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Chapter 35

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The First Yale Unit

Ralph D. Paine

printed at
The Riverside Press
Cambridge (Mass.)

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 37
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXXVI

Gosport and Scotland

To the young men of the Unit impatient to take an active part in a war which they knew only by hearsay, the time must have dragged interminably while they went the rounds of one instruction school after another. Here, for instance, were Dave Ingalls and 'Ken' MacLeish, in the winter of 1917‑18, ordered to learn more about flying at Gosport in the south of England and then north among the bleak hills of Scotland. They went cheerfully because it appeared to be the last stage on the road to the fighting front. Dunkirk was the goal of their aspirations and they had been told that they were to go there after the course of advanced lessons in flying land machines.

Gosport turned out to be well worth while. They conceived a high regard for its methods and results. For the first time they had glimpses of what the swift and deadly fighting in the air was like. Ingalls called it wonderful to watch the flying of some veteran pilot, returned to Gosport as an instructor after a year or two with the combat forces. The enthusiastic Dave went on to say:

The school was started as an experiment in a new system of instruction which was so successful that it was adopted at all the other British training stations. It was very intensive, the best men picked as teachers, three to each flight, about three pupils in a class, and plenty of machines. I was first sent up in an A. V. Roe, a light two‑seater with a rotary motor. A few tricks about flying and landing were taught me in one or two flights and then I soloed. One was shown a few things and then he practiced by himself, then more new kinks to learn and he tried them out until he was most thoroughly drilled and at his ease. And everything had to be perfectly done. Days were spent in polishing  p120 off a simple vertical turn, and it was surprising to find how hard it was to do this precisely right.

Toward the end of the course we were put on scouts, Sopwiths and Camels, and in these we were worked in the same painstaking way, with long cross-country flights of a hundred miles or so. The crowd consisted of men much older than we were, and the life was very pleasant. The machines were always ready and in perfect condition. You started off and flew until you felt tired when you came back for lunch and rest before another hop.

There were no flying rules. The independence of it made flying delightful — machines landing and thinking off with no regard for the wind direction, others looping and zooming about the hangars, others engaged in mock battles, others practicing forced landings. It seemed free and easy and yet the very complexity of it kept one always on the alert and there were almost no accidents. No one could feel bored. You were never kept waiting for a machine and you were not urged to fly unless you wished. If you didn't wish, you were soon fired out. It was no place for an unambitious man.

This was far more to Dave Ingalls' liking than the slower, clumsier seaplanes. He had found his natural bent, his medium of expression as a flier. It was admirably fitting him for his brilliant exploits against the German airmen. His letters express a new zest, keen and boyish and buoyant. He had found the most splendid game to play in the world. In spirit he had begun to be akin to the greatest of French aces, a youngster like himself, of whom another Frenchman wrote with the pen of an artist:

One after another, the victorious birds came back to cover from every part of the violet and rosy sky. But joy over their success must show itself, and they indulged in all the fanciful caprioles of acrobatic aviation, spinning down in quick spirals, turning somersaults, looping or plunging in a glorious sky‑dance. Last of all these young gods, Guynemer landed after one final circle, and took off his helmet, offering to the setting sun his illuminated face still full of the spirit of battle.

You will find these manifestations of sheer enjoyment  p121 and oblivion to danger in some of Dave Ingalls' letters from Gosport and Scotland.

(Gosport) December 29, 1917

Dear Dad:

After leaving London Thursday morning, we were certainly glad to get here, although late as usual. On account of the holidays everything has been a little slack here, but Monday a new bunch of pupils came in and things will probably take a big brace. Just now we Americans are the only pupils, so we are getting some good work in.

Yesterday I got only one flight, a short one in the afternoon, with a young Englishman who is my instructor now. He is just a kid, but a very good flier. For some reason a young Englishman seems very much younger than an American of the same age.

There were heavy clouds at 2300 feet and it was rough as the deuce, with a strong wind of twenty-five miles an hour. After about ten minutes instructing, I at last got off alone. I've been dying to get up alone and certainly had a time. As there were a lot of machines around, I had to keep a good lookout, as it is surprising how quickly you come together. I climbed up to about 2000 feet, doing several vertical turns on the way up. Then I leveled out, got up some speed, pulled back the stick and looped for my first time.

