June 24th 0400:
Gray overcast clouds hang low in the night sky. For the last week men from the 77th Liberty Division had been funneling into the trenches at night under an ever present rain to replace the 42nd Rainbow Division. Despite their best efforts to keep the transfer secret, the Americans were greeted in the daylight with friendly messages hung under German Observation Balloons welcoming the 77th and bidding the 42nd farewell. On that early morning of the 24th, the ink ridden sky erupted into bright flashes of light and fire. The deadly thunder of artillery fire rumbled through the night. In seconds mud, shrapnel and poisonous mustard and phosgene gas enveloped the Americans as the official German welcome to the 77th was underway. Over 3,000 shells pounded the Americans inflicting 180 casualties.
As day broke, the 12th received an urgent request to locate the 77th’s front lines. Commanders needed to know where to send reinforcements.
Pilot, Lt. John Miller and Observer Lt. Amos Lawrence “Hoppy” Hopkins took to the air to assess the 77th's situation. Once over the Front, Miller and Hopkins set to their work amid intense enemy fire. Not long into the flight, an “archie” (anti-aircraft) shell burst near Hopkins, its shrapnel ripping through his leg and tearing out a chunk of his knee. Hopkins struggled to continue the mission enduring the pain until blood loss until he began to loose
consciousness. Only then did they return to Flin Airfield. After landing, men of the 12th helped lift Hopkins from the plane. Lt. Haslett, was there to help load Hoppy into the ambulance.
The mission still incomplete, Californian Lt. Armin F. Herold and his pilot suited up for the second attempt. Arriving over the lines, Herold finds he cannot locate the troops from a safe altitude. They must get closer. Herold and his pilot descend into the crossfire at about 600 feet. Soon enemy bullets ripped through Herold’s leg shattering his right ankle. Wounded and unable to continue, Herold and his pilot head for home. Back at the airfield, Lt Haslett is eating breakfast when he learns his good friend Herold is wounded and just arrived. Haslett, rushed to the scene as mechanics carefully lift Herold from the plane. Already the 12th suffered two wounded before breakfast was complete. Once assured of Herold’s safety, Haslett, not scheduled to fly that day, returned to the mess hall when Commander Maj Brereton quickly caught up with him.
“Haslett, do you want to go and finish this mission?” A request from the Maj Brereton was out of character for the hard boiled man. As Commander, Brereton often gave orders but he rarely made requests.
Haslett could not honestly say yes but he couldn't bring himself to refuse either. Rather, Haslett silently assented. Without a word he turned to the door to prepare for the mission. Lt. Johnny Miller, the pilot during the first attempt, found the Commander and begged Maj Brereton to let him go again, this time with Haslett. Brereton agreed.
Haslett later stated his mechanics looked as somber as pallbearers as they prepared their plane for flight. Johnny Miller and Elmer Haslett clambered into their obsolete Avion Rennault to make the third attempt. Johnny pressed the throttle forward urging the bounding A.R. into the air. Climbing away their engine failed but Miller was able to bring the plane back for a safe landing.
Miller and Haslett didn't quit. They dismounted and grabbed the only available plane. Climbing aboard this new plane Haslett discovered the cockpit still soaked in Lt. Herold's blood. Just then a concerned Capt “Pop” Hinds, darted across the field to speak with Haslett. "Haslett,” he said. “God bless you, old boy, something tells me this is an off-day, and that you're not going to come back. You've taken too many chances already. I don't want you to go, old man." Haslett, already nursing his courage summoned all he had left when he said. "Pop, don't let it worry you. I'm the luckiest guy in the world—they can't get me." Haslett then wondered how those last words that might look on his tombstone.
Haslett and Miller did finally to get to the lines. To locate troops aerial observers used signal rockets or flares to notify ground troops they were searching for them. Upon sight of the flare, soldiers were to display large white panels indicating their units position. In theory, at least, this was how the system would work. In reality, troops often hid from friendly planes believing them to be hostile, were not equipped with panels or intense fighting made displaying these panels impossible. For two hours, Haslett fired rockets up and down the line attempting to make contact with the troops. They first flew at 500 meters…no contact. They tried 400 meters for 25 minutes…still…no contact. They ventured even lower, firing rockets at 300 meters without success. After firing his last rocket, Haslett and Miller knew what they had to do. Lt Miller descended to the suicidal altitude of 200 feet. Lumbering through the crossfire in their obsolete plane, Haslett finally spotted the troops after identifying individual uniforms of soldiers in combat. He hastily plotted the troops position, relayed the information to Headquarters and returned home, in a plane riddled with bullet.
It was learned later that day no panels were displayed because they had not been issued to the troops. Superiors feared soldiers would get the new panels muddy or cut them into handkerchiefs. A fiery protest from Maj Brereton at Division Headquarters that same day ensured those panels were issued as quickly as possible.
While Maj Brereton was away to lodge his protest, Capt. E. P. “Pop” Hinds crashed on takeoff. Capt Hinds perished in the accident. His observer, Lt. Henderson was severely wounded. The war did not stop.
Soon a call came for an artillery adjustment in preparation for a future attack. Maj Brereton ignoring the unit physician’s call to stop flying for the day, selected Haslett to go with Lt. West as his pilot. Lts Schnur and Lt Stephen Thompson were to provide escort. Haslett did complete the mission but not before narrowly escaping an attack from three enemy Albatross aircraft. Mechanics ceased counting bullet holes in West's and Haslett's plane after identifying twenty two holes.
June 24th was a bitter Monday for the 12th. In a few short hours they suffered three wounded observers and the death of one pilot. Yet despite the losses, they completed their missions. Lts. Herold, Hopkins and Henderson all survived the war. Captain Elliot “Pop” Prindle Hinds did not.
Captain Elliot “Pop” Prindle Hinds
1873 - 1918
Capt Hinds was from New York. He was born in 1873 and at age 45, was the oldest pilot in the American Expeditionary Force. He graduated Cornell University in 1893 and was called to service on 20 July 1917. In October of 1917 he was promoted to Captain and joined the 12th on 30 March 1918. Capt Hinds was often the first to volunteer for a mission. He won handily at officer poker games but used his winnings to purchase tobacco, candy and cigars for the mechanics and enlisted men of the 12th. He was well regarded for his courage and kindness becoming something of a father figure to the men of the 12th earning the nickname “Pop.” His loss was a heavy blow to the 12th. It was an even greater blow to his wife Marie, daughter Evylen (age 12) and son William (age 9). Capt "Pop" Hinds chose to serve his nation on the front lines when there was little such expectations for men his age. His courage and kindness continue to serve as a source of inspiration to this day.
Gorrell, Gorrell's History of the A.E.F. Air Service Section E. Vol 3. Squadron Histories
Haslett, Elmer. Luck on the Wing: Thirteen Stories of a Sky Spy. New York: Dutton , 1920