« AnkstesnisTęsti »
'What did you do then?' 'Circled around, waiting for you. I had the balloon in sight all the while you were diving. It was a great sight to watch from below, particularly when you let go your rockets. I'll never forget it, never. But, Lord! Without the climax! Artistically, it was an awful fizzle.'
There was no denying this. A balloon bonfire was the only possible conclusion to the adventure, and we both failed at lighting it. I, too, redressed when very close to the bag, and made a steep bank in order to escape the burst of flame from the ignited gas. The rockets leaped out, with a fine, blood-stirring roar. The mere sound ought to have been enough to make any balloon collapse. But when I turned, there it was, intact, a super-Brobdingnagian pumpkin, seen at close view, and still ripe, still ready for plucking. If I live to one hundred years, I shall never have a greater surprise or a more bitter disappointment.
There was no leisure for brooding over it then. My altimeter registered only 250 metres, and the French lines were far distant. If the motor failed I should have to land in German territory. Any fate but that. Nevertheless I felt in the pocket of my combination, to be sure that my box of matches was safely in place. We were cautioned always to carry them where they could be quickly got at in case of a forced landing in enemy country. An airman must destroy his machine in such an
But my Spad did not mean to end its career so ingloriously. The motor ran beautifully, hitting on every cylinder. We climbed from 250 metres to 350, 450, and on steadily upward. In the vicinity of the balloon, machinegun fire from the ground had been fairly heavy; but I was soon out of range, and saw the tracer bullets, like swarms
of blue bubbles, curving downward again at the end of their trajectory.
No machines, either French or German, were in sight. Irving had disappeared some time before we reached the balloon. I had not seen Drew from the moment when he fired his rockets. He waited until he made sure that I was following, then started for the west side of the salient. I did not see him, because of my interest in those clouds of blue bubbles which were rising with anything but bubble-like tranquillity. When I was clear of them, I set my course westward and parallel with the enemy lines to the south.
I had never flown so low, so far in German territory. The temptation to forget precaution and to make a leisurely survey of the ground beneath was hard to resist. It was not wholly resisted, in fact. Anti-aircraft fire was again feeble and badly ranged. The shells burst far behind and above, for I was much too low to offer an easy target. This gave me a dangerous sense of safety, and so I tipped up on one side, then on the other, examining the roads, searching the ruins of villages, the trenches, the shell-marked ground. I saw no living thing, brute or human -nothing but endless, inconceivable desolation.
The foolishness of that close scrutiny alone, without the protection of other avions, I realize now much better than I did then. Unless flying at 6000 metres or above, when he is comparatively safe from attack, a pilot may never relax his vigilance for thirty seconds together. He must look behind him, below, above, constantly. All aviators learn this eventually, but in the case of many new pilots the knowledge comes too late to be of service.
I thought this was to be my experience, when, looking up, I saw five combat machines bearing down upon me. Had they been enemy planes my
chances would have been very small, for they were close at hand before I saw them. The old French aviator, worn out by his 500 hours of flight over the trenches, said, 'Save your nervous energy.' I exhausted a threemonths reserve in as many seconds. The suspense, luckily, was hardly longer than that. It passed when the patrol leader, followed by the others, pulled up in ligne de vol, about one hundred metres above me, showing their French cocardes. It was the group of protection of Spa. 87. At the time I saw Drew, a quarter of a mile away. As he turned, the sunlight glinted along his rocket-tubes.
A crowded hour of glorious life it seems now, although I was not of this opinion at the time. In reality, we were absent barely forty minutes. Climbing out of my machine at the aerodrome, I looked at my watch. Twenty-five minutes to twelve. Laignier, the sergeant mechanician, was sitting in a sunny corner of the hangar, reading the Matin, just as I had left him.
Lieutenant Talbott's only comment was, 'Don't let it worry you. Better luck next time. The group bagged two out of four, and Irving knocked down a Boche who was trying to get at you. That is n't bad for half an hour's work.'
But the decisive effect on morale which was to result from our wholesale destruction of balloons was diminished by half. We had forced ours down, but it bobbed up again very soon afterward. The one o'clock patrol saw it, higher, Miller said, than it had ever been. It was Miller, by the way, who looked in on us at nine o'clock the same evening. The lamp was out.
We were not, but we did n't answer. He closed the door, then re-opened it.
'It's laziness, that's what it is. They ought to put you on school régime again.'
He had one more afterthought. Looking in a third time, he said, —
'How about it, you little old human dynamos; are you getting rusty?'
