One of the First Firsts for the US
On Monday, please feel free to go around reminding people that the US has seriously joined the air war; that was what the date was publicized for a hundred years ago.
It was 5 February 1918 when Stephen Thompson shot down an Albatros over Saarbrucken, the first American victory. Kind of. The trouble with joining a war years after everyone else, and doing it only step-by-step, is that it makes "firsts"complicated. Kiffin Rockwell got the first aerial victory by an American (and not long afterwards died in aerial combat), but that was long ago, before the US entered the war.
Now that the US has entered the war, it has taken a while to get across the Atlantic, and though there are plenty of young American men wanting to be pilots, the airplanes and expertise (and even some of the best American aces, such as Coloradan Frederick Libby) mostly belong to the French and British at this point. There have been lots of victories by Americans, but under French or British command.
Almost All American
So now we have a victory by an American after his government has actually declared war and who is part of an American squadron. The first all-American victory by the first all-American pilot! Well...no; he was in a French plane, which he was invited up in while visiting a French squadron, and he wasn't flying it; he was the observer, with a gun. But it is a victory and it shows that America is Doing Something. More about Stephen Thompson and all the firsts he is associated with at our previous Stephen Thompson post.
Soon the 94th Aero Squadron will get going and Doug Campbell and Alan Winslow will share credit for the first aerial victory by Americans, after America declared war, flying in an American-trained squadron, and by May Campbell will become the first all-American ace...well, unless you count the (non-American trained) first Air Service ace....
Truth and Public Relations
You would think this would just all be too complicated to bother keeping track of, but since aviation was the most visible and glamorous part of the war, it was important to note, and publicize, each of these milestones to prove to people back home that the US, having declared war last April, was actually getting Over There and showing the Hun who's a son of a gun. Of course, the British, French, and Germans weren't convinced yet.
Aviators were well aware that awards and recognition could be very arbitrary (just ask Bob Todd), and respected a man for what he could do in the air, not for what he could say on the ground.
In the words of Frederick Libby,
We have one pilot in our wing who writes a wicked report. He must be good, but not quite as good as his last report, which I have just read. I will try and recall the report as near as possible.
It seems early in the morning, before anyone else was up, he has his plane wheeled out, goes over to a German air field and routs the Hun out of their beds, strafes the hangars and waits for Mr. Hun to come up. The first two off the ground he knocks off, then gets two more trying to get off. The next two, he chases into a tree and leaves them there like Santa Claus, then destroys two more, so home to breakfast.
Libby's response to this great PR piece: "Excuse me while I vomit."