August 16th 1918
Several days later, Aug. 16, to be exact, I had my first real feel of Frank Luke's dependability in the air. Our advance airdrome at Coincy was ready for us, camouflaged gas trucks and everything, and we got orders to use that as the starting point for a protection patrol. We were having great trouble with the new Spads and the boys of the 27th and 147th had no confidence in them. A poorly housed reduction gear which would get out of line with the slightest nick in the propeller was constantly causing us mechanical difficulties. It would vibrate and soon the various pieces of plumbing would start to ease loose and the engine would begin to miss or quit completely.
At 5:05 p.m. I led a gang of 12 of our planes and three from the 94th out at 9000 feet to protect one of Ken Littauer's photographic Salmsons from the 88th squadron. We soared up in perfect formation. From Fere-en-Tardenois to Fismes, however, our boys began dropping out with engine trouble. Finally there was only one plane left besides mine. By now we were at 18,000 feet and had had several minor brushes with the enemy.
Salmsom with an escort
It was one of those grim, heat-hazy days when it was particularly difficult to spot enemy ships...as I pulled in (at Coincy) there were 13 of our ships sitting on the ground. When I had taxied to a stop a lot of the pilots came running over to tell me they thought I had been lost and to utter loud and violent blasphemies concerning the Spads and the French...I am told no man ever cursed as loud and as vehemently as I did...
I was still ranting...when a lone Spad came in with the pilot goosing his engine and causing a terrific racket.
'Here comes your boyfriend now,' said one man from the 27th. 'He said he was going to get his first Boche today or never come back. Let's see what the blowhard's got to say for himself. Bet he claims one.'
Some of the others beat me getting over to find out what had happened to Luke. One came running back to me.
'What did I tell you? He says he shot one off your tail.'
...Frank Luke was a lonesome and despised man from that day until he brought down his first balloon near Marieulles on the St. Mihiel front on Sept. 12. In the whole group he found only three men who believed in him - Joe Wehner and Ivan Roberts in the 27th and Norman Archibald in the 95th. A few days later, just as we shifted to St. Mihiel, Archibald, a green but gallant pilot, was captured by the Germans. Luke spent most of his spare time on the machine gun range perfecting his already excellent marksmanship.
According to Luke's biographer, James Norman Hall (Mutiny on the Bounty and many others with Charles Nordhoff, Falcons of France and others by himself as well as a combat fighter pilot in the 1st Aero Group), Hartney believed his renegade pilot was speaking the truth. br>
James Norman Hall:
I am firmly convinced the boy got the plane. His verbal account of the battle contained those little differences that give such a report the touch of verisimilitude. But the squadron didn't believe him, and that made Luke bitter.
As a result Luke regarded his brother officers contemptuously, taunted them with their own shortcomings, dared them to fight, and when they declined, avoided them.
All but one - Joe Wehner."
Hartney was transferred to higher command on August 21st. His replacement was Lieutenant Alfred Grant, a strict disciplinarian and a true martinet. On the first morning of being in command he made an all hands inspection, dress uniforms, tool counting, button counting, clothes stacked just so on shelter halves, every pair of shoes shined brightly, brass gleaming, chins shaven and hair freshly cut. And, of course, the inspection was held at the traditional time of 4:30 AM. He instituted roll calls at night and at arms drill for the enlisted men. This stuff really turned off Frank Luke.
On September 3rd the Eagle Squadron arrived at Rembercourt to support the American Battle of the St. Mihiel Salient. They would stay there until the Armistice.
Some 550,000 Americans and 110,000 French took part in the St. Mihiel offensive with 3,000 artillery pieces and 400 French tanks (some of which were manned by Americans). George S. Patton was there. Douglas MacArthur. Allied aircraft consisted of 297 pursuit planes (226 available), 259 observation planes (219 available) and 55 bombing planes (42 available) for a total of 627 (487 available). The French supplied 627 planes (430 available). In addition there were 15 American and six French observation balloons.
If all went as hoped, American forces would spearhead a drive into the center of a bulge in the German lines, rupturing the front and setting the stage for the final drive into the Fatherland - the planned Meuse-Argonne offensive, and then the famous Plan 1919 and the destruction of the German Army.
posted on 10/19/2005 8:21:28 PM PDT
(Work....the curse of the drinking class.)
Each American unit had a place in the plan. The Eagle Squadron was to destroy the Draken.
We must now examine the Draken, or Drachen, which means kite, but more completely it means Dragon. The Draken were German observation balloons flying 1,000 to 4,000 feet above the ground and just behind the German lines. The Draken was a very steady observation platform where a truck could be watched from fifteen miles away, men from five or six miles, and artillery fire from thirty or forty miles away by muzzle flash at night. Pre-planned artillery fires covered every inch of the ground in front of the Draken. Such an important set of eyes was protected very well indeed, as you would expect.
The following is taken from the historian Dr. David Payne:
The sausage shaped balloon of both sides on the Western Front was around 200 feet (60m) in length, 50 feet (15m) feet in diameter, and contained about 30,000 cubic feet of inflammable hydrogen gas. Some of the larger balloons were filled with coal gas, also then known as illumination gas.
