Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 48

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!

[image ALT: a blank space]
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XLIX

Kenneth MacLeish's Path to Glory

Now we are names that once were young

And had our will of living weather,

Loved dark pines and the thin moon's feather,

Fought and endured our souls and flung

Our laughter to the ends of earth,

And challenged heaven with our spacious mirth.

Now we are names and men shall come

To drone their memorable words;

How we went out with shouting swords

And high, devoted hearts; the drum

Shall trouble us with stuttered roll,

And stony Latin laud the hero soul;

And generations unfulfilled,

The heirs of all we struggled for,

Shall here recall the mythic war,

And marvel how we stabbed and killed,

And name us savage, brave, austere, —

And none shall think how very young we were.

Archibald MacLeish, 'On a Memorial Stone'

With extraordinary fidelity, Kenneth MacLeish was able to perpetuate himself in his letters and by so doing to fashion his own memorial. This was the theme of an address by the Reverend Charles W. Gilkey at the service in Kenneth's honor in his home town, Glencoe, on February 2, 1919. It was said, in part:

You may remember that about this time we entered the war, the Atlantic Monthly published a collection of very remarkable letters written by young French soldiers at the front to their families and friends; letters that breathed not only an intense patriotism and utter devotion to their country, but a spiritual insight and religious faith that revealed the very soul of France. Shortly afterward I happened to be discussing these letters with the principal of one our leading preparatory schools, who  p351 during the last twenty years has come in close personal contact with thousands of American boys in their teens. He said he felt entirely confident that in the call to their country's service, and under the test of battle, our young men would show themselves as true patriots and as brave fighters as these Frenchmen; but he did not believe that they would be able to express their deeper feelings as these men had done, or that they would reveal any such capacity for spiritual insight and faith. It was a very natural judgment and reasonable expectation about our American youth as we knew them; but the event has shown that in the doubt of their spiritual quality he was wrong.

This is not to say that every American soldier has proved to be an idealist at heart, or has found it easy or even possible to utter his deepest motives and highest aspirations; but neither was this true of every young Frenchman. It is simply to say that among us, as among them, some rare spirits have proved in the furnace of actual warfare to be pure gold; and that this quality has appeared, not only in their conduct at the front, but no less authentically in their letters home. The mintage may have been as different as their national characteristics and types of mind, but the metal was the same. Some of these letters have already found, in magazine or memoir, the permanence they deserve. Many more will be cherished, in homes and communities and hearts all over our land, as worthy memorials and revealing utterances of a young manhood as noble in spirit as America or any other land ever reared.

Kenneth MacLeish is one of those rare spirits who will live on in the hearts of us who knew and loved him, not only because of his spotless life and gallant death, but because in his own letters he has revealed what manner of man he was, what spirit and purpose sustained him in his hazardous line of service, what faith upheld him as he looked steadily into the face of death.

In the course of this story of the First Yale Unit, many of these letters have been woven into the fabric of events as they occurred and as Kenneth found himself in this environment or that, at home and abroad. Fate so ordered it that he was not to write many more of them. From March until the first of June, you will recall, he was flying at the front with Squadron 213, R. A. F., and officially attached to  p352 the Northern Bombing Group. Receiving his promotion as lieutenant, junior grade, he went through the course at Clermont-Ferrand and then returned to Dunkirk, recommended for the billet of flight commander.​1 He now joined Squadron 218 operating near Calais. One more letter, of those written at this time, finds him in a mood quite different from the high spirits in which most of them are keyed.

Air Station, Dunkirk, July 10, 1918

Dear old Henry:

It's many a weary day since I've taken up my pen to converse with you and for that I'm truly sorry. I'm afraid you will have to class me as an embuscade and a slacker. I really am. I don't know whether I have told you what they are doing to me. Anyway, I'll repeat it if you can stand the tale of woe. This the third time I have been to the front since the first of April. In April I went out on Camels with the R. N. A. S. In May I went out on seaplanes with the U. S. Naval Aviation Forces. In June I was at an army school way down near Vichy learning to fly day‑bombing machines. In July I'm up here near Calais with Squadron 218, Royal Air Service, doing day‑bombing on an entirely different type of machine, and in August I'm going out again on another type with Navy pilots. This is the third organization I've flown with, and this type of machine is the twelfth different type I have trained on or flown.

 p353  All the hope or enthusiasm I ever had of helping out in this war has left me — left me in a 'don't care' mood, so blue and hopeless that I don't think I'll ever be the same. This constant discouragement has got under my skin so deeply that I'm absolutely sick, mentally and physically. I've lost eleven pounds and all the pep I ever had. Please, Henry, what shall I do? With the exception of those two glorious months when I was really doing something, I have been discouraged and misled the whole six months. That's enough to take the nerve out of any one, and it remains to be seen whether I have lost mine. I think I have, but I'll know for certain as soon as I cross the lines with this outfit, because there is plenty of activity in the air these days in this sector. Yesterday, out of ten machines, six were all shot up by 'Archie.' They were under fire forty-five minutes straight. That's at least twenty minutes too much for any one.

