An ace in aviation is one who has shot down five enemy airplanes in air battles, which must be definitely established by the testimony of two or more witnesses, so as to leave no doubt as to the occurrences. The word "ace" is applied loosely now to flyers who make a spectacular trip almost anywhere but it is a misnomer. Only those who have dared to participate in the world's most dangerous combat and have come out victorious deserve to be called such.
Our American pilots in the World War entered into full combat almost immediately with men who had been fighting for three years, and during the latter part of the war they were pitted against the very best airmen in the German service. At the time of the Armistice, Edward V. Rickenbacker, commanding the 94th Pursuit Squadron of the First Pursuit Group, was the American ace of aces. This article is a short account of some of his service as I observed it.
In order to appreciate the conditions that obtained in Europe when we entered the war, it is necessary to understand what the feeling was in France and Great Britain at that time. The spring of 1917 opened ominously for the Allies. For almost three years the Germans had been in occupation of French territory. They had destroyed the Russians' mammoth army and taken the sting out of the Italians. The Slavonic states and Roumania were about to be brought into complete subjection. The Germans' Turkish allies were being resuscitated and reorganized.
The British and French had battered their brains out against the German concrete defenses on the Western Front, and it was expected that as soon as the warmth of spring made campaigning easier the whole weight of Germany and her allies would be hurled in against the French army. The only possible aid to the French would be from the United States and, even at that, it was problematical whether we could send assistance in sufficient strength before the terrible catastrophe might occur.
It was under these circumstances, upon the declaration of war on April 6, 1917, that I joined our small group of officers in Paris, having hurried there from Spain, where I had been on an inspection trip. The French army was about to attack. Old "Papa" Joffre, who had saved the French at the Battle of the Marne, had been removed from the command of the French armies because he was opposed to an offensive. He knew that if an attack in force were made against the Germans at that time, it would spell ruin. His strategy was to keep on "nibbling" at the Germans, forcing them to attack, until such time as their strength would be so diminished as to warrant a counteroffensive. But the politicians gained the upper hand, and General Nivelle, who was committed to the offensive, was placed in command.
The Germans knew it was coming. The French army was their most dangerous opponent. If they could destroy the French army, the war would be virtually over. The French and British armies were supposed to attack at the same time, but the Germans had laid waste a strip of land about twenty miles wide in front of the British. All the roads were bombed, the bridges destroyed, buildings demolished, even the trees killed, and the whole area was so utterly devastated that it was impossible for the British army to move across it in time to take part in the April attacks.
But the French went ahead and attacked anyway, and lost over 100,000 men in three weeks without budging the Germans.
I was with the Fourth French army that was making the attack. One evening I was seated at dinner with General Pétain, then commanding the group of armies that were attacking. The conversation turned to what we Americans could do during the war. I said that I knew we could furnish good aviators, to which General Pétain replied that he thought so also, as our supply of men suitable to become pilots was almost inexhaustible, but that theirs was almost used up. He thought we could furnish good heavy artillery, because this would be used at a considerable distance behind the enemy front and would not be subject to heavy casualties, and could be manned largely by mechanics who would not have to have the military foundation and discipline required of combat troops.
He asked me if I thought we could dispatch a conscript army to France and have it fight in offensive battles against a powerful enemy such as the Germans. In answer, I asked him if he thought that, were the United States locked in a death struggle with a Pacific power in our western states, France could send a conscript army to help us. He replied, "Probably no." I then told him I thought we could send a conscript army, and if they succeeded in reaching France they would do well after a certain time. It had been our history that when the spirit of the American people was moved they would attempt anything.
I talked with some of the peasants in the Champagne country behind the positions where the terrific battles were taking place during April. They said, "We hear you Americans have come into the war to help us, but what can you do? At best you can only prolong the struggle, and in that case we will not be able to get as good terms from the enemy as we can now, because we will not be so strong. The politicians bring on the wars, the people in the cities make the money out of them, but we in the country are the ones that fight the enemy and lose all our men. We are tired of doing it.
Often I went out from the middle of Paris to Le Bourget airdrome on the northern outskirts, where my airplane was kept. To reach the field, I had to go through the slaughter house district, the "tough part of town." I often saw men haranguing crowds, vehemently denouncing the war. The bonnet rouge, signal of revolution in France, was carried through the streets.
