Updated: Oct 18, 2018
28 September 1918
While returning from a successful Artillery Adjustment mission, Observer Lt. Elmer Haslett of the 12th Aero Squadron happened upon four enemy fighters about to pounce on friendly allied balloons. What follows is an excerpt from his book Luck on the Wing, Thirteen Stories of a Sky Spy published in 1920. What Haslett doesn't tell you is he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on this date.
"I shuddered as I thought of being forced to jump from one of those bags in case of attack."
There was no doubt in my mind but that we should call it a day, so, we were homeward bound
with that intention. From a strictly military standpoint we were proud enough of our performance and as we winged our way along I took things easy but kept casually looking about the sky to see that we were not taken unawares by any stray patrols. Looking ahead I saw the friendly captive balloons lolling along peaceably enough and my mind was centered pretty largely upon the seemingly monotonous existence of the men in the balloons who had to
stay in one position for hour after hour, but I shuddered as I thought of being forced to jump from one of those bags in case of attack. After all, I was glad I was in an airplane instead of a balloon.
For quite a while it seemed that we were lower than the balloons, then suddenly the balloons seemed to be considerably below us. My impression was that we were gaining altitude, but upon
consulting my altimeter I found that we were flying at a constant height. One thing was certain, the balloons were getting lower; they no longer lolled, but everything seemed taut. For some reason they were frantically being hauled down. I readily ascertained the reason,—four German Fokkers coming head-on from Hunland with the undeniable intention of either burning the balloons or burning me. I hesitated a moment; the Huns kept straight on and I heaved a big sigh of relief. They were not going to burn me; at least, not for the present. The balloons seemed to be going down mighty slow, and the planes were coming fast. If the Huns could be stopped for only a half-minute the balloons would be safe. Here we were in a very happy position to divert the attack should we care to and also in a very unhappy position if we did not care to, for while it was not our duty to attack, yet indeed, in this case, it was our privilege. My mind was not made up what to do. If we turned to the right we would be directly in their path and above them. From instinct I shook the plane and motioned toward the four Fokkers and before I knew it, the pilot, thinking I intended to attack, started directly toward them.
Now there is a vast difference between maneuvering for the purpose of diverting and maneuvering for the purpose of attack, for had it been one or two planes I would not have hesitated to attack under the circumstances, but I want to say that I'll wait a long, long time before attacking four fast enemy Fokkers of my own accord under any circumstances.
It is surprising how rapidly two planes, when approaching each other from opposite directions, can come together, for before I had time to actually realize what was happening we were in the midst of a one-sided running fight in which we were doing the running and in which the Germans were peppering lead into us from all sides.
We had accomplished our mission for when the German planes attacked us, it guaranteed that they would not be able to attack the balloons, which would have plenty of time to be hauled down to a position of safety at their beds. While the diverting was successful, the diversion of diverting was not, for we still had to get ourselves out of the mess.
"...we had been completely outmaneuvered, for we were headed straight and going farther and farther into Germany. "
We were going in some direction, but which direction it was I didn't know and did not care. Right after us were these four Fokkers. This was the first opportunity I had ever had to make a comparison of the Salmson plane in a running fight. It was wonderful, for while the Germans were a little faster, it was hardly noticeable. The horrible truth of our predicament did not dawn upon me until, by some hunch; I looked at the ground during the fight and saw already considerably behind us, the village of Montfaucon, which is so clearly and unmistakably discernible from the air. I realized we had been completely outmaneuvered, for we were headed straight and going farther and farther into Germany. No wonder the Boche had not closed in on us. They were simply leading us to our slaughter on their own ground, or even worse, if we did survive we would be prisoners of war, a thought I had always dreaded much more than death, for once in flying over Pagny-sur-Meuse in the Saint Mihiel fight, I saw the thousands of Huns we had captured packed in bull pens like so many cattle. From this I preferred death to prison. Dropping my machine guns for the moment I violently pulled the cords that were tied to the pilot's arms and emphatically motioned him to turn completely around. He seemed to think that we were headed toward home and was extremely obstinate. The situation was serious; it was no time for discussion. I was sure of my direction. Reaching over the cockpit I frantically struck him on the shoulder and demanded that he turn around.
