Rain & Fire | Saint Mihiel Part II
12 September 1918
1:00 AM Toul Airfield, France
It was late.
Lt. Burdette Wright, labored late into the night studying and preparing his charts for the 12th’s first mission of the Saint Mihiel campaign.[i] Satisfied he’d sufficiently prepared, Lt.
Image: NASM-9A11573-121 from Paul R. Stockton Collection National Air and Space Museum
Wright headed for bed. As he slept, flashes lit up the northern sky.[i] Distant thunder from American batteries rumbled through the darkness. Lt. Wright and his roommate Lt. Robert Paradise slept through those early hours until roused by the guard. Their hour had come.
After donning their uniforms they made their way to the kitchen. Lieutenants Schnur and Bowman, Wright and Paradise’s backup for this mission,[i] were already there. They ate their breakfast of pancakes and coffee before trudging through the dark, damp air to the hangar.
It was poor flying weather yet their spirits were high. Today was Wright’s 25th birthday and the codes for the area they were to patrol were B.S.W., Lt. Wright’s very initials.[i] These seemed good omens and buoyed the men’s mood.
Inside the hangar, they found every piece of equipment neatly laid out for their inspection.[i] The wireless radio, magazines, machine guns, pistol, flying clothes — it was all there. Sergeant “Red” Russel and his men worked painstakingly through the night ensuring the plane was in the best possible condition.[i] They understood this was an important mission and they did their part to make certain it would be a successful one.
At 0430, Red and the boys helped Lt. Wright and Lt. Paradise into their ungainly “teddy suits” or flying clothes.[i] These coveralls protected the crew from frigid temperatures experienced at altitude and were very difficult to put on. Lt. Bob Paradise and Lt. Burdette Wright climbed into their plane awaiting dawn.[i] In thirty minutes time, the American infantry would go “over the top.” During the wait, the men likely made small talk or exchanged good-humored words with the ground crew to stifle any nerves before the big mission. Wright and Paradise noticed a little black cat walking on their lower wing.[i] One of the men thought it would be good luck. Paradise, felt otherwise and leaned over to the cat. Wright overheard him saying something to the effect of “We’ve had enough coincidences for one trip,” and the cat is removed.[i]
Image: U.S. Army Signal Corps 111-SC-40204
Pale light crept into the eastern sky. The time had come. Paradise fired up the nine cylinder Canton-Unne 9Za bringing the 260 horse power engine to life[ii]. Wright tests his wireless radio while the engine warmed up.[i] Once ready, Paradise advanced the throttle and their mighty Salmson bounded into the air.
Low hanging clouds force them to stay low. Lt. Paradise leveled off 900 feet above the ground[iii] and pointed the nose northeast, towards Pont-à-Mousson on the Moselle River.[i] Beneath them flaming tongues[i] leapt into the darkness as three thousand artillery cannons hurled what would become a total of 3.3 million shells toward German positions.[iv] The horizon flashed confirming the destination of the barrage.[i] Explosions burst forth in rapid succession heaving earth into a roiling mess.
As Wright and Paradise passed the balloon line, they waved at the nearest balloon.[i] The observers dangling precariously in their wicker gondola under the sausage shaped hydrogen gas bag happily return the salutations.
At Pont-à-Mousson, Wright set to work monitoring the advance.[i] He could see troops advancing behind a creeping barrage of artillery shells.[i] A smoke screen in front of them provided cover from German guns. Occasionally, trench mortars sporadically launched thermite shells sending “a regular fountain of molten rain, far ahead of the troops.”[i]
Paradise fought to hold the Salmson steady in the turbulent air. Thousands of Allied shells screaming through the morning sky transformed the normally tranquil air into a cacophony of boiling air currents and bumps.[i] Wright fired a six-star rocket (the signal to the infantry to identify their position)[i] then leaned over the plane ignoring the danger of ground fire while searching for the troops.
A few minutes later, Wright felt Paradise shake the plane, warning Wright an enemy plane is near.[i] The two had been a flying team and roommate for weeks now and knew the other’s mind well. Looking up, Wright immediately spotted the trouble, an observation plane sporting large black iron crosses appeared about seventy feet below.[i]
Wright swung his guns at the enemy only but finds his right wing blocking the shot. Paradise banked to the left to get the wing out of the way but it’s too late.[i] German fired first. Wright, not to be outdone returned the favor, unleashing a broadside into the German’s cockpit.[i] The German decided he’d had enough and headed away towards Germany.
