I — A Bad Day
The Wolfpack was having a bad day.
It had started off all right. They had left the airfield at Issoudon just as dawn’s light was breaking in the East, and were eager to get back to their home base at Chaumont. The first part of the mission, providing escort for Brigadier General Sanders’ DH.4 had been thankfully uneventful. The aces were always eager to prove their mettle in combat, but drawing fire for the more cumbersome de Havilland two-seater and risking their boss’ hide in the process, was not their idea of a good time in the air. Today however, returning home without the General, they were fairly spoiling for a fight. Captain Colby Wyatt, the intrepid leader of the squadron, had suggested a route that took their gray SPAD XIII’s close to where the action usually was, and neither the older and wiser Lieutenant Jimmy Styles, nor the pugnacious Robert “Bull” Caine had demurred. They felt ready to take on the world.
Then everything had gone to Hell.
They had been lucky in that first engagement. Bull had spied the pair of Albatros D.III biplanes before the enemy saw them, and after a signal to Captain Wyatt, had drawn first blood. An expert marksman—possibly the best in the service—Bull had torn one of the Boche planes apart in mid air with a single burst from his Vickers guns. Wyatt had taken the second plane, raking its tail with a relentless torrent of .303 rounds, but somehow the canny Kraut had peeled off, and then to everyone’s surprise, turned into them. The three Spad pilots all whipped their heads around at almost exactly the same instant that the Albatros speared right through the center of their V-formation.
The move was gutsy to be sure, but they had the advantage of numbers and more importantly, had honed their team flying skills to the point where each man knew exactly what the others were going to do. As agile as the fierce hunters that were their namesake, the Wolfpack planes separated and independently carved tight turns that brought them back into formation in a matter of seconds.
The German pilot was also trying to come around, but Wyatt’s opening salvo had damaged his rudder and the Albatros was responding sluggishly. Wyatt’s fingers were ready on the triggers of his twin Vickers, but Styles had the best shot and immediately let lead fly. That was when things started to go wrong.
Unbeknownst to the Lieutenant, the cooling hose to his left gun had burst sometime after takeoff. As hundreds of tracer rounds scorched the sky, seeking out the enemy plane, the barrel of the weapon grew red hot and acrid metallic smoke began to issue from it. As soon as he became aware of the malfunction, Styles let go of his stick trigger, but the damage was done and the opportunity was lost. He dropped back to let his comrades take the kill, but the pilot of the Albatros, realizing that he was badly overmatched, was already on the run. Wyatt once more took the lead, charging after the slower German plane, and unleashed another storm of bullets.
The Albatros rocked under the persistent hammering. Dark smoke began to pour from its engine cowling, and the pilot responded immediately by putting the biplane into a deep dive. Tracers from Wyatt’s guns continued to chase after the doomed plane but he broke off the attack, satisfied that German was out of the fight, and regrouped with his comrades.
Although victorious, the battle had left the Wolfpack in rough shape. Without water to cool his machine guns, Styles would be limited to short bursts of fire. Wyatt had shot roughly half his load of ammunition. If they encountered another enemy patrol during the remainder of their flight, they would be hard pressed to emerge with a second victory. As luck would have it; that was exactly what happened.
They were still about fifty miles out from Chaumont when the Boche planes caught them—Fokkers painted with the outlandish colors of Germany’s most feared Jagd-Staffel: the infamous Flying Circus. Battered though they were, the Wolfpack pilots would not have even considered turning tail and running, even from these terrible masters of the killing craft, but their will to fight mattered little, for the Germans were on them before they knew what was happening. Six fighters, with Spandau guns blazing, swooped down from out of the sun and tore into the Wolfpack.
Styles felt the distinctive whoosh of bullets zipping past and knew instantly that they had been ambushed. Even before his eyes registered the tracers flashing by, he threw his Spad into a dive, out of the line of fire. The desperate maneuver saved his life but even as he nosed down, something slammed into the side of his head and for a moment he saw nothing but stars.
Bull saw his friend’s abrupt stall and instantly divined that there was trouble. It didn’t take him more than a moment to spot the Dreideckers but by then, he too was taking fire. Thinking quickly, he pulled back on the stick and started climbing. The effect on the enemy was immediate; their formation split into three pairs, a lead and a wingman for each of the Wolfpack flyers.