A terrible thing happened the other day at Dunkirk. It was terrible because it was so foolishly unnecessary, and so little to be expected. One of our seaplanes was down with a dud motor. The Doc and six enlisted men went out to pick it up. They evidently had a bad compass, because the next thing we knew a report came in that our launch was off Nieuport and going east! The lines are at Nieuport. A few months later we got a message to the effect that the launch was being shelled by the shore batteries and was then between Westende and Middlekerque. A few minutes later we heard that it had been hit and sunk. Then it was reported that a large man in khaki had come ashore in No Man's land, and with hands above his head walked into the Hun trenches. That was the Doc. He is a wonderful swimmer and so was another man who landed behind the Hun lines. The poorer swimmers allowed the favoring tide to carry them behind our lines, and two very poor swimmers never got in at all. There were only two life-belts, not a single gun of any description, and only one compass which evidently went wrong.

Wasn't that pathetic? As it was, they all had at least four miles to swim. Two swam eight miles, but they had a four-knot tide behind them. Old 'Doc' Stevens used to be my English prof up at Hotchkiss in 1910‑11. It was quite a coincidence that we should meet up here in this hole. He speaks perfect German and took his degree in medicine at a German university,  p354 so unless he still has his classroom belligerence he will be all right.

Did I tell you that they made me a lieutenant (junior grade) and that soon I'm to be a lieutenant (senior grade) in command of the first day‑bombing squadron sent out by the Navy? I suppose I ought to be happy. As a matter of fact, I'm more than ever disappointed, because it means I won't be allowed to fly — and that will kill me.

In August, Lieutenant MacLeish was sent to Pauillac to test the day‑bombing machines equipped with Liberty motors. On the 28th, he wrote his father from Paris:

I wish I could tell you how very proud I am to be your son these days. Your spirit is perfectly wonderful and it is the strongest kind of an incentive to keep us going over here. Every chance that I get to help in this mess I take with the knowledge that I am fighting not only for the principles that I think are right, but for you, and in an attempt to be worthy of you and your expectations of me.

Just at present I am stationed here in Paris, with nothing very much to keep me busy. I expect to be sent to England in the near future on a job which embraces a whole new set of powers. I have always been fond of machines and engines, and they are picking on me for all the dirty work in connection with the arming of machines and bombs as well as the installation of the far‑famed Liberty motor. I know little or nothing, except that it has lots of power and sounds good. I tested out an American-built machine with a Liberty motor while I was down at Pauillac, and I was surely pleased with it. I did all kinds of stunts with it and the plane and engine both behaved admirably. I only wish you could catch the people who are ruining the engines before they reach us and after they leave the factory. Even whole bolts are taken out of the engine, and in one instance we found that the bushings had been taken out of the bearing, so that the crank-shaft would have broken if we had tried to run it in that condition.

I expect to fly up to Calais in a few days, but I don't know when I will get the chance. I am living in a perfect horror of one thing: Since they gave me my last raise in rank, they have not seemed to favor the idea of letting me go up to the front any  p355 more. They say I am not to risk getting hurt, as they want me for a desk job. Isn't that about enough to drive a man to drink? They haven't given me much chance to show whether I can take care of myself or not. If I have to sit through the rest of this war without ever doing any more fighting, it will simply break my heart. I came over here to fight, and that's what I want to do, because I can never make myself feel that I am helping to win the war while I am sitting behind a desk.

The last raise in rank to which he refers was his full lieutenancy for which he was commissioned in August. He was sent to Eastleigh in September where he was made First Flight Officer. Here it was his duty to receive, examine, and, when necessary, repair the new DH.‑4s sent from the United States and fly them across to Dunkirk. During the month and more that Kenneth spent at Eastleigh, his one supreme desire was to get back to the front and have a part in the conflict. Twice he was offered the position of squadron commander, first of night bombers, later of day bombers. This was a high honor and a safe job, but he replied that if he were to be given a choice in the matter he would decline, because a squadron commander was not allowed to fly, and he felt that his chance for service lay in single-seater work, and his heart was set on fighting over the lines. However, he had ceased to chafe and fret and could find pleasure in the practical, constructive aspects of his work at Eastleigh. His normal humor restored, he wrote, on September 8th:

Eastleigh, England, September 8

Well, my guess was correct — here I am in England and at the very station I thought I was being sent to. It is a veritable heaven for me, under the circumstances, because as long as I can't go to the front for a while, the only thing that could even begin to take its place is this job, where I can fool around in a machine shop with engines and planes; and the wonderful part about it is that I have absolute authority to do just as I please, for they have honored me with the job of final acceptance and  p356 test officer, and that is quite a job. I am responsible for the machines that leave here for the front, and if the slightest thing goes wrong with them, I pay the penalty. With so much responsibility there is quite a bit of freedom, of course, and that is where the fun comes in. If I don't like the design of a machine, I can redesign it, if it gets as bad as that. So you see, it is pretty fine putting my pet little ideas about aeroplanes into practice. I'm so sure that we can improve on the type we have here and I'm waiting with bated breath for the day when the first one is ready to try out. I figure that by refining it in some ways, strengthening it in others, and stream-lining certain parts, I can get at least five miles per hour more speed, and carry twenty or thirty pounds more, and still have it stronger than it was to begin with. It should be so, because on paper it shows twice as much as that, but we shall see when the time comes.

