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Douglas Campbell - First All-American Ace

94th aero squadron doug campbell eddie rickenbacker parks family

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The wife of WWI ace Douglas Campbell is still alive, 100 years after he became America's first (sort of) ace. Not that she's the world's oldest person; she was a young wife to Campbell, thirty years his junior, which is a help in setting records such as the last Civil War widow. As we are quickly losing even the WWII generation, it is impressive to think one could still talk to close family members (such as Nancy Hall Rutgers) of the famous aviators of a century ago. In fact, it was such thoughts which led to Richard Rubin's interviews of WWI centenarians for his book Last of the Doughboys.

But the Halls and the Campbells have known the Vintage Aero Flying Museum's Parks family for decades. As the VAFM puts it, "Doug Campbell was a good friend of the Parks family. Jim Parks’ second oldest son, Ted Parks, MD, observed Campbell’s hip surgery while studying medicine at Yale in the mid 1980’s."

First What?

Campbell is generally known as the first "all-American" ace. Specifically, he was the first to become an ace after the US joined the war, in an American squadron, under American command, and trained by Americans. Sort of the same difficulty as saying the Wright brothers were the first in flight. They weren't; what they accomplished was the first heavier-than-air, powered, controlled flight. But, in both cases, despite the technicalities, it was an important milestone. Kitty Hawk started what we now mean by an airplane, while Campbell was the proof that America was finally over there, able to fight and win air battles. (What the Allies actually needed was more airplanes and engines, but at least pilots did a lot for winning public support in America.)

American firsts are complicated by the fact that Americans had been flying in the Lafayette Escadrille for a couple years already, and other Americans such as Colorado ace Frederick Libby had joined Britain in the war. America's best ace, Raoul Lufbery, was sometimes counted as a French ace, since he was born and raised in France, with only an American father and a couple years in Connecticut to connect him to America. Libby by this time was already back in America, his flying career over, and Lufbery was dead.

As Eddie Rickenbacker explained Campbell's accomplishment in Fighting the Flying Circus,

...these early Aces, such as Lufbery, Baylies and Putnam of French escadrilles, and Warman, Libby and Magoun, who were enrolled with the British, all were trained under foreign methods and flew foreign machines. The first official American Ace is therefore claimed by our squadron. This simon-pure American air-fighter who entered the war with the Americans, received his training with Americans and did all his fighting with the Americans was Lieutenant Douglas Campbell of St. José, California.

Self-Taught, American-Trained Pilot

Rickenbacker, Campbell, and MarrDouglas Campbell (pictured between Eddie Rickenbacker and Ken Marr), a Harvard graduate and friend of Quentin Roosevelt, was one of the first to go through ground school after the US joined the war. However, the flying school was in France, and on reaching Issoudun he found the field had none of the slower aircraft that were used for the basic flying training.

Rather than wait, Campbell taught himself on the faster aircraft to fly well enough to solo and enter the advanced course. According to Rickenbacker,"In other words Lieutenant Campbell learned to fly alone on a fast scout machine—a feat I do not remember any other American pilot having duplicated." Campbell reached the 94th Aero Squadron in March. On March 6th, squadron commander Raoul Lufbery selected Campbell and Rickenbacker to escort on a first flight across enemy lines. Both repaid his tutelage handsomely, becoming aces within weeks.

When in Doubt, Attack

Campbell scored six official (Rickenbacker testified to seven) victories before he was wounded, with his first victory occurring on his first combat flight. He received the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross with oak leaf clusters for several spectacular victories, such as the one he scored by recovering from a gun jam in the middle of combat.

Campbell specialized in taking on multiple enemies, shooting one down, and chasing the others away. On May 31st, 1918, he did just that with two aircraft, for his fifth victory. It had taken him about 6 weeks to become an ace, as compared to about 1 month for the Red Baron, though aerial warfare had changed greatly from the fall of 1916 to the spring of 1918. One difference was that while bravery was admired, practicality had overtaken chivalry. According to Rickenbacker, on Campbell's fifth victory, he lured the Rumpler's observer into using up his ammunition. 

The observer was standing proudly upright and his arms were folded! From the edge of his cockpit the empty ammunition belt floated overboard and flapped in the wind. He had indeed exhausted his ammunition and now stood awaiting his doom without a thought of asking for mercy. He wore a haughty expression on his face as he watched the American approach. As Doug said later, he was so impressed with the bravery of the action that he felt he could not continue the combat against an unarmed enemy. The Prussian's expression seemed to say: "Go ahead and shoot me! I know you have won."
Upon second thought Lieutenant Campbell realized this was not a game in which he was engaged. It was war. These men had photographs of our positions within their cameras which might be the death of hundreds of our boys. They had done their best to kill him and he had endured their bullets in order to obtain just this opportunity. And the pilot was still continuing his effort to outwit the American and get him beneath his guns.

A Bullet Cuts Short the String of Victories

So Campbell fired, the aircraft fell, and Campbell was heralded as the first official American Ace. Just a few days later, on June 5th, Campbell again attacked two aircraft, and again scored one victory and chased the other away. But this time he did it in spite of a bullet in his back, which went along rather than through his spine. Sent home to recover, he did not make it back to the front until shortly before the Armistice in November. 

Campbell survived the war to become general manager of Pan American Airlines while Rickenbacker led Eastern Airlines. Like them, many WWI aviators on both sides stayed in aviation after the war and became pioneers of the industry. 

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