip over the lines to see for ourselves what it was like. He agreed and while the others were at lunch we climbed into our machines and made off. At 60 feet above ground we found that we were just under the clouds and still had quite a long view of the landscape.

Flying straight east to St. Mihiel, we crossed the Meuse River and turned down its valley towards Verdun. Many fires were burning under us as we flew, most of them well on the German side of the river. Villages, haystacks, ammunition dumps and supplies were being set ablaze by the retreating Huns.

We proceeded as far as Verdun. Then turning east we continued flying at our low altitude and passed over Fresnes and Vigneulles.

Vigneulles was the objective point of the American forces. It lies east of Verdun some fifteen miles and about the same distance north of St. Mihiel. One American army was pushing towards it from a point just south of Verdun while the other attack was made from the opposite side of the salient. Like irresistible pincers, the two forces were drawing nearer and nearer to this objective point. The German troops who were still inside the salient would soon be caught inside the pincers.

As Reed and I turned south from Vigneulles we saw that the main highway running north to Metz was black with hurrying men and vehicles. Guns, stores and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed. We continued on south through the very heart of the St. Mihiel salient, flying always low above the roadway which connected Vigneulles with St. Mihiel. Here, likewise, we found the Germans in full cry to the rear.

One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche three-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway.

Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped from his seat and started running for the ditch. Half-way across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over, upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets!

All down the line we continued our fire - now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks. Most of the drivers and gunners had taken to the trees before we reached them. Our little visit must have cost them an hour's delay.

Passing over St. Mihiel, we hastened on to our aerodrome. There we immediately telephoned headquarters information of what we had seen and particularly of the last column of artillery we had shot up in its retreat from St. Mihiel. This was evidently splendid news and exactly what G. H. Q. had been anxious to know, for they questioned us closely upon this subject, inquiring whether or not we were convinced that the Germans were actually quitting St. Mihiel.

I assured them that there was no question about the retreat being in full swing. Thereupon, they told me that they would immediately begin shelling that road with our long-range guns so as further to impede the withdrawing of the enemy's supplies along this artery.

Later observations which we made over this road indicated that our gunners had made a good job of this task. The Germans had abandoned huge quantities of guns, wagons and supplies and had only saved their own skins by taking to the woods and covering the distance to Vigneulles on foot. The highway was utterly impassable.

That same night we were advised that the victorious Americans had taken Thiaucourt - that scene of so many of our operations back of the lines. A stout enemy squadron had always occupied the Thiaucourt aerodrome and we had had many a combat with its members. Henceforward we would miss the menace of this opposing unit. And we were also informed that at last Montsec had fallen!

Montsec was to this sector what Vimy Ridge was to the British troops about Lens. Its high crest dominated the entire landscape. From its summit the Huns could look over the whole south country. From observation posts which we later discovered on its summit we saw that our own aerodrome had been under constant surveillance by the Hun observers! Not a machine could leave our field at Toul without being seen by these watchers atop Montsec! No wonder their photographing machines escaped us! Many and many a time we had hurried out to the lines in answer to an alerte, only to find that it was a false alarm. Now we understood why we lost them. The Huns had seen our coming and by signalling their machines had given them warning in time to evade us. They retired and landed and waited until we had returned home, then they calmly proceeded with their interrupted work!

The capture of Montsec was a remarkably fine bit of strategy, for it was neatly outflanked and pinched out with a very small loss indeed. Our infantry and Tank Corps accomplished this feat within twenty hours.

When one remembers that the French lost nearly 30,000 men killed, wounded and missing in their attack on Montsec in the fall of 1916 - and then held this dearly bought ground for only twenty minutes one appreciates what a wonderful victory the American doughboys won.

On our trip up this same road the following day Reed Chambers and I saw the retreat of the Huns and the advance of our doughboys in full swing. The Huns were falling back northwards with an unusually strong rearguard protecting their retreat. Already they were out of reach of our guns' accurate aim, for the day was again cloudy, with occasional rains and no aeroplanes were able to regulate the gun fire.

