"We fly very low, so you can imagine what two machine guns on each aeroplane, flying full in the face of the enemy, can do. It is very exciting work."
—Stephen Tyson, in a letter to his father dated May 1, 1918, ten weeks before he was shot down
Long before the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, the great aerial dogfights that took place between Allied and German pilots over Europe—a deadly arabesque whose leading avatar was Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron"—often as not involved American pilots. As early as August 1914, within weeks of the outbreak of war between France and Germany, young Americans began enlisting in France's Service Aeronautique, and by early 1916, an all-American squadron, the Lafayette Escadrille, had been formed.
But so many Americans volunteered that the Franco-American executive committee, which had established the Lafayette Escadrille, launched the Lafayette Flying Corps (LFC) to place would-be aviators from the U.S. with existing French escadrilles, or airplane squadrons. Individual or sometimes several American pilots joined any one of several dozen combat squadrons, which were called "Spads" because they used primarily Spad single-seat fighters.
By war's end, more than 250 American pilots had served in the LFC, and 63 had died either in combat, from wounds sustained in combat, or in airplane accidents.
What drove young Americans to risk their lives for France? What was it like to fly relatively primitive fighter planes less than 15 years after the Wright Brothers made the first powered airplane flight? How did it feel to engage the enemy high over the front lines? To crash planes, as most invariably did? To feel the threat of imminent, violent death?
To find out, I investigated the short life of my great-uncle Stephen Tyson. As a child I remember hearing that he'd been shot down over France by the Red Baron in 1918. As I looked into it, I determined several things: that my relatives had always spoken figuratively and Tyson wasn't shot down by Richthofen himself but by one (or possibly several) of the Baron's compatriots. That the circumstances of his death could hardly have been more spectacular had it been the Baron himself who'd brought him down. And that, most significantly in terms of my desire to know what it was like for the average LFC pilot, his experience in French aviation, including his short-lived tenure and the manner of his death, was typical, sobering as it was.
Giving oneself to France
Stephen Mitchell Tyson was born on March 12, 1898, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the second oldest of 12 children. (My grandfather, Stephen's younger brother, is the only one of those 12 still living, at age 99.) Stephen's father Stuart was a clergyman who moved the family five times in 14 years. This constant uprooting, combined with the untimely death of his mother Katharine in 1915, left Stephen feeling restless, and he did what many future pilots of the LFC did: he joined the American Ambulance Field Service in France, to drive ambulances at the front lines. He was fresh out of high school.
“I am wrapped up in the cause of France. I have decided to give myself to her.”
This was a time when America adored France, its long-time ally, and all things French, which represented the height of refined culture and society. Letters home from young Americans in the ambulance service reveal a boyish enthusiasm and a fervent if, in many cases, naïve desire to help save the Republic. On May 1, 1917, after six months at the front, Tyson wrote to his father:
I am delighted with my work here, in the ambulance service, and am wrapped up in the cause of France. I have decided to give myself to her . . . Knowing your sentiments on the war, I am sure you will have no objections to my doing what little I can for France. Dear Father, I realize that my chances for getting through are pretty slim, but it is well worth it by my having a chance to help crush those devils.
If his chances were slim in the ambulance service, they were far slimmer in the aviation service. But that fact hardly slowed him down, as was true with most future LFC pilots. Three weeks after he wrote the above letter, Tyson enlisted in the French Army as an aviator. All American candidates for the LFC had to present themselves to Dr. Edmund Gros, the head of the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris and founder of the LFC. Gros personally examined each candidate. Finding Tyson 15 pounds over the maximum allowable weight, Gros showed him the door. Even though it was "extremely irksome to his temperament," as James Norman Hall and Charles Bernard Nordhoff write in The Lafayette Flying Corps, the LFC's official history, Tyson spent the next month trimming off the extra weight with regular Turkish baths and exercise, and then passed muster.
Sent to aviation school, Tyson fell in with what Stuart Walcott, another LFC pilot-in-training, called "the oddest combination I've ever been thrown with: chauffeurs, second-story men, ex-college athletes, racing drivers, salesmen, young bums of leisure, a colored prize fighter, ex-Foreign Legionnaires, ball players, millionaires, and tramps." Such were the members of the LFC. "Not too good a crowd according to most standards," Walcott added, "but the worst bums may make the best aviators." They had come for different reasons. Some belonged to families who wished to protect property or other assets they owned in France. Others simply wanted to defend the much-admired Republic. Still others came with a thirst for adventure.
After five months of training at various aviation schools throughout France, Tyson earned his brevet, or military pilot's license. It was October 16, 1917, almost a year to the day after he had come to France. He'd earned his license on the Caudron, an obsolete and primitive plane, but by the spring he would be flying a brand-new, 180-horsepower Spad fighter, the latest French aerial fighting machine. (Its engine, one pilot wrote, "roars with a comfortable, heavy feeling of power.")