And then came the glorious news that he was to be relieved of this safe berth, Dave Ingalls reluctantly swapping places with him. Back to his old British squadron, 213! The last letter that Kenneth ever wrote was sent to Miss Guthrie in Paris, October 10th, and told her how happy he felt at receiving these orders.

October 10, 1918

Dear Aunt Emma:

So Dave has told you the news? Well, isn't it wonderful? And I have an absolutely clear conscience about the whole thing, because it all happened without a word from me. I flew a new bus over to one of the squadrons, and it happened that the captain saw me, and asked me where I was going. I told him that I was on my way back, and he said 'No, you're not going back. You are going out to Squadron 213 again.' I nearly fell on his neck and kissed him. If I were not scared that he would knock me down, I would have too.

Hasn't Dave Ingalls done wonderfully? He has been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross, and he got four Huns, to say nothing of a balloon or two, and he did some marvelous work at low altitudes strafing the Hun trenches and their transports. I was tickled to death at the chance of seeing and being with him, and I hate to leave so soon, but when you can do your duty and get as much as fun out of it as I shall be able  p357 to get up at the front, why, nothing should keep you back, should it? I feel as fit as a fiddle these days. Gee! I hope I get under way soon.

At the various stations to which he had been shifted about, Kenneth MacLeish made an impression. He was remembered as a man who stood out among the others. 'Bob' Lovett testified to this.

Of all the members of the Unit individually, I believe I heard more favorable reports on Ken MacLeish, particularly after the reports from the English schools came in. In them his standing was always remarkably high, and I think Captain Cone used this as an excellent argument in favor of promoting Ken in time to place him in command of one of the proposed day squadrons. Furthermore, Ken's greatest contribution to the service was his outline of training for single-seaters in gunnery and acrobatics. I am convinced that a layman, reading Ken's description of the proper way to loop, would find no great difficulty in doing so.

In a letter which Lovett wrote to Archie MacLeish, soon after Kenneth's death, is to be found an account of the attempt to make him a squadron commander against his will.

October 26, 1919

Dear Arch:

I have spent the day looking over the box of papers, maps, orders, and so on, that arrived only a few days ago, and it seems evident that the letters I spoke of were lost with the baggage at St. Nazaire when the storehouse was broken into and looted. One good has come from the papers on hand, and that is the refreshing of my memory as to small and important details, and therefore I am go to give you as accurately as possible the account of Ken's correspondence regarding the night bombing squadron, because I think that for sheer singleness of purpose, for real idealism and for rare spirit, nothing I have ever heard of can equal it. Furthermore, I want Kenney's mother to know about an act which, for bravery of the sternest kind, cannot be equalled; and, again, it will explain better than anything else Ken's attitude toward the war and toward his friends.

The night bombing squadrons, known as the 'Night Wing,  p358 Northern Bombing Group,' were planned long in advance of the possibility of getting equipment, material, or personnel, and it was not until July 1918, that they first took the field at St. Inglevert. This first squadron was equipped with makeshift machines — Capronis, to tide over until our Handley-Pages arrived, and it started operations August 15, 1918, with a raid on Ostend, in which the Quai des Pacque-boatsº was hit. From the time we were attached to 5th Group, 81st Wing, R. A. F., and our personnel manned their machines, since their men were practically used up in the March offensive. Night bombers were in the greatest demand and the whole air offensives in the naval area were dependent upon but three squadrons — 214 R. A. F., 238 R. A. F. (equipped with one‑motor busses and worthless, since they carried only two 112 lb. bombs) and U. S. N. A. F. No. 1 acting with No. 214, the Handley-Pages. Accordingly our program was increased and every effort was made to get Handley-Pages from England to last us until October, when ours were due. This was done, and delivery was expected in the latter part of September. It became necessary therefore to get our next squadrons, Nos. 2, 3, and 4, in the field. At this time I was Squadron Commander of U. S. N. A. F. No. 1 and Acting Wing Commander.

The next question was one of commanding officers, these being the making of a squadron or its failure as an efficient fighting unit of people itching to fly. Well, on September 10th I obtained permission from the Group Commander to appoint two commanding officers of the embryo squadrons and chose 'Ken' as the best fitted for the post. Though not a night bomber, he was an experienced fighter and knew a squadron from the ground up. The request for 'Ken' was 'returned approved,' and the only thing remaining to do was to request orders detaching him from Eastleigh to assume command of U. S. N. A. F. No. 2.

The position of Squadron Commander is one of great authority, being held in the R. A. F. by majors only. He has charge of 386 men, 42 officers, 10 Handley-Pages, and absolute say as to whether conditions are practicable for flying or not. The post, therefore, is one of authority and distinction, and has but one drawback — the Squadron Commanding Officer is not allowed to fly over the lines on the theory that 'any fool can do that,' and of being too valuable to lose. There is a great deal of irony in that, as I look at it now.

