Part 7: Into Combat with the 88th Aero Squadron, Souilly, France, September 1918
On the 1st of September, Harold received orders assigning him to the 88th Aero Squadron, which had been operating in the area southwest of Verdun. The 88th Aero Squadron had been operational in France since 30 May. It was one of four squadrons that comprised the 1st Corps Observation Group. The other squadrons included the 1st, 12th, and 91st Aero Squadrons. The 88th first flew in the Toul area, and then early in July moved to an airfield at Francheville, near the Chateau-Thierry front. Until the middle of July, the aircraft being flown by squadron pilots was the Sopwith two-place “one and a half strutter” aircraft, an obsolescent and underpowered aircraft.[i] Starting on the 18th of July, the squadron began receiving the much more powerful and reliable Salmson SA-2 aircraft, and it was this aircraft that Harold flew when he joined the squadron.
During the six months that Harold Loud was moving through the advanced stages of his training, from March through August of 1918, the momentum of the war had changed significantly. In early March the Germans seemed to have gained a significant advantage as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which Soviet Russia signed a cease-fire agreement and turned over lands and resources to Germany. On March 21 Germany began a spring offensive, called Operation Michael, in which they recaptured much of the territory they had lost in the 1916 Battle of the Somme, and nearly recaptured the towns of Arras and Amiens. On April 9th, the Germans started a second offensive, Operation Georgette, in which the goal was to re-take the city of Ypres, in Belgium. Like the first offensive, this offensive stalled short of its intended goal. On May 27th, the Germans undertook a third offensive, along the Aisne River in France. This offensive was initially successful, as the German forces were able to push through the units of the defending French army, and it looked for a moment as if the German forces would be able to capture Paris. However, with the help of elements of the American army, who fought in the battle of Chateau-Thierry, the Allies were able to stop the German advance fifty miles from Paris. The fourth German drive began on June 9th but was stopped by the Allies after four days. American forces aided the Allied resistance in increasing numbers in each of the four German drives; by the middle of the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers were arriving monthly in France.[ii]
In one last effort, a final German offensive began on 15 July, in the area along the Marne River; the Germans knew that they had to gain a victory before the full strength of the American army arrived in France. However, the German drive was halted two days later, and on the day following, 18 July, American and French forces launched a counter-offensive against the Germans. The French and American armies continued to advance against the Germans for the next three weeks. On 8 August, the British forces assisted by tanks attacked the German forces near Amiens, and the Germans rapidly withdrew.[iii] General Ludendorff, the German commander, called this day the “Black Day of the German Army,” as after that day the German forces were in continual retreat until the war ended.
By the beginning of September, sufficient American forces had arrived in France that the Americans could operate as an independent military force, and not in support of French forces, and the Americans began a series of coordinated attacks. The first of these attacks, in the St. Mihiel area, began on September 12, with over 1400 Allied aircraft flying in support of the advance.[iv] Then, on September 26, the most significant American battle began as the Americans and the French made a joint attack against the German forces. The French army engaged the Germans in the battle of the Meuse River and the Americans fought the Germans in the battle of the Argonne Forest, which continued for the next six weeks, until the end of the war. The Argonne Forest campaign was the most intense and difficult fighting of the war as over 75,000 Americans became casualties of the fighting.[v] Harold Loud, now a member of the 88th Aero Squadron, did not participate in the battle of St. Mihiel but he flew in support of the battle of the Argonne Forest.
Since the first week of August, the 88th Aero Squadron had been flying out of a field near Ferme-de-Greves, southwest of Chateau-Thierry, east of Paris, and was involved in reconnaissance flights along the Vesle River, where the German forces were located. The squadron was located here when Harold Loud arrived on the evening of 8 September.[vi] The squadron moved to the Pretz-en-Argonne airdrome, about ten miles southwest of Souilly, France, on the 11th of September, to be in place for the St. Mihiel offensive, which took place from 12-15 September. Due to the poor flying weather, which included cold temperatures, wind, and rain, only one mission was flown by the squadron during those three days. This mission had unfortunate results; the squadron commander, Captain Kenneth Littauer, and his observer, Lieutenant Theodore Boyd, were shot down while flying protective cover for a photo mission flown by an aircraft from another squadron. Although they were able to crash land in friendly territory, they were not able to participate in further flights.
