Air University Review, November-December 1968
Royal D. Frey
The true value of any historical work may be measured by the amount of significant new material which the author has been able to garner from previously unexplored sources. In other words, does the work contain any new facts that extend man’s knowledge of a particular subject?
During the past decade or so, interest in World War I aviation has increased tremendously. The commercial writer was quick to recognize the trend and immediately began taking full advantage of it. Numerous books on various phases and personages of World War I aeronautics have been published, but in many instances they have been nothing more than “the same old stories” cast in different writing styles, depending upon the ability of each individual writer to employ superlatives in embellishing his efforts.
Unfortunately, many such books, though well received by most of the reading public, have added little to the store of knowledge of World War I aviation. Hastily written by individuals with a greater interest in profit than posterity, they are riddled with errors, inaccuracies, and half-truths. In reality, however, what more could be expected when their authors elected to rely upon previously published works for their research, books often no better than the ones being written? As a consequence, errors in historical fact have been perpetuated from one account to the next. Let one author include some of his own assumptions in his work, and a subsequent author would unknowingly accept them as “gospel” and incorporate them in his manuscript as fact. The eventual result—a fable develops.
A perfect example of this kind of historical inflation concerns the death of Lufbery. With the passage of time, writers have made his fatal leap of 19 May 1918 increasingly more dramatic. This fabrication was eventually carried to the asinine degree several years ago by an author who described Lufbery’s crawling back along the fuselage of his Nieuport 28 as it fell in flames and then hanging onto the tail surfaces with the fire whipping around him until, no longer able to endure the pain, he leaped for a small creek.
To appreciate how ridiculous this account actually is, one need only read a
signed statement which this reviewer obtained in 1962 from residents of
Dr James J. Hudson, a professional historian and undoubtedly more desirous of imparting knowledge than supplementing his income, has written a book, Hostile Skies,* in which he presents a factual and authentic account of America’s participation in World War I aerial combat. Such a book has been sorely needed in the half century since that war ended. He is the first professional with sufficient courage to attempt to meet the challenge, and for this alone he is to be congratulated.
It is readily apparent from the published bibliography that the author
accomplished a significant amount of background reading, from both primary and
secondary sources. Few students of the Air Service, American Expeditionary
Forces, will argue with
Personal accounts from the men who flew in the “hostile skies” should also be of great value to a researcher. However, one would be naive indeed not to be suspicious of memories clouded with the passage of 50 years, particularly if several of the old warriors tended to disagree on a certain point of historical discussion.
Since Hostile Skies carries the subtitle A Combat History of the
American Air Service in World War I, the reader quite naturally would
assume this is exactly what will be presented to him for his reading
pleasure—the history of the 38
It would be difficult to imagine a more complex and confused state of
affairs than that which involved
At this point,
In Chapter XII,
It is to be clearly understood that this reviewer believes
Of the twelve chapters comprising the book, the first four are devoted to nonoperational matters. In other words, one-third of the
chapters and one-fifth of the pages (61 pages in the first four chapters out of
304 pages of narrative) are not directly relevant to combat history of the Air
Service, AEF. This is a luxury which
The Air Service in World War I forged a great heritage in combat. Numerous
examples of courage, humor, pathos, elation, fear, tragedy, and personal
sacrifice can be found in a thorough study of the relatively short period when
our nation’s fliers fought in the skies over
For humor, there was the fighter pilot “blind as a bat” who reportedly had to cheat to pass his eye examination, who could not see an enemy airplane until after it had pulled within firing range, and who refused to give up combat until, one day, he finally got shot down behind his own lines by a plane he never knew was there. Then there was the Spad XIII pilot who painted a gunner’s cock-pit on the turtleback of his plane so it would appear to be a Spad XI or XVI two-seater, hoping to persuade enemy pilots not to make a diving attack on his tail, and on one of his first flights in the plane he got attacked from underneath and took a bullet in his rump because his ruse was so effective.
Probably one of the most heartrending stories to come out of World War I concerns the father of W. W. White of the 147th Aero Squadron, who, one bleak and stormy night, trod through the rain and mud of the devastated front searching for the unmarked burial place of his son and who, upon finding what was left of the remains, suffered one of the most anguished and grief-stricken experiences a man could ever be expected to endure.
These are the facets of history which breathe life into a book.
