Carrick - always scary when you drop down low in a fight and the MG's start up at you! Yet another close call for Keith.
Raine - very excited to hear about your man's exploits once the Somme kicks off. Great storytelling as usual.
Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine' Bar-le-Duc, France.
June 23rd, 1916:
Clyde Balsley’s condition was horrendous. After an eventless patrol on the 20th, Chapman and I had visited him at the hospital at Vadelaincourt. When we arrived, Balsley was asleep, but we were able to talk to the Infermarie Major, Madame Dorville, who had been selflessly and sleeplessly caring for our comrade since his arrival. Although she spoke kindly, she did not hide from us the gravity of young Balsley’s state. We listened with hatred in our hearts as the Madame told us that Balsley’s intestines had been perforated in several places by shrapnel, and that he would not leave his bed again for a year at least.
Chapman became increasingly aggressive in the air, and got into the habit of taking his Nieuport over the lines alone in-between patrols. Balsley was his dear friend, and he took it upon himself to seek revenge. Although Thenault did not like one of his pilots flying alone, he understood Victor’s reasoning, and made no effort to stop the hotheaded American.
Despite the Escadrille suffering its first truly bitter losses, we tried to keep our tails up. Michael’s death still burned a horrifying agony into my soul, but for the sake of my fellow pilots I smiled, joked, laughed with my comrades. I had begun to find that, slowly, my smiles and laughter became more genuine. On the night of the 20th we had a celebratory binge, owing to the fact that one of my Fokkers had been confirmed along with Victor’s. My other Bosche was seen to come down from out of the scrap by the Poilus, but with no clear victor visible to them, it was officially credited to the Escadrille.
On the morning of the 21st Thenault saw fit to reinstate me as flight leader, and I led a patrol of five over the Bosche front-lines. The Capitane instructed me to take Blanchon along and give him some much-needed experience over the front. The Frenchman seemed only too keen to get underway, and in his eyes I saw that familiar burning desire for a fight that all misinformed rookie pilots share. I asked Johnson to keep a close watch on him.
I spotted four aircraft flying close to the front and approached for a closer look. It was a flight of Nieuports. We flew over their heads and continued on towards the German lines. The patrol was eventless, but as we returned I spotted three Fokkers flying over the Hesse Forest. I signalled to my flight and began to descend, keeping my eyes hungrily fixed on the machine at the rear of the German formation.
As we dropped upon them, the three Germans abruptly swung around to face us, and the inevitable dogfight broke out in full swing. One Fokker got behind me, but quickly was seen off by a Nieuport. I looked to my right and caught a glimpse of an aeroplane falling in flames - but I couldn’t see what side he was on. A moment later and a Fokker flashed in front of me. I got onto his tail and started firing, with a second stream of bullets passing on my right. Glancing over my shoulder I saw Luf on my seven O’Clock. Together we drove the Eindecker down into the trees, where he exploded in a blinding ball of flames. Satisfied, we turned for home.
Back at the aerodrome, we excitedly discussed the details of the scrap. It turned out that the aircraft I had seen falling in flames was a Fokker - shot down by Blanchon! We were all quick to congratulate the Frenchman on his first Nieuport victory. Luf and I also shared confirmation of our Fokker - my score now stood at seven.
As we sat around the dining table on the afternoon of the 23rd, an orderly arrived to tell Thenault that Cowdin had telephoned, and was holding on the other side of the line. Quickly he was up, as were the rest of us, as we piled into his office. After a brief exchange, Thenault looked over us. “He says he wants some fresh oranges. All they’ll let him have is orange juice”. Immediately Victor stepped forwards. “I’ll get him some! I can head into town right now and get them to him within the hour”. With a faint smile, Thenault agreed.
As we were not scheduled for any patrols, Kiffin Rockwell and I joined Victor on his hunt for the freshest oranges Bar-le-Duc had to offer. As we stood outside one market stall, Victor turning over one of the fruits in his hands with a critical eye, he muttered “Damned Bosches. Cowdin had better be okay”. Rockwell slapped him on the back. “No need to worry. He’s a tough little so-and-so”. Victor stood in place, staring down at the orange in his hands. After a long pause, he turned to us.
“Say, what do you think will happen to Cowdin, now? After the war, I mean”.
Rockwell and I shot each other a saddened glance, and the silence hung in the air around us. “Come on,” I eventually said, smiling. “Let’s pay for these oranges and get them over to him, eh?”.
We accompanied Chapman to the aerodrome and helped his mechanics wheel out that startling blue Nieuport of his. The hard part was figuring out where to put the oranges - at first we’d placed them on the floor of the cockpit, but that blocked his access to the rudder bar. Eventually we had Victor stand with his arms stretched out to his side as we filled his flying coat with the fruit. What ones we couldn’t stuff into his pockets were pressed down the front of his coat. Eventually, with an effort that brought us some amusement, Victor waddled his way into the Nieuport, spilling a few oranges as he went, and we waved to him as he soared up into the sky.
Thenault’s telephone rang again an hour or so later. Chapman, on his way to the hospital, had decided to turn to the lines in the hopes of finding a Bosche. There, he encountered a two-seater and attacked. The Poilus at the lines watched as the bright blue Nieuport dove towards the German machine, and a quick exchange of gunfire took place. A moment later the American was falling in a spin.
The news was delivered abruptly, and with no hint of pity, nor sympathy.