August 17, 1917  Black Swallow of Death

French President Charles de Gaulle came to New York City in 1960, surprising media and dignitaries alike when all he wanted to do was to visit with a black elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene James Bullard was born October 9, 1894 in Columbus Georgia, the seventh of 10 children born to William Octave Bullard and an indigenous Creek named Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas.  Bullard’s father had come from Martinique, where his people could trace their lineage back to the Haitian Revolution.

Eugene wanted to leave behind the racial discrimination of his day.  The near-lynching of his father became the catalyst in 1902, when the boy was eight.  He ran away from home, spending the next four years doing odd jobs to survive  The elder Bullard had always told him “in France a man is accepted as a man regardless of the color of his skin”.   In 1906, the boy stowed away on a German ship to Aberdeen.

Bullard worked a number of odd jobs to support himself.  By age 16 he was becoming well known as a boxer, and moved to Paris at the first opportunity.

WWI broke out in August of 1914.  By the end of the year the French nation had suffered over a half million casualties.Ace-Website-Banner-1

Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, an American serving as one of 54 different nationalities serving in the Moroccan Division, Third Marching Regiment.

The Regiment was sent to the Somme front in 1915, where 300,000 Frenchmen were lost by the end of November. One unit of 500 men began the disastrous Champagne offensive of September.    At the end of the battle, 31 responded to the first evening’s roll call.

What remained of Bullard’s unit was disbanded to form the 170th Infantry, and sent to Verdun.  He thought he had arrived in hell, saying, “I thought I had seen fighting in other battles but no one has ever seen anything like Verdun – not ever before or ever since.”

Erich von Falkenhayn had designed his battle plan for Verdun to “bleed France white”, calling Verdun Operation Gericht.  Operation Execution Place.  Over 250,000 died in the 10 months long battle, more than 100,000 were missing and 300,000 gassed or wounded.

Bullard had been wounded four times before.  On March 5th 1916, he received the wounds that took him out of the ground war.  He was 8 months in hospital when the opportunity arose to join the French Flying Corps.  A white American buddy bet him $2,000 that he couldn’t get into aviation and become a pilot, and he took the challenge.  Bullard earned his wings on May 5, 1917, and received his $2,000 soon thereafter.

Bullard and JimmyBullard was assigned to the 93d Spad Squadron on August 17, 1917, flying Spad V11s and Nieuports with a mascot, a pet Rhesus Monkey he called “Jimmy”.  He said, “I was treated with respect and friendship – even by those from America.  Then I knew at last that there are good and bad white men just as there are good and bad black men.”

The first black combat pilot and the only one to serve in the Great War, Bullard painted a bleeding red heart pierced by a knife on the side of his Spad biplane. Below the heart were the words “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” The phrase roughly translates as “All Blood Runs Red”.

Bullard is credited with two kills while flying for the 93rd, though one of the Germans crashed behind enemy lines so it remained unconfirmed.  He tried to join the American squadron when the US entered the war, but the whites only policy of the time prevented him from doing so.

Bullard married in 1923.  The marriage ended in divorce, with Bullard gaining custody of their two surviving daughters (a son had died of pneumonia in infancy).   He became a drummer at the jazz club, “Le Grand Duc”, later buying his own club and calling it “L’Escadrille”.  Bullard made several famous friends during this time, including Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and the French flying ace Charles Nungesser.

He volunteered with the 51st Infantry when WWII broke out, becoming wounded and escaping to the United States in 1940.Bullard, medals

Bullard spent his last days in obscurity. His daughters had married by the 1950s, and he lived alone in a New York apartment, decorated with pictures of his famous friends and a framed case containing his fifteen French war medals.  He worked as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center, where nobody knew anything about his service.

The French government requested his presence in 1954, when he and two white Frenchmen were accorded the honor of relighting the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at l’Arc de Triomphe.

