Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 3

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 3
Chapter 3 - Our First Sorties

ON the evening of April 13th, 1918, we were indeed a happy lot of pilots, for we were reading on our new Operations Board the first war-flight order ever given by an All-American Squadron Commander to All-American pilots. It stated in simple terms that Captain Peterson, Lieutenant Reed Chambers and Lieutenant E. V. Rickenbacker would start on a patrol of the lines to-morrow morning at six o'clock. Our altitude was to be 16,000 feet; our patrol was to extend from Pont-à-Mousson to St. Mihiel and we were to return at eight o'clock—a two hours' patrol. Captain Peterson was designated as leader of the flight.

Picture the map of these French towns, as every pilot in our Squadron 94 had it indelibly pressed into his memory. While flying in the vicinity of enemy territory it is quite essential that one should know every landmark on the horizon. Every river, every railroad, highway and village must be as familiar to the airman as are the positions of first, second and third bases to the homerunner.

Toul is 18 miles almost directly south of Pont-à-Mousson, St. Mihiel is directly west of Pont-à-Mousson about the same distance. The battle lines ran straight between Pont-à-Mousson and St. Mihiel; then they turned north to run another 18 miles to the edge of Verdun. Straight north of Pont-à-Mousson some 20 miles Metz is situated. And around Metz several squadrons of Hun bombing aeroplanes and fighting machines had their lairs on a hilltop, from which they surveyed the lines which we were to patrol this 13th day of April. In short, the sector from Pont-à-Mousson to St. Mihiel was fairly alive with air activity when weather conditions permitted the use of aeroplanes at all.

This was the beat on which Captain Peterson, Chambers and I would find ourselves to-morrow at six. Lieutenant Douglas Campbell and Lieutenant Alan Winslow were directed in the same order to stand by on the alert at the hangar from six o'clock until ten the same morning. This "alert" was provided for any sudden emergency; such as an enemy bombing raid in our direction or a sudden call for help against an enemy aeroplane within our lines.

Immediately after dinner that night Reed Chambers and I retired with Captain Peterson to his room, where we talked over the coming event. The Captain gave us some curt directions about the precautions we should take in case of an attack, instructed me particularly that I was to lead the flight if anything happened to him or his motor, and under these circumstances I was to continue our patrol until the time was up. Then he summoned an orderly and gave orders to call all five of us at 5.00 A.M. Advising Reed and me to sleep tight and try not to dream about Fokker aeroplanes, off he went to bed.

We knew very well what we would dream about. Try as I might, I could not get to sleep that night for hours. I thought over everything I had ever read or heard about aeroplane fighting. I imagined the enemies coming at me from every direction. I pictured to myself the various ways I would circumvent them and finally bring them tumbling down to their final crash. At last I dropped off to sleep and continued dreaming the same maneuvers. Just as I was shooting down the last of a good-sized number, the orderly punched my elbow and woke me up. It was five o'clock.

A wonderful morning greeted us and the five of us had a merry breakfast. We advised Campbell and Winslow to keep a sharp lookout above the aerodrome that morning, for we intended to stir up the Boches and undoubtedly there would be droves of them coming over our field for revenge.

But upon reaching the field after breakfast we found that the atmosphere was bad and the mist so heavy that the ground was completely hidden a short distance away. Captain Peterson sent Chambers and myself up to reconnoiter at 1500 feet. Away we went. After circling the field two or three times, we noticed Captain Peterson take off and climb up to join us. We continued climbing and just about the time we had attained the frigid altitude, 16,000 feet, I noticed the Captain's machine gliding back to the field.

"Ah!" thought I, "motor trouble! And he told me last night to carry on in case he dropped out! It is my show now. Come ahead, Chambers!"

Unsophisticated as I was, I did not know the danger into which I was leading my companion, and as Chambers knew less about the country than I did, he readily followed my lead and away we flew.

We picked up the valley of the Moselle River and proceeded blandly upon our way and would probably have kept on to the Rhine, but for a sudden bark under the tail of Chambers' machine which announced that we were discovered over German guns. I had been shot up by Archy before and now gloried in the utter contempt I felt for him, but this was Reed's first experience with German anti-aircraft artillery and, as he admitted later, he thought it was all over with him. He sheered in so close to me that we nearly collided. Gradually we maneuvered out of the zone of fire and eventually became so disdainful of the shell bursts that we proceeded grandly on our way without paying any attention to them.

