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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

Part II: The Air Service at St. Mihiel

Presented the Great War Society

186th Aero Sq.
The St. Mihiel salient, so called, formed a reŽntrant into our lines. Our Army was to attack from both sides of the salient -- the stronger attack from the southern part. The form of the front of attack gave us a great opportunity to put into effect the principles enunciated above, that is, of having a large aviation force act entirely against the enemy's aviation, because we could hit from both sides while, to protect himself, the enemy had to come into the salient.

An imaginary line, about eight miles away from our front, within enemy territory, was established, inside of which the aviation pertaining to the troops themselves should act. Within this area, the observation aviation attached to the Corps was responsible that every move which the enemy made would be promptly reported, suitable photographs taken, and all artillery adjustments made.

US Poster of the War
Note Aviation Theme

The pursuit aviation, assigned for the protection of the Corps observation aviation, had as its primary duty what we called a barrage -- a constant stream of patrols moving back and forth, parallel to the front, at altitudes ranging from the ground up to 16,000 feet. Within the area patrolled by them, it was their primary duty to prevent any of the observation ships being shot down by the enemy, to help the observation ships in the accomplishment of their mission, and to shoot down any enemy observation or pursuit ships or observation balloons which were found in this area.

This aviation was so arranged as to keep a certain proportion constantly in the air. For instance, each airplane had about two hours' gas capacity; the strength of patrols, therefore, and the time they should stay in the air, the route they should follow, and the times that they should come down were all laid out ahead of time. In addition, a small reserve was always kept to ascend against a particularly strong incursion of the enemy.

The Pursuit Groups charged with barrage duty kept in the closest liaison with the anti-aircraft artillery, and, in fact, were in constant radio communication with them. In addition, shots of the anti-aircraft artillery were so arranged as to form signals for the pursuit patrols acting at great altitudes, or even closer to the ground, so that they might know in which direction the enemy was to be found, as it is very difficult in many instances to pick up an enemy unaided by the anti-aircraft artillery.

Photographing from US Observation Plane

The air is a great big place. There are three dimensions in it --up, down, and on the same level. A clever antagonist avails himself of the background in front of which he is operating -- the clouds and the sun -- and, in fact, when close to the ground, he paints his airplane the same color as the ground. I have had fights going on under me, within a couple of thousand feet, when I could see our own ships attacking and could not see the enemy's ships at all.

With our aviation, we constantly strove to increase its efficiency in every way possible. We had gotten our formations and methods of attack as well worked out as we considered was possible. With our men, who were fresh -- not tired out from three years of war -- we could demand many more hours of them, and probably more initiative, than the older contestants, tired from the long struggle.

In considering this matter, we decided to attempt to fly with all our aviation at night and in the darkness, as a matter of principle, wherever we could gain any advantage by doing so. In furthering this idea, a very interesting method of operating against enemy balloons was devised in the First Pursuit Group by Lieutenant Luke. The burning of balloons always has a great effect on the troops whose balloons are destroyed. The Germans, well knowing this, had trained specialists, expert in this art. These were launched without mercy against our balloons. Our low-flying system of pursuit patrols, in combination with the anti-aircraft artillery, in nearly all instances after the system began to work, shot these Germans, down, but often after they had burned our balloons.

However, as their end approached, the Germans kept launching their specialists against our balloons regardless of loss to themselves, all their attacks being made with extreme gallantry. To guard against our daylight attacks against their balloons, their system of ground observation stations, anti-aircraft artillery, and machine guns protecting their balloons, and the rapidity with which they pulled them down made it almost as difficult for us to attack them in the daytime as it was for them to attack us. The night, therefore, offered the best cover for an attack on balloons. Lieutenant Luke, acting on this idea, made the first attempt. He would locate the balloons in the daytime, wait for the dusk to fall, and with a single companion to keep watch above him, would shoot his incendiary bullets into the balloon on the ground and destroy it. Within a week this gallant officer had seventeen victories, five of which occurred in one day. Unfortunately, he was lost in the Argonne, having been shot down on the ground, and, as he continued to fight to the ground with his pistol, was killed by the enemy before he gave up.

"Balloon Buster" Frank Luke
Namesake of Arizona USAF Base

The practice of attacking balloons in this manner became general in the First Pursuit Group, and resulted in the Germans moving their observation balloons back as far as ten miles from the front, and forced them to put up many dummy balloons to fool our pilots.

213th Aero Sq.
Many new methods of a similar nature, not quite so spectacular, were worked out as the operations progressed -- a notable instance being the work done by our infantry liaison planes or those airplanes of the Corps Observation Groups whose duty it is to report where the infantry is, and how the line is progressing. These ships have to fly straight through the barrage of our own and the enemy's artillery, and often they become exposed to the ordinary fire of rifles and machine guns. The infantry indicate their positions by displaying panels, or burning Bengal fires, which cause smoke, rendering it possible for the airplanes to see them when the airplanes give the signal for this display. As many of our infantry troops have had little experience with airplanes, and as the men often think that, if they display their panels or burn Bengal fires it discloses their position to the enemy, they often will not show their panels at all. Our Corps Observation, taking this into consideration, inaugurated a system of flying so low that they could actually see the infantrymen themselves, or the enemy's infantry, and come back and report accordingly, never minding whether they showed their panels or not. Formerly the liaison planes had flown at from a thousand to fifteen hundred feet altitude. Ours flew from fifty to three hundred.