Before requesting orders for 'Ken,' it occurred to me that I  p359 ought to write him personally and get his consent to the plan, because I wanted him to come in whole-heartedly or not at all. On the next day I sent a letter to 'Ken' at Eastleigh, where he was acting as chief pilot and tester after his spell at the front, and put the whole thing up to him in all its gaudy trappings. By return dispatch bearer I received his first answer, which I will not attempt to quote verbatim, but will paraphrase as best I can. He didn't waste many words in getting to the point. He said that he was 'tickled stiff' at the proof of trust in him the Group Commander had shown, and that he would, of course, come over and do the best he could, but 'honest, Bob, it won't fit me.' He said that he appreciated the honor and all that sort of thing, and that removal from flying duty looked pretty good when he thought of the end of the war. But — unless I asked it as a very special favor, he'd rather not take it — he wanted to fight, couldn't stand not being in it every minute, would curl up and blow away if they kept him behind the lines, and that a single-seater was his idea of a holiday and all he wanted, and 'for the love of Pete get me out of this hole and back to 213' (the R. A. F. Camel Squadron).

Well, I thought a lot about that letter and late at night I wrote a signal to the commanding officer at Eastleigh for 'Ken,' saying that the Skipper would give him a day squadron if he'd rather have it. I fairly crammed the squadron down his throat, when any other man in the whole service would have sold his last package of chocolate to win the job. I began to think he was crazy from overwork or English air or something wet and foggy as Eastleigh was. Then the answer came back and I saw the whole thing. This note was shorter than the other; only a few lines, but I'll never forget them. It began, 'Bob — There's no use trying to make a commanding officer out of me if I can't fight and fly all I want and when I want.' Then he repeated what he'd said. I'm not sure it wasn't put even better than before, but the end was the best. He said, 'Some people were born to paint, some to write, some to lead, and to just plain go out and do‑it‑all-by‑yourself,' and all he wanted was 'a good Camel, beaucoup ammunition, plenty of gas, and so forth,' (the latter I interpreted as meaning Huns) and finally to thank the Skipper, if I wanted to, for him and ask him for the love of Mike to get him back out of that hole, so he could have a chance to do the job he was made for.

 p360  So that ended the search for a commanding officer, and we started looking around for someone to fill in until the pilots of experience could be spared. It was not until some weeks later that 'Ken' came over and took dinner with me, the day after his arrival from Eastleigh. He was the most elated person nervously I'd ever seen until 'Di' was reported missing; and I thanked my stars then I wasn't a Hun within ten miles of him in that mood. I believe he was the best we had in the line of a pilot, and I don't want a finer pal than a man who can give up everything for his ideal of service and honor.

This has taken up a lot more space than I would have judged, and is still incomplete in lots of ways; but I hope it will serve to give some idea of 'Ken's' outlook on things and his utter disregard of his own advancement in contrast to so many. And again, it may show you something that will give you a hint of one of the reasons we all loved him so — he was an honest-to‑goodness man.


Bob Lovett

On October 13th, Kenneth flew his last new machine over from Eastleigh to Dunkirk and spent the night with his friends of the Northern Bombing Group, overjoyed to be with them once more and eagerly anticipating active service in the great drive which was expected to force the German armies out of Flanders. 'Di' Gates had made his last flight nine days earlier than this and no definite word had been received concerning his fate, whether he was dead or a prisoner. Kenneth had added as a postscript to one of his letters from Eastleigh, on October 10th:

Did Dave tell you that 'Di' Gates, our old pal, the C. O. of Dunkirk, has 'gone west'? He was shot down over Roulers. I miss him terribly.

On the morning of the 14th, Kenneth went out on an early patrol with a flight from his beloved Squadron 213. In the late afternoon he joined another patrol from which he never returned. Just how he met his end and whither he had vanished was for a long time curtained in mystery.

 p361  It was merely known that he had made a very gallant finish against great odds and had shot down at least one enemy plane before his own was crippled and brought down. There were eight machines in the British patrol, led by Captain Green as flight commander. The weather was so cloudy that the fliers became separated into two groups and lost sight of each other. Three of them kept together in one formation, Captain Green, Lieutenant Allen, also an Englishman, and Lieutenant Kenneth MacLeish.

These observed two German planes flying fairly low and promptly attacked. MacLeish and Allen maneuvered adroitly and finished the affair without help. They got on the tails of the enemy and shot them down one after the other. The first was seen to go reeling down ablaze. The second dropped, either disabled or with a dead pilot in it. There is no reason to doubt that Kenneth bagged one of them and assisted in destroying the other.

It is conjectured that these two German planes were decoys. No sooner were they disposed of than eight more planes swooped out of the screening clouds overhead. The fight was brief, swift, and savage. Fairly smothered by numbers, MacLeish and Allen made their last stand. Flight Commander Green escaped to tell the news, but his facts were meager. His two companion pilots had been shot down. This was about all he could say. Nobody knew where they fell and whether they were alive or dead. They were missing. Lieutenant Allen's machine had been seen to go down in flames. Apparently there had not been even a final glimpse of MacLeish.

