The following is an excerpt from John F. Ross’ book, “Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed” (St. Martin’s Press). Rickenbacker was a member of Aviators’ Post 743 in New York and active in The American Legion.
ON MARCH 21, 1918, after a massive bombardment, including tens of thousands of canisters of poison gas, the Germans struck the British 5th Army hard along a 45-mile line from La Bassée to La Fère on the Somme in northern France. Foul weather prevented either side from getting aloft until March 24. By then, a German assault had driven the British back 14 miles in full retreat, which astounded them with its force and speed. For years, the front had changed yards at a time; now the storm troopers – a rather new but rapidly famous category of soldier – promised to blow open the salient they had created and altogether divide the French and British, threatening the critical railway hub of Amiens.
Into the first clear skies, the Germans and British put waves of aircraft over the Somme on a scale of aerial war never before seen. In one day, the British claimed 45 German aircraft while losing 11 of their own, 51 more being damaged beyond repair. Stiff British ground resistance to the German thrust, backed by fierce air support, kept Amiens just barely in Allied hands. Two days later, the Germans adopted a defensive air strategy, taking down 13 British planes without losing any.
At the Villeneuve aerodrome, Eddie Rickenbacker and the other pursuit pilots listened anxiously to reports of the offensive, worrying that their base, although well behind the front, might soon be overrun. Eddie calibrated his gunsights, writing on March 23 that German bombers had struck the nearby town of Châlons, “killing many also wrecking the depot.” Bombers even passed over Villeneuve, “naturally we thot (sic) they would bomb us however they did not.”
Ace pilot Raoul Lufbery decided his tyros needed combat vetting, even though machine guns for the Americans remained at a premium – instead of the stipulated two, the squadron could mount only one per Nieuport. He ran his young charges through one last vigorous acrobatic session, then tapped the two most promising, Eddie and Douglas Campbell, just out of Harvard, to join him over enemy lines the following morning. “Got the opportunity I have worked so hard for during the past 9 months,” Eddie scribbled in his diary before trying to get some sleep.
Photographs of him and Campbell show the bright, knowing alpha smile – expressing, however, a confidence springing from very different sources. Eddie’s face reflected the cheerful pessimism of a fighter permanently on the edge of being brushed off or rolled over, always aware that his greatest asset was his undismayed mistrust of the world. Campbell’s shone from a bright star that seemed to guide his life, an effortless directing spirit manifest in his father and such institutions as Harvard, which bestowed a sense of entitlement and the certitude of success. Eddie’s rock-hard determination and ambition were fueled by still-potent memories of childhood poverty and misfortune, and his father’s angry fists. He had survived those challenges by drawing strength from within his bruised, ill-fed body. For Eddie, standing out and above others was no birthright but a necessity. Merely to be ordinary to him implied a dark, harsh obscurity, a life essentially not worth living.
Lufbery’s experienced eye cared little about what spring had nourished his protégés’ talents and determination, only that they could deploy the necessary raw materials. In Eddie and Campbell he detected a near-fanatical determination to be the best. Flying and shooting skills improved with practice, but nothing could create from scratch the composure necessary to thrive in the most stressful combat environment that humans had yet conceived. “Many fighter aces have been described as fearless; this is simply not true,” writes one modern expert. “What they have to do is to control their fear, which demands a high degree of determination.”
Dawn broke bright and clear over the Villeneuve aerodrome on Thursday, March 28, perfect flying weather for the 94th’s first hostile sortie. The other fliers enviously ribbed the pair, “wondering what they would do with our equipment and personal effects, should we fail to come back,” noted Eddie, without resentment. Such gallows humor would proliferate over the coming weeks, as one comrade after another failed to return. Eddie and Reed Chambers took to saluting one another before a mission with, “Well, I’ll be slapping you in the face with a spade, you old so and so. I’ll be burying you.” Dragging on a cigarette, Eddie pulled on his bulky teddy-bear suit, his nerves on edge, then climbed aboard his Nieuport. Lufbery strolled over to speak with Campbell, then Eddie. As Eddie watched the supremely self-confident ace walk over, his apprehension swelled to fever pitch. Lufbery reminded him to stay close and not to break formation.
