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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On June 17, 1918, he promises Kate, “I’m going to have my picture made for you in helmet and goggles,” adding scornfully, “So many here are taken that way of men who never go near a plane.”

Louis is very photogenic: a small, slender man with obsidian eyes, a strong jaw, and a generous mouth. I found another photograph—a comic tableau vivant in which my grandfather stands with two buddies beside a parked JN-4, his belly bloated with a pillow, portraying a fat Prussian foe, a tiny German helmet propped atop his head. Other casual poses find him lounging with brother officers outside his quarters, standing proudly beside the plane cleverly named for his wife (“K-8”), or grinning cheerfully with the post baseball team he managed.

But in his correspondence, he shows a flair for drama. Usually seeking to calm Kate’s worries, he still writes on one occasion, “Know, darling, that if I crash, I’ll be thinking of you as I come spinning down.” And, having mastered a maneuver called the “falling leaf,” he sketches a Jenny slip-sliding down the margin of one page. “It’s a grand sensation—think of me cutting such a stunt 2000 feet in the air!”

Most of his surviving letters are to his wife, but a few are to others. On January 30, 1919, Louis writes a letter to his daughter Louise—my mother—with a long description of his carrier pigeons. He names one for her: “The other day, Lieutenant Blakely flew 100 miles up country and sent me a message by Louise. He turned her loose at 10 am and the message was on my desk at noon.” He describes how the pigeons are summoned: “When they’re all out flying and we want to call them in, we rattle an old tomato can filled with pebbles and they come straight home.” The bird Louise, he tells his daughter, “after carrying the message to me laid a little egg to celebrate the occasion.”

As a pilot, he is quick to pay special attention to the achievements of the Air Service. “Whenever we shot down a German flyer, our planes flew over next day and dropped flowers on the crash site. And the Germans buried young [Quentin] Roosevelt [Theodore’s son], with full honors after they brought him down. The reason for this fellow feeling is that air combat is single-handed fighting—man to man—and that brings out the best there is in a man.”

In the months after his solo, flying becomes one of his regular duties, and one of his greatest delights. Captain Crawford enjoys a style of aviation largely unavailable today. He rides an open cockpit, guided by a compass and a hand-drawn map, following roads, railroad lines, and riverbeds. The wire, wood, and canvas feel alive to him, as well they might to someone whose prior beast of burden had been a horse.

He becomes a capable aviator, and is made an instructor.

Louis can find comedy in flight. In a feature story in the Hertford, North Carolina Herald, he observes: “My favorite stunting ground is a couple of miles south of San Antonio, selected because there are several good fields available in case of trouble. One borders on the State Insane Asylum. Frequently in coming out of loops or Immelmanns while hanging on my back for a second several thousand feet up with only a thin safety belt between me and the hereafter, I have imagined the inmates on the porch beckoning and saying: ‘Come on down, you qualify.’ ”

But as the war enters its final months, he becomes increasingly frustrated at being left out of combat. In one letter he writes of the enemy: “I’ve read where they are using American uniforms to deceive our troops. Oh, for one crack at them! Give me a Lewis gun in the cockpit of a fast fighter plane and I know that I’d be satisfied with life.”

But the Armistice is signed before he gets the chance to fly in combat. Now Captain Crawford has another anxiety to face. He dreams of a major’s gold leaf, but radical post-Armistice reductions in force sweep the services, including the airmen at Kelly Field. During the war, the base hosts a total of nearly a quarter of a million men; the number now shrinks to 10,000. Though Kelly remains open, Headquarters Southern Command determines Colonel Crawford’s unit to be over strength. Somehow, though, my grandfather manages to keep bars on his shoulders: With a new posting as a lieutenant of cavalry, he takes command of troops stationed in Columbus, New Mexico. His service is interrupted in October 1920, when he is ordered to the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas.

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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