On the 17th of September, the 88th was temporarily relieved of combat flying duties while the squadron re-organized itself. A new Squadron commander was appointed, Lieutenant Floyd Evans, who had been Harold Loud’s classmate at the University of Illinois ground school and during their flight training at Wright Field. Captain Littauer, who had seen several months of active flying duty, with French as well as American units, was reassigned elsewhere. Reconstituted, the squadron relocated to Souilly, France, on 20 September.[vii] For the next few days, the squadron conducted training exercises with a number of local American army divisions in preparation for the next major battle, the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Observation squadrons like the 88th Aero Squadron flew a variety of missions, including photo reconnaissance, artillery fire adjustment, escort duty, and direct observation of the terrain. The observer, who occupied the rear cockpit, was responsible for all photographic tasks and for recording and transmitting artillery fire adjustment information. The observation aircraft could be a formidable aerial weapon as well, for the observer could operate twin machine guns on a swivel mount when he was not involved in other tasks, and the aircraft could operate as an armed escort for other observation aircraft, especially in heavily defended areas.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive began on 26 September and continued until the Armistice. This was a much more extended effort than the previous St. Mihiel offensive had been, and all flying units were tasked to participate. Due to bad weather and squadron’s inactive status, Harold had not been able to fly operationally since his arrival, but he finally flew his first combat mission on the 26th of September, the first day of the offensive, an event which he excitedly describes in his letter dated 27 September, his 23rd birthday. He flew his second operational mission on the 27th, which, like his first mission, was completed successfully.
Hotel Edward VII[viii]
September 3, 1918
This letter will, no doubt, be a very great surprise to you but at last, here I am in Paris. Only for one day though. My orders came through Sunday and I left the field [Issoudun] Monday morning.
By the time this reaches you I shall be very busy. I cannot tell you where I am going but you can draw your own conclusions. It is the chance I have been waiting for for a long time and I am very much pleased over it.
I was walking down the Rue de l’Opera yesterday afternoon when who should I run across but Harry Brown, all dressed up in his uniform with the YMCA triangle on his sleeve. He was very happy because he had just received orders also and is to be not very far from us. I hope I shall be able to “drop in” on him sometime. He seemed to like Paris very much, but was getting a little tired of it. He sends his love to all.[ix]
Now for my impression of Paris. The cartoon I sent you “Oui, c’est Paris” hits it just about right. Cafes everywhere and every one full of girls. Some are terrible looking, others fair, and some quite pretty. You must absolutely push them away, especially in the evening, for they come up to you and want you to buy them a drink or else give them American cigarettes or chewing gum. I don’t wonder now that Paris is “out of bounds” for people on leave. Don’t worry about me, for every time I see them I think of you all and the whole thing makes me disgusted. How they can be that way and look people in the face and smile is more than I can see. I don’t see how the American men and officers can walk down the street with them. Still there are a few who do, officers and men alike, from all the Allied armies. I sure am glad I am getting out [of Paris] soon. This may sound funny from me, but I really do mean it.
I told you in my last letter that I was no longer on chasse (pursuit) work, but was on the big Liberty motored planes; I like them very much and they sure are wonders.[x]
One thing I am disappointed in and that is that I am not here during a night bombing raid. I have heard so much about them that I would like very much to see one.
From now on, we cease to be boys; for, as our Major said, the place we are going is where they separate the boys from the men and only the men go on.[xi] Our days of fun and studies are now over and we must apply them and work, and the work is not mere play. Don’t worry about me, for I am going to work hard but still not take unnecessary chances, and when the end is accomplished, I shall come home and not until then.
Loads and loads of love to you all always, Harold
88th Aero Squadron, [Souilly,] France
September 11, 1918
At last I am up where you can hear the big guns rattle now and then, and it is a grand and glorious feeling.
From Paris I went by rail to ———- [deleted by censor] and from there by automobile to here. Much to my surprise, when I went in to report to the commanding officer, I was greeted with “Hello Loud, damn glad to have you with us. Where have you been all this time, where is so and so, etc.” When I came to my senses the CO was none else than one of my class at ground school and also in my flying class in Dayton. He was one of my good friends there, and believe me it did seem good to see him again.[xii] After filling out the customary blanks [forms], he took me around and introduced me to the rest of the fellows and made it awfully nice for me. There is another Dayton man in the squadron also.