II. BROUGHT DOWN
The preceding chapters of this journal have been written to little purpose if it has not been made clear that Drew and I, like most pilots during the first weeks of service at the front, were worth little to the Allied cause. We were warned often enough that the road to efficiency in military aviation is a long and dangerous one. We were given much excellent advice by aviators who knew what they were talking about. Much of this we solicited, in fact, and then proceeded to disregard it item by item. Eager to get results, we plunged into our work with the valor of ignorance, the result being that Drew was shot down in one of his first encounters, escaping with his life by one of those more than miracles for which there is no explanation. That I did not fare as badly, or worse, is due solely to the indulgence of that godfather of ours, already mentioned, who watched over my first flights while in a mood beneficently pro-Ally.
Drew's adventure followed soon after our first patrol, when he had the near combat with the two-seater. Luckily, on that occasion, both the German pilot and his machine-gunner were taken completely off their guard. Not only did he attack with the sun squarely in his face, but he went down in a long gradual dive, in full view of the gunner, who could not have asked for a better target. But the man was asleep, and this gave J. B. a dangerous contempt for all enemy gunners.
Lieutenant Talbott cautioned him. 'You have been lucky, but don't get it into your head that this sort of thing happens often. Now I'm going to give
you a standing order. You are not to attack again, neither of you is to think of attacking, during your first month here. As likely as not it would be your luck the next time to meet an old pilot. If you did, I would n't give much for your chances. He would outmanœuvre you in a minute. You will go out on patrol with the others, of course: it's the only way to learn to fight. But if you get lost, go back to our balloons and stay there until it is time to go home.'
Neither of us obeyed this order, and, as it happened, Drew was the one to suffer. A group of American officers visited the squadron one afternoon. In courtesy to our guests, it was decided to send out all the pilots for an additional patrol, to show them how the thing was done. Twelve machines were in readiness for the sortie, which was set for seven o'clock, the last one of the day. We were to meet at 3000 metres, and then to divide forces, one patrol to cover the east half of the sector and one the west.
We got away beautifully, with the exception of Drew, who had motortrouble and was five minutes late in starting. With his permission I insert his own account of the adventure letter written while he was in hospital.
'No doubt you are wondering what happened, and listening, meanwhile, to many I-told-you-so explanations from the others. This will be hard on you, but bear up, son. It might not be a bad plan to listen, with the understanding as well as with the ear, to some expert advice on how to bag the Hun. To quote the prophetic Miller, "I'm telling you this for your own good."
'I gave my name and the number of the escadrille to the medical officer at the poste de secours. He said he would 'phone the captain at once, so that you must know before this that I have been VOL. 121-NO. 6
amazingly lucky. I fell the greater part of two miles - count 'em, two- before I actually regained control, only to lose it again. I fainted while still several hundred feet from the ground; but more of this later. Could n't sleep last night. Had a fever and my brain went on a spree, taking advantage of my helplessness. So I just lay in bed and watched it function. Besides, there was a great artillery racket all night long. It appeared to be coming from our sector, so you must have heard it as well. This hospital is not very far back and we get the full orchestral effect of heavy firing. The result is that I am dead tired to-day. I believe I can sleep for a week.
"They have given me a bed in the officers' ward-me, a corporal. It is because I am an American, of course. Wish there was some way of showing one's appreciation for so much kindness. My neighbor on the left is a chasseur captain. A hand-grenade exploded in his face. He will go through life horribly disfigured. An old padre, with two machine-gun bullets in his hip, is on the other side. He is very patient, but sometimes the pain is a little too much for him. To a Frenchman, “Oh, là, là!" is an expression for every conceivable kind of emotion. In the future it will mean unbearable physical pain to me.
'Our orderlies are two poilus, long past military age. They are as gentle and thoughtful as the nurses themselves. One of them brought me lemonade all night long. Worth while getting wounded just to have something taste so good.
'I meant to finish this letter a week ago but haven't felt up to it. Quite perky this morning, so I'll go on with the tale of my "heroic combat." Only, first, tell me how that absurd account of it got into the Herald. I hope Tal
bott knows that I was not foolish enough to attack six Germans singlehanded. If he does n't, please enlighten him. His opinion of my common sense must be low enough as it is. 'We were to meet over S- - at 3000 metres, you remember, and to cover the sector at 5000 until dusk. I was late in getting away, and by the time I reached the rendezvous you had all gone. There was n't a chasse machine in sight. I ought to have gone back to the balloons as Talbott advised, but thought it would be easy to pick you up later, so went on alone after I had got some height. Crossed the lines at 3500 metres, and finally got up to 4000, which was the best I could do with my rebuilt engine. The Huns started shelling, but there were only a few of them that barked. I went down the lines for a quarter of an hour, meeting two Sepwiths and a Letord, but no Spads. You were almost certain to be higher than I, but my old packet was doing its best at 4000, and getting overheated with the exertion. Had to throttle down and pique several times to cool off.