In the quiet morning, their engines generated a blasting sound, akin to a modern jet engine’s. Lufbery took off, closely followed by his novices, who banked with him north toward Reims. The Villeneuve aerodrome lay at the southern end of the small eminence known as the Mountain of Reims, a few miles south of the city, and Lufbery cleverly used its shadow to hide their approach from the vigilant German observers only 20 miles away.
Nothing prepared Eddie for the immense cruciform of Notre-Dame de Reims, thrown into crisp relief by the sharp early-morning sunlight. The world’s largest and most imposing symbol of the Middle Ages, the great Gothic church had witnessed the coronations of 25 French kings from that of Louis VIII in 1223 to Charles X in 1825. Joan of Arc herself had traveled here in 1429; her visitation was commemorated by an equestrian statue with sword raised, which Eddie spotted near the cathedral in the Place Cardinal-Luçon. Her posture seemed to defy all those who should menace such a nobly historic town, but the Germans had, with a vengeance. Their swift August 1914 offensive had swept into Reims like a tide, which then rolled back before heroic resistance. The cathedral, which the Germans considered an appropriate target because of the observers sweeping the landscape from its 260-foot towers, felt war’s inhuman blows. Wooden scaffolding caught fire, burning and melting the lead-and-wooden roof. As Eddie flew over it, he peered into the debris-strewn nave.
The flight turned toward Suippes, 25 miles southeast, Lufbery now beginning a gentle corkscrew motion, a technique of continuous “banking and turning from one side to the other, in order to see at all angles,” as Campbell later explained. Lufbery was teaching them to overcome the multiple blind spots imposed by wings, tail, and fuselage (not to mention the absence of a rearview mirror) by rotating their vision so as to avoid surprise. Should some “Boche” jump them, such corkscrewing would make them the more difficult targets – hard-earned knowledge that the Royal Air Force ace Geoffrey Wellum echoed a generation later when he summed up his wisdom about combat flying. “Never, never fly straight and narrow for more than twenty seconds. If you do, you’ll die.”
As Eddie began weaving himself, the cold chilled him to the bone, and the stiff wind pitched and rolled his Nieuport like a small boat riding heavy swells. As he wondered how his leader could corkscrew so effortlessly, bile began to rise in his stomach. He had been concentrating so hard since leaving Reims that he hadn’t looked over the side; now what he saw astounded him, “nothing below but these old battered ditches, earthworks, and billions of shell holes ... nothing but the chaos of ruin and desolation.” He clenched his teeth against his nausea. It didn’t help that the thin air left him gasping for breath, forcing him to inhale even more of the castor oil thrown off from the engine than usual.
Just then, an explosion directly behind him pitched his machine up, then dropped it. He fought to regain control as the aircraft pitched and rolled wildly in the concussive wake of antiaircraft fire. In the next moments, more shells exploded, hammering his ears; he jerked around in his seat to see five puffs of black smoke just below and behind. Typically fired from German Krupp 77 mm guns, the 15-pound shells with a 1,600-foot-per-second muzzle velocity could deliver jagged shrapnel anywhere up to 14,000 feet.
With each concussion, Eddie learned a little better how to meet the blunt upward force with a gentle counterpressure on the joystick. Excitement swept away his nausea, replacing terror with the elation of meeting and surviving his first test of combat.
By the time they touched down, both Campbell and Eddie felt deep satisfaction, their countenances reflecting the casual indifference that was Lufbery’s own trademark. As the other pilots peppered them with questions, their mentor broke through to ask what aircraft they had noticed.
Both shook their heads. “Just what I expected,” he grumbled. “They’re all the same!” He then counted off a formation of SPADs that had passed 500 yards below them before they reached the front, and another group that had flown by them 15 minutes later. Four Albatroses had later come into his view two miles ahead, and another enemy two-seater much closer.
These revelations showed just how far these two cocky greenhorns were from gaining what Eddie would later call “the vision of the air.” Lufbery was “the owner and manipulator of the best pair of eyes in existence,” gushed Campbell in a letter home. The ability to register potential threats at great distance, while scanning three-dimensionally above, below, and behind oneself, marked a critical power of “situational awareness,” the pilot’s ability “to keep track of events and foresee occurrences in the fast- moving, dynamic scenario of air warfare,” as one modern-day student of the subject has summarized it. As Lufbery spoke, a wave of almost debilitating doubt swept over Eddie as he contemplated whether his damaged right eye might prevent him from ever attaining such abilities.
