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Chapter 28

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The First Yale Unit

by
Ralph D. Paine

printed at
The Riverside Press
Cambridge (Mass.)
1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 30
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
p31
Chapter XXIX

'Ken' Smith is Lost at Sea

The inscrutable wisdom of official orders had snatched various members of the Unit from Moutchic and Hourtin to go spinning away to other stations. It was like the little round ball that traverses the roulette wheel, and the devil only knows where it will drop next. Four of these aviators managed to hang together for some time and to find life fairly zestful in the patrols of the French coast. These were Walker, Smith, Landon, and Coombe. The Wag crew almost intact! Voila! They were told to go to Le Croisic and departed thence October 27, 1917. This was a French coastwise air station which was to be taken over by the American forces and used to help drive the German submarines farther away from the coast and to protect the immense amount of transport traffic in and out of Saint-Nazaire.

The French had been doing what they could in this direction, but it was with scanty equipment and a depleted personnel. Escorting the overseas troop and supply convoys was the spectacular part of the job. Fully as arduous and essential was it to safeguard the coastwise convoys passing along the French coast in mighty processions of commerce between the Mediterranean, Spanish, and French ports and the English Channel and beyond. This was the vital duty of the converted yachts under Rear Admiral Wilson's command that won the name of the Suicide Fleet.

Like the Yankee airmen the yachts had to learn this game, finding their courses in darkness and thick weather, herding a nervous, clumsy flock of twenty or thirty merchant p32ships, joyously hoping and yearning for a shot at a submarine, winning their way to port where they shoved more coal aboard and made ready for sea again. In spirit this service was akin to naval aviation. These were not regular Navy crews, but Reserves, Naval Militia, and recruits with little training. The skipper, as a rule, was the only seasoned naval officer, and the serious young men who paced the bridge with him were brokers, lawyers, merchants, chief clerks, learning to serve their country between spells of seasickness.

Among the enlisted men there might be a few real bluejackets and a veteran chief petty officer or two, but the average ran to stalwart youths from the colleges. They had escaped from the tame routine of the Atlantic coast patrol and were keen to follow the ball and hit the line hard.

The son of the man who owned the yacht might be peeling spuds or washing down decks, his dearest ambition to win a rating as a boatswain's mate, or you were likely to chat with a modest, respectful able seaman who could buy a boat or two without crippling his bank account. It was bluewater democracy, all hands together, eager to make an efficient ship as soon as possible.

To Le Croisic, then, proceeded the Yale Unit quartet, all set for action, although they had hazy ideas of what it was to be. They took a detail of fourteen enlisted men with them and spent a night at Bordeaux. There they caught glimpses of two distinguished personages. One of these was Lieutenant Artemus L. Gates who had just come up from Saint-Raphael on waiting orders. The other was General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John J. Pershing who was dining at the Chapon Fin Restaurant with several French staff officers. 'He looked rather curiously at our green uniforms with naval shoulder straps and Sam Browne belts,' says Coombe, 'and I don't know whether he relished the sight or not.'

p33 They left Bordeaux the next morning, in time for lunch at Saint-Nazaire, which interested them as swarming with American soldiers and stevedores and congested with shipping. Fifteen miles beyond was Le Croisic where they arrived after dark. It was a small fishing village of the Loire, ancient and quite picturesque. A visit had inspired Browning to write a poem about it, 'The Two Poets of Croisic.'

The air station was situated on a tiny island separated from the main street of the village by a moat or canal. A rugged indentation of the coast formed a little sheltered harbor which was favorable for seaplanes at high water. An eighteen-foot rise and fall of tide, however, made it necessary to lower machines by means of a crane when the bay was mostly mud and sand.

With the aid of German prisoners, the French had built barracks, machine and carpenter shops, a bomb magazine, and several hangars. At this time they were using the station as an 'alerte' post, with two planes kept in readiness to respond to submarine alarms within a distance of fifty miles.

The first American detachment of seventy-five men had arrived three weeks earlier than this and were quartered in an old school building in the village. The temporary C. O. was Ensign Bush, who had been a chief petty officer of ten years' service. In the opinion of the Yale fliers he was 'a regular guy' and one hundred per cent. A hard-shell with a wise head and a soft heart! They learned to like and respect him immensely. He had comfortably established himself in a French dwelling and invited these others to stay with him.

