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Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1988

World War I from the Viewpoint of American Airmen

C1C W. Kevin Durden, USAFA

WHEN the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, the US Air Service was a branch of the Signal Corps. Its inventory consisted of one squadron equipped with obsolete airplanes; no machines fit for frontline service; no fundamental knowledge of air organization; fewer than 50 trained pilots; no pilots, save those serving with the French or British air forces, capable of performing a battle mission; a total of approximately 1,120 personnel; and only five officers in Europe, none of whom had yet acquired any advance technical knowledge.1 These were the assets with which the United States faced a war in the air.

The broad expansion program spurred by this deplorable state of affairs resulted (by November 1918) in the indoctrination of approximately 9,000 men as pilots in this newly formed branch of military service.2 In this novel arena of conflict, these pilots possessed none of the traditions or prescribed living and working standards that their counterparts in the land or naval forces had acquired from years of practice. The American aviators' pilot training, their experiences with the aircraft they flew, their unique living and fighting conditions, and their contact with members of the Allied air forces behind the lines shaped their perspective of the conflict both during and after the war.

In April 1917 the United States possessed only three pilot training schools.3 Many of the Army's 65 flying officers were in administrative positions and could not be released to take part in a training program. None of them had ever flown a modern European service-type aircraft, and the majority had trained on a system of controls differing sharply from those used at the front. Army officials realized from the beginning that most of the enormous training program had to be carried out in the United States. They decided early that training needed to be standardized because the highly personalized prewar methods would not serve to train the thousands of pilots needed. The Bingham Plan (after Maj Hiram Bingham, who was in charge of the air training) called for a three-phase program: ground, primary, and advanced.4 The first and second phases were to be accomplished in the United States; the final phase would occur in flying schools in Britain, France, and Italy because there were "no planes in the United States suitable for advanced training and no pilots qualified to give such instruction."5

Ground school was a six-to-eight-week program in which aviation cadets studied the mechanics of the machine gun, map reading, aircraft rigging, engines, meteorology, astronomy, and instruments. They also took part in basic military drill and physical fitness programs. The state of mind of the young men at these training schools is evident from their letters and diaries.

Standing guard was the worst hardship and was seen as a waste of time. After all, the cadets reasoned, there was little danger of "a German attack on Pennsylvania. What we need is more sleep."6 In a letter home, one cadet noted that "a flying-boat has been up twice from the (naval) yards and makes everything look more warlike."7 Clandestine crap games received more thought than the war, which seemed unreal from across the Atlantic.8

Primary flight school signaled the end of guard duty and the beginning of the real thing for the cadets. By Christmas of 1917 there were 15 training schools in the United States as a result of the frenzied construction programs.9 Most instructor pilots were Canadians or Americans who had been trained in Canada and who had not seen combat. The war was still a distant thought during primary training. "It's a great life, mother, flying alone with nothing to worry about, the whole sky to fly in, and not much work to do," wrote one student, "I will really hate to see this old war stop, if it ever does. I am having such a fine time."10

The "fine" time continued through the completion of primary training until the arrival of the fledgling aviators at one of the advanced training bases in Europe. Even the voyage across the Atlantic, with the constant threat of submarine attack, was seen as a great adventure by the newly commissioned lieutenants.11 The mood of their writings underwent a distinct change, however, after the excitement of being on a new continent wore off.

Many American student pilots took advantage of days of nonflying weather or periods of liberty to visit American infantry units on the front. The trenches were every bit as gruesome as the stories they had heard while still in the United States, and the shell-churned landscape contrasted sharply with the picturesque countryside around the training airdromes. These field trips reconfirmed the wisdom of their decision to join the Air Service. However, the sight of the skeletons of burned-out aircraft in noman's land and immediately behind the trenches, where pilots had tried to make forced landings, gave testimony that death was just as prevalent in the skies as on the ground.