But closely pressing them from behind came our eager doughboys fighting along like Indians. They scurried from cover to cover, always crouching low as they ran. Throwing themselves flat onto the ground they would get their rifles into action and spray the Boches with more bullets until they withdrew from sight. Then another running advance and another furious pumping of lead from the Yanks.

Reed and I flew above this scene for many miles, watching the most spectacular free show that ever man gazed upon. It was a desperate game, especially for the Huns, but I cheered and cheered as I caught the excitement of the chase, even high over their heads as I was.

In the midst of my rejoicing I suddenly heard the rat-tat-tat of a machine-gun below me and felt a few hits through my plane. I looked down in amazement and saw there behind the shell of a ruined building three Germans pointing a machine-gun at me and pumping away vindictively at my aeroplane. I tipped over my machine into a sharp virage and grasped my triggers. Before the men could lift a hand I had my stream of bullets going plump into their center. One man fell dead on the spot, his hands thrust up over his head. The other two dropped their guns and dived for a doorway. I was over the ruined village of Apremont.

Coasting along some eight or ten miles further I saw the whole country was swarming with the retreating Huns. I noted the progress of our own troops below and marked down their positions on my map. Having lost Reed during my little fracas with the machine gunners I circled westward and covered the Verdun region without seeing anything either of him or of enemy aircraft. When I returned home I found the weather very bad south of the Meuse and was not surprised at the little air activity in that region.

Reed came in an hour or two later. He had landed at our old Toul aerodrome to see one of his old pals. And there he learned the grievous news that David Putnam, America's leading Ace, had just been shot down in combat. Since the death of Lufbery and Bayliss and the capture of Baer, Putnam with his twelve victories had led all the American fighting pilots. His nerve and great fighting ability were well known to all of us. He had once shot down four enemy machines in one fight.

Putnam had gone up about noon to-day with one comrade. They encountered a Fokker formation of eight planes out on patrol and immediately attacked them. Putnam was struck almost at once and his machine crashed to the ground in flames. Thus died a glorious American boy and a brilliant fighter.

The next day was an exciting one for our group. I shot down one of the von Richthofen Circus and just escaped getting downed myself. Sumner Sewell of 95 Squadron lived through one of the most extraordinary series of accidents I ever heard of, and several others had encounters that yielded a few more victories to our group.

It was a clear fine day and I took off from the field alone at about eight o'clock in the morning, with the expectation of finding the sky full of aeroplanes. Anxious to see the extent of the American advance towards Vigneulles I made for Thiaucourt and the north. Thiaucourt always gave me a shudder in former days and I usually took care to take a high path over its top. But now I spun across its abandoned aerodrome with much indifference and for the first time had a good look at its hangar arrangements.

Later, crossing the Moselle about four miles north of Pont-A-Mousson I noticed considerable anti-aircraft shelling up in the direction of Metz. I climbed higher and scanned the sky for machines.

Here they come! A large flotilla of American "Flaming Coffins" as their pilots called the Liberty machines, were coming home at 12,000 feet after a bombardment of Metz. And just behind them and a little above were four very fast moving Fokkers. I stuck up my nose and began climbing for the sun.

I continued eastward until I had gained about a thousand feet in altitude over the enemy machines, then I turned about. The Huns had followed the American machines to the lines and then had turned back westward in the direction of the Three-Fingered Lake. This was just the opportunity I had been hoping for. Now I had the sun at my back, and it was unusually brilliant this morning.

After a gradual pique with motor half open, I descended to a position within a hundred yards of the last man in their formation. The four were in diamond formation and none of them had seen my approach. At fifty yards I pressed my triggers and played my bullets straight into the pilot's seat. His machine slipped over onto its side and after one wide swoop sideways began its last long fall to earth.

No sooner did my gun begin to crackle than the leader of the flight swung up his machine in a climbing virage, the other two pilots immediately following his example. And then I received one of the biggest jolts I can remember!

We had heard that the famous Richthofen Circus had evacuated its old aerodrome in the west and had been reported in our sector. But so far none of us had met them about here. Now, as these three light Fokkers began simultaneously to come about at me I found myself staring full into three beautiful scarlet noses headed straight in my direction. It scarcely needed their color to tell me who they were, for the skill with which they all came about so suddenly convinced me that this was no place for me. I had blundered single-handed into the Richthofen crowd!

