John Jacob Niles’ World War I Experiences as an Air Service Pilot in France

John Jacob Niles’ World War I Flying Career

David K. Vaughan

John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), who was raised in the hills of Kentucky and was associated with the music of the Appalachian area almost all of his life, is best known as a singer and writer of American folk songs.  His musical style and his compositions influenced a number of performers who were involved in the revival of the American folk song in the 1950s and 1960s, including Joan Baez, Burl Ives, and Peter, Paul and Mary.  His many recordings, featuring his unnaturally high-pitched voice, and his published collection of ballads, The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, have established him firmly as an important figure in the history of American music, and even as an American original.

Many people, however, may not be aware that Niles was a pilot in the American Air Service during World War I and trained and flew in France during the war.  Biographers of Niles’ wartime experiences have incompletely and inaccurately described his wartime career.  Information found on one web site states that Niles “enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps [during World War I] and served as a reconnaissance pilot.”  This is not quite true, as is a similar comment from another biographical note, which states that during the war Niles flew “numerous reconnaissance flights.”  In the recently published biography, I Wonder As I Wander (which is also the title of Niles’ best-known recorded song), Ron Pen reports, in a statement that is only partly accurate, that Niles “was assigned as a taxi and reconnaissance flier and charged with flying a great variety of planes to airfields in France and England” (57).

Niles flew in France primarily as a ferry pilot, a pilot tasked with delivering new or repaired aircraft from aircraft assembly or repair facilities to forward operating airfields.  Although Niles flew some reconnaissance-type aircraft as a ferry pilot, he was never a reconnaissance pilot during the war and was never assigned to a reconnaissance (or observation) squadron.  He never flew in an operational squadron and flew primarily behind the front lines as he delivered aircraft from Paris (Orly Field) to operational units situated along the front.  However, his experiences as a behind-the-lines pilot in France provided valuable information about American culture, especially of African-American culture, that materially contributed to his growth as a folk singer after the war ended.

John Jacob Niles was born in Louisville, Kentucky.  His great-grandfather was a composer, organist, and cello manufacturer; his mother, Lula Sarah Niles, taught him music theory.  In 1904, Niles’ family moved to a farm in rural Jefferson County where Niles began collecting folk music.  In 1907, when he was 15 years old, he composed his first song, “Go ‘Way from My Window,” based on a song that was sung by an African-American farm laborer with whom he had been working.  After graduating from high school, Niles worked for a time as a salesman with the Burroughs Adding Machine Company.  War with Germany was declared by the United States on April 6, 1917; he delayed joining the Army immediately, waiting four months to do so, entering the army on August 15, 1917, at Columbus, Ohio.  He passed the tests to become an aviation cadet but did not enter flight training in the United States.  He shipped for France onboard the SS Covington, which departed Hoboken, New Jersey, on October 18, 1917, and arrived at St. Nazaire, France on November 3.

Niles’ Flying Training Experiences

He was initially assigned to the American flight training field at Issoudun, France, but because it had been newly established, there were no planes to fly, no instructors were assigned, and only a few wooden buildings had been constructed.  The cadets were therefore assigned to construction tasks and guard duty, unpleasant work in the best of weather, but made even more onerous by the cold winter rains.  While at Issoudun, he helped to provide entertainment for the other members of the camp by performing concerts; he sang operatic and popular songs as well as folk songs, and his performances were (according to him, at least) well-received.  He also joined the camp newspaper, the Plane News, as a staff writer.  He was able to escape from the drudgery of camp life at Issoudun by occasional trips to Paris, where he pursued his interest in music by attending concerts and buying books.

After an unproductive three-month stay at Issoudun, he was sent to Foggia, Italy, where a flying school for American aviators under the command of Major Fiorello Laguardia had been established with Italian aviators as instructors.  Niles arrived at Foggia on 18 February and flew his first flight, on a French Farman aircraft piloted by an Italian aviator.  He completed training for his Brevette (pilot’s wings) on June 8, 1918, with a grand total of 24 hours of flying time.  He experienced only one flying accident, three days before he completed his flying program; the aircraft was wrecked but he was essentially unhurt.  One week later he left for St. Maixent, France, stopping enroute at Moulins, France (north of Clermont-Ferrand), on the 4th of July, where he provided some vocal entertainment at a party held in honor of the American Independence Day.  Two days later he arrived at Tours, France, the other important flying field in France (besides Issoudun) involved in training American pilots.  At Tours he flew the French Caudron training aircraft, gaining an additional four hours of flying time.

