Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 32

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 32
Chapter 32 - A Regular Dog-Fight

ON the afternoon of October 10th the 94th Squadron received orders to destroy two very bothersome enemy balloons, one of which was located at Dun-sur-Meuse, the other at Aincreville. The time for this attack was fixed for us at 3:50 P. M. sharp. A formation of defending planes from 147 Squadron was directed to cover our left wing while a similar formation from the 27th was given the same position on our right. I was placed in command of the expedition and was to arrange all minor details.

Selecting Lieutenants Coolidge and Chambers to act as the balloon executioners, I sent orders to all the pilots who were to accompany our secret raid to assemble their formation at 3,000 feet above Montfaucon at 3:40 o'clock precisely. Then with Coolidge and Chambers ahead of us, the united force would proceed first to the Dun balloon, where we would protect the two Strafers against Hun aeroplanes while they went in to attack their objective. Then, after destroying the first, if circumstances permitted, we should proceed on to Aincreville, destroy that balloon and beat a retreat straight for home. If Coolidge and Chambers encountered any hostile aircraft they were instructed to avoid fighting, but retire immediately to the protection of our formation.

A clear afternoon made it certain that the Boche machines would be thick about us. According to our Secret Intelligence Reports the enemy had here concentrated the heaviest air force against the Americans that had ever been gathered together since the war began. Both the Richthofen Circus and the Loezer Circus were now opposed to us and we had almost daily seen the well-known red noses of the one and the yellow-bellied fusilages of the other. Also we had distinguished the Checker-Board design of the No. 3 Jagstaffel and the new scout machines which the Huns had but lately sent to the front—the Sieman-Schuckard, which was driven by a four-bladed propeller and which had a much faster climb than had the Spad. Further reports which came to us stated that the new Fokkers now arriving at the front had four instead of two guns mounted forward, two as of yore fastened along the engine top and two others attached to the top wing. Personally I have never seen one of these "Roman Candle" affairs which so startled several pilots who reported having fights with them. They may have been in use along our front, of course, but I have never met one nor seen a pilot who was certain that he had met one. It was said that when all four guns began firing their tracer bullets at an enemy machine, the exhibition resembled the setting off of Fourth of July Roman Candles, so continuous a stream of tracer bullets issued from the nozzles of the four machine-guns.

This heavy consolidation of enemy aircraft along our front was necessary to the Germans for two reasons. The retreating Hun infantry must hold the Meuse front until they had time to withdraw their troops from Belgium and the north or the latter would be cut off; secondly, the allied bombing squadrons which were now terrifying the Rhine towns were all located along this front and must be prevented from destroying those Prussian cities so dear to the heart of the Hun. General Trenchard of the British Independent Air Force proved he was right when he demonstrated that his bombing of enemy cities would necessarily withdraw from the battle front much of the enemy's air strength to defend those helpless cities against such attacks.

So it is not necessarily to be believed that Germany was actually in such fright over the appearance of the American airmen that she straightway sent all her best aviators to the Verdun region to oppose us. She really had quite other objects in view. But such a move nevertheless resulted in filling the skies opposite us with the best fighting airmen in the German service. It promised to be a busy month for us.

Fourteen of my Spads then left the ground on October 10th at 3:30 in the afternoon, with eight of 147's machines and seven of those from 27 Squadron taking their places on the right and left of us as arranged. I pushed my Spad No. 1 up several thousand feet above the flotilla to watch their progress over the lines from a superior altitude. The enormous formation below me resembled a huge crawling beetle, Coolidge and Chambers flying in exact position ahead of them to form the stingers. Thus arranged we proceeded swiftly northwest in the direction of Dun-sur-Meuse.

We arrived over the lines to be welcomed by an outlandish exhibition of Archy's fury, but despite the large target we made no damage was received and none of our Spads turned back. Reaching a quieter region inside German territory I looked about me. There indeed was our Dun balloon floating tranquilly in the sunshine. It was 3:40 by my watch. We had ten minutes to maneuver for position and reach our objective. I looked down at my convoy and found that 147's Formation at the left had separated themselves somewhat widely from the others. Then studying the distant horizon I detected a number of specks in the sky, which soon resolved themselves into a group of eleven Fokkers flying in beautiful formation and evidently just risen from their aerodrome at Stenay, a dozen miles beyond Dun. They were approaching from the west and must reach the detached formation of 147's pilots before the rest of my flight could reach them, unless they immediately closed up. I dived down to dip them a signal.

On my way down I glanced around me and saw approaching us from Metz in quite the opposite direction another formation of eight Fokkers. Certainly the Huns had wonderful methods of information which enabled them to bring to a threatened point this speedy relief. While I debated an instant as to which danger was the most pressing I looked below and discovered that the enemy balloon men were already engaged in pulling down their observation balloon, which was the object of our attack back of Dun-sur-Meuse. So they suspected the purpose of our little expedition! It lacked yet a minute or two of the time set for our dash at the balloon and as I viewed the situation it would not be wise for Coolidge and Chambers to take their departure from our formation until we had disposed of the advancing Fokkers from the west. Accordingly I kept my altitude and set my machine towards the rear of the Stenay Fokkers, which I immediately observed wore the red noses of the von Richthofen Circus. They were heading in at the 147 Formation which was still separated almost a mile away from our other Spads. Lieutenant Wilbur White of New York was leading No. 147's pilots. He would have to bear the brunt of the Fokker attack.

