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The Most Intense Part of WW1 for America

charles whittlesey cher ami eddie rickenbacker erwin bleckley field kindley handley page harold goettler influenza parks family willy coppens

Chronic Stress and Combat Fatigue

America had been in the air war long enough now for pilots to be experiencing the "cracking up" described by British pilot Arthur Gould Lee almost a year previously, when he was sent home with stomach pains, violent nightmares, and other symptoms.

The strain of waiting for that one bullet with your name on it, knowing that you can't dodge it like you can archie [anti-aircraft fire], is quite petrifying. Trench-strafing can be a suicidal job, especially if you're rash, and the staff types who so casually order it can have no conception of what it demands from a pilot.

Most patrols were done with multiple aircraft at this point, and solo patrols could be very stressful, although a word associated with a difficult day at the office doesn't seem appropriate for flying WWI aircraft. SPAD engine problems and low altitude patrols done solo or with just one other aircraft caused pilot problems such as described by Lt Ralph O'Neill in The 147th Aero Squadron in World War I: 

After a few weeks of this, it led to a nervous breakdown; I came home on report, shaking and in tears, cursing like hell, tears of anger, not of fear, until the doctor ordered me to take a rest.

Top ace Field Kindley by the end of the war had low blood pressure, high pulse rate, nervous tremor, exaggerated reflexes, restlessness and nervous headaches, according to the doctor. Another pilot complained of nervous strain which made him shiver so badly he could hardly land, a heart that "seems to be trying to stunt all the time" and nightmares of aerial combat. 

Bombers and the Big Bomb

October 9th was the heaviest raid of the war by the American Air Service, with 350 bombers and fighters under Billy Mitchell bombing and strafing German infantry. Losses were so bad the German attack was cancelled, and Mitchell considered it a demonstration of the effectiveness of air power against ground troops.

On October 14th the largest bomb of the war would be dropped, 1650 pounds by a Handley Page bomber; the bomb was over 1/10 of the weight of the aircraft itself and had to be carried under the bomb bay. (In comparison, the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped at the end of the next world war was 10,300 pounds.)

Belgian Balloon Buster

Belgian ace Willy Coppens de Houthulst was hit in the leg by shrapnel and crashed while attacking a balloon on October 14th. His wounded leg was amputated, but he lived through the war, having scored 28 of his 39 victories against balloons, the best balloon record of the war. Once he dived on a balloon even after finding that his gun wasn't working, and another time when he was out of ammunition (the French allowed him 20 incendiary bullets per month) a balloon's cables snapped and the balloon rose up under him so that he "landed" on the top of the balloon, running his wheels across it. 

When Coppens was praised in dispatches for bringing his aircraft back with important intelligence despite 32 bullets (not just bullet holes!) in the aircraft, he laughed at the write-up, saying that of course he had to bring the aircraft back; how else was he going to get back?

More on the Meuse-Argonne: the Lost Battalion

Another story we didn't get to last week (just too much going on!) from the Meuse-Argonne Offensive is the Lost Battalion and Cher Ami.  Andy Parks gave a talk about this almost two years ago, but the timing of it was actually in the last couple weeks of 100 years ago. During the offensive, which started in September and basically went through the end of the war, the 77th Division was ordered to move forward and hold their line at all costs. But some parts of the division, in particular the 308th Battalion (commanded by Charles Whittlesey), moved faster than the neighboring units and got cut off.

The 77th Division was supported by the 50th Aero Squadron, a daylight observation and bombardment squadron. The 50th Aero Squadron was one of those that had to educate their own men on what their aircraft looked like, so as not to be shot at. They glued Liberty Bond posters onto the bottom of their wings (the 77th Division patch included a Statue of Liberty image) so the men in the trenches would know they were on the same side. 

Trying to Get Through by Air

The 50th Aero Squadron also chose the Dutch Cleanser lady as their insignia painted on the side of their aircraft because they were going to "clean up the town". They would fly over the troops and the battalions would signal with flags and markers to show where they were. But under some conditions it wasn't possible, or wise, to signal a position, and flying low meant exposing the aircraft to anti-aircraft fire, and the October weather in France throughout these days was not good flying weather. 