France honored Bullard once again in 1959, naming him a Knight of the Légion d’honneur in a lavish ceremony in New York City. Dave Garraway interviewed him on the Today Show, but he remained alone and unknown in his native country.quote-tout-le-sang-qui-coule-rouge-all-blood-is-red-eugene-bullard-71-83-05

French President Charles de Gaulle came to New York City in 1960, surprising media and dignitaries alike when all he wanted to do was to visit the black elevator operator who worked at the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene James “Jacques” Bullard died on October 12, 1961.  He was buried with the tri-color of France draping his coffin, laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers at Flushing Cemetery in New York.

The first black fighter pilot, the “Black Swallow of Death”, was honored by the country he had loved and served during two world wars.  On August 23, 1994, 77 years after Bullard’s American flight physical, the USAF posthumously awarded Eugene Bullard a commission as a Lieutenant.

 

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August 12, 1944 Operation Aphrodite

Kennedy and Willy remained aboard as BQ-8 completed its first remote controlled turn at 2,000′, near the North Sea coast. They removed the safety pin arming the explosive, Kennedy sending the code “Spade Flush”, to signal the task was complete. They were his last words.

The Normandy landings were two months in the past in August 1944, with yet another 9 months of hard fighting to go before the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Allied strategic bombing was having little effect on German submarine pens and rocket launch sites. Operations “Aphrodite” and “Anvil” were supposed to help. The idea was to load old Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator bombers with tons of explosives, fly it via radio control, and crash it directly onto a target.

The drone was to fly at 2,000′ with the controlling aircraft directing the flying bomb onto its target from 20,000′. The converted bombers required a minimum of two crew to take off and operate.  The plan was to have them bail out over the English Channel, a waiting boat picking up the two pilots while control of the drone passed to the operating aircraft.Kennedy, Aphrodite

On August 12, 1944, Lt. Joseph Patrick “Joe” Kennedy, Jr. and Lieutenant Wilford John Willy stepped into a converted B-24 Liberator, designated BQ-8. It was the seventh Aphrodite mission, and Willy had “pulled rank” on Kennedy’s usual co-pilot, Ensign James Simpson, in order to be on the mission.

Two Lockheed Ventura mother planes with radio control sets took off from RAF Fersfield at 6:00pm, followed by the BQ-8 aircraft, loaded with 21,170 lbs of Torpex, a British high explosive 50% more powerful than TNT.  Two P-38 Lightning fighters followed, as mission escort. A sixth aircraft followed the formation, a de Havilland Mosquito, come to film the operation. In an unlikely historical coincidence, the Mosquito was piloted by Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, USAAF, son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The target was the Fortress of Mimoyecques and its V-3 cannons, in the north of France.

Operation-Aphrodite-Drones-versus-V2-Rockets-4Kennedy and Willy remained aboard as BQ-8 completed its first remote controlled turn at 2,000′, near the North Sea coast. They removed the safety pin arming the explosive, Kennedy sending the code “Spade Flush”, to signal the task was complete. They were his last words. The aircraft exploded two minutes later, a shower of wreckage coming to earth near the village of Blythburgh in Suffolk, England.  A series of small fires were started and 59 buildings were damaged, but there were no casualties on the ground. The bodies of Kennedy and Willy were never recovered.

There would be fourteen such missions in total.  Only one caused damage to the intended target, and that may have been accidental. In the end, the program killed more American airmen than it did Nazis.  More damage was done to the British countryside, than to German interests.

Operation-Aphrodite-Drones-versus-V2-Rockets-5When Joseph Kennedy Jr. was born, his grandfather John F. Fitzgerald, then Mayor of Boston, said, “This child is the future President of the nation”.  He had been a delegate to the Democrat’s National Convention in 1940, and planned to run for Massachusetts’ 11th congressional district in 1946.

Kennedy could have gone home, he had already completed the 25-mission requirement, to do so.  Clearly, Joseph Kennedy Jr. had the resume, and he had the pedigree.  He showed every indication of following the path which would later lead his brother to the Presidency.  Joe Senior had already begun to lay the campaign groundwork when his son was killed.

