An Italian Interlude
February 18, 1918.
’BLOODY WAR’ is the slogan of this camp. So say we all as we take another glazed fruit candy sent to the boys from one of the ‘girls at home.’ Bloody War! All the men live in brick barracks, with iron beds, springs, sheets, pillows, and pillow-cases. Bloody War! All the men eat off china plates, with silver knives, forks, and spoons, have white tablecloths, and kick because they are required to keep their napkins decently clean. They are fed coffee or chocolate, bread and stewed fruit for breakfast. They are fed a splendid soup of macaroni or beans; boiled or mashed potatoes with gravy, fresh meat of leg of lamb, roast beef, beefsteak, lamb chops, or the like; fruit for dessert, with a cup of after-dinner coffee — all this for lunch. They are fed perhaps rice-balls or rice soup, potatoes, boiled cabbage, cauliflower or greens, veal cutlets, fishballs, meat-cakes or croquettes, with fruit and coffee — this for dinner. And Bloodier War! No two meals are alike, and they have a large variety.
Within a short time, they will all have in this new camp hot and cold running water, showers, tubs, — white enameled tubs! — and a steam laundry plant, with Italian labor to run it. The poor officers suffer in the same way. They have only a double room each. Each compartment is only about eight feet square, and is electrically lighted, the War Department having cruelly declined to let us have oil lamps. They have only one Italian orderly for every two officers, who makes their beds, sweeps their rooms, shines their shoes, runs their errands, and tries to help them dress. The American officers in our camp have only one Fiat touring car and three Harley-Davidson motorcycles for their use — and there are fully five American officers.
Oh — Cruel — Bloody — War!
But I venture to say that there is not another camp in Europe or America as comfortable as this — and all because the Italians know how to get things done for little or nothing. The labor of the camp is done by little kids of ten or twelve years old, who do more work in a day than a day laborer in the States; and they are glad to work for five cents a day.
No complaints are ever heard: they are always stifled, with the feeling that this is time of war! Think of the poor fellows who are in worse straits than we! I hope that this tragic letter depicting the terrible conditions here will satisfy your parental feelings. We are living like kings, working like dogs, and getting ready to fight like devils.
March 3, 1918.
Who do you suppose has arrived here to be the new adjutant of the camp? None less than Albert Spaulding, the American violinist. He has brought along a ‘cheap $1000 fiddle,’ and such music as we have here is perfectly wonderful. Every other night or so he ‘tunes up,’ or ‘practises,’ and gives an informal concert for which he would receive a princely sum at home.
I am working hard under a man who appreciates work done for him. Our commandant, Captain LaGuardia, Congressman from New York City, is the representative in Italy of the American Aircraft Committee, and therefore is naturally away from camp a good deal of the time. During his absence I act as commandant; when he is here, I am the American Chief Pilot. Although my work here will probably delay my going to the front for a month or so, it gives me such excellent experience and good training, not only in flying, but also along executive lines, that I am not altogether sorry to have this opportunity. You see, the flying I am getting is of such a nature that, when I do get to the front, I shall have had more training than ninety per cent of our men sent there; all of which counts in this enterprise. Even with this delay, if luck goes with me, I shall get to the front along with the first of our men.
It seemed at the outset that the first of us to finish would have to teach a while and then be sent back to the States as instructors, without first seeing the front. The undesirability of this, and the great disappointment, are apparent. I applied through our commanding officer for relief, but without avail. Then I applied for a transfer to France, to some French school, which I thought would send me to the front; but was refused. It looked as if I should not see the front at all. However before anything disastrous happened to my own personal plans, I succeeded in being transferred to our new camp. A terrible unavoidable accident in a fog, in which one of my best friends was killed, left me senior officer here, next to the commandant. I got a good start at camp work by taking up the study of our losses, arriving at an efficiency factor, making a long report, and suggesting changes, which, when adopted, raised our flying efficiency very materially. But this is merely stalling for time until I secure necessary orders to the front.
I pulled off a little exhibition here at camp the other day — turned out all right, luckily. After a hot argument with some Italian pilots, in which they claimed that the excess strains put on a plane for the half-loop, or wing-loop, prevented the Farman training plane from doing it without smashing up in the air, and in which I claimed, after figuring it out carefully, that there were no unusual strains if the loop was done in a certain way, I took a plane, went away out of sight, practised, came back to camp at fifteen thousand feet, and did ten half-loops in succession — first six and a rest, then four more, ending up at three thousand feet. A halfloop is like a full loop in the first motion, but because of the design of this plane, it is not possible to get up enough velocity to carry it over the top without breaking the machine by excessive speed. Therefore one starts with a little less speed, pulls up into a vertical position where the machine stalls, comes to a dead stop, then topples over sidewise into a large side-slip; the flight position is regained a little later by passing through a very restricted spiral. It is a beautiful manoeuvre to watch — more so than the full loop, and much more thrilling; one of the regular acrobatic performances — it was with us only a question of doing it on the Farman.