In two instances
Two other geographical errors pertain to the locations of Mars-la-Tour and
St. Mihiel. They are west of
At least two inferences were noted as to the ease with which the de Havilland 4 reportedly caught fire in the air as a result of enemy action. This is in line with the popular World War I misconception that resulted in the plane’s being dubbed “the Flaming Coffin.” In The Measure of America’s World War Aeronautical Effort, Gorrell presented statistics on U.S. aircraft that went down in flames and concluded with the statement: “No greater percentage of D.H. 4s were lost in flames than was true of any other type at the Front”—an apparent refutation of the misconception. (pp. 19, 189)
With reference to the development of the
The statement about Rickenbacker’s being an instructor at Issoudun is questionable, particularly in view of the fact that he has always been most emphatic in discussions with this reviewer that he was the field’s engineering officer because of his knowledge of reciprocating engines. (p.36)
It is correct that when the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons received their Nieuports, the planes had no guns. However, when guns were received at Epiez, they were Vickers, not Marlins. Further, photos of Nieuports of the 1st Pursuit Group at Touquin and Saints clearly show the Vickers were still installed on the Nieuports at that time. The only Marlins were used by the 27th for several days early in July in an unsuccessful experiment. (p.94)
Referring to the deaths of Lieutenants Bowyer and Johnson of the 135th Aero
In discussing the first day of the St Mihiel
In the chapter on the 17th and 148th Aero Squadrons is a statement that Elliott White Springs was transferred from the 148th late in September to take command of a newly organized squadron on the French front. This does not agree with the record, for Springs was sent to the hospital on 1 October 1918 and was not released until 31 October, the last day the 148th served on the British front. (p. 226)
There is an inference in Hostile Skies that Stephen W. Thompson was assigned to a French squadron at the time he became the first American in U.S. Army uniform to shoot down an enemy aircraft. This is misleading, for at that time Thompson was a member of the American 1st Aero Squadron. Since the 1st had not yet started flying combat missions, Thompson and a friend decided to visit a nearby French squadron to see what was happening. While there, they both were invited to go along on a bombing mission, and with verbal permission of their commanding officer, Major Ralph Royce, they accepted. While on this mission, Thompson shot down an attacking enemy fighter. (p. 241)
The correct spelling for the name of the commanding officer of the 12th Aero Squadron is Noyes, not Noyce. (p. 95)
The statement that Schauffler “had the honor of being the first pilot of an American squadron to fly over the front” is a point of history open to discussion. It has been generally agreed through the years that the first official mission by an all-American squadron into enemy territory was flown on 11 April 1918 by the 1st Aero Squadron when Major Ralph Royce and Lieutenants Daniel P. Morse, Jr., and Stephen H. Noyes piloted three Spad two-seaters on a photo reconnaissance mission in the area of Apremont. (pp. 78, 81)
One of the most often repeated errors pertaining to the U.S. Air Service is
the belief that the last aerial victory of World War I was gained by Major
Maxwell Kirby of the 94th Aero Squadron. Unfortunately,
In evaluating the end results of all the effort expended by
It is the opinion of this reviewer that Hudson presents little material not already known by those relatively few men who have already devoted years to the study of U.S. Air Service history, men fairly familiar with the research materials used by Hudson. Since his book provides a “broad-brush” treatment, the ardent historian is apt to be disappointed if he expects to encounter any new facts of significance.
However, those who have thoroughly studied U.S. Air Service history comprise a relatively small group. The real value of the book will be to those countless individuals who will read it in years to come, readers with a sincere interest in Air Service history who have never had the opportunity or inclination to research it in any detail.
For many of these people, Hostile Skies will acquaint them with the fact that Americans flew combat in World War I with units other than just the Escadrille Lafayette and the 94th (“Hat-in-Ring”) Squadron. They will also learn that the Bréguet, Salmson, and D.H. 4 flew in the same skies as the Nieuport 28 and Spad XIII; that the two-seater was as important as the single-seater; and that the pilots and observers who carried out the bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions far behind the front were as brave and daring as the fighter pilots who often never got beyond gliding distance of their own lines.
Equally important, many readers will be made aware for the first time that
the Balloon Corps was part of the U.S. Air Service in
In summary, Hostile Skies is a very worthwhile product which clearly relates in a chronological manner the activities of the U.S. Air Service in supporting Allied military operations of much greater magnitude and scope. Despite its rather limited coverage of personal exploits, it weaves the history of all Air Service combat units into the overall story, not just a few units as has been the tendency for so many years. Although the book may never be considered a classic on World War I aviation, its usefulness as an historical treatise should be appreciable in years to come. The more a neophyte the reader is, the more valuable Hostile Skies will be to him.
*James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1968, $10.95), x and 338 pp.
Royal D. Frey, LT. COL., AFRes (Ret), (M.S., Ohio State University) is Chief,
Research Division, Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. After flying
training in 1943, he flew P-38s with the 20th Fighter Group from England and
was credited with two Me-110s destroyed before being shot down, captured, and
held prisoner for 15 months. In 1950 he became historian, Hq
Air Materiel Command. Recalled to active duty in 1951, he flew F-84s with Air
Defense Command for two years. He was Command Staff Editor, Hq AMC, 1953-58, and has been in his present position
since 1959 except for a year as a logistics staff officer in
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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