It may be said, in passing, that not a trace of the body of Lieutenant Allen or his machine was ever found. As M. Henri Lavedan wrote of Guynemer, 'Where has he gone? By what wings did he thus manage to glide into immortality? Nobody knows; nothing is known. He ascended and never came back, that is all.'

 p362  Of course there was the hopeful possibility that Kenneth might have survived to be taken prisoner and carried along with the Germans in their retreat. This was sustained by the fact that no tidings of him could be discovered among the Belgian people where he had fallen from the sky. The Red Cross took an active hand in the investigation and endeavored to find some clew at Berne as the clearing house for information concerning prisoners of war. This was fruitless.

The Armistice was signed. The American forces were quitting their various stations or getting ready to move homeward. The weeks passed by into the new year and still there came no hint or whisper of the fate of Kenneth MacLeish. In behalf of the Red Cross, Foster Rockwell was exploding every possible source of inquiry. It was late in January 1919 before the mystery was solved, more than three months after the death of Kenneth. The body of the lost aviator and his wrecked machine had been discovered by a Belgian landed proprietor in one of his fields on the day after Christmas where they had lain for more than two months. That they were not found sooner was explained by the flooded condition of the region. This Belgian, M. Rouse, had written a letter to the English authorities and in this manner the news was conveyed to Squadron 213, R. A. F. A party of its officers, Captain Mackay, Captain Spelling (the Adjutant), Lieutenant Turner, and Captain Stevenson, went to the place, several miles from the Belgian town of Leffinghe,º and identified the remains of Lieutenant Kenneth MacLeish and the fragments of the machine which he had flown.

For some inexplicable reason, the letter from the good-hearted M. Rouse, the first intelligence received, was not at once forwarded to Captain Hanrahan's headquarters of the Northern Bombing Group Squadron by a messenger but followed the slow procedure of official correspondence and  p363 was a month on the way. It was the British method of handling documents. The circumstances are explained in detail by Captain Hanrahan in a letter to Bruce MacLeish, dated January 31st:

You have undoubtedly been informed by now of the fact that your brother's body was found and buried. On receipt of the information I immediately dispatched an officer to the place, had a photograph taken of his grave, and had inquiries made in regard to the finding of your brother's body.

The grave is very well located on this plot of land, and I have since been informed that the owner of the land had presented the plot on which the grave is situated to your mother, in case she desires to allow the body to remain in its present location.

As to its removal elsewhere, I have taken no steps in regard to that, for the very good reason that there are stringent regulations, both in Belgium and in France, in regard to this matter. However, I would be unable to handle this except through the Force Commander in London, and not knowing your desires, I have taken no steps thus far.

One of your brother's former classmates, Lieutenant John C. Menzies, is installing to‑day a small headstone, properly marked, which we obtained in Calais. I can assure you that everything that can possibly be done is being done, as we were all very fond of your brother. He was, without exception, the most popular man in our force and his loss was deeply felt by us all.

I had not given up all hope of his being a prisoner until lately, when every possible avenue of search had been opened with no result. The country in which your brother's body was found is extremely bad. It is covered far and wide with bush camouflage. Its vicinity had been inundated for a large period of time. The roads were impassable until very recently.

The body was buried in the vicinity of where it was found, which was near the village of Schoore, near a small farmhouse, just off the road between Schoore and Leke. I had been informed by the Commanding Officer of 213 Squadron that your brother was lost in the vicinity of Leffinghe, but this proved to be an error, the spot being about ten kilometers southwest of Leffinghe.

He was found fully dressed, with his gloves and helmet still on, and as far as we were able to learn from the man who found  p364 him, there was no mark on his body to indicate that he had been shot. His helmet was strapped under his chin, and it would seem that he had fallen from his plane or had been thrown out.

The country at the time was of course in the hands of the enemy, and although he fell behind the enemy lines, he was probably not seen, due to the condition of the land in the vicinity. No trace whatsoever can be found of his plane, although we are still searching for it, but it is a common thing for the enemy in this part of the country to remove all traces of planes which have fallen back of their lines. He was in a very bad fight at the time, and it would appear that he was shot down and thrown out of his plane.

I have written to the man who found the body and buried it, thanking him for his kindness and expressing my deep appreciation of his services, and I regret as much as you do the long interval that has elapsed before we were informed of the finding of the body. But being familiar with the poor service in this part of the world, it is not surprising that the letter written by this person shortly after he and his friends found your brother did not arrive at my office until practically one month later. While I hesitate to place any blame for this on the English authorities to whom the letter was evidently sent, it appears that their red tape was responsible for the delay, as a motorcycle could have carried this message to me in a few hours, as they are all familiar with the location of my headquarters.

As soon as Lieutenant Menzies returns (he is now placing a stone on your brother's grave) I will have him write out all the details of the information he received from the Belgians and send them on to you. He is to go back to the United States very shortly and says he will make it a point to see you. We one and all want to express to your parents our deepest sympathies in the loss of our gallant comrade who was one of the finest pilots that ever flew over the north country, and he was thoroughly unhappy over his inactivity over a long period. Not having any day squadron, I made special use of your brother, because of his all‑round ability, in other duties in this organization, but he kept after me, telling me that he hoped he would be given a chance to do further work over the lines. I was specially requested to send him with 213 Squadron, R. A. F., as had been with them before. He was exceedingly happy at the idea of going back with 213 and getting a chance at the Hun. Misfortune overtook him too soon,  p365 or he would have given an account of himself second to none in this sector, I am sure.

