2016-11-25 By CAPT. Paul E. Mawn, USN (Ret.),
The US Air Force and Naval Aviation owe a generally unacknowledged debt of gratitude to Ivy League Colleges, and Harvard in particular, for their key role in the initial development of US military aviation and combat fighter pilots.
In the years leading up to 1903, Professor Samuel Langley of the Harvard College Observatory and later the US Naval Academy had failed to achieve powered flight; after thousands of glider flights, Otto Lillenthal was killed in the air; a Russian admiral also failed; and the possibly successful work of Gustave Whitehead (originally Weisskopf) was little known and doubted.
Then two unknown amateurs, brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, electrified the world by demonstrating that powered, heavier-than-air flight from a level take-off was possible.
At once there was an almost magical attraction to this exciting, but extremely dangerous, adventure; and it especially appealed to many young men in the elite colleges during the first years of flight.
War Clouds on the Horizon.
We all know that the US Air Force evolved from the US Army Air Corps after World War II and that its creation was preceded by the aero squadrons of the US Army Signal Corps during World War I.
The initial combat foundation for Navy and Marine Corps “airdales” (i.e. aviators) was the Northern Bomber Group in World War I, initially based in the UK and later in France.
However, prior to these developments, it was the graduates of Ivy League Colleges – not West Point or Annapolis- who were the initial airborne pillars of US national security.
As World War I began in Europe, it was clear that aircraft would be involved in large numbers and in varied roles.
First, they were used for reconnaissance, observation of enemy movements, photography, then bombing, for ground attacks, and eventually aerial combat.
Following the start of World War I in August 1914, the war clouds on the European horizon motivated over 565 adventurous young men in the United States to volunteer to serve as military aviators for the British and French of which over 11% were Harvard alumni.
At that time there were several undergraduates and alumni from Harvard and a few other Ivy League colleges who wanted to fly military aeroplanes (as they were then called) among whom were several qualified pilots and members of the college aero clubs who had regular access to their own or club aircraft.
As a result, the US instantly had several squadrons of trained pilots with combat experience after entering the war in April 1917, of few were from the US Military Academy or the Naval Academy.
Prior to the US entry into World War I in April 1917, the surest way for current and prospective US aviators to join the fight was to cross the Atlantic Ocean by steamship to France and enlist into the French Foreign Legion.
As most of us know, federal law prohibits US citizens from joining foreign militaries and that may lead to the loss of their US citizenship.
However, service in French Foreign Legion by US citizens was specifically permitted by the US government.
Since Canada hardly had any Air Force in 1914, flying for Canada was not a viable option, and most Canadians who wished to fly operationally joined the Britain’s Royal Flying Corps or its Royal Naval Air Service (later consolidated in 1918 as the Royal Air Force).
By the end of the World War I, about 25% of the RAF pilots were Canadians.
By final tallies, the Brits eventually developed a formidable air force starting initially with only 36 aircraft to over 3,000 planes before the cessation of hostilities in 1918.
It was understood that Americans might join the RFC by going to Canada to enlist, but with the risk of the potential loss of their US citizenship.
It may be noted that this prohibition of foreign military service by US citizens has rarely been enforced except during World War II for those who joined the Axis Powers.
A further limit on the opportunity of Americans to join British flying formations during World War I, was the fact that the RFC was able to draw the majority of its pilots from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, especially Canada and Australia, and this pool of qualified personnel limited possibilities for Americans.
Having said this, some American pilots found their way into RFC service.
The other option was France, which had significantly more planes and aero squadrons at the start of and during World War 1 than the British, and the French organization therefore required many more foreign pilots than the RFC.
Thus, in spite of language issues, the French welcomed American volunteers with open arms since they lacked a substantial flow of colonial volunteers with aviation experience.
The French Connection
After successfully completing the French Foreign Legion boot camp in Marseilles, those adventurous Ivy League heroes could petition their French chain of command to send them to one of the flight schools of the French Air Service (i.e., Armée de l’Air), especially since many of them were already qualified pilots.
An interesting and little noted aspect of this effort, were the financial subsidies provided US volunteers who wished to fight for the French via the French Foreign Legion from US industrialists including William Vanderbilt, who was a Harvard alumnus and future Naval officer, and John Pierpont Morgan whose grandson was a Harvard graduate as well as a future aviator and Medal of Honor recipient.
