9:35 A.M. – Saturday, November 9, 1918 – Above Northern France

From my assigned patrol altitude of 5,000 feet, the Albatross D-III appeared as little more than a tiny black cross against the dark green farmland west of the German airfield at Ars-sur-Moselle. In fact, it was not the aircraft itself, but the dark shadow following along on the ground behind it that brought the Boche ship to my attention.

We were traveling in opposite directions. The Albatross was headed east at an altitude of about a thousand feet and at what seemed a leisurely speed. I speculated that the German flier might be completing his morning patrol and returning to one of the Jasta aerodromes around Labry. Such speculation, however, mattered little for, regardless of his reason for being on our side of the front lines, I intended to rid the skies of this Boche menace.

When I first saw the enemy pilot he was heading about a mile ahead of me and a mile to my right.  Now, less than thirty seconds later we were abeam each other and I watched him for any sign that he saw me. Seeing no such indication, I planned my attack.

Lowering the nose of my Spad S.XIII slightly to gain some airspeed and lose some altitude, I held my westerly course for another minute. I used that time to give the skies around me a thorough perusal. It was a common tactic of the Boche to send a lone flier out as bait while his comrades lurked nearby waiting to ambush the unwary French, British or American pilot who went for the bait like a big stupid fish.

The skies on this particular morning, though, were clear and I put my plan of attack into motion by beginning a wide descending turn to the right. When I leveled my wings again, I was about three miles behind the Albatross and roughly two thousand feet above it. From the airspeed indicator attached to my port wing, I calculated my speed at around 190 kilometers-per-hour—a speed of about 120 miles-per-hour in American terms. The Boche continued at his leisurely pace as if oblivious to my presence. I would soon give him reason to regret his lack of vigilance.

During the next three or four minutes I continued to close the distance between us, all the while keeping a close watch on the sky above and behind me for other enemy aircraft. At the same time I made small adjustments to my glide path so I would end up slightly above the Albatross when the distance between us was reduced to one hundred yards—the perfect spot from which to rake the Boche ship from nose to tail with deadly fire from my twin thirty-caliber Marlin machine guns.

When I reached the position from which I would begin my attack, I pulled the cocking lever to clear my guns and gave the sky around us one last look. Then, with my hand on the firing lever, I turned my attention back to my target and the Albatross had disappeared into thin air!

Mere seconds later I felt the impact of machinegun bullets slamming into the underside of my Spad and realized I had just fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. The Boche pilot spotted me somewhere along the line, perhaps even before I saw him, and he had patiently waited for me to close into firing position. Then he pulled his power completely off and lowered his nose, causing me to fly right over the top of his rapidly slowing ship. From that point he went to full power and raised his nose, putting my Spad directly in his gun sight.

Cursing the overconfidence that blinded me to the possibility that, by such a simple ruse, I could quickly become the hunted rather than the hunter, I did three things simultaneously. Slamming my throttle wide open, I stomped on my right rudder pedal, and yanked the control stick back and to the right.

My Spad responded by instantly rolling into a tight, climbing turn to the right and, hopefully, out of my foe's line of fire.  Feeling no more hits from the Boche's guns, I knew I had gained a momentary reprieve, but I fully expected the German to press his advantage by following me into my turn. When I turned to look back, however, the Albatross was again nowhere to be seen. Now what was he up to?

I lowered the nose my ship, but stayed in the right turn until I had completed a full three-hundred-sixty degree circle. Then, leveling my wings, I scanned the sky above and below for the Boche.  I spotted him nearly a mile ahead of me and running to the east for all he was worth. He had also dropped to tree-top level, using the descent to increase his speed and make himself harder to see against the ground.

In level flight, my S-Thirteen had a speed advantage of about twenty miles-per-hour over the Albatross. I would add to this advantage during my descent. Thus, I knew I could overtake the Boche before he reached the front lines ten miles to the east. Given the skill he demonstrated by suckering me into his trap, however, getting the Albatross into my gun sight again might be another matter entirely.

With the throttle still wide open, I aimed my nose at the rapidly fleeing Albatross and began closing the distance between us again. I saw the German pilot look back at over his shoulder, and when I closed to within firing range again, he took the only evasive action left to him. He pushed his left rudder pedal to the floor and the Albatross skidded left out of my gun sight.

I did exactly the same thing to bring my nose back on his tail.  Just as that happened, he reversed the procedure and skidded to the right. Again, I followed his maneuver, but this time I kept my nose to the left of the Albatross so when he skidded back to the left a moment later, he flew directly into my line of fire.

