Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 31

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 31
Chapter 31 - Seeing the War

IT was not until the morning of October 5th that I learned that the Hanover machine which Reed Chambers and I had shot down on October 2nd, was still lying under guard of our doughboys but a mile or so north of Montfaucon. It seemed to be in good condition and the officers there had telephoned to us to send out and bring it in to our hangars. I might say in passing that it is extremely rare to find an enemy machine within our lines that has not been cut to pieces for souvenirs by the thousand and one passers-by before it has been on the ground a single hour. It is marvelous how quickly a crowd gathers at the site of a crashed machine. Motor drivers leave their trucks on the road and dash across the fields to examine the curiosity and to see if they cannot find a suitable souvenir straight from Germany to carry away with them. From every direction soldiers and French peasants come running to the wreck. By the time the pilot gets safely landed and makes his way to the scene there is little of the enemy machine remaining.

Up to this time the American Air Force had never captured one of these two-seater Hanover machines. We were all of us anxious to fly different types of German aeroplanes, to compare them with our own, to examine what new devices they employed, to test their engines and to see towards what improvements their designers were tending. So as soon as we heard that our victim of the 2nd of October had landed without crashing and was being cared for near Montfaucon we lost no time in getting into an automobile and making our way to the front lines.

It was raining the morning we set off and no flying was likely to be possible until after midday at best. We ran west and north until we struck the eastern edge of the famous Argonne Forest at Varennes, and there we began to get graphic pictures of the results of the gigantic artillery duel that had been going on for the last fortnight between the American forces and the Germans. The roads from Varennes to Montfaucon were almost entirely remade. Along both sides of the road for as far as the eye could reach the shell-holes covered the landscape as thickly as in almost any part of No Man's Land. The soil was the familiar yellow clay. Since the rainfall the country through which we were passing resembled a desolate fever-stricken swamp.

Trees were sheared of their branches and even the trunks of large trees themselves were cut jaggedly in two by the enemy's shells. Occasionally the ugly base of a dud shell could be seen protruding six or eight inches from the tree's trunk. The nose had buried itself squarely in the tree, but for some reason the shell had failed to explode.

And along the whole way numberless strings of motor trucks were passing and repassing, some laden with ammunition, food, medical and other supplies hurrying to the front lines, dodging as they splashed through the slimy mud the slower going processions of heavy guns. Long lines of "empties" were coming against this stream, many of them not empty it is true, but filled with the wounded who were being carried back to a field hospital for amputations or other surgical operations.

Occasionally we would find ourselves blocked as the whole procession came to a halt. Somewhere up the line a big twelve-inch gun had slithered around across the road and had completely blocked all traffic. On several occasions we waited half an hour before the road was cleared and the procession again proceeded.

I do not know whether other observers have been impressed with the appearance of our American doughboys in the same way I have; but to me there seemed to be an extraordinary cheerfulness about the demeanor of these boys, whether they were coming in or going out of action. They were always smiling. Long lines of khaki-clad Americans marching two abreast, often enough preceded by several officers, likewise marching on foot through the mud at the head of the column—all were whistling, singing, smiling as they hiked along at route step. They made caustic comments as their roving eyes struck anything comic or unusual in the scenes around them. Failing such opportunities, they ragged one another or recalled such incidents as might be expected to excite hilarity and amusement. They invariably were a happy and cheerful lot. Column after column we passed going in. Column after column we met coming out.

Finally we left the main road and struck a slightly less congested but far more disreputable road, which led us up to the crest of the hill on which stood Montfaucon. Guns of the Americans were sounding behind us now, and ahead we heard the enemy guns steadfastly replying. The town itself was nevertheless occupied by some of our troops, and a Y. M. C. A. hut had been opened within the ruins of a little shop on Main Street at about the center of the winding settlement. Here we stopped and left our car at the side of the street. A long queue of doughboys stood in line waiting to get to the rude shop window where chocolate and cigarettes were being sold as fast as the two Y. M. C. A. officers could pass them out. We entered the side door and warmed our muddy boots before a small open fire burning in the center of the floor of what had once been the kitchen. Here we ate a lunch of biscuits and chocolate while we questioned the men as to the exact location of the aeroplane we had brought down.

A mile or so nearer the enemy trenches to the north of the town the machine was lying quite unhurt, we were informed. We again took our car and made our way slowly through 'the narrow and desolate streets. On both sides the stone and mortar buildings had been leveled almost flat. The streets had been completely filled with the debris of bricks, beams and rubble, but enough space had been cleared through the center to permit one vehicle to pass at a time. As we reached the edge of the town we saw one substantial building on the very topmost point of the hill which, though badly battered, still stood the most conspicuous and most pretentious object in Montfaucon. We instantly recognized it from our numerous observations from the air. It was the residence of the Crown Prince through those early campaigns against Verdun of 1915-1916. More recently it had been occupied by the General commanding the German armies which had been opposing the American drive against the Argonne. And now it was in our hands!