Most observation balloons had an external envelope made of sheets of rubberized (gutta percha = latex rubber + naphtha) diagonal cotton cloth, sewn together as gores and segments. The rubberized cloth was then vulcanized. Inside the envelope so formed, were located cylindrical hydrogen gas-bag(s) and a ballonet, which was filled with a constant supply of air from the wind further tautening and stabilizing the envelope.
A valve attached to a fixed chain inside the balloon would be activated when the balloon expanded an was in danger over-inflating as it ascended, or warmed in the sun, releasing gas so the balloon would not burst under its own pressure.
Due to paucity of suitable dyes, the balloons were usually colored yellow or grey with chrome or aniline dyes.
Helium, an inert gas, and, therefore, potentially a much safer balloon inflation agent, was not available in large quantities until just before the Armistice and was never put into operational use on the Western Front in the Great War.
The shape of the stabilizer at the rear end of the balloon often gave the nickname to the balloon. A typical example of the sausage-type was the not very successful German balloon designed by Major John Parseval and Hauptman von Siegsfeld almost thirty years before the Great War. It had a single stabilizer (or ballonet) that was tube-like, located low and centrally and curved over the tail of the balloon. It was officially called the Drachen German for Dragon or, also, a Kite (more confusion!) - and unofficially as the Nulle or the Testicle due to the suggestive shape of the air-filled steering bag. The size of this balloon was 65 feet long and 27 feet in diameter (20m x 8m).
One end of the 15mm (5/8ths of an inch) diameter cable that tethered of all types of observation balloon was attached to the under-belly of the balloon by multiple branch ropes with attachment points to a girdle. This went all the way round the long axis of the balloon. It provided a bracing effect, and enhanced rigidity and stability. The other end of the cable was wound onto a winch that was bolted to the back of a 3-ton lorry and powered by a petrol engine. This winch would be used to pay out the balloon cable as the balloon rose in the air nominally at about 10 metres per second - and to reel it in when the observation missions were accomplished. Later models were provided with express speed winches so that when danger threatened as it frequently did the winch could within seconds, rather than minutes, reel in the balloon and its occupant(s).
The balloon crew also had access to a valve in the nose of the balloon that could release gas and expedite the descent of the balloon. Another device, self-explanatorily called the ripper panel, could be opened by the balloon crew in even greater extremis; it would cause the balloon to descend even more precipitately.
The anticipated life of an observation balloon in an active sector of the Western Front was about two weeks. By 1918, due to the activities of the air aces called balloon-busters the life of a balloon could be as little as half a day. These aces called the men who manned the balloons, balloonatics.
When fighter aircraft became sophisticated and could carry out the aerobatics required to safely target the observation balloon many attempts were made to shoot the observation balloons down. It was not until the special incendiary machine gun bullets the so-called Buckingham bullets, fired from special .45 caliber machine guns - became available that any degree of success was achieved.
Of course, every attempt was made to protect the balloons by supportive action from the ground and the air. Every balloon site was surrounded by anti-aircraft artillery and high-powered machine-guns, and had a shield of fighter planes. (Draken were protected by seventy or eighty well manned 8mm water-cooled machineguns, explosive incendiary autocannon, and a battery of 77 mm anti-aircraft artillery.) Chains and cables were suspended from the balloon to make further hazards for the enemy fighter aircraft and, where the balloons were gathered in a group, a sort of chain mail was linked between them. The Germans skilled use of a spectacular incendiary anti-aircraft shell was said to deter all but the most ardent of the Allied fighter pilots.
German Krupp 70mm Flak Gun
Paradoxically, the closer a balloon was winched down to the ground, the safer it became, as most pilots would not attack below 1,000 feet altitude for fear of anti-aircraft and small arms fire.At the time of planned infantry offensives, the fighter aircraft squadrons of the side launching the offensive were specifically instructed to target the enemys observation balloons, so as to blind the enemy field commanders to the movements and dispositions of the attacking troops.
Eagle Squadrons job were the drachen. One of their Spad XIIIs two machineguns was changed over to a special .45 caliber machinegun firing Buckingham red phosphorous incendiary ammunition and tactics were practiced. (Luke for sure killed his first Draken without the Buckingham incendiaries. At some unknown later date he used the Buckingham equipment.)
Some folks have said that Frank Luke just went out and killed Draken for his own personal reasons. This is completely untrue. Luke became famous in seventeen days at St. Mihiel. On the first day Frank Luke was despised by his squadron mates and called a boastful liar. Two weeks and three days later the other pilots looked on Frank Luke with awe and amazement.
Instead of scorn for "that boastful liar Luke" his squadron mates would say with deep pride and humility "I flew with Frank Luke."
His example inspired the Eagle Squadron, the 1st Pursuit Group, the Army Air Service, and the Army Air Corps. Frank Luke inspires the United States Air Force to this day.
We will continue his story tomorrow.
Map of the lines before the St. Mihiel Offensive
posted on 10/19/2005 8:33:46 PM PDT
(Work....the curse of the drinking class.)
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