Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Many things have happened

‘Well, here I am aboard ship and three days out of New York, waiting for a convoy at Halifax. This seems to be a fitting place to start a diary. I am leaving my continent as well as my country and am going forth in search of adventure, which I hope to find in Italy, for that is where we are headed.’ This is the first entry, dating from 100 years ago today, in a diary written by a young aviator on his way to serve with the British in the First World War; one of the last entries starts with the words ‘many things have happened’ and includes a roll call of the dead. The aviator would soon be killed in action, and some years later his diary would be published as War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator. Although the diary’s actual author was identified in later editions as John MacGavock Grider, no explanation was given as to the anomaly of the diary continuing until August 1918, Grider having died in June. However, a new edition of War Birds explains that, in fact, the text is not one person’s diary but a construction created from several aviators’ diaries, letters and the like.

Grider was born in Mississippi County in 1892, and worked on his father’s farm. In 1909, he married Marguerite Samuels, and they had two sons, but divorced in 1916. The following year, he traveled to Chicago to enlist as a cadet in the aviation section of the US Army Signal Corps. The US still had no air service, and so young aviators, like Girder, were sent to serve with the British. Initially stationed in Oxford, he and his friend Elliot White Springs were assigned to No. 85 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, and were soon flying missions over France. Grider had only been in France a month when his plane disappeared. Subsequently, a German pilot confirmed his plane had been shot down on 18 June. For more on Grider see the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture; and for more on Springs see The Shrine of Dreams.

Some years later, in 1926, Springs privately published a limited edition of a book he called War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator (freely available to read at Internet Archive). The book was then serialised in a magazine called Liberty, and became a best seller with further mass produced editions. In these, Springs made reference to his friend Grider as being the author of the diary, and that Grider had wanted his memoirs published. (However, by this time Grider’s family had successfully sued Springs for having used Grider’s dairy.) In the original 1926 publication, Springs provides no introduction or foreword, and the book begins with the diarist’s entry for 20 September 1917 - as reproduced in full below. The last entry is marked as having ‘no date’, but before that one are many entries from August. However, this creates an obvious anomaly since Grider died in June. The anomaly and authorship of War Birds are referenced in several threads on the Aerodrome website, but are also discussed by Mark Hillier in his introduction to a new edition of the diary: War Birds - The Diary of a Great War Pilot (Frontline Books, 2016).

According to Frontline Books: ‘War Birds records in detail the stresses of training and the terror and elation of failure and success during combats with the enemy the First World War. This unique edition of War Birds has been produced from a copy owned by another officer from 85 Squadron, Lieutenant Horace Fulford. In his copy, Fulford made numerous hand-written annotations and stuck in a number of previously unpublished photographs - all of which have been faithfully reproduced.’

In discussing the anomaly of authorship, Hillier states: ‘Of great relevance to this subject is the book entitled Letters from a War Bird: The World War I Correspondence of Elliott White Springs. Edited by David K. Vaughan, this publication not only sets out all of Springs’ letters, notes and extracts from his log book, but analyses the structure of War Birds and how extracts from the letters were incorporated into the text. It reveals that one of Springs’ letters states that War Birds was ‘based largely on my letters, my diary and my combat reports. I also used [Eugene] Barksdale’s diary and supplementary matters given to me by [Robert] Kelly and [Larry] Callahan.’ Also of interest is the fact that Springs is quoted as saying that the diary ‘became the actual history’ of the 210 [total] US Air Service cadets who went over to the UK and served with the RFC or USAS under RFC control, which implies that its purpose was more of a representation of the experiences of all of them rather than a tribute to one.’

Here is the first entry, dating from 100 years ago, in the original diary, as well as the last dated entry.

20 September 1917
‘Aboard R. M. S. Carmania in the harbor of Halifax.

Well, here I am aboard ship and three days out of New York, waiting for a convoy at Halifax. This seems to be a fitting place to start a diary. I am leaving my continent as well as my country and am going forth in search of adventure, which I hope to find in Italy, for that is where we are headed. We are a hundred and fifty aviators in embryo commanded by Major MacDill, who is an officer and a gentleman in fact as well as by Act of Congress. We are traveling first class, thanks to him, tho we are really only privates, and every infantry officer on board hates our guts because we have the same privileges they do. Capt. Swan, an old Philippine soldier, is supply officer.