Of course, feeling in the interior of a country is never the same as it is in the armies at the front. The French armies, in spite of their terrific casualties, maintained their cohesion and fighting spirit as has always been their custom, although the seeds of mutiny appeared in no uncertain form in some places. Conditions were equally bad in the British Isles. Food was very scarce and the people were pessimistic.
I immediately set out to do everything possible to prepare for the rapid organization of our aviation when our men should come, and in this I was assisted in every way possible by the French army and their civil departments. Gradually we heard about what was happening in the United States — how the whole country was flying to arms and making preparations for war in a serious way. Then we heard that General Pershing was to command the American troops, and in the latter part of June he reached Paris amid the acclaim of the people. With him as aëronautical officer was Major Townsend F. Dodd, an able, brave, and resourceful officer. As his adjutant he had brought Captain Birdseye Lewis, and with them came a few soldiers and clerks.
In a few days General Pershing had decided on our organization and put me in charge of our aviation. My plans received his hearty approval. I decided to make a trip through the sector which our armies were to occupy and definitely establish the points for our future operations.
A few American automobiles had arrived and Captain Lewis secured two Packards. In these Major Dodd and I started into the northern part of France. With me were a chauffeur, Flake, and two Frenchmen, a Captain Raulin and an adjutant from the French army named Boyriven. Major Dodd had with him Captain Lewis and a tall, muscularly built young man with prominent features and big hands, driving the car.
A we had inspected and decided on the sites for several of our air stations, we drove through the city of Toul and into Nancy. At Toul the roar of artillery could be heard in the distance and a few airplanes were overhead. We reached Nancy as darkness was settling over the town, obtained billets, then went to the Café Walter in the beautiful Stanislas Square for our dinner. We sat long over the meal, discussing our problems, and just as we were nearly through there was a sudden sound of sirens through the town, announcing the alerte for a raid of German bombing planes. Everyone was ordered into the caves or wine cellars. I wished to see as much of this raid as I could, but did not want to be in the center of the city because I had tried that a couple of months before at Châlons, where an airplane bomb had exploded across the street from me, though I had escaped with only a bruise in the leg from a shell fragment.
I inquired as to where we could see the bombardment of the town safely and to the best advantage, and was told to take the road to Pont St. Vincent, where we could-ascend a hill about a mile out of the city which overlooked the whole place.
We departed with all speed, and as we ascended the hill we could see the searchlights shining all over the city, and the bursting projectiles from anti-aircraft guns, and could hear the whir of the German airplane engines. The Germans appeared to pay little attention to the antiaircraft artillery; they came straight on for their objectives. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion and a great flash on the far side of the city, then in rapid succession another and another. The searchlights continued to sweep the air and the artillery fired incessantly, but still the airplanes circled above.
There were three more great explosions, followed by flames that ascended to one hundred feet or more. It looked as though the railroad station had been hit. We could hear the fire alarm and the fire engines going through the streets. The sound of the airplane engines faded away and we returned to the city to learn what had happened. The fire was still raging in the vicinity of the railroad station and many houses had caught fire; in fact, two or three city blocks were in flames.
The first airplane, flying at about 1,000 feet, had attacked a factory in the city which made projectiles for artillery, and occupied almost a whole block. The first bomb had hit the street in front of the factory, demolishing a lot of the wall and breaking all the windows. The second and third bombs had dropped squarely within the building, demolishing the whole thing. No more projectiles were made in that factory during the war.
The second airplane had attacked the railroad station, into which a trainload of gasoline and petroleum was just coming. One bomb had hit the station; another had hit the train, setting it on fire and scattering the flames all over that part of town. The third bomb had hit a group of buildings and set them on fire. This attack of two airplanes using bombs of about 200 pounds in weight had caused a tremendous amount of damage and an order from the authorities for the evacuation of the city by its civilian population.
