Part I - When a book finds you: "Letters Home from the Lafayette Flying Corps"
I live in Northern California, just outside of Sacramento. A short drive up Highway 49 takes you into Grass Valley and Nevada City, two bookend quaint gold rush towns full of shops, restaurants & bars. My wife was shopping and I was killing time. I wandered down a side street and ran into a used book store. You know the type, books stacked to the ceiling, narrow aisles, plenty to distract me for a half hour or until the cell phone rings and it is time to head back down the hill. My heart jumped when I saw a hand written 3 x 5 card that said "Huge Aviation Collection". Clearly some old aviation fan had completed their last sorte and his or her books got boxed up and sold off. I spent almost an hour digging thru the collection. Big flashy coffee table books, diagrams of World War II birds on fold out pages, Japanese Zeros in section and in plan view. It was amazing stuff, more than you would normally see in a used books store.
But collecting books can be like collecting trophies, a lot of flash getting dusty on the shelves, and my heart really is more interested in WW1 aviation. After almost an hour nothing really called out to me and I knew my time was almost up, so I worked my way back to the "way back" part of the shop. I found the military history books and scanned across the Civil War, World War II and Korean War. In the bottom shelf, far right hand corner I found a handful of World War I books and this humble paperback caught my eye.
I briefly paged through the book, saw it was a collection of letters from a pilot in World War I and noticed in the back they had copies of some of the letters including the envelopes with addresses and postage. Aha....this might be a good resource for Rupp's Skizzenbuch! So I plunked down my $8.00, called the wife and we got back in the car and headed back down Highway 49. About halfway down we stopped in Auburn and my wife had to make one more errand so I chose to stay in the car and read a bit more. When I discovered what "Letters Home" was about I was stunned.
Alan Nichols was a student at Stanford University in California. He was among a group of students who chose to join the American Field Service and go to France to provide medical care to the French soldiers in February 1917. In the first letter he describes getting on the train at the Ferry Building, passing through the Sacramento Valley and reaching Auburn on his way to Donner Pass and the High Sierra's. He is on his way to Reno, than across the country to Chicago with a final destination of New York where he will take the Espagne across the Atlantic to France.
I couldn't believe that his journey in this random book I picked up crossed within a mile of where I was sitting.
I brought the book home, placed it on the night stand and put it in the first rotation of my night time reading. As it happened it was December of this year and we had decided earlier to take the Amtrak Snow Train from Colfax to Reno to visit relatives. This took us exactly on the same route that Alan took on his way to France in 1917. Here is how he described the ride I photographed below;
"With a double header, we pulled up towards the summit, the mountain scenery getting better all along. Real yellow pines and red and white firs and pseudotsugas - and than patches of snow. On the brink of American Canyon we could see down into it and across it. It was solid white snow, only broken by the rows of firs and pines. At Blue Canyon we all piled off and had a snow fight and didn't break any windows. Then Truckee and miles and miles of snowsheds. It was then after sunset - a sunset of delicate pink over the white range of show pines - the moon was strong and we got glimpses of silent, velvety snow canyons and slopes."
After the Battle of the Marne in the winter of 1914-1915 the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly France found itself with a surplus of ambulances and lent them along with American volunteers as drivers. The pro-French Americans seized on this situation as a public relations opportunity to promote the support of the French in the United States and led to a major effort to get as many Americans as possible to contribute to the French cause. The wealthy and socially prominent adopted this cause and names like J.P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt and Chauncy Mc Cormick were associated with the effort. This public relations tidal wave was part of what swept up Alan and had him steaming across the Atlantic to France.
Late in 1917 when the U.S. entered the war, the American Field Service was absorbed into the U.S. Army and ceased to exist. After the war, a much different organization was formed with the same name, that still promotes student exchange programs.
If you are interested in the past and current history of the American Field Service, follow this link;
Alan was initially frustrated with how little action they saw.
"I suppose you will be expecting me to fill you with wild tales of midnight rides at eighty miles an hour through madly prancing troops of horse, of shouting men, of rumbling batteries, blinding flashes and deafening noises, and of shrapnel taking off my tail lamp, and so on: but I was brought up to be honest and I can't quite do it. We may be young Lafayette's, but if Lafayette had loafed around in the United States as much as we do here I'm afraid they would still be colonies of Great Britain."
That boredom didn't last too long, weeks later he wrote this;
"A few minutes later, while Hal and I were eating supper, a shell went through a two story house down the road about 200 yards, containing twenty men. It went through to the cellar and wounded one man in the foot, another abdominally, another in the arm, and another in his side. The first two wounded men were rushed into the poste on stretchers and bound up right there. The others walked in and were fixed up. The wounds certainly looked ugly."
In May 1917 they hear that a conscription bill was passed. Alan's six month term is almost over and their status is unclear. He is not interested in driving an ambulance until the war ends and he has seen enough of trench warefare that he has no interest in going there. A few friends are pursuing both the French and the United States Aviation Service. In June he visits Paris and on a lark, he and a friend walk to an airfield about five miles away and found a French Captain willing to give him a flight. This is how he desribes the experience;
"We were only about 1,000 feet high and could see perfectly all the white-lined trenches, French and German, and the roofless shelled-out villages through which we drive our ambulances. Only around our hills were the any signs of the fighting and the terrible no-man's land. The roads ran out across no-man's land before fading away and reappearing again on the other side...We tore over a town, shut off, dipped and rushed to the ground, the plane bounced, hit again and whizzed along the ground, turned and came right back to the hanger."
"That was the most wonderful hour yet, and I wouldn't trade places with the king of Patagonia! The pilot rarely moved a thing after getting up, and flying ought to be easy. I must say the voices are calling me up to the clouds!"
In July 1917 he requests to be released to the Aviation Service of France.
His letters home try to explain;
"And for heaven's sake don't think that I'm committing suicide or anything like that. Aviation casualties don't run as high in proportion as infantry at that, and when an aviator does something he does something. When I get thru I'll never have to worry about whether I did my share or not."
There is much more to this story and it will continue in my next posting, but just to keep you interested......
- The gateway below is the entrance to the Ecole Aviation Militaire in Avord where Alan will begin his training.
- The stumpy little plane is a Bleriot Penguin, a "flightless bird" that can run along the ground but can not fly. This was considered the "state of the art" training technique for new aviators in 1917.
- The other plane is a Cauldron GIII that carries two aviators. This was the next step after the Penguin, It allowed the instructor to fly the plane while the student could touch the controls and develop a feel for how to fly the aircraft