The Old Man and the New Plane

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 3

28 August – 30 October 1918


The 186th left Le Havre, France, by rail on the morning of 29 August 1918.  The men rode in box cars, which they jokingly called “side door Pullmans”.  Most of the men did not know their destination.  After two days of travel they arrived in St. Maixent, often called the “Purgatory of the Air Service”.  Upon their arrival, Lt. Guenther was relieved of command by Lt. John C. Kennedy, who four weeks earlier had transferred from the 12th Aero Squadron to become the permanent commander of the 186th Aero Squadron.

Though not yet 23 years of age, Kennedy’s experience made him an “old head” when compared with most men of the 186th.  A New York City native, he had attended Fordham University.  In 1916 he joined the Army Reserve as a private in the Signal Corps and rose to the rank of corporal while serving in a coastal battery.  Kennedy’s background made him a strong candidate for a commission when the U.S. entered the war on 6 April 1917.  Kennedy’s enlisted service ended on 15 August 1917 when he and 300 other university men became aviation cadets as part of the “Toronto Group”.

The Royal Flying Corps had received permission to establish airfields in Texas to conduct RFC flying training year-round.  In exchange, the RFC had agreed to train U.S. Air Service men at bases in Canada until winter shut down flight operations.  Kennedy and his fellow cadets were sent to Camp Borden in Leaside, near Toronto.  Kennedy was assigned to the 27th Aero Squadron under the command of Major Harold E. Hartney.  Hartney had become an “Ace” with Royal Flying Corps, earning 5 confirmed victories over German aircraft during numerous photographic and bombing missions.

On 26 October the 27th departed Leaside for Camp Hicks, Texas, 15 miles outside Forth Worth.  Major Hartney immediately recognized that the simple “banks on turns” flying training program at Hicks was not challenging enough to prepare the 27th for combat, so he took it upon himself to increase the program’s difficulty.  Emergency landings, aerobatics, and simulated dogfights were added to increase the odds that a pilot’s first encounter with the enemy would not also be his last.  On 11 January 1918, Kelly Field Special Orders Number 9 directed the 27th to proceed to New York City and then to England for further training.  Having earned his wings, Kennedy was commissioned as a first lieutenant of the Aviation Section of the Officer’s Reserve Corps on 11 January 1918. 

The 27th arrived in England on 5 March.  Hartney took advantage of an opportunity to proceed immediately to France, bypassing the drawn-out training in England that the 186th and other U.S. squadrons would later encounter.  The 27th began its combat training in the Nieuport 27 on 29 March.  On 20 April Hartney was in Paris on squadron business when, without Hartney’s approval, Kennedy and several other officers were transferred out to augment other units.  Kennedy was sent to the First Air Depot in Colombey, France, and on 20 May he was assigned to the 12th Aero Squadron at Ourches under the command of Major Lewis H. Brereton.  From 6 June to 15 July Kennedy saw action in the Ile-de-France campaign, followed by the campaigns in Champagne-Marne (15 to 18 July) and Aisne-Marne (18 to 30 July).   By August, Kennedy had acquired the valuable combat experience that most American airmen lacked, and also had demonstrated the maturity needed for command.  On 1 August 1918 he was selected to command the 186th Aero Squadron, now designated as an Aero Observation squadron.  Kennedy left for St. Maixent the next day to prepare for the squadron’s arrival.  The 1st Army was created on 10 August with General John “Blackjack” Pershing in Command.  Kennedy’s task was to ensure that the 186th was combat-ready in time for 1st Army’s rumored big fall offensive.

On 28 August, the same day that the 186th arrived in France, Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell had issued General Orders Number 1 in preparation for the planned offensive against the San Mihiel salient.  This operation, due to start in two weeks, was described by Mitchell as “one of the largest air forces yet brought under a single command on this front.”  Because the 186th was new to the “Zone of Action”, it was not included in the order.  This meant that the squadron would receive no new airmen and scant equipment until that campaign was over.  On 7 September the 186th was again loaded in the boxcars and after two days of monotonous riding arrived at Air Service Production Center No. 2, located in Romorantin, France.  This had to be a frustrating time for Lt. Kennedy and his men.  From 12 to 16 September the fighting raged near St. Mihiel, and Kennedy watched as his former squadron flew missions that included visual reconnaissance, surveillance, infantry contact patrols, and adjustment and control of artillery fire.  They also provided Alert aircraft for special missions, performed various photographic missions as required by the 1st Army Corps, and protected allied tanks from hostile airplanes.  Hard work and luck would be needed for the 186th to be ready to fly such missions in the next offensive. 

After one week at Romorantin the 186th travelled by rail to Colombey-les-Belles, arriving on 17 September, and from there proceeded via trucks to the Autreville Aerodrome.  There Kennedy expected to draw supplies, receive aircraft, and replenish his cadre of pilots and observers.  It was hoped that the squadron’s stay at Autreville would be short.  Unfortunately, there were five other squadrons in the vicinity also looking for new flyers, and nearly all available pilots and observers in Colombey-les-Belles had been funneled to established squadrons to support the St. Mihiel offensive.  It would ultimately take six long weeks to acquire just ten pairs of pilots and observers.

While waiting at Autreville, the squadron did finally receive its eighteen Salmson 2a2 aircraft, each equipped with radios and guns.   The 2a2 was widely regarded to be the finest observation aircraft of the war, superior to the U.S. made DH-4 “Liberty”, which was referred to by many pilots as the “Flaming Coffin” for its lack of self-sealing fuel tanks.

Lieutenant Kennedy had accumulated ample combat experience with the Salmson 2a2 during his tour with the 12th Aero Squadron.  He and his fellow pilots had developed great confidence in this new aircraft.  It had a wingspan of 38’ 7”, a height of 9’6’’, and was 27’ 8 1/2” long.  Empty, it weighed 1,543 lbs.  Fully loaded, it tipped the scales at 2,840 lbs with a 683 lb payload which could include 500 pounds of bombs for ground attack.  It was equipped with a single fixed Vickers machine gun for the pilot and twin Lewis machine guns for the observer.  The nine-cylinder Salmson 9Za radial engine of 1146 cubic inch displacement produced 260 hp at 1600 rpm.  The Salmson cruised at 103 mph, with a maximum speed of 116 mph.  It could climb to 6,500 feet in 8 minutes, passing 13,000 in 20 minutes.  Its service ceiling was just over 20,000 feet.  Carrying 441 lbs of fuel and oil, it had a combat range of 300 miles and could remain aloft for 3 hours and 20 minutes.  The Salmson thus provided a substantial increase in performance over previous types and possessed the maneuverability and firepower to fend for itself.

The 186th had the aircraft it needed to begin work on the front, but the shortage of aviators continued.  On 1 October 1918 the 186th still had just one pilot and one observer assigned.  Shortages of other equipment also persisted, particularly trucks.  One member recalled, “One truck was placed at the disposal of the squadron to draw all the material from Colombey-les Belles, and then for only about six hours a day”.  Additional supplies were drawn, including radio equipment, armament and spare parts.  All of the radio equipment was new and untried, so airborne radio tests were conducted.

Lt. Kennedy was promoted to Captain on 3 October 1918.  Slowly the roster of pilots grew, adding several experienced pilots.  On 27 October the 186th was assigned to the First Army Observation Group, and on 29 October moved to 1st Army Headquarters in Souilly, where preparations continued for the squadron’s first missions over enemy lines.