Air University Review, November-December 1968

Air Service Relived

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 Maron, France, where Lufbery died. These people, who actually witnessed the aerial battle over their village 50 years ago, agree that when Lufbery’s Nieuport flipped over and he fell from it, the plane was not even smoking. This is substantiated by the cushion on which Lufbery was sitting, the only object to fall from the Nieuport with him. Now on display at the Air Force Museum, it shows absolutely no evidence of ever having been touched by flames. Moreover, the “small creek” for which Lufbery supposedly leaped was the Moselle River, which definitely is much more than a creek where it wends its way past the village of Maron.

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 Hudson that the most valuable records of all upon which one could rely are the Gorrell Reports. Still, these reports are extremely inadequate in various areas, a most unfortunate circumstance for any World War I aviation historian.

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.

Hudson’s style of writing is most appealing. The book is a delight to read, and it is obvious the author made a concerted attempt to keep sentence structure, word selection, and overall story-line organization as basic as possible without offending the more mature reader. This he has accomplished successfully, for Hostile Skies should be as enjoyable to the junior high school student as to the aviation buff and the serious scholar. It is a straight-forward historical account and fortunately not diluted by philosophical discussions of strategy or logistics which would more than fill a book in themselves. Being fact rather than fiction, Hostile Skies is not as exciting as one might imagine; still, once the reader gets into the combat story, he will find it difficult to put the book aside in the middle of a chapter.

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 U.S. squadrons that got into combat prior to the Armistice. However, the reader is given much more. The first four chapters of the book are devoted to a capsule history of the organization of Army aviation in the U.S. following our declaration of war, the problems involved in airplane and engine production, the training of flying and support personnel, and the organization of the Air Service, AEF.

It would be difficult to imagine a more complex and confused state of affairs than that which involved America’s comparatively infantile attempts to arm itself for war in the air. Little has been published on this less romantic aspect of our aviation efforts. Only those who have studied this particular area of Air Service history in the hope of unraveling all the intricacies and contradictions can fully appreciate the magnitude of Hudson’s efforts. It is to his credit that he was able to study the issues and problems, clarify them in his own mind, and put them on paper in such a clear-cut manner—probably the best account this reviewer has ever read. However, despite the excellence of Hudson’s account, all the organizations and reorganizations that took place, coupled with their attendant assignments and reassignments of personnel, still present a fairly confusing story.

Hudson introduces the reader to the air combat history in Chapter V, which pertains to the initial buildup of fighting units in the Toul area. The next chapter takes the reader to Chateau-Thierry, where the seven U.S. squadrons from the Toul area were employed in the Aisne-Marne campaign. Chapter VII is devoted to the buildup for the St. Mihiel offensive, while Chapter VIII is devoted to a single 24-hour period, 12 September 1918, the first day of the St. Mihiel attack. The next chapter completes the St. Mihiel story through 22 September.

At this point, Hudson interrupts his chronological treatment of the American front and presents in Chapter X an account of the 17th and 148th Aero Squadrons, which flew Sopwith “Camels” on the British front north of Paris to the Channel. Extending this break in continuity, he discusses in the next chapter those Americans who flew with French, Italian, and British units.

In Chapter XII, Hudson returns to his historical account of U.S. Air Service squadrons, this time in operation over the Meuse-Argonne. Following this last chapter is a six-page Epilogue, in which the author summarizes Air Service activities and comments upon their accomplishments in retrospect.

It is to be clearly understood that this reviewer believes Hudson presents an excellent account of nonoperational activities—aircraft production, personnel training, Air Service organization, etc. However, what this did to the announced aim of the book, “a combat history of the American Air Service,” is a point worthy of discussion.

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 Hudson could ill afford. Assuming he was somewhat limited by his publisher in the total number of pages, each page of noncombat history is at the expense of an equal amount of operational history, the announced theme of the book.

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 Europe. There is the story of Rickenbacker and Chambers burying the crushed remains of their buddy, Ham Coolidge, in the midst of the battle area under a flag of truce. Equally impressive is the story of Bill Vail of the 95th Aero Squadron, who, if any man ever deserved the Medal of Honor, certainly should have been awarded it for taking on nine Fokker D. VIIs to save the life of a buddy, a deed that maimed him for life.