I located Pont-à-Mousson and from there set our course for St. Mihiel. Four times we made the round trip between these two towns amid intermittent Archy fire but without seeing any aeroplanes in the sky. Then I decided we must turn towards home if we were to close our first patrol at the designated time. To my horror I discovered the whole landscape to the south of us was covered with a dense covering of fog. The whole area was covered; and under the blanket, somewhere in France, was the field upon which we were supposed to land. Land we must in a short half hour, for our fuel would be consumed and we would drop that instant. I began to realize then why Captain Peterson had gone back to the field and I felt cold chills run down my spine as I contemplated the various kinds of mishaps that were in store for Reed and me.

There was nothing for it but a dive through the thick fog clouds. I stuck down my nose, entered them and lost Chambers immediately and only hoped that he had not come in directly behind me. I flew by compass, all the while watching the needle drop down the altimeter. Cautiously I flattened out at one thousand feet, for there are high hills in this sector and some tall trees might show up ahead of me at any instant. Again I put down her nose and crept nearer the earth. At last I saw something below me and immediately zoomed up into the mist again. The nervousness of that foggy ride homewards I shall never forget.

By the sheerest good luck I caught a brief glimpse of a Y and a railroad tunnel that somehow seemed familiar to me. I circled back and got another view of it. Imagine my joy when I discovered it was a landmark near Commercy, that I had flown over just once before when coming from Epiez to Toul. I put about and flying only a hundred feet above ground continued straight into Toul, from which location I easily found the flying field and landed quite perfectly.

Captain Peterson came up to me and informed me I was a bloody fool for flying off in a fog, which I knew was a fact and cheerfully admitted. Then I asked about Reed Chambers and felt a return of all my previous fear when I learned they had heard nothing from him.

With a heavy heart I got out of my flying clothes and walked over to Headquarters to make out my report. I was positive the telephone would ring within a few minutes to inform us that Chambers had crashed and killed himself in the fog. I had barely begun my writing when the telephone did ring. I stood quivering in my shoes, while the Operations Officer answered the call. Then he shouted: —

"Quick! Two Boche aeroplanes are reported over Foug. Send in an alerte!"

But at the same instant we heard two of our machines taking off the field. It was Campbell and Winslow, who had been standing by all the morning for a chance nobody had expected them to get. I started to run towards the hangars; but before I reached the field a private rushed to me saying, "A German aeroplane has just fallen in flames on our field!"

It was true. I could see the flames from where I stood. Before I could reach the spot, however, another yell aroused my attention and I turned and saw a second Boche machine fall nose down into a field not five hundred yards away. The first had been destroyed by Alan Winslow who had shot it down in flames within three minutes after leaving the field. The second was forced down by Douglas Campbell, and it crashed in the mist before the pilot could discover his proximity to the ground. These were the first two enemy aeroplanes brought down by any American squadron and both were miraculously crashed on the very doorstep of our aerodrome on the first day we had begun operations!

Neither of the German pilots was seriously injured. Upon our questioning them as to how they happened to be about in such weather, they informed us that they had been summoned to go up to attack two patrolling machines that were being "Archied" between Pont-à-Mousson and St. Mihiel. They had followed Chambers and me until they lost us in the fog. Then they tried to find their own way home to their aerodrome near Metz. They discovered our field and came down low thinking it might be their own, when Winslow and Campbell flew up and attacked them at about 500 feet above ground.

This was indeed a wonderful opening exhibition for our Squadron and had the stage been set and the scene arranged for it, could not have worked more perfectly. Then it was added to our joy to receive the congratulations and praise of the French inhabitants of Toul, who had endured so many bombing raids from these Boche machines without seeing any allied planes on the defense of their beloved little city. When they learned that two enemy machines had been shot down on the very first day of the arrival of the Americans their delight knew no bounds. They wrung our hands, kissed us, toasted us in their best Mozelle wine and yelled:—"Vive la France!" "Vivent les Americains!" until they were hoarse. We each took a souvenir from the German machines, which were to be the first of our long series of "descendus," and the remains of the captured prizes we rolled into Toul, where they remained upon exhibition in the city square until the last vestiges of them disappeared. To complete our joy, we learned that Reed Chambers had landed a short distance away from our 'drome; and that night he came in to join us.