With the exception of those receiving their final instruction at English-run schools, the aviators were immediately aware of the difficulties produced by the language barrier in their training.12 But language was not the only difference between student and teacher. Instructors at these schools, unlike those in the United States, were veteran combat pilots who had been removed from the front lines due to time in combat or injuries. In addition, these pilots were not professional instructors, and they had little patience for slow pupils or those they considered lazy. To them, flying was a serious and dangerous business, no game for overzealous youngsters. The American pilots found themselves subdued by the grim intensity of their teachers.

Those who were brave enough and had the language ability to approach these forbidding figures in the evenings after flying had ended found the veterans willing enough to share their opinions of the war, among other things. The Americans found that those individuals they considered "old men" were only slightly older than themselves. A 25-year-old Italian major at the school at Foggia had been the commander of a pursuit squadron for a year before returning to the rear to instruct new pilots.13 In addition, many were tired of the war after four years. They no longer saw it as a great crusade or as a desperate defense of their homes, and they were more than ready for it to end. The bravery, chivalry, and adventure of air combat anticipated by the American pilots began to pale with this knowledge.

Despite these considerations, the American pilots who finished their training and waited for assignments to the newly formed American aero squadrons still possessed a fair amount of enthusiasm. At one billeting camp constructed for these waiting pilots, one "green" aviator wrote, " I guess we're in something really big now. I wonder how I will like it."14

Upon arriving at their assigned squadron, action many took was to walk to the flight line and examine the aircraft they were to fly. While at primary training in the United States, most had flown the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, a very forgiving aircraft, slow and easy to fly. Advanced training consisted of two-seat versions of Allied pursuit types for the fighter pilots and dual-control models for those going into observation, bombing, or reconnaissance squadrons. If they were fortunate, the pursuit pilots had access to older models of the frontline combat aircraft with which to gain experience. Some of these aircraft were "held together with baling wire and butyrate dope" and aviators anxious to get to the front least they would be getting new equipment.15 Unfortunately, most of them were destined to be disappointed.

When they arrived at the front, many were greeted by the sight of "more wire and more dope."16 British, French, and Italian air services donated what they thought they could spare when the American squadrons were mobilized--machines rotated out of service in favor of newer types. Some of these aircraft came from the front; others, fresh from the storage fields in southeast France, had been refused by the Allied air services in favor of more advanced models.

The Nieuport 28, which the French air service declined in favor of the Spad, might have faded into obscurity had it not been available to the new American squadrons. The first to arrive from the factories were unarmed, but machine guns were quickly "begged, borrowed (or stolen)," from nearby French units.17 Problems with the Constantinesco interrupter gear, which allowed guns to be sighted through the propeller arc, resulted in near tragedy when some pilots shot off their propeller blades in aerial test-firings and were forced to glide back to their airfield. Another weakness of the Nieuport was its tendency to shed its upper-wing fabric in a steep dive, an occurrence that befell the 94th Aero Squadron's commanding officer, Capt Eddie Rickenbacker, on two occasions.18 The arrival of the Spad XIII to replace the Nieuport in July 1918 was a welcome change as pilots discovered an airplane that they were not afraid to "throw all over the sky."19

The British contributed to the American pursuit effort with the Sopwith Camel and the Scouting Experimental No. 5 (SE-5). The models utilized by the Americans were older versions removed from service by the British in favor of improved models with better engines and performance limits. The extremely maneuverable Camel was equipped with a 130-hp Clerget rotary engine that was cooled by the engine rotating on its mountings, generating extreme torque to the right in flight and making takeoffs and landings very dangerous. The Clerget engine was difficult to service due to lack of spare parts, resulting in the cannibalization of one flyable aircraft in order to keep three others in the air.

The SE-5 also had engine-cooling problems with the 150-hp Hispano-Suiza in-line engine. Again, lack of spare parts prevented US squadrons equipped with these aircraft from realizing their full potential, causing frustration and resentment among the pilots.20

American observation and bombing squadrons fared little better at first. Confronted with the older models of the British de Havilland 4 (DH-4) for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and bombing, one pilot remarked that "it must have been designed by a German." The pilot and observer were separated by the fuel tank, and the nickname "flaming coffin" was revived from the period of British use.21 Newer models with a redesigned fuel tank, some built in the United States, were available in August 1918. The French Salmson 2A-2 also aided in the replacement of the "coffins."