Lufbery walked over to Eddie’s machine, almost everyone at Villeneuve who could fly crowding around. “How much of that shrapnel did you get?” he asked. Eddie couldn’t help but laugh nervously, wondering what he could possibly mean, until Lufbery poked his finger into one ragged hole in the Nieuport’s tail, then into another in the wing, and pointed out “part of the shell [that] had gone thru the wings one piece just a short way from my head,” Eddie wrote in his journal. The other pilots said that Eddie turned pale and stayed that way for half an hour.
Mechanics placed frayed inch squares of Irish linen over the bullet holes and painted them with aircraft dope, a plasticized lacquer. The planes themselves were ready to fly again within the hour. Although the physical scars had disappeared, the effect of that encounter on Eddie and Campbell remained vivid and permanent memories, searing, frequent reminders of the enemy’s deadly intent. How these new pilots handled this recognition would affect their ability to survive and thrive in this new arena of war.
On April 7, the 94th moved to active duty at Gengault Aerodrome near the front at Toul. They were delighted by the cement buildings with rooms for two, and a separate building containing showers with quick-heating apparatus.
Now that the 94th was no longer a training unit, tradition required that it display a logo, as earlier chevaliers had flaunted coats of arms. The men liked the gesture of a boxer pitching his hat in the ring to show his readiness to fight.
Each pilot painted a top hat emblazoned with stars and stripes sailing through a circle on his fuselage. It wasn’t elegant, but it did the trick.
Eddie spent April 12 painting the insignia on his Nieuport. Lufbery returned at noon “with another Hun to his credit,” he recorded in his journal.
The next day, Eddie wrote that “we were a happy lot,” the Operations Board listing “the first war-flight order ever given by an All-American Squadron Commander to All-American pilots.” James Hall would lead the two-hour sortie with Eddie and Chambers behind him. Starting at 6 a.m., they would patrol the lines from Pont-à-Mousson to Saint-Mihiel at 16,000 feet.
Now Eddie had the chance to make his first official kill, an honor that he almost desperately craved. Others perhaps yearned for the accolades such a feat might bestow, the adulation due a hero. To Eddie, who resisted being defined by others, winning came as an extension of authority. Like the Duke of Wellington, who hated applause from his men because one day it might turn to jeering, Eddie knew that such glory can die and fade, while hard achievements – the track wins and speeds he had steadily run – would endure.
Peterson took over as flight commander for the sick Hall. Douglas Campbell, Alan Winslow, and Jimmy Meissner joined them for breakfast, all three on call during Eddie’s sortie in case bombers or other intruders should threaten the aerodrome.
A heavy mist hung over the field, but the trio still took off promptly at 6 a.m. Peterson immediately turned back because of the weather, which should have cued Eddie and Chambers to do the same, as they had been instructed. Instead they continued to climb. Eddie wrote later that he believed Peterson was having mechanical troubles and the less experienced Chambers was following Eddie’s lead. The truth was that Eddie was too excited to let a little weather stop their appointed patrol.
To imagine the geography that the pilots needed to memorize, visualize an inverted pyramid, Toul airfield at its bottommost point. The front ran along its inverted base from Pont-à-Mousson to the northeast of Toul, on the banks of the Moselle, to Saint-Mihiel to the northwest, on the Meuse.
From Saint-Mihiel, the front snaked north another 18 miles to Verdun. Twenty miles to the north of Pont-à-Mousson lay Metz, the hub of several German aerodromes.
The pair followed the Moselle and climbed high, only realizing that they had passed over enemy lines in the fog when antiaircraft fire lit up beneath them. Never having encountered Archies before, Chambers skittered so dangerously close that Eddie feared they would collide. Chambers finally regained control, and they made four round trips up and down the line without seeing any enemy aircraft.
As they turned home, low on gas, dread suddenly clenched Eddie’s stomach when he realized that thick cloud cover now obscured the ground and all identifying features that could help them navigate home. Pushing down blind into the fog was extremely dangerous, the area being rife with hills and trees, but he had no alternative but to trust the notoriously fickle altimeter. Chambers peeled away, concerned that they might collide. He would have to make his own way home.