"Then I saw you—at least I thought it was you about four kilometres inside the German lines. I counted six machines, well grouped, one a good Ideal higher than the others and one several hundred metres below them. The pilot on top was doing beautiful renversements and an occasional barrelturn, in Barry's manner. I was so certain it was our patrol that I started over at once, to join you. It was getting dusk and I lost sight of the machine lowest down for a few seconds. Without my knowing it, he was approaching at exactly my altitude. You know how difficult it is to see a machine in that position. Suddenly he loomed up in front of me like an express train, as you have seen them approach from the depths of a moving-picture screen, only ten times faster; and he was firing
as he came. I realized my awful mis take, of course. His tracer bullets were going by on the left side, but he corrected his aim, and my motor seemed to be eating them up. I banked to the right, and was about to cut my motor and dive, when I felt a smashing blow in the left shoulder. A sickening sens tion and a very peculiar one, not at al what I thought it might feel like to be hit with a bullet. I believed that it came from the German in front of me But it could n't have, for he was stili approaching when I was hit, and I find that the bullet entered from behind.
"This is the history of less than a minute I'm giving you. It seemed much longer than that, but I don't suppose it was. I tried to shut down the motor, but could n't manage it be cause my left arm was gone. I really believed that it had been blown off into space until I glanced down and saw that it was still there. But for any serv ice it was to me, I might just as well have lost it. There was a vacant period of ten or fifteen seconds which I can't fill in. After that I knew that I was falling, with my motor going full speed. It was a helpless realization. My brain refused to act. I could do nothing. Finally, I did have one clear thought. "Am I on fire?" This cut right through the fog, brought me up broad awake. I was falling almost vertically, in a sort of half vrille. No machine but a Spad could have stood the strain. The Huns were following me and were not far away, judging by the sound of their guns. I fully expected to feel another bullet or two boring its way through One did cut the skin of my right leg. although I did n't know this until I reached the hospital. Perhaps it was well that I did fall out of control, for the firing soon stopped, the Germans thinking, and with reason, that they had bagged me. Some proud Boche airman is wearing an iron cross on my
account. Perhaps the whole crew of dare-devils has been decorated. However, no unseemly sarcasm. We would pounce on a lonely Hun just as quickly. There is no chivalry in war in these modern days.
'I pulled out of the spin, got the broomstick between my knees, reached over, and shut down the motor with my right hand. The propeller stopped dead. I did n't much care, being very drowsy and tired. The worst of it was that I could n't get my breath. I was gasping as though I had been hit in the pit of the stomach. Then I lost control again and started falling. It was awful! I was almost ready to give up. I believe that I said, out loud, "I'm going to be killed. This is my last sortie." At any rate, I thought it. Made one last effort and came out in ligne de vol, as nearly as I could judge, about 150 metres from the ground. It was an uglylooking place for landing-trenches and shell-holes everywhere. I was wondering in a vague way, whether they were French or German, when I fell into the most restful sleep I ever had in my life.
'I have no recollection of the crash, not the slightest. I might have fallen as gently as a leaf. That is one thing to be thankful for, among a good many others. When I came to, it was at once, completely. I knew that I was on a stretcher and remembered immediately exactly what had happened. My My heart was going pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat,and I could hardly breathe, but I had no sensation of pain except in my chest. This made me think that I had broken every bone in my body. I tried moving first one leg, then the other, then my arms, my head, my body. No trouble at all, except with my left arm and side. 'I accepted the miracle without attempting to explain it, for I had something more important to wonder about: who had the handles of my stretcher?
The first thing I did was to open my eyes, but I was bleeding from a scratch on the forehead and saw only a red blur. I wiped them dry with my sleeve and looked again. The broad back in front of me was covered with mud. Impossible to distinguish the color of the tunic. But the shrapnel helmet above it was French! I was in French hands. If ever I live long enough in one place, so that I can gather a few possessions and make a home for myself, on one wall of my living-room I will have a bust-length portrait, rear view, of a French brancardier, mud-covered back and battered tin hat.
'Do you remember our walk with Ménault in the rain, and the déjeuner at the restaurant where they made such wonderful omelettes? I am sure that you will recall the occasion, although you may have forgotten the conversation. I have not forgotten one remark of Ménault's apropos of talk about risks. If a man were willing, he said, to stake everything for it, he would accumulate an experience of fifteen or twenty minutes which would compensate him, a thousand times over, for all the hazard. "And if you live to be old," he said quaintly, "you can never be bored with life. You will have something, always, very pleasant to think about." I mention this in connection with my discovery that I was not in German hands. I have had five minutes of perfect happiness without any background - no thought of yesterday or to-morrow to spoil it. "I said, "Bonjour, messieurs," in a gurgling voice.
'The man in front turned his head sidewise and said, "Tiens! Ça va, monsieur l'aviateur?"
"The other one said, "Ah, mon vieux!" You know the inflection they give this expression, particularly, when it means, "This is something wonderful!" He added that they had seen the