MacLeish was an active correspondent throughout the war, writing to his family, and to Yale Unit friends such as Robert Lovett, Trubee Davison, and Artemus "Di" Gates. Even more extensive were the letters—more than 225—to his fiancée, Priscilla Murdock. They detailed all phases of his military career, as well as his reactions to the people and places he encountered.
As one of the Navy's few commissioned pilots in the summer of 1917, Kenneth MacLeish's first orders directed him to the still-building flight school at Hampton Roads. He recounted his early experiences with enthusiasm.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Newport News, September 1917]
…This place isn’t much now, but it will be splendid in the near future. The government bought the whole Jamestown Exposition grounds, 5,000 acres or more. They are erecting the largest and finest Navy training center in the country. Aviation is only one camp, but it embraces a camp of 200 students and nine large hangars. We now have four R-6’s, four N-9's, and two F boats, with more promised. You see, originally, this was a Curtiss school and there are only 20 students here now. Our work really starts when the class of 150 men comes down from the "Tech" [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] ground school…
[To Priscilla Murdock, Norfolk, 21 September 1917]
…I think this place will be greatly improved. They at last have some system, and the spirit is much better. A day or two ago twenty-two "Tech" men arrived, all flossed up in their leather belts and shoulder straps. Of course, some of our men got out the dice, and in a few hours' sport, the poor Tech boys were stripped of all their modern improvements. You never saw a 'dicier' crowd in your life. They were all picked clean, but they're coming through well and deserve lots of credit…
[To Priscilla Murdock, Norfolk, 1 October 1917]
I’m so thrilled I can't speak, so I’ll write you a line or two. One of my ambitions has been fulfilled. I went up with Eddie Stinson this afternoon, the greatest American flyer. I looped all by myself. I got out of a mean right and left hand tailspin alone. I did vertical banks galore (until I thought I would get seasick, in fact.} And I ended up by coming down in stalls. Talk about a circus. When Stinson came down everybody clapped, so you can just picture the ride I had…The worst sensation of them all, however, was the tailspin, because you never know whether you'll come out of them or not. Even Stinson didn't want to put me into them, but I was set on it so he did. He says they're dangerous, and when he says a thing is dangerous, I am inclined to believe him, because he hasn't the faintest idea what fear is…
In mid-October MacLeish received orders to proceed to London. Following a transatlantic crossing on board the liner New York, he reached Liverpool on 5 November 1917, and London two days later. By 10 November he was in Paris, on his way to the Navy's new training base at Moutchic in southwestern France for a course on the FBA flying boat.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Moutchic, 22 November 1917]
…I got a flight today, and I'll get another tomorrow which will finish me up on stick control. I have to be careful on these machines [FBA's], so I can't have any fun. Seven Frenchmen were killed in one week flying them, and I’m not crazy about them. They do queer little tricks due to the gyroscopic action of the rotary motor, and the controls aren't very sensitive…The German prisoners around here are very interesting. They are so tickled at the wonderful treatment that they get here that they work like slaves, twice as hard and twice as well as the French, and they aren't even guarded most of the time. German discipline is something that you and I cannot understand. It's absolutely iron-bound…I ran into an English officer in Paris who told me some interesting things. He said he saw some German prisoners lying on the ground, so badly wounded they couldn't get up and march to the hospital. They put a German officer over them, and he walked over, barked out a short command, and the whole outfit jumped to their feet like rockets and stood information. Two were so badly wounded that they rolled around like tops, but they were even afraid to let themselves faint…
After completing his training at Moutchic in late November, Ensign MacLeish was assigned to the Royal Flying Corps flight school at Gosport on Britain's Channel coast. Accompanying him were fellow Yalies Edward "Shorty" Smith and David "Crock" Ingalls. With many months of training in flying boats and float planes behind him, MacLeish next attempted to master aircraft like the Avro and the Sopwith Camel.
[To Priscilla Murdock, London, 25 December 1917]
…I had a funny time at Gosport the day I left [for Christmas leave]. I went up alone, and after doing a few loops, tailspins, and sideslips, I got up enough nerve to roll the Avro. Well, I got around once beautifully, but I didn't know they would only roll once. The result was that I got into a spin with my motor full on, and before I could cut it, it went "dud." I was 2500 feet up and quite a distance from the aerodrome, with a stiff breeze in my face. I nearly had a fever before I got down. I just skimmed over some telegraph poles and wires and fell into the [air]field. Gee, it was fun for a while!