For the next few days the Squadron lived upon its reputation and received the congratulations of our superior officers and the Staff with much mock nonchalance. Lieutenants Campbell and Winslow were overwhelmed with telephone calls and cablegrams. From all parts of the United States congratulations came to them and quite a number of messages were sent to the two victors from England and France. It was particularly fortunate for the squadron that such an extraordinary success should have marked the very first day of our operations and still more lucky that the enemy machines had crashed in sight of us all. The episode put great confidence into all of us and we felt we were a match for the whole German air force. The date of this first American victory was April 14th, 1918.

For several days following, bad weather kept us idle on the ground. But on April 18th an alerte was sounded informing us that an enemy plane was seen over Pont-à-Mousson. Reed Chambers and I applied for the job of landing this fellow, and after obtaining permission we jumped into our machines, which were warmed up and ready, and off we started. I was determined to bring down the next victim for our squadron and had it all planned out in my mind just how it was to be done.

It was a thick day and the clouds hung about 3000 feet above ground. We plunged boldly into them and flew straight on. Finally we got above the clouds and began circling about in wide sweeps, looking everywhere for the bold German. After thirty minutes or more of desperate searching, I decided to drop back below the clouds and see where we really were. Certainly there were no Boches in this sector after all.

In ten minutes I was below the clouds and skimming along the landscape with an eye out for landmarks. Suddenly I discovered a large city ahead which looked strangely like Nancy, except that it was in exactly the wrong direction. I drew nearer and couldn't believe my eyes when a closer scrutiny proved it was true. I had been trusting to my boasted sense of direction all during this flight and had not even consulted my compass. Consequently I had turned completely around and had led Chambers in exactly the opposite direction from the spot where the Boche was waiting for us. We had not been within ten miles of the lines the whole morning.

In great disgust I led the way homewards. Landing my machine I went over to the office and put in a very brief report to the effect that there were no enemy machines to be seen in our patrol. Quite true as far as I went, but I could not bring myself to state just why there were no Boches that morning. But I learned a very valuable lesson that day and have never had cause to regret the short discomfiture it gave me.

That same day a Hospital Unit moved into Toul and settled within a mile of our aerodrome. The nurses were all American girls, and several of us had the good fortune to meet a party of them as we were taking a walk into Toul. After seeing only the coarsest and oldest sorts of French peasant women for so many months, we thought we had never seen anything so beautiful as these first American girls at Toul. We gave them a grand greeting, and as a recompense all of us were invited to come over for a dance at their mess. In fact, all the boys in our squadrons were invited to come and we were instructed to give them the message. Having discovered this goldmine ourselves, however, we all mutually and instantly decided we should do nothing of the kind. We walked on into town, each man thinking of the girl he would ask for a dance and what a scoop we would have on the other fellows who would stay at home playing cards at camp!

However, when the time came we couldn't keep it to ourselves. We took the whole crowd and introduced them to the girls—and were immediately sorry we had done so. But on the whole the presence of these girls from back home so near to our field was the second best thing that had happened to us since the war.

General Liggett, commandant of the First Army Corps and Colonel William Mitchell, commanding the Air Service, came over to see our group the next day. I was sent up to do some stunting for their entertainment, and, upon landing to receive their compliments, found that I had broken a part of my motor. This little catastrophe put me out of the trench strafing party which our squadron carried out at four o'clock that afternoon on the enemy's lines just north of Seicheprey. It was a wonderful success and all the boys came home overjoyed with the scurrying troops on the ground that had been thrown into great confusion by the attack of the aeroplanes. This ground strafing is probably the most exciting sport in aviation and one that is attended with comparatively little danger to the pilot. The aeroplanes swoop down so swiftly and are so terrifying in the roar of their engines and the streams of bullets issuing forth from two rapid-fire guns that an ordinary soldier always looks for a hole rather than for any weapon of defense.

The machine passes overhead so quickly that I imagine no gun can begin to be aimed until we are gone. Only when a steady barrage fire is going up and a pilot happens to pass through its very path does he get injured while upon this work. I have frequently dived down upon a highway filled with marching Germans and put them to flight with one swoop. If they ever fired at me I never knew it and never have seen any evidences of a hit through my wings.