Without hesitation, I fired and watched rips appear in the fabric along the left side of the Boche ship. Almost instantly a thin line of black smoke streamed from his engine and the Albatross slowed. I had hit something critical and I had him.

Reducing my speed, I centered the damaged Albatross in my aiming reticule and again opened fire.  Pieces of the damaged machine flew off into the slipstream and I saw the D-Three's right wings sag.  A split second later the Boche's nose came up and the ship shuddered on the verge of a stall.

To avoid a collision with the Albatross, I opened my throttle and pulled around into a climbing right turn.  Suddenly my windscreen was filled with a long line of evergreen trees I failed to notice while attacking the enemy ship. I pulled the stick back as far as it would go and my trusty Spad hopped over the tree tops with just a few feet to spare.

After clearing the trees, I resumed my turn to the right, intending to set up another firing pass on the Albatross, but when I spotted the Boche ship, I knew the fight was over. As I watched, my worthy foe and his ship became a smoking pile of rubble on the ground alongside a roadway.

Even though I knew the German pilot would not have hesitated to do the same to me, I experienced a wave of sadness. A brave man had just lost his life in the service of his country. I wondered what he would say if I could ask him whether or not the honor of Germany was worth the price he had just paid for a small piece of it.

The French seem to have an expression for every situation in life and this occasion was no exception. The appropriate phrase is, "C'Est La Guerre." It means such is war. Indeed.

Looking down at the wreckage again, I saw two farmers running toward the crashed Albatross with pitchforks in their hands to be used as weapons in the event the German pilot had survived the crash of his ship.  They had no need of their makeshift weapons.  The men waved enthusiastically as I passed over their heads.  I am sure they felt no great loss at the death of a German pilot.

I climbed to about a thousand feet in a tight spiral over the wreckage.  From that altitude I could see that the road alongside which the German ship had crashed intersected a major north-south road about a mile further east.  About five miles north along the north-south road lay a French village I recognized as Abaucourt.  I made note of these landmarks so our ground troops could locate the Albatross's wreckage and confirm my sixth and, as the fates would have it be, final aerial victory of the Great War

Then, also noting the position of the indicator on my ship's fuel gauge below the one-quarter mark, I turned southwest toward home, keeping a wary eye on the skies around me as I went.  Home at that particular time was the airfield near Rembercourt where my unit—the First Pursuit Group of the Twenty-Seventh Aero Squadron—had been stationed for the past three months.

7:00 A.M. – Sunday, November 10, 1918 – Rembercourt Aerodrome, France

The next day, Sunday, 10 November, we awoke to a thick overcast of fog which kept our ships firmly anchored to the ground until mid-afternoon.  Just as the sun appeared and patrols assignments were made, however, we received a dispatch informing us that an armistice had been agreed to by all parties and the hostilities were to officially end at 1100 hours the following day—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.  Since neither I nor any of my comrades were eager to tempt the fates and risk becoming our group's final fatality of the war, we flew only casual patrols close to home that afternoon and during the morning hours of Monday, 11 November.

As one might expect, news of the armistice raised hopes throughout the squadron we might be home for Christmas.  That possibility grew increasingly doubtful as we waited through the rest of November for orders.  Finally, on 5 December those orders arrived.  We were sent southeast to the First Air Depot at Colombey-les-Belles Airdrome for the purpose of turning in our aircraft and maintenance equipment and to await our next posting.

The squadron sat around playing games of poker and grumbling at Colombey for two months until 2 February, when we were loaded aboard a train bound for the port town of Brest.  Finally, after a month of delousing and paperwork, the members of the Twenty-Seventh Aero Squadron boarded the Navy cruiser USS Charleston and set sail for New York Harbor.

I arrived in New York on 18 March, 1919.  There, most of my comrades were mustered out and gladly traveled on to their various hometowns across the country.  I, however, was not to be so fortunate.  My so-called "gallantry in the air" earned me a somewhat less desirable set of orders.  Those orders said that I, First Lieutenant Edward J. Markham, was to report to the U.S. Air Service Pursuit Division at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California for temporary duty as an instructor of advanced pursuit tactics.

When I reported to Captain Clyde Balsley on Monday, 24 March, I learned that I was one of a handful of pilots who were selected as instructors for this specialized training program because of having demonstrated superior pursuit skills while serving in France.  Simply stated, our assignment at Rockwell was to teach as many of those skills as possible to new, young pilots with no actual experience in air combat.  Thus, along with a half-dozen other veteran fliers, I began conducting what would turn out to be three months of rigorous training exercises.

My fellow instructors were for the most part unknown to me with the exception of one familiar face, that of Lieutenant William Wellman, known to his close comrades as "Wild Bill."  That Wellman's face was a familiar one was purely a happenstance of war.