This morning when we steamed into harbor, which is a wonderful place, we found five or six transports already here. The soldiers on them, all that could, got into the boats and came over to see us. They rowed around and around our boat and cheered and sang. They were from New Zealand and a fine husky bunch they were. One song went: “Onward, conscript soldiers, marching as to war, You would not be conscripts, had you gone before.”

This is a beautiful place. I expect my opinion is largely due to my frame of mind, but it really is pretty. Low jagged hills form the horizon and on the south side of the river as we came up, is solid rock with a little dirt over it in spots but the rock sticking thru everywhere like bones thru a poor horse.

We went thru two submarine nets stretched across the mouth of the harbor. I wish I had words to describe the feeling I had when all the soldiers in the harbor came over to tell us howdy. One New Zealander, I think he was a non-com, stood up in the back of the boat and said, “You fellows don’t look very happy.” And I guess our boys don’t at that - the doughboys, I mean. We’ve got over two thousand of them on board of the 9th Infantry Regiment of the regular army. Anyway, New Zealand beat us cheering with their full throated, “Hip Hurrah Hip Hurrah Hip Hurrah!” But they said they were five weeks out and knew each other pretty well, while our boys aren’t acquainted yet.

I have a stateroom with Lawrence Callahan from Chicago, who roomed with me at Ground School, where we suffered together under Major Kraft and had a lot of fun from time to time in spite of him. We almost got separated at New York as he was going to France with another detachment over at Governor’s Island. I got Elliott Springs, our top sergeant, to get the Major to have him transferred to us. We had a good crowd over at Mineola and I saw him in town and he told me he was in a rotten bunch over there. I was a sergeant as Springs had me promoted because I took a squad out and unloaded a carload of canned tomatoes after two others had fallen down on the job. We got him transferred all right and then he got mad as fury at Springs because he made him peel potatoes for four days for chewing gum in ranks. On the fourth day Cal told Springs how much trouble he had taken to join his outfit and that he hadn’t come prepared to be a perpetual kitchen police. Springs said he was very glad to have him but if he wanted to chew gum in ranks he’d have to peel potatoes the rest of the day every time he did it. Cal said he’d already been assigned to the job for four days. Springs said he knew it but that so far he hadn’t peeled a single potato and he was going to get one day’s work out of him if he had to chain him to the stove to do it. Cal won tho, because Springs was too busy to watch him and he never did finish one pan of spuds.

I’ve got to go to boat drill now. We practice abandoning ship every day.

That’s over. My platoon is assigned to the top deck and Captain La Guardia is in charge of our boat. He is a congressman from New York City and learned to fly last year. He is an Italian so was sent over with us. He managed to bring along two of his Italian ward bosses as cooks. One of them owns a big Italian restaurant and yet here he is as a cook. And he can’t cook!

I probably won’t write much in this thing. I never have done anything constantly except the wrong thing, but I want a few recollections jotted down in case I don’t get killed.

I am going to make two resolutions and stick to them. I am not going to lose my temper any more  - I fight too much. And I am going to be very careful and take care of myself. I am not going to take any unnecessary chances. I want to die well and not be killed in some accident or die of sickness - that would be terrible, a tragic anticlimax. I haven’t lived very well but I am determined to die well. I don’t want to be a hero - too often they are all clay from the feet up, but I want to die as a man should. Thank God, I am going to have the opportunity to die as every brave man should wish to die - fighting - and fighting for my country as well. That would retrieve my wasted years and neglected opportunities.

But if I don't get killed, I want to be able to jog my memory in my declining years so I can say, “Back in 1917 when I was an aviator, I used to - !”

I’ll probably not write any more for a week, or perhaps no more at all.’

27 August 1918
August 27th
Many things have happened. I hear that Bobby got shot down up at Dunkirk and is no more. Tommy Herbert has been shot in the rear with a phosphorus bullet. Leach has been shot thru the shoulder and isn’t expected to pull thru. Explosive bullet. Read is dead and so is Molly Shaw.

