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Wings Without Glory: Two South Carolina Aviators in the Great War

by

William J. Long Curator of Education

SC Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum 301 Gervais Street, Columbia, SC 29021

The WWI aviator has a strong pop culture legacy. From Errol Flynn’s “ Dawn Patrol” and the “Snoopy and the Red Baron” cartoons of Charles Schultz, through the 2006 film “Flyboys” and popular current computer games, those who flew and fought have remained in the public imagination. Our mental picture of WWI in the air tends to be one of dashing fighter pilots engaging in aerial jousting in brightly colored machines high over the static Western Front. Warriors seeking individual combat with one another, they seem to be not only literally “above” the struggle in the trenches, but disconnected from it; their chief concern, their “scores” in numbers of enemy fighter planes shot down.

The struggle for air superiority carried out by the fighter pilots was certainly a very real aspect of the war. It was also certainly a useful one for the various nations who could point to these individualistic heroes to help turn the public mind away from the anonymous slaughter of the battlefields below. However, their war was not disconnected from the larger struggle; they fought for control of the air to assist other airmen, in slower and less agile machines and with far less glamorous roles. Through the experiences of two of these aviators, both South Carolina military flyers of the Great War, we can get a better understanding of World War One aerial warfare beyond the exploits of the “flying aces”.


12th Aero Sq Capt William Harrison Saunders
Capt William Harrison Saunders (www.findagrave.com)

The first military aircraft were employed for reconnaissance. Traditionally, viewing enemy positions and bringing timely intelligence reports back to commanders was a task for cavalry soldiers, but the superior scouting potential of the flying machine was quickly recognized by commanders. Throughout the war, aerial reconnaissance – and the frustration of enemy attempts at aerial reconnaissance – was a major focus for both sides.

Strategic bombing was also on military minds, but was still largely the stuff of science fiction. No nation would employ it effectively in the Great War; in fact, the German use of Zeppelins to bomb London was perhaps worse than ineffectual, doing little significant damage but galvanizing the population and serving as one more black mark against Germany in world opinion. Even the most forward-thinking aviators, like the United States’ “Billy” Mitchell, focused instead primarily on the contributions aircraft could make to the traditional battlefield.

The advantages of the aircraft on that battlefield were maximized by the use of airplanes for “artillery spotting” and close air support. While an aircraft of the Great War era might carry a relatively light load of bombs, and deliver them with indifferent accuracy at best, the great artillery pieces behind the front could deliver many more tons of ammunition and with far greater reliability. However, these guns were firing blind, relying upon mathematical calculation. Even the photographs provided by aerial reconnaissance were not real-time feedback; they might help plan a barrage or evaluate its results, but could not direct it.

With the improvement of artillery spotting, though, air superiority could mean artillery superiority. A two-seater airplane essentially took over the mission of a “forward observer”, noting the strike of artillery rounds and communicating corrections to the gun crews. It was a crude process, relying on “wireless telegraphy”, but it vastly increased the effectiveness of the artillery.

Major William Harrison Saunders of Sumter, South Carolina, was one of the U.S. Army’s most effective artillery spotters in the First World War. His short and heroic career advanced the effectiveness of US airpower and illustrates the nature of such missions on the Western Front in the final campaigns of the war.

Saunders, a nephew of Confederate General “Fighting Dick” Anderson, grew up in the 18th century family home in Sumter. As a teenager, he secured an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. However, during his second year, was expelled for an incident which occurred on a summer training cruise; the young midshipman, heavily intoxicated, had caused embarrassment at a diplomatic function.[1] Restored to the Academy, perhaps through political connections, he continued another year before a second expulsion for a hazing incident. Family lore asserts that this case went all of the way to Commander-in-Chief Woodrow Wilson, who did not return Saunders to the Naval Academy.

He did, however, send the young man to West Point, and at the Army’s college a chastened Saunders excelled.[2] Popular with his classmates, athletic and adventurous, Saunders graduated in 1917 and was posted immediately to France as a field artillery officer. When the opportunity arose for artillery officers to volunteer for flying duties, Saunders transferred.[3]

His initial assignments were with French squadrons, learning the procedures the Allies had developed during the preceding years. United States military aviation was woefully inadequate at the time of American entry into the war, and the Army realized that we had to learn quickly from our Allies’ experience of modern warfare. Saunders was a fluent French speaker and an apt pupil at the school for gunner-observers; his French commander referred to him as a very good marksman and a charming comrade. [4]

Apparently his commander was not the only one charmed; Saunders boasted in a letter home to a bachelor companion that “thanks to the women of France, I haven’t taken a cold shower in six months”. [5]He kept photos from squadron parties, and a photo of a VIP visitor’s famous airplane.[6] French flying ace Charles Nungessor was master of aerial combat and legendary womanizer whose non-aerial conquests included the notorious Mata Hari, later shot as a German spy. His airplane, a Nieuport fighter, was painted with a variety of traditional bad-luck symbols, in defiance of pilot superstitions.