A week later, Lieutenant Callan arrived with a hundred more enlisted men just landed from a transport at Saint-Nazaire. With this increased force, things began to hum. They set up additional hangars and other buildings for p34their own use. Four Tellier flying-boats arrived and were assembled. They were big, powerful looking machines with 200 h.p. Hispano motors, a queer, long hull tapering upward toward the tail, with two steps on the bottom. The wing spread was fifty feet. The Yale men were crazy to try them out, but Lieutenant Callan made them wait until a man from the factory came to test them.

On November 7th, Lieutenant W. C. Corry reported to take over the command of the station. He was an Annapolis graduate, 1910, and had been through the original course of training at Pensacola with Eddie McDonnell. He had crossed to France with Kenneth Whiting's pioneer party in June and, since, had been through the routine of the several training schools. He was agreeable, experienced, and efficient. No time was lost in organizing the officer personnel. Which Yale man was senior to another was a problem that couldn't be solved, so Lieutenant Corry assigned them according to age, Landon as Chief Pilot, 'Ken' Smith as Engineer Officer, Sam Walker as Intelligence Officer, and 'Reg' Coombe as Ordnance Officer. The enlisted crew was divided among these four departments and each assigned its quota of men. It was up to the officers to handle their own divisions and get results. The staff was ready to function, with Ensign Bush as Executive and Paymaster Becquette in the supply office.

On November 11th the station was inspected by Vice-Admiral Jolivet, of the French Navy, and Commandant Vaschalde, commanding the Patrouilles Aériennes de la Loire. The latter officer was in charge of all aerial operations in the sector which extended from Quiberon on the north to Île d'Yeu on the south, a distance of seventy-five miles. Although the station at Le Croisic was manned by an American crew under its own officers, the operations were in general control of Commandant Vaschalde. This was the procedure followed by other American naval units. p35They felt obliged to pay deference to the sensitive feelings of the French Ministry of Marine.

It was planned to organize an American patrol as soon as possible. For practice, meanwhile, there were three French seaplanes. The Yale men flew as often as they could, just to be in the air and enjoying it. The French pilots warned them that they were imprudent. Says Henry Landon, 'I could not help trying to show them that we knew a thing or two about the flying game. My chief delight was to taxi in on the step to one of our buoys. Once I was met by the younger French pilot who said (translating him literally), "My friend, you are a reckless fellow. Some day you break your face." He was wrong, however, and as Ken Smith will tell you, I was a very prudent flier.'

Lieutenant Commander Griffin came down from Paris on November 13th, with two Packards and three or four Ford cars for station use. He had flown Tellier boats and remained at Le Croisic long enough to take each of the flying officers up for a trial hop and show them the gadgets. They found the machines easy to fly and well suited for patrol work.

This was the finishing touch before beginning 'alerte' duty in the area from Quiberon to Île d'Yeu. On November 17th, the first American patrol to operate in European waters left the station. It consisted of two Tellier machines piloted by Landon and Coombe. It was only a two‑hour flight for the purpose of getting acquainted with the sector. Ordnance equipment had not arrived so neither plane carried bombs. Three days later, a consignment of bombs reached the station, followed by Commandant Destrau, from the French station at Lorient, whose visit was for the purpose of installing the bombing equipment and teaching the American officers how to use it. Eight months after the United States had entered the war, it was unable to provide material for aerial bombing.

p36 Then came that sensational morning of November 22d. The American outfit at Le Croisic received their first 'alerte,' the emergency signal to stand by. From the radio shack came the message, 'Allo 47° 18′ north, 3° 52′ west.' An enemy submarine had been sighted near the coast. One machine was ready for patrol, Tellier boat 87, with the bombing device attached. As rapidly as possible she was pushed out of the hangar and lowered from the crane on the quay. The C. O. was in Paris, leaving Ensign Bush in charge. As Chief Pilot, however, the flying arrangements fell to Henry Landon. He decided to let Kenneth Smith have the honor of the first submarine hunt, as it was his machine that was ready to go.