Their initial experience with combat aircraft brought home to the Americans what the veterans from advanced training had tried to tell them; it took courage just to fly the machines, let alone fight in them. Even in the newer models, engine and structural failures were common. In this period before the development of self-sealing fuel tanks, a stray bullet or piece of shrapnel could turn a wood and fabric aircraft into a flaming torch in minutes. It was no longer the "great game" in had seemed from the cadet barracks in Texas. Flying was a deadly, serious business.

For those pilots who entered service before American frontline fields opened, living conditions were in most cases better than those in Texas or at the advanced training fields in the rear area. The Americans assigned to British or French airfield shared the facilities with the veteran Allied pilots. After the trench lines had solidified, the Allied personnel at these airfields improved the poor conditions with permanent barracks possessing such comforts as heated running water, stoves, gas or electrical interior lighting, and mess halls that prepared hot meals in an atmosphere reminiscent of hunting clubs. Though primitive by normal standards, these few comfort contributed to the morale of the pilots and made the war a little more like the sporting tournament they had envisioned.

The number of pilots joining the service and the arrival of aircraft for the American squadrons soon made the airdromes too crowded for continued sharing of Allied facilities. In addition, the organization of the American flying units to support American ground forces. New airfields appeared behind the trenches assigned to American divisions. These hastily established fields usually consisted of tents and corrugated tin buildings in any area level enough to allow aircraft to take off and land. Whereas the British and French fields were close to towns to allow for supply deliveries by train to established depots, American squadrons were far from the towns and required new rail lines and railheads. Until these could be built, food fuel, ammunition, and spare parts had to arrive by truck over roads often in poor condition.

At these new airdromes the American pilots longed for the comforts of "an easy chair, magazines, and a piano."22 Cold soup eaten in leaking tents under "an awful combination of fog and rain which makes flying impossible and life on the ground unbearable did little to improve their state of mind.23 Though they joked about the "famous St. Maixent sulphur baths," the living conditions, especially for those who had seen the conditions at the Allied airdromes, made the Americans compare their situation to living in the trenches, though most realized that conditions were not that bad.24 The aircraft, stored in their metal sheds, were better protected from the elements than the pilots. There was growing anger against the Allies for forcing the American ground troops into the trenches in the poorest positions, which in turn forced the aviators to the desolate areas behind these positions. The mud and the cold caused building resentment and frustration.

Their lot improved with the weather and the possibility of flying, however, and the pilots wrote less about living conditions and more of their activities during periods of good weather. Not all pilots flew on a given day unless there was a major ground offensive in progress. The daily routine in most squadrons consisted of patrols, alerts, and administrative and work details.

For the pursuit squadrons, patrols of between 3 to 10 aircraft would fly at dawn, midmorning, noon, afternoon, and evening, weather and lighting conditions permitting. These patrols would escort American observation aircraft, which flew in daily patrols of two to six airplanes, or would go "hunting" on their own. Alert flights of two to four scout planes would remain on the ground, waiting for telephone messages from observation posts at the front in case they were needed on short notice. Pilots assigned to a patrol or to alert status were "saved" from the administrative and work details.

Due to the lack of supply officers in the Signal Corps, squadrons used flying officers for these and other positions. While some squadrons had one officer who did the work on a regular basis, most used a rotating list for these assignments. One hapless aviator wrote of "spending an [sic] sunny afternoon poking around in the supply shed counting ammunition boxes."25 Other pilots were assigned paperwork, a job that most despised except when writing their own racy, colorful accounts of a combat report.

The pilots also supervised groups working on the rail lines or roads that supplied the squadron, working on leveling the grass field used for taking off and landing, or building permanent barracks.26 They also worked on a system of drainage ditches, which were hailed as engineering wonders if they reduced the mire in which the tents were erected to a condition that could be called "pleasantly damp."27

The war was never very far away, however, even in the daily routine. German pilots, taking advantage of the lack of antiaircraft defenses, strafed airfields, their machine guns "kicking up great geysers of mud."28 Gun positions with light aircraft machine guns set on swivels soon made the Germans more wary, but the attacks continued until the last weeks of the war.

