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Two of the Greatest Heroic Deeds of WW1

147th aero squadron alvin york james meissner kettering bug wilbert white

Both Happened During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

"The woods were all mussed up and looked as if a terrible cyclone done swept through them. But God would never be cruel enough to create a cyclone as terrible as that Argonne battle. Only man would ever think of doing an awful thing like that. It looked like the 'Abomination of Desolation' must have been. And all through the long night those big guns flashed and growled jes like the lightning and the thunder when it storms in the mountains at home. And oh my! we had to pass the wounded. And some of them were on stretchers going back to the dressing stations and some of them were lying around moaning and twitching. And oh my! the dead were all along the road and their mouths were open and their eyes, too, but they couldn't see nothing no more nohow. And it was wet and cold and damp. And it all made me think of the Bible and the story of the anti-Christ and Armageddon. And I'm a-telling you the little log cabin in Wolf Valley in old Tennessee seemed a long, long way off."
-- Alvin C. York

The Bug, Its Features, and Its Bugs

Dayton, Ohio is closely associated with the first manned powered heavier-than-air flight, but also with unmanned flight. In a foreshadowing of Cold War-era guided missiles, on 2 October 100 years ago the unmanned flying bomb called the Kettering Bug was first tested. Charles Kettering's team, including Orville Wright, had developed what looked like sort of a steampunk dragonfly.

In the Bug's second demonstration, it went off course and its demonstrators chased it as an amateur drone pilot of today might. When it crashed, people were attracted to the site of the "airplane accident" and one of the demonstration group had to claim to be the pilot who had parachuted to safety, so no word of the invention would reach the enemy. Had they but known the bitterness of pilots overseas against the U. S. Army for not issuing parachutes to pilots, the bystanders might have been more suspicious.

The Army, which just a few years before had not foreseen much military use for the airplane, now wanted 20,000 of these Bugs. But the war only had a few more weeks to go, and the technology would have to wait for a new war's worth of funding. See this article for more about the Bug and a video showing some of the bugs the Bug had.

Is the Bible "Agin" War?

Alvin C. YorkFifty years ago there was a trend of claiming to be a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War. One hundred years ago it was not a trend, but a religious belief among several Christian sects that led many to conclude that when the Bible said "Thou shalt not kill," God meant it. It was confusing, though, since in other parts of the Bible God commanded His people to kill. The reason was that English had changed over the centuries since the King James Version was originally translated; a better translation today would be "You shall not murder." 

One man who was not an expert on Hebrew but who was willing to take God at His word was Alvin C. York. This caused a problem when he was drafted for WWI. However, instead of shaming him as someone who wouldn't do his share, or forcing him to act against his beliefs, his commanding officer actually held a Bible study with him. "We didn't get annoyed or angry or even raise our voice. We jes examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which sorter favoured war." York got a pass to go back home to think about it, knowing that his major had seen his sincerity and would transfer him or let him out of the army if he decided he couldn't fight in good conscience.

I Jes Couldn't Miss

"But something in me had kinder changed." York saw now that there might be situations in which killing was permissible; there might be a way to serve both God and country. He returned to his unit. And so one of the most amazing stories out of WWI was set  up, because this conscientious objector was also a woodsman and a very good shot.

During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, on 8 October 1918, York's NCOs were shot and he realized he was the one now in charge. He started shooting at the machine-gunners who were devastating his men. 

Every time I seed a German I jes teched him off. At first I was shooting from a prone position; that is lying down; jes like we often shoot at the targets in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee; and it was jes about the same distance. But the targets here were bigger. I jes couldn't miss a German's head or body at that distance. And I didn't. Besides, it weren't no time to miss nohow. I knowed that in order to shoot me the Germans would have to get their heads up to see where I was lying. And I knowed that my only chance was to keep their heads down. And I done done it. I covered their positions and let fly every time I seed anything to shoot at. Every time a head come up I done knocked it down.

Fifty Germans surrendered to York and his seven remaining men after that, and with the confusion of war and good bluffing by York, by the time he brought them back behind his lines as prisoners, there were 132 Germans. "There was so many of them there was danger of our own artillery mistaking us for a German counter-attack and opening up on us."

Aerial Heroics

Wilbert White with his aircraftWilbert White was also a Christian, the son of a Bible college president, and married with two small children. Not being one of those who interpreted the Bible as being "agin war," he thought he ought to do his part. His wife and mother thought there were plenty of war-related jobs he could do at home, but his father agreed with him, and he went "over there."

White became a pilot, the top-scoring ace in his squadron. On 10 October 1918, he knew he was soon to receive orders home, but he accepted the especially hazardous duty of accompanying a new pilot, Charles Cox, into battle. (This duty was well-known to be hazardous. For instance, the Red Baron died partly as a result of accompanying a new pilot into battle, and Roy Brown, who received official credit for shooting down the Red Baron, was also protecting a new pilot.)

Cox got into trouble when a German aircraft pulled in behind him. White apparently saw no alternative but to risk himself to save Cox. He dove, firing, at the German plane, and collided with it, possibly in a high-stakes game of "chicken," or possibly completely intentionally. He and the German were killed. 

This Heroic Feat Was Never Surpassed

White's squadron commander James Meissner, formerly of the 94th Aero Squadron, witnessed the attack and wrote about it to White's wife. Meissner himself had experienced a mid-air collision and was famous for surviving - twice - the usually fatal shredding of a wing surface. "I was racing in to help, still too far away to shoot, and watched the inevitable happen as they met and fell out of control from an altitude of 500 meters."

Eddie Rickenbacker also witnessed the attack.

Without firing a shot, the heroic White rammed the Fokker head on while the two machines were approaching each other at the rate of 250 miles an hour! 
It was a horrible yet thrilling sight. The two machines actually telescoped each other, so violent was the impact. Wings went through wings, and at first glance both the Fokker and SPAD seemed to disintegrate. Fragments filled the air for a moment, then the two broken fuselages, bound together by the terrific collision, fell swiftly down and landed in one heap on the bank of the Meuse!
For sheer nerve and bravery I believe this heroic feat was never surpassed. 

Wilbert White would have been well aware of John 15:13, where Jesus said "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Read more about Wilbert White's life in The 147th Aero Squadron in World War I: A Training and Combat History of the "Who Said Rats" Squadronby Jack Stokes Ballard and James John Parks. 

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