C’est le finis de la Guerre
Eddie Rickenbacker – America’s “Ace of Aces” (The U.S. Centennial Of Flight Commission)
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Rickenbacker decided to apply for flight school with the U.S. Army Air Service. He was rejected because he was too old and did not have a college education. Instead, he joined the Army and because of his fame as a driver, he was assigned to the post of personal driver to General John Pershing. This post offered him opportunities to meet many of the most important officers of the war, including Billy Mitchell, combat air commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. While driving Mitchell, Rickenbacker was able to convince Mitchell to transfer him to flight school.
Rickenbacker received his wings after 17 days of training and was assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron based outside of Toule, France. After coaching by ace Raoul Lufbery, he had his first shared victory on April 29, 1918, and his first solo on May 7. Flying Nieuport 28 and Spad XIII aircraft, Rickenbacker scored 24 more victories before the war ended. His fighting technique was to fly close to the enemy aircraft, closer than others dared, and then fire his guns. Occasionally, his gun jammed and he escaped only due to good luck. He lost several planes and sometimes returned to base with a fuselage full of bullet holes and once with a mark on his helmet from a passing enemy bullet. But his luck always held up, even on September 25, when he single-handedly attacked a flight of 5 Fokker D.VIIs and 2 Halberstadt CL.IIs and downed one of each type of plane. For this action he received the Medal of Honor–the highest medal given by the U.S. military. When the Armistice was declared he was flying over the trenches, and down below in “No Man’s Land” he saw soldiers of both sides celebrating as “friends never to shoot at each other again.”
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, Fighting the Flying Circus, 1919. Ch 36 “Last Victory of the Great War” pg. 357
Major Kirby’s victory was quickly confirmed, later inquiries disclosing the wonderful fact that this first remarkable victory of his was in truth the last aeroplane shot down in the Great War! Our old 94 Squadron had won the first American victory over enemy aeroplanes when Alan Winslow and Douglas Campbell had dropped two biplane machines on the Toul aerodrome. 94 Squadron had been first to fly over the lines and had completed more hours flying at the front than any other American organization. It had won more victories than any other — and now, for the last word, it had the credit of bringing down the last enemy aeroplane of the war! One can imagine the celebration with which 94 Squadron would signalize the end of the war! What could Paris or any other community in the whole world offer in comparison?
And the celebration came even before we had lost the zest of our present gratitude and emotion.
The story of Major Kirby’s sensational victory can be told in a paragraph. He had become lost the night before and had landed on the first field he saw. Not realizing the importance of telephoning us of his safety, he took off early next morning to come home. This time he got lost in the fog which surrounded our district. When he again emerged into clear air he found he was over Etain, a small town just north of Verdun. And there flying almost alongside of his Spad was another aeroplane which a second glance informed him was an enemy Fokker! Both pilots were so surprised for a moment that they simply gazed at each other. The Fokker pilot recovered his senses first and began a dive towards earth. Major Kirby immediately piqued on his tail, followed him down to within fifty feet of the ground firing all the way. The Fokker crashed head on, and Kirby zoomed up just in time to avoid the same fate. With his usual modesty Major Kirby insisted he had scared the pilot to his death. Thus ended the War in the Air on the American front
While listening to these details that evening after mess, our spirits bubbling over with excitement and happiness, the telephone sounded and I stepped over and took it up, waving the room to silence. It was a message to bring my husky braves over across to the 95 Mess to celebrate the beginning of a new era. I demanded of the speaker, (it was Jack Mitchell, Captain of the 95th) what he was talking about.
” Peace has been declared! No more fighting! ” he shouted. ” C’est le finis de la Guerre.”
Without reply I dropped the phone and turned around and faced the pilots of 94 Squadron. Not a sound was heard, every eye was upon me but no one made a movement or drew a breath. It was one of those peculiar psychological moments when instinct tells every one that something big is impending.
In the midst of this uncanny silence a sudden BOOM-BOOM of our Arch battery outside was heard. And then pandemonium broke loose. Shouting like mad, tumbling over one another in their excitement the daring pilots of the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron sensing the truth darted into trunks and kitbags, drew out revolvers, German Lugers, that some of them had found or bought as souvenirs from French poilus, Very pistols and shooting tools of all descriptions and burst out of doors. There the sky over our old aerodrome and indeed in every direction of the compass was aglow and shivering with bursts of fire. Searchlights were madly cavorting across the heavens, paling to dimness the thousands of colored lights that shot up from every conceivable direction. Shrill yells pierced the darkness around us, punctuated with the fierce rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of a score of machine- guns which now added their noise to the clamor. Roars of laughter and hysterical whoopings came to us from the men’s quarters beside the hangars. Pistol shots were fired in salvos, filled and emptied again and again until the weapon became too hot to hold.
At the corner of our hangar I encountered a group of my pilots rolling out tanks of gasoline. Instead of attempting the impossible task of trying to stop them I helped them get it through the mud and struck the match myself and lighted it. A dancing ring of crazy lunatics joined hands and circled around the blazing pyre, similar howling and revolving circuses surrounding several other burning tanks of good United States gasoline that would never more carry fighting aeroplanes over enemy’s lines. The stars were shining brightly overhead and the day’s mist was gone. But at times even the stars were hidden by the thousands of rockets that darted up over our heads and exploded with their soft ‘plonks, releasing varicolored lights which floated softly through this epochal night until they withered away and died. Star shells, parachute flares, and streams of Very lights continued to light our way through an aerodrome seemingly thronged with madmen. Everybody was laughing—drunk with the outgushing of their long pent-up emotions.
” I’ve lived through the war! ” I heard one whirling Dervish of a pilot shouting to himself as he pirouetted alone in the center of a mud hole. Regardless of who heard the inmost secret of his soul, now that the war was over, he had retired off to one side to repeat this fact over and over to himself until he might make himself sure of its truth.
Another pilot, this one an Ace of 27 Squadron, grasped me securely by the arm and shouted almost incredulously, ” We won’t be shot at any more! “