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. Hudson undoubtedly became aware of many such examples in his research, but unfortunately he included very few, for some unexplained reason. Regardless of the purpose for having four chapters of the book devoted to fairly extraneous material, there is no doubt that Hudson’s work suffers from his not having included in it a greater number of vivid and inspiring accounts of individual performance.

In general, Hudson’s research was thorough and accurate. There are, however, some significant errors that should be noted for those who wish to use the book for reference purposes.

In two instances Hudson refers to the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons flying their gunless patrols over the Toul sector from their aerodrome at Villeneuve-les-Vertus. By his own definition, he limits the Toul sector to the area between the Meuse and Moselle Rivers. The village of Villeneuve is located south of Reims, approximately 65 miles west of St. Mihiel on the Meuse and far removed from what possibly could be identified as the Toul sector. Not until the units moved from Villeneuve to Epiez were they considered as being behind the Toul lines. (pp. vii, 64-66)

Two other geographical errors pertain to the locations of Mars-la-Tour and St. Mihiel.  They are west of Metz and Pont-à-Mousson, respectively, not east as stated. (pp.70, 77)

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 Liberty engine, Halt and Vincent were still civilians in late May 1917 when they prepared the design drawings for the engine; they were not commissioned until later. Another error concerning the Liberty engine pertains to the 8-cylinder version being installed in D.H. 4s. All production D.H. 4s used the 12-cylinder version; the 8-cylinder engine was experimental only. (pp. 15, 21)

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 Squadron, Hudson states that the other crews of the unit continued flying their missions on the first day of the St. Mihiel offensive, 12 September 1918, although shocked at the manner in which their friends had died. In reality, the 135th did not definitely learn that Bowyer and Johnson had been killed in action until 14 September; for two days nothing was known of them, and the various surmises as to their fate included the possibility that they had become lost and landed behind German lines or even in Switzerland. (p.150)

Hudson also refers to Lieutenants Suiter and Morse of the 135th being shot down over their own aerodrome by a Fokker D. VII. On their last mission, Suiter and Morse flew back across the line from German territory and dropped a message containing a report of their observations of the enemy. They then decided to return to German territory, and in the area between Thiaucourt and Pont-à-Mousson they were attacked by a flight of Fokker D. VIIs. Their D.H. 4 burst into flames and began falling, when its wings suddenly tore loose and the fuselage crashed to earth one-half mile southwest of Vilcey-sur-Trey. The village of Vilcey is located several miles northwest of Pont-A-Mousson and approximately 25 miles northeast of the 135th field at Ourches. (p.176)

In discussing the first day of the St Mihiel offensive, Hudson states that because of inclement weather the 94th Aero Squadron did not get its first mission off the ground “until nearly noon.” This does not agree with the Gorrell Reports, which indicate that the 94th’s first patrol of five planes took off at 7:35 A.M. (p.168)

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, Hudson makes the same error. Kirby scored his victory at 10:50 A.M. on 10 November 1918; at 1:15 P.M. the same day, four fliers from the 104th Aero Squadron, Lieutenants Clark, Lawrence, Ohrstrom, and Mallory, destroyed an attacking Fokker D. VII in the area of Moulins―a victory for which they were later awarded official confirmation. (p. 294)

In evaluating the end results of all the effort expended by Hudson in his research and writing, the question to be answered is the one propounded in the first paragraph of this review: Does it add to the public knowledge of the subject? However, the question cannot be answered with either an unqualified yes or no; an appropriate explanation is required.

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 France and that its contributions to the common effort were comparable to those of the aero squadrons. Not to have included Balloon Corps activities would have been inexcusable. It is most fortunate that Hudson fully understood the accomplishments of this oft-forgotten and seldom-mentioned segment of the U.S. Air Service.

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.

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

*James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1968, $10.95), x and 338 pp.

 


Contributor

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 France. Mr. Frey is author of official USAF histories, including Evolution of Maintenance Engineering 1907-1920 and Case History of the C-119, and a contributor to The Airman.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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