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Over There!

 by Lt. Col. Michael A. Buck, USAF (Ret.), Former Commander 186th Fighter Squadron

A History of the 186th Aero Squadron in the Great War, Part 1

16 November 1917 – 16 February 1918


 “Extra!” shouted the newsboy on the corner.  “Congress declares war on Germany!  Get your copy here!” It was 6 April 1917, and the United States had finally decided to enter the “War to End All Wars”.

 

Since it began on 1 August 1914 Americans had closely followed news of the conflict in Europe with mixed emotions.  President Woodrow Wilson had vowed to keep the U.S. out of the war.  Sentiments began to change after 128 American civilians lost their lives when the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by the German submarine U-20 on 7 May 1915.  Pleas for “Peace at Any Price!” had been replaced by calls for action.  Continued submarine attacks, plus the discovery of a secret German plan for Mexico and Japan to attack the U.S. led Wilson to ask for war as “an act of high principle and idealism… as a crusade to make the world safe for democracy”.

In towns and cities across the nation men flocked to recruiting centers to join up and go “Over There” to help win the war.  The reported exploits of the American volunteers flying for France in the famed “Lafayette Escadrille” made the U.S. Army Air Service seem for many an exciting alternative to the infantry.

Many recruits were pleased to receive notice that they had made the cut and were to proceed to Camp Kelly (later Kelly Field), Texas for Air Service training.  Upon arrival at Camp Kelly these new Air Service privates were folded into a larger group of men they would grow to know well over the next two years.

 

 

With a stroke of his pen Colonel William D. Chitty, the training field’s Commanding Officer, authorized the organization of the 186th Aero Squadron on 16 November 1917.  The squadron was placed under the administrative command of Lieutenant Frank Stratton.  Including the Montanans, the 186th consisted of 110 fresh recruits from Kelly Field Number 1, plus forty experienced men from the 25th Aero Squadron. 

Captain Roger C. Chambers relieved Stratton on 17 November and served as the 186th Commander until Christmas.  First Lieutenant Cassius C. Beem then assumed command of the squadron for the remainder of its training at Kelly field Number 1.  First Lieutenant James Robinson, Medical Corps, and Second Lieutenant Carl Weller, the Supply Officer, rounded out the roster of officers.

 

Camp Kelly was a flying training center, but all specialties– cooks, mechanics, radio operators, drivers, medics and the like received their initial training there.  These Kelly-trained enlisted men would remain with the 186th throughout the war.

Meanwhile, most of the pilots who would later fly in combat with the 186th were being trained elsewhere.  This included Lieutenant Amos Mathews, who left his home in western Iowa to attend ground school at the University of Texas.  The graduation exam tasked the students, “flying” above a huge model of a battlefield, to send Morse code messages via radiotelegraph describing the location and the size of enemy troop formations.  A score of 8 out of 12 was required and Mathews passed easily, but one fellow student had some difficulty.  “Sitting on my left was a young man about my age [and] when he saw this examination—he was a very nervous, high-strung, sort of an ants-in-the-pants kind of guy…very good company and that sort of thing, but very nervous…and he missed the first two shots, and then we had a recess and he says, “Mathews, you’ve got to tell me how to do this, you’ve got to get me through this”, and he was quite frantic about it.  So I did the best I could to tell him what it was all about, and we went back after the recess and he flunked another one.  I spent most of the noon hour when we got away from lunch telling him what to do and how to do it.  And he went back and he got 9 straight then, so he passed.  That man was Frank Luke.”  Known later as the “Arizona Balloon Buster”, Luke was one of the highest scoring U.S. aces of the war and a posthumous Medal of Honor recipient– Luke Air Force Base is named for him.

 

Mathews then reported for flight school at Benbrook field near Fort Worth, Texas on 28 November 1917.  The training schedule was fast-paced: he flew his first training flight the following day, and then soloed just one week later on 5 December 1917.

On 20 January 1918 the 186th completed its initial training at Kelly Field.  First Lieutenant Beem was relieved by Lieutenant Walter J. Zapf on that date and the 186th boarded a train for Long Island.  One squadron member later recalled that “the transportation of the squadron from Kelly Field to Garden City, Long Island was accomplished with some good humor, much complaining, a few drunks, a minor accident or two, a few stray kisses administered to the men from patriotic American girls who desired to help make the world free for democracy, but there were no casualties.” 

The 186th finally arrived at Aviation Concentration and Supply Camp No. 2, Garden City, Long Island on 24 January 1918.  First Lieutenants Joseph Werner, J.C. Edwards and J.F. Cameron joined the squadron there, adding to the cadre of flying officers.  After five days of simply miserable weather, the 186th embarked on the steamship Adriatic for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Adriatic waited for three days in bitter cold for its escort convoy to arrive.  The squadron was inspected on the ship’s deck with the thermometer at sixteen below zero, but complaints were few; better to be delayed than to be torpedoed.

The threat posed by German submarines was very high.  The liner Tuscania, carrying the 100th, 158th and 213th Aero Squadrons, left the U.S. one week prior to the Adriatic’s departure.  On 5 February, only 2 days after the Adriatic departed Halifax for England, the submarine UB-77 sent the Tuscania to the bottom despite the protection of her convoy.  More than 200 U.S. servicemen were lost, including dozens from each of the Aero Squadrons.

 

The voyage across the Atlantic took sixteen days.  The popular highlights of the crossing were the amateur and professional boxing tournaments held, the latter featuring the bantamweight fighter Kid Dayton.  The squadron won the majority of prizes in the amateur contests.  One squadron member wrote that “for many, seasickness overwhelmed any fear of enemy submarines”, but his casual comment belied the danger.  First Lieutenant Percy B. Castles of the Engineer Corps, U.S. Army, was also aboard Adriatic.  In his memoirs he noted that “During the passage three submarines were sighted and one of the vessels of the convoy was lost.”

The 186th arrived at Liverpool, England on 16 February 1918.  Oxford, England would be their home for advanced training before their eagerly awaited deployment to France and ultimately, aerial combat against Imperial Germany.