All these little details seemed very important to me at the time, for it must be remembered that every pilot in our group was fearfully inexperienced and overawed by the mysteries in store for him in the future. War to us was very much of a plunge into an unknown planet. We knew something of the wiles of the enemy and were familiar enough with the dangers that every pilot was so fond of describing. But there remained always that unknown fear of a new menace. Ever constant was the impression that luck might for an instant desert us and that instant would end the war for us. We often wondered just what new danger would be thwarted by pure luck each time we went out for a patrol into enemy territory.

So it was that each experience that came to me in those first days of war-flying made a great impression on my mind. I grew more confident each day. Many doubts were removed, more disdain for the enemy came to me and a growing certainty gradually possessed me that I had fathomed all the possibilities that could threaten me and my aeroplane when over the lines of the enemy. And I always tried to remember every incident that happened, so that in the future I might take advantage of familiar circumstances.

I was standing by on the aerodrome on April 23d when at about noon we received a warning by telephone that an enemy aeroplane had just been sighted between St. Mihiel and Pont-à-Mousson, flying from West to East. Major Huffer sent me word to get off immediately and find the Boche. No one else was ready, so I set off alone.

I took off the field and pulling up her nose, I lifted my little Nieuport straight upwards as steeply as she would climb as I set a direct course for Pont-à-Mousson. The day had been rainy and cloudy and it had been several days since there had been any activity in the air. In five minutes I picked up the river and the little city of Pont-à-Mousson crowded along its bank. I was some eight thousand feet up.

The French now held Pont-à-Mousson. Enemy artillery had been doing considerable damage to the bridge and buildings, and this now disclosed itself to my eyes. Many roofs were torn off and the whole town was badly knocked about. I took my eyes away from the ground and began to search the skies for a moving speck.

A sudden palpitation of my heart indicated that I did see a speck, on the very first glance I shot into Germany. There at about my own altitude was the wasp-like edge of an aeroplane coming directly towards me. I began to shiver lest he had seen me first while I was joy-riding over Pont-à-Mousson and had thus had time to form a plot of his own before I had formulated any of mine. Both of us continued dead ahead at each other for twenty seconds or so until we arrived almost within shouting distance, when I discovered to my great relief that he wore the blue center cocard of a Frenchman and his machine was a Spad. We had fortunately neither of us fired a shot.

Suddenly I saw the French pilot zoom up over me and attempt to get on my tail. Whether joking or not, I couldn't permit such a maneuver, so I quickly darted under him and got the best position myself. The Nieuport can outmaneuver a Spad and has a little faster climb; so the stranger soon found he had his match. But to my amazement the fellow kept circling about me continually trying to bring his guns to bear upon me. I began wondering then whether he was some idiot who did not know an ally when he saw one. or was he a real Boche flying over our lines in a captured French machine? The former was evidently the correct solution, for as soon as I came by him again I turned flat over in front of him and let him have a long look at my American white center cocards on my wings. This performance apparently satisfied my persistent friend, for he soon swerved off and went on home, leaving me to proceed on my mission. This little episode taught me another lesson. Since that day I have never taken any chances with any aeroplane in my vicinity, whether it was friend or foe. Some friends are better shots than are casual enemies.

My real quarry had made his escape during my little tourney with the Frenchman and I found no game in the sky, though I flew a full two hours along the lines. When I returned home, however, I found myself surrounded by the whole force as soon as my Nieuport stopped rolling along the ground. They fairly overwhelmed me with congratulations for bringing down a Boche, who had been seen to fall by one of our artillery batteries. As he fell in the very sector which I was then patrolling, they naturally credited me with the victory. It was a pity to undeceive them, but it had to be done.

The curious climax to this affair was that we never did discover who shot down that Boche machine. He was never claimed by any one else. But for my part I was convinced that I certainly could not have accomplished my first victory without firing a shot or even seeing my enemy.

Thus I had all the fruits of a first victory without having won it. But what was far more important to me, I had learned something more in the art of war-flying. I had undoubtedly saved my life by keeping out of the gun-sight of a friendly machine!