The 88th Aero Squadron. Photo taken in early October 1918, when Harold Loud was no longer with the squadron. The strain of combat flying shows on the men’s faces; no one is smiling. The squadron insignia is shown on the side of the aircraft: a cowboy riding a bucking bronco.
Today is ideal aviation weather, i. e. it rained all day and hence there was no flying. We slept and read quite a bit and some of the fellows went to town for their bi-weekly baths. Having just gotten in from Paris where I had all the baths I wanted, I stayed here. We are living in a very large old French farmhouse. There are two other officers in the room besides myself. We have an orderly who makes the beds and brings us water and wood for the fireplace. Oh yes, all the comforts of home. Almost every room has a fireplace and just now I am squatted in front of it, using its light to write by.
Only two of us were sent to this squadron. I figure that we are very lucky, for the boys here are wonders and the squadron has a very good record, having just been cited for recent work.[xiii] The ships are a type that I have never flown, but if tomorrow is pleasant, I am going up for a little while for a trial spin, to get the feel of them. I am sure I shall like them and also that I will have no trouble flying them.[xiv]
The Salmson SA-2. Pilot located under the wing; observer behind the wing.
I surely do run in luck. The last Sunday at Issoudun, I was at Chateauroux for the weekend and while away the boys received orders. Their baggage was all sent in a special car and they haven’t received it yet. Mine is now in my room with me. Maybe my luck is going to change now and be good for a while. I hope so.
My ride in the automobile was a very interesting one indeed. We went through several ruined villages. In all of them the houses were full of holes from shell fire and the streets in some torn up. However, the people were back already repairing their homes and making them livable. In one village we stopped to look inside a church the Germans had destroyed. For no purpose at all, they had torn down the beautiful banners and pictures, and the altar was a perfect wreck. It seems to be a favorite trick of theirs to destroy everything that is beautiful. I also now know what trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, machine gun nests, and shell holes look like, and the more I see of them, the more I am glad that I am in aviation.
You may tell Mrs. Forbes that I met Captain Zinn of whom she spoke to me. He was very nice to me and asked me to mention his name when I wrote to Mrs. Forbes, so if you see her, please tell her.[xv]
Only one letter from you all so far. I expect in the next batch that I get, if it ever catches up to me, to get several.
Sixteen more days before my birthday and what a strange one it will be. I shall always remember it though. It will be much better than mine of last year that I spent in bed sick.
I drew the most wonderful equipment you ever saw while in Paris my second time. Fur-lined coat, fur-lined union suit, fur mit[ten]s, sheepskin-lined shoes, goggles, helmet, sweater, and a thermos bottle with a nipple in it to use in the air. I am now mighty well equipped and from now on, there is not much chance of losing my equipment.
We have a wonderful mess here, the best I have hit any place. We have plenty of sugar, meat, vegetables, in fact everything except fresh milk. The water tastes rather funny because it is medicated before we use it.
Send me some sort of reading matter, as it is scarce over here. Not too much or in too bulky a package, or it will not come through. But just every now and then drop a small package in the mail box.
The mud over here is all it is cracked up to be and no Alcona County clay could hope to compare with it.[xvi] You take two steps and your feet weigh a ton. I am so glad that I brought that pair of hobnailed [shoes] and also that I had Viscol to oil them with, for tonight my feet are absolutely dry.
Must stop now and put my light out, for it is clearing up and the Boche [Germans] sometimes come over when it is clear, and the light would be a good guide.
With all my love, Harold
88th Aero Squadron
September 23, 1918
The wet trip yesterday left no ill effects and tonight, due to my trip to the community house, I feel fine. Really, I think, next to our mail, these occasional trips to “les bains” [the baths] are the most sought after amusements in France. You cannot imagine how we feel on the subject, as you have never been up against the difficulties [of personal hygiene in advanced locations].
Today has been quite a day of rest. It has rained all day and hence no mission work to perform. Only one man in our room got up before noon. From my letters, you must think this quite the lazy man’s war. At present it is for us, but we are now experiencing a lull. Soon, and very soon, we are going to be working every minute. You will know about it long before this letter reaches you. We are all anxiously awaiting it and this waiting around gets rather monotonous, especially when there is no place to go.
