World War I was the first major conflict where airplanes were introduced on the battlefield. Recognizing the significant contribution airplanes made to the war effort, the Assistant Chief of Staff of the Air Service, Colonel Edgar S. Gorrell, wrote a history documenting the contributions of aircraft for use in future conflicts. That history now referred to as “Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service 1917-1919” is a 282-bound volume narrative and is available to view on Fold3. It provides valuable historical insight, first-hand accounts, and pages of Weekly Progress Reports, Cablegrams, Squadron Histories, and more.
As WWI came to a close, the AEF instructed all Air Service Units to send historical information to Gorrell’s office before returning to the United States. Some squadrons fulfilled the request, while others were anxious to get home saying, “Writing history does not appeal to them.”
The 1st and 8th Aero Squadrons complied with the request and sent a gripping report of their involvement in the Battle of Saint Mihiel, fought September 12-16, 1918. The battle was the first US-led offensive during WWI and the first major usage of the US Army Air Service in wartime.
Lt. Harry D. Aldrich of the 1st Aero Squadron was flying over the front on September 12, 1918. He guided American Expeditionary Forces to enemy positions by reconnoitering the area and then dropping messages to those on the ground. That afternoon, Lt. Aldrich received reports of a German battery delivering heavy fire, but their location could not be ascertained from the ground. Aldrich took to the skies with Lt. David Ker acting as Observer. While flying towards the German gun positions, they were attacked by a patrol of six or seven Fokker airplanes. “Lt. Ker opened fire on them while I put our ship into a spiral,” said Aldrich. “I found that my control wires were shot away and smoke and flames began pouring out of the cockpit. The Germans were following us down.” Observers noted that the burning plane was spiraling out of control, but moments before crashing, the fuel tank exploded. The explosion acted as a cushion and broke the fall of the aircraft.
In addition to first-hand accounts from fighter pilots, Gorrell’s History also includes information from the Balloon sections and Photographic sections, where military aerial photography first started during WWI. The AEF also formed a Radio Section to take advantage of this new experimental wartime form of communication.