The 77th Division wasn't really lost; they knew exactly where they were, and so did parts of the rest of the army at some points during the "lost" time. But they were cut off, unable to be resupplied,  unable to be reinforced and unable to retreat, especially once there were more wounded men than could be carried. When they tried to call in their position, they found their wires cut. Unable to rely on modern methods, the battalion turned to their carrier pigeons; it was normal to take 40-50 pigeons into battle. The pigeon would have a capsule attached to the leg, and an officer could put a note in the capsule and send the pigeon back "home" to its resting nest back behind the lines. They could fly about 20 kilometers an hour; fast-moving information back then. 

Heroic Flight of Cher Ami

Naturally enemy soldiers would try to shoot the pigeon, to keep the information from getting through. In fact, since pigeons had even less insignia than an aircraft, soldiers couldn't tell which side a pigeon was on and pigeons got shot at by everybody. So the Lost Battalion's pigeons kept getting shot down.

After four days the battalion had only two more pigeons; one was Cher Ami (a male pigeon, although it sounds like a girl's name to Americans 100 years later; "Cher Ami" means "dear friend" in the French masculine). Cher Ami was hit, dropped, then picked himself up and flew on, to the great joy of the watching trapped soldiers. He reached the lines with the message, informing them the Lost Battalion was under friendly fire, and "FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE STOP IT."

On his return, Cher Ami was missing a leg, had been shot through the chest, and had lost an eye...and had flown 30 kilometers in that condition.

Heroic Flight of Goettler and Bleckley

Meanwhile, the 50th Aero Squadron was trying to find the division and drop supplies to them. But they had the wrong coordinates, a couple hundred yards off. When they dropped supplies, they saw Germans taking the supplies instead.

So they flew lower and lower trying to find the battalion. One observer, Erwin Bleckley, thought he saw it, and he and his pilot Harold Goettler decided to go up in the area and draw German fire, marking where the fire was coming from, on the assumption that the battalion would be in the middle of the hot spots of German fire. Not surprisingly, Goettler was killed by German fire, and the plane crashed, with Bleckley dying of his wounds shortly after being rescued by the French army. Though their mission was unsuccessful, it was such a brave attempt that both received the Medal of Honor posthumously. 


Whittlesey, not knowing Cher Ami had gotten through, started sending men back with messages. One was captured and sent back to the Lost Battalion with a surrender message, which explained that the soldier had refused to give the Germans any information and was bringing the surrender message against his will. The Germans commended the soldier's performance but advised surrender: "The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in German lines."

On October 7th, the 50th Aero Squadron crew Anderson and Rogers marked a position for the Lost Battalion on a map, and on October 8th, soldiers were able to rescue and relieve the Lost Battalion.

Recognizing a Time of Exceptional Deeds

Cher Ami never fully recovered from his wounds and died in the spring of 1919, but only after being returned to America in officer's quarters on the ship by order of General Pershing. He was mounted and displayed at the Smithsonian, honored as as WWI hero. The French Army awarded Cher Ami the Croix de Guerre. 

Four American airmen recieved the Medal of Honor for deeds in WWI: Rickenbacker, Luke, Goettler and Bleckley. Fall of 1918 was a busy time for American soldiers and the journalists covering them. The main events leading to all four of these medals happened within about a two-week period over the end of September and the beginning of October, the same period of famous deeds on the ground by Medal of Honor recipients York and Lost Battalion commander Whittlesey. 

Sadly, Whittlesey never recovered from the guilt of being cut off and then sending back the wrong coordinates, and in 1921 he committed suicide. As Andy Parks commented, "A lot of men come back from war with a lot of things that we'll never know about that affect them for the rest of their lives."

Andy Parks was fascinated when he was a boy and his father took him to the Smithsonian, to see among all the aviation exhibits, a pigeon. In his talk he pointed out there are many stories of animals that served heroically in wartime and suggested kids should look up "animals that served in war". 

Meanwhile...the Flu Continues...

During or slightly after this peak of heroic deeds in the air among American airmen, the flu deaths per week among US soldiers peaked.

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