The Tellier flew away at noon, with Machinist Wilkinson and Observer Brady as the crew. No equipment was carried in the event of a mishap. They were too excited and too new at the game to realize that the one plane should not have been sent out alone. The afternoon passed and faded into darkness soon after four o'clock. Nothing had been seen or heard of 'Ken' Smith and his venturesome patrol. The Tellier carried gasoline for a flight of no more than four hours.

Landon, Coombe, and Walker were three anxious and agitated young aviators. In the dusk another plane was ordered into the water to go in search, but Ensign Bush called it back. The two French pilots had talked him out of the idea as foolish, with night coming on. Landon fairly exploded in helpless anger and chagrin. They lighted flares on the chance of guiding the lost plane in from the sea. An alarm was sent to the headquarters at Saint-Nazaire. The long night dragged past with no tidings. There was nothing to do but make plans for an early flight in the morning. Before daylight three machines were ready to go scouting over the sea.

Coombe took one and flew north. Walker and Landon, p37in the others, searched the sector to the southward. They swooped down to scrutinize every bit of floating débris, but found no clue in the miles and miles of wintry and melancholy ocean. After three hours and a half they winged it back to the station for more fuel. There they found, to their amazing joy, that a pigeon had come homing in with a message from Kenneth Smith. It had been released late in the afternoon of the day before, as the notation showed. In fog and darkness, the bird must have made the land and stayed somewhere else overnight before finding its way to Le Croisic.

The message brought the news that the patrol machine had been forced down by motor trouble when about twenty miles west of Île d'Yeu which was twenty-five miles south of the air station. An estimate of position was included, with the disturbing statement that a heavy sea was running and help was needed in a hurry. Henry Landon and his comrades tried to figure the probable drift during the night, with a strong northeast wind that would have blown the disabled derelict flying-boat well out into the Bay of Biscay. The prospect of finding the castaways afloat and alive was none too good.

However, this was infinitely better than no tidings at all. With no delay the three rescuing planes rushed out again, Coombe taking Gillespie, an enlisted pilot, with him and heading toward the area indicated in the message. Walker and Landon ranged over other parts of the sector, surmising that in twenty hours or so the wrecked plane might have been washed far from its first position. The search was futile. Coombe flew so long and so far that he was unable to return to Le Croisic that night, so he steered for shore in the hope of making a landing at La Pallice, about seventy-five miles to the southward, where there was a French air station.

Gillespie was still flying in company with him. They lost p38their way in the dark and could do nothing else than trust to luck and beach the machines as best they could. They descended to the water somewhere on the French coast and had the deuce of a job getting through the surf. The three men in each machine had to fight to keep them headed shoreward, as they insisted on slewing sidewise and so threatening to smash the wings. This accomplished without disaster, they found themselves forlorn and alone. No village near by, not even the twinkle of one friendly light in a window. They felt as lost as if they had stranded on a desert island.

Like an act of Providence, an ancient fisherman came puttering past with a donkey-cart. It was gathered from him that the little town of Tarancea was six or seven kilometers away. Leaving the party in charge of Gillespie, 'Reg' Coombe trudged along with the fisherman to send a telegram. It turned out to be an absurd adventure. None of the villagers of Tarance had ever seen an American uniform. They regarded it with lively suspicion and refused to believe that these visitors had dropped from the skies for any honest purpose.

Strenuous argument and the beguiling manner of young Mr. Coombe finally convinced the alarmed villagers that it would be unfair to lock him up. His credentials were accepted, with vigilant scrutiny, and he was permitted to send a telegram to Le Croisic. It was really wasted effort, for the message reached the station some twenty-four hours later, speedy transmission for the French service in war‑time.

The fisherman was a kindly soul who took the two Americans to his own house. His wife made an affectionate fuss over them, protesting that they must dry their clothes by the fire. The family gathered about, very wide-eyed and curious and voluble, while these sensational guests were regaled with a meal of garlic-flavored stew and red p39wine. Madame made up a package of meat and bread for the unfortunates left with the stranded flying-machines. She said she had never seen so much money in her life as the handful of francs which Coombe showered upon her.

Back they toiled to their shipmates. All hands were compelled to be on duty most of the night, or until high tide at four o'clock in the morning, when the machines were left high and dry on the beach. It was wet, cold work, splashing in the water, shoving and hauling, and in spite of their exertions the pontoons were twisted and broken, wires loosened, and the whole structures badly strained. It was doubtful whether these battered boats could be made to fly.

However, this was no time to be finicky. The party snatched a couple of hours' sleep on the beach, and waited until the tide served for shoving off. They managed to get up in the air and laid a course for La Pallice, only fifteen miles distant. There they were grievously disappointed to learn that no word had been heard from Kenneth Smith and his lost plane. There was nothing for them to do but leave their machines at the French air station and take the electric tram to La Rochelle where they turned in at the Hotel La France for a few hours' sleep.

At Le Croisic, things were in a dismal plight by now. 'Ken' Smith had not been heard of for almost two days. 'Reg' Coombe and Gillespie had also vanished without a trace. The C. O. had returned from Paris and was very much upset. He forbade any more machines to fly in quest of the missing aviators. He had lost enough of them. All destroyers and patrol boats had been notified to assist in the hunt. Nothing more could be done.

Late in the afternoon of the third day a telephone message from La Pallice conveyed the great news that a French destroyer had picked up Ensign Kenneth Smith, Wilkinson, his mechanic, and Brady, the observer, from a p40demolished seaplane which had sunk fifteen minutes later. The station celebrated en masse. It was a large, memorable evening with a few headaches in the morning. Libations were justified.

Meanwhile, poor Reginald Coombe had heard not a word of this cause for jubilation. After turning out of the Hotel La France, he went back to La Pallice where he picked up a report that a French destroyer had found a floating seaplane off Bordeaux. It failed to mention whether or not the crew had been saved, so Coombe wandered to La Rochelle again in an uneasy, disconsolate state of mind. He was sitting in a corner of the dining-room when a waiter informed him that another American officer, wearing a similar uniform, desired to see him in the hall. Rather puzzled, he went out.

Three rousing cheers! There stood 'Ken' Smith in his bedraggled flying-clothes. With him were Brady and Wilkinson. They were a sorry sight, faces drawn with exhaustion, eyes brighter than normal. For fifty‑two hours they had been adrift with almost no food, no water excepting what they could drain from the radiators, and under the most punishing strain. They showed it. 'Ken' managed to smile and tell, in a few words, what had happened. Coombe found rooms for them in the hotel and made them as comfortable as possible. The next day they made the journey to Le Croisic by train, Coombe staying behind to look after his own machines.

The story of the lost seaplane is told by Kenneth Smith himself. What he wrote needs no expansion or adornment to portray what these castaways endured and how pluckily they fought for survival.

When an 'Allo' came at 11.30 A.M. on Wednesday, November 22d, 1917, stating that a submarine was in our sector, we were all very much excited. I was anxious to make the trip, but as I was not the senior pilot I had to refrain from expressing my feelings. p41When I was informed by Chief Pilot Landon that I was to be sent, I was enthusiastic. After selecting my observer, Frank Brady, and mechanic, Wilkinson, I got ready as soon as possible. While the plane was being armed with bombs and being lowered into the water, I got all the available information about the submarine which was reported torpedoing a schooner.

I remember noticing the peculiar expressions and whispered remarks of the men as we passed them on our way to the plane. They were very skeptical about our going out with live bombs, as this was the first war flight and every one was inexperienced in their construction. Our only instructions on these bombs had been from a French officer who could not speak English very fluently.

When we got into our plane we felt very puffed up, as we were the first Americans (either Army or Navy) wholly under the American Government to make an independent war flight on our own resources.

The day was a miserable one, very foggy in addition to a high sea outside the breakwater. We left the water at noon and headed in a southwesterly direction out to sea. It was not long before we lost sight of land and became enveloped in the fog. As we climbed, the fog got thicker and thicker. My observer turned and looked at me in a questioning way. I let him know that as preparations had been made for a long flight, we were going on. He again set to work keeping a bright lookout.

We had an improvised map which was not in a wind-proof case, as it should have been. This omission caused me considerable difficulty in navigating, as neither my mechanic nor observer had had any experience in flying by map or dead reckoning. Furthermore, as the air was very bumpy, it was only by snatching a glimpse now and then between bumps that I was able to figure where we were going.

