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This Week in 1918 | Meuse-Argonne

22 September 1918


EDITOR'S NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all descriptions in this article are derived from the Burdette S. Wright Diaries 1917-1918 at the National Air and Space Museum.


Lt Robert Paradise. Image from USAFA Special Collections MS-5 Lt Dwight Collection

On 22 September, the 12th Aero Squadron moved to Remicourt as part of the build-up for the Meuse-Argonne Campaign.


They were given the following orders:

“Under no circumstances will planes proceed within such a distance of the line as to permit their identity being discovered by the enemy. Every effort will be made to prepare for active operation.” [3]


These strict orders were intended to hide Allied preparations for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from the prying eyes of the German military. Germany carefully tracked movements of Allied squadrons by noting the markings of Allied aircraft operating over the lines. Germany also knew wherever the 12th Aero Squadron went, a significant campaign was likely to follow. [2]


26 September 1918


0230

American Artillery began bombarding at German positions in earnest. Nearly 2,700 cannons battered the Germans preparing the way for the American assault. [4]


0445

Lt Wright and Paradise are roused from their slumber. It took a few moments of stretching and yawning to finally shake off the sleep enough to begin the morning routine. Their initial lethargy evaporated into hasty action once out of bed. Cold morning air has a way of providing a sudden burst in motivation. About thirty minutes later, the two emerged from their quarters, headed for breakfast.

At the officer’s mess, they patiently watched the cook coaxing enough heat from a tender fire to bake pancakes and warm coffee. Conversation over their meal centered mostly on the offensive and how well they thought it was going. By now the troops were already "over the top."[4]


0615

This time Lts. Schnur and Bowman were set to fly the first infantry contact mission for the squadron. Wright and Paradise had the honor during the opening of the Saint Mihiel Campaign. As they departed the field, a ground fog rolled in. Fortunately, it wasn’t thick enough to hamper flight operations.


0730

Lt. Paradise and Wright take off on their mission. Beneath them stretched a blanket of fog. Only the tops of hills poked through the white layer. On they flew navigating to the southern edge of the Argonne. Edging closer to the lines, they passed through the Allied balloon line. At times, black smoke erupted from artillery cannons hidden beneath the fog. Their concussions visibly rippled through the clouds like rocks tossed into a pond.


At the front, Wright spotted four other Allied aircraft circling fruitlessly attempting to find the troops under in the fog. For a while, they simply orbited waiting for the sun to melt away the clouds. Gradually the mist drifted to the north providing enough of an opening for Wright to pick out Bourrelle.


Bourrelle was no man’s land. At least was until a few hours ago. Beneath him friendly crews labored to free a tank blocking the rest of its column. They finally prevailed permitting the line of about eighteen tanks to resume their advance.


Stockton Collection NASM-9A11573-111 Wright and Paradise's Plane No.15

Wright could also see the infantry advancing. Behind them lay the wounded and dead strewn among myriads of shell holes. Medics darted from body to body comforting the dying and saving those they could.


Finally the clouds cleared enough for them to see Varennes. Nearing the city, five heavy machine guns opened up on Wright and Paradise. Paradise was able to steer clear. It wasn’t until they got down to 50 meters above the ground that Wright spotted white infantry panels signaling for artillery adjustment. The troops mistakenly sent the wrong signal and Wright correctly understood their intention to mean “light artillery falling on us.” Wright hastily transmitted the message via his wireless to cease the bombardment.


Wright and Paradise were still worried. The troops were pinned down by the same machine gun nest that had fired on Wright. Worse yet, they were only about 300 meters from the nest. If it wasn’t neutralized soon the American infantry would suffer more losses.


Paradise and Wright really weren’t in a great position. By now, their plane was riddled with holes. One of its control surfaces was even missing but it didn’t matter. American lives were at stake. Paradise banked the plane. Swooping low to the ground he began strafing the position with his single front mounted gun. As he passed over the nest, Wright raked it again with his twin Lewis machine guns. It took three daring passes before they silenced the position long enough for the troops to capture it.


Satisfied the troops were safe, Wright continued his work searching for the rest of the troops until he finally lost them under the low clouds. On their way back to deliver their reports to the 1st Army Corps, their engine began to falter. Wright reeled in his wireless antenna and secured his guns as a forced landing seemed inevitable.


The first field Paradise found was entirely unsuitable for landing. The second was no better. The third however, was just right. Despite the damage, Paradise set it down safely. Much relieved, Wright thanked Paradise for the fine landing.


Soon a small crowd of soldiers approached to lend the aviators a hand. Among them was a lineman with a telephone set hanging over his shoulder, just the thing Wright needed. Paradise searched for a guard to watch the plane while Wright went with the lineman to send his reports. The lineman scaled a telephone poll. In short order he patched Wright through to Rarecourt. Wright first sent his report to headquarters. Then he called up the 12th for some mechanics and a ride home.


They did eventually hitch a ride back to headquarters where they confirmed their reports were received. While waiting to be picked up, they caught up on the progress of the advance, played a game of catch and even took side bets on how long before an observation balloon caught fire as they watched a German plane attacking it. At about 1600, they were finally picked up buy members of the the 12th.


Wright and Paradise’s experiences were pretty typical. For them, this was just another day in the life of aerial reconnaissance. Someone thought otherwise and nominated them for the Distinguished Service Cross.


They were eventually both awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions that day.




 

CITATIONS

  1. Notes from the Burdette S Wright Diaries 1918-1919, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Air and Space Museum Archives Dulles

  2. Haslett, E. (2013). Luck on the wing: Recollections of an american aerial observer during the first world war. Place of publication not identified: Leonaur.

  3. Gorrell. (n.d.). Gorrell's History of the A.E.F

  4. Commission, American Battlefield Monuments. 1938. AMERICAN ARMIES AND BATTLEFIELDS IN EUROPE A HISTORY, GUIDE, AND REFERENCE BOOK. UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE.

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