On 20 July he moved to Issoudun, which had changed significantly in the six months that he had been gone.  When he had left, it was little more than a series of flat muddy fields with no aircraft and few facilities.  Now it was a complex of nine different flying fields, training as many as one hundred American pilots at a time.  At Issoudun he first attended ground school for two weeks before flying his first training flight, on August 7, in a 23-meter Nieuport (23 square meters was the area of the wing surface).  Niles thought that this aircraft was “the most difficult flying machine . . . to be flown by beginners” (Letter, 13).  After flying with an instructor for a little over two hours of flying time (a little more than normal), he was cleared to fly solo on Field #3 where he flew seven rides before being sent on to fly Avro aircraft (an early biplane of English design).  He progressed through two more flying fields at Issoudun, concluding his training by flying 15-meter Nieuports, which he described as “a pair of wings strapped to [his] back” (Letter, 13).  Then followed two cross-country flights, including one to Romorantin, and his training was complete; on 7 September he left Issoudun for his first operational flying assignment.  While he was at Issoudun, he participated in a number of funerals for aviators who had been killed in training.  He stated that he had left behind “many good friends there sleeping in the military grave yard” (Letter, 13).

Niles’ Wartime Flying Experiences

His next assignment was to the 1st Aviation Acceptance Park at Orly Field, Seine, France.  Orly was an airfield south of the city of Paris, and it was from Orly that he flew for the remainder of the war.  As a ferry pilot, he delivered new or repaired combat aircraft from the field at Orly to other airfields closer to the front, where they were assigned to the various flying squadrons which needed replacement aircraft.  After landing at these distant airfields, he would then return to Paris on the nearest train and await a call to fly the next aircraft to an advanced airfield.  The normal practice was to assign new pilots to Orly for a few days or even weeks until they were assigned to specific aero squadrons on the front; flying as a ferry pilot allowed them to gain additional flying time, always a good idea, to become familiar with a variety of combat aircraft, and to become generally familiar with the terrain between Paris and the front lines.  In Niles’ case, however, he remained permanently assigned as a ferry pilot at Orly.  He was not the only pilot to be permanently assigned at Orly, but most aviators considered a permanent job at Orly as a “safe flying job” away from the war (and conveniently close to the night life of Paris).  Flying as a ferry pilot was not necessarily an easy flying job, for flying new aircraft towards the front lines involved a fair amount of risk, from flying through bad weather and flying aircraft that might develop problems as a result of new and untested engines failing in flight.

In addition, a ferry pilot’s schedule could be very busy.  Niles says that his first ferry flight took place on 13 September, 1918, when he flew a SPAD XIII from Orly to Colombey-Les-Belles, near Toul, France.  Colombey-les-Belles was one of the busiest flying fields in France; it was an important training and maintenance base that was used by American Air Service units throughout the war.  The SPAD XIII was the best and fastest American pursuit plane flown by American units like the famous 94th Aero Squadron, commanded by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.  Other fields to which Niles flew included Vinetz and Romorantin.  Although Niles “had perfect luck,” when he flew on most of these missions, he crashed at least one aircraft on landing, “finishing off the ship so completely” that the men on the field have been “looking for parts . . . ever since.”

The date of his first ferry flight, 13 September, was a date of some significance; it was just before the start of one of the most important American drives to push the German forces back during the war, the St. Mihiel drive; as a result of the intense aerial combat, there was a heavy demand for replacement aircraft, and Niles was kept busy ferrying aircraft to forward flying fields.  On the 26th of September, the start of the Meuse-Argonne offensive drive, Niles was one of the pilots involved in the transfer of 89 new aircraft to Colombey-les-Belles, and the night of their arrival, they were bombed by German Gotha aircraft at the Toul train station while waiting for their train to Paris.  Niles flew another SPAD to Colombey-les-Belles on 29 September, and during a fast ride on a narrow road in the middle of the night to the Toul train station, the blacked-out Fiat truck in which he and several other aviators were riding crashed into a ditch and he was injured.  He was hospitalized for over a week early in October; while he was hospitalized, he came down with an attack of influenza, from which he fortunately recovered.

After he recovered, he was told to travel to England, where he and some other aviators were tasked to fly some single-seat Sopwith Camels (another fighter aircraft, smaller, lighter, and slower than the SPAD XIII) from Norwich, England, to France.  He left Le Havre for England on 18 October and departed Norwich a week later, on 25 October.  He safely crossed the channel, approximately 25 miles wide at that point, and landed at Marquise, France.  The next day he departed for Paris.  He was supposed to stop at an intermediary field to refuel but decided to continue on, believing he could safely reach Orly Field.  Unfortunately, his engine (a tricky rotary type) began to malfunction, and he was forced to land in the fading light of twilight.  Niles saw a small field next to a factory but did not see some cables attached to the factory’s smokestack extending across his flight path.  His Camel struck the cables, causing the aircraft to flip over and crash with Niles underneath it.  Luckily, he was not killed, but his left leg was injured and he was taken to a hospital near St. Denis, where he recuperated and was released a few days before the Armistice was announced on November 11.  When he returned to Orly, he learned that his wife, Roberta, whom he had married while in training in the United States, had died of influenza at almost the same time that he had been recovering from it a month earlier.