[To Priscilla Murdock, Gosport, 24 January 1918]
…I amused myself yesterday with a new trick I learned. When you pull a Camel into a loop, if you pull the joystick too fast the machine tends to turn to the right going up and on its back, so that you need full left rudder to keep going straight. Well, I wanted to see what would happen if you pushed right rudder instead. What do you think the fool bus did? It rolled on top of the loop. The worst of it was I practised if for half an hour, and every time I came out on my back. When I got down I discovered that every single wire in the machine was loose, so it must be a strain, and I won't do it anymore…
Successful completion of the regimen at Gosport earned MacLeish, Smith, and Ingalls assignment to the RFC gunnery school at Turnberry, Scotland, and the advanced school of aerial fighting nearby at Ayr. Despite the gloomy, wet Scottish winter, they all finished their course in a few weeks, and were ordered to the U.S. Navy's beleaguered air station at Dunkirk in northern France. MacLeish reached the base just as the German Army unleashed its powerful spring offensive. Located a few miles from the front, Dunkirk was bombed from the air, shelled from warships offshore, and pounded by long-range German artillery.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 22 March 1918]
…We got bombed last night, not badly, but enough to make it interesting. Bob [Lovett] was here for dinner. He and Eddie McDonnell are over at the RNAS [Royal Navy Air Service] station near here. Bob and I went out to watch the barrages go up. It was very pretty. The night before some Hun destroyers shot up the town a bit, aided by a bombing raid.
[To the MacLeish Family, Dunkirk, 24 March 1918]
…We get bombed every night, but that isn't bad. The worst thing is that big gun up the line…Last night they shelled us from five-thirty until five this morning, every forty-three minutes, with one lapse around midnight. When the shell explodes it nearly shakes one out of bed. All the shells landed within a half mile of the house…A wild rumor says they shelled Paris from the lines that's nearly sixty miles. That's too much for me; twenty is quite enough for my overworked imagination…I have no machine yet, so I won't go all patrols for a while, but this ordnance job will keep me busy for some time to come…
A shortage of planes at the American base combined with heavy casualties among nearby British aviation units led to several Navy fliers being assigned to temporary duty with the RNAS/RAF. MacLeish, Ingalls, Di Gates, Bob Lovett, and Eddie McDonnell all flew missions with British pursuit and bombardment squadrons.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 1 April 1918]
…Last night the RNAS and the RFC ceased to exist, and became merged into the Royal Air Force. We raided No.2 mess, a crowd of photographers, and after smashing every chair, window, picture, and glass, and after having absorbed all their liquor and ruined their quarters, we all moved over to No. 17 where operations were repeated. Only I think they were worse, as they knocked a red-hot stove over, and when it was set up again, somebody crawled on the roof and dropped a smoke bomb down the chimney, which blew the stove all over the room and blinded everyone, to say nothing of ruining all clothes. The objectionable characters were removed after that, and on the way back there was a business of pushing everyone into a small canal by the road. Two men disappeared from view. The party finally broke up when No. 2, making a determined effort to withstand us, unlimbered a couple of fire extinguishers in our faces and began to shoot an automatic pistol.
MacLeish billeted with #213 Squadron, RNAS, flying Sopwith Camels. His duties included protecting patrolling seaplanes and attacking German targets at the nearby U-boat bases in Zeebrugge, Ostende, and Bruges.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 2 April 19 I 8]
…I went on my first patrol today, and I was full out! I took it more or less for granted that any bus I saw over the lines would be a Hun! We spied some Hun seaplanes off in the distance and proceeded to climb and get into the sun. When we had our positions we nosed down and dove at them. I had mine all picked out and became so absorbed in my sights that I forgot to look at the leader. When I looked, he had come out of his dive and was turning away. That sort of rocked me, as I was all alone. I decided not to open up, but to get back into formation. The old Huns were diving like blazes for shelter…thank the Lord I didn't fire! They turned out to be Allied machines. Do you blame me for feeling cheap. I should have known the bus as I've flown them myself…
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 22 April 1918]
Darn! Just when I get my bus all fixed up, it gets shot to blazes. Enclosed you will find pieces of the shrapnel that did the trick. A large piece entered the fuselage behind the motor, burst inside, cut my main gasoline line in two, and cut two pressure pipes-one piece entered the gas tank and almost tore the bottom out of it. There were only two other holes, but oh boy! One hole was two feet behind my seat, and the other entered the trailing edge of the top plane [upper wing] right over the seat. Do you know what I think? I think the people who built that bus started with the gas tank, and built the rest of the machine around it. We had to take everything off that bus to get the tank out…
Following three weeks' successful service with the British, MacLeish returned to the American base at Dunkirk, where he again endured a nightly pounding from German artillery across the lines.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 12 May 1918]
…I've heard of people walking in their sleep, but never running, have you? Well, I did. I heard the bomb whistling through the air sort of subconsciously, and I don't remember much about the explosion, but I do remember clearly that when I was wide awake I was running across the room full tilt. The reason I woke up then is because I ran smack into the wall. I turned around and made one dive for the bed. I was under the covers before the debris began to fall on the roof. None of it came through, but by golly there's something crooked about that building because there never were half as many bricks in it as fell on the roof over my head.