In the cockpit of his Spad, Styles used his scarf to mop away the sticky substance that obscured his goggles but the effort was for naught. Through the red smeared lenses, he saw two of everything, and despite his best attempt to fix his stare on one object, everything kept swimming in and out of focus.
Well, at least I’m still alive, he thought darkly. The pounding ache on the left side of his skull was proof enough of that. But if he wanted to stay that way, he was going to need a miracle, and with his friends likewise locked in combat, that miracle was going to be damned elusive. Framed between the wings of the biplane, he saw nothing but the green fields of France, and realized he was still in a dive. He fumbled for the stick and pulled back, bringing the nose up, but almost immediately found himself peppered with enemy gunfire and was forced to dive again.
For his part, Captain Wyatt was swift to take action. There was a simple unspoken rule among the three aces: watch your friend’s back and he’ll watch yours. Disregarding the enemy planes that dogged his own tail, he immediately nosed down and went after the pair that was chasing Styles. He led with his guns, stuttering out a strange battle rhythm as he swooped down like a diving falcon on the larger, faster triplanes. A stream of tracers slashed across the tail of the lead plane and it began rocking under the assault. Wyatt straightened his line and fired again, and this time saw the enemy pilot pitch forward in the cockpit, after which the Fokker lazily rolled over and began spinning out of control. The American ace banked right and brought the second plane pursuing Styles into his sights and squeezed the stick trigger once more. Tracers described an arc through the air that terminated in the engine cowling of the Fokker, and abruptly, the remaining plane of the pair belched a cloud of black smoke and broke off its attack. While Wyatt had chased after the German planes, the pair on his own tail had withheld fire for fear of hitting their comrades; now there was nothing to hold them back. As the Captain fell in behind his wounded friend, two Spandau machine guns blazed through the propellers of the Fokkers and chewed up the sky.
The Fokkers were fast, much faster than the Spads, but what their tri-wing design gave them in speed, it took back in maneuverability. Even the Spad, with its stubby wings and fuselage—built more for speed than aerobatics—could fly circles around a Fokker, especially in a dive. But Wyatt held his position, just a few hundred yards behind Styles and endured the withering assault; leaving Styles to the mercy of the Boche flying machines just wasn’t an option.
Bull Caine wasn’t having it any easier. He climbed into the sky, trying to loop around and drop in behind the Fokkers on his tail, but the German pilots would have none of it. Steadfastly dogging his tail, they climbed through a slightly broader loop, and quickly picked him up again, lashing him with steady fire. Unable to shake the Hun planes, Bull threw his Spad into a dive and raced headlong toward the other fight. Suddenly, his fuselage exploded in a spray of splinters as a lucky burst from one of the enemy guns raked his plane. Bull felt something strike his left shoulder, followed by a hot throb of agony, and his nerveless hand slipped off the stick. Gritting his teeth through the pain, he kept on course, expertly steering the Spad with his one good hand.
With two of the enemy fighters removed from the aerial battlefield, the odds were improving for the Wolfpack, but the German aces still held the advantage. Styles continued flying straight in a shallow descent, but hardly maneuvered at all to avoid gunfire. His friends knew that he was wounded but there was little they could to help him now aside from keeping the enemy at bay.
Bull angled his dive to intercept the Germans on Wyatt’s tail. With a little help from gravity, he pushed the plane well beyond its limits, shooting across the sky like a rocket, and then plowed through the empty space between his captain’s Spad and the Fokkers. That pair of planes saw him coming too late to do anything but veer off, and they nearly collided with the pair that had come in on Bull’s heels.
The momentary confusion was just what the pilots in the gray Spads needed. Wyatt immediately broke off and twisted around to engage the enemy, and for a few moments it looked like the tide of battle had shifted in favor of the Wolfpack. But then Wyatt’s guns abruptly went silent; he was out of ammunition. Bull was still choosing his shots carefully, but the Germans seemed to sense that their foes’ luck, along with their supply of bullets, was rapidly waning. Bull continued to harass the Fokkers, but with only one good hand to wrestle the stick that was the limit of what he could do and it simply wasn’t enough. Like hungry wolves, the Boche pilots began to circle closer, tightening the noose around Wyatt and Styles.