The very next day I learned another lesson.

Again it was about noon and I was on duty, when an alarm came in that a Boche was flying over St. Mihiel. It was a day of low hanging clouds. I was absolutely determined that day to get my Boche despite every obstacle, so I flew straight into the enemy's lines at about 3000 feet altitude. At that low height my machine was a splendid target for Archy, for after the first shot at me they found exactly the level of the clouds, and they could see I was just under them. Consequently I knew I was in for a warm time with the shell-bursts and I did some extraordinary dodging across two or three of their batteries.

I passed just north of St. Mihiel, and within a minute after the Archy began firing at me I sighted an enemy plane just ahead. I was coming in upon him from the rear for I had decided it would be a brilliant idea to cross the lines half-way to Verdun and catch the Boche from a quarter that might be unsuspected. It had worked perfectly, though I couldn't understand why he had been so blind as to let the black bursts of shell-fire around me pass unnoticed. But still he sat there with apparently no intention of trying to get away. I began to get nervous with the idea that this was almost too much of a good thing. Was he really a Boche?

As this was in reality the first German machine I had ever seen in the air and I had judged his status from the shape of his planes and fusilage, I thought perhaps I had better actually take a look at his markings before firing and see that he really had a black cross painted on his machine. So I dropped my finger from the trigger of my gun and dived a little closer.

Yes! he was Boche. But instead of having a black boss he wore a black cocard! It was a black cocard with white center. This must be something new, as no such markings had ever been reported at our headquarters. However he was no friend of mine and I would now proceed to down him. Why did he linger so complacently about my guns?

Suddenly I remembered the often repeated instructions of Major Lufbery about attacking enemy observation machines. "Always remember it may be a trap!" I hurriedly looked over my shoulder,—and just in time! There, coming out of a cloud over my head, was a beautiful black Albatros fighting machine that had been hiding about, waiting for me to walk into his trap. I gave one pull to my joystick and zoomed straight upwards on my tail without giving a second thought to my easy victim below me.

To my delight I found that I could not only out-climb my adversary but I could outmaneuver him while doing so. I got above him after a few seconds and was again pressing my triggers to fire my first shots in the great war when again it occurrred to me that I had better look again and see that nobody else was sitting farther upstairs watching this little party with a view of joining in while my attention was diverted. I shot a sudden glance over my shoulder.

Instantly I forgot all about bringing down Boche aeroplanes and felt overwhelmed with one immense desire to get home as quickly as possible. Two aeroplanes from Germany were coming head-on at me not 500 yards away. How many more there were behind them I didn't wait to determine. I was convinced that my inexperience and stupidity had led me into a stupendous plot against my person and I was in for a race for my life.

On that homeward trip I experienced a great variety of feelings. I had been led to believe that German planes were not very good and that we could fly away from them whenever we wanted to. As I looked back over my shoulder and ascertained that they were gaining upon me in spite of every maneuver that I tried, I felt a queer sort of admiration for their misjudged flying ability, mingled with an unspeakable contempt for the judgment of my instructors who had claimed to know all about German aeroplanes. I climbed, dived, tailspun, circled and stalled. They beat me at every maneuver and continued to overhaul me. Just when I had begun to despair of ever seeing my learned instructors again I ran into a cloud. Dimly I realized I was in a position of advantage for the moment, so I improved it to the utmost. Half-way in I reversed directions and began climbing heavenward. After thirty minutes industriously occupied in throwing my pursuers off my trail, I ventured out of concealment and gratefully made my way home. There on the field two of my dear old comrades were waiting for me to come in. What anxiety they would have suffered if they had known what I had just been through!

"Hello, Rick! Why the devil didn't you wait for us?" Doug Campbell inquired, as I began to climb out of my machine. "We chased you all over France trying to catch up with you!"

"Where did you go, Eddie, after we lost you in those clouds?" demanded Charley Chapman, looking at me interestedly as he leaned against my suspended leg. "We've been home almost half an hour!" Here, it seemed were the two pilots—American instead of Boche—who had been chasing me.

I thought very intently for a quarter of a second. Then I pushed Chapman away and descended from my machine.

"I thought I remembered seeing a Boche back in Germany and went back to make sure," I replied easily. "But I guess I was mistaken..."