I proved my point, but felt rather guilty the next day when another pilot tried to do the same, at eight hundred feet — he needed a thousand for regaining normal position after the fall. He crashed to the ground, absolutely wrecking his machine. But fortunately he did not hurt himself very seriously. He will be laid up for perhaps a month, but is getting along very well now. I shall not try any more of those things on this kind of plane, so you may rest at ease.’
March 9, 1918.
MY DEAR H—,
I had a chance to go up to Rome yesterday on business, but it looked such fine flying weather that I turned it down. No doubt there will be other opportunities before long. You know I had a pleasure trip to Rome and one to Naples before I received my commission; and since then an additional trip to Naples, for the service. It is all very interesting, and I feel as if I were doing something to help in the war, although I am not yet allowed the privilege of going to the front. There is nothing like responsibility to give one a new attitude toward life.
In addition to flying, sports of different varieties are indulged in here, between the camps. To-morrow we have a big baseball game; it will be a real surprise. Our camp is new, and an unknown quantity — to others, but not to ourselves; for us it is a certainty. We have a regular pitcher of the Philadelphia Athletics, and our infielders are rather famous college stars. They make up the finest little team I have seen for a long time. On the strength of it, and of the fact that on the first of the month the men received three months’ backpay, the officers of our camp have done a lot on the side, which is a secret to be sprung to-morrow. We have bought a brass band of thirty pieces, pennants and megaphones, for all our men — something, I am certain, that will never be suspected by the rival camp. In addition we have scoured southern Italy for peanuts and lemons, and are going to carry over with us a peanut-andpink-lemonade stand. The game has received quite a little publicity. Among our guests there will be a general from a nearby military centre; and I know of several colonels and majors who have asked to be invited. The Italian colonel in charge of all the trainingschools in Italy will throw the first ball.
It’s really hot stuff and will be some game, if for nothing else than the surprises it will present, to say nothing of our pitcher, who is such a corker that none of our ow n men, even w ith all the practice they are getting from him, are able to hit him; and the best of it is that the other camp have not the slightest idea of his identity, but think that one of our ‘weaklings’ will be in the pitcher’s box.
March 10, 1918.
At present I am in the convalescent ward, recovering from a slight accident wherein the motorcycle, the silly beast, shied at a dog and ran off the road while I was jogging quietly along, at 64 miles an hour. These crazy cycles seem to poke along, after one has been riding in a plane near the ground, making twice that speed. Hence the temptation to run along wide open on ‘high.’ I had my usual luck — motorcycle almost a complete wreck, but I was gently tossed twenty or thirty feet from the scene of the accident and thus got out of the way. When found, I seemed to be suffering from a sprained left ankle, a rather deep gash down to the bone on my left shin, a dislocated thumb, and a face that is a sight to behold. I never was a beauty until now — it’s quite wonderful how the little experiences of life make a new man of you. And really aviation, I am finding, has its dangers.
Were it not that the accident occurred in line of duty’ I should probably be explaining to some stern courtmartial why our camp has one less Harley-Davidson. The commanding officer forbade my riding a motorcycle again, saying rather delicately that aviators are too valuable to waste on a HarleyDavidson; but somehow or other I have rather a sneaking suspicion that it was merely a tactful way of saying that motorcycles in Italy are too valuable to waste on this particular aviator.
My bad luck with the motorcycle prevented my seeing the baseball game. But the men say it was one of the most exciting games they have ever seen. The score was tied, 0 to 0, until the first half of the last inning, when one of our men knocked a home run. The other side not scoring in their ‘ins’ we took the game and about 25,000 lire from the other camp in the way of bets.
When I get around again I am going to do some dual-control instruction for the experience. I rather look forward to it, now that I know it will not be permanent.
I look forward to the time when, at the end of the war, we can make that canoe trip in Canada. But when I return I shall not be content to settle down in the States, till I have had my fling traveling. Convinced though I am that the best business opportunities lie in America, centre of the world’s commercial activities, nevertheless I crave for the wandering, the new, the wild. Russia or parts of South America may be my salvation. But before I get through I want a crack at Egypt, Africa, and China.
March 17, 1918.
My life for the past few weeks is about the most exciting I have ever passed. I am able to amble around quite comfortably now, although I was rather sore and bruised for a while. I have taken over a line of dual-control instruction for the experience it will give me.
Riding in a plane, with a new man in whom you have no confidence, — who will do you know not what the next minute, — is far from monotonous drudgery. Every minute one is on the alert and passes through new thrills. I never knew how badly a machine could be flown without wrecking, until I saw some of these new men struggle. It is interesting, and I like a little of it; but it would not do to spend my life at it. To trust yourself to a new man is indeed to have the utmost confidence in the Fates; but yesterday I put them to a severe test.
I had a great big Swede of a fellow who was up for his first lesson, and in taking off the ground, after a landing about five kilometres from camp, he headed straight for an olive tree. Upon getting close he became scared, — as did I, — but instead of trying to avoid it, he just hung on to the controls with all the strength of a drowning man. I wrenched and tussled to get the controls in time. Finally I got them — but it was too late. The under-side of the wing was stripped of the fabric, and the left aileron was torn off, while the machine was inclined dangerously. Somehow or other we negotiated a landing and examined the bus. I decided that the plane, though with a reduced degree of stability, could still be flown; so I left the student to walk home for punishment, while I flew the machine back to camp. It was some ride. The ailerons on the left side were extremely unsensitive, and the torn fabric of the wing made her have a heavy list, that gave an unusual flying experience.
My arrival at camp was ridiculous. I came home with long streamers of torn linen riding behind, and a tangle of broken wires twirling aimlessly about. The Italians, an animated lot, came running up and jabbered excitedly. The Italian Chief Pilot congratulated me on being still alive, without asking me how it had happened. When at last I was able to get a word in and tell them, their attitude was even more amusing, — a mixture of surprise and disgust for one who would attempt such a stunt. Since my wing-loops the other day, I am afraid that I have lost my reputation with them for being a safe pilot. Besides, I like to fly in rough weather when they say it is too bad. ‘Your life stings,’is an Italian proverb they apply to me now. And this last stunt has not reinstated me in their good opinion. But in battle one has to face such hazards, so why not try them out when the trying is good? The whole adventure was amusing, though I never again want to go through the actual collision. The feeling of being in a machine with a man who, in his excitement, just freezes on to the controls, — to have the commands there and not be able to use them, — that is a terrible feeling.
To-day I had another experience, a trifle more ridiculous. We had made a practice landing in a rather small field, and in order to start off again had to turn round. In turning, the wind in a sudden gust hit us and swerved us out of our course, directly at a canal used for irrigation. I yelled to the cadet to turn off the gas; but he, being in his second lesson and losing his head, puts it on full. We go tearing across to this dike. The machine has not had time to acquire flying speed and cannot jump the ditch, so we roll right in. Sitting down about eight feet below the level of the field, only the top plane of the machine, and a bunch of wreckage that got scraped off on the way over, can be seen from outside.
We picked ourselves up and walked around to make sure we were not hurt, and I went for help, leaving the cadet to guard the wreck. While I was gone, an Italian pilot, spying the calamity, landed, jumped out, rushed madly up and down, waving his arms, covering his eyes as though weeping, and dramatically shouting: ‘Dov’e il pilota? 0 porca miseria! Dov’e il pilota? £ morto? (Where is the pilot? O terrible misfortune! Where is the pilot? Is he dead?) The poor chap could see nothing but the submerged wreck, and the helpless cadet standing by dejectedly. He could speak no English, the cadet no Italian. The cadet, thinking him to be bemoaning the loss of the machine, nodded his head in assent.
When I arrived at camp, all was in a state of excitement. Flying had been suspended and everybody was going to the wreck. It had been reported by the Italian pilot that I was dead and my body could not be found. I had come back feeling rather sheepish over my second accident in two days, but I ’ll stake a dollar to an old shoe, that I did not look as cheap as they. After the excitement had died down, I was promptly cursed for having been the cause of so much idle sympathy; and both the pilot, who had reported me dead, and I, very much alive, were banished from all polite society for the rest of the day. Some of them are now, in the evening, just beginning to forgive us.
These thrills do not often come in such large gobs. None of them are serious or ever result in mortalities — at least not in this camp, so far. Not a day goes by, however, in which some plane is not broken; it is to be expected where large numbers of men are just learning. But it is rather the proverbial lion’s share when two such things happen to the same pilot, two days running.
I feel that these last few weeks are the first time I have ever really lived. More has happened than is ever crowded into the most imaginative novel of adventure. It’s the kind of life I like.
March 19, 1918.
I am writing this letter on the train bound from Rome to Naples, a situation that I little expected would ever happen. Leaving Rome about fourthirty, we passed through some very beautiful scenery, along the foothills on the western slope of the Appenines. The little Italian towns are extremely picturesque; rather gaudy in their color selections and cramped in their space, but the models of neatness and cleanliness, — outwardly, — from the best, right on down to the poorest. Outside of Rome the road winds along the old Appian Way, and for many kilometres along the Old Roman Aqueduct, which still stands, a glorious giant monument of those wonderful old people.