To the front
On December 19, Tyson was sent to the front as a member of Spad 85. He would become its longest-serving American member, lasting seven months before he was shot down. Seven months may not sound like a long time, but for a beginning LFC pilot it was significant. The most dangerous period for a pilot was his first month at the front, before he'd gained experience in spotting enemy aircraft. He had only a 50-50 chance of surviving that first month. Indeed, 80 percent of casualties in the LFC were suffered by pilots with fewer than 20 missions under their belt.
Spad 85's single-seat Nieuport and Spad fighters were housed in hangars along with those of several other squadrons, about 15 miles from the front lines. The pilots' mission was to patrol a given sector of the front as well as provide protection for Allied bombing formations and photographic planes. As chasse, or pursuit, pilots, Tyson and his companions were to chase and attack enemy aircraft.
When not flying, the pilots hung around the barracks. The living conditions were harsh. They slept on board boxes with straw mattresses, and they had to line the walls of their rooms with heavy paper to keep out the wind. "The cold is rotten," Tyson's roommate Alan Nichols wrote the day after he and Tyson arrived at Spad 85. "We are rarely warm at all, except when we get a fire going somewhere and hug it, or when we go to bed. My future program will be to read, write, eat, sleep, and shiver."
“He is just aimless until he flies —
The most frustrating aspect of daily life was the boredom. The slightest wind, rain, or snow kept the planes grounded, and the pilots nearly went out of their minds waiting for a chance to take to the air. Tyson, whom Nichols said "loves to fly more than eat," was no exception. "He frets and fumes until he is told he can fly," Nichols wrote his parents in mid-January 1918. "Then his eyes bug out and he grins like a platter . . . He is just aimless until he flies—then he is wild." Tyson's wildness would ultimately spell his doom.
In the air
When the pilots finally did get airborne, they came into their own. Some waxed philosophic about the sheer beauty of the skies. "One never tires of glorious cloud effects from the ground, but to be so privileged as to see them and be among them at the same time is a rare treat," Nichols wrote to his parents in April. "When the clouds are the rolling, piling white wind clouds, with the sun full on them, and one flies close to them, the effect is of a powerful, silent purity."
The height of flying for most pilots came when engaging the enemy. "We have been constantly moving from place to place, and are now right in the thick of the big battle," Tyson wrote to his father in May 1918, during Germany's last offensive:
What a sight it is, seen from the air. The endless train of men and supplies coming up from the rear, the narrow strip of No-Man's Land with its cloud of smoke and fire caused by the never-ceasing rain of shells, and above, the German planes circling, in and out of the clouds, like great birds waiting for a chance to strike. Our group has been assigned to shooting up the German column as they march up from the rear. We fly very low, so you can imagine what two machine guns on each aeroplane, flying full in the face of the enemy, can do. It is very exciting work.
In this as in many of the letters home, one gets the distinct sense that these relatively inexperienced pilots, those who had not yet seen significant action, considered it all somewhat of a game—dangerous, yes, but great fun. They were innocent, carefree, supremely cocksure. After learning how to do a vrille, or corkscrew maneuver, with his plane, Nichols wrote that "I feel like slapping the world in the face, I'm that cocky." Even airplane accidents, if they weren't fatal, were treated with levity. Cyrus Chamberlain, another American who briefly served in Spad 85, wrote this in a letter home on January 9, 1918:
Tyson had an amusing thing happen yesterday which was almost serious. He was on patrol and several kilometers the other side of the lines, when his motor stopped dead. Luckily he was quite high, so he headed for the lines and started coasting down, making such distance as he could, first firing his machine gun to attract the attention of the patrol leader, who followed him down far enough to see him land.
When he got nearly down, the ground below was a network of old and new trenches and was pockmarked with shell-holes, and he could not tell where the front-line trenches were, nor whether he was landing in French or German territory, but he thought it was German, as there were a lot of trenches still ahead of him. He landed, just missing two shell-holes, and ran into a bunch of barbed wire, taking off both lower wings and completely smashing his coucou [cockpit], but didn't hurt himself.
Then out of the apparently deserted fields emerged several hundred people, from shell-holes, dugouts, and trenches, and started for him on the run. He felt very lonely and discouraged, but thought up a greeting in his best German, looked up and waved good-bye to the patrol leader, who had come down to 150 meters, and when he looked around saw the most beautiful sight of his life—some sky-blue poilu [French soldier] uniforms. They took him to lunch with them, and he went from hors-d'oeuvres through roast chicken to liqueurs. After they had had a long visit one of the Generals sent him back here in his limousine, everybody along the road salaaming at the sight of the General's insignia on the car.
