Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Lieut. Marion Kyle
Dear Mr. Jenkins:
I have been at the front for the past three months now and have had so far a rather exciting and enjoyable time of it. The aviation work is so far removed from the dirt and bloodiness of the ground-war, that it seems like a different existence. We have always good meals and accommodations; and our death is generally a clean one.
We made a raid on Suaibuiicken the other day as announced in the official communique and had a great time. Ten Boche fighting planes attacked us on our return trip. It was the longest aerial engagement that I have seen, lasting fifteen minutes. We brought down three Boche planes and lost none of our own. I saw one of them fall in flames. The engagement took place at a height of 16,000 feet, so he had a long way to fall.
There was a terrific barrage fire over Suaiebuiicken by the anti-aircraft guns. It was the worst we have encountered. The air was black around us with the smoke of the bursting shells.
The last two days we have been on bombing expeditions and had a very interesting time. Yesterday my motor went bad and I began to lose altitude and was soon far below and behind the others. Four Boche planes, seeing me alone, began to chase me. My observer shouted to get more speed. Happily the engine picked up a little and by nosing her down I finally was going over 110 miles an hour. The four Germans were then within 600 yards of us and opened fire. But do what they could they could not catch up to us. After a running fight they gave us up, much to my relief, and we caught the others again thirty miles further in.
We have a wonderful view from that height. Far off to the right, __________ mountains loom under us, covered with snow; and in every direction the rich landscapes of ________ made into the distance and become lost in the slight mist which always surrounds the earth even when the air seems clearest from the ground. Below us we can see German patrols and "reglage" machines and somewhere else a French patrol. You see, we do our work at higher altitude than the others. It is a wonderful experience and on cloudy days the clouds stretch away like a huge billowy sea far below us. Clouds are never more than 200 yards thick and mostly only fifty yards, so it does not take us long to plunge through them.
There is another interesting phenomenon about the clouds that perhaps you don't know. We go up in a terrific wind and are bumped very much, especially inside the clouds when the lighter water vapor swirls around a great deal, but as soon as we get above them the air is as calm as a summer day. There is not a breath of air. I can dive down a hundred yards below the clouds and encounter a gale, but fifty yards above them there is no wind at all. I never knew that before and it may be of interest to the National Geographic Department.
The American army has not yet taken us over, but that does not worry us as the Americans as yet have no machines and no equipment. America's huge air fleet, of which we hear so much talk in American papers, is surely not in evidence as yet over here. I wish they would hurry, for Germany is building to meet America, and if the U. S. doesn't come through we will have to bear the brunt of it all. I guess they will come through at last, however.
In a later letter he says, I want to add a word for the American Red Cross:
When the first German drive broke out in Picardy on March 27, four other American boys and myself were stationed with our French escadrille in Champagne. We immediately packed our things into the auto trucks, threw a little sack, containing our toilet articles, into our own machines and in a few hours the whole escadrille was flying over to the new front.
On arriving at the new field we were told to send a patrol of five machines over the lines to harass the German troops and gather any information we could as to their movements. Charles Kenwood, three Frenchmen and myself were detailed to go, so we loaded up with as many rounds of ammunition as we could carry and were off in a few minutes, flying in the shape of a V, like ducks. Our lieutenant had said that there would not be much anti-aircraft fire, as in their rush to attack, they would not have time to bring up the special cannon. That sounded fine; but no sooner had we crossed the lines than we were met by a barrage that staggered us. They must have had every anti-aircraft gun in Germany there. We were only at one thousand yards altitude, so we offered a good target. I came back with six pieces of shell in my machine.
As Soon as we had crossed we began to see convoys on the road and here and there detachments of troops. Our patrol leader began to go down and presently we found ourselves at about five hundred yards from the ground. They stopped using the cannon and began using machine guns on us, of which variety I had twenty when I returned. We all dived down on some troops, emptying our guns into them and then straightening out while our machine gunners in back, shot. The troops dispersed and all the drivers of the convoys jumped and ran for the open fields. Suddenly I saw Charles Kenwood's machine begin going straight down and was lost sight of. We did not know what had happened to him and you may be sure we all felt pretty bad. We spent a month without any news and then someone told us that the American Red Cross had a bureau for looking up missing men. We went to Paris and found that "Chuck" was a prisoner and unwounded. They had his address and each month we are sending him 40 Marks and two packages of food. It is a great relief to think that there is some organization to look after prisoners, and to let your family know what has become of you.
The Red Cross is an integral part of the war life in France, and one has only to be here to see what it is doing for the army and the civilian life. Each day streams of refugees go by us. Driven from their homes with nothing but what they can carry and no where to go. At Paris there are big canteens running day and night where the refugees can get clothes and something to eat; and allover southern France there are stations to take care of the people when they arrive there from the devastated districts.
On returning to the front from a permission, I arrived at a small town which was a somewhat important center for military transportation. My squadron was 40 miles away and I had to telephone for an automobile to come and get me. It took two hours to get connections and the machine did not arrive until four hours after that. I had no place to eat and was wondering what to do to pass the time when I saw a tent with a Red Cross sign. I went in and found two nice old men who as it happened lived near where I went to college.
They gave me hot chocolate, bread and cheese and I had an interesting time until the car arrived. While we were talking, a telegram arrived saying "Prepare for 900 refugees at nine o'clock tomorrow morning." A little while afterward 30 women and children came in, of whom 10 were nuns from a convent. They had had nothing to eat, and were extremely happy when they found the can- teen where they could have something to eat, and rest.
So it goes; and I could cite numerous instances where the Red Cross has entered into my life at the front and been a great aid. One night especially; I arrived at Chalons-un-Marne at 9 o'clock in the evening and had to wait there until 4 in the morning for my train. It was raining and cold and I was miserably wondering where to go, when I saw a sign "Cantine Franco-Americaine." I followed along into a row of big buildings and found the finest canteen I had seen in France. There were rest rooms, writing rooms, sleeping rooms and a fine place to eat or get hot chocolate, and wonder of wonders, 10 American ladies. I was there in French uniform and they did not know I was an American, but as soon as I told them, we had a great reunion; and Mr. Buck, the director of the canteen, came out and we began a friendship which has lasted ever since. Every time I returned to Chalons I always had dinner with Mr. Buck and one of the ladies. Since then the Germans have almost destroyed Chalons with bombs but none of the Americans were injured. I have since lost touch with them all but I shall never forget them, and the exigencies at the front will no doubt throw us together again. Anything I can say or do to help the Red Cross I will certainly do with pleasure as they have been a bright part of my life and the lives of many others at the front.
I must close. I thank you again for your kindness, and remember me to the friends in the family.
As ever your friend,