For most people today, the American military experience in World War I is little known. The war in Europe started in the summer of 1914 and ended on November 11th of 1918. For the first two and a half of those four years the war was a remote event for most Americans. Initially the only war-related activity in America was a debate over which side should be supported, the Allied side or the Central Powers side. The major armies on the Allied side were England, France, and, for a time, Russia. They opposed the German and Austro-Hungarian armies of the Central Powers. The large numbers of recent German and English immigrants in the United States made the debate a lively one. On May 7, 1915, the liner Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, and popular opinion began to favor the Allied side. As the war grew more intense, many young American men sympathetic to the Allied cause joined the British forces. Then, on April 6, 1917, after a number of German provocations, America officially entered the war.
American military forces were generally unprepared for war, with few active units in existence and little wartime training having been conducted. The last significant war experience for Americans had been the U. S. Civil War, which had ended over fifty years earlier. That war had provided more than enough war remembrances for most Americans, and the social and political effects of that conflict still reverberated. Almost every American family had contributed men to the war effort, either for the northern or the southern cause, and almost every city in America had mounted memorials to the men who had died fighting for the cause they supported. The Spanish-American War had flared up briefly, over thirty years later, in 1898, but it had ended quickly, and only a few Americans, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt among them, had been able to see action in Cuba before it ended. Thus there had been a relatively long period of military inactivity for most Americans until the European war of 1914 began. Fueled by memories and stories of the Civil War, many of America’s young men were eager to see action.
For most Americans, the war in Europe was about issues that did not involve them and about which they had little personal or philosophical interest, and for the initial years of the war, they had not directly experienced any actions that injured them personally or politically. President Woodrow Wilson had initially advocated staying out of the war, but had supported the development of the U. S. Navy, mostly as protection for American shipping in the Atlantic. The American army, however, had not been prepared for war. There were a few regular army and national guard units, but these were not combat ready.
However, after America officially entered the war, there was a flurry of activity to prepare American army units for participation in combat. It was not just a matter of providing military training; there was a sudden need for uniforms, arms and armaments, and vehicles. It required six months for sufficient amounts of equipment to be provided and men to be trained. Another major problem was the logistics requirement of transferring men and equipment across the Atlantic to ports in England and France. The first units to be outfitted and trained were army National Guard units, which, because of their integrity and general familiarity with military procedures, were placed in combat first. Foremost among these, for example, was the fighting 69th, a National Guard unit from New York City, which consisted mostly of Irish immigrants (or the sons of immigrants). The unit crossed to France in October of 1917 and saw its first combat action in February of 1918.
The unit was eventually involved in heavy fighting during the summer and fall of 1918, in the battles of Chateau-Thierry, Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne. As this timeline indicates, six months passed before the first American ground army units landed in France, and another four months followed before they settled into an active ground combat role. For the typical soldier, the time from initial training to combat experience was about a year. And sufficient American units had to be trained, equipped, and put in place before the American army commander, General George Pershing, had an army to command. Thus, the first organized American combat activities did not occur until the summer of 1918, well over a year after America entered the war. It is no surprise to realize that, given their need for specialized equipment and training, American army flying units required even longer periods of time to prepare for and to enter combat.
The air arm of the U. S. Army in World War I was the Air Service. The first flying unit of the U. S. Army had been the Aeronautical Division of the U. S. Army Signal Corps, established in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Initially the air arm was created as a supplement to the Signal Corps, whose primary task was the transmission of messages among army units. In addition to providing faster communication, aerial observation was seen as an important element in the task of gathering information about the location of enemy forces. Seven years after it officially was acknowledged as a component of the army, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was formed, in July of 1914, a month before the war in Europe began. Four years later, in May 1918, it became its own separate organization, no longer tied to the Signal Corps, as army leaders realized that the roles of the aircraft in wartime were much more varied than merely transmitting information.
One major problem for the recently formed air arm of the army was constructing a sufficient number of aircraft and providing the necessary support equipment. The aircraft as an instrument of war was in the process of being developed, and the transition from flimsy wood and fabric-covered aircraft (early versions were referred to as “kites”) to more substantial flying machine structures was rapid. By the end of the war, a little over four years after it began, combat aircraft were capable of supporting powerful engines and machine guns and were able to withstand the high G-forces that occurred when turning abruptly in combat.