Leaving the car we walked up to make an inspection of this celebrated headquarters. It stood upon a ledge of rock which hung over the hill-side from its very peak. Around its base was a huge mountain of reinforced concrete from six to eight feet in thickness. From within one caught a wonderful view of the whole surrounding country. The Meuse valley could be followed to a point well below Verdun and the whole of the Argonne patch of woods lay under the eye from this lofty tower.

The German Hanover machine we found just beyond the town. It was indeed in remarkably good condition. It had glided down under the control of the pilot and had made a fairly good landing, considering the rough nature of the ground. The nose had gone over at the last moment and the machine had struck its propeller on the ground, breaking it. The tail stood erect in air, resting against the upper half of a German telegraph pole. A few ribs in the wings were broken; but these could easily be repaired. Our mechanics with their truck and trailer had already arrived at the spot and were ready to take down the wings and load our prize onto their conveyance.

A newly dug grave a few yards away indicated the last resting place of the observer that my bullets had killed in air. The pilot had been sent back to one of our hospitals for treatment. A bullet had pierced his face, shattering his jaw.

While the mechanics were taking the Hanover apart for loading, we proceeded on to one of our observation posts facing the German lines, where we got a close-up view of a regular war. It was a spectacle never to be forgotten!

Through the periscopes I saw the German trenches just opposite me, behind which our shells were dropping with a marvelous accuracy. They were passing over my head with a continuous whine and the noise and jarring "crump" of their explosions so near our post made it necessary to shout our conversation into one another's ears. Enemy shells were passing over head contrariwise—mostly directed at our artillerymen far in our rear.

Our shells were creeping back nearer and nearer to the open ditches in which the German troops were crouching. I watched the gradual approach of this deadly storm in complete fascination. Some gigantic hand seemed to be tearing up the earth in huge handfuls, forming ugly yellow holes from which sprang a whirling mass of dirt, sticks and dust. And nearer and nearer to the line of trenches this devastating annihilation was coming. To know that human beings were lying there without a possible means of escape — waiting there while the pitiless hailstorm of shrapnel drew slowly closer to their hiding places — seemed such a diabolical method of torture that I wondered why men in the trenches did not go utterly mad with terror.

Suddenly I noticed that our gunners had drawn back their range to the exact line of the trenches. A first shell fell directly into the trench in front of me, tearing it open and gutting it completely for a space of thirty feet. The next instant a Boche soldier sprang out of the trench alongside this point and flinging down his rifle proceeded to run for all he was worth back to a safer zone in the rear trenches. Hardly had he gone ten yards when a high explosive shell lit in front of him. Before I saw the burst of the shell I saw him stop with his arms flung up over his head. Next instant he was simply swept away in dust and disappeared, as the explosion took effect. Not a vestige of him remained when the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared away.

At five o'clock the men had our Hanover loaded on their trailer and we were ready to depart for home. Passing down the Montfaucon hill by another road, we came upon a row of concrete dugouts built into the side of the hill by the Germans, but now occupied by American troops. Doubtless the Huns had expected this occupation by their enemies and had waited for a few days to make certain that the little huts would be well filled with our troops before springing their surprise. Just as we approached this group of buildings the first German shell fell full into the middle of them! The Huns had gotten the exact range the first shot!

Lieutenant Chambers and I were cut off from our road and for a few minutes we had the panic of our lives. A motor truck a short way ahead of us, which was likewise standing still waiting for this storm to pass, got a direct hit and was blown into fragments. Reed and I waited for no more, but made a bolt for the nearest shelter we could find.

Flat on our faces at the bottom of a nearby trench we listened to the shells bursting about our ears. While not wishing any ill luck to any other poor chaps, we did most fervently hope that the Huns had not miscalculated their range by two hundred yards in our direction. A bold glance over the top of our parapet showed that the concrete buildings were already a mass of dust. Just then one shell landed not fifteen feet in front of my nose and I threw up my feet and struck the water in the bottom of my ditch as hard as possible with my face.

As suddenly as it had started the bombardment ceased. Frugal souls, these Boches are! Not a shell too few, not one too many, is their very efficient motto. But we did not trust to this motto for several more minutes; and when we did cautiously emerge from our hole, we spent several more minutes washing the clay mud from our uniforms.