It is customary to cut the motor at the top or a little beyond, but I cut too soon for the first two loops, but it made no difference. At the top, as I was doing some very tight loops, not knowing how much strain the machine would stand, centrifugal force did not quite hold me in, though I held myself there by a very tight grasp on the stick. Of course, I had a belt on, too, as a precaution, but it is not necessary. After about five or six of these, to get the hang of it, I tried rolling, which is sort of turning upside down and then right side up again while going somewhat straight ahead. It is awfully peculiar, and I couldn't seem to get the hang of it at first, but ended up in a tail-spin which is simply diving straight and revolving rapidly. This last is the most dangerous stunt, as the machine is almost entirely out of control. It is a great strain on the machine. Well, I would cut the motor and get out of this, usually not until I had dropped 600 or 700 feet, and kept trying until I got onto a fairly respectable roll. These machines being large and two‑seaters, of course don't roll very well anyway.

 p122  Then I did a few tumbler air turns, getting into a tail-spin the first few times. It seems as if everything ends up in a tail-spin, if not done correctly. Following these I just mixed up stalls, tail-slided loops etc. for a while, till I made myself pretty sick. In all I was out about 45 minutes and wasn't flying straight a quarter of a mile.

Well, as I say, I was getting cold and a bit sick, so I came down, tried a few landings and came in. It was the best flight I ever had, Dad, and I certainly enjoyed it.

(Gosport) January 3, 1918

Dear Dad:

For the last three days I have been having lots of flying, and so also lots of fun. The first day was very cloudy but after getting up to about 3000 I was above the clouds in the sunlight and, Dad, it was by far the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was quite warm and the huge billows of clouds below covered the entire horizon, and seemed to offer a big feather bed to light on. The clouds were of course sort of uneven, tremendous mountains with valleys in between. Every now and then machines would sort of rise out of the clouds and the sun would gleam on the wings.

Yesterday was very clear and I learned about vertical turns. These men come back from the front to this school, where flying is taught scientifically and perfectly and are absolutely overwhelmed by the amount they do not know. Practically no one who has not been here can make a perfect turn.

Today I had my first smash, fortunately a minor one. I was practising landings, the dam foolishness of myself is awful, small fields, cutting my motor as if it had quite on me, and picking a field and landing, when I caught seven or eight telephone wires. I had not seen them nor had any idea what I hit, but my ailerons failed to work so I kept on and landed, almost in a ditch. Well, after landing on the brink of said ditch I climbed out and found the control wire running to the bottom of the lower wing carried away, otherwise everything O. K. As I couldn't fix it I kicked myself around the field for about ten minutes when my flight commander, who had been told of a machine down, landed, left a mechanic, and took me home. Since then I have been having my leg pulled as the English say. Well, as you used to say when I smashed up an auto, it is a good thing so long as nobody is hurt,  p123 as you have the experience. I certainly will try to keep my eyes open.

But yesterday 'Shorty' Smith almost ended his career and taught us all a good lesson. He went out and on getting to about 2500 feet looped. The strap to hold you in the front seat had been left lying on the seat loosely fastened and when upside down with the stick pulled way back, the strap swung around and over the stick, holding it way back. This of course held the elevators up so the machine started on a second loop with 'Shorty' pushing for all he was worth. As he had cut the motor the machine merely pointed straight up stalled, tail-slipped, dove down, then started up again. Fortunately his ailerons and rudder would still work. After stalling, it would of course dive several hundred feet before gaining enough speed to pull him up again. After coming down by the above process to about a hundred feet 'Shorty' was a bit worried, but being a plucky little devil he didn't lose his head. Just as he started to go up to stall, here he saw he would, in the ensuing dive, hit the ground head on, so he cleverly side-slipped by using the ailerons and everything just happening to work out fortunately he pulled it out of the tail-slide a few feet before crashing and landed all right with only a wing slightly damaged.

He says he thought an awful lot on the way down, as it took quite some time, but he always had the hope of levelling off just as he hit. He says he didn't think of side slipping till he saw he'd lose out if he didn't do something when he levelled off at about 180 feet. He says his brain was in good condition then. That taught us to look out for anything that would catch the stick and proves that one has wonderful control in pretty adverse conditions. Even my being able to land trailing seven or eight telephone wires after a hard shock shows that it takes a hard bump to bust anything.

(Gosport) Jan. 14, 1918

Dear Dad:

We negotiated the battle of London safely for the three days' leave we were afforded, staying at the American Officers Club, seeing shows and talking to the many very interesting officers, Army and Navy, who are always stopping there on their way to and from France and America.

Among others we saw Admiral Sims for a minute, and Capt. Cone, who, as you probably are aware, is at the head of naval aviation. The latter expressed a desire for our finishing up  p124 quickly, from which I derived that the men who are to make up the flights that we are to command have almost completed their course of training at the U. S. Army aviation school for scout pilots in France. Although I fully appreciate the impossibility of it, I am sorry that they too could not have had the wonderful training which the English have so kindly given us. To be sure they have received the best instruction that the Navy could offer and I hope it is better than I have predicted.

According to a letter from 'Di', who is executive officer at our future station, it is progressing as well as could be hoped for from the disadvantage of its location, — it is constantly bombed by aircraft, which occasionally breaks up the monotony of construction work.