Observers at the airdrome could see their friends surrounded by black puffs of antiaircraft fire as their aircraft passed over the front on their return home.29 It was while supervising a barracks-building detail that Douglas Campbell observed Eddie Rickenbacker land his Nieuport 28 "with all the fabric from his top wing torn away."30

Other emergency landings did not end so well. The sight of a crippled plane landing with a dead observer and a pilot coughing up his lungs was no less terrible for being commonplace. Even without a major offensive in progress, pilots and observers continued to die, and oftentimes the deaths were just as gruesome as those in the trenches. These deaths were made more shocking due to their dramatic contrast to the routine of the flying field, where the sounds of artillery on the front were heard constantly but the effects rarely seen. In this respect death seemed an intrusion and an aberration in the daily life of the flying units.

To get away from the strain of combat flying, aviators sought means of recreation within the squadrons and on leave. Those on liberty usually went to Paris, and some with extended periods of leave could cross the Channel to England and get even farther from the war.

Paris had bars and hotels for the exclusive use of Allied airmen, so that even during times of relaxation pilots were surrounded by other aviators and invariably ended up "talking shop."31 Pilots argued the various merits of their aircraft, and at times came to blows over what unit had downed the most enemy airplanes. Some inquired about those in other units whom they had known in the United States or in flight school, only to receive the terse reply "gone."

Those who avoided the company of other pilots in Paris were reminded of war in other ways. One pilot estimated that one of every five women in Paris wore black to mourn a son, father, or husband killed on the front.32 Men in Paris were of three types: too old for services young men on leave, or young men crippled by war wounds. Nighttime raids by German Gotha bombers were infrequent, but searchlights and defensive guns lining busy thoroughfares were constant reminders of the war. It was indeed difficult to forget about conflict.

Recreation in the squadrons consisted of pastimes such as teams sports, and the open flying fields lent themselves to such activities. British, French, and Italian aviators played soccer, while Americans normally played baseball. Although Americans took pride in their "peculiarly American" sport, some squadrons adopted the European pastime in order to join intra-Allied tournaments with other units.33 Unfortunately, the war intruded even during these periods of recreating. Games would come to a standstill as squadrons members watch one of their own aircraft slip through the flak bursts on its way back from patrol. Landing aircraft and medical emergencies made it difficult "to get nine innings in," one pilot noted wryly.34

At times American squadrons would be invited to dine at French, British, or Italian airfields. These were enjoyable affairs because, as Douglas Campbell noted, these Allies not only had the best planes but also the best food the best pianos.35 From these meetings came the traditions the American pilots borrowed for their own use. Serving tea at four every afternoon became as common mess tents as in British squadrons.36 Pianos appeared in those squadrons with permanent mess halls and were jealously guarded against "thieves" from other units.

In addition to the adoption of these traditions, the Americans noted that their Al1ied counterparts had a certain type of style and chivalry. The Americans saw the flagraising and flag-lowering ceremonies by the French and British as a show of pride, and they instituted the strict observance of such rituals in their own squadrons. Some squadrons copied toasts "to the King " at evening meals, but "raising one's glass to the President" did not seem "nearly so grand."37 The practice of dropping notes on enemy airdromes, informing them of the death or detention of one of their pilots, was a tradition scrupulously observed by all the air services, German as well as Allied. The 95th Aero Squadron learned of Lt Quentin Roosevelt's death in this fashion.38

Despite these outer trappings of chivalry and style, the Americans also noted an underlying current of cynicism in the Allied air forces. When one American pilot complained during dinner of the difficulty of hitting aircraft in flight, Edward Mannock, the leading British ace, replied, "When you shoot, don't aim for the plane, aim for the pilot."39Allied airmen were tired of the war and seemed to feel little good would come from it. The Europeans were ready for the war to end after four years, and the American airmen began to echo that feeling.

The Armistice, which took effect on 11 November 1918, seemed at first to answer the desires of all combatants of all nationalities. The war that had begun in August 1914 was over, and even the American pilots, some who had been in combat for only a few weeks, were glad to see it end. For American forces in Europe, the Armistice seemed to signify a return home.

