Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine' Bar-le-Duc, France.
July 5th, 1916.
It was several days ago, as we were sitting down to breakfast around the dining table. Due to our recent string of successes in the air, Rockwell had been keeping a sharp eye on the papers, American and French, for any word of our exploits. Mostly, from the American papers, we were met with the depressing news of Americans who had been injured or killed in France. A brief eulogy was posted for Chapman, and another American named Jericho, who had been flying with the British. We were surprised and astounded to learn that, not only was the latter an ace, but he had accumulated his six victories on a tired, outdated Morane Parasol! We could not conceive how we hadn't heard of this artist before, with our best guess being that his R.F.C unit simply didn't have the same romance as our Escadrille in the eyes of the press. This was met by us with irritation - any man that can fly and fight in a Morane was worthy of respect.
Rockwell had been reading the paper again, on a morning like any other, when suddenly he let out a jubilant cry and shot up from his seat. “There! They mentioned our scrap from the 26th!”. Excitedly we crowded around him as he read through the article. American Volunteer Pilots Down Several German Aeroplanes. It was an American paper. Above the headline and below the name of the Newspaper, printed in small, unassuming black letters, was the date. July 28th, 1916. A familiar date. Why was it familiar?
Oh, of course. It was my birthday. I was Twenty-Three years old now.
Politely I excused myself from the dining table to be alone with my thoughts. My prior birthdays had been spent alongside Michael and Andrew - when we were younger, we would go to the park, or perhaps to the races. On my 13th birthday we saw an airshow. In later ages, we would hit the town, making our crooked way from bar to bar in San Francisco. It was my first birthday without them. Suddenly, I realised that I had never written Andrew about Michael’s death. Immediately I sought out pen and paper, and got to work. My head felt slightly hazy - caught between the ‘war’ me and the ‘life before’ me - my footing felt uncertain.
Thenault saw fit, as a birthday present (only he knew, and he had the tact to keep it private), to give me a few days’ rest. I spent these mostly in Bar-le-Duc, flitting about the Cafes before returning to the sitting room in the Villa, sharing a drink with some of the pilots. Some nights I would join in the poker games, held by Bert Hall, in which I would quietly ignore the cards he kept tucked into his socks, or up his sleeves.
On the 1st of July, the British in the Somme launched a major offensive. From what Luf tells me, it rivals Verdun in size. Some of the local Escadrilles have been transferred to the Somme region to support the British from the air - Le Violet’s Escadrille among them. Rumor has a way of spreading fast in the French air service, and the word is that Voscadeaux has already found the Somme to be a bountiful hunting ground. Some pilots say his score is already over fifty. We thought that this might mean a decrease in activity over Verdun, but on the afternoon patrol Thaw’s flight was attacked by six Eindeckers, and poor Blanchon was wounded in the arm. He’s been moved to the same hospital as Balsley, and the two share a ward. What a way for them to formally meet!
Yesterday I awoke to find the pilots rushing around the Villa, throwing on their uniforms frantically and congregating in the Foyer. Poking his head through the door, McConnel gasped as he saw me, still in bed. “Hell, Fullard! Get a move on! We’ll be late!”. I rubbed my eyes. “Late?” I mumbled, “What for?”. His jaw dropped. “You don’t know what day it is?!” he asked, incredulously. I paused for a moment, then, in shock, cried out “God! It’s independence day!”. Immediately I bolted from the bed, scouring the room for my uniform.
Once we had all gathered, Thenault led us in our fleet of staff cars to the aerodrome, where our Nieuports already awaited us. From there, we made the long flight to Paris, where a fete was being held. We headed to Lafayette’s tomb in Picpus Cemetery, where an American diplomat by the name of Mr. Sharp gave a speech. His words were carefully chosen to remain neutral, but we could all hear the twinge of patriotism and solidarity for France that inevitably crept its way in. Excitedly we murmured among ourselves. Is this the spirit back home? Is America entering the war?
After the ceremony, we milled around Paris for an hour or two. It is an incredible sight. Hordes of soldiers from all nations, an ocean of mismatched uniforms, a blend of languages. I spoke to one pilot who was on leave, a young Englishman who had been flying F.E.2s since the start of 1916. I asked him about his scarf, which was knitted from striking scarlet wool, and he explained to me the story of his days training at Hounslow. He and his compatriots had frequented the Cafe of a widower who had given each of them a lucky charm before leaving. For one, several sheets of music. For a second, a tin of tea (from which the pilot fashioned a small pouch, which he’d hang from his instrument panel), and, of course, for the young aviator, the red scarf. Sadly, as the young man explained, his charm had turned out to be more potent than that of his comrades, all of whom had since been killed. Despite this, the superstition fascinated me, and I wondered if it would not be worth finding myself a lucky charm.
When we returned to the villa in early evening, we found two new arrivals. There was Isaac Charbonnell, a French-American from New Jersey, and Ernest Provillan, a Frenchman. They stood to attention before Thenault as we quietly observed them, sizing them up. “Gentlemen. Welcome to Escadrille Americaine. Now, first things first. How many hours have you flown over the front?”.
The two men stiffened. After a short pause, it was Charbonnell who spoke first. “None, Capitane”. Provillan then mumbled “I’ve never flown over the front, mon Capitane”. Thenault’s lips thinned, as I shot McConnell an uncertain glance. “Christ alive, they’re fresh out of Pau!” whispered Bert Hall. I felt sympathy for the new arrivals - Verdun was a hot shop for a green pilot. The two reminded me of Victor Vertadier and I, when we had arrived at Escadrille 31. Victor had been so excited to finally make it to the front, to embark on his first combat flight. By the evening, he was dead.
As the two pilots were shown to their room, Thenault turned to face us with fury in his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said to us, in a chillingly cold voice. “I’ll sort this out”.
The day after, the heavens opened once more and all operations were scrubbed. From within my room I counted raindrops rolling down the window.