Stories like this that make light of extremely dire circumstances are common in the many surviving letters that frontline pilots wrote to family and friends. The pilots lived by a code of bravado, and they didn't want to alarm loved ones back home. But reading between the lines of their matter-of-fact, even nonchalant descriptions of events reveals just how perilous their situation usually was. "We are in the trajectory of shells from both sides, with anti-aircraft guns shooting up," Tyson wrote his father in May. "I have had awfully good luck. Not been touched yet, although my machine has been badly hit twice."
“He drove straight away, turned and came head on, a trifle above me. I saw his luminous bullets passing overhead . . .”
The pièce de résistance for all pilots was shooting down an enemy plane. Tyson was officially credited with one kill, Nichols with two. (To receive credit, the downing had to have been done single-handedly, witnessed by at least one other pilot, and achieved on the French side of the lines, so many LFC pilots, including Tyson, actually shot down more planes than they were officially credited for.) No surviving letters of Tyson's describe his one official victory, but Nichols detailed his own first downing of a German opponent in mid-May 1918:
...I found myself alone with one Albatros chasse [German chase] machine. We were both at our "plafond" [flight ceiling], where the machines were very wobbly. We started around in flat circles, but neither could get behind the other. Somebody had to break, and it was he. He drove straight away, turned and came head on, a trifle above me. I saw his luminous bullets passing overhead, as he had an enormous correction to make to allow for our speeds. To avoid running into me he had to redress and pass over my head, and all I had to do was pull up and pump the lead into the underside of the body. It was point blank, at 20 or 30 yards, and right in the center. I probably hit the gas tank, and probably the pilot, for he went up and over flat on his back, coming out in a long dive.
At that moment, Nichols was interrupted by two other German planes, which he eventually managed to shake. Only on landing did he learn that the plane he'd attacked had gone down in flames. He, like Tyson, was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm, an Army citation that rewards pilots for single-handedly bringing down an enemy plane. In telling of his victory and the upcoming award, Nichols summed up his thoughts in one line: "This is the acme of human life."
That was the final letter Nichols' parents received from him. Two weeks later, on June 2, 1918, Nichols was killed in action. Shot through the stomach during a patrol, he managed to land his plane on the French side of the lines. But it was nine hours before he made it onto the operating table, and by then it was too late. He died just before midnight, at age 21.
Tyson's luck did not hold much longer. Actually, his death had little to do with bad luck and everything to do with brazenness. Nichols had once written to his parents that "it is a very safe job if you stick with the patrol." On the day in question, this is exactly what Tyson didn't do.
It was the 19th of July, and the Germans had begun their historic second retreat from the Marne. Around 5:30 in the afternoon, Tyson was flying back and forth at 15,000 feet between Dormans and Château-Thierry, about 50 miles northeast of Paris. He was part of a small patrol of Spads, providing protection for some photographic two-seaters. Suddenly, the patrol noticed a group of eight, single-seat German planes approaching, and they dove to the attack. The Germans, whose mission was to defend German territory and who were forbidden to attack over French soil, refused to engage and started heading back into their lines. As the French leader of Tyson's patrol turned to continue his squadron's mission of protection, Tyson made his fatal mistake. As Hall and Norman write,
...Tyson was seen to detach himself from the patrol and head swiftly after the retreating Germans. It was over in an instant. As the enemy turned at bay, he attacked them from beneath, one against eight, both guns spitting fire and lead. Next moment, caught in the concentrated fire of the enemy at point-blank range, the Spad was seen to veer wildly, whirl downward in a vrille, and burst into flames and explode while still 6,000 feet above the Earth.
In their history, published in 1920, Hall and Norman, making ample use of the hyperbole characteristic of the day, called Tyson "a born flyer" who "flew carelessly and naturally as a hawk, man and machine welded into a single swift and intelligent creature of the skies. Supremely confident, always on the offensive, and with the born fighter's love of desperate odds, his last combat was a thing to make every American thrill with pride."
“Poor old Tyson. I guess they all think he’s crazy. I think he’s a little crazy myself . . .”
In fact, his solo attack against eight planes was at the least ill-advised, at the most extremely foolish. Was his rash decision a product of his wild streak? His exasperation at so many lost hours on the ground? His eagerness for another victory? Perhaps it was due to all three. In any event, the decision was his last. Nichols, who was described as "a quiet and rather serious boy," likely offered a more accurate portrait of Tyson than Hall and Norman painted, in a letter to his parents sent the previous January:
Poor old Tyson. I guess they all think he's crazy. I think he's a little crazy myself . . . He is in aviation mostly for the speed! The fastest thing calls him. He came for the ambulance, and is now in wrong at home because he promised he would not enter aviation. He always got hurt, and I expect him to get hurt soon here. He is a rotten pilot. He just slams the machine around. I keep clear of him in the air.
In the end, Tyson, like all LFC pilots, was only human, bearing his own set of character strengths and flaws. And these, as with those of all LFC pilots who met their end in the Great War, are all he had to draw upon on his fateful last day.
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