Soon Paradise and Wright spotted six more enemy fighter planes and decide to make use of the little time they have left to complete the mission.[i] Fortunately, they are successful and to deliver their intelligence to headquarters.[i]
Image NASM-NASM-9A11506from Paul R. Stockton Collection National Air and Space Museum
On the way back to their home airfield, the engine begun to struggle but held together long enough to get them to Toul, their home airfield.[i]
They land safely at 0720.[ii] Closer inspection of their aircraft revealed several bullet holes in their wings and a hole in the gas tank— the source of the engine trouble.[i]
Lt. Paradise is convinced this is the fault of the black cat but Wright insists the cat is the reason they came home safe.[i]
By 0600, Gregory and Hyman launched to perform an artillery adjustment mission.[ii] While out there, they got wrapped up in a dogfight. Gregory and Hymen brought one of their attackers down.[ii] Unfortunately, they never received credit for their victory.
At 0605 a crew aborted their mission due to engine trouble.[ii]
At 0650, Lts Smith and Keely flew a 2 hour 15 minute artillery adjustment mission.[ii]
Schnur and Bowman, Wright’s backup crew earlier that morning,[i] flew the 12th’s second infantry contact mission launching at 0735, just fifteen minutes after Wright landed.[ii] They spent nearly two hours over the lines flying between 900 and 1,600 feet working with the 5th Infantry Division.[ii]
Thayer, the squadron’s poet, and McClurg were up in the air by 0900 adjusting artillery fire. Their flight lasted 2hrs and 15min.[ii]
At 1045, Orr and Henderson departed on the squadron’s third infantry contact patrol.ii Conditions forced them to fly as low as 350 feet![ii]
All day the 12th battled low clouds, rain and the enemy. They were keenly aware no matter how miserable conditions were in the air it was worse for troops on the ground. Conditions were so poor Carner and Radcliff were unable to complete their artillery adjustment mission.[ii]
Maj Brereton, former Commander of the 12th Aero Squadron, now Wing Commander of the Corps Observation Wing, took to
Image from USAF Academy Library Special Collections Division: MS-5 Lt Henry William Dwight
the skies with his observer, Capt Valois on a special reconnaissance mission.[v] They were to observe the line from Lironville, to Limey, Bouillonville and Thiacourt.v While circling over Thiacourt four German Fokker DVIIs pounced.[viii] Capt Valois’ gun jammed and he was wounded in the face.[v] Maj Brereton and his observer were forced down. While attempting to make a crash landing, their plane’s landing gear snagged a barbed wire emplacement destroying the aircraft.v Miraculously, neither Brereton nor Valois were harmed in the wreckage. They were also able to deliver their critical information and complete the mission.[v]
As troops continued to advance, ground messengers from the front failed to get through to headquarters.[vi] Artillery batteries now uncertain of troop locations couldn’t be sure they weren’t shelling their own troops. Artillery batteries not only suppressed enemy fire, they also provided smoke screens giving essential cover to advancing troops. The batteries needed this information to effectively coordinate with the infantry.
Lts. Arthur and Fleeson were dispatched to get the location of the troops and relay their position to headquarters.[vi] Arthur leveled off at 600 feet ducking beneath a low hanging blanket of clouds. Arriving at the zone of advance, nine German fighters dove upon them.vi Arthur evaded while Fleeson beat them back with his twin Lewis machine guns.[vi]
Image from USAF Academy Library Special Collections Division: MS-5 Lt Henry William Dwight
Having chased Arthur away, the Germans returned to their territory. Arthur angled for a better position then headed right back.[vi] The Germans were waiting and promptly reengaged Arthur sending a volley of bullets through his wings driving Arthur away a second time.[vi]
During this encounter Arthur and Fleeson learned why the Germans were so aggressive. They were strafing American troops and didn’t want the Allies to know how far the Americans hadadvanced.[vi] Arthur and Fleeson understood the gravity of the situation. Many more Americans would die if they didn’t find the troops and get their location to headquarters. They talked it over deciding to try again no matter the consequences - one lonely observation plane against nine German Fokkers.[vi]
Arthur descended attempting to sneak past the enemy. This time they got through![vi] Fleeson quickly found the American lines as Arthur maneuvered to avoid the German formation. It was a trap. The nine Fokkers let them through sensing an easy kill. Swooping in they blocked Arthur’s escape route.[vi] All nine planes unleashing a torrent of fire. Fleeson coldy punched back with his twin Lewis guns. One attacker was damaged so badly it peeled away abandoning the fight.[vi] Eight to one the odds were still terrible but Fleeson kept up the fight. Their ship was taking a beating shuttering from impacting bullets. Hot lead shredded the plane’s skin.[vi] A wing strut shattered into a thousand splinters.[vi] Fleeson released a fearsome volley into a Fokker barely 50 feet away when the unthinkable happened.[vi] At treetop height, the Salmson’s control cables snapped.vi Arthur’s control stick fell slack. He was helpless as their Salmson smashed into the earth.[vi]
Dazed from the impact, Arthur, could hear the distant rat-a-tat-tat-tat of Fokker machine guns bearing down on him.[vi] The enemy was strafing the wreck. Arthur barely pulled himself free before the bullets smashed into his plane.[vi] In turn each of the Fokkers swooped in peppering the wreck before heading home.[vi]
One might think this a victory for the Germans but Arthur and Fleeson walked away knowing full well they won the fight. Yes, they had been shot down but they had also learned the location of the American lines and delivered this critical information to headquarters. With this knowledge, artillery batteries could keep up their fire confident they were helping the troops.