No mail from you tonight and it was such a large one too [that is, many letters and packages were delivered to the squadron]. I believe I am the only one in the squadron who did not get letters. I have been awfully lucky so far, for I have received more letters than some of the boys who have been here much longer than I have.
I shall try to get a Kodak over here so that I can take some snap shots. Films are very scarce, but I think I can get a few. As soon as I have them finished, I shall send you some.
Always with greatest love, Harold
88th Aero Squadron
September 27, 1918
What these last three days have been! So full of excitement and hurry! We have been kept awfully busy. The 25th we were all busy getting our ships ready and on the morning of the 26th it started [the Meuse-Argonne offensive]. You have read all about it in the papers by now. With my observer I left the ground at daylight and being my first trip over the lines while a battle was in progress, it will be a long remembered one.
As we neared the front, the valleys were full of mist and only the hills could be seen coming out of it. In these valleys, on our side, there were hundreds and hundreds of cannon and a continuous flash would show through the mist. My observer was to watch for fugitive targets and so we crossed into German territory. At first we flew at about 3,000 feet, but on account of the mist we dropped down to 1,000 feet. What a sight it was to see the barrage move slowly forward, especially in one town in which the Germans held strong positions. In about half an hour, the town was naught but a mess of ruins. Houses that were standing one minute would be heaps of stone and dust the next. We circled this place for almost an hour, directing the artillery fire, and never once saw a Boche plane.
We had been out a little over two hours on this trip and came back thinking how lucky we had been not to be molested. But when I came to unload my gun, I found it broken and a German explosive bullet inside it. Someone from the ground had taken a shot and he was not far off, for the gun was only two feet in front of me. I have the bullet and am keeping it for my first souvenir. A plane, a little later, came in with twenty-seven holes in it. They always seem to hit the plane, but very seldom the pilot—sometimes the observer, but the pilot is everywhere protected. Don’t worry about it—I think I am foolish for telling you about such things.
All the rest of the day we were busy, and also this morning. It was still dark when I took off, but my motor went bad after about ten minutes, and I had to come home.
Word has just come in that my ship is ready and that I must go out on a mission.
Loads and loads of love, Harold
[i] James J. Sloan, Jr., Wings of Honor: American Airmen in World War I (Atglen PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1994), p. 194.
[ii] Leonard P. Ayres, The War with Germany: A Statistical Summary (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919) (2nd ed), pp. 106-07.
[iii] Ayres, The War with Germany, pp. 108-09.
[iv] Ayres, The War with Germany, pp. 109-10.
[v] Ayres, The War with Germany, pp. 111-13.
[vi] Sloan, Wings of Honor, p. 195.
[vii] Sloan, Wings of Honor, p. 196.
[viii] The Edward VII Hotel is located on l’Avenue de l’Opera in Central Paris. It was a favorite of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII of England.
[ix] Harry Brown: a friend of the Loud family who had joined the YMCA and was serving in France.
[x] The “Liberty-motored planes” are the American-built De Havilland DH-4s.
[xi] The Major may have been Major Carl Spaatz, who was, until the end of August, the commanding officer of the training school at Issoudun. He was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Hiram Bingham. Carl Spaatz was later the commanding general of the 8th Air Force in England during World War II.
[xii] This was Floyd Evans, Harold Loud’s former classmate in ground school in Illinois and flight school in Ohio.
[xiii] The other individual who reported to the 88th Aero Squadron at the same time that Harold Loud officially arrived (September 9) was William A. Hogan.
[xiv] The squadron was flying Salmson SA-2 aircraft; these were large, reliable, two-place aircraft.
[xv] Captain Frederick W. Zinn was a Michigan native who served in the U. S. Air Service during World War I. He first joined the French Foreign Legion, then flew as an observer in a French squadron, F. 24, from December 1916 until October 1917. He worked at the American headquarters at Chaumont, France, where he coordinated the transfer on American personnel flying with French units to American units. He served for a while with the 135th Aero Squadron and then worked at the 1st Air Depot at Colombey-les-belles, France. Harold Loud probably met Captain Zinn in Paris, where he would have given Harold information about how to reach his new assignment. Mrs. Forbes was a family friend.
[xvi] For much of its course, the Au Sable River, which starts near Grayling, Michigan, and enters Lake Huron at the twin towns of Oscoda and Au Sable, runs through Alcona County. In the late 1800s the Loud family had conducted extensive lumbering operations along the Au Sable River.