Evidently the authorities here have also received orders to hurry us through, and I expect practically to live in a Camel this week, after which we will be immediately sent to Scotland for I imagine at least two weeks, probably three, training in gunnery and aerial fighting. From here we shall return to France with all the customary naval delay, and will probably spend several weeks waiting in Paris, and then perhaps longer for our men to study up on some technical point highly important practically, such as the use of a compass or something like that which has been sadly neglected.

Here the weather has been rotten. Wind, clouds, snow, and worst of all, fog. Any weather seems to bring on a heavy ground mist preventing flying. Today it did not clear up till afternoon very late and as by that time it was almost tea time, everyone was compelled to adjourn for that important event. However, we have all been given a private Camel, to fly our heads off, which is just what we all want.

The new allotment or class came in this afternoon — they change every two weeks. We feel like old timers now, just imagine me at tea explaining to an R. F. C. flight commander, who had spent two years at the front, how to work the type of motor used here and how to put one of these dual-machines into a tail-spin. This new bunch are a bit uneasy because this afternoon before flying became possible two of the best instructors went up and did the most wonderful flying imaginable. Even the old timers had to stand around in awe. You see if these men pass here well they are not sent back to the front immediately, but are given a much needed rest for a month's instructing — so they are pretty  p125 keen to do their best. By that time they are fed up and dying to get back to the front again and they are then in wonderful shape.

A great many, almost all in fact, of this class are Canadians, who I find are a great deal like Americans and have often spent a lot of time in the States, so one feels almost as if it were an American station.

(Gosport) January 17, 1918

Dear Dad:

Although the weather has been rotten so far this week, yesterday was passable, and I had about an hour and a half. As we now each have a Camel to ourselves, if the weather permits we can fly as much as we want. Until yesterday afternoon I had not become accustomed to the way the Camel handled, as it is a long step from an Avro, the slow dual control machines, to a scout, especially a Camel, as it is about the trickiest and hardest to fly. What helped more than anything else to make me accustomed to the machine was that late in the afternoon as I was fooling around, looping etc., an instructor also in a Camel suddenly appeared diving at me, and for about ten minutes we chased each other around. It was the most enjoyable and exciting time I have ever had. One forgets about simply flying and does so instinctively, keeping one's eye always on the other fellow, and also a general lookout for other machines. It is really remarkable how close two machines can come together without colliding.

Another funny thing, 'Shorty' had just been up before in this Camel — it is painted a peculiar color, and we had fooled around together, quite a bit apart however. Well at first I thought this must be 'Shorty' again, but in about a second I saw I was wrong for from quite a distance, the difference in the two men's flying ability became quite apparent. To tell the truth whereas 'Shorty' and I had each lots of fear of colliding, when this fellow came around I never thought about it. He had perfect control and I just never thought of running into him. It seemed to me that the danger of collision is when two machines are just fooling around, thinking themselves alone.

Well, as I have said, from this little encounter I got lots of confidence and for the rest of the afternoon felt perfectly at home. The machine handles so lightly that anything can be done and it is so easy that you simply couldn't fly straight if you wanted to. But very foolishly I did a lot, six or seven, tail-spins  p126 just before coming in and as the darned little machine spins at a terrible rate I felt rotten for two or three hours afterward. Also I have broken all speed records that I've made before, as several times on looking at the air speed indicator in a dive it would be registering 190 or more. If the weather doesn't improve we'll be here another week. Suits me all right.

(Gosport) January 24, 1918

Dear Dad:

You certainly must be busy now and I don't suppose you are home very much. It's lucky that Mother is so deeply interested in and hard at work for the Red Cross. I'll be nineteen now, in a few days, and hope to celebrate my birthday in London, as I think we shall leave this school Saturday the 26th and go to Scotland, passing through London. As is customary when traveling under our good navy's orders, we shall probably be delayed in London for several days. This will not be so bad, however, as there is usually plenty to do there.

The two schools, gunnery and aerial fighting, will probably not be quite so comfortable and easy going as is this one. As far as I can find out now, a week at each place suffices for the course, so we'll not be there long unless the weather is dud. Yesterday was not very good here. The morning which was fine was occupied mostly by gunnery practice. I had one thirty-five minute flight in my Camel and a good scrap with 'Ken.' Somehow or other I unfortunately broke the rudder bar — on which one's feet rest, and also as the motor is in bad shape and is being overhauled, my Camel has been laid up since.

The afternoon was dud. An awful fog came up very suddenly and one fellow trying to get down landed in a tree, while another lit at the foot of a tremendous wireless mast, and another crashed into the flag pole of one of the hangars. Fortunately no one was hurt. As it cleared a bit I went up in one of the Avros to test the motor, but the clouds were at about 150 feet. Every one is getting a bit frisky lately, flying around the field and landing very close. It's very hard to get in, about five machines are continually landing within about fifty feet of the hangars. At the end of each class everyone seems to show off a bit, at this time more than usual. But today was fine, and I flew an Avro most of the morning and afternoon, getting only one ride in a Camel I borrowed from another flight. I did some  p127 so‑called contour-chasing, i.e., flying very low, jumping over buildings, trees, etc. It's great fun unless the motor stops, when you are 'up the Creek.'