The first aircraft had been used tentatively in the first months of the war (late 1914 and early 1915) as observation platforms, flying over the front lines to observe enemy troop and equipment movements, and then landing to report the results of their aerial reconnaissance. Eventually light armaments (pistols and rifles) were carried, soon followed by a machine gun. The most common form of machine gun used by the British forces was the Lewis gun, which fed a round pan of 40 bullets into the firing chamber. When the contents of one pan were used up, the empty pan was unscrewed and replaced by another, full of ammunition. Initially the weapon was hand-carried, but that approach was quickly deemed unsatisfactory, and the Lewis gun was mounted on a swivel, first on a platform in front of the engine, which was placed at the rear of the aircraft. As aircraft design and capabilities evolved, however, aircraft engines were mounted in front, and the Lewis gun was attached to the top plane of the biplane aircraft, requiring the gunner (usually the pilot) to fire over the arc of the propeller.
After the interrupter gear was developed, the Lewis gun could be mounted on the fuselage of the aircraft with the bullets passing through the propeller blades. Fortunately the propellers of the early engines turned relatively slowly, between 1000 and 1500 revolutions per minute. The Lewis gun remained the weapon of choice for the Allies, being replaced by the Vickers and Marlin machine guns in the last year of the war.
The main challenge for the Americans was to build training aircraft to train the pilots how to fly. In April of 1917, for instance, there were only 100 rated pilots and 35 aircraft capable of flight in the Air Service inventory, and the aircraft were mostly obsolescent, worn-out Curtiss Jenny aircraft. The only training fields were located at Mineola Field (on Long Island, New York), Rockwell Field (San Diego), and the Wright brothers’ field near Dayton, Ohio. By the summer of 1917, four months after the United States entered the war, flying fields had been established at Dayton, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Rantoul, Illinois. By the end of the year, airfields had been constructed at Montgomery, Alabama; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Fort Worth, Texas; Houston, Texas; Waco, Texas; and San Antonio, Texas. For the most part, these fields were flat, grassy areas bordered by hastily constructed wooden hangars, repair shops, and barracks. Because there was a shortage of pilots, many of the first pilots, when they completed their training, were assigned as instructor pilots to train other pilots rather than being assigned to flying units.
In addition to creating flying fields in the United States, the Army Air Service established flight training facilities at two locations in France: Tours and Issoudun. These fields had been established by the French army to train its pilots, and these facilities had to be greatly expanded to accommodate the large numbers of American pilot trainees. As a result, the American flying training programs really did not become fully productive until after the winter of 1917-1918.
Once the pilots had been trained, the next significant problem was obtaining appropriate combat aircraft. Because the American aviation effort had been mostly moribund during the early years of the war, America had produced few training aircraft and no aircraft capable of flying in combat. As a result, when sufficient numbers of American pilots began to appear, the American authorities had to rely on the generosity of the allies to provide suitable aircraft. The Americans first flew Nieuport and SPAD aircraft produced by the French, and the Sopwith and De Havilland aircraft produced by the British. The French and English aircraft factories were already tasked with producing sufficient aircraft for their own flying units, so there was some delay in generating aircraft for the Americans. Early in 1918, when trained American aviators began appearing in France in large numbers, they were given older combat aircraft no longer used by the French Air Force.
The first operational American flying units were the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons. These units reached the French front in May of 1918. They were designated as operational even though they had not yet received their machine guns for their Nieuport 27 aircraft. By July of 1918, however, allied aircraft production had begun to catch up with American demand for aircraft, and most American units were flying reasonably current combat aircraft.
There were three kinds of combat aircraft: pursuit (also called chasse, the term used by the French), observation, and bombing. The pursuit aircraft consisted primarily of the British-built Sopwith Camel and SE-5 aircraft and the French-built Nieuport 27 and SPAD 13 aircraft. The role of the pursuit aircraft was to escort reconnaissance and bombing aircraft on their missions, and to engage in aerial combat against enemy aircraft. Pursuit aircraft were flown by a single pilot. The observation aircraft was usually a large, two-place aircraft. The American observation squadrons flew either the British-built De Havilland DH-4 or the French built Salmson SA-2 aircraft. These were flown by a two-man crew, a pilot and observer. The role of the observer was to take pictures (when the aircraft was equipped with a camera), or observe activity on the ground (making notes accordingly). The observer’s position was equipped with a Lewis gun fastened to a Scarff mount, with which the observer could turn and elevate the Lewis gun to shoot at attacking enemy aircraft from any angle. The bombing aircraft was also a two-place aircraft (again usually a De Havilland DH4 or a Salmson aircraft) flown by the pilot, while the observer navigated and operated the bomb release mechanism and to operate the Lewis gun in case of an enemy attack. In addition to the Scarff-mounted Lewis gun at the observer’s position, the pilot also had a Lewis gun mounted on the fuselage; it fired straight ahead, and the pilot had to turn the aircraft in order to shoot at an enemy aircraft.