Inthe spring of 1918 the Navy decided to create a "Northern Bombing Group" at Dunkirk, designed to attack German submarine bases in Belgium. Pilots were needed who could fly both day and night bombers, and MacLeish was ordered to yet another training base, this time the U.S. Air Service's day bombardment school at Clermont-Ferrand in central France. Despite a bout with the flu, he completed his work there on Breguet bombers in less than a month.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Clermont-Ferrand, 27 June 1918]
…I wish there had been a movie man here today. One fellow [Lieutenant Samuel Mandell] was flying along in rather bumpy air when such a tremendous bump hit him that his observer [Lieutenant Gardiner Fiske] bounced clear out of the cockpit at 3,000 feet—flew back and caught the tail planes under his right arm. His arm hooked over the tail plane was the only thing between him and 3,000 feet of nice, blue, bumpy space. He fought his way back to the top of the tail, kicked a hole in it with his knees, and got footing enough to crawl back into the cockpit where he fell limply to the floor, a complete nervous wreck. How's that, eh?
With the bombardment course under his belt, MacLeish returned to Dunkirk, where he caught up on the news.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 7 July 1918]
…Do you remember when Crock, Shorty, and I were at Ayr in the same room with an Army duck named Lloyd Hamilton? Well, he's aflight commander up here in this area [Petit Synthe] in an American [17th] squadron. He ran into Von Richtofen's flight the day before he (Von R) was shot down, and Von Richtofen got their major and another man in flames from 400 yards. Lloyd and his gang got one of the Huns. Von R's flight were all painted a solid color, for instance, Von R's plane was solid red. Well, these ducks shot down the blue one. Lloyd has had lots of scraps. When Von R. was shot down the Australians dressed him up and took pictures of him after he was dead. Can you beat those Australians?
Navy bombers were slow to reach the front, and MacLeish was soon assigned to duty with #218 Squadron, RAF, based near Calais, flying cranky D.H. 9 day bombers against German targets in Belgium. On more than one occasion his plane returned to the aerodrome riddled by shrapnel.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Dunkirk, 19 July 1918]
…I went on another raid this A.M. and had more engine trouble. I broke a valve spring just after I crossed the lines, but my motor turned up pretty well, so I decided to go ahead with it. I stayed with our formation over the objective, but dropped way, way back again coming home against the wind. I caught H, E, Double EL all the way from the objective to the coast because I was alone, but I dodged the stuff pretty successfully. What hurts me most is that I drew a perfect bead on the factory,and due to the wind all my bombs went about 400 yards over into a bit of nice green field. I could weep, I'm so disgusted.
