As Princeton resident and professor emeritus Samuel Hynes demonstrates in The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), the romance of being a fighter pilot in the Great War was viewed by young men, many of them from Ivy League schools, as “wonderful sport,” “a glorious sport,” “the best game over here,” “the sporty side of war.” Hynes, who flew 68 combat missions as a Marine pilot in World War II, goes along with the notion before grounding it in reality: “They’re right …. Only in the air will small groups of players acting together oppose other small groups — like two football teams. But to make the big game analogy really work, you’d have to imagine a Harvard-Yale game in which both teams are armed with lethal weapons. In that game the players would not simply be athletes; they’d be gamblers, taking risks with their own lives.”
Princeton in the Air
The big game idea is extended in Hynes’s account of the day flying came to Princeton, November 18, 1916, as the Tiger football team took on Yale, with a fleet of 12 planes flying in from Long Island, the lead aircraft piloted by Old Nassau’s star athlete Hobey Baker (Class of 1914). When America entered the war in 1918, Princeton organized its own flying corps, financed by well-heeled alums, with a pasture south of town on the Princeton Pike leased as an air field. Hynes nails the Princeton connection by quoting an exchange from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise in which Fitzgerald’s fictional alter ego Amory Blaine says “aviation’s the thing for me.”
Fitzgerald’s own feelings on the subject are presented with characteristic flair in a November 14, 1917 letter to his mother from the Cottage Club informing her that upon getting his commission he went to Brooks Brothers to order some of his “equipment” (“my uniforms are going to cost quite a bit”); he goes on to say that he “went into this perfectly cold-bloodedly” and doesn’t sympathize with the “hero stuff,” having made the move “purely for social reasons” [his italics].
Had Fitzgerald actually become a pilot, he’d have had his shot at society, for, as Hynes points out, “Wherever they trained, in England or in Scotland or in France, the young Americans found the local gentry hospitable and eager to invite them to their country houses for dinner or weekends. The pilots were impressed by the style of the lives these people lived” (think Downton Abbey) “and wrote home about the country-house life.” One pilot tells “a Princeton friend” about attending a dance at “a large estate” in Scotland “with a history dating way back somewhere,” being invited there again “for an afternoon of tennis and tea,” and concluding that he has “quite broken into the high society of Ayr.”
Early chapters of Hynes’s book like “Driving the Machine” reminded me of being taken up in a Piper Cub by one of my maternal uncles, a career soldier in the Army Air Force who performed, much to my delight, certain aerial maneuvers. Such antics with an eight-year-old aboard must have appalled my mother, and for good reason, since her other brother, a B-47 bombardier, had been killed in a mid-air collision. Brother and sister had been very close and the wound left by the senseless crash (a training mission in Nevada) never healed. After her death, I found a small box containing a dog tag, a dented cigarette lighter, and a mangled, half-full pack of Camels. She received these things and other “personal effects” along with a letter from an Army chaplain telling her that her “loved one’s body” had been found at a distance from the wreckage “remarkably intact.”
The chaplain’s comment came to mind in Hynes’s account of the death of Raoul Lufbery, “the most revered American aviator in France,” according to Eddie Rickenbacker, who called him an “Ace of Aces.” It was Rickenbacker who described the scene after driving to the village where Lufbery “had struck the earth … the body had fallen on a white picket fence surrounding a peasant’s garden.”
In addition to various suppositions about the loss of a pilot immune to the bravado that brought down inexperienced fliers who saw combat as a sport, there was the question of whether Lufbery had jumped or fallen, this being before pilots had parachutes. In one eyewitness account “from the village shoemaker,” Lufbery “had flown so close to the enemy plane that they seemed to touch and had fired four or five shots. The German did not reply. Again he approached and fired, and this time the German replied with a few rounds. The American plane pulled away and rolled over, and what looked like a sack full of something fell out.”
After paraphrasing the village shoemaker, Hynes quotes Billy Mitchell, “the great cheerleader for war in the air,” who describes “the terrible thing” that is the “burning of a pilot in the air as his ship catches fire from the hostile flaming bullets …. He is there suspended in space, with no companion to share his misery, no man at his elbow to support him, as in the infantry on the ground. When he is wounded and falls, it is for thousands of feet instead of two or three, as a man on the ground does.”
