This is not the blog I intended to write.
I had some ideas for the blog that involved some artwork from the era and this book, but I thought I ought to finish reading the book first. I have been working extra hours lately, so it sat on my bed stand for a long time. Most nights I fell asleep after reading just a few paragraphs. Finally I accepted that it is a book of letters and I might as well read them one letter at a time. The letters are written by Alan H. Nichols, a college student from Stanford University in California who volunteered to serve in France in February of 1917. Reading it this way had greater impact on me than I expected.
Spoiler Alert...he dies after serving overseas for sixteen months.
I am not being flippant about this. The book begins with his obituary from a Palo Alto newspaper, so from the outset you know that he does not survive. Considering that a fighter pilot's life expectancy was measured in weeks not months during World War I in some ways it is surprising that he lasted so long.
Click here to read his obituary
This is not one of those autobiography's written by a WWI pilot some twenty years later, his stories fine-tuned over the years, taking the reader on a visceral roller coaster ride complete with ripped canvas flapping and lewis guns blasting.
No.... this is much more real. Letter by letter you follow his journey, seeing history through one man's eyes. In the back of your mind you know the clock is ticking.
The book begins in February of 1917 and is divided into five parts.
Taking Leave ( 2 months of travel to get from San Francisco to France ). February to March the letters are all about patriotism and adventure as this twenty year old first travels across the United States and then the Atlantic Ocean on his way to France. Chatty notes about the food, the scenery and snowball fights by the side of the train.
At the Front ( 4 months in the American Field Service on an ambulance crew ). When he arrives in France at first he feels like a celebrity, greeted with cheers by French nationals thrilled to see the US finally joining the fight. Those highs are balanced with long periods of boredom and eventually, the realities of war. He describes giving a man a ride in the morning on his way to the Front, only to transport him back, bleeding and broken, to the hospital at the end of the day. He monitors news from the States, wondering when his country will formally enter the war. When it finally happens he is embarrassed to not be more actively fighting for his country.
"Any French ambulancer is either a disabled man or one physically unfit - because all others are fighting. Now the French soldiers, since the United States is in the war, can't help thinking of us except in much the same light, even if they don't say so. All this praise and speech making about us makes me positively ashamed of myself."
In June he goes for a ride with a pilot just outside of Paris and is thrilled by the experience. He is sure the voices are calling him to the skies. His writes a long letter to his parents and tries to explain to his family how there is such a demand for pilots that he can join the Franco-American forces and get trained to fly immediately. He is assured that the forces will eventually be taken over by the United States Army. He tries to convince his family that this service is no more risky than any other.
"I can see no reason why a conservative pilot who doesn't try to pull off any stunts or get drunk before flying and all that sort of thing shouldn't come thru in flying colors."
To Fly ( 3 months of training to become a pilot ). In July he heads to Avord for training. He describes his training in great detail over the next four months. I will post more about that later but in October he was "brevetted", earned his wings and became a corporal in the French Army. He was one of some 209 American pilots who were members of the Lafayette Flying Core. This was the name given to American pilots who served in the French Aviation Service. When the US entered the war, some pilots transferred back into the United States Air Service, but a number chose to stay with the French, including Alan.
Chasse Pilot Training ( 2 months of training to become a chasse pilot ). In French to "chasse" is to hunt. Now that Alan's initial training is complete, he trains to be a fighter pilot. He is flying Nieuports and learning how to shoot a machine gun and how to survive a vrille (a "corkscrew" or spin ). His brother Jack is also overseas and trying to decide where he can serve. Alan's zeal for the war has become more pragmatic and he tries to advise his brother to go back home.
"I'm going to do my best to advise Jack to go home. At least that's the way I feel now. He's only 19. There are stacks of men here for aviation, many of them waiting, at their own expense to be sent to Tours.....If the younger men are needed they'll be much more valuable later than now."
He writes about what he might do after the war. He realizes he is almost 21 years old now with no training. A banker, an engineer, a newspaper man, forestry, aviation, the automobile industry, he runs through the options in his letter. He even foreshadows something he may have gotten to see if he had survived the war.
"I think if an expedition to the moon is organized I'll join. I never in my life have felt more at sea, the first real opportunity that offers itself in some line will decide my whole life - unless something else does before then."
Something else does come up....and by Christmas his chasse training is complete and he is assigned to Escadrille No. 98 and moved to the Front.
Chasse Pilot ( 6 months on the front ). So this is where the aviation adventure starts right? Not exactly. The pages on the calendar for January, February and March peel off and fall to the floor. Days are filled with bad weather, boredom, moving from place to place at a moment's notice. As spring begins the weather clears and he starts flying more regularly. Close calls, flashes of enemy planes, opportunity and jammed guns at the crucial moment. The letters get shorter with bigger gaps between them. You can feel he is getting tired and frustrated. He wonders if he will ever be back with "the boys in tan". In the end he chooses to stay with the French because he feels he will see more active duty there. He so wants to "get his first Boche". Finally in mid-May he gets into a dogfight by himself with an Albatros at high altitude.
"We started around in flat circles, but neither could get behind each other. Somebody had to break, and it was he. He drove straight away, turned and came head on, a trifle above me. I saw his luminous bullets passing overhead, as he had an enormous correction to make to allow for our speeds. To avoid running into me he had to redress and pass over my head, and all I had to do was pull up and pump the lead into the underside of the body."
He describes the entire dogfight in great detail in a letter to his brother Jack dated May 17th. On May 18th he writes an identical letter to his Mom and Dad and ends with this.
"As a result of this, I will someday sport a nice Croix de Guerre with palm - an Army citation, which is the reward for a Boche brought down single handed. I only hope to high heaven I don't wake up now and find it isn't true. If it's a dream, it is certainly a vivid one!"
This was the last letter he wrote. On June 1st he was patrolling between Compiegne and Soissons and was separated from his squad. He was injured while dogfighting with a German two seater. He managed to land the plane in a field near the town of Verrines just south of the Forest of Compiegne and was carried three miles to the hospital. He was alert and calm. He had been shot in the back and the hospital was overwhelmed with the injured. He died on June 4, 1918.
So sure, I should have seen this coming, however......
More letters from friends, nurses and squad mates. They struggled to get his personal effects and photo collection back to his family. In their letters they try to help his family understand and accept that there son was gone by sharing what few details they have about his death. His brother Jack was in France when he got the news, sitting on a bench, reading the mail he had just picked up the Red Cross Headquarters.
"With a stopped heart I read the first few lines, that my brother had been wounded in the abdomen by a bullet, had landed his plane and been carried to the hospital. My first thought was that now he would have a chance to go home and recover.
The next page revealed the simple, terrible truth...
Bottomless grief, black despair, utter darkness, welled up in me - crushing and overwhelming in its weight."
So night by night, letter by letter I had followed this young pilot on his journey. I could see the pages dwindling and knew the story was almost over. For those last few letters, I was quite awake and had found a quiet spot in my home so I could read them slowly and carefully.
I was on the brink of tears, but the last letter....that's the one that did me in.
I had not expected it. It was written in 1992, almost 75 years after his death and it was written by another Alan H Nichols. This was Jack's son, Alan's nephew and he wrote this letter after reading the collection of letters that made up this book. He sent the letter to his deceased uncle care of the Memorial de l'Escadrille Lafayette.