This is the report of a commanding officer, in words plain and unadorned but pervaded by sincere feeling. He tells how Kenneth was found, but it remained for the poetic art of Archibald MacLeish to beautify the episode and to fructify it with the spirit of martial sacrifice and tender devotion.

A Belgian Letter

Madame, it is my duty to make known

The brave death of a soldier. I had gone

Today, the Christmas morrow, to my farm

Hard by the town of Bruges, to see what harm

This wind of war had made among my walls

And in my garden, where the blackbird calls

First always in the spring. Madame, I went

With two old friends, an architect of Ghent

And one that had a factory of cloth

At Bruges before the war, true Belgians both

And truer friends to me: they'd not endure

That I should go alone. 'You're never sure,'

They said, 'what thing the Boche has left behind,'

And so they came. The road was hard to find

Even for me that sixty years or more

Have trudged each market day from Bruges to Schoore,

And all the farm was ruin, and a pool

Of horrid water — not a cart or tool

Nor any wall upstanding, save the stack

That shivered in the wind and warned us back.

In all that place there was no living thing

Save that the sudden gusts made stir and ring

Within the stark door frame the summons bell,

And on the hearth the water dripped and fell.

We went about the house to where the barn

Had fallen inward and the earth was torn

With shreds of iron; there both the stave

Of broken wood we found — you must be brave,

Madame — we found the body of a man,

An officer, and on his breast the span

Of golden eagle wings. There was a case

 p366  With papers and your name, and then the place,

The other side of the world, whence he had come,

And pictures that we thought must be his home.

Madame, we made a casket out of boards

And buried him — the merchant has the words

In Flemish, of the service for the dead,

For all his sons were killed, and these he said,

And then we made a grave above the foss

Within the garden wall, and set a cross

Marked with his name, and when the spring comes North

To heal the land with flowers, and the earth

Is clean again of the war, it will be good

To lie there by the wall, and feel the blood

Of rose and currant stirring in the loam,

And know that in the earth he has come home

Whatever home he sought; and where, one time,

Within his brain old questionings did climb,

Now will th' unwondering roots of summer's rose

Thrust, — and the beauty of the world unclose.

Meanwhile Trubee Davison had so far recovered his health that he was able to visit England and France. In the preface of this history Admiral Sims mentions him as 'limping into my office in London, badly crippled but determined to locate the last resting-place of one of his Unit who had been killed in France.' It was at Trubee's request that Foster Rockwell inserted the following advertisement in the leading newspapers of England and Scotland:

Missing since Oct. 14,

Lieutenant Kenneth MacLeish

American Naval Flying Officer with 213th Aero Squadron, R. A. F. Forced down near Leffinghe, Belgium. Subsequently natives reported American Naval Officer taken prisoner in that vicinity. Will any one having information concerning the whereabouts or fate of Lieut. MacLeish, or information concerning the incident please communicate with Rockwell, American Red Cross, London.

The advertisement was repeated daily during the first week of February. Foster Rockwell and Trubee Davison,  p367 who was at Cannes, did not know that Captain Hanrahan had cabled several days earlier the news of the discovery of Kenneth's body. It was a coincidence that the advertisement should have caught the eyes of Captain A. J. Spelling, Adjutant of Squadron 213, who had been one of the identification party to make the trip to Schoore. From Cranbrook Road, Ilford, Essex, he sent the following reply:

With reference to the paragraph in last Saturday's Times, asking for information about Lt. MacLeish, Captain A. J. Spelling of above address can furnish all particulars and will call on 'Rockwell' at a given address. Please acknowledge.

In this curious manner the threads of the story were twisting together after being lost for so long a time. Rockwell interviewed Captain Spelling immediately and obtained from him a few details other than those already given. These were embodied in a report sent to Trubee at Cannes. About all that has not been told was in this paragraph:

From the condition of the machine, which was very badly riddled with machine‑gun bullets, 'Kenney' came out of control and smashed. He evidently was able to crawl from his plane, and his body was found some two hundred yards away in a very marshy country. It was impossible to ascertain whether or not he had been shot, and the supposition of Captain Stevenson, the surgeon of the R. A. F., is that he got out of his machine, was able to move a little way and then died, of wounds or exposure.

During the summer at Huntington, when the First Yale Unit and the Girls' Radio Class had been together, between Kenneth MacLeish and Miss Priscilla Murdock there had grown to be something more precious than friendship. Their engagement was formally announced on August 22, 1918, while Kenneth was on foreign service. It was Trubee's first thought, therefore, to forward the information received from Foster Rockwell. This he did in  p368 a cable message addressed to Mr. Harvey Murdock on February 12th:

Commanding officer 213 Aero Squadron R. A. F. advises 'Lieut. Kenneth MacLeish was shot down on the afternoon October 14th, 1918, the day preceding evacuation of Belgian coast. His body was found by a Belgian late in December and identified by officers of this squadron on December 27th. Owing to devastated condition of country very difficult to give accurate map reference of position of grave. Papers and money found on body forwarded by registered letter January 22nd to officer commanding U. S. Naval Headquarters.' Will locate grave and interview the Belgian and officers who identified body. Alice, Frances, Father, and Mother and myself cannot express to you how deeply we feel for Priscilla. Before leaving the States we marveled at her extraordinary force of character during her anxiety and we know that in this crisis she will be the same. We likewise appreciate that no amount of courage can take away the great sorrow which has come to her. We do not have to express to her our own feelings regarding 'Kenney' for she knows them well. She likewise knows that she is always in our thoughts and prayers. As we do not know address of Archie MacLeish or his family, please forward this cable to them sending our deepest sympathy. We feel for them as we did for Priscilla. It is futile to try to express one's feelings at this time, but at least you all who are suffering know that the Davison family is with you. If there is anything we can possibly do, cable Morgan, Harjes, Paris.

