Former Atwood Museum Director Talks About WWI Flying Aces At EPL

By: Tim Wood

Topics: History

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, Germany's “Red Baron.” COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – If you've always wondered about those magnificent young men in their flying machines, here's your chance to learn more.

Author and historian Mark Wilkins, former director and curator of the Atwood House Museum, knows all about the World War I “aces” who created a new form of warfare, aerial combat and in their day held a status not unlike modern-day rock stars. An author of books and articles on both aviation and marine history, he's got a forthcoming book about WWI pilots and will speak on the subject at the Eldredge Public Library this Saturday, May 12, at 2 p.m.

“It's the advent and birth of mechanized warfare,” he said in a telephone interview.

Aviation was still in its infancy when the war began; the Wright brothers had flown their first plane just a decade earlier, Wilkins pointed out. Airplanes were not much more than some spruce planks and canvas, but with the ground war bogged down, machine guns were mounted on the planes and the young pilots who took to the skies captured the public's imagination.

“People needed something to point to that was doing well, and aviation seemed to fit the bill,” Wilkins said.

Pilots with five or more victories became Aces. They were literally flying by the seat of their pants, Wilkins said, inventing maneuvers and combat techniques, earning fame as the media and public latched onto their exploits in a period when the news was otherwise mostly depressing.

“It was all invented on the fly,” he said. “They were using their hides as collateral.”

The French took the lead, developing aircraft and an air force. Many American pilots, eager to enter the fray which the U.S. stayed out of until 1917, volunteered for the famed Lafayette Escadrille. Germany also developed a formidable air corps, with its best-known aviator Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” who was shot down and killed over France in April 1918. Like many of the WWI Aces, he was young, just 25 years old when he died.

The Aces who survived suffered both physical and psychological trauma. Just getting into a plane and flying thousands of feet above the earth with no protection brought risk from the cold, oxygen loss, blurred vision and other effects. It wasn't unusual for pilots to black out, Wilkins said. Many drank and were superstitious. One pilot had a stuffed black cat strapped to the strut of his plane and wouldn't fly without it. After it took a bullet, he wouldn't fly again until he got another. “That's just one example,” said Wilkins.

“I just don't see how they did it, to be honest,” he said of the physical dangers pilots faced.

Wilkin's book, “Aero-neurosis, Pilots of the First World War and the Psychological Legacies of Combat,” to be published at the end of the year, deals with the emotional and psychological trauma the pilots suffered. Their letters, excerpts from which Wilkins published in a recent article in the Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine, show early examples of what we know today as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Combat stress among fliers, known then as “aero-neurosis,” became more common as the war progressed,” he wrote. “Psychological stress, combined with the little-understood effects of high-altitude flying such as hypoxia, often resulted in airmen being removed from duty and sent to one of many convalescent hospitals that had popped up across the French and British countryside.”

“I just don't see how they did it, to be honest,” Wilkins said.

Aviation was for years a hobby for Wilkins. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a pilot in the worst way,” he said. In graduate school he become interested in World War I history with an emphasis on aviation, and that passion as been “going strong ever since.” A full-time writer and lecturer, he's worked for the Cape Cod Maritime Museum as well as Mystic Seaport. Among his books are “Cape Cod's Oldest Shipwreck, the Desperate Crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk,” “Spad Aircraft,” about a famous French fighter plane, due out in June, and “German Fighter Aircraft of World War I,” to be published next year. He's also working on a documentary about the Lafayette Escadrille.

During all his research, “these guys keep bubbling to the surface,” he said of the WWI Aces. By the end of the war, the aircrafts had been refined to the point where they were stable gun platforms and aerial combat was dubbed “scientific murder” by Eddie Rickenbacker, America's most successful Ace.

“The second world war just built on that,” Wilkins said, noting how the tactics developed from scratch by the WWI aces were the template for what came next. Only the planes got better, faster, and more deadly. But even today, when drone pilots sit half a world away from their targets, combat flying has psychological impacts. Wilkins said he spoke with a former drone pilot who is now a barnstormer in Ohio who still has horrible nightmares.

“As long as there's a consciousness attached to that stick, whether remote or in the cockpit, there's going to be a psychological component to it,” he said.