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Flying the Flag: Frederick Libby Raises Funds

frederick libby

Million-Dollar Scraps of Cloth

100 years ago Frederick Libby was being worshiped back home as a hero, as the pieces of a flag he had used as insignia flying over the lines, "absolutely the first American colors to go over the German lines after America declared war" as Libby explained it, were auctioned off for Liberty Bonds for $3,250,000 in 1918 dollars.

Libby was listed in November 1918's Flying magazine as American Ace of Aces with 22 victories though his official score is now considered to be 14. Overseas, Frank Luke had only recently been awarded the American Ace of Aces title with 18 victories, and Rickenbacker wasn't finished scoring yet. Besides, Libby's scores didn't really count as American victories since all of them were while flying for Britain. Libby had lost his citizenship by going to Canada and joining the war effort in the first years of the war.  Though after the US joined the war he was assigned to the US Air Service and got his citizenship back, he never actually flew for the US because of his back problems.

A "Timid" Young Officer

Whether or not he was officially American, Libby was certainly a war hero, an ace, and a veteran of the most attention-getting kind of war service. He was a war-torn memento himself, with a very auctionable bit of Americana. 

I have the American flag streamers, along with Lee White's "Old Bill", which has been constantly with me as my mascot. Both Old Bill and the streamers show much oil and exposure to the elements, but both are priceless to me. 

But Libby doesn't seem to have enjoyed this part of his war effort. Whether it was PTSD or a journalist seeing what he wanted to see or just Libby disliking fundraising more than fighting, Libby as described in Flying's quote from the New York Tribune ("a timid young officer," "cheeks burning with embarrassment," "Libby still tried to hide behind it with the shame that every real hero seems to have for his own valor") is unrecognizable as the same wild Colorado cowboy whose father bribed his older brother to try to keep Libby alive to adulthood.

Get Your Aircraft Glue Here

Flying magazine of 1918 is an interesting read itself. The September 1918 issue shows a plaque memorializing the Lafayette Escadrille slain, with a poem "To Lufbery", and the October issue has picture of Quentin Roosevelt's grave. But the ads are also interesting to compare with, say, avionics ads in Flying (not the same magazine; today's version began in 1927) today. In 1918 there were ads for mahogany, spruce, leather, and glue suppliers, "the saws most carpenters use", "unsurpassed" screwdrivers, radium for illuminating watches and airplane instruments, and pencils ideal for chart-marking. Before the days of light-but-strong metals, one advertisement for precision aircraft parts was from a forge, complete with a picture of a blacksmith.

And, while the magazine is full of war news (including the victory records of Fonck and Nungesser as of October, then updated in November) it also shows where the attention of aviation would be after the war, with many articles about the possibilities of airmail. 

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