Rickenbacker Versus the Flying Circus
Rickenbacker never fought Richthofen, but in recent weeks a hundred years ago he did shoot down one of the Fokker D.VII's of the Flying Circus. Then he realized three more were after him.
Within two minutes, I recognized them as the finest fliers I had ever faced. I did some fancy flying too, from sheer fright. The four of us whipped our ships around through the air for several minutes. They wanted to shoot me down; I wanted to get away.
And he eventually did. Perhaps these Fokker D.VIIs included Ernst Udet, perhaps not. In any case, Rickenbacker and Udet did meet years later in Cleveland, Ohio, and Rickenbacker invited Udet to join him for a drink - quietly, since it was Prohibition.
Medal of Honor
Eddie Rickenbacker received the Medal of Honor for events about this time 100 years ago, when he attacked seven German airplanes, and scored. Two of them were photo aircraft, but the rest were fighters, Fokkers protecting the two observation airplanes. Or at least they were supposed to be protecting them.
I was east of them, in the glare of the sun. All seven went by underneath me. I cut back the engine and dived silently on the last Fokker. He glanced behind him at the same moment that I pressed my triggers. He tried to pull away, and that was his last living act.
The other four Fokkers got spooked and scattered, while the remaining two pilots surely said some rather negative things about them. Rickenbacker got behind and under one of the photo aircraft, but that one knew how to fight back and moved to give his rear gunner a good shot. Rickenbacker broke off the attack to dodge but that gave the other photo aircraft the chance to shoot. Though their official protectors had deserted them, the two aircraft covered for each other, never quite giving Rickenbacker the chance to shoot one down. Finally,
The two-seaters were only fifty feet apart, and I was directly above them. I sideslipped my Spad to the right. One plane shielded me from the other. I leveled out, kicked my nose around to the left and began firing. The nearest LVG sailed right on through my bullets. It burst into flames and tumbled like a great blazing torch to earth, leaving a streamer of black smoke against the blue sky.
Too late the four Fokkers returned, and Rickenbacker got away, feeling that it was a good demonstration of leadership for what he wanted the men now under his command to do - because this was his first day as commander of the 94th Aero Squadron.
Fallen But Not Forgotten
On 26 September 1918, another photo aircraft was brought down, this one an Allied aircraft containing observer, and Coloradan, Francis Lowry of the 91st Aero Squadron. Commemorating him, an airfield in Colorado became Lowry Field in 1926, later known as Lowry Air Force Base. (Note the sign on the hangar in the historic photo on this page, urging pilots to use the entire runway!)
As a training base, through which a large fraction of all Air Force personnel passed, it was a good base to be remembered by, and at one point it was even the site of the Air Force Academy. While the base was closed in 1994, the main hangar now houses the Wings Over the Rockies museum.
Udet's Last Victory
Another observer was shot down on 26 September 1918, and that constituted Ernst Udet's last victory. (Aerial victory, at least. He scored many public relations victories in years to come.) In the words of one of the witnesses, a Lt Kraut from Fighter Squadron 4,
Yesterday evening toward 5:10 P.M., we attacked an enemy bomber formation flying toward Metz. I saw Lt. Udet, the first to reach the enemy, attack a D.H. 9. After a few rounds, the enemy turned on its side and fell obliquely in an upside-down position and smoking. The observer fell out. After a few moments, the D.H. 9 crashed.
A couple others in Udet's squadron also scored victories; Udet noted that this was an American formation, new at the front, while "the youngest of us has two years of front line experience on them." But victories hadn't been so easy to come by recently; when Udet landed everyone congratulated him on a victory right after returning from leave, with "the first sight of the enemy in four weeks."
I climb out of my plane and look at my wound. The bullet passed through my thigh. It is still bleeding a little. The others step aside, and Goering comes toward me. I report: "Sixty-first and sixty-second enemy shot down. Myself slightly wounded. Shot through the left cheek, face not damaged." Goering laughs and shakes my hand.