‘What if’ histories are always tricky, but in this particular alternate universe, it seems safe to say.  A future President of the United States was killed over the Blyth Estuary.  73 years ago, today.

August 9, 1945 Nagasaki

The 10,000lb, 10’8″ weapon was released at 28,900′. Seconds later, a perfect circle of 64 detonators exploded inside the heart of the bomb, compacting the plutonium core into a supercritical mass and  exploding with the force of 20,000 tons of high explosive.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

Trinity_Test_Fireball_16ms
Trinity Test Fireball

The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic which Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these words were spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, as he witnessed “Trinity”, the world’s first nuclear detonation.

The project had begun with a letter from prominent physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”.  The project ended with the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equaling the explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT.Trinity_site_plaque

The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.

President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, and Harry Truman was immediately sworn in as President. He was fully briefed on the Manhattan project 10 days later, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. Whether to drop an atomic bomb on Imperial Japan.

The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster, with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy”, as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named after the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant.  Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.

FatMan
Fat Man

Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar”, was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.

The three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.

Kokura was the primary target on this day, but local weather reduced visibility.  Bockscar criss-crossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop.  Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, and Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on the Japanese fighter direction radio bands.

In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.

The 10,000lb, 10’8″ weapon was released at 28,900′.  43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650′, a perfect circle of 64 detonators exploded inside the heart of the bomb, compacting the plutonium core into a supercritical mass which exploded with the force of 20,000 tons of high explosive.

In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000.  70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.

Nazi Germany was, in fact, working on a nuclear weapon, and had begun before the allies. They chose to pursue nuclear fusion, colliding atomic particles together to form a new type of nuclear material, instead of fission, the splitting of the atom which resulted in the atomic bomb.

That one critical decision, probably taken in some laboratory or conference room, put Nazi Germany behind in the nuclear arms race. How different would the world be today, had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas painted on their sides.

May 23 1928  Crash of the Airship Italia

The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried 20 personnel, a payload of 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, and the expedition mascot, a Fox Terrier named Titina.

Stolp, Landung des Nordpol-Luftschiffes "Italia"

Her mission was to explore the ice cap surrounding the North Pole, operating out of an expedition base in Ny-Ålesund, one of four permanent settlements on Spitsbergen Island in the Kingdom of Norway.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in near perfect weather conditions and unlimited visibility, the craft covering 4,000 km (2,500 miles) and setting the stage for the third and final trip departing on May 23.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen. Though wind conditions prevented them from dropping scientists onto the ice sheet, survival packs and the inflatable raft they brought along for the purpose would turn out to be providential.

Trouble started almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds as they headed south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Umberto Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle made the task difficult. The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

Now relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship began to rise again with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a remarkable display of calm under pressure. As the airship’s italia-crashenvelope floated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino started to throw everything he could get his hands on down to the men on the ice. These were the supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death. Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Nine survivors and one fatality were left stranded on the ice.  They immediately began to go through their supplies. They found a radio and fashioned a mast from the debris, and set up a tent after coloring it red using the dye contained in several flares.

The tale of the Italia rescue is a story in itself, as would-be rescuers themselves became stranded or disappeared into the arctic circle, never to be seen again.

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while flying on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Bureaucratic intransigence, equipment failure and a lack of coordination would hamper rescue efforts.  It would be more than 49 days before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers would be found. The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia, is unknown.

May 13, 1916 Lafayette Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.