Eddie pushed his nose down and kept going until he broke clear only a few hundred feet above the ground. At that altitude Eddie couldn’t discern the major landmarks, but he did remember the telltale Y where a railway divided between Épiez and Toul. To his relief and by a stroke of providence, he found this intersection and flew low toward Toul and then on to Gengault. When he landed, the normally quiet Peterson justifiably called him a bloody fool for flying into such conditions. The real blow came when he added that Chambers had not yet arrived. Had Eddie led his best friend to his death?
After shaking off his teddy-bear suit, Eddie walked over to the Operation Room to begin his report. He thought it peculiar that Campbell, Alan Winslow, and Meissner were gone, the remains of a Russian Bank card game scattered on the table. Then Eddie heard the roar of two Nieuports taking off. Walking outside, he headed back to the field, then sprinted over to a private who was yelling and pointing to a fire and smoke. While he stared, he heard more shouts and twisted around to see a plane crash into the ground. As he ran over to one of the burning wrecks, he heard the br-rppp, br-rp of two Nieuports coming in to land. Crazy as it seemed, in the few short minutes that it took Eddie to get to the field, Campbell and Winslow had just scored America’s first aerial kills.
The sound of Eddie’s and Chambers’ engines over the line had alerted the Germans. A Pfalz and an Albatros set off in hot pursuit, only to find themselves equally lost. An Allied antiaircraft battery crew heard them pass over Toul at 6,000 feet and alerted Gengault at 8:44 a.m. Winslow, a popular former Yale rower and editor of the college’s Sheffield Monthly science journal, fielded the call, then raced out with Campbell and Meissner to their waiting planes. He yelled for them to meet him at 1,500 feet over the northeast corner of the field. Meissner’s plane was being worked on. Campbell took off, followed by Winslow 45 seconds later.
Winslow had barely cleared the trees at the edge of the field when he spotted a German biplane bearing down on him from only a few hundred feet ahead. The Albatros D.V turned on one wing to avoid his fire, which it returned dangerously close to him. “I pulled my Nieuport sharply in a vertical climb, kicked over my right rudder, and went plunging down on his tail, spraying his wings and fuselage with a long rattling burst of fire. In another instant he dashed toward earth in an uncontrollable dive.” Winslow watched his adversary crash and somersault some 300 feet from the airfield.
The airborne Campbell heard the machine guns and looked over to see the tracers “going toward an airplane which had black crosses on it.” The moment when something so long dreamed of takes animated form often realizes itself rather calmly, indeed oddly. “I had never seen a German airplane before but that obviously was one.” Campbell was turning to support Winslow when a stream of tracers zipped terrifyingly near from above and behind; he jerked the stick up to fire at the interloper, only for his machine to stall, dropping to within 100 feet of the ground before he recovered. Now behind and below his foe, he again pulled up his nose – this time more judiciously – and fired again. In moments he gained altitude on the diving Pfalz D. IIIa and maneuvered behind it. As Winslow roared up to help, Campbell set his enemy’s fuselage ablaze. The Pfalz crashed behind the 94th’s hangars.
Eventually the crowds dispersed and headed back to Toul. Only then did Eddie hear the welcome sound of Chambers’ machine coming in. After they separated, Chambers had flown until he landed in a pasture just inside Allied lines, concerned that he would soon run out of fuel. French soldiers, who had never seen either a Nieuport or its American markings, immediately surrounded the downed craft with pointed rifles and marched him off to find an interpreter. By the time he scrounged up enough fuel and returned, he had missed all the excitement.
It was little consolation that their sortie had laid the groundwork for the dual victories. It had been the sound of their engines overhead that had sent the Germans planes aloft in the first place. Campbell’s detailed letter home made no mention of Eddie’s sortie. Somehow they both already knew that the other was the one to beat.
For the next two days, Eddie’s diary, usually crammed full of his spidery cursive, is nearly blank. In the silence of those pages, one can hear Eddie girding for the next round, doubling his focus. If he couldn’t be first to down a German, then he could become the first to shoot down five and earn the title of America’s first ace.