Most pilots preferred to fly pursuit aircraft, which were generally lighter and more maneuverable than the slower, heavier two-place aircraft. But all three roles were essential in the war, and all three roles exposed the aviators to dangerous conditions. In addition to the basic hazards of flying relatively fragile, over-burdened aircraft in bad weather and taking off and landing on rough ground on makeshift forward landing areas, there were the problems of being shot at by enemy aircraft and of being shot at by anti-aircraft guns on the ground. In addition, when the aircraft flew low over the battlefield (especially in the front-line trench areas), they were often shot at by the enemy soldiers in the trenches.
There were several training programs through which the pilots had to proceed. The first was the preliminary ground school during which the trainees learned about aircraft operation and related subjects in addition to military orientation and training. Ground school typically lasted about eight weeks. Then followed basic flight training, during which the trainee had to demonstrate the ability to fly the aircraft safely and competently. The test of his competency occurred when he was told to fly the aircraft solo, without the presence of the flight instructor. This phase lasted about four weeks. Then followed advanced flying training, in which the student was required to fly the aircraft up to and descend from a high altitude. The final test in this part was the cross-country test, in which the pilot flew to two other landing areas before returning to his home field. This test challenged the student’s powers of navigation and resourcefulness, especially when weather conditions made it difficult to observe the ground. This phase was also about four weeks in duration.
At the conclusion of this phase the pilot was awarded his reserve military aviator’s (RMA) wings. He also received his commission as a second lieutenant in the army. At this point the pilot was assigned to his primary flying task, as a pursuit pilot, observation pilot, or bombing pilot. He could also be assigned as a flight instructor, but by the spring of 1918 most pilot training graduates were sent to fly in an operational squadron in France. If the pilot was assigned to a pursuit squadron, he received additional instruction in gunnery, formation flying, and aerial combat. If the pilot was assigned at an observation pilot, he was sent to the observer pilot’s training course, where he worked with observers in spotting ground targets, working with an artillery unit to adjust artillery fire, and to practice taking photographs. The observer’s school was more work for the observer than the pilot, because the observer had more tasks to accomplish than the pilot, though the pilot and observer had to work together to accomplish their assignments. A pilot assigned to a bombing squadron also attended gunnery school as well as an advanced flying training program in which he, along with his observer, learned about calculating bomb trajectories and arming bombs. In this school the practice missions consisted of making several practice bomb runs. In both the observer pilot’s and bomber pilot’s training programs, the observers also practiced gunnery techniques, learning how to operate the Lewis guns attached to the Scarff mounts, the and the pilots and observers practiced crew coordination while firing at enemy aircraft.
Thus, counting travel time and occasional leave periods before departing for France, the total training time for a pilot in the United States could be as much as six months. The training period for observers was slightly less. Once they arrived in France, the pilots had to proceed through the army’s flight training program in France as well; there was typically a period of four to six weeks of training before they joined their operational squadron. Most of this training was conducted at Issoudun, which included a complex of eleven fields through which pilots had to proceed successfully. Those pilots who had received a thorough training program in the United States usually proceeded at a fast rate through the training program at Issoudun, which was designed to train pilots who had received no prior flight training. U.S.-trained pilots typically moved through the Issoudun training program in two weeks’ time unless bad weather delayed their progress. After completing the program at Issoudun, they received their operational squadron assignments, which were usually, but not always, linked to the training programs through which they had proceeded in the U. S.: pursuit, observation, or bombing. Thus the total amount of time spent in training, in the United States and in France, could be somewhere between seven and nine months, depending on weather, administrative delays, illness, and other factors.
Once a pilot joined his operational squadron, he would be given additional instruction specific to the flying tasks of the squadron. He would typically be given three or four local flights to familiarize him with the flying field, local flying area, squadron aircraft, and squadron mission procedures. Unless there was a strong need, he would not be assigned to an operational mission for a period of two or three weeks. If he survived his first two weeks of flying, the most dangerous period of flying for a new pilot, he became an “old head,” one of the squadron’s experienced pilots.
It is against this general background, then that we examine the career of Lieutenant Harold Loud, an enthusiastic and motivated young man who volunteered to become a pilot in the U. S. Army’s Air Service and to contribute to the American war effort. Through the letters he wrote to his parents in Michigan, we can gain a more complete understanding of the typical training and combat experiences of an American airman in World War I.