Evidently the Fokker leader scorned to take notice of me, as his scouts passed under me and plunged ahead towards White's formation. I let them pass, dipped over sharply and with accumulated speed bore down upon the tail of the last man in the Fokker formation. It was an easy shot and I could not have missed. I was agreeably surprised, however, to see that my first shots had set fire to the Hun's fuel tank and that the machine was doomed. I was almost equally gratified the next second to see the German pilot level off his blazing machine and with a sudden leap overboard into space let the Fokker slide safely away without him. Attached to his back and sides was a rope which immediately pulled a dainty parachute from the bottom of his seat. The umbrella opened within a fifty foot drop and settled him gradually to earth within his own lines.

I was sorry I had no time to watch his spectacular descent. I truly wished him all the luck in the world. It is not a pleasure to see a burning aeroplane descending to earth bearing with it a human being who is being tortured to death. Not unmixed with my relief in witnessing his safe jump was the wonder as to why the Huns had all these humane contrivances and why our own country could not at least copy them to save American pilots from being burned to a crisp!

I turned from this extraordinary spectacle in midair to witness another which in all my life at the front I have never seen equaled in horror and awfulness. The picture of it has haunted my dreams during many nights since.

Upon seeing that my man was hit I had immediately turned up to retain my superiority in height over the other Huns. Now as I came about and saw the German pilot leap overboard with his parachute I saw that a general fight was on between the remaining ten Fokkers and the eight Spads of 147 Squadron. The Fokker leader had taken on the rear Spad in White's Formation when White turned and saw him coming. Like a flash White zoomed up into a half turn, executed a renversement and came back at the Hun leader to protect his pilot from a certain death. White was one of the finest pilots and best air fighters in our group. He had won seven victories in combat. His pilots loved him and considered him a great leader, which he most assuredly was. White's maneuver occupied but an instant. He came out of his swoop and made a direct plunge for the enemy machine, which was just getting in line on the rear Spad's tail. Without firing a shot the heroic White rammed the Fokker head on while the two machines were approaching each other at the rate of 230 miles per hour!

It was a horrible yet thrilling sight. The two machines actually telescoped each other, so violent was the impact. Wings went through wings and at first glance both the Fokker and Spad seemed to disintegrate. Fragments filled the air for a moment, then the two broken fusilages, bound together by the terrific collision fell swiftly down and landed in one heap on the bank of the Meuse!

For sheer nerve and bravery I believe this heroic feat was never surpassed. No national honor too great could compensate the family of Lieutenant White for this sacrifice for his comrade pilot and his unparalleled example of heroism to his Squadron. For the most pitiable feature of Lieutenant White's self-sacrifice was the fact that this was his last flight over the lines before he was to leave for the United States on a visit to his wife and two small children. Not many pilots enter the service with loved ones so close to them!

This extraordinary disaster ended the day's fighting for the Hun airmen. No doubt they valued their own leader as much as we did Lieutenant White, or perhaps they got a severe attack of "wind-up" at witnessing the new method of American attack. At any rate they withdrew and we immediately turned our attention to the fight which was now in progress between the Spads of 27 Squadron at our right and the Hun formation from Metz. It looked like a famous dog-fight.

As I came about and headed for the mixup I glanced below me at Dun and was amazed to see one of our Spads piquing upon the nested balloon through a hurricane of flaming projectiles. A "flaming onion" had pierced his wings and they were now ablaze. To add to his predicament, a Hun machine was behind his tail, firing as he dived. I diverted my course and started down to his rescue, but it was too late. The fire in his wings was fanned by the wind and made such progress that he was compelled to land in German territory, not far from the site of the balloon. In the meantime other things were happening so rapidly that I had little opportunity to look about me. For even as I started down to help this balloon strafer I saw another Spad passing me with two Fokkers on his tail, filling his fusilage with tracer bullets as the procession went by. A first glance had identified the occupant of the Spad as my old protege— the famous Jimmy Meissner! For the third time since we had been flying together Providence had sent me along just in the nick of time to get Jimmy out of trouble. Twice before on the old Nieuports Jimmy had torn off his wings in too sudden a flip and his unscrupulous antagonists had been about to murder him as he wobbled along, when I happened by. Now, after a four months' interlude Jimmy comes sailing by again, smiling and good-natured as ever, with two ugly brutes on his tail trying their best to execute him.

I quickly tacked onto the procession, settling my sights into the rear machine and letting go a long burst as I came within range. The Hun fell off and dropped down out of control, the other Fokker immediately pulling away and diving steeply for home and safety.