On April 27, Eddie and Hall were sitting in the ready room when word came in of an enemy two-seater flying south near Beaumont. They raced to their planes, the waiting mechanics swinging the propellers. A speck in the sky to the north had to be their quarry, but, maddeningly, they couldn’t take off before the squadron’s commanding officer gave the specific orders. He was nowhere to be found. Frantic that they’d lose their chance, Eddie flailed at Hall, who finally “gave the signal to the boys to pull the blocks from under the wheels, leaving the camp with me in close pursuit.” Both were risking reprimand, but greater things awaited.
They headed toward Pont-à-Mousson, seeing an immense observation balloon like a dirty low- hanging cloud over the American lines. Catching sight of an aircraft heading toward them, Eddie assumed it to be their enemy.
Despite waggling his wings and waving madly, he failed to catch Hall’s attention and so peeled off anyway, easily overtaking the intruder, maneuvering underneath its tail. Finally, heart racing, he had his chance, only to recognize, just as he started to pull the trigger, the French tricolor cockade-blue bull’s-eye set in concentric circles of white, then red – and pulled away cursing. He had come far too close to shooting down a friendly.
He broke back west toward Saint-Mihiel to rejoin Hall, whom he found taunting an antiaircraft battery with a string of acrobatics. Concussive bursts rocked his dancing plane. Hall broke off his aerial nose-thumbing to take up with Eddie, now heading back toward Pont-à-Mousson. Shortly thereafter, they saw a real German; Hall signaled to Eddie to climb steeply westward so that they could position themselves between the enemy machine and the setting sun. Eddie followed. The Pfalz D.III, no blinder than they, climbed flat-out but was unable to match the Nieuports’ ascent.
As Hall initiated the attack, Eddie took in the whole three-dimensional scene with a quiet clarity, maneuvering against the German’s other flank to head off his escape. Their prey hurriedly banked right and then dove “like a scared rabbit” for home, Eddie and Hall now on his tail. In the excitement, Eddie completely forgot to use his gunsight, aiming entirely by the flash of his tracers. They pressed the Pfalz to 2,000 feet, at which point they finally saw it lose control and crash at the edge of some woods a mile inside enemy lines. Back at Gengault, “we jumped out quite happy with glad hands for each other and we were amazed to see the personnel of our Squadron, with their hats and coats off dashing from the barracks across the field to us.”
American observers had seen the Pfalz crash and telephoned it in to the aerodrome. Eddie was ecstatic but drained. “Indeed, an aviator, and a fledgling aviator in particular, often runs the whole gamut of human feelings during a single flight,” wrote Hall.
Eddie’s published account of his first victory, which he split with Hall, would soar with dash and confidence. “Raising the nose of my airplane slightly the fiery streak lifted itself like a stream of water pouring from a garden hose,” runs the passage in “Fighting the Flying Circus.” “The swerving of the Pfalz course indicated that its rudder no longer was controlled by a directing foot.” Embellished by his ghostwriter, these words reflect a bravado – even arrogance – that did not characterize Eddie in the flesh, and also suggested that he had brought down the Hun almost entirely by himself. His original report, which he submitted to the writer soon after the war, paints a different and more modest picture. “To me, it was a great deal like taking something which did not belong to me rightfully, as I shall always be convinced that it was Captain Hall’s victory and not mine, due to his superior marksmanship.”
Eddie understood that Hall had given him the greatest of gifts, a role in a first kill that engendered within him a “wonderful feeling of self confidence.” For a man who always felt at the edge of falling off into the deepest obscurity, his first victory would come as an enormous relief, helping move him beyond the mishaps and bad judgment calls that had plagued him over the last several weeks as he fought to master the dauntingly steep learning curve of aerial combat. In recognition of the kill, Eddie would receive the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Despite this award, he knew how far he still had to go.
James Hall often took up the question of whether a flier had “plenty of sand”: the grit, guts, and skill essential to making oneself a true combat flier, not just an adept flying-school pupil. Hall and Lufbery certainly had sand enough. Did Eddie?
John F. Ross is the author of “War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier.” He has served as executive editor of American Heritage and on the board of editors at Smithsonian magazine. Visit his website at johnfross.com.