As we were leaving the city on the following morning, wending our way through the hills back toward Neufchâteau, the engine in my motor car suddenly spluttered and stopped. My chauffeur got out, lifted the hood, and started looking for the trouble, but although he worked over it a long time he was unable to repair it. Dodd suggested that his driver come up and see what he could do. So the tall, lithe young man dived into the engine and in a moment he had removed the whole carburetor assembly which with the old twin-six Packard engine was almost as big as the engine itself. He found that the needle valve had bent, and in less time than it takes to tell he cleaned it, put it back, and had the engine going. I had never seen a man do anything so quickly with a gasoline engine, or who knew more about what he was doing.
That day at luncheon I asked Dodd where he obtained his chauffeur, and he replied that Lewis had got him in the United States to go along with us. He was a champion automobile racing driver, Dodd told me, and had proved himself to be one of the best soldiers he had ever known. His name was Rickenbacker.
From that time on, this man interested me greatly. Any job that he was given was done in the best possible manner. He was never late and was always well turned out, neat in his personal appearance, punctilious and gentlemanly. We gave him many missions to execute which required judgment and discretion, and although in a strange environment he kept doing better and better.
I found that he had been in England when war was declared, under contract with one of the automobile companies there to organize an automobile racing team. Upon our declaration of war he immediately returned to the United States. However, on account of his German name and parentage he was suspected by the English of being a German spy and was followed and watched across the ocean and the United States by British agents, until they were convinced that he was not one. Rickenbacker was not aware of this until one of the Scotland Yard men approached him in San Francisco and told him he had enjoyed the trip through America.
Rickenbacker sailed for France with the first American contingent, on the boat with General Pershing and his party, and landed in France on June 9, 1917.
One day I was standing talking to some French officers opposite our aviation headquarters in Paris. I noticed Rickenbacker coming across the street toward me. He waited until I had concluded the conversation, then came up, saluted, and said he had permission from his commanding officer to speak to me. I asked him what he wanted and he said that he desired to fly and become a pilot, as that had been his overpowering ambition from the time he first went into the service. His familiarity with automobiles and motors and his experience as a racing driver would help him greatly, he believed. We were very short of good men on our staff at that time, but Rickenbacker's request so impressed me that I immediately sent him to the aviation school at Tours, where French instructors were teaching our men pending the organization of our own school at Issoudun.
Major Raoul Lufbery
Richenbacker learned to fly in three weeks. He worked at it constantly and distinguished himself particularly in the upkeep of his engine, airplane, and armament. We were just organizing our school at Issoudun and Rickenbacker was made a lieutenant and engineering officer of the school.
In the spring of 1918 Rickenbacker joined the 94th Squadron of the First Pursuit Group and was sent to the airdrome called Villeneuve, and then to the one at Epiez behind Epernay in the Champagne. Here the pursuit group was given the best instruction possible, particularly by Major Menard of the French pursuit aviation. While it did not enter into open combat on the front as an organization, individuals went with the French air squadrons and saw something of the combats. During the first part of April the 94th Squadron, accompanied by the 95th, arrived on the Toul airdrome and we were definitely given a section of the front to defend. It was the first time that an American air unit had been intrusted with an independent command. It marked the real birth of American fighting air power.
Two days after the squadron's arrival, a patrol was sent out over the front. It became separated, and on account of the poor visibility two or three of the ships flew over the ground held by the Germans — "Germany," as we called it. Rickenbacker was a member of this patrol. They were sighted by the Germans, who immediately sent up their ships to engage them. As these German planes crossed the lines they were reported by the French observation posts, who could not see them but could hear their engines above the clouds. We had on the Toul airdrome, available for a reserve, three airplanes, piloted by Lieutenants Alan Winslow, Douglas Campbell, and James Meissner. They were ordered to stand by their ships, and in a moment word came from the observation post on Mont Mihiel that the German airplanes were immediately above the city of Toul, where they could not be seen from the ground on account of the low clouds.
Lieutenants Campbell and Winslow immediately took the air, but Meissner could not start his motor.
As our men approached the cloud ceiling, two German ships came out of it. The whole population of the city of Toul was watching. Winslow immediately attacked and shot down his plane, and Campbell followed suit. The German planes came to the ground and the pilots were captured. One was a man of long experience, with many victories to his credit.
Publication Date: May 17, 1930