Did US Entry Help the Air War? Did the Air War Help US Entry?
On April 6, 1917, the US entered the war. What effect did the air war have on US entry, and what effect did US entry have on the air war? We talked to Andy Parks about these questions, who pointed to the experience of his own extended family. Many whose views had started out isolationist were pushed toward patriotism and the war effort as German submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram made Germany feel like a real threat, even from across the Atlantic. Andy's grandfather Charles Parks joined for this kind of reason, became an artillery officer, and was recruited by his cousin Victor Parks to join the air corps, but Charles got gassed first, though he survived, barely. (If you haven't read the story, it's in our booklet or ebook Men of the First War in the Third Dimension.) Victor at this point in the war was already a veteran pilot and an instructor pilot, who with the US entry, wanted to be at the front lest he miss anything.
Unfortunately, pilots were not really what the Allies had been hoping for. The British and French had been counting on US innovation and supplies, hoping the US could contribute more and better airplanes, which were badly needed on the front lines. But because of isolationism, the US hadn't been working in that direction. Instead of airplanes, the Allies got more pilots - meaning, even fewer airplanes per pilot, and probably fewer airplanes overall since pilot training often resulted in crashes. The US pilots mostly got to use the leftovers from the French and British. So if anything, the US was somewhat of a drain on the Allies in the air war, with the exception of the US contributing the Liberty Engine, which, as a nice, new powerful engine, did give a boost to air power.
It's hard to measure the effect of US pilots on US morale, but it was certainly a factor in US enthusiasm for the war, in a way machines wouldn't have been. Though aviators were a very small proportion of US forces, they got a very big proportion of the press, being acknowledged by ground troops as "the craziest of the brave" as Arthur Gould Lee put it. Speeches and writing by men who were already celebrities such as Eddie Rickenbacker and James Norman Hall were underscored when the same men turned up again in the news as pilots.
Where Are They Now?
As the US entered WWI, here is what some major names of the air war were up to:
Britain's leading ace, was returning to the front at his own repeated request, after a time as an instructor pilot. A month later he flew a patrol he never returned from.
was learning to fly French "cages a poules" or "chicken coops", and would soon win his bet of $2000 (in 1917 money!) with a Mississippian drinking buddy in Paris about whether aviation would ever allow a Negro flyer.
(the one best known for WWII, not the one in the Lafayette Escadrille who died in WWI) was studying engineering at Berkeley.
James Norman Hall
having published his pro-war (and successful) book Kitchener's Mob, was at an aviation school as a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille.
like other Lafayette Escadrille pilots, thought he would be transferred to the US Air Service within a month. But the US wasn't ready yet.
who would become Britain's leading ace, was about to report to and eventually turn around a squadron demoralized by lost planes and pilots. 44 British planes were lost on April 6th alone.
Manfred von Richthofen
had just achieved his 32nd and 33rd victory. The 33rd he called an "impertinent fellow" who, after landing, as the Red Baron flew over to see whether he had killed him, "took his machine gun and shot up my whole machine." (The Red Baron: The Story of the Fabled Ace in His Own Words by Manfred von Richthofen, p. 87)
having toured the US as a race car celebrity explaining why we should be in the war, around this time almost died from a nicked artery during a tonsillectomy, and then tried to explain to the US Army why pilots should be recruited from race car drivers. The army's response: "Airplane engines are always breaking down, and a man who knew a great deal about engines would know if his engine wasn't functioning correctly and be hesitant about going into combat." (Rickenbacker: His Own Story by Edward V. Rickenbacker, p. 87)