For the first few days, while the preparation for the attack was progressing at St. Mihiel, our barrage patrols covered the front to prevent the enemy observing our dispositions. He had been much slower to concentrate his aviation than we had, naturally, and I was able to make a report to General Pershing, on account of daily reconnaissance which I had made in the air, that we would have entire control of the air for at least three days, after which we might expect very heavy resistance. Three days, however, was always a sufficient time to carry out an attack, even on as broad a front as ours was made on -- about seventy-two miles.

On the day of the attack, our aviation attached directly to the troops acted in the manner outlines above. Our independent, or what might be termed "strategical aviation," operated in brigades of about five hundred airplanes each, of mixed pursuit and day bombardment, on each side of the St. Mihiel salient. That is, one brigade would attack from the south, going clear into the middle of the salient about twenty miles behind the enemy's line, bomb everything in that vicinity, attack everything that was seen above the ground, and, if any suitable moving targets appeared on the ground, they would be attacked by bombs and machine guns. As the brigade from the right or south withdrew, the left one would attack from the north, and then the same operation would be repeated. It worked very much like a boxer, striking first with his right hand and then with his left hand. Oftentimes we hemmed the enemy in between two or more of our air forces and caused him very heavy losses.

Lt. Springs, 184th Aero Squadron, Survives Crash Landing

Our blows came so rapidly that the enemy was taken completely by surprise, and his air fighting was confined to a great distance within his own territory, which kept his airplanes, incidentally, away from our ground troops on account of the weight of attack directed against all his formations in the vicinity of Conflans, or more than fifteen miles within his lines, which was on the direct axis of the salient. The enemy made a most determined aerial resistance, and even when outnumbered fought with the greatest bravery.

As his air concentration became effective, in answer to ours, he employed air formations of upward of sixty Fokkers in one group. At times we would catch these groups between two of our groups, causing heavy loss to his side; at others, he would find one of our groups detached, when he would fall on it, with advantage to him.

An instance of this kind happened to one of the bombardment squadrons of the French Aerial Division. This splendidly organized unit contained about eight hundred airplanes of pursuit and day bombardment, and was really used as the strategical reserve of the French Aviation. Wherever the main battle on the front was taking place, there was always to be found the French Air Division. One of their squadrons, equipped with their Breguet bombers (these are 2-seaters of great excellence) and protected by several Coudron 3-seaters, was attacked by a formation of some sixty Fokker airplanes while the French pursuit squadrons detailed for their protection were fighting elsewhere.

49th Aero Sq.
This bombardment squadron had come down very low, with great bravery, to attack, which gave the German Fokkers their chance. Day bombardment relies for its protection on the altitude at which it flies, and on compactness and closeness of formation, so that all their guns can be brought to bear. This is necessary because the large bombardment airplanes are no match in speed or maneuverability with the fast pursuit ships. In this fight, the squadron commander and the group commander were killed, three great 3-seaters when down in flames, while seven out of twelve Breguets followed them in a similar manner. Their formation was never broken, and their crews fought to the last minute in the burning airplanes, at the last moment waving a final salute to their surviving comrades. Months afterward we learned from the Germans that this squadron had shot down more than a dozen Fokkers in their desperate resistance.

Great air combats became a daily occurrence. Within four days our operations in the St. Mihiel salient were concluded, and the First American Army had reduced the salient which had been fought for four years. Now it was up to us to attack in the Argonne -- our final and great operation. Our aerial methods had been proved to be sound; what was left was to perfect them in detail and make them work with the ground troops.

Consenvoye on River Meuse
Typical Reconnaisance Photo

General Trenchard, commanding the British Independent Air Force, which acted with us, reported to General Pershing that he had participated in a great many combined air operations, but that this was the first in which no hitch had occurred, no order had been misunderstood, and no mission had failed.

Colonel de Vaulgrenant, commanding the Aerial Division of the French Army, wrote the following letter to our Commanding General:

1ere Division Aerienne
September 17, 1918
Le Colonel de Vaulgrenant,
Commanding the First Aerial Division
to General John J. Pershing
Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces


I beg to thank you for the letter you kindly wrote to me about the units of the Aerial Division.

It was already a great honor for us to have to fight under the orders of the Chief of the First American Army. Now, Sir, after the splendid victory you gained, we feel deeply glad and proud, having been lucky enough under the Colonel William Mitchell's very distinguished leading, to deserve your congratulations; nothing could be more appreciated by us.

I wish to specially thank you, Sir, for your sympathies for my men fallen on the battlefield, fulfilling bravely their duty side by side with the American Aviators whose courage and splendid heroism we had to many opportunities to admire.

I beg you, Sir, in my own name and in the name of whole Aerial Division, to kindly accept our very sincere regards and respects.


For our initial attempt as an Army, the operation had been a complete success, and we had gotten in the first punch.
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Part III

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