Sous Lt. Norman Prince-Armée de l’Air: Among the first American pilots in the Armée de l’Air was Norman Prince who was from an old Yankee family on the Massachusetts North Shore and graduated from Harvard College in 1908 and Harvard Law School in 1911. While at HLS, he also took flight training under an alias and became the 55th American to be licensed to fly an aeroplane by the Aero Club of America. After practicing law for 3 years in Chicago, Prince crossed the Atlantic by ship and enlisted in French Foreign Legion.
After completing FFL boot camp in Marseille, he convinced the French to send him to flight school because he was a licensed pilot, fluent in French and for the additional reason that his family owned an estate in France. Prince served in 2 French aero squadrons (VB 108 & 113).
He then noticed that there were many Americans pilots serving in various French Squadrons. Using his lawyerly skills, he persuaded the French authorities of the many benefits of assigning all Americans in the same squadron.
This proposal was approved and resulted in the formation of the “American Escadrille” (i.e. French for squadron) which was later changed to the “Lafayette Escadrille” after pressure from Germany since the US was neutral at the time.
Prince was later promoted to the grade of sergeant and flew 122 aerial combat engagements. He was designated an “Ace” since he was officially credited with shooting down 5 enemy planes, and his record included 4 more unconfirmed kills.
On 12 October 1916 Prince flew as an escort for a bombing raid on the Mauser rifle works at Oberndorf, Germany, during which he shot down an enemy plane. Returning to base, his landing wheels hit telegraph cables near his air base and his plane flipped over and crashed. Prince was severely injured. He died three days later.
On his death bed he was promoted to sous lieutenant and awarded the Legion d’Honneur.
Previously, Prince had also been awarded the Médaille Militaire as well as the Croix de Guerre the French government.
The French Formations
Initially there were 38 pilots in the “Lafayette Escadrille” (also known as SP# 124) who, on average, had the following characteristics.
They were approximately 26 years old, 23 were from the eastern part of the United States, 30 were college graduates, 11 were the sons of millionaires, 9 had attended Harvard College, 9 had qualified as pilots before joining the French Foreign Legion, but none were graduates of the US Military or Naval Academy. The squadron pets were 2 young lions named “Whiskey and Soda”.
Prior to April of 1917 when the US declared war, the flow of US volunteers trained and qualified as pilots in the French Air Force exceeded the need of the “Lafayette Escadrille” and the surplus was sent to other French aero squadrons which along with “Lafayette Escadrille” became part of the “Lafayette Flying Corps”.
That formation included an additional 170 American aviators. In total, over 265 American served as a under the French Aéronautique Militaire, including 57 who were not in the “Lafayette Flying Corps”. With the US entry into the War and mounting British casualties, more Americans found their way into British formations.
Therefore, to the number who served with the French there must be added the approximately 300 Americans who ultimately served and were trained as pilots with the RFC.
Among the 28 American Aces of World War I, 22 flew with the RFC.
Of all the Aces, 13(or 46%) were Harvard alumni.
Besides Sous Lt. Prince, other notable Harvard members of the “Lafayette Escadrille” included a significant number of aviators who are indicated in the graphic at the end of this article.
A mere glance at this list will suffice to indicate the importance of the contribution to World War I military aviation – and the scope of the sacrifices of Harvard alumni and their families.
As a Harvard alumnus, I have been concerned that the military and patriotic history of this great institution of learning should not be completely lost or fade into the unread footnotes of its history.
It is not generally known that 18 Harvard alumni have been awarded the Medal of Honor, including one aviator who served in both World Wars.
Only West Point and the Naval Academy alumni have received a higher total of this highest award for valor.
In a work of progress, at least 127 alumni of Harvard are known to have been awarded the 2nd highest valor award (i.e. the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross or Air Force Cross) for extreme gallantry of which 49 were aviators.
The highest award for valor conferred by France is the Legion d’Honneur which was established by Napoleon and has been awarded to at least 21 Harvard alumni, including 5 aviators. Over 98 Silver Star Medals have been awarded to Harvard alumni, including 49 aviators, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an enemy of the US.
In addition during World War I, 13 Harvard alumni were Aces which are often considered to have merited the Silver Star had it had existed at that time. From World War I through the Vietnam War, a total of 1,352 Harvard alumni of all military branches and designations made the supreme sacrifice in the military service of our country.