Fortunately Norman MacLeish, one of Kenneth's brothers was in France, still in the service, and as soon as possible he obtained a furlough. A letter from him to his sister describes this pilgrimage to the Belgian farm.

Dearest Ishbel:

I got back to Paris yesterday from a visit to Kenney's grave. By the merest breaking of good luck, I got there on Memorial Day and what decorating I was able to give the grave seemed exceptionally appropriate. I will also say that I believe I was able to give Kenney a better floral tribute than most A. E. F. graves got on that day. A fund was raised for the purpose of decorating American graves, to which I contributed in Kenney's  p369 memory. But I know it was unlikely that they would find his grave, which is off by itself. However, luck was with us and I got there and was able myself to do more for his individual grave than a general fund could do for a large number of graves. I can't tell you how happy it made me feel to be there on May 30th.

I found a friend of mine in Brussels, an officer I had met at Tours. He accompanied me down to Bruges and when I secured the use of a Red Cross Ford he came along with me all the way. We called at the Chateau de la Waere, near Ghiselles, where M. Rouse lives, but he wasn't there. However, Madame, who is a very beautiful and charming lady, received me and loaned me a domestique to show us the way. We went down the road to what was once the village of Schoore. There we met M. Rouse, who is Conseilleur Provincial, and was there engaged, with some other elders of Flandre Occidental, in reconstruction work. He came along with us to the farm where Kenney rests, about one kilometer from Schoore.

There I saw the base of a headstone, and the stone leaning on it, rising out of the luxuriant grass. We got out of the car and went over to the grave. M. Rouse and Lieutenant Greathouse fell back silently. We two officers saluted and M. Rouse took off his hat. Then I laid the flowers on the grave. No one said anything, and the brisk summer breeze made waves in the long grass. The sun was shining, and the land of desolation looked as cheerful as possible. It was a very simple little ceremony, entirely impromptu and without any arrangements. We all acted instinctively, and I think for that reason it was rather beautiful. I was quite moved, as you can imagine, and during it all I couldn't help but feel that our dear gallant brother wasn't so awfully far away.

M. Rouse showed me where he found Kenney's body. I think you saw on the map I sent you. Well, the map wasn't quite accurate. The body was not lying on a pile of débris, but in the grass nearby — lying face upwards, the right arm extended horizontally, and the left arm thrown carelessly across the body. As you know, his gloves were still on, the coat buttoned, the helmet on, and everything in the pockets untouched. The plane was found about two hundred yards away. M. Rouse says he is sure Kenney was dead when his body hit the ground. The position in which it was found was that which a lifeless body  p370 would take in falling. Had he been conscious, he would have at least tried to remove his gloves and unbutton his coat and remove his helmet. There were no signs of that. Had he suffered, his body would have been drawn up. It wasn't. It was stretched out in a natural position. The cause of his death we will never know, but I feel certain of this — that he was killed in the machine and fell out of it when still high up.

I told M. Rouse what we wanted done to the grave and he assured me it would be done. He will have a cement base made for the stone and put a grille about the grave. The old former who lives on the farm is back already, living in the 'caves' and pottering about the débris, cleaning it up as fast as he can. He is very much interested in the grave — in fact, very fond of it, for it represents an outlet for his feelings of gratitude toward the United States. M. Rouse said that he (the farmer) had asked his permission to make a nice little Flemish garden over and around the spot, as soon as anything can be done down there. Of course we will have to wait a little, because hauling just now is difficult. The roads are still full of shell holes, and the Boche didn't leave many horses and carts behind him.

I tried to thank M. Rouse for his trouble and he stopped me, saying that this was the only thing he had been able to do for the United States and that it was a very real pleasure.

I have changed my mind entirely about Kenney's resting in Belgium. My four days in that gallant, lovable little country were enough to convince me. Everywhere I went I was received with the most extreme friendliness. I, as an American, was something to shower love and gratitude upon. One old Brugesois said to me, 'You of America have reached the summit of civilization. That is so because you are so noble and gallant and because you champion the cause of smaller nations. The rest of us must try to be like you. Belgium will never forget what you have done for her.'

M. Rouse, who owns six farms, all of which are destroyed, took off his cap and showed me his white-gray hairs. 'before the war, in 1914, that was black,' he said. 'And you will never know the extent of the good you did us. You saved our lives. The Boches were trying to exterminate us by starvation, but you foiled them. When you sent us food they didn't dare withhold it, but they were very mad at you.