Sous-Lieutenant_Norman_Prince_summer1916
Norman Prince

Knowing that his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.  A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight in the war against the Axis Powers, joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

Lafayette_Escadrille_Pin
Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin, would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons, though he would not live to see the article.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

LtCol_William_Thaw_with_lion_cub_mascots_of_Lafayette_Escradrille_c1916
Lt. Col. William Thaw II with_lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.  Explanations that this was an “African dog” were less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

Captain_Georges_Thenault_and_Fram_1917
French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault & Fram, 1917

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo, but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit, and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

Kiffin Rockwell "In American Escadrille "movie" picture May 1916"
Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916. Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918, when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916, when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

Edmond_Charles_Clinton_Genet_circa_1915-1917
Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

Escadrille_Lafayette_in_July_1917
Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917. Standing (left to right) Soubiron, Doolittle, Campbell, Persons, Bridgman, Dugan, MacMonagle, Lowell, Willis, Jones, Peterson and de Maison-Rouge. Seated (left to right) Hill, Masson with “Soda,” Thaw, Thénault, Lufbery with “Whiskey,” Johnson, Bigelow and Rockwell. Georges Thenault’s dog “Fram” sits in the foreground.

May 6, 1937 Hindenburg

The famous film shows ground crew running for their lives, and then turning and running back to the flames. It’s natural enough to have run, but there’s something the film doesn’t show.

Hindenburg left Frankfurt airfield on its last flight at 7:16pm, May 3, 1937, carrying 97 passengers and crew. Crossing over Cologne, Beachy Head and Newfoundland, the airship arrived over Boston at noon on the 6th.  By 3:00pm it was over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, arriving at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, NJ at 4:15.

Foul weather had caused a half-day’s delay, but the landing was eventually cleared.  The final S turn approach executed at 7:21pm. The ship was at the mooring mast, 180′ from the ground with forward landing ropes deployed, when flames first erupted near the top tail fin.

Eyewitness accounts differ as to the origin of the fire.  The leading theory is that, with the metal frameworkHindenburg grounded through the landing line, the ship’s fabric covering became charged in the electrically charged atmosphere, sending a spark to the air frame and igniting a hydrogen leak.  Seven million cubic feet of hydrogen ignited almost simultaneously.  It was over in less than 40 seconds.

The largest dirigible ever built, an airship the size of Titanic, burst into flames as the hull collapsed and plummeted to the ground.  Passengers and crew jumped for their lives and scrambled to safety, along with ground crews who had moments earlier been positioned to receive the ship.

The famous film shows ground crew running for their lives, and then turning and running back to the flames. It’s natural enough to have run, but there’s something the film doesn’t show.  That was Chief Petty Officer Frederick “Bull” Tobin, the airship veteran in charge of the landing party, bellowing at his sailors above the roar of the flames.  “Navy men, Stand fast!  We’ve got to get those people out of there!” Tobin had survived the crash of the USS Shenandoah on September 4, 1923.  He wasn’t about to abandon his post, even if it cost him his life. Tobin’s Navy men obeyed.  That’s what you see when they turn and run back to the flames.

The Hindenburg disaster is sometimes compared with that of the Titanic, but there’s a common misconception that the former disaster was the more deadly of the two. In fact, 64% of the passengers and crew aboard the airship survived the fiery crash, despite having only seconds to react.   In contrast, officers on board the Titanic had 2½ hours to evacuate, yet most of the lifeboats were launched from level decks with empty seats. Only 32% of Titanic passengers and crew survived the sinking.  It’s estimated that an additional 500 lives could have been saved, had there been a more orderly, competent, evacuation of the ship.

As it was, 35 passengers and crew lost their lives on this day in 1937, and one civilian ground crew.  Without doubt the number would have been higher, if not for the actions of Bull Tobin and is Navy men.

Hindenberg CrashWhere a person was inside the airship, had a lot to do with their chances of survival.  Mr and Mrs Hermann Doehner and their three children (Irene, 16, Walter, 10, and Werner, 8) were in the dining room, watching the landing.  Mr. Doehner left before the fire broke out.  Mrs. Doehner and the two boys were able to jump out, but Irene went looking for her father.  Both died in the crash.

For all the film of the Hindenburg disaster, there is no footage showing the moment of ignition. Investigators theorized a loose cable creating a spark or static charge from the electrically charged atmosphere.  Some believed the wreck to be the result of sabotage, but that theory is largely debunked.