As we were running before the wind, it took up about thirty minutes to reach Île d'Yeu, which was in the vicinity where the submarine was operating. This being the first time over the lower end of the sector, it took me several minutes to recognize the island. We circled the island to see if the submarine was close to shore. While doing this, I was figuring out the course to steer to pick up the sailing ship which had been fired at.

On completing the tour around the island, I headed about due west. After about twenty minutes flying, I was relieved by p42sighting the ship to find that I had figured the course correctly.

We circled and recircled the ship, gradually increasing our radius until it was just visible. We then headed due west. After flying for an hour without being able to see anything, I distanced to turn back. We had been flying for twenty minutes when a queer feeling as if something was about to happen came over me. I looked down at the ocean to see if the waves were high. It was then that I gave a little shudder on seeing that the waves in addition to being very high had white caps on them. I also noticed that the fog was beginning to lift with the freshening of the wind. Instead of heading for home, I made for the nearest land, running before the wind.

These thoughts had no sooner passed than the motor started to sputter and miss. I was then very close to the water and was unable to turn into the wind because of our low altitude. Not wishing to come down, I kept going, trying not to lose height. The motor finally topped. I had failed to shut off the switch, as it did not seem necessary. Just as I was about to land, the motor came on wide open, due to reasons which I did not know at the time. This power threw the plain ahead and made us strike the water at an unexpectedly swift rate of speed. As a result of this we were bounced off the crest of the wave into the air. We went so high that I had time to shut off the power and make a stalled landing. This was very fortunate for us under the conditions.

We looked wonderingly at each other without saying a word. Wilkinson, the mechanic, was the first to speak. He asked why I had landed. I could hardly tell him that it was on account of the motor, as I was so seasick. Brady, the observer, who was taken ill the same time as I, was white as a sheet. Wilkinson soon after was in the same predicament. He, however, got up and looked at the motor, but could not find anything wrong with it. We then decided to crank it. To our surprise she started very easily and ran smoothly. In the meantime we had let go our bombs so as to lighten the plane. We decided to try and get off. Every time we opened the motor wide, she skipped, popped, and almost stopped. We did this several times before we decided that it would be useless to go on without fixing the trouble. We then shut off the motor and got up and shook the water off of ourselves as best we could.

The boat, during these attempts, had shipped considerable p43water over the bow. As soon as we stopped attempting to get off, we were all taken seasick again. Wilkinson worked trying to locate the trouble. He did not find that the trouble was in the gasoline tanks until it was too dark to do anything.

Before dark we let go one of our pigeons, giving as accurately as we could our position and time of landing on the water, also asking that assistance be sent. We then all sat down in our seats and waited hoping that something would come along and pick us up.

The fog lifted early in the evening and towards midnight the moon came out. It was a glorious night and I could not help thinking that if we could only get the gasoline system fixed we would stand a very good chance of getting off and reaching land. None of us slept very much, but I must have slept sometime, for I awoke with a start, realizing that the wind was coming up and that the sea was getting rougher. During the night we took regular watches; one bailed while the other two slept. It was reassuring to know that Hen Landon, Reg Coombe and Sam Walker, who were at the station, would do everything in their power to rescue us if they could only locate us. This thought kept up our hopes which were none too bright as the sea began to roughen.

On Friday morning we let go our last pigeon telling that we had seen flashes during the night from a lighthouse on our starboard bow. At this time we did not hold out much hope, as we were very skeptical about our young and inexperienced pigeons. We realized, however, that we were at war and made up our minds to pay the price if it was our turn to do so. We were very anxious that those on shore should know this, so at the end of our message we wrote, 'Please tell friends that we died game to the end.'

As soon as we dispatched the pigeon, we started to work on the motor again. We cleaned the magneto, shifted the gasoline from one tank to the other, and put in one new set of spark plugs. We then bailed the water out of the boat and made her as light as we could under the conditions. Finally at 11.30 A.M., Wilkinson got the motor started. Just after starting the motor, we saw an aeroplane and dirigible to the north of us. Our hopes and expectations were soon lost, as they turned and headed north. We then started to taxi toward Île d'Yeu, but did not make much headway on account of the sea. Finally we decided that our only p44chance was in trying to get the machine off the water. This we attempted, but only succeeded in nearly demolishing our plane. We broke the left wing, opened up the seams in the boat and dislodged the motor. In other words, we put ourselves in a worse predicament than we were before. At the time I could not help marveling at the spirit of Wilkinson and Brady, for it was just as if their only hope was snatched away from them.

