Updated: Jan 16, 2019
On 5 July 1918, the 12th Aero Squadron received an urgent mission to photograph enemy lines. Fighter escort would be provided but the 12th sent two of its own planes as escort to assure success.[i] Pilot Fred Luhr and Observer Benjamin Harwood volunteered along with another crew to protect the photo plane.[ii] Once airborne, the fighter escort failed to materialize. The12th pressed ahead anyway fully aware their destination was in enemy territory rife with German air patrols.[i]
The mission progressed smoothly until the photo plane completed its first photo run. While setting up for the second run, Harwood spotted exhaust trails in the sun, a tell-tale sign of an impending attack.[i] Seven enemy planes dove on the formation.[iii] One singled out Harwood and Luhr.
Harwood notified his pilot Fred Luhr who immediately jockeyed for position.[i] Harwood pressed the trigger getting out a short burst before both his guns jammed.[i] The German returned the favor unleashing a hail of bullets at Harwood and Luhr. Tracers and lead shredded their plane’s fabric skin. Bullets ripped the goggles off Harwood’s face. They pierced his fuel tank and engine.[i] Harwood amid this storm managed to clear the jam and fire a few rounds only to have it hopelessly jam again. Harwood now defenseless, informed Frank it was time to go and that he should “beat it to the right of the sun and look for the river.”[i] The river was their landmark for friendly territory.
Luhr dove for home reaching accelerating to 160mph while jinking and jerking violently to throw off the attacker’s aim.[i] Poor Harwood was thrown all over the cockpit. Only his sturdy restraints kept him from being thrown clear of the plane.[i] At treetop height Benjamin and Fred found themselves finally over the river. They had made it to friendly lines! Anticipating a crash landing, Harwood spotted American troops swimming in the river and frantically signaled for help.[i] The troops failing to understand his distress, enthusiastically waived back to Harwood.[i]
Racing ever lower Luhr headed for a wheat field to make his forced landing.[i] Only a few feet above the field, wheat stalks grabbed his landing gear wrenching the plane nose first into the earth.[i] Their craft flipped end over end until finally coming to rest on its back.
Once the dust and noise settled, Harwood found himself dangling upside down in his harness, being doused in gasoline from the ruptured fuel tank.[i] Luhr and Harwood unbuckled falling heavily to the ground and began to assess their situation. Luhr, was unscathed.[i] An amazing outcome considering his headrest had been shot away.[i] Harwood was wounded but alive. Bullets grazed his forehead, chin and neck along with at least seven bullet holes in his flight suit.[iii] They found nearly forty bullet holes in their plane.
Records don’t detail the full extent of Harwood’s wounds but they were serious enough to require hospitalization and cause Harwood to worry he might be transferred out of the 12th Aero Squadron.[i] Harwood checked out of the hospital the next day and rejoined the 12th to complete his recovery.[i]
Luhr and Harwood’s engagement delayed the enemy long enough for the photo plane to escape the attack and complete its important mission.[ii] Harwood was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. The citation is listed below.
Action Date: July 5, 1918
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9,
1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to First Lieutenant (Air Service) Benjamin P. Harwood, United States Army Air Service, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 12th Aero Squadron, U.S. Army Air Service, A.E.F., near Chateau-Thierry, France, 5 July 1918. Lieutenant Harwood volunteered with another plane to protect a photograph plane. In the course of their mission they were attacked by seven planes (Fokker type). Lieutenant Harwood accepted the combat and kept the enemy engaged while the photographic plane completed its mission. His guns jammed and he himself was seriously wounded. After skillfully clearing his guns, with his plane badly damaged, he fought off the hostile planes and enabled the photographic plane to return to our lines with valuable information.” [iii]
[i] Gordon, Denis. 1979. "Montana's Birdmen of World War I." Montana The Magazine of Western History. Retrieved from: https://mhs.mt.gov/Portals/11/education/WWI/Montana%27s%20Birdmen%20of%20World%20War%20I_1.pdf on 4 July 2018.
[ii] 2016. Accessed 05 19, 2018. http://valor.militarytimes.com.
[iii] U.S. Government. 1918. "Stars and Stripes France." Ten Boche Bullets Nicked this Flyer, July 12.