His fellow pilots feared that he would become despondent over the death of his wife, so they made every effort to ensure that Niles was kept busy flying.  Although the war had ended, preparations were being made to equip and staff the occupation army, the Army of the Rhine, which was scheduled to move into Germany.  Several aerial flying units were assigned to the army, and additional aircraft had to be assigned to these units.  Niles flew five days during the second and third weeks of November and once in the first week of December.  Niles continued to fly regularly in January and made his last official flight as a pilot in the United States Air Service on 11 February 1919.  The two-place Salmson observation aircraft he and another pilot were flying was wrecked after they landed on a snow-covered field and were unable to stop before crashing into a hangar.  Niles was uninjured.  Orly was closed as an active flying field at the end of February.  Although most of the American aviators were returning to the United States, Niles elected to remain in Europe.  He applied for and was accepted into an undergraduate educational program in Lyons, France, where he studied from March through July of 1919.  He returned to the United States in August and was released from military service on 5 September 1919.

Niles and World War I Songs

During the war Niles had a flying job and a flying schedule that would have provided him many opportunities to observe and record songs that were sung by the various members of the American military forces throughout France and Italy.  If he had been assigned to an operational flying unit, he would probably not have been able to travel as widely nor on as flexible a schedule as he did while flying ferry missions.  If his military flying career in France is not as impressive as those of the pilots who flew in operational aero squadrons (and survived), his efforts to document the songs sung by American soldiers is impressive, for during his travels he was able to capture not only the lyrics and melodies of the relatively crude songs sung by the soldiers and airmen, but he was also especially successful in describing the songs and activities of a largely ignored group of American soldiers involved in the war effort, the black American soldiers.  Niles’ account of his efforts is given in his fascinating book, Singing Soldiers, published in 1927.

When he was Issoudun in the winter of 1917-1918, Niles purchased a copy of Theodore Botrel’s “Les Chants du Bivuoac,” on one of his trips to Paris.  Niles was particularly impressed with this collection of songs and poems of the French soldiers (“poilus”), and he decided to “attempt a collection of United States Army war-songs,” to make “an unexpurgated record of the tunes” whenever he had the “time and music-score paper.”  As it turned out (and maybe because of his interest in soldier songs) his subsequent flying career allowed him some unique opportunities to do so.  When he started taking notes for a collection of songs sung by members of the United States Army, he found that “the imagination of the white boys did not, as a rule, express itself in song,” as they borrowed rhymes they found in other sources.  (I’m not sure why Niles complained about this, as this method has always been the practice.)  Niles says he was “beginning to lose interest” in his “musical diary,” as he called it, when he encountered black soldiers from Harlem, south Chicago, Texas, and North Carolina in his travels.  Although he found professional musicians among these troops, he also found the natural-born singers, usually from rural districts, who, prompted by hunger, wounds, homesickness, and the reaction to so many generations of suppression, sang the legend of the black man to tunes and harmonies they made up as they went along . . . .  At last I had discovered something original—a kind of folk music brought up to date and adapted to the war situations—at the same time savoring of the haunting melodic value found in the negro music I had known as a boy in Kentucky.  (viii)

As a result, Niles says, he “gave up recording the songs of white boys” and began to look for opportunities to “find a chance to come in contact with the negro soldier,” in whatever vocation he might be involved, which, in France during World War I, was typically “marching, digging, cooking, traveling, [or] unloading ships.”  He says that his duty as a pilot in the United States Air Service took him “by air and rail to practically every area occupied by American troops,” and knowing that he would encounter black soldiers wherever he went, he made sure that his musette bag always contained score-paper or something on which he could draw “a few staffs and a clef” (ix).