Toward evening we did not feel any too cheerful, as we doubted if we could ride the night out. We took our regular watches Friday. This time only one could sleep, as one had to stay out on the right wing to keep the plane balanced while another bailed. The first real evidence of strain began to be felt by all of us. It was very trying to have to listen to your plane moan and groan as each wave struck it.

All day long gulls had kept swooping down around us. This was not very pleasant, as the thought of their care-free attitude annoyed us. Up to this time none of us had had any water to drink or anything to eat. My throat felt as if I had had my tonsils removed. Every time I swallowed, it pained. Our thirst was aggravated by the salt residue which kept forming on our faces and lips from the sea spray.

During the night the thought came to me that I ought to pray. As I had not prayed for over a month, I could not make myself do this. In fact, it seemed silly to acknowledge oneself as a hypocrite. A few weird thoughts of what I had read in books and magazines of people singing hymns and repeating passages in the Bible also ran through my mind. Somehow these thoughts put me in a peculiar frame of mind. I made up my mind that no matter what came I was not going to sing or repeat verses or even try to die with a halo on my head.

During the night I kept thinking of all the wonderful times I had had. This kept me in a calm state of mind and helped to pass away the time. The long, uncomfortable night was filled with many anxious moments. Saturday morning finally came. As the sun rose, our strength seemed to give way.

Our left wing kept crumpling. Each time we rolled, the metal struts would pound the boat hull. This was getting very serious, as a hole was being pierced in the boat. At eleven o'clock we cast the left wing adrift. Immediately the right wing serving as a sea anchor swung us broadside to the swell. Matters were at this time getting rapidly too serious for our weakened condition. p45Being broadside to the sea caused us to ship a lot of water. We worked the rest of the day trying to remove the engine and right wing. This we could not do in our weakened state.

Just as it was getting dark, Wilkinson sighted to the south of us a moving object. At first we could not make out whether it was a buoy or a spar in the water. As it came nearer, we thought it was the periscope of a submarine. This, however, had no effect on us, for it meant that they would either pick us up or blow us to pieces. We at that time felt as if either one of the two was as good as the other, if we could only escape from our present predicament. You can imagine our joy when we found that it was a French torpedo boat which had been searching for us. Fifteen minutes after they took us aboard we saw our aeroplane sink.

After having several hot drinks and a big meal, we went to sleep and did not wake up until midnight when we were landed at La Pallice.

Kenneth Smith sent to Colonel Thompson the following documents to complete the story:

Copy of Wilkinson's Log (the seaplane's mechanic)

On Friday neither we stood watches, one man bailing water out of the boat, while the other man was supposed to sleep, but this was impossible on account of our wet clothes and water coming over the boat at all times. Upon landing Thursday night the magnetos and carburetor were filled with salt water. When I tried to start the motor Friday morning it was impossible until I had dried out magneto leads and placed in new spark plugs for one magneto. When we finally succeeded in starting motor we taxied for about one half hour and the other magneto dried out and commenced to fire. We discovered that we were not making any headway, so Mr. Smith thought he would try to get off water, but the water was so rough that in attempting to get off we busted the left wing, also the three seats and opened some seams. We immediately stopped motor and commenced to get ready to cast off left wing should it become necessary, but we desired to hold on to the wing as long as possible because of our lateral balance and we realized that as soon as our left wing was gone it was only a matter of minutes until we sank. We held on to the left wing until 11.30 A.M. Saturday, when we started to p46cast it off. This done, we prepared to cast off the right wing and engine. I was working on top of the engine when I sighted what we thought must be a German submarine, but we were all happy, at that, as we were about all in, having had no food or sleep for three days. What I had sighted proved to be a French torpedo-boat which sent a boat to us and picked us up and attempted to tow machine to port, but it was impossible as airplane was rapidly sinking. The French rescued our instruments and attempted to rescue motor, but airplane sank before they could accomplish this. Airplane was a complete wreck when she sank. She sank about one half hour after we abandoned her, so you can readily see we were rescued just in the nick of time. I wish to speak of Mr. Smith's behavior, which was admirable. He stood regular watches with us and consulted me before making any definite move. He was brave and courageous from the first. I never heard a whimper from any one no matter how close we were to death. The accident was no one's fault and I am ready to make a statement as to the courageous actions of all.

