Long read

American Airmen, Duxford and the First World War

The first powered, sustained and controlled flight was made by the American Wright brothers in 1903. But during the First World War, little more than a decade later, other nations took the lead in aviation. The British, French and German air services in particular built up fleets of aircraft. When America joined the war 100 years ago, on 6 April 1917, it had a long way to go to catch up.

The Plan

America lacked an aircraft industry, and its armed forces had little experience of flying, fighting with and looking after aeroplanes. It began to remedy these problems by swiftly integrating its airmen with other more experienced air arms and equipping with foreign-built machines. American pilots flew and fought with, for example, British squadrons. The US Air Service ground crews trained alongside British engineers, and before shipping off to France, spent time at UK bases. Duxford was one of these airfields, home to several hundred young American men from all across the United States. ‘We were rookies,’ wrote one airman, ‘a straggling, heterogeneous confusion of good intentions.’

The Journey

Many of Duxford’s ‘friendly invaders’ left New York in February 1918, sailing on the Olympic – sister-ship to the Titanic:

‘On board were 8,000 officers, nurses and enlisted men,’ an officer of the 159th Aero Squadron wrote. ‘On the morning of March 3, 1918, the ship was met by four American destroyers who acted as an escort thru the danger zone. A German submarine was sighted…the destroyers circled around and two depth bombs were dropped and after a few minutes there came to the surface, oil and wreckage from the submarine.’ The Olympic encountered another German submarine before arriving in Liverpool on 5 March, but again, luck was with the Americans: the U-boat was chased off.

The American squadrons were split into smaller units or ‘flights’ and sent to train at several different bases. Some flights arrived at Whittlesford station, just outside Duxford, on 15 March. Housed in Duxford’s brand-new brick-built barrack blocks, the Americans were soon put to work erecting the temporary wood and canvas hangars that were needed while the permanent hangars were completed. An officer of the 137th Aero Squadron later proudly recounted the unit’s accomplishments:

‘Due to diametric methods employed by American and British commanding officers, there was some confliction at first in the training, but, within a short time, the Americans learned the British ideas and vice-versa. Co-operation was eventually attained, but only after a keen spirit of rivalry had been created. An example of the mechanical efficiency of the men was displayed when, shortly after arrival at this camp, the men erected a hangar in one half of the time required by the British, employing an equal number of men. In the course of a few weeks, the men had erected nine hangars and the number of machines increased from five to one hundred. Their work was lauded by British officers at this post and frequently mentioned in reports of the British Commanding Officer to the Air Ministry. The men of “D” flight were eventually assigned to the Transportation Department while the men of “C” flight were assigned to the Aeroplane Repair Service and “Crash” department.

‘After spending two weeks in the [brick] hut, the flights were moved into unserviceable tents during an exceptionally rainy period. The shelter, mess and tool conditions were the same as experienced by other flights, altho LT Yearger made repeated attempts to provide better mess and shelter for the troops under his command. It was thru efforts of this officer that the flights were enabled to have a weekly hot bath.'

Romance

‘The average “Tommy” at this station had never come into contact with the Americans,’ wrote an officer of the 159th Aero Squadron. It wasn’t just the British personnel who had never before seen an American: locals too were soon exposed to a whole new culture as the airmen began exploring the area. One airman, Sergeant Anton W Van Stockum, met a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) stationed at nearby Fowlmere airfield, Florence Bareham, while out cycling. ‘She recalled that he had a loaf of bread beneath his shirt,’ remembered Florence’s son, Ron, who later became a distinguished general in the US Marine Corps. Anton went to France with his unit in the final months of the war, but he and Florence continued to write to each other, even after he returned home to Washington. As Florence told her son: ‘In England I recognised Dad as a real gentleman -- and he was very kind to you. I did not come to America to marry Dad, but that thought might have been in my mind.’

Occasionally, pilots offered ground crews the opportunity to join them in training flights. On at least one occasion, the passenger was, strictly against regulations, a woman. Florence Bareham had jumped at the opportunity:

‘One day while walking to my shed I met an American pilot who asked me if I would like to go up for a spin. I told him that we girls were not allowed to go up. He said, “I am sure that if I put a helmet and goggles and a long leather coat on you no one would ever know that you were a girl” (and me only five feet one inch)! So I walked to his hangar with him and he fitted me out with the coat coming down to my feet and we walked to his ‘plane hoping no one would see this dwarf pilot. Nobody did. It took three steps of a ladder to get me into the plane’s front seat, and he scrambled in behind. Soon the “joy stick” began to wobble, and I thought we were falling apart before we had even got off the ground. He told me not to touch the joy stick and soon we were off. When we were well up in the air, he shouted to me asking if I would like to do a stunt. I said “Yes” not knowing what a stunt was. In a moment the engine zoomed, the nose tipped skyward and very soon I was upside down in the ‘plane. He had looped the loop.’

Tragedy

Although the Americans at Duxford were carrying out ground duties, and had not yet been sent to France, they still suffered losses: a training base was not necessarily a safe place to be. Not all ‘joy rides’ in aircraft, for example, ended as happily as Florence’s. By July 1918, the 137th had suffered four fatalities, including Claude A Baker from Gueydan, Louisiana. He was offered a flight in a training aircraft by one of Duxford’s pilots, Second Lieutenant Robert Pratt, on 18 May 1918. Shortly after take-off, the aircraft in which they were flying nose-dived into the ground. Baker was killed and Pratt seriously injured. The pilot later stated that he had fainted.

Although Baker’s death was a tragic accident, it was reported in his home-town newspaper that he ‘lost his life during one of the recent German air raids on England, according to advices received by his parents…Relatives said it was understood he was assisting British aviators in an attack against the raiders when he was killed…’

‘Plane Tales’

In July 1918, the 137th Aero Squadron at Duxford published their own newspaper, full of in-jokes, comical articles and contributions from all ranks. Plane Tales by and about the 137th Aero Squadron (‘published every little while if we’re lucky’) paints a fascinating picture of their time here.

By the end of the war, 195,000 Americans were operating 3,500 aircraft in Europe. Back home, US factories had produced thousands of American Liberty aero-engines and British-designed DH 4 aircraft. Many of the airmen who called Duxford home in the summer of 1918 celebrated Armistice Day in France. They were part of a service which had, in just a few months, demonstrated its potential to become the world’s leading air power.

With thanks to General Ron Van Stockum, who kindly provided the images and account of his mother and stepfather’s meeting.