Touching and Terrible
Another association roused by Hynes’s book that has some additional bearing on the chaplain’s letter to my mother can be found in a scene from William Wellman’s silent film Wings, which won the 1929 Academy Award for Best Picture. “Wild Willy” Wellman was the first American to join the Lafayette Flying Corps and is said to have achieved three recorded “kills,” along with five probables. Though Wings includes some spectacular flying scenes (not to mention the unwholesomely wholesome charms of Clara Bow), the scene that has stayed with me is illuminated by Gary Cooper, then on the brink of stardom. Playing an air cadet named White, Cooper is on the screen a mere matter of minutes, just long enough to greet the two rookie pilots (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) before leaving “to do a flock of figure eights before chow.” Telling the boys (one minute in the Cooper Presence and the two male leads have become puppies) that he doesn’t believe in good luck charms (“Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you’re going to get it”), he gives them a look that says everything there is to say about such things as life and death and fate. It’s the epitome of Last Looks and Last Words, in medium close-up, effortlessly expressed by one of the great faces of cinema. Almost before you have time to recover from that moment, the fate alluded to is delivered, as an officer tells the stunned rookies to gather White’s belongings for sending home. While they are predictably moved by the photograph of White’s mother, the object that commands their attention is the half-eaten chocolate bar he’d shared with them, a token of camaraderie. Suddenly that mundane object has become touching and terrible in its very ordinariness — like such things as white picket fences and gardens, village shoemakers, “a sack full of something,” and, for me, my uncle’s dog tag, dented lighter, and the package of Camels, with a dozen cigarettes inside, still intact. Usually I keep the dog tag hanging from a push-pin on the bulletin board above my desk; at this moment, an hour after midnight, November 11, I’m wearing it.
A Puff of Smoke
In Hynes’s penultimate chapter, not all the pilots at the front are “rejoicing” at the rumors that the war might be ending; the possibility of an armistice is passed off as “the peace scare.” As Hynes explains, “peace will mean the end of the game they entered when they enlisted, the game that would change them from college boys into older, different people.” In one letter written within a month of November 11, a 23-year-old flying ace with eight confirmed “kills” says he’s “done a lot of figuring” on what he’s “worth or good for.” He’d thought he had his life “all fixed” and had pictured himself “as a spectacled City Manager. That has gone like a puff of smoke.” The flying life has given him “a terrible wanderlust.” As Hynes phrases it, the young man’s future seemed “wide open and full of options,” including “careers in engineering, geology, forestry, aviation, automobiles.” On October 27, 1918, two weeks short of the Armistice, Hamilton Coolidge, the great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson, was killed in action by a German anti-aircraft shell near Grandpré in the Ardennes.
Art and Armistice
And so comes the Armistice, but “after the cheering and the flags and the bright city lights, the new peacetime seems,” in Hynes’s words, “a vacancy: the sky is empty now and so are their lives.”
Like nature, however, art “abhors a vacuum.” Thus Shakespeare swallows a storm and creates King Lear, which gives Samuel Hynes a title for his own contribution to the cause: “Welcome, then,/Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace:/The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst/Owes nothing to thy blasts.”
Finally, who better to articulate and redeem the vacancy than William Faulkner, who could fly, in reality and rhetorically. In mid-June of 1918 he was accepted by the Royal Air Force and though he never got off the ground (“the war quit on us before we could do anything about it”), in the next decade he would write masterworks like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and “Ad Astra,” a story that takes place on November 11, 1918, as does “All the Dead Pilots,” where the narrator’s task, not unlike Hynes’s in The Unsubstantial Air, is going through the mail “of all the squadrons in the Wing.”
Although Hynes does more than justice to the subject, it takes a flier like Faulkner to set it soaring in “All the Dead Pilots,” with “a flash, a glare … preserved and prolonged only on paper: a picture, a few written words that any match … can obliterate in an instant,” and in “Ad Astra,” where, like Hynes, he channels Lear: “Out of nothing we howled, unwitting the storm which we had escaped and the foreign strand which we could not escape; that in the interval between two surges of the swell we died who had been too young to have ever lived.”
The quote from Fitzgerald comes from Andrew Turnbull’s collection of the letters.