So ho for London and Scotland.

(Gosport) Jan. 27, 1918

Dear Mother:

In spite of everything portending otherwise we are still here at R. F. C. Gosport and hope to remain next week. As this week end was leave week, there was practically no flying Saturday and Sunday, but we stayed here anyway. You see Friday night there was a dance here which the officers gave. It was great fun, though English girls have a most unusual way of dancing. So Saturday morning we slept until lunch and so couldn't go to London.

Friday afternoon 'Shorty,' 'Ken' and I each taking an Avro and 'Ken' and I mechanics for passengers, we set out on a cross country to fly to a camp about forty miles from here. Well it was awfully foggy and we ought not to have gone as results showed. We flew over almost all the way together, but just over a city we were flying about four hundred feet to keep below the clouds and see where we were going, 'Shorty,' who was supposed to be leading, went up into a cloud and we never saw him again. I started to follow and lost sight of 'Ken,' so I turned over to the coast and came down to about a hundred feet. Seeing nothing of either of them and being lost I picked out what looked like a good field beyond the city, and landed. The minute we touched we stopped as the field turned out to be muddy and watery. We both got out and looked things over. It looked bad.

While we debated, men, women and children collected panting around us, touching the mechanic and asking if we needed an ambulance. As the mechanic is a husk of a fellow about six feet two inches I don't know why we looked like ambulance patients. When a suitable gallery had arrived I got in and the mechanic swung the propeller and together with motor and about one hundred people pushing and apparently endeavoring to tear off the wings as souvenirs we got to a knoll about fifteen feet square. The mechanic got aboard and starting at one side of the knoll we managed to get started so by the time we hit the mud we were almost flying. There was then an anxious second and we were off, missing surrounding people, trees and wires equally closely.

 p128  As the fog kept getting lower we had to fly over the city very low and even then could only see a little way, just far enough to miss by inches a couple of tremendous smokestacks that suddenly loomed up ahead. When we finally got back 'Shorty' had not returned, but telephoned later that he had landed and would come back next day. He got in yesterday afternoon and said he had stayed with a very congenial English family and had a fine time. We were pretty suspicious and pumped him till we found out that the family included a wonderful daughter. Every one has been kidding him since.

School of Special Flying (Gosport)

February 1, 1918

My dear Mother:

The last two days here have been most enjoyable. Although there has been a slight fog, we've done a great deal of flying.

Yesterday morning I had two hops in an Avro, one with my C. O. Captain Clocte,º in which I learned a new trick. It seems as though there was no end to the amount of different things one can learn. This was a vertical spiral. That is, with the motor off, we glided down, and banked up vertically in a spiral. Although it is really very simple, it is the first time I have ever done it or seen it done, and Clocte tells me he has just learned it himself.

In the afternoon I was up for a long time in my Camel, which is running wonderfully, and after a short scrap with 'Shorty,' in which I had a comfortable time, being always at his tail — an enviable position, owing to my motor being better than his — I tried for the first time flying upside down. Of course, the motor does not run, so one simply glides down slowly on one's back. Of all the uncomfortable positions it is the worst. In the first place, the machine tends to slip off on one wing and eventually always does, about two minutes being the extent of my flight upside down. That is, the machine is very hard to keep level; one wing tends to go down, the other up. And as all controls are reversed it is most awkward.

Then after a perfect tea (really I intend to institute tea hereafter wherever I live), 'Ken' arrived from London. As I wrote, he had been unable to get away on his Camel on account of the heavy fog, so he came out in the train, and we expect to fly in tomorrow, he and 'Shorty' going in an Avro to bring back the Camel and also Lieutenant Edwards, who is the aide to stunts. Funny how everyone want to loop, etc., isn't it? He also  p129 brought me a camera, so at least I can take some photographs, though of course, I'll not be able to send you any.

This morning I had two flights in my Camel, besides a lot of gunnery, and managed to stay upside down a little longer than yesterday. But I almost broke up my machine, when, as I was gliding in to land, the pressure in the gas tank leaked out and I couldn't pump it up as fast as it leaked. Well, I was trying to pump and land at the same time and came too close to the hangars, so, when I was still about ten feet off the ground, the hangars were in front. I put the switch on the gravity tank — a small auxiliary tank — and opened the valve, thinking I would go up around and land again. But the gravity tank is a fake; anyway the gas just leaked through enough to about keep the propeller turning. So I had to do a vertical bank with the motor sort of sputtering and turn with one wing almost dragging and lit at right angles. It was a rotten feeling, as I could feel it begin to side-slip down on account of the slow speed at which I was going, and I should undoubtedly have smashed a wing if everything had not gone just right. As it was I was well kidded. The gravity tank worked all right when I tested it out some time ago, but being little used, I suppose some dirt got in the pipes. Anyway, I took it out on the mechanics, with the result that this afternoon the old Camel was in fine form and 'Shorty' and I went with two of the instructors on a beautiful cross-country flight.

They knew the country well, so at good places we could road down low, giving the people and animals a great scare. It must have been very exciting to see four Camels tearing along just over the ground. As you probably know, the density of the air low down lets the machines go considerably faster than they do at any high altitude, so we moved right along. It was great fun jumping over hills, houses, etc. We have certainly had a wonderful time here, and I'm sure we will be sorry to leave, which will be now probably in two or three days, as we are just waiting to go to Scotland to finish up.

(Turnbury) February 7, 1918

My dear Mother:

Much to our regret we left the best school day before yesterday and took the train to London, where we spent the night. Then, leaving early yesterday morning, we traveled up into Scotland to this, the second school in our course. We had a fine trip and  p130 crossed the frontier into Scotland hungry as the deuce, where beautiful Scotch girls rushed up to the train in the station and gave us cakes, etc. Don't know how they knew we were coming! From then on at every small station, and none were too small for our express to stop at, we could get out and have the time of our lives listening to any Scotchman whom we could prevail upon to talk. Their brogue is divine. Upon our arrival we were shown to rooms in a hotel which made me homesick for Palm Beach. And this morning we looked out upon a beautiful golf links by the sea, with beautiful hills rolling away inland. A really heavenly place, evidently a once famous golfing resort! I certainly have fallen for Scotland; it is a great place.

Here, instead of older men, captains, etc., as were at our previous school, there are only young inexperienced cadets, slews of them, as this is practically a non‑flying course. We spent all day sitting on hard benches in sort of class rooms, studying twice as hard as I ever did in school. This will last at least two weeks, when we will take up aerial fighting for a couple of weeks. Then our training will be over.

February 15, 1918

My dear Mother:

The weather up here in Scotland has been pretty rotten since our arrival. Today it is raining and cold. As this is the first day I have not been very busy, due to the fact that today we have our exams, in gunnery, which don't take long, the rain prevents our taking a walk.

Tomorrow we start a bit more interesting work — i.e. firing from aeroplanes, at different targets, from the air. On account of the bad weather I am going to take up the sport of bridge, as otherwise there will be nothing to do during our flying course. Of course they play a rotten game on a big pool table which they call billiards. I think it was invented some thousand years ago and compares to real billiards as a bow and arrow does to a machine gun. If any one asked me what England's national game was I'd say bridge. They play all the darned time, but as far as I can see it is not with the result that 'practice makes perfect.'

In spite of our excruciating labours we are having a fine time, at mess. 'Shorty' and I are at one end of a table with a South African who has been fighting since 1913, a Canadian who has been over in France for two years in infantry and a young  p131 Australian who, having just arrived at the age, enlisted in the R. F. C. They are a mighty good bunch. The Australian, who now looks about 17, received two white feathers before he enlisted. They must have handed them around to any fellow old enough to wear trousers.​a

The other day 'Shorty' and I walked about 3 or 4 miles to a beautiful little Scotch village along the coast, where we heard one might obtain matches. Believe me, matches are worth their weight in gold. Well, we were in luck and each of us obtained a box. That night after supper, everyone at our end of the table got out a cigar and turned to 'Shorty,' who had pulled out his box. With great pride 'Shorty' opened the box and pulled out a match. The match comfortably rubbed against its neighbor, there was a flash and Shorty ruefully looked at about 150 burnt matches. There was really quite an universal sorrow. I'm surprised that no monument has been erected.

Feb. 21, 1918

Dear Dad:

The last few days have been no vacation. We start at 8.45 finish at 12, start at 1.45 and stop for tea at about 4.45. Then there is a lecture from 5.30 to 6.45. After dinner we usually have to copy notes — thousands of them, but, by writing all Saturday afternoon, when we had a half-holiday, but it poured rain, I have finally finished. Although at first the course seemed very monotonous and boring, now I am enjoying it immensely as it is most interesting. Also there is always a certain amount of excitement, even to us, in the lists posted of the fellows, who are to go 'overseas' as they call it, immediately.

As it is a sort of large finishing school, fellows are continually coming in from different preliminary schools, and going out to France, home defense, etc. These are quite a few army and navy men of ours, besides of course the R. F. C. composed of a few English, a great number of Canadians, and some S. Africans, etc.

On our arrival we were split up and I am rooming with a very funny Irishman, who has had two years in the trenches. He is a mighty good fellow and we are in the same classes and have lots of competition on the ranges, shooting. I find that a machine gun is darn hard to shoot, not like playing a hose, and the gears which synchronize the propeller and bullets, and the sights for deflection, etc. are pretty complicated. To thoroughly understand them is, to me, who have had little to do with guns, like  p132 putting a picture puzzle together. All the R. F. C. men have had a good deal of training at the preliminary schools, but we had only a little. However, we finish in about seven or eight days and then hope to go through the course in aerial fighting, which is very short.

It is quite different here from our first school where all the men were older, experienced men, while here they are just a bunch of kids. Just as at school, I often wonder how some sissy, simple, young pet ever left home. But, by George, they all come along, and do their best, just as, with no war, they would have gone to school and college. There is one Canadian here who used to play the violin at some hotel in New York, whom I remember having seen. He is very good and plays quite a bit here. He also plays the piano and knows most of the late pieces. It certainly is great to hear him.

Middleton, Ayr, February 27, 1918

Dear Dad:

It seems like an awful long time since we have flown. What with the dud weather and the overcrowdedness of this school, the outlook is full of a distant future. Moreover, all of our men who were with us in France are here with us now and we are going to take the course together, so it will be some time before a big bunch like us will be able to start.

Yesterday an army aviator and I went to Glasgow to see what's what. We had a darn good time, saw an excellent show last night, and some good movies in the afternoon, but we had to get up this morning to catch a 5 A.M. train in order to get here in time.

Day before yesterday there was a lot of flying — for others. One poor nut started off with his motor missing badly because he was choking it. He kept on, however, and did a circle about the field, refusing to land while he had a chance. So just as he got over our heads the motor stopped completely and he came down on top of a hangar, the wheels caught and he stuck straight up with the bow embedded in the roof. It was the stupidest and funniest thing I ever saw. The poor nut climbed out and posed for everyone to make photos of him. As it was very cloudy I'm afraid I didn't get a good picture.

During this same period, Kenneth MacLeish was taking it more seriously, like a knight of the Crusades upon whose  p133 shield the sacred cross was emblazoned. If Ingalls flamed like a Guynemer, the soul of MacLeish glowed like that of a Rupert Brooke. In addition to this spiritual bestowal, he had the gifts of the fighting aviator as his brief career was to prove. The series of letters herewith quoted covers his experiences in England and Scotland, and en route, until he was ready to join the station at Dunkirk.

(Moutchic) December 6, 1917

We move in a couple of days to finish the last link in the chain of preparation, and then we're off for the front. And we shall have the honor of being the first to see active service, which is only fitting as we were the first to enlist. But my flying education has been somewhat flighty in spots, and I sometimes have misgivings. However, I shall learn to shoot with a machine gun and shoot straight, and that's what counts, I presume. How they hit anything from an airplane will continue to be an unsolved mystery to me. Let's hope the mystery isn't solved at my expense — that wouldn't be so humorous. I used to laugh when I was in America, but since I've been in France I have laughed harder at one time and been lower at another than ever before. This strain seems to make one hit the highest and the lowest spots. After you pass the stage where you care a darn what happens to you, you take things easy and laugh — laugh at anything, laugh at nothing. The main thing is — you laugh. I've never felt so darn free and easy in my life. It is merely a question of adaptation, just as it is everywhere else. Of course there are occasional dark spots, when you wake up in a cold sweat and wonder what you'll do when a Boche gets the drop on you, and you get cold and lonely and 'nobody-loves-youish,' but they're short and after all you agree that guerre, or no guerre, c'est la vie!

'Di' has already gone to our station. He is not flying yet, however. I heard from him today, and he said the weather was so bad that there hadn't been any raids, but the night after he wrote I happen to know they got a frightful bombing. Poor devil! There's nothing under the sun more fiendish than one of those things. You can't see a thing, you can only hear a low whistling — it increases, you hear a dull thud and the ground trembles; then you see stars, and can't hear anything for about ten minutes. They're fierce! I don't wonder the Tommies hate  p134 them worse than artillery. And to think that I'll have to be bombed about every night till the war's over. Cheerful, isn't it?

(Gosport) December 17

Here I am back in Merry England again. It is surprising to realize how very busy I can feel with all this traveling and yet not accomplish one blessed thing. Tomorrow I shall be assigned to a flight, and work will really commence. Lord! I wish I could finish my work and get down to real action. I just got word today that two very dear friends of mine were killed in training at a school in France, and two days ago I heard that a pupil of mine got killed in the same machine in which I taught him to fly down near Bordeaux, and he was doing exactly what I had told him, every day, not to do. The war is quite a reality to me. I hope the people at home can say the same.

I have received several of the most wonderful letters from you recently. I dare say that no one could read them through and not stand straighter and set his jaw firmer and add to the youth's 'I can' a resolute 'I will.' If you feel as you do, I shall simply stop worrying about how badly you people at home will feel if anything happens to me and go at this thing with the best I have. It will be a long hard pull before I even begin selfless, but from now on it shall be my leading ideal. I say leading, because to my mind if one is truly selfless one will unconsciously have become what he wanted to be when he had all his other ideals before him. (Excuse the independent shift from 'one' to 'he,' but I had my own case in mind) I am not a bit blue about my future any more. You see, the men who will fly the bombing machines in our convoy are the dearest friends I have, and no sacrifice on my part could begin to show my fondness for them. No, I really look forward to it. The main thing with me is to get into action quickly. I can't see these English and French taking part in such a marvelous thing and not take part myself. It is just not in me. When I had a month more training to go through, I was terribly blue and unhappy. Now I may have about a week more and I think that when I finally get under way I will be happier than I have ever been before. Not quite as outwardly happy, perhaps, but I will have peace of heart, and that kind of happiness is real.

Scotland, February 24, 1918

I hate to be unpatriotic to my ancestry, but this Scotch weather is fine for ducks and sea monsters only. I'm getting  p135 webbed feet myself. What do you think I did to celebrate Washington's Birthday? I took a bath! I luxuriated in the hot water for about an hour, and then started to scrub. After some time I unearthed some buttons, which, after more scrubbing, I found were attached to a suit of underwear. I excavated the underwear, as it were, and found it clear sailing from that layer to my skin. I felt so light after the bath that I almost exploded, but the worst of it is I caught a cold.

This is the very last step before going overseas. It brings the whole thing very near to me when I say good‑bye or rather 'Cheer ho' to five or six men every day. They are smiling, care-free, happy‑go-luckies one minute, and next they are serious, determined men. It isn't hard or unusual to undergo the most violent metamorphoses under those circumstances. You never know clearly what is what, or what you may develop into tomorrow. I have found in my own little experience that such uncertainty and a life so full of miraculous changes and events tends to make me rather skeptical about the truth of everything. But after passing through a stage of it, feeling and living a sort of 'I don't care' recklessness, I've settled down and am assimilating gradually all the characteristics necessary to make me my old self, under entirely new conditions of life.

Of course there are sorrows and hardships connected with it all, which are far worse than any I have known before. I can best express myself by an event which took place recently. A boy named 'Al' Sturtevant and I were about as close friends as could be. We went to college together and trained together at Palm Beach and Huntington. We chanced to meet in London a short time ago. We had a perfectly wonderful time together, as only old pals can who have the same things to face and fight. We planned what were going to do after the war, etc.

A few days ago I got a letter from 'Al.' He said he was now a second pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service and was going on fighting patrols in huge flying-boats with the English until a station was established to which he could be assigned. Between the time he wrote the letter and the time it got to me, he was shot down in flames by ten Hun machines. The Hun that shot him down is named Christiansen. He is one of the German aces. So it turned out that I got 'Al's' letter after he was killed. I shall never forget what a shock I received, and I shall never know just what changes I underwent, but I feel perfectly sure that I  p136 shall never again experience such an awful shock. For a time I couldn't suppress the smile of the cynic. I couldn't help feeling, 'Oh, what's the use of having such marvelous friendships? I only feel worse when they're ended.' But I got over all that. You won't believe me when I tell you how. Anyway, I was sitting alone thinking how awful his death must have been and how I would miss never seeing him again, when I was impressed suddenly with the fact that 'Al' hadn't gone out of my life, that he still held the same warm spot in my heart, and still had the same influence over me. I am perfectly convinced now that 'Al,' as far as I am concerned, will always be the same fine friend that he used to be. And so I draw my conclusions: After all, the only truly great realities in life are the unseen realities.

London, March 14, 1918

Well, I have finally received my orders, and tomorrow I go to the front, unless some extraordinary changes await me in Paris. Another very dear friend of mine was killed yesterday. Do you remember Curt Read, the boy I went down to Norfolk with? He and I were the two instructors down there the first month. He was killed at the station I am going to. I have heard that he crashed into a sea‑wall.

I was so glad to get your point of view on after-life. I am so glad to have broken the ice, so to speak, as I didn't want to do it myself. Now, I think we can have a perfect understanding. In the first place, if I find it necessary to make the supreme sacrifice, always remember this: I am so firmly convinced that the ideals which I am going to fight for are right and splendid ideals that I am happy to be able to give so much for them. I could have no self-respect, I could not consider myself a man, if I saw these ideals defeated when it lies in my power to help defend them. No matter what my past reveals — I may have been cowardly, I may have been selfish and a poor, weak Christian — though I was a complete failure, I need not think of it now. It is one of the finest, most inspiring miracles in the world, to be able to change a life of failure to a life of the noblest, most glorious victory, in the last moments on earth. That is what every man can do now. He may have been a disgrace to humanity in life, but in death he can be the most splendid type of hero. So you see I have no fears, I have no regrets. I have only to thank God for such a wonderful opportunity to serve Him and the world. No,  p137 if I must make the supreme sacrifice I will do it gladly, and I will do it honorably and bravely as your son should. And the life that I lay down will be my preparation for the grander, finer life that I shall take up. I shall live! And I shall be nearer to you than I am now or ever have been. I shall be much happier. I firmly believe in the communication possible between a soul or spirit in this life and one in the other. I believe that this communion is finer than any on earth. You must not grieve. I shall be supremely happy — so must you — not that I have 'gone west,' but that I have bought such a wonderful life at such a small price, and paid for it so gladly.​b