One more extraordinary spectacle Reed Chambers and I witnessed on that memorable day. Not two miles further on we espied a formation of nine Fokkers pass overhead, proceeding at a very low level in the direction of our rear. The sky was still cloudy and threatening but no rain was falling. We stopped the car, to avoid being mistaken for a general and thus attracting Fokker bullets through our car. Both of us jumped out and ran to an open space where we could see in what direction the Hun pilots were directing their course. As we looked up through the trees we saw over our heads two darting Spads coming down straight at the tail of the Hun procession from a high altitude. Although we could not distinguish whether they were American or French, we knew even at that distance that the two pursuing machines were Spads.

It was probably the most exciting moment Reed or I had ever experienced. We both shouted for joy to see the clever stalking of such a superior force by the two brave Spads. Moreover, this was the first air battle that either of us had ever seen from the ground and it afforded us a panorama of the whole that is impossible to get from the center of a fight.

The two piquing Spads opened fire on their downward course when at only 3,000 feet above ground. Their aim was not good, however, and neither of the attacked machines received a vital hit. Then the scene of action became one churning mass of revolving and looping aeroplanes. The leading Fokkers had reversed directions and were attacking the Spads. These latter did not keep together, but each was carrying on a separate free-lance combat, occasionally pouring out streams of flaming bullets at any enemy machine that crossed its path.

For a good five minutes or longer the aerial tumult continued, without any further results than giving us spectators below a most beautiful exhibition of contortions and airmanship. I was full of admiration for the two aviators who, I was now almost certain, must be Americans and must belong to our group. At any rate they were brave fellows to stick so long against such odds. Then we saw two machines coming our way out of control. They were some distance away, but since they were headed towards Germany and were not being pursued it was very evident that they were Fokkers. The two brave Spads had been victorious.

Soon both wounded Fokkers were passing directly above us. Motors cut off and steadily losing height, one was absolutely certain to crash near us, while the other seemed still to be under the control of its pilot. They were Fokkers sure enough! As we looked back to the scene of the recent combat we saw the Spads streaking it homewards with the balance of the Fokkers strung out behind them in a useless pursuit. No Fokker can overtake a good Spad unless he has sufficient advantage in elevation to increase his speed by diving. The victorious Spads lost themselves in the distant clouds; and the Fokkers, after reforming their depleted numbers, returned to their lines some distance to the east of us.

The last we saw of the two victims one had crashed nose down at less than a mile from where we stood. The other had succeeded in gliding almost two miles further, finally crashing, as we ascertained next day, in No Man's Land just north of Montfaucon.

The day was getting late and our progress home would be slow owing to the enormous traffic on the roads, so we did not take time to visit the spot of the nearest Fokker's fall. Thus we returned joyfully homewards after a most exciting and successful day, with our captured two-seater Hanover safely following along behind. And at mess that night, to crown our satisfaction, we learned that the two victorious Spad operators who had that afternoon added two more victories to the score of 94 Squadron were sitting opposite us, grinning with complacency. They were Lieutenant Jeffers and Lieutenant Kaye.

The following morning we received explicit orders to bring down an enemy balloon that was hanging above the enemy town of Maroq, about four miles inside their lines. Lieutenants Coolidge and Cook armed their guns with special ammunition and, accompanied by six other planes as a protective escort, we set off early in the morning and attained undiscovered a good position behind the balloon. Coolidge started a first attack, with Cook following him in case he was unsuccessful. But Coolidge was not unsuccessful. His first burst set fire to the target and Cookie was obliged to make a sudden bank to avoid its threatening flames. Without further molestation than the usual Archy fire of the front, we returned to our aerodrome without having seen a single enemy aeroplane in the sky. It had been quite the simplest balloon strafing party in which we had ever been engaged.

No further victories came to our Squadron, owing to the continuous bad weather, until October 9th, when at about five in the afternoon I had my machine pushed out into the mud of the aerodrome and got away through the clouds for a short survey of the lines. No enemy machines were out, but I discovered a balloon watching our front from a point just back of Dun-sur-Meuse. Making a wide detour to lose myself from their sight, I came back at Dun from the rear, just as it was getting so dark that it would be difficult for them to distinguish, my machine from any considerable distance.

But it was also too dark for me to do any observing from balloons and the Boches had hauled their Drachen down for the night. I passed the spot twice before I could make out the outline of the sleek gas-bag from my low height of only 200 feet above ground. Then taking a fresh start I made two attacks at it in its nest before I succeeded in setting it afire. It finally caught with sufficient glow to light up the whole country around, including several machine-gun pits and Archy batteries which I discovered were frantically firing at me. Their aim was bad, however, and I flew safely back to the hangars and landed to receive the information that the result of my patrol had been witnessed by our balloon posts south of Dun and confirmation already had been telephoned in.

It was my sixteenth official victory.