For many American units, however, this was not to be. They were part of the Allied occupation forces in Germany and Austria-Hungary and did not return home until after June 1919. Restrictions on travel prevented many Americans from seeing much of Europe on what, for most, was their only visit. Conversation and other relations with the civilian population of Germany were also forbidden, although there was little inclination to engage in such activities due to the language barrier and to the fact that German shops and restaurants had little to offer but "scraps of meat, barley coffee, or black 'war' bread."40

With little flying or sight-seeing to do, and thinking of their return home, some pilots began writing personal accounts of their combat experiences, more for the benefit of family and friends than for any desire to become a published writer. Although these narratives are often racy, colorful, adventurous accounts tinged with comedy, there are times when a serious side shows through, revealing personal contemplation of the war and its aftermath.

The zeal for life of the young pilots could not obscure in their writings the fact that they found war a very disillusioning experience. "The war for democracy doesn't seem to have accomplished anything," observed one pilot after seeing the poor conditions of civilians in Germany and the desolate battle zones that "crisscross France like a twisted scar."41 "War is the failure of human understanding and wisdom," wrote another.42 Writing on an alien continent, occupying an alien country, Lt Curtis Kinney asked, "Was it our fight? Indeed, was it anyone's fight?"43 This disillusionment is reflected in a poem written by Kinney while serving with the occupation forces:


We flew together
In the tall blue sky.
We fought together
With bombs and gains.
We ate together
In the squadron mess.
We danced together
To the old gramophone.
We walked together
In the fields of France.
We talked together
Of home and tomorrow.
We flew together
In the tall blue sky.
Many were killed;
The world is no better.

Many other writers of the period asked the same questions, and as there were few answers, the questions gave way to expressions of bitterness and anguish. Phrases such as "universal crucifixion" and "the world's youth murdered" were examples of this sentiment.44 Most aviators agreed with the general postwar impression that the Great War had accomplished nothing.

The aerial warfare of World War I had little effect on the outcome of the war itself, and American involvement in the air war played a very minor role in the conflict. What made the evolution of air combat during the war so important is that it marked the evolution of the airplane from a curious invention into a military weapon. The rise of the concept of airpower later in the twentieth century was due to the air combat during the Great War, and the future US Air Service, US Army Air Forces, and the US Air Force saw their beginnings in the men who flew from grass airfields in borrowed aircraft. How these men viewed this first air war formed the basis for US military aviation.

The men who volunteered for the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps passed through this country's first mass flight training program, and their views of the training caused changes in the system that brought it to its present form. The pilots were awed by the technology their aircraft represented, and they secretly wondered about its capacity to kill them. Their experiences with their aircraft would be paralleled by the experiences of those who followed. The primitive living conditions, where they lived isolated from the immediate effects of the war but always aware of its presence as missing men and machines testified, were much the same in later conflicts. The aviators' efforts to find relief from the war, from leave to baseball to the officers' clubs, are the same as those used today. Their attempts to establish traditions within the new organization are still present in today's Air Force. Even the postwar opinions about the war that were formed and developed through their experiences from pilot training to the Armistice and after provide valuable lessons.

For the average person, the air action of the First World War provides an interesting and exciting contrast to some of the other aspects of that conflict. The romanticist can envision a last revival of the age of chivalry, when men dueled each other under a common code of honor. In reality, flying was not as full of excitement and heroics as some and the pilots of that period provide ample testimony. Thousands died in the air, just as many more died on the ground, and oftentimes the deaths above were just as gruesome as those below. The war in the air was more personal, but that did not make it more glorious.


1. James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1968), 3; Lucien H. Thayer, America's First Eagles (San Jose, Calif.: R. James Bender Publishing, 1983), 5. Information on the condition of the Aviation Section is taken from these two sources.