But on the other hand— if I don't. And let's look at this side until it is necessary to change. I shall come back to you a stronger, more sincere Christian. One buys strength with experience. When one is daily so near the other life — three narrow escapes — one gets a self-conscious glimpse into it. Or, rather, you see yourself as you are. I have found it automatically makes me think and strive harder to attain my ideals. I have a great deal to do and not much time to do it in. I hate to break off abruptly, but I think we understand each other now, don't we? You are right in thinking of me and expecting me to be near if I 'go west.' I am convinced that you are right, and your thoughts and nearness shall be far more wonderful than you can possibly conceive now. I love you all so dearly and I am trying so hard to be worthy of your pride in me. Pray God that I may bring honor to you. I shall fight for that as I have never fought before.

Paris, March 19, 1918

Dear Henry:

I just received your letter telling me of Stuffy Spencer's death and telling me to be careful. Of course I'll be careful, Henry, but you all at home simply must realize this! We all feel it so strongly, and it's such a consolation that there is seems a pity you can't share it. We are all men with more or less red blood, and, thank God, we have ideals which are really worth while. You couldn't consider us men unless we believed in those ideas firmly enough to fight for them. They are all, in our lives that are really worth while in these trying times. To enumerate them would simply be to repeat what men, much more able than we, have said many times before. But I doubt whether you appreciate the real foundation from which they spring. It is simply  p138 this — a true and sacred love for all your friends and relatives at home. As far as I personally am concerned, it doesn't make much difference to me whether the world is safe for democracy or not — I think I could do without it — but I'm not here to fight for myself. I think I am right when I say that the majority of men over here, whether conscious of it or not, are 'selfless' or nearly so. They can't be anything else. So, then, we will defend those ideals — if necessary with our lives — for unless we did, we could never have any self-respect. If you can understand this much, you must be able to understand what follows: We must all give up this life sooner or later, but it is not granted to all to give it up so nobly, as to us. To me the finest miracle in life is to be able, in the last few moments on this earth, to revolutionize one's entire existence, to forget a life of failure and weakness, and to die a hero.

The Gates of Honor are open to us, those lucky ones of us who are over here. We need not fear that we are not prepared to die, for no matter what we have been, in the last glorious moments we can die, not as the ordinary man, but fighting for the ideals we hold so sacred. Is there a nobler death? So you see, Henry, old pal, we're lucky, every one of us. Don't think for a moment that we have any regret — even the joys of life are secondary to the true happiness one experiences in dying for the ideals he knows are right. Don't think we have any fears. What is there to fear in such a glorious death? And don't grieve, Henry. There's nothing to be sorry about. Hold up your head and say: 'I'm proud that I knew "Stuffy." He was my friend. He died for the splendid ideals he tried to attain all his life. He gave up his life for his friends."

It's such a consolation to me, and I think you all should share it. If 'Stuffy' had died before the war, I should have grieved, but we are at war — circumstances are topsy-turvy — I'm not sorry. I'm proud as can be that 'Stuffy' was once a dear friend of mine. I'm proud to have known him. You can't be proud of a man and sorry for him at the same time; therefore be proud of him. That's my philosophy and it works, too.

I'm going to the front to‑morrow. I don't think anything will happen to me. If it should be my lot to make the supreme sacrifice, you'll know that I did it gladly, and that I bought life's most marvelous reward, Honor, at a dirt cheap price, and that I was happy, ever so happy, that it was granted to me, unworthy  p139 as I am, to give up my life for my friends, who, fundamentally, are my ideals.

So there you are, Henry, and there's not any end to my preaching. I'm not looking for trouble, and, therefore, probably won't find any. 'Wally' Winter was shot down by Huns recently. He dove his machine and when he tried to pull out of the dive it was so shot to pieces that it collapsed. Those who saw the fight said the scrap 'Wally' put up was the most magnificent and inspiring thing they had ever seen in their lives.

Thayer's Notes:

a People would give white feathers, a sign of cowardice, to men who hadn't enlisted. Here the point is that our young Australian looked old enough to enlist.

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b Part of this letter will be quoted, in a very slightly different version, in Chapter 49.

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