The experiences of two American pilots in the Great War
When the First World War broke out, volunteers from many nations of the free world rushed to join the French in their struggle against the invading Hun. These were the first days of combat in the air, so a number of adventurous young Americans were eager to earn their wings and fight in the skies above the Western Front. Their lives were thrilling, dangerous and, for many, tragically short. Nevertheless, these aviators became the dog-fighting knights of the air, legends both in their lifetimes and since the end of Great War. Hall served with distinction in the French Flying Service, survived the war, and in 1918 published an account of his wartime experiences as a fighter pilot. The second book in this special Leonaur edition is based on the correspondence of another American flyer. John Grider’s story is somewhat different, in that he volunteered initially to serve in the American flying service, but was sent across the Atlantic Ocean to serve in the Royal Air Force. Grider’s letters are initially cheerful, but soon reveal a hard and brutal war of attrition that inexorably killed his comrades, by accident or combat, until he realised that his own death was inevitable. This proved tragically prophetic, for Grider was shot down and killed behind German lines in 1918. These are two essential first-hand accounts of the air war over the trenches.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Many things have happened. I hear that Bobby got shot down up at Dunkirk and is no more. Tommy Herbert has been shot in the rear with a phosphorus bullet. Leach has been shot through the shoulder and isn’t expected to pull through. Explosive bullet. Read is dead and so is Molly Shaw.
Alex Mathews is dead. He was walking across the airdrome after a movie show over at 48 and a Hun bomber saw the light when the door was opened and dropped a two hundred and twelve-pound bomb on him. They dropped about thirty bombs on the airdrome and killed about forty of 48’s men and set fire to the hangars. They broke all the bottles in our bar. Cal and Nigger and I were further ahead and threw ourselves into a ditch. Nothing hit us but we sure were uncomfortable. The night flying Camels brought down one of the Huns, it had five engines and a crew of six men. It came down in flames and lit up the whole place.
Barksdale got shot down in an S. E. and landed in German territory but set fire to his plane and got in a shell hole and covered himself up with dirt. The next morning the British attacked and took that sector. Barksdale said the Scotsman who pulled him out couldn’t speak English any better than the Germans and he thought he was a prisoner at first.
One of our noblest he-men, a regular fire-eater to hear him tell it, has turned yellow at the front. He was quite an athlete and always admitted he was very hot stuff. He was ordered up on a bomb raid and refused to go. The British sent him back to American Headquarters with the recommendation that he be court-martialled for cowardice. He would have been too, if his brother hadn’t have been high up on the A. E. F. staff. He pulled some bluff about the machines being unsafe and they finally sent him home as an instructor and promoted him. He may strut around back home but I’ll bet he never can look a real man in the eye again.
Springs had a wheel shot off in the air last week. Ralston came back and took up a wheel to show him and everybody ran about the airdrome firing Very pistols and holding up wheels for him to see. He understood and side-slipped down all right without killing himself. He said he saw a Dolphin pilot kill himself several weeks ago landing with a wheel gone. The Dolphin pilot didn’t know it was off and the plane turned over on him.
Bonnalie was never considered much of a pilot. He was an aeroplane designer before he enlisted and knew a lot of theory but he took a long time to learn to fly and no one thought he would ever be much good. He put on one of the best shows on record and has been decorated with the D. S. O. His citation appeared in The Gazette. Here it is:
On the 13th of August, this officer led two other machines on a long photographic reconnaissance. Bonnalie, in spite of the presence of numerous enemy aircraft, succeeded in taking all the required photographs and was returning to our lines; they were intercepted by six Fokker biplanes which dived to the attack. In the ensuing combat Lt. Bonnalie perceived one of our planes making its way to the lines with an Enemy Aircraft on its tail. This officer at once broke off combat with the remaining E. A. and dived to the assistance of the machine in trouble. He drove off the E. A. regardless of the bullets which were ripping up his own machine from attacking E. A.
Eventually half of Lt. Bonnalie’s tail plane was shot away and the elevator wire shot through and the machine began to fall out of control in stalling sideslips. Lt. Bonnalie managed to keep the machine facing towards our lines by means of the rudder control while the observer and the third machine drove off the E. A. which were attacking. Eventually with the aid of his observer who, as the machine was tail heavy, left his cockpit and lay along the cowling in front of the pilot, Lt. Bonnalie recrossed the trenches at a low altitude and managed to right the machine sufficiently to avoid a fatal crash. The machine crashed within four miles of the lines. Lt. Bonnalie’s machine was riddled with bullets.
Now that’s what I call a good show. Who would have thought it?
There’s an R. F. C. officer over at 20 Squadron on Bristols, from New York, named Paul Iaccaci, who has the D. F. C. and is quite a pilot.
17 and 148 have been having a hard time. 17 has lost Campbell, Hamilton, Glenn, Spidle, Gracie, Case, Shearman, Shoemaker, Roberts, Bittinger, Jackson, Todd, Wise, Thomas, Frost, Wicks, Tillinghast and a couple of others. Hamilton and Tipton were the two best Camel pilots we had. And they have about six others in the hospital too. Wicks and Shoemaker collided in a fight.
148 has lost Curtis, Forster, Siebald, Frobisher, Mandell, Kenyon and Jenkinson; and Dorsey and Wiley and Zistell are in the hospital. Jenkinson, Forster and Siebald went down in flames. Frobisher was shot through the stomach and died later.
Of course that’s not a bad showing when you consider that they have shot down a lot of Huns and done a lot of ground straffing and have been flying Camels which were all the British could spare them. The British have washed out the Camels and are refitting their own squadrons with Snipes. A Camel can’t fight a Fokker and the British know it.
But we’ve lost a lot of good men. It’s only a question of time until we all get it. I’m all shot to pieces. I only hope I can stick it. I don’t want to quit. My nerves are all gone and I can’t stop. I’ve lived beyond my time already.
It’s not the fear of death that’s done it. I’m still not afraid to die. It’s this eternal flinching from it that’s doing it and has made a coward out of me. Few men live to know what real fear is. It’s something that grows on you, day by day, that eats into your constitution and undermines your sanity. I have never been serious about anything in my life and now I know that I’ll never be otherwise again. But my seriousness will be a burlesque for no one will recognize it. Here I am, twenty-four years old. I look forty and I feel ninety. I’ve lost all interest in life beyond the next patrol. No one Hun will ever get me and I’ll never fall into a trap, but sooner or later I’ll be forced to fight against odds that are too long or perhaps a stray shot from the ground will be lucky and I will have gone in vain. Or my motor will cut out when we are trench straffing or a wing will pull off in a dive. Oh, for a parachute! The Huns are using them now. I haven’t a chance. I know, and it’s this eternal waiting around that’s killing me. I’ve even lost my taste for licker. It doesn’t seem to do me any good now. I guess I’m stale.
Last week I actually got frightened in the air and lost my head. Then I found ten Huns and took them all on and I got one of them down out of control. I got my nerve back by that time and came back home and slept like a baby for the first time in two months. What a blessing sleep is! I know now why men go out and take such long chances and pull off such wild stunts. No discipline in the world could make them do what they do of their own accord. I know now what a brave man is. I know now how men laugh at death and welcome it. I know now why Ball went over and sat above a Hun airdrome and dared them to come up and fight with him. It takes a brave man to even experience real fear. A coward couldn’t last long enough at the job to get to that stage. What price salvation now?