Saunders’ own combat missions, both with the French and with the new American squadrons, would be flown in the second seat of two-seater aircraft of French manufacture. Because the United States had not prepared for aerial warfare or kept up with the rapidly developing technology of military aviation, second-hand Allied aircraft were employed; American aviators

A.R. Avion Renault called an Antique Rattletrap by her aircrews
Avion Renault (Gorrell's History - AEF Air Service)

referred to the “Avion Renault”, known as the “A.R.”, as “Antique Rattletraps.” Later the Americans would use the modern Salmson; no American designed and manufactured aircraft would reach the front in the First World War.

Gunner-observers like Saunders were responsible for the airplane’s primary mission of adjusting artillery fire, but also for the protection of the plane against enemy fighters, with a pair of Lewis .303 machine guns mounted on a swivel. Immediate identification of enemy aircraft by silhouette alone, as well as mastery of the Lewis machine guns and careful ammunition conservation, were critical to survival.[7]

Communicating with the artillery’s guns was a taxing process in itself. The “wireless telegraph” allowed the gunner/observer to send messages across the airwaves, but only in Morse code. Even at that, the system could be unreliable, particularly considering the fragility of the radio antennae; the fallback plan involved flying back over the artillery batteries and dropping a hand-written note attached to a distinctive streamer![8]


Lewis Gun parts illustration
Lewis Machine Gun (air cooled version) from the Savage Arms Corp. Manual

The gunner/observer was generally the officer in command of the airplane, responsible for navigation and the completion of the mission while the pilot concentrated on flying. Saunders’ proficiency in French as well as his overall high performance led to an assignment to translate the materials of the French gunner/observer school for the use of the Americans. Soon he was promoted to Major and tasked with training the newly-arrived American 12th Aero Squadron. Saunders served first as Chief Observer and then as squadron commander of the 12th for the remainder of his time in France.

12th Aero Squadron Insignia
12th Aero Squadron Insignia (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Museum)

The squadron insignia depicted an eagle guiding an artillery shell, an apt symbol for a unit whose primary duty was coordination with the artillery. Saunders operated aggressively, sometimes raking enemy troops with his machine guns in addition to his artillery-spotting and reconnaissance duties. On one particularly memorable occasion, he crash-landed once, suffered severe battle damage on a second foray, and completed his mission in yet a third aircraft.

His citations for his Distinguished Service Cross for actions on May 25th , 1917, reads:

“Altho the day was not fit for flying, Capt. Saunders at his own request was given special permission to attempt this adjustment….plane struck by a burst of explosive shell…he was forced to land….returned at once to the squadron and taking another pilot went back to complete his mission….one hour….motor trouble. He obtained a third plane and again returned….his plane was again hit by anti-aircraft fire…On account of a disabled motor he was unable to ascend higher than five hundred meters, with one control wire shot way, with the engine seriously damaged and a piece of his propeller destroyed, he continued to adjust at this low altitude in the midst of a heavy machine gun fire until the adjustment was complete and the box formed. The successful raid by the 26th division the next day was due in a large measure to this brave observer, who went beyond all call of duty."

- Robert C. Paradise (1st Lt, Air Service, commanding 12 Aero)[9]

In the summer of 1918, after a string of perilous missions, William Harrison Saunders was “grounded”. His knowledge, his superiors explained, was too valuable for continued risk in combat. After all, he had not only translated and administered the French gunner/observer school curriculum, but was himself one of the most experienced artillery observers in the American Expeditionary Force. His next assignment, Saunders learned to his chagrin, would be as an instructor at the Army’s artillery school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.


Saunders’ posting, while keeping him out of the last great campaign of the war, did not long extend his career. In the autumn of 1919, Lt. Colonel Brereton, a comrade of his from France and a pilot with whom he had flown numerous combat missions, met him at the Fort Sill officer’s club. He offered Saunders a flight, which ended in a fiery crash on the airfield. Brereton struggled to pull Saunders from the wreckage, but his burns proved fatal.[10]

Memorialized by West Point classmates and by Western Front comrades, Saunders’ most poignant tribute perhaps came from the local United Confederate Veterans’ camp of Sumter, SC. The elderly veterans called upon Saunders’ mother to offer comfort for her loss; they had ironically outlived Confederate Surgeon William Anderson’s son, and Confederate General “Fighting Dick” Anderson’s nephew.[11] His UDC “Cross of Military Service” entry read:

Saunders, Wm. H. Regular Army, West Point (1913). Major, Air Service Observer…trained and commanded 12th Aero Squadron; Chief Observer on Toul Sector; first Observer with the American Army to make mission over German lines. Injured in shattered plane at battle front; killed, executing orders Nov. 5, 1919.[12]

James Franklin Griffin, of Columbia, SC, would follow a very different flight path. After the US declaration of war on Germany in 1917, the twenty-three-year old Griffin enlisted in the U.S. Navy in what he later called a “fit of patriotism”. He graduated “boot camp” in Newport, Rhode Island, and entered service classified as a “Yeoman”, or clerk. However, he felt very fortunate in his assignment to London as a member of the fledgling Naval Air Corps.[13]

Aboard the steamer Philadelphia bound for Britain, Griffin became acquainted with his new boss. A Lieutenant Commander assigned to the Philadelphia challenged a “crummy looking” seaman who was reading a book titled Aerodynamics and Aerology for the Advanced Student.

