This Day in History: The first American flying ace
On this day in 1918, Lt. Douglas Campbell becomes the first all-American flying ace. Despite this feat and despite his service with legendary pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker, Campbell’s name is relatively unknown today.
Perhaps that problem should be rectified. Campbell was a valued member of the 94th Aero Squadron who had more than one “first” to his name.
It was Campbell, not Rickenbacker, who scored one of the first U.S. Air Service aerial victories during World War I: On April 14, 1918, Campbell and Lt. Alan Winslow were scrambled from their airfield in France to respond to German activity in the area.
Take a minute to imagine what this means: Campbell and Winslow weren’t flying modern-day fighter jets with all their technology, speed, and maneuverability. They were in French biplanes: the Nieuport 28. Yet within a matter of minutes, each pilot had scored one victory against a German plane—and they did it within full view of the French city of Toul.
“This initial fighter combat by the U.S. Air Service,” Air Force historians note, “although probably successful due as much to luck as skill, convinced the French people that the Americans were ‘super-human.’”
By May 28, Campbell had scored three more confirmed victories and at least one unconfirmed one. But it was the patrol on May 31 that would put Campbell in the history books and splatter his name across news headlines back home.
“Lieutenant Campbell went out on a voluntary patrol alone,” Rickenbacker later wrote. In other words, he joked, “Doug went out looking for trouble.”
Campbell soon ran into a German Rumpler, which was a two-seat reconnaissance biplane. Its occupants appeared to be taking photographs of advanced American positions near Flirey, France.
Obviously, Campbell couldn’t let them get away. He went in for the attack. He had an advantage because he was coming from an unexpected direction, with the sun behind him. Unfortunately, just as he was diving in, his gun decided to jam. The moment was lost.
“Now it must be a contest,” Rickenbacker wrote, “between a one-man scout and a two-man fighting ‘bus. The best pilotage and the coolest nerve must win.”
The two planes circled and dodged. Campbell could see that the observer in the German plane was shooting at a fast clip. Perhaps he could simply outlast the enemy? He took occasional shots to entice the Germans into continuing, but it was mostly a maneuvering game. After about 15 minutes, he noticed that the Germans were acting oddly. He flew in closer.
The Germans were out of ammunition.
“The observer was standing proudly upright,” Rickenbacker wrote, “and his arms were folded! From the edge of his cockpit the empty ammunition belt floated overboard and flapped in the wind.”
Campbell didn’t want to continue against an unarmed enemy. But then he remembered the pictures that the Germans had in their possession. Those pictures could cost American lives. He signaled to the Germans to surrender, but they wouldn’t. So he shot the plane down.
“I did not like the idea of shooting him down when he was not fighting,” Campbell said at the time, “but I could not let him get away.”
Just one day later, American newspapers were already trumpeting the news: “Honor of Being First American Ace Goes to California Aviator. . . Lieut Douglas Campbell Brings Down His Fifth German Plane . . . Lieut Rickenbacher Will Probably be Announced As Second Ace.”
And so Campbell began dropping out of historical memory, practically as soon as he entered it. The unforgettable Eddie Rickenbacker was hot on his tail.
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Arthur Sweetser, The American Air Service: A Record of Its Problems, Its Difficulties, Its Failures, and Its Final Achievements (1919)
Donald R. Morris, Flying Machines (Baltimore Sun; Dec. 3, 1990)
Eddie Rickenbacker, Fighting the Flying Circus (1919) (reprint available HERE)
Lets Go Where the Action Is!: The Wartime Experiences of Douglas Campbell (Jack R. Eder ed. 1984)
Lts. Alan Winslow and Douglas Campbell (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force website)
Office of Air Force History, The U.S. Air Service in World War I: Volume I: The Final Report and a Tactical History (Maurer Maurer ed. 1978)
The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (Anne Cipriano Venzon ed. 1999).