At the end of July MacLeish was transferred again. First he was assigned to the Navy's sprawling supply base at Pauillac, near Bordeaux, where he helped assemble and test aircraft destined for American units in France. From Pauillac he moved on to headquarters in Paris at the end of August, and by early September to the assembly and repair base at Eastleigh, in southern England, where he served as test and inspection officer for aircraft headed to the Northern Bombing Group just across the English Channel near Dunkirk.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Pauillac, 17 August 1918]
…I just fall out of one job into another. Guess what I am now. I'm chief pilot at Pauillac, and I have a nice Cadillac "8" all of my own, and three assistants, all pilots. Commander [David] Hanrahan, my Northern Bombing [Group] boss, told me that if I ever flew a seaplane again he'd kick me out of the Navy. The odd part of it is that in this job I have to fly nothing but seaplanes. I have to fly every machine they assemble here to send to the stations along the coast of France…
[To Priscilla Murdock, Eastleigh, 13 September 1918]
…Last night I went to bed about 9:30 p.m., and about 3:00 a.m. in walked the skipper [Godfrey Chevalier] and about six other officers, all drunk as lords, and all sore at me because I ditched them and went to bed. I paid the penalty. They rough-housed me, operated on my ribs, tore off my pajamas, and almost kicked me out of the hotel by making such an unearthly racket…
Our skipper was on the loose the other night, too. He got home at 6:00 a.m., called out the band, and went into everyone's room, yelling "Rise and shine!" and then played a tune. The band is part of [John Philip] Sousa's Great Lakes Band, and it's the best I've ever heard. The skipper went away for the rest of the day, and he's a wreck now. That's what comes from ordering a man back to the States when he doesn't want to go.
Throughout his months at Pauillac and Eastleigh, MacLeish repeatedly sought a combat assignment. During this same period David Ingalls scored the five aerial victories that made him the Navy's only World War I ace. Offered possible command of one of the Navy's bombardment squadrons, MacLeish declined, not wishing to be tied to a desk.
In early October, close friend Di Gates was shot down and was later captured near Roulers in Belgium while flying with the French "Escadrille St. Pol." MacLeish, unaware of the actual fate of his companion, was distraught, and more determined than ever to return to the front. On 10 October 1918 he got his wish.
[To Trubee Davison, Eastleigh, 9 October]
The whole gang’s here—Crock [David Ingalls], Frank [Lynch], Push [Reginald Coombe], and myself. It’s wonderful luck if you ever get near more than one of these Huntington birds…Re: Di [Gates], I personally haven’t given up hope, not by any means, though I suppose I should, as facts are pretty much against him.
George Mosely, Freddy Beach, [William] Van Fleet, and Di were all in one flight together with two green French pilots, and apparently a “cold-footed” French flight CO. They started on a patrol and George M. and Van Fleet came back with dud engines. The others went on. They were between _____ and _____ when 12 or 15 Fokker triplanes and biplanes dove on them. The leader signaled to dive, and they all dove away. Then they came back to about the same place, somewhere nears Roulers, when the same bunch of Huns dove on them again. Everyone but Di dove. Freddy B. saw him last. Freddy had a Hun on his tail so he turned, and as he looked back he saw Di pull into a climbing turn and come on to a Hun’s tail…
[To Miss Emma Guthrie, Eastleigh, 10 October 1918]
So Dave told you the news! Well, isn't it wonderful? And I have an absolutely clear conscience about the whole thing because it all happened without a word from me. I flew a new bus over to one of the squadrons, and it happened that the Captain [Hanrahan] saw me and asked me where I was going. I told him I was on my way back, and he said, " No, you're not going back; you're going out to 213 Squadron again!" I nearly fell on his neck and kissed him. If I were not scared he would knock me down, I would have, too…
Kenneth MacLeish wrote to Priscilla Murdock on 11 October, just before he flew over to France. On the evening of 13 October he rejoined his old friends at #213 Squadron, where he readied himself for an early morning patrol the following day.
[To Priscilla Murdock, Eastleigh, 11 October 1918]
The weather seems to be clearing, so I wouldn't be surprised if I could gel off tomorrow or the next day. It surely will be a relief; altho' I hate to leave Crock, Frank, and Poosh. I don't suppose they'll let me stay out very long; it's just my luck not to get a chance to go at all. I wouldn't be surprised if I couldn't now that Bob [Lovett] has talked to the Captain…
MacLeish began 14 October with an early morning test flight, followed by a high-altitude bombing attack against retreating German troops near Ardoye. Jumped by a swarm of German aircraft, MacLeish downed a Fokker over Theurout. Later in the day MacLeish undertook a second patrol, along the channel coast. In a desperate fight against several enemy aircraft, he was shot down near Schoore, Belgium. Listed as missing for more than two months, his body was discovered the day after Christmas.
The above letters are excerpted from MacLeish's The Price of Honor , which is being published this spring by the Naval Institute Press. Geoffrey Rossano holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina and teaches history at the Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut.