Letters From a WWI Jenny Pilot

In 1918, my grandfather’s wish was simple: “Give me a Lewis gun in the cockpit of a fast fighter plane, and I know that I’d be satisfied with life.”

This Jenny belongs to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York. (Philip Makanna)
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When the United States enters the first world war, in the spring of 1917, Louis Crawford is 33 years old, has two children, and works as a county school superintendant in rural North Carolina. He has been a railroad draftsman in the Arizona Territory, a journalist in Philadelphia, and a moderately successful author of popular short fiction. But it’s his earlier experience—as a cavalry sergeant in the war in the Philippines and as an infantry officer during the Mexican revolution—that commends him to the U.S. Army. His application is accepted, and he is shipped off to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, to train as a company commander destined for the trenches. Among his cadre at the post is Captain Dwight David Eisenhower. Among his classmates: First Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald. And among his dreams is one that has been with him since childhood: the hope of emulating the valor of his father, a thrice-wounded Union veteran of the Civil War.

“My first childhood memory is of my father’s saber hanging on the wall,” Louis writes his wife Kate. “Can you imagine what that means to a boy who wants to be a soldier?”

Louis Crawford is my grandfather, and I inherited his mementos from World War I. From his letters, his journal, and his photographs, I have been able to put together a picture of a man who, because of his patriotism and the outbreak of war, unexpectedly came to fall in love with flying.

Louis trains hard at Oglethorpe, but an X-ray taken during a routine physical detects a shadow on his lung: tuberculosis. The findings deny him a combat posting. In his diary, he records his “bitter disappointment.”

One of Crawford’s sketches of the tricky falling-leaf maneuver. “If I keep at it,” he jokes to his wife, “you’ll have a real live flyer for a husband, or an angel.” (Courtesy William Crawford Woods)
Louis Crawford, the writer’s grandfather, trained doggedly in his Jenny, one of 6,800 made. Today about 50 survive. (Courtesy William Crawford Woods)
Having promised his wife a portrait, Crawford had one made the day of his solo. In its formality, it resembles a marble bust of a Roman general. (Courtesy William Crawford Woods)
In addition to the letters, the author inherited his grandfather’s Air Service bracelet, watch, and photographs. The snapshot in this collage shows Crawford with a big fake belly, imitating a Prussian officer. He and two buddies pose in front of a Jenny. (Courtesy William Crawford Woods)

But he will not give up his dream of active service. He travels to the War Department in Washington, D.C., and comes away with a commission as a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps’ newly formed aviation wing. “I was to be known as a Ground Officer,” he writes in his diary. “I had never even thought of entering the Air Service before.”

On November 26, 1917, Lieutenant Crawford reports for duty as officer in charge of maintenance at Kelly Field, near San Antonio, Texas. The base would train most of the U.S. fighter pilots who served in France, as well as many of the mechanics who supported their flying.

My grandfather’s work swiftly grows to include responsibilities as salvage officer, officer in charge of summary courts, and finally commander of the field’s troop of carrier pigeons, birds with tiny tin cups under their wings who serve as the only means pilots aloft have of contacting their base.

In May 1918, he is promoted to captain, but he frets that his work is merely routine. I can easily envision the new captain—after months of salvage and maintenance work, staffing courts-martial, and tending to birds—standing one day at the edge of the field. He closely watches the fragile biplanes trudge down the rutted runway with their sagging wings and shaking fabric before suddenly falconing into the sky; later that evening he writes in his diary, “I realized for the first time that it could be done.”

He gets his chance. In August 1918, the army opens flight training to the ground officers. Captain Crawford applies at once.
He is not a natural pilot. His journal and his letters home document his struggles to master a skill so foreign to anything he had ever experienced before. His competence grows, and his fearlessness is never in question. Once he notes, “I find that I do not ever think of the personal danger while flying, my chief idea being not to smash up the ship.” One of his instructors remarks, “Captain Crawford seems to disregard the ground.”

About William Crawford Woods

Author of the novel The Killing Zone with pieces in Esquire and The Atlantic, William Crawford Woods is currently at work on a non-fiction book titled Three Soldiers: Fathers and Sons and American Wars.

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