Belgium, to the last person, is trying to express its love for us.  p371 So I can't think of a better place for Kenney to rest — on the soil for which he gave his 'today,' and resting amidst those who will keep his memory alive with the intensest love you ever heard of. I can imagine for years to come mothers and grandmothers bringing their little one to the grave of 'L'Aviateur Américain' who died that they again have life and happiness. These country folk lead simple lives and things like that stand out in strong contrast. At all events, Kenney won't be forgotten or lost there, and nowhere could he receive more loving care.

As it happened for Curtis Read, so the mortal tenement of Kenneth MacLeish was removed to an American military cemetery in accordance with the general policy of the Government at Washington. He sleeps among the patriot dead of his own flag and country in the ground called Flanders Field near Brussels.​a

On February 2, 1919, the Sunday following the receipt of the news at home that his body had been found, a simple memorial service was held in the church in Glencoe, the Illinois village where Kenneth had been known and loved all his life. Flowers lavishly offered spoke their own language. Young men who had been in training with Kenneth and had served with him abroad came to act as ushers. The assemblage sang the hymns that had been dear and familiar to Kenneth. The whole service was vibrant and uplifted with the spirit of the boy who had written home to his mother:

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 . . . 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 gladly.​b

At the service, the Reverend Charles W. Gilkey prefaced his talk by the reading of a poem written by Archibald MacLeish:

 p372  To K. MacL.

(Brought down above Schoore, Belgium, October 14th, 1918)

O Rosa Mundi, O unearthly rose,

That perishes, that dies, that surely dies,

That perishes and goes

Into the dust again,

Into the lifting trees, the blowing skies,

The terrible dumb tides of rippled grass,

Or drifting wide doth pass

Down to the sea,

And downward to the old forgetful sea;

O flesh that dies,

Something there is of thee

More than the red idea, the lingered breath,

That bears no faith nor vassalage to death

Nor suffers any change;

Some imprint of the vanished form and fire,

Form that the hands desire,

Color the eyes adore,

Color and shape,

That lives, that lives, that does endure; not strange,

Not utterly dissolved, not less nor more,

Nor empty imaging, —

Some coin of Beauty's buried gold to escape

Earth and the groping rootage of the Spring.

O Death, not all, not all his beauty's strength,

His dark crowned head,

His body's shining length

Of subtle gracefulness, is shattered, dead,

Dead and forever lost.

I see him lie, a naked swimmer tos't

High on the Pallid sands,

With all the tawny summer crowning him,

His broad brown hands

Cupped to the flooding sun; thigh, shoulder, throat,

A perfect rhythm, a fierce suspended note

Of life intensely living, gay, —

I know again that day.

Ah, Pitiful! He had no splendid dream,

No song, no vision's spark,

To lead him, blind, with fitful tossing gleam

 p373  Beyond your hour of dark;

He had no dream

Who was himself a music and a flame,

Who sought not glory, but himself became

The glory of his victories,

Who died

Clean washed in anger and the fighter's pride,

Unearthed of ease,

And down those burning skies

Fell like a shattered star.

O Rosa Mundi — in the rose that ides

Something there is, not mystical and fear,

But dear, familiar, sure,

As in a dream the hazy voices are,

Something that lives, that lives, that lives, that does endure.

On December 14, 1919, the following telegram from the Secretary of the Navy was received by Mrs. Andrew MacLeish:

Have assigned nam MacLeish to Destroyer No. 220 now building at Philadelphia, in honor of your son, Lieutenant K. MacLeish, U. S. N. R. F. Will you act as sponsor or designate sponsor for this vessel? Launching will take place at Philadelphia, Dec. 18.

In accordance with this invitation, Kenneth's sister Ishbel, a senior at Vassar College, went to Philadelphia and in her brother's name christened the new destroyer. A few days previously the word had come that Kenneth had been posthumously awarded the Navy Cross 'for distinguished service and extraordinary heroism.'

His own church in Glencoe was then planning to erect a spacious and beautiful Community House for its religious and social activities. It was decided to make the central feature of this building a noble assembly room which should be known as Kenneth MacLeish Hall. In it is a speaking likeness of him done in bronze, underneath which is preserved the wooden cross that marked and sanctified his first burial place in Belgium.

The Author's Note:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

Lieutenant Kenneth MacLeish

Period from 4 September to 21 September, 1918:

A very efficient, zealous and capable officer. A fine example of what the Reserve Force gives us.

G. de C. Chevalier, Lt. U. S. N.

Period from 30 July to 21 August, 1918:

I believe this officer to be exceptionally efficient and valuable to the service.

Benj. Briscoe, Lt. Cdr. U. S. N. R. F.

My opinion of this officer is that he is one of the highest types that I have had any experience with — one who, by his manner, appearance and ability, is a real credit to the service.

S. L. H. Hazard, Lt. Comdr., U. S. N.

Period from 1 April to 5 July, 1918:

The officer is known to be one of the most experienced and efficient pilots of our force.

D. C. Hanrahan, Commander, U. S. N.

Thayer's Notes:

a His gravesite can be seen on this page at Find-a‑Grave.

[decorative delimiter]

b The text is very slightly different from that given in context in Chapter 36.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 11 Sep 13