Rain and low clouds continued to plague aerial operations.
At 0605, Muller and Read departed on a reconnaissance
flight. Their escort made a forced landing.[ii]
At noon Thayer and McClurg departed on a reconnaissance
flight.[ii] Six enemy aircraft attacked them forcing them to crash land near Pont-à-Mousson.[ii] They were each awarded the Silver Star for this mission.[vii] Unfortunately, their citations have yet to be located so we have no other details.
Image from New England Aviators 1914-1918 . (1919). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Tragedy struck the 12th. While 1st Lt. Edwin Orr and 1st Lt. Alvin C. Goodale a mission, their aircraft struck a cable from an observation balloon.ii Their plane spun into the ground killing both instantly.[i]
That same day after completing his mission, Lt. Wright joined Lt. Radcliff on a motorcycle ride to the front.[i] Radcliff made a forced landing the previous day and was heading back to
retrieve his machine guns. He’d left them at the front in a dugout near Viéville-en-Haye.[i] They passed thousands of trucks and vehicles, before finally arriving at their destination just 1500’ from front lines.[i]
They retrieved his guns and before going back decide to investigate the wreck of a German plane that crashed a day or two ago.[i] While leaving the wreck a German pilot dove down strafing them.[i] American troops returned fire bringing him down. Having had enough excitement for the day Radcliff and Wright decide to head home completing the 53 mile journey in the same day.[i]
Image of Lt. Radcliff: NASM-9A11573-132 from Paul R. Stockton Collection National Air and Space Museum
This last day of the campaign, operations were already winding down. By all accounts, the attack was successful. The Americans and their allies eliminated the salient, captured 15,000 German troops and 450 artillery pieces.[i] It cost the Americans a relatively light 9,000 casualties.[i] It also cost the 12th the lives of Lt. Orr and Lt. Goodale.[ii]
That Sunday, Wright and Paradise visited a nearby town purchasing flowers to drop on Lt Orr and Lt Goodale’s graves.[i] After dinner, the squadron departed for the funeral service. Wright and Paradise fired up their ship, #15 to perform the flyover.[i] Unfortunately, the engine proved unreliable so they took #16 instead.i During the funeral, they accomplished the flyover dropping the flowers they purchased on the graves of Lt. Orr and Lt. Goodale.[i]
It was a difficult loss but it would not be the last for the Meuse Argonne Campaign was less than two weeks away.
Image of Lt. Goodwin retrieved from http://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/NysAAOSwagdXSxG0/s-l1600.jpg, http://www.ebay.com/itm/World-War-I-Roll-of-Honor-1918-Deaths-of-Heros-WWI-38-/371641729026 August 9, 2016
Image of Lt. Orr from Girton, F. (Ed.). (1920). The History and Achievements of the Fort Sheridan Officers' Training Camps. Fort Sheridan Association.
Image of Lt. Orr Headstone: NASM-9A11573-143 from Paul R. Stockton Collection National Air and Space Museum
[i] n.d. burdette-s-wright-diary-1917-1923. https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/burdette-s-wright-diary-1917-1923. National Air and Space Museum.
[ii] Owers, Colin A., Jon S. Guttman, and James J. Davilla. 2001. Salmson Aircraft of World War I. Flying Machine Press.
[iii] Gorrell. n.d. Gorrell's History of the A.E.F. Air Service Section E. Vol 3. Squadron Histories. Washington D.C.2016. Accessed 05 19, 2018. http://valor.militarytimes.com.
[iv] Commission, American Battlefield Monuments. 1938. AMERICAN ARMIES AND BATTLEFIELDS IN EUROPE A HISTORY, GUIDE, AND REFERENCE BOOK. UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE.
[v] Alabama, The Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center Maxwell AFB. 1979. The U S Air Service In World War I vol III. The Office of Air Force History.
[vi] Richardson, James M. 1931. "Popular Aviation." At the Mercy of the Enemy, April: 3-12, 64.
[vii] 2016. Accessed 05 19, 2018. http://valor.militarytimes.com.
[viii] Roger G. Miller. 2000. ""A 'Pretty Damn Able Commander': Lewis Hyde Brereton: Part I,"." Air Power History 47 (4): 4-28.
USAFA Library Special Collections. n.d. "Henry Williams Dwight (MS 5)." Accessed May 19, 2018. https://afac.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/default/?rm=HENRY+WILLIAMS0%7C%7C%7C1%7C%7C%7C0%7C%7C%7Ctrue.
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