His collection of songs was started at Issoudun during the winter of 1917-1918, where he recorded a number of songs sung by German prisoners as well as Christmas songs and songs created as part of the cadets’ entertainment programs in camp.  In Singing Soldiers Niles passes quickly over his days in training in Italy in the spring and summer of 1918 and in France in late summer.  If Niles is being reasonably accurate in the events he relates in Singing Soldiers, he encountered black soldiers in many locations and activities throughout his travels in France.  His first account of a song sung by a black soldier is especially moving: according to his account, it was a song sung by a dying black soldier in a hospital near Toul; the black soldier had been a wagoner (wagon driver) in a supply train that had been bombed by German aircraft and had seen his sergeant cut in half by a bomb before he was wounded.  In an affecting extended account, Niles reports on the gradual passing of the black soldier who sang the song “Don’t Close Dose Gates (Cause I’m Sure Comin In)” (18-22).

Niles next tells of a performance given by battalion of black soldiers who had been assigned to repair part of the Fontainebleau Road near the flying field at Orly.  The soldiers performed a number of songs, including “Crap-Shootin’ Charley,” describing the gambling skills of a talented black soldier (23-32).  Niles then describes some anecdotes and songs he learned from a black soldier who was assigned as a driver to transport him in a motorcycle with a sidecar on some rough French roads from one flying field to another; due to mechanical delays and bad weather, they spent some time together, and Niles recorded the song sung by the driver, “I’m a Warrior in De Army” (40-45). During a later truck ride to Toul (apparently the same truck in which Niles was riding when he was involved in a roadside accident), Niles recorded the song “Lordy, Turn Your Face,” sung by a group of black soldiers unloading trucks in Toul (47-50).  Near the Toul train station Niles saw a Red Cross canteen run by American Red Cross girls, one of whom was a Jewish girl Niles had known at Issoudun.  Inside the canteen, Niles saw another Red Cross girl being assisted by a contingent of black soldiers from the 92nd Division, who were themselves in transit by rail, travelling in baggage cars which held forty men or eight horses in one car.  The black soldiers were singing as they worked, and Niles recorded the words (“Oh Mister French Railroad Man”).  When Niles boarded the train to Paris, he heard the black soldiers singing another song, “German Throwed a Hand Grenade” (54-60).

After Niles returned to Paris, he fell ill, partly from the effects of the truck accident, partly from a run-down condition resulting from steady flying duties, and partly from the effects of influenza.  As he recovered in a hospital in Paris, he recorded another song he heard from a black soldier, this one a hospital orderly, who sang “He’s a Burden-Bearer” (62-66).  Early in October Niles flew a new SPAD to the American training field at Issoudun, and decided to return to Paris via Chateauroux.  The truck in which he was riding was carrying food to some American soldiers working to restore a railway roadbed where a train wreck had occurred.  When he arrived, he saw a contingent of black soldiers who were singing the “Pay Roll Song” and “I Don’t Want Any More France” (67-71).

After Niles crashed his Camel on his flight from England to France, he was taken to the 41st Military Hospital (in Singing Soldiers, he calls it the 45th Red Cross Hospital) at St. Denis, France, where he met another black orderly, William, from North Carolina.  Niles heard William sing several songs, including the “Ole Ark” song and the “Gimmee Song” (79-87).  After the Armistice, Niles continued his flying activities for three months, encountering other black soldiers serving as orderlies or cooks, or doing other menial tasks, and he continued to record songs they sang, even through his stay at Lyon in the south of France.

Although most of the songs in Singing Soldiers are songs created and sung by black soldiers, he did not forget to publicize songs sung by the white soldiers as well.  He was one of the co-authors (along with Stars and Stripes cartoonist Wally Wallgren and American composer Douglas Moore) of Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1929), which includes many of the songs sung by the white soldiers and sailors; Douglas Moore was in the United States Navy during WWI.  Niles undoubtedly was responsible for most of the text and many of the songs in the book, which included a sizeable number of songs sung by black soldiers.  Although he began recording his songs and performances in the 1930s and continued to do so through the 1960s, he never recorded any of the songs from the World War I era.

When he returned to the United States, Niles studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory and moved to Chicago where he sang with the Lyric Opera and performed on Westinghouse radio.  In 1925 Niles moved to New York, became master of ceremonies at the Silver Slipper nightclub, and published his first music collections, Impressions of a Negro Camp Meeting (1925) and Seven Kentucky Mountain Songs (1928).  He also co-authored One Man’s War (1929), the memoir of another World War I flier, Bert Hall, the colorful former Lafayette Escadrille pilot whose flying career reads like an episode out of the Arabian Nights.  By this time he had established a reputation for himself as a singer, as a publisher of songs, and as a writer.

In spite of the hazardous experiences of his flying career during the war, in which he survived as many as four crashes and other life-threatening experiences, John Jacob Niles was able to enlarge his knowledge and collection of folk songs, especially those originating in a military environment, and to feed his interest in the musical area that would provide his livelihood in the sixty years that followed.