I did my best to get away in a dignified manner, but a sudden spurt of fire past my nose convinced me that I would be very lucky if I got away with an unpunctured skin. The contortions I then undertook must have awakened the admiration of my three pursuers! At odd moments I would try to admire their extraordinary adroitness in handling their machines, for the heavens seemed quite crowded with those three dancing Fokkers. No matter where I turned there were always at least two of them there before me!

I need no more living proof of the flying ability of that celebrated German Squadron of fighting pilots. They whipped their machines about me with incredible cleverness. I was looking for an opening for a quick getaway and they seemed only desirous of keeping me twisting my head off to follow their movements, so I had this slight advantage of them there. At last an opportunity came to try to outrun them, and with motor full open and nose straight down I looked back and saw them fading away in my rear.

I returned to my aerodrome quite elated with my first victory over this crack fighting squadron.

But Lieutenant Sumner Sewell's experience completely eclipsed mine.

Sumner was tranquilly following along at the rear end of his formation, composed of the 95 boys, when he was startled by a sudden series of shocks in his aeroplane. He was over the enemy's lines and some 16,000 feet up in the air. He glanced behind him and found a Fokker immediately upon his tail. The Heinie was deliberately riddling Sumner's Spad with flaming bullets!

The rest of the formation actually drew away from Sewell without knowing that he had been attacked!

Sewell turned his machine about in a quick renversement, but just as he did so he felt his heart go into his mouth. The enemy's incendiary bullets had set fire to his fuel tank! With a sudden puff of flame all the rear part of his machine burst into a furious blaze. And he was almost three miles above ground!

Sumner instinctively put down his nose so that the flames would be swept by the wind to the rear and away from his person. Anybody but a Hun would have taken pity on a fellow being in such a plight and would have turned away his eyes from so frightful a spectacle. But this Fokker Hun was built of sterner stuff. Instead of turning away to attack the rest of the 95 formation, Fritz stuck steadfastly on Sumner's tail, firing steadily at him as he descended!

One can imagine the mental torture Sumner Sewell endured during the next few minutes! It takes some time to fall three miles even at the top speed of a 220 H.P. motor. The downward motion kept the blaze away from him, but a backward glance informed him that the fire was eating up the entire length of his fusilage and that at any moment he would be flung out into space. And the same glance assured him that his merciless enemy was leaving nothing to Providence, but was determined to execute him himself. Streaks of flaming bullets passed his head, through his wings and around him on every side, as the Fokker pilot continued his target practise with poor Sewell as his mark. In spite of himself he was compelled to try a little dodging to escape from so malignant an enemy.

Perhaps this very necessity saved Sewell's life. At any rate it provided a counter-irritant which took his mind off his frightful danger of burning alive. He executed a sudden maneuver when he was but a thousand feet above ground which moved him out of the range of the German. When he again looked around he discovered that the Hun had abandoned the chase, apparently satisfied that the Yank was doomed. And to his utter amazement he also discovered that the flames were now extinguished!

Sumner crashed a few hundred yards on the right side of No Man's Land. His skeleton of a Spad struck a shell hole, executed a somersault and came to rest at the bottom of another shell hole. Sumner crawled out of the wreckage and looked about him, too bewildered to realize that he was alive and on solid ground. Just at that instant a dull thud at his elbow brought him back to life.

He looked at the object at his feet - then at the wreck of his machine. There was no doubt about it. The substance which had made that thud was one of the wheels from his own machine!

The German had shot one of his wheels completely away. The fabric which covered the spokes had evidently caused it to swoop this way and that, and Sumner in his falling aeroplane had beaten it to earth!

Upon investigation, Lieutenant Sewell discovered that his fuel tank had a hole in its side large enough to admit his fist. An explosive bullet had torn out so large a hole that the gasoline had rapidly run out and his last maneuver had completely emptied his tank.

Such are the fortunes of war!