Then they tried a formation I had never seen before. Climbing about two hundred feet above and on all sides of us, they kept making a series of short dives, each plane firing about twenty-five rounds at each dive.
We turned and as we did the Germans realized that we had found ourselves and the battle royal
ensued. The leader came first and behind him the three others in good formation, throwing two singing streams of fire from each plane, for in attacking balloons they used incendiary bullets. The leader, to my mind, was the only one that seemed to have had experience—he was, indeed, good—but the rest of them I thought were boobs—they did not seem to have the least bit of initiative, always waiting for the leader and doing exactly whatever he did first. Then they tried a formation I had never seen before. Climbing about two hundred feet above and on all sides of us, they kept making a series of short dives, each plane firing about twenty-five rounds at each dive. The object of this was undoubtedly to get our morale and if possible force us down without
taking a chance on coming close where machine gun fire could -become effective. This was to our advantage for we were making time toward home and I only had one full magazine of ammunition left and it was all in my right gun.
Upon seeing that we were not falling for their cunning ruse the leader became unusually bully and came directly upon us. I let him have it for a burst of about forty rounds which I knew went into his plane and at the end of which he had gone under my tail in a dive. It looked as if I had gotten him. With typical precision the other three came deliberately aimed my gun upon the nearest, greatly encouraged in the belief that I had gotten the leader. Their bullets of fire were going into my plane, but with a most deliberate aim I again pulled the trigger. It would not fire. At most I had only sixty rounds left, but even in sixty rounds there was hope. The gun was jammed and I could not get the magazine off to put it on the other gun. I was desperate. How close the three came I do not know, but seeing my predicament they realized my helplessness and
pounced upon me like a toy target. Frantically I worked at the gun, my hands bruised and bleeding, hopelessly trying to unlock the jam for a last chance with life. If I only had something to fit in the cocking piece to give me enough leverage to clear that jam. In my mad desperation and hopelessness I looked around for something to hurl—anything to get them away. There was nothing to be done—it was all up with us. By chance I glanced into the bottom of the cockpit and on the floor my eyes caught sight of a Very pistol which had been left in the plane by the observer on the previous mission whose duty it had been to find the front line of our advanced
A Very pistol is a gun resembling an ordinary pistol, except that it has a wide barrel. It is used to eject brilliant fire rockets as a signal from the airplane to the infantry. These signals vary with the number of stars fired. For instance, a rocket of six stars means ''Where are yon? Show your
panels." whereupon the Infantry displays its white panels of cloth, while three rockets indicates
"Understood" upon which the Infantry takes in its panels of white cloth.
"I grabbed this Very pistol in a wild effort to throw it as a last means of defense..."
I grabbed this Very pistol in a wild effort to throw it as a last means of defense, but the three had
already passed under my tail, while to my disappointing surprise, I discovered that I had not gotten the leader as I had thought—he was coming up under my tail, already firing. The others seemed to be getting their formation behind him. As the leader came up under me in a final blow of death, I madly drew the pistol back in a position to hurl it at him when the sudden idea struck me that if it were loaded I would have a chance to set him afire. The cartridge was intact—it was ready to be fired. Amidst his volley of fire, I reached far over the cockpit and as the leader passed beneath me, I fired. The charge missed him completely, but directly behind him burst the signal—six flaming stars which brilliantly floated slowly on toward earth. My last chance had failed.
"Approaching me again was the leader, but where were the other three?"
Suddenly resigned to my fate I awaited the onrush of the other three—I was sure it was only a matter of seconds—I had no defense. To my absolute surprise the first of the three violently tilted his plane, banked to the right, and the other two followed. I was at a loss to understand this move; then came another thought—there was still a chance. Rapidly ejecting the empty cardboard shell from the Very pistol I attempted to adjust the barrel to the cocking piece of my jammed machine gun. It fitted—here was the needed instrument of leverage—with all my
force I jerked—something gave way and I fell to the other side of the cockpit—from the side of the gun there hung a mashed defective cartridge and the jam was cleared. With luck, there were fifty or sixty bullets left. Approaching me again was the leader, but where were the other three? I glanced back—they were still headed to the right—they had left the fight. Calmly I waited his onslaught. Boldly coming up with the certain knowledge that I was still helpless and certainly his easy prey, he came, for nothing but wonderful luck on our part and rotten shooting on theirs had saved us so far. This time he did not fire until he had dead aim, nor did I fire until I had dead aim. Following his approach with extreme care and closest possible adjusted sights, I waited. When I was sure, I pulled the trigger—I don't know how many rounds he fired, but only a few, for my aim had been true—his guns suddenly stopped—his plane climbed steeply, even up beyond me, then tumbled over in a sort of half loop and began to swish away helplessly to one side
and then to the other, like a falling leaf—at last it dived headlong and from its last dive it never
"I'm going to stay on the ground the rest of my life.."
My ammunition was gone, but to the greatest of luck and horseshoes, I attributed the fact that the other three planes were also gone. In a few moments more we again passed over Montfaucon and crossed the lines. The balloons were just beginning to rise again. "Well," I thought as we passed them, "you seem to be safe enough this time, and I must say I
admire you for going up again so soon after such a narrow escape, but for me—never again! I'm going to stay on the ground the rest of my life."
Of course, I often wondered why those other three Huns had left the fight. Here is the solution of the mystery. At Christmas time, three months later, I was in Coblenz, on the Rhine. The war was over and we were a part of the Army of Occupation. Under the terms of the Armistice the Germans had to turn over two hundred airplanes to the Americans and were to send twenty German flyers along to test the planes in the presence of competent American judges
before they were accepted. Late in the evening, after a joyous Christmas dinner, at which wine and merriment abounded, an orderly came in and told us there were two German officers to report. We found that they were two of the flyers detailed by the German Government to turn over the planes. One of them was a lad named Donhauser, who claimed to have shot down twenty-six allied planes, among them Quentin Roosevelt; the other was a lad named Teske, who also was an Ace. We invited them to join us, and during the conversation that followed it was interesting to note the many battle fronts over which we had fought against each other. Upon
discussing the Argonne it developed that Donhauser 's squadron was opposite the area in which I had this fight on the twenty-eighth of September, so, I took occasion to clear up the incomprehensible reason why these three had left the fight. I casually asked him if at a certain hour, at a certain place, on a certain date, he had a patrol, evidently bent upon attacking balloons, diverted by a bi-place observation plane.
He took out a little book from his pocket and after hastily scanning the well-kept notes, he looked up and said, "Was one of the Deutschen planes shot down?" I answered "Yes."
"Do you know if it was the leader?" he inquired. I told him I thought it was. He again verified the time and the place and then opened up.
This was his story:
"The leader, who was shot down, was an exceptionally good flyer and had several victories to his
credit. There was something queer about it—in the squadron it was known as the 'Mystery Mission' for the reason that three of the German planes left the fight when the Observation Plane was absolutely helpless with jammed machine guns. They claimed that the German leader had fired a signal rocket to them, which was their signal for that day which meant for all the planes to leave the fight at once as larger allied patrols were approaching."
He explained that the German theory was that in obeying the signal the three German planes had left the fight, but the leader, being a very daring fighter, took a last chance, hoping to get away before the reinforcements arrived, and in attacking the observation plane alone, was shot down. He also said that this was the story the three had told, who all claimed to have seen the signal fired by their leader. Even at that they were threatened with court-martial for
cowardice in leaving the combat and deserting their leader, and they were only saved by several German officers, who had also seen the same signal from the ground, testifying in their behalf.
Thus—the mystery was cleared—the Very pistol had saved the day. It was, after all, better that I
had not set the leader afire with the flaming rockets. Indeed, they had served a greater use.
Haslett, E. (1920). Luck on the Wing Thirteen Stories of a Sky Spy. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton and Company.