2. Hudson, 300.

3. Ibid., 26. The three bases were San Diego, California; Mineola, Long Island; and Essington, Pennsylvania.

4. Hiram Bingham, An Explorer in the Air Service (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1920), 20. A Yale University professor of history, Doctor Bingham was commissioned a major in the Signal Corps and placed in charge of the flight-training program in the United States. He was considered qualified for the post due to his varied background. He obtained his PhD from Harvard in 1905 and won national attention for his exploration of the route of Simon Bolivar across Venezuela and Colombia in 1907. He learned to fly in 1915 and joined the Connecticut National Guard in 1916.

5. Ibid., 30.

6. Diaries of J. Loy Maloney, vol. 1, 14 November 1917, Special Collections Branch, United States Air Force Academy Library.

7. Henry W. Dwight to his mother, 3 November 1917, Henry W. Dwight Papers Collection, 1917-1961, Special Collections Branch, United States Air Force Academy Library.

8. William P. Taylor, Items (Falls Church, Va.: Ajay Enterprises, 1917), 13.

9. Charles C. Tansill, America Goes to War (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1938), 29.

10. Allan Parr to his family, 6 February 1918, Dwight Papers.

11. Norman Archibald, Heaven High, Hell Deep: 1917-1918 (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, Inc. 1935), 12.

12. Thayer, 307.

13. Giorgio Evangelist, "American Pilots at Foggia," American Aviation Historical Society Journal 23 (Winter 1978): 278.

14. Allan Parr to his family, 11 June 1918, box 1, Dwight Papers.

15. Archibald, 65. Butyrate dope is a putty used to smooth the canvas or fabric skin of the aircraft and make it water-resistant.

16. Ibid., 80.

17. Henry Dwight to his family, 28 May 1918, box 1, Dwight Papers.

18. Edward V. Rickenbacker, Fighting the Flying Circus (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 61-62, 90-91.

19. Douglas Campbell to his father, 22 July 1918, box 1, Dwight Papers.

20. William P. Taylor and F. L. Irvin, comps., History of the 148th Aero Squadron (Lancaster, Pa.: Tri-County Publishing Co., 1957), 31.

21. Thayer, 105.

22. Archibald, 86.

23. Douglas Campbell to his father, 8 November 1918, box 1, Dwight Papers.

24. 639th Aero Squadron, US Army, 639th Aero Squadron Book (Berkeley, Calif.:Lederer, Street, and Zeus Co., 1920), 23.

25. Richard Ashley Blodgett to his mother, 3 May 1918. Cited in Mabel Fuller Blodgett's Life and Letters of Richard Ashley Blodgett (Boston: MacDonald and Evans Printers, 1965).

26. Ibid., 5 May 1918.

27. Ibid.

28. Arch Whitehouse, The Ace from Arizona (New York: Award Books, 1966), 66.

29. K. W. Clendenin comp., 147th Aero Squadron 1918 (Parkersburg, W. Va.: K. W. Clendenin, 1964), 6. Black puffs marked German antiaircraft shell-bursts, due to their being explosive shells. Allied AAA was usually white, as they were shrapnel shells. Both were fired at American pilots on occasion.

30. Douglas Campbell to his father, 17 May1918, Dwight Papers.

31. Whitehouse, 47.

32. Curtis Kinney and Dale M. Titler, I Flew a Camel (Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co., 1972), 65.

33. Whitehouse, 77.

34. 639th Aero Squadron Book, 27.

35. Douglas Campbell to his father, 23 August 1918, Dwight Papers.

36. Henry Dwight to his family, 22 October 1918, Dwight Papers.

37. Allan Parr to his sister, 29 September 1918, Dwight Papers.

38. Rickenbacker, 155.

39. Kinney, 42.

40. Diaries of Maloney, 9 January 1919, vol. 5:37.

41. Henry Dwight to his parents, 19 January 191, Dwight Papers.

42. Allan Parr to his sister, 3 February 1919, Dwight Papers.

43. Kinney, 112.

44. James J. Hudson, "Captain Ray Claflin Bridgman: The Man `Who Hated War with His Whole Soul," Aerospace Historian 34 (Summer/June 1987): 114.


Cadet First Class W. Kevin Durden is presently a student at the United Sates Air Force Academy attached to cadet Squadron 01.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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