This is the first time since we came down to our aviation camp last fall, through Turin, Bologna, and Ancona, that I have traveled in the daytime, and I certainly appreciate the trip. I had no time on this occasion to see the sights of Rome, arriving there early in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. However, from other angles, the trip is the most interesting one I have made. It is purely in line of business, and will call for some rather intensive study, for three or four days, in Naples.
I met in Rome his Excellency, the Honorable Signor Chiesa, Commissioner of Aviation, a charming gentleman who speaks English well, and is very human. From him I received letters of introduction to the Mayor of Naples and the general in charge of aviation matters in this district, and from them I shall get letters to other interesting people from whom I may secure what information I am after.
I met Signor P—, J.’s friend, in
Rome, and found him more than advertised. He is an architect and his wife a painter. Each has a studio, but in different parts of the city. They invited me to Signora P—’s studio for dinner to-night, but I could not stay over. However, they invited me to stay for several days in Rome, over Easter, or whenever else I can get up; and I shall accept the invitation with avidity when I have my next leave. Signor
P—, besides being a very charming
giant, — he is much over six feet, — will be a very useful man to know in my business, so long as I am in Italy, for at present he is very prominent in the American Red Cross here, and has already sent down many of our medical supplies. Through him I shall be able to get many other things that our camps need. He has the regular cordiality of our friends the B—s,and influence to put across almost anything.
At the station I bought from the station vender, for three lire, a most tasteful little basket of food for supper. They know how to do such things here — everything is the same way — with a finesse and a degree of uncommercial beauty that we get none of in our country. The basket had two large sandwiches of the country’s brown bread, one with a large highly seasoned sausage and the other with cold roast beef; a piece of fine cream cheese, a flagon of wine, and some fruit — oranges, apples and nuts. Everything done up individually in neat paper packages, the whole looked so edible that it went down without a murmur, even though the food was rather rank, and I shall worry for some days for fear of ptomaine.
This letter is a marvel of disorganization — I can’t seem to coordinate my thoughts and finger-action with the syncopations of the train motion. My typewriter seems to be causing quite a stir. You know the trains in Europe are all of the compartment variety — this time I happen to have a compartment to myself. The people are very good about not crowding in on a foreigner in uniform, unless the train is full. However, they are lined up against the glass window between the compartment and the corridor, passing many funny remarks in speculation as to who I am. At present one wise geezer has me ranked as at least a brigadier-general! and is defending me beautifully by appointing himself a policeman, keeping the crowd back and orderly. Were it not for the wonderful Italian pass that I am traveling under, I might be taken in as a spy — but my pass says that I am a very important person traveling on an important mission, and will everybody please be just as assistful as possible, in order to help bring the war to a close! Rather delightful, eh?
March 27, 1918.
I hope you will enjoy these snapshots. I have had no pictures taken in flying togs or with a machine in the background, for the reason you well know. Many who have never flown, or had any intention to fly, have dressed up and had their pictures taken with a machine in the background, to make them out as pilots. I don’t want to be mixed up with that bunch. At our camp we hoot a man who has his picture taken that way — the golden eagle we wear is enough for our distinction.
I have returned from a most wonderful trip to Rome and Naples, where I have had a most interesting work to perform. It is in the line of technical engineering, so naturally my previous training helped me get the trip. I was in Naples one of the nights of the aerial bombardment that you must have read about in the papers, and it was all very interesting. I shall tell you about some of my experiences in Naples when I have more time. Among other things I was introduced into Society, and met two princes and any number of other titled people. I have a permanent invitation to the ‘Tennis Club,’ an exclusive sporting club of the city. I hope some day to be able to make use of it.
How do you like my new calling cards? They were ordered for me by an Italian captain, as being the right thing in this part of Italy!
When I returned to camp, I found that I had been ordered up to France; but much to my disappointment the camp authorities had taken the matter up with Jreadquarters in my absence, and the order was countermanded. This means that I shall lose out on being one of the first at the front — which I had set my heart on. I am now acting commandant of the camp here, and shall be for a month until the return of Captain LaGuardia. Meanwhile I continue some rather interesting and responsible work here. But it is hard luck.
What has loomed up on the horizon is blacker than anything that has yet come. Everything that I have done here has been with the idea of going to the front. When I came to this camp with Captain LaGuardia, I was to be here only ‘ till I was ready for the front.’ Now another man is sent over to be permanent camp-commander and I have been slated to be a liaison officer, under the captain, to work for the Joint Aircraft Board. I go to Rome — the most bomb-proof of all bomb-proof places — wearing the most non-shootable of all non-shootable uniforms, to do engineering work and investigation relative to the uniting of Italy’s and America’s aviation industries. True, the work will be fascinating and instructive. Promotion in that line is said to be more rapid than in any other branch of the service, for one’s work is constantly brought before the eyes of one’s superiors. But where, in all this time, has gone the fighter? A fine hero I should be at the end of the war, coming home after a job like that!