Letters from the Front, World War I (1918, by Quentin Roosevelt)
LETTERS FROM THE FRONT, WORLD WAR I (1918, by Quentin Roosevelt)
These diary pages, penned by Theodore Roosevelt's son, Quentin, offer a glimpse into the earliest days of mechanized warfare and the mind of an adventurous young American engaged in it. Aerial combat in the Great War (World War I) was a crude affair. Targets had to be located visually, and a reliance on small arms was not unusual. Pilots often dropped bricks on targets below. By 1918, the war had dragged on in Europe for four years, exacting a death toll heretofore unheard of in the annals of war. Even the intrepid and good-natured Quentin, who memorized eye charts before his enlistment physical so that his poor eyesight would not keep him out of the newly formed United States Air Force, was no match for its ferocity. On July 14, just days after he penned the pages here, he was shot down and killed behind enemy lines by a pair of German fighter planes. Only twenty years old, he was buried near Reims, France, and later re-interred at Normandy.
June 8, 1918
I've had so much happening to me, tho, in the last ten days, that I have not had time to think even, which is just as well. Ham and I had almost begun to think we were permanently stuck in Issoudun, when with no warning, we were ordered up to Orly, which is just outside of Paris. No one knew anything about the orders, and Ham and I felt sure that it meant our first step out to the front. Once the orders came, tho, we only had twelve hours time to settle everything up and leave. You can imagine how we hurried, with all the goodbyes to be said and packing, and paying bills. I thought we never would get away, but finally it was thru, and we got in the truck and started to leave for the main camp to get our clearance papers. Then they did one of the nicest things I've ever had happen. Our truck driver instead of going out the regular way, took us down the line of hangars and as we went past all the mechanics were lined up in front and cheered us goodbye. As we passed the last hangar one of the sergeants yelled, after us, "Let us know if you're captured and we'll come after you." So I left with a big lump in my throat, for its nice to know that your men have liked you.
July 6, 1918
Yesterday our flight officer was sent out to patrol at thirty-five hundred metres over about a ten kilometre sector where some sort of straightening the line action was going on. Our orders were not to cross the line, or fight unless forced to. For about fifteen minutes we chased up and down, up and down, with no more excitement than scaring a few reglage planes back into Germany. I was busy watching below us—I was flying right—when I saw our leader give the alert signal. I hadn't seen anything below, so I looked ahead and there up about a thousand metres, on the German side I saw a patrol of six Boche. We started climbing at once, and I was having a horrid time, for while the rest of the formation closed in I dragged farther and farther behind. I have a bad motor, so that when the rest hurry up they leave me. There I was, with only the slim consolation that the leader was probably keeping his eye on me. We climbed on, and I did my darndest to keep up and at the same time keep an eye on the Boche who remained comfortably on top. The next thing I knew, a shadow came across my plane, and there, about two hundred metres above me, and looking as big as all outdoors was a Boche. He was so near I could make out the red stripes around his fuselage. I'm free to confess that I was scared blue. I was behind the rest of the formation, and he had all the altitude. So I pushed on the stick, prayed for motor, and watched out of the corner of my eye to see his elevators go down, and have his tracers shooting by me. However, for some reason he didn't attack, instead he took a few general shots at the lot and then swung back to his formation. Our only explanation is that he didn't want to fight in our lines,—he had every kind of advantage over us. Lord, but I was glad when he left. When I got back they decided to pull my motor, so I was given another plane for this morning, which belongs to a fellow who's sick.
We went out on patrol again, this time at five thousand and started over across, hunting for trouble. A couple of kilometres inside the line we spotted six of them about a thousand metres below us. We circled and came back between them and the sun, and dove on them. They never saw us until we started shooting so we had them cold. I had miserable luck—I had my man just where I wanted, was piquing down on him, (he was a monoplane) and after getting good and close, set my sight on him and pulled the trigger. My gun shot twice and then jammed. It was really awfully hard luck, for I couldn't fix it. The feed box had slipped, so she only fired one shot at a time, and then quit. I did everything I could, but finally had to give up and come home, as we were about fifteen kilo-metres their side of the line. As the papers put it, tho', "a successful evening was had by all." We got three of them—They weren't the circus of course. We lost one man, tho', and we aren't sure how. We rather think his motor must have gone dead on him, and forced him to land in Germany. So things are looking more interesting around here, and I've had my first real fight. I was doubtful before,—for I thought I might get cold feet, or something, but you don't. You get so excited that you forget everything except getting the other fellow, and trying to dodge the tracers, when they start streaking past you.
July 11, 1918
I got my first real excitement on the front for I think I got a Boche. The Operations Officer is trying for confirmation on it now. I was out on high patrol with the rest of my squadron when we got broken up, due to a mistake in formation. I dropped into a turn of a vrille—these planes have so little surface that at five thousand you can't do much with them. When I got straightened out I couldn't spot my crowd any where, so, as I had only been up an hour, I decided to fool around a little before going home, as I was just over the lines. I turned and circled for five minutes or so, and then suddenly,—the way planes do come into focus in the air, I saw three planes in formation. At first I thought they were Boche, but as they paid no attention to me I finally decided to chase them, thinking they were part of my crowd, so I started after them full speed. I thought at the time it was a little strange, with the wind blowing the way it was, that they should be going almost straight into Germany, but I had plenty of gas so I kept on.
They had been going absolutely straight and I was nearly in formation when the leader did a turn, and I saw to my horror that they had white tails with black crosses on them. Still I was so near by them that I thought I might pull up a little and take a crack at them. I had altitude on them, and what was more they hadn't seen me, so I pulled up, put my sights on the end man, and let go. I saw my tracers going all around him but for some reason he never even turned, until all of a sudden his tail came up and he went down in a vrille. I wanted to follow him but the other two had started around after me, so I had to cut and run. However, I could half watch him looking back, and he was still spinning when he hit the clouds three thousand meters below. Of course he may have just been scared, but I think he must have been hit, or he would have come out before he struck the clouds. Three thousand meters is an awfully long spin.
I had a long chase of it for they followed me all the way back to our side of the lines, but our speed was about equal so I got away. The trouble is that it was about twenty kilometers inside their lines, and I am afraid, too far to get confirmation.
At the moment every one is very much pleased in our Squadron for we are getting new planes. We have been using Nieuports, which have the disadvantage of not being particularly reliable and being inclined to catch fire.
SOURCE: Roosevelt, Kermit, ed. Quentin Roosevelt: A Sketch with Letters. New York: Scribners, 1922.