“Get up from there, you gold-bricking dumbbell – and stop faking, reading something that you couldn’t possibly understand!”, Griffin remembered the officer shouting. The reader came to attention, saluted smartly, and then explained that this was his first chance to look the book over since its publication; he had written it.[14]

The “crummy –looking” Professor Alexander McAdie was the director of Blue Hill Observatory at Harvard University in civilian life, and was soon promoted to Lieutenant Commander himself, and lending his formidable talents to the Allied war effort. A renowned meteorologist, he began training aerographers for the Navy.

Griffin worked directly for him as a Yeoman, but soon found his way into duties well outside his job description. McAdie’s trainees were designated “Quartermaster (Aviation)”, the Navy’s catch-all aviation rating; in April 1918, Griffin formally applied to have his own rating officially changed, based upon the extensive training he had received while assisting McAdie. The meteorologist secured flying orders for him “as a regular part of his aerographic work”[15], and Griffin earned the single-wing insignia of a gunner-observer. On one meteorological flight, he was wounded by enemy fire; nevertheless, the young Yeoman’s ambitions now centered around aviation.

His aerographic missions had introduced him to both heavier-than-air flight and dirigibles. He would serve the remainder of his career, however, in the latter.

The German Zeppelin had proven to be a poor strategic bombing machine, and naturally enormous, slow craft full of flammable hydrogen were useless over the modern battlefield. However, lighter-than-air craft made critical contributions in one critical theater of war: the struggle against the U-boats.

U-boats presented no danger to the high-flying LTA’s, and as antisubmarine observation platforms, dirigibles and blimps offered significant advantages. They carried larger crews and more sophisticated communications gear. Their effective patrol range and endurance were far superior to those of the propeller-driven, land-based aircraft then available.

Griffin, like Saunders, was posted to a French unit for training. He was acting as “altitude pilot” aboard the French dirigible AT-15 far out over the Atlantic, when trouble developed. His response was bold and effective, as a congratulatory letter from USN Aviation Headquarters explains:

“The brave act you performed by climbing out and up on the small cables and guy wires while the balloon (sic) was at an altitude of approximately 2500 feet and closing the gas valve that was stuck open and was causing the gas bag to settle fast thereby saving the lives of two of our officers and the French crew of nine men…was beyond the call of duty and you rightly deserve the honor of being among the first few men decorated with the French Croix de Guerre in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.”[16]

Saving lives was the entire mission of naval LTA operations in the First World War; while the dirigibles and blimps had no effective offensive weapons for use against U-Boats, their airborne eyes were the best protection convoys could have. The US Navy soon bought and operated its own blimps, and would even bring them back for effective operations against submarines in the Second World War; no ship escorted by an American blimp was ever lost to submarine attack in either World War. While this did not lend itself to a “scoreboard”, it was a major contribution to the war effort.

Griffin ended the war as “Chief Quartermaster (Aviation)”, and returned to civilian life. “I had to wear my uniform for several weeks after my discharge and until I could sell the uniform and have enough money to buy a suit of clothes,” the former Chief said[17]. He retained his leather flight helmet, inscribed with the name of air bases he had flown from and airship he had served on, and a scrapbook of images from his service, including airborne views of the Paimbouf airfield and of Woodrow Wilson’s ship delivering the President to the peace conference. Another photo shows Griffin shaking hands with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy on a visit to Paimbouf – one Franklin Delano Roosevelt.[18]

Griffin went on to a long and successful real estate career in Columbia, and wrote a newspaper column for decades. A deacon at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, he lived until 1971.

In these experiences of Saunders and Griffin, two young South Carolina men whose military service took them into the war-torn European skies, we see aspects of First World War military aviation very different from the oft-told tales of the “flying aces”. The gunner-observer of the Great War wore a distinctive insignia, but unlike the familiar pilot’s badge, it featured only one wing, as if it were only half an insignia. It seems an appropriate device, representing the half of this fascinating military story which is rarely told.




References:

 

[1] William Harrison Saunders Archival Collection, Borough Foundation, Sumter, South Carolina.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rountree, Mrs. J.A. (Ed.) The Cross of Military Service, Vol. 1 United Daughters of the Confederacy: Birmingham, AL, 1927: 224.

[13] Griffin, James Franklin. Main Street As It Was Years Ago: Fun, Facts, Philosophy. Frank Griffin, Sr.: Columbia, SC 1968: 16.

[14] Griffin, 57.

[15] James F. Griffin Papers, South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, Columbia, South Carolina.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Griffin, Main Street, 71.

[18] Griffin Papers.

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