Today is an age of unparalleled military might in the skies for the United States. The U.S. Air Force boasts more than 5,600 aircraft and 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Sixty-five Air Force satellites orbit the Earth. More than 332,000 active personnel man this mighty arsenal, to which more than $140 billion of America’s budget is devoted.
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Today, in an era in which unmanned military drones are the cutting edge of aerial warfare, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the United States didn’t rule the skies. Yet, only 100 years ago, the U.S. military consisted of a measly five aircraft, with no training programs or recruitment procedures in place. German dirigibles, not airplanes, were feared as “ominous weapons” of warfare. And just four years earlier, Rear Admiral Robert D. Evans, commander of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” was widely quoted as saying, “flying machines have plenty of work ahead of them before navy men will consider them a serious menace.”
But in 1914, as Word War I raged in Europe, Britain’s battered Royal Flying Corps—which was learning firsthand the applications of flight in modern warfare—was desperate for pilots. When the Corps (later to become the Royal Air Force) opened a recruiting office in New York City, American aviators, having grown tired of waiting for their own country to develop a military aerial program, answered the call. Their stories are told in The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF In World War I, a compelling new book about the U.S. pilots who refused to be grounded when the battleground was first extended into the skies.
The book, penned by award-winning writer and historian Gavin Mortimer, tells the stories of these gifted American pilots, many of whom were frustrated by the lack of foresight shown by their country as the French, British, and German governments developed aerial fighting forces. They flocked to the British recruiting office in droves, and after a year of intense and deadly training, 247 American RFC pilots were shipped to Europe. Hundreds more would follow in the next two months. Their involvement was lauded by leaders as pivotal to the Allied victory in the war.
How successful were the American pilots? Mortimer writes that 28 of the men were credited with five or more kills, and were celebrated as “aces.” American pilot John Donaldson left for France at age 20 and shot down seven German pilots before being downed himself. The Iaccaci brothers, Paul and August, accounted for shooting down 29 German aircraft between them, and were each awarded Britain’s Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroics. Frank Hale finished the war with seven confirmed aerial victories, and was also awarded the DFC.
Mortimer shares tales of combat by these early aerial heroes. In one chapter, he recounts the final flight of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, better known by his dreaded nom de guerre, “the Red Baron.” Von Richthofen, widely considered to be the top ace of the war with 80 air combat victories to his credit, was finally shot down and killed by Sopwith Camel aircraft of the RAF’s 209 Squadron in a dogfight that included New Jersey native Oliver “Boots” LeBoutiller.
The First Eagles also pauses to recount what became of some of these great flyers in the years after the war. LeBoutillier returned to the United States and performed aerial stunts and tricks as a barnstormer. He also appeared as a stunt pilot in 18 Hollywood films, including the Howard Hughes’ epic Hell’s Angels. Ace Bogart Rogers, credited with six victories in World War I, achieved success as a screenwriter and novelist, and later invented the horse-race photo-finish camera. DFC winner George Vaughn, one of America’s highest-ranking pilots in the RAF with 13 aerial victories, went on to train more than 30,000 technicians for the U.S. Air Force during World War II. In 1981, at age 84, Vaughn returned to France with eight other pilots at the invitation of President François Mitterand to mark the anniversary of the end of WWI. There, Vaughn was to meet some of his former adversaries from the German air force. Asked if he was apprehensive about the meeting, Vaughn said no. “You slap him on the back, buy him a drink and laugh about it,” he said.
Set in a bygone era of military flight that lacked parachutes, radios, or radar—a time when, in the words of one pilot, “all you did was fly the planes and shoot the guns”—The First Eagles tells the story of an extraordinary group of Americans who not only helped lead the Allies to victory, but also led their country into the age of aerial warfare. Replete with personal stories, historical information and contemporary photographs, The First Eagles is a saga of bravery, gallantry, and men who would change the history of the world.