Four score years after the disaster, the reigning hypothesis begins with the static electricity theory, the fire fed and magnified by the incendiary iron oxide/aluminum impregnated cellulose “dope” with which the highly flammable hydrogen envelope was painted.

The 35 year era of the dirigible was filled with accidents before Hindenburg, but none had dampened public enthusiasm for lighter-than-air travel. The British R-101 accident killed 48, the crash of the USS Akron 73. The LZ-4, LZ-5, Deutschland, Deutschland II, Italia, Schwaben, R-38, R-101, Shenandoah, Macon, and there were others.  All had crashed, disappeared into the darkness, or over the ocean.  Hindenburg alone was caught on film, the fiery crash recorded for all to see.  The age of the dirigible, had come to an end.

April 22, 1918 – The Red Baron

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

Early in the “Great War”, Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen was a cavalry scout, serving with the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in the Verdun sector. Cavalry quickly became obsolete, as the war of movement ended and armies dug in. Leutnant Richtofen served as a messenger over the winter of 1914-15, but there was no glory in crawling through the mud of shell holes and trenches. He applied to the fledgling Air Corps, writing to his superiors that “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

Following four months of training, Richtofen began his flying career as an observer, taking photographs of Russian troop positions on the eastern front.Manfred_von_Richthofen

After transferring to Belgium and becoming bombardier, Manfred’s first air-to-air kill occurred in late 1915, while acting as observer and rear gunner on a two seat reconnaissance plane. The French pusher bi-plane went down over unfriendly territory and couldn’t be confirmed, so the victory was never counted. Neither was his second kill, when Richtofen shot down a French Nieuport fighter from an Albatross C.III bomber. This one too went down over enemy territory, and couldn’t be confirmed.

Richtofen had his first official victory on September 17, 1916, after being transferred to a fighter squadron. Manfred ordered a silver cup to mark the occasion, engraved with the date and make of the aircraft he had shot down, a British F.E. 2B.  Richtofen would add many more silver cups to his collection, before he was through.

Manfred got his 5th kill to become an ace on October 16, 1916, and the coveted “Blue Max” medal for his 16th, the following January. He shot down 22 enemy planes in April alone, four of those in a single day. Richtofen was Germany’s leading living ace, fast becoming the most famous pilot of his day, as German propagandists spread the rumor that the Allies were going to award the Victoria Cross to the man who shot him down.

Ever aware of his own celebrity, von Richtofen took to painting the wings of his aircraft a brilliant shade of red, after the colors of his old Uhlan regiment. It was only later that he had the whole thing painted. Friend and foe alike knew him as “the Red Knight”, “the Red Devil”, “’Le Petit Rouge’” and the name that finally stuck, “the Red Baron”.Fokker Triplane

Like Ted Williams, who was said to be able to count the stitches on a fastball, Richtofen was blessed with exceptional eyesight. Gifted with lightning fast reflexes, he became the top ace of the war. In an age when it was exceptional to score even a few air combat victories, Richtofen accumulated sixty engraved silver cups before the metal became unavailable in war ravaged Germany. Even then he was far from done.

Despite the popular link between Richthofen and his Fokker Dr.I, he only scored his last 19 kills while flying his famous red triplane. Three quarters of his victories were won in different makes of the Albatross and Halberstadt D.II.

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on July 6 1917, causing severe disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He returned to duty after October 23, but many believed his injury caused lasting damage, leading to his eventual death.

Red Baron, last flightRichthofen chased the rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May behind the lines on April 21, 1918, when he found himself under attack. With a squadron of Sopwith Camels firing from above and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, he was shot once through the chest with a .303 round, managing to land in a beet field before dying several minutes later. He was still wearing his pajamas, under his flight suit.

The RAF credited Canadian Pilot Captain Roy Brown with shooting the Red Baron down, but the angle of the wound suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. A 2003 PBS documentary demonstrated that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen, while a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that it was Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery. It may never be known with absolute certainty, who killed the Red Baron.Red Baron Crash Site

British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers and other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor for the Red Baron’s funeral on April 22, 1918. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.