Copy of Brady's log (the machine's observer)

Orders for flight received at 10 A.M. November 22d, 1917, to engage submarine off Saint-Nazaire. Left station in plane 87 about 12 P.M. with Pilot Smith, Mechanic W. M. Wilkinson, and myself as Observer. Flew at altitude of 200 meters, but on account of low fog, descended to 100 meters and continued flight in direction of Île d'Yeu. Kept sharp lookout and after about twenty minutes flight sighted object in water off port bow, and after flying in this direction and circling about it, discovered it to be a bell buoy. Off starboard side another object sighted which proved to be a three-mast schooner laying off the coast of Île d'Yeu. We then headed for Île d'Yeu. Off this coast a number of fishing smacks observed and a careful study of the underlying section was made. We then headed in direction of Belle Isle. Observed tramp steamer with small row boat in tow. After close study of this section for about forty-five minutes and not sighting land retraced our line about thirty minutes when motor failed and we were followed to make a landing in a heavy sea. Mr. Smith and I became very seasick.

After testing engine and looking over wing section, motor started on cranking, but could not leave the water, forced us to lighten cargo, and cast off two 100‑pound French bombs by removing p47detonators and replacing safety plugs and carefully releasing them from their apparatus. Failed to get off water. Released pigeon with message at 2.20 P.M. Wilkinson then made a thorough study and inspection of motor. Discovered that right gas tank was empty and left one full. All hands seasick and working under difficulty, bailing water and making necessary repairs. Engine water-soaked as well as magnetos and all other mechanical parts. Syphoned gas from left to right tank, stood watches until light enough to work around gas tank. By this time all hands were wet through to the skin. Sighted two lights during night. Drifted southward. Second pigeon turned loose 7.40 November 23d. Saw blimp in the distance. We signaled, but no response was received. Started motor at 10 A.M. and taxied until magnetos dried out. Another attempt was made to leave the water in face of heavy sea, which was still running high. After getting engine up to maximum speed and on our step to leave, we were hit by sea on left wing, carrying away landing wires and crushing both lower and upper wings. Engine section struts and wires adrift. A consultation was then held regarding our future conduct, and saving of life and property. Bailed water which was now coming in through the opened seams. Other methods of keeping afloat by trying to dismantle motor proved futile on account of our weakened condition from exposure. We stood four-hour watches, two on at a time. One man lying out on right wing to balance, another bailing water, while the third attempted to sleep. Mr. Smith taking first watch on wing section. Wilkinson bailing and I in the cockpit reposing. Watches relieved at regular intervals or when needed. Our only hopes were to ride out night. Hourly notes were made on direction of wind. Rain set in, making life intolerable. During my watch 11 P.M. 23d, to 2 A.M. 24th, on outer wing section, Mr. Smith climbed out on left wing section, stripped it of its fabric in order to shield me from exposure and using all means available for my comfort. On account of condition of left wing it was decided to cast this section adrift. Boat at once listed heavily to starboard and took in great quantities of water. Too weak to take off right wing. Our chances now seemed hopeless. Still we continued the best possible way to keep afloat. This was accomplished by one man's weight being placed on port side of boat while bailing at the same time, the other men tearing away right wing section. We were giving up hopes as right wing p48was submerged and boat was sinking. At this period Wilkinson sighted an object on our starboard beam. All hands believed it to be a submarine. Mr. Smith destroyed maps and gave instructions as to what action should be taken in case it proved to be such. It later proved to be a French torpedo boat. We were taken off in a boat. Every effort was made to salvage the wrecked plane but she sank within twenty minutes after abandoning her.


Thayer's Note:

a I've been unable to find even the tiniest place by this name anywhere in this area (La Rochelle and the Vendée). Assuming a typographical or transcription error in the original, my best candidate, based on the indications in the text — about fifteen miles from La Pallice and on the coast or within seven miles of it — is the village of Marans, population about 4500 both now and during World War I.


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Page updated: 8 Sep 14