Suddenly one of the bright red planes blew apart in mid air. Wyatt craned his head around in time to see a black cloud of smoking debris begin a meteoric downward journey. The three remaining enemy pilots likewise snapped their heads around, looking for the source of the killing strike, but in that instant another of the triplanes seemed to dissolve in flight. A stream of lead—no tracers, just deadly slugs moving faster than the eye could follow—shredded the left wing assembly of the German fighter. The struts holding the triple-stack of airfoils collapsed and the multiple wing halves, tethered to the fuselage by guy-wires, fluttered in the breeze as the doomed aircraft plunged earthward.
The distraction was enough for Bull to seize the advantage, and in an abrupt change of fortune, it was the Fokkers that were fleeing, with a single Spad hurling tracers in their wake. Yet, before he could walk his fire into the enemy, a dark shape swooped out of the sun and pounced on one of the Germans, strafing it with deadly and accurate fire. As the fuselage disintegrated, the black plane dove across Bull’s path, seemingly right through the debris cloud. Then the unknown pilot rolled to the right in a triple-corkscrew and came up with guns blazing at the lone remaining German. It was over in a heartbeat.
Bull’s finger slipped off the trigger as he watched the black plane carve up the sky with aerobatics and bullets. The plane had no markings but looked an awful lot like a German Albatros. Yet that was not what had put the Wolfpack’s dead-eye marksman into a state of stunned paralysis. Rather, it was that distinctive corkscrew to the right that the victorious pilot had executed immediately after dispatching the enemy planes. Bull had seen that move before.
With the last of the enemy planes scattered across the French countryside, the black Albatros immediately climbed back into the sun, vanishing from sight before any of the Wolfpack flyers could think to pursue. Bull left off pondering the mystery of their anonymous savior and turned his attention instead to the very immediate problem of survival. After rejoining the formation and flashing the captain a tentative thumbs- up, he unwrapped his silk scarf from around his neck and stuffed it into the ragged hole in the blood-soaked shoulder of his leather jacket. As the thrill of combat gradually receded into memory, pain was quick to rush in and fill the void.
Styles was holding his own, but his eyes still refused to agree on a point of focus. Only the fearless and headstrong Captain Wyatt had emerged from the battle completely unscathed. As they made their way back to Chaumont, he flew close to Styles’ plane, his wheels never more than a few feet from the other’s top wing, and shouted words of encouragement at the top of his lungs to keep the lieutenant from slipping into unconsciousness,
“I can’t see too good, Cap!” Styles shouted. “Landin’s gonna be a little dicey.”
“You can do it,” Wyatt replied. “We’ll talk you in.”
The captain did exactly that. He stayed alongside the other plane until the landing strip was directly beneath Styles’ wheels. “Hold her steady and ease off the throttle to stall in ten seconds. You’ll set down light as feather.”
Styles followed the instructions to the letter despite the fact that the airfield appeared to be canted at a forty-five degree angle in his left eye. He kept that eye closed, and counted to ten. The wheels bounced hard before he was ready, but he kept his nerve and steered the plane true down the grassy strip.
The other two fighter planes were on the ground a few moments later, and both men leapt from their cockpits before the planes had fully stopped, hastening to the side of their wounded friend. Despite the fact that his left arm hung limp, Bull scrambled onto the fuselage of Styles’ Spad and began administering to the lieutenant’s injuries while Wyatt shouted for a litter bearer.
As the ambulance men carried the tall Texan away, the captain took out two cigarettes and passed one to Bull. “You should get over to the field hospital as well,” he declared.
“Yeah,” the other man answered, taking a deep drag to settle his rattled nerves.
Wyatt looked at him through the growing cloud of smoke. “You saw it didn’t you?”
“I saw... something, Cap.”
“It was him, Bull. You know it was. That triple-roll was his signature; an artist signing his masterpiece.”
Bull shivered as if someone had just walked over his grave. “It can’t be him. It just can’t be. We both saw him die. Tyr Sorensen died six months ago.”