As noted on the walls of Memorial Church in the Harvard Yard, “While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”
Capt. James N. Hall USA (H-11) – Distinguished Service Cross, Legion d’Honneur, POW twice & 3 kills;
1st Lt. Walter Lovell USA (H-05) – Croix de Guerre; Sergeant Harold Willis Armée de l’Air (H-08) Shot down & POW but escaped in 6 months – Croix de Guerre; Sergeant Victor Chapman Armée de l’Air (H-13) – Killed in action; Lt. Charles Bassett USN (H-17) later attached to RAF – Navy Cross; Major Charles Bassett Jr. USAAC (H-17) – Navy Cross, USN in WWI & USAAC in WWII;1st Lt. Hugh Bridgman USA (H-19) – later to 49th Aero Squadron & 1 confirmed kill; 1st Lt. David Putnam USA (H-20) – Distinguished Service Cross, “Ace of Aces” (20 kills -14 confirmed) – killed in action; Colonel Raynal Bolling US A (H-00) – Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit & Legion d’Honneur – killed in action; Captain Leonard Hammond USA (H-01) 91st Aero Squad.– Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 6 kills; Major Stephen Noyes USA (H-03) 1st Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; Lt. (j.g.) Ralph Loomis USN (H-08) Lafayette Flying Corps & Northern Bombing Group) – Navy Cross; Captain Charles Biddle USA (H-14) Lafayette Flying Corps & 103rd Aero Squad.–Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 8 kills; 1st Lt. Charles Plummer USA (H-14) Lafayette Flying Corps & 88thAero Squad.–Distinguished Service Cross – killed in action; Major Lloyd Hamilton USA (H-16) 17thAero Squad.–Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 8 kills – killed in action; Lt. (j.g.) David Judd USN (H-16) Lafayette Flying Corps & Northern Bombing Group – Navy Cross; Captain Ralph Bagby USA (H-16) 88th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; Lt. Charles Gray Little USN (H-16) Naval Dirigible Squadron – Navy Cross; Lt. David Morgan US Navy (H-16) Northern Bombing Group – Navy Cross; 1st Lt. Thomas Abemethy USA (H-17) 147th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; 1st Lt. Arthur Alexander USA (H-17) 96th Aero Squadron & 1st Day Bombardment –Distinguished Service Cross; 1st Lt. Walter Avery USA (H-17) 95th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; Captain John Mitchell USA (H-17) 95th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; Captain Doug Campbell USA (H-17) 94th Aero Squadron – 5 Distinguished Service Crosses & Ace with 6 kills; Lt. (j.g.) George Roe USN (H-17) (attached to: Royal Naval Air Service) – Navy Cross & POW for 7 months; 1st Lt. William Taylor USA (H-17) 6th Balloon Company – Distinguished Service Cross; Lt. (j.g.) Alfred Gardner (H-18 ) USN (attached to: Royal Naval Air Service) – Navy Cross; Captain James Knowles Jr. (H-18 ) USA 95th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 5 kills; Captain John Lambert USA (H-18) 91st Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; 1st Lt. Chester Wright (H-18) USA 93rd Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 8 kills; Lt. (j.g.) Addison Center Burnham Jr. (H-19) USN Naval Dirigible Squadron – Navy Cross; Capt. Hamilton Coolidge USA (H-19) 94th Aero Squad. – Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 8 kills – killed in action; Lt. (j.g.) William Gaston USN (H-19) Northern Bombing Squadron – Navy Cross; Lt. (j.g.) Charles Edward Hodges Jr. USN (H-19) 5th Squadron USMC – Navy Cross; Major General Pierpont M. Hamilton (H-20) USAF (WW1& WWII – AAC & then USAF) – Medal of Honor; Capt. Sumner Sewall USA (H-20) 95th Aero Squad. –2 Distinguished Service Crosses & Ace with 8 kills; Major Charles Biddle USA (HLS-14) “LFC”& 13th Aero Squad. – Distinguished Service Cross & Ace with 8 kills; Major Benjamin Harwood USA (HLS-17) 12th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; Ensign Albert Dillon Sturtevant USN (HLS-17) (attached to: Royal Naval Air Service) – Navy Cross – killed in action; 1st Lt. Donald G. Graham USA (HLS-17) Air HQ – AEF – Distinguished Service Cross (WW1 & WWII service); 1st Lt. Howard Knotts USA (HLS-21) 17th Pursuit Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross; Rear Admiral David S. Ingalls USN Northern Bombing Group–Distinguished Service Medal (WW1 & WWII service); 1st Lt. Lloyd Andrews Hamilton USA “RFC” & 17th Aero Squadron – Distinguished Service Cross – killed in action. Many detailed biographies and pictures of these aviation pioneers and heroes may be found in the article Crimson Aviators at www.advocatesforharvardrotc.org/Harvard.
For one of the best explanations of the development of military aviation during the first world war, see the video below: