Somewhere in the dust of the history books, buried in the frequently complex relationship between the United States and France is a single great fact: The United States and France are the oldest of friends and the longest of allies and that the two countries have come to each other's aid on many occasions. During the American Revolution, it was French money, materiel and men that made victory possible against mighty England. And during World War I, it was Americans who came to repay the debt. They came to France toward the end of World War I. And then a generation later the Americans came again, this time playing the lead role in liberating France in 1944 during World War II.
In 1918, the United States Air Force was called the United States Air Service. The men who served in it were young, brave and they left behind their university studies, families, friends and jobs to aid the Allied cause. In many cases, they sacrificed their lives and still they lie in the American Cemeteries in France.
Map showing 1st Pursuit Group basings (based on Google Maps). See the great new interactive Google map:
The United States Air Service in World War I Map.
These men were the first fighter pilots and bomber pilots in United States military history. Apart from a few flyers who carried machine guns aboard in fruitless effort against the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916 and some Civil War reconnaissance balloons, these were the first combat aviators of any kind in US history. These pilots were the first Americans flying under the American flag to fly fighter planes or bombers. They were the first to engage in aerial combat. They were the first to shoot down an enemy aircraft. And their story is fascinating.
The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. The famed Lafayette Escadrille's experienced American pilots - flying for France, were used as the nucleus of new American squadrons. The first operational fighter squadrons were the 27th, 94th, 95th and 147th Aero Squadrons; they were grouped together as the 1st Pursuit Group. In April, 1918, a year after the US joined the war, the 1st Pursuit Group started operating from Toul - at first with Nieuport 28s flown without machine guns that were to come soon. Over time, the 1st Pursuit Group got its first kills. It was then transferred in support of the Chateau Thierry sector and it was there that the 1st Pursuit Group started seeing heavy action.
Initially they were in the "quiet sector" based in Toul, learning some basic tactics, sometimes patrolling with unarmed fighter aircraft and not seeing much combat. From June 26 to July 8, 1st Pursuit Group they rebased to Touquin, France, 45 miles east of Paris. From July 9-September 1, 1918, the 1st Pursuit Group rebased again, this time merely three miles away to the village of Saints. While in Saints, the men were billeted in the adjacent village of Mauperthuis. At the beginning of September they relocated to Rembercourt where they remained for the duration of the war.
From mid-April, 1918 to November 11, 1918, pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group had 1,413 aerial engagements, shot down 50 balloons and 151 aircraft. Nineteen of the pilots became aces - 5 or more kills. They included Eddie Rickenbacker with 26, Frank Luke, Jr. with 18 and many others.
The 1st Pursuit Group was followed in time by several other groups - the 2nd Pursuit Group, 3rd Pursuit Group and 4th Pursuit Group, 1st Surveillance Group, 1st Day Bombardment Group, etc., which grew the size of the American units from four squadrons to 45 squadrons. In total, by November 11, 1918, when the war ended, the forty-five squadrons participated in seven campaigns, claimed 781 planes and 73 balloons downed. They had repeatedly tangled with the best German squadrons such as the Richthofen Circus. They produced 71 aces of whom five had more than 10 victories each. They dropped 140 tons of bombs in 150 bombing runs. And in exchange, they lost 289 airplanes, 48 balloons and 237 of their own men either killed or missing in action.
1st Observation Group, 1st Pursuit Group, 1st Bombardment Group, 2nd Pursuit Group, 3rd Pursuit Group,
4th Pursuit Group, and 5th Pursuit Group. See the really cool Google Map we've made just for you.
1st Observation Group - 1st aero squadron, 12th aero squadron, 50th aero squadron
1st Pursuit Group - 27th aero squadron, 94th aero squadron, 95th aero squadron, 147th aero squadron, 185th aero squadron
1st Bombardment Group - 96th aero squadron, 11th aero squadron, 20th aero squadron, 166th aero squadron
2nd Pursuit Group - 13th aero squadron, 22nd aero squadron, 49th aero squadron, 139th aero squadron
3rd Pursuit Group - 28th aero squadron, 93rd aero squadron, 103rd aero squadron, 213th aero squadron
4th Pursuit Group - 17th aero squadron, 25th aero squadron, 148th aero squadron, 141st aero squadron
5th Pursuit Group - 41st Aero Squadron, 138th Aero Squadron, 638th Aero Squadron