Alex Mathews is dead. He was walking across the airdrome after a movie show over at 48 and a Hun bomber saw the light when the door was opened and dropped a two hundred and twelve pound bomb on him. They dropped about thirty bombs on the airdrome and killed about forty of 48’s men and set fire to the hangars. They broke all the bottles in our bar. Cal and Nigger and I were further ahead and threw ourselves into a ditch. Nothing hit us but we sure were uncomfortable. The night flying Camels brought down one of the Huns, it had five engines and a crew of six men. It came down in flames and lit up the whole place. Barksdale got shot down in an S. E. and landed in German territory but set fire to his plane and got in a shell hole and covered himself up with dirt. The next morning the British attacked and took that sector. Barksdale said the Scotsman who pulled him out couldn’t speak English any better than the Germans and he thought he was a prisoner at first.

One of our noblest he-men, a regular fire-eater to hear him tell it, has turned yellow at the front. He was quite an athlete and always admitted he was very hot stuff. He was ordered up on a bomb raid and refused to go. The British sent him back to American Headquarters with the recommendation that he be court-martialed for cowardice. He would have been too, if his brother hadn’t have been high up on the A. E. F. staff. He pulled some bluff about the machines being unsafe and they finally sent him home as an instructor and promoted him. He may strut around back home but I’ll bet he never can look a real man in the eye again.

Springs had a wheel shot off in the air last week. Ralston came back and took up a wheel to show him and everybody ran about the airdrome firing Very pistols and holding up wheels for him to see. He understood and sideslipped down all right without killing himself. He said he saw a Dolphin pilot kill himself several weeks ago landing with a wheel gone. The Dolphin pilot didn’t know it was off and the plane turned over on him.

Bonnalie was never considered much of a pilot. He was an aeroplane designer before he enlisted and knew a lot of theory but he took a long time to learn to fly and no one thought he would ever be much good. He put on one of the best shows on record and has been decorated with the D. S. O. His citation appeared in The Gazette. [. . .]

17 and 148 have been having a hard time. 17 has lost Campbell, Hamilton, Glenn, Spidlc, Grade, Case, Shearman, Shoemaker, Roberts, Bittinger, Jackson, Todd, Wise, Thomas, Frost, Wicks, Tillinghast and a couple of others. Hamilton and Tipton were the two best Camel pilots we had. And they have about six others in the hospital too. Wicks and Shoemaker collided in a fight.

148 has lost Curtis, Forster, Sicbald, Frobisher, Mandell, Kenyon and Jenkinson; and Dorsey and Wiley and Zistell are in the hospital. Jenkinson, Forster and Siebald went down in flames. Frobisher was shot thru the stomach and died later.

Of course that’s not a bad showing when you consider that they have shot down a lot of Huns and done a lot of ground straffing and have been flying Camels which were all the British could spare them. The British have washed out the Camels and are refitting their own squadrons with Snipes. A Camel can’t fight a Fokker and the British know it.

But we’ve lost a lot of good men. It’s only a question of time until we all get it. I’m all shot to pieces. I only hope I can stick it. I don’t want to quit. My nerves are all gone and I can’t stop. I’ve lived beyond my time already.

It’s not the fear of death that’s done it. I’m still not afraid to die. It’s this eternal flinching from it that’s doing it and has made a coward out of me. Few men live to know what real fear is. It’s something that grows on you, day by day, that eats into your constitution and undermines your sanity. I have never been serious about anything in my life and now I know that I’ll never be otherwise again. But my seriousness will be a burlesque for no one will recognize it. Here I am, twenty-four years old, I look forty and I feel ninety. I’ve lost all interest in life beyond the next patrol. No one Hun will ever get me and I’ll never fall into a trap, but sooner or later I’ll be forced to fight against odds that are too long or perhaps a stray shot from the ground will be lucky and I will have gone in vain. Or my motor will cut out when we are trench straffing or a wing will pull off in a dive. Oh, for a parachute! The Huns are using them now. I haven’t a chance, I know, and it’s this eternal waiting around that’s killing me. I’ve even lost my taste for licker. It doesn’t seem to do me any good now. I guess I’m stale. Last week I actually got frightened in the air and lost my head. Then I found ten Huns and took them all on and I got one of them down out of control. I got my nerve back by that time and came back home and slept like a baby for the first time in two months. What a blessing sleep is! I know now why men go out and take such long chances and pull off such wild stunts. No discipline in the world could make them do what they do of their own accord. I know now what a brave man is. I know now how men laugh at death and welcome it. I know now why Ball went over and sat above a Hun airdrome and dared them to come up and fight with him. It takes a brave man to even experience real fear. A coward couldn’t last long enough at the job to get to that stage. What price salvation now?’

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