Two other Fokkers fell in that dog-fight, neither of which I happened to see. Both Coolidge and Chambers, though they had been cheated of their balloon, brought down a Fokker apiece, which victories were later confirmed. The Spad which had dropped down into German hands after being set afire by the flaming onions belonged to Lieutenant Brotherton, like White and Meissner, a member of the 147th Squadron. Four more victories were thus added to 94's score by this afternoon's work. We did not get the balloons but we had done the best we could. I was never in favor of attacking observation balloons in full daylight and this day's experience — the aroused suspicions of the observers, the pulling down of the balloon as strong aeroplane assistance at the same time arrived, and the fate of Lieutenant Brotherton, who tried unsuccessfully to pass through the defensive barrage — is a fair illustration, I believe, of the difficulties attending such daylight strafings. Just at dawn or just at dusk is the ideal time for surprising the Drachen.

Our captured Hanover machine, it will be recalled, had been brought back to our aerodrome and by now was in good condition to fly. We left the Hun Maltese Cross and all their markings exactly as we found them and after telephoning about to the various American aerodromes in our vicinity that they must not practise target shooting at a certain Hanover aeroplane that they might encounter while wandering over our part of the country, we took the machine up to see how it flew. The Hanover was a staunch heavy craft and had a speed of about one hundred miles an hour when two men (a pilot and an observer) were carried. She handled well and was able to slow down to a very comfortable speed at landing. Many of us took her up for a short flip and landed again without accident.

Then it became a popular custom to let some pilot get aloft in her and as he began to clear the ground half a dozen of us in Spads would rise after him and practise piquing down as if in an attack. The Hanover pilot would twist and turn and endeavor to do his best to outmaneuver the encircling Spads. Of course, the lighter fighting machines always had the best of these mock battles, but the experience was good for all of us, both in estimating the extent of the maneuverability of the enemy two-seaters and in the testing of our relative speeds and climbings.

While engaged in one of these mock combats over our field one afternoon we came down to find Captain Cooper, the official Movie Picture expert, standing below watching us. He had his camera with him and had been attempting to grind out some movie films while we were flying overhead. He spent the night with us and after some planning of the scenario we decided to take him up in the rear seat of a Liberty aeroplane and let him catch with his camera a real movie of an aeroplane combat in mid-air. All the details carefully arranged, we gathered next morning on the field, put him in the rear seat of the Liberty and helped him strap in his camera so that the pressure of the wind would not carry it overboard. Jimmy Meissner was to be his pilot. Jimmy climbed in the front seat, warmed up his motor and when everything was ready and we other "actors" were sitting in our seats waiting for him to get away, Jimmy gave the signal, opened up his motor and began to taxi over the grass. Several hundred feet down the field he turned back, facing the wind, which was blowing from the west. Here he prepared for his real take-off. His machine rushed along with ever quickening speed until the tail lifted, the wheels next skimmed the ground and the Liberty rose gradually into the air. Just as they approached the road which skirts the west side of the aerodrome, the Liberty's engine stopped. A line of wires ran along the roadside some fifteen feet above ground. Jimmy saw them and attempted to zoom over them — but in vain. The Liberty crashed full in the middle of the highway, bounded up a dozen feet and after a half somersault, stuck her nose in the ground the other side of the road and came to a rest.

We hurried over, expecting to find the occupants badly injured, as the Liberty herself appeared to be a total wreck. But out stepped Jimmy and Captain Cooper, neither of them the worse for their experience. And to complete our surprise, the camera, although covered with the debris of the machine, was quite unhurt!

That ended our little movie show for this day. We had no other two-seater machine on hand. But we were delighted to find that Captain Cooper, in spite of his narrow escape, was quite determined to go through with the show. So we went to the Supply Station for another machine and again put the Captain up for the night while awaiting its coming.

Next day, October 19th, I was directed to appear before General Patrick at Souilly to receive the American decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, with four oak leaves. These oak leaves represent-the number of citations in Army Orders that the wearer of a decoration has received.

The usual formalities, which I have already described, attended the ceremony. Over twenty pilots of the American Air Service were presented with the D. S. C. by General Patrick, after which the military band played the National Anthem while we all stood at attention.

I could not help thinking of the absent pilots whose names were being read out but who did not answer, and for whom decorations were waiting for deeds of heroism that had ended with their death. There was White, for whom the whole Group mourned. What a puny recognition was a simple ribbon for heroism such as his! There was Luke — the most intrepid air- fighter that ever sat in an aeroplane. What possible honor could be given him by his country that would accord him the distinction he deserved!

One thing was certain. The reputation of these great American airmen would live as long as the comrades who knew them survived. Perhaps none of us would ever live to see our homeland again. I glanced down the line of honor men who were standing immobile in their tracks, listening to the last notes of "The Star Spangled Banner"! Who will be the next to go, I wondered, knowing only too well that with every fresh honor that was conferred came a corresponding degree of responsibility and obligation to continue to serve comrade and country so long as life endured.