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Monday, May 31, 2010

In the Great War

For Memorial Day I’d like to talk about my grandfather. I’ve taken all day to put this together. I had to do some research, and naturally, it made me get sidetracked into reading a lot more things than were relevant to this subject, but all of them were interesting!

Grandpa served in the infant United States Air Service, the World War I forerunner of the Air Force. Before 1914, my grandfather and some associates had formed a company to produce the first commercial dirigibles (blimps) in the U.S., and when the country entered the War, they sold their company to the government and received officer training in return. Grandpa and his brother Roger went to France as lieutenants in the Air Service in the spring of 1918. I don’t know what exactly he and Roger did, but Grandpa was based at Issoudun, right in the center of France, and left us a large stack of photographs, among which are definitely some examples of reconnaissance reporting.

Because he was a machinist for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad company in the decade before the war, I always thought he was part of the large maintenance crew for the aeroplanes, but one photo shows him in a group of pilots, so perhaps he flew on reconnaissance missions. Besides, were maintenance men ever officers? These reconnaissance pilots were incredibly brave, sneaking through the lines and either trying to keep the sun behind them as they approached their target areas, or trying to fly so low that nobody saw them until too late to do anything about it. The US Expeditionary Forces depended on them and their photographers to supply visuals of everything the enemy was doing and all the terrain they would need to cover. I saw a picture of one photographer leaning over the side of the plane behind the pilot, with a long, silver colored box pointed at the ground. It looked nothing like a camera that I recognized, but that’s what it was.

Grandpa became very sick during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic and was sent to Monte Carlo, Monaco, to recover. I had a photograph that he took of Prince Albert’s yacht, but I cannot find the photograph today to scan and post it.

After the war was over and the brothers’ terms of service completed, they returned to the States. They vowed to each other that they would never fly in an airplane again for the rest of their lives. Roger got over whatever horror inspired the pact, but Grandpa never set foot in an airplane again.

I wonder who has the records of the 2nd Corps, Air Service today? I would like to know more about what Grandpa and Uncle Roger did to defend the free world from the tyranny that started the Great War.

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