During my tour of duty in France I was returning from a solo patrol late one afternoon when my trusty Spad's Hispano-Suiza engine began wheezing and sputtering as if suddenly infected by a dire case of influenza.  Along with this most undesirable behavior came rapid losses in both power and altitude.  It was immediately clear to me that my ship would not make it back to my home field, so I turned around and made for an airfield over which I had flown a few minutes earlier.

With my intended landing spot in sight, I put my ship into a glide that, if my ailing engine held out long enough, would put me in position to land my Spad safely.  Luck was with me that day for the Hispano-Suiza breathed its last gasp and my prop came to an abrupt standstill just as I crossed the threshold of the field.

Relieved that both I and my ship were once again on solid terra firma and in more or less whole condition, all that remained was to find a mechanic who could repair my engine so that I might resume the trip back to my base at Rembercourt.  As I rolled to a stop near one of the airfield's temporary hangars, two chaps in greasy coveralls trotted out to meet me—just the fellows I needed to see.

Hopping down from my cockpit, I spoke to the mechanics, and that was when I realized my difficulties were not yet over.  It seemed I had landed at what I later learned was Luneville aerodrome, which at that particular point in the war was home to a squadron of Escadrille N.87 of the Aéronautique Militaire.  That fact was particularly relevant to my situation because the two mechanics who had come out from their hangar to greet me spoke no English and I spoke no French.

As I endeavored to explain my situation to them I could see by their puzzled expressions I was getting nowhere.  Just as my frustration level was nearing the boiling point, a tall, lanky fellow in a blue uniform with French pilot wings over his left breast pocket strolled up.  In perfect English he introduced himself as Corporal Bill Wellman and asked if he could be of some assistance.

Both surprised and relieved, I explained my circumstances to Wellman, and he in turn communicated them to the mechanics. This was rather interesting to watch because it turned out that Wellman parlez vous'd little more of the local lingo than I, but he had developed a sort of Pidgin-French that, in combination with a good deal of sign language, made it possible for him to communicate with his comrades.

Within moments the befuddled mechanics were grinning widely and nodding their understanding of the situation. They immediately turned their attention to my ailing engine and soon announced via Wellman that the engine could be repaired, but such repairs could not be completed until the next day.

Perversely, this news seemed to delight Wellman, and as he gave me a tour of the Luneville aerodrome, I came to understand why. Bill explained that he was the only American assigned to the squadron, and my remaining overnight there meant he would have the great pleasure of a fellow countryman with whom to share the evening. And share the evening we did, staying up half the night drinking the worst wine I have ever tasted while comparing our flying experiences and chatting about our plans for when the war ended. Bill had a yen to get into the motion picture business and I planned to go back to writing.

As promised, my Spad was ready to fly by noon the following day, and with some reluctance, I bid my new friend adieu and made for home. Our paths were to cross a few more times before we left for home, and each time we met our friendship grew.

It is said that opposites attract one another and this was certainly the case with Wellman and me. To begin with, and as I have already noted, Wellman served in France as an American volunteer with the Lafayette Escadrille rather than as a member of the U.S. Army Air Service as I had.

Another difference between Wellman and I had to do with our methods of air combat. I believed my meager contributions to the allied victory in France were the result of cautiously and carefully thought out strategies, and flying with as much precision as I could muster.

Wild Bill, on the other hand, earned his nickname flying with reckless abandon, relying more on flying skill and luck than planning and precision. While quite definitely not my way of doing things, I could not fault Wellman's methods for on his uniform blouse he wore the Croix de Guerre—the highly respected French medal of valor given to individuals who distinguished themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces. What is more, his Croix de Guerre was decorated with two palm leaves, indicating he had earned the medal three times over. That is a feat not to be considered lightly.

Despite these and the many other differences between us, Wild Bill and I were good pals—a friendship that would last long beyond our respective tours of duty at Rockwell Field. In my case, that tour ended in mid-June, 1919, at which time I was mustered out of the Army. Having completed my service to my Uncle Sam, I returned home to Los Angeles and resumed a fledgling writing career barely begun before joining the Army Air Service two years earlier.


Story and design © Steve Eitzen
Header Graphic & HPO Logo © HPO Productions
Albatross image modified from public domain photograph
Spad S.XIII image modified from U. S. Air Force photograph
Gunsight image created from public domain photograph
Albatross wreckage image modified from a Library of Congress photograph
Airfield images modified from public domain photographs
William Wellman image modified from a Lafayette Flying Corps photograph
Lafayette Escadrille insignia is from the Smithsonian Institution
Croix de Guerre image modified from a public domain photograph
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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.