The pilot of the de Havilland D.H.9 bomber, Lieutenant (junior grade) Kenneth MacLeish, glanced over his shoulder and in the distance saw nine German fighters, circling like vultures. For the moment, he was safe from them, but "Archie" (antiaircraft fire) had begun bracketing his biplane. The pilot and his observer-gunner, Machinist's Mate First Class Irving Sheely, were in the middle of a 13-plane raid on the German naval facilities at Zeebrugge, Belgium, on 16 July 1918. Although the pair were U.S. Navy aviators, they were flying with No. 218 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
"The air was black," MacLeish later wrote of the 16 July 1918 mission. Holding steady through the antiaircraft fire, he dropped his plane's four 50-pound bombs from 13,000 feet. Sheely watched the bombs descend, and figuring 30 seconds to impact, he looked for explosions. All four fell into the sea. Suddenly, a shell exploded just "under the tail of the bus [plane]," and the D.H.9 began plummeting toward earth.
From Civilians to Naval Aviators
Kenneth MacLeish's initial exposure to aviation had come in the winter of 1917 when, as a junior at Yale University, he joined the Yale Aero Club, later known as the First Yale Unit. Besides MacLeish, the group included a future defense secretary (Robert Lovett), World War I ace (David Ingalls), and assistant secretary of the Navy for Air (Artemus "Di" Gates). With the United States rapidly moving toward declaring war, 29 members of the group drove to the New London, Connecticut, submarine base and on 24 March enlisted in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps.
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Four days later, MacLeish, the 22-year-old son of a Glencoe, Illinois, businessman and brother of famous poet Archibald, set out with his compatriots for flight training at the Trans-Oceanic Company's flying-boat station and school in West Palm Beach, Florida. In late May, the First Yale Unit returned north, to Huntington Bay, New York, where training continued and the men became proficient pilots. Kenneth and almost all of the unit's members earned their wings as naval aviators on 28 July.
Irving Sheely, born on 24 September 1893 in Newtonville, New York, was almost exactly one year older than MacLeish. After Sheely's father died in 1911, Irving, the first-born of five children, helped his widowed mother raise his siblings. He worked as a clerk with the Albany Hardware & Iron Company and subscription salesman for the Albany Times Union newspaper before his mechanical aptitude secured him a job as a draftsman for American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York.
Recruiting posters for naval aviation and the sight of a neighbor soaring over Albany in a Curtiss airplane stirred Sheely's imagination and patriotism when he was 23 and World War I was into its third year. He believed war was coming to America and wanted to contribute his mechanical abilities to the Navy while tackling the challenge of flying. Four days after Kenneth MacLeish and his Yalies took the oath in New Haven, Irving Sheely did the same in Albany, enlisting in the Navy's aviation corps as a candidate for machinist's mate second class.
Arriving at the service's lone air station, the Pensacola Naval Aeronautic Station, on 2 April, Sheely wrote home two days later that, so far, Navy life was generally relaxing: "From 8:00 to 9:00 we have military drilling and at present the rest of the day is to ourselves. But starting Monday we will have to go to class." Because the aviation recruits' uniforms were not ready, he asked a brother to send him a pair of khaki pants and a couple of shirts, as well a bathing suit and fish hooks.
The next day, Congress declared war on Germany, and soon the pace of training at the Pensacola station quickened. On 1 May, the candidate status of Sheely's machinist's mate rating was dropped, and nine days later it was amended to machinist's mate second class/air. That same day he volunteered for the First Aeronautic Detachment. The Navy Department wanted a naval aviation force in France as soon as possible and had instructed the Pensacola commander, Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, to assemble the unit. Divided between the colliers USS Jupiter and Neptune—with Sheely in the latter—the detachment's seven officers and 122 enlisted men set out for the Continent on 25 May and about two weeks later reached France.
Arrival 'Over There'
While the Navy pilots attended the French Army School at Tours, the detachment's enlisted men, including Sheely, spent much of the summer in observer-mechanic training at St. Raphael, on the Mediterranean coast. In late August, Sheely and his group arrived at Moutchic near Bordeaux to continue their training. Commissioned on 17 July, the installation on the shores of Lake Lacanau became an operational naval air station on 31 August, two days after Sheely and his mates arrived. Naval Air Station Moutchic would become the Navy's most significant seaplane pilot and ground training base in France during the war.
After about six weeks spent as an instructor at the Navy's Newport News, Virginia, air training station and patrol base, Ensign Kenneth MacLeish had sailed for England in late October on board the SS New York. Like many servicemen, he became engaged, to Priscilla Murdock, just before setting out for the war. After a week in London, he reported to U.S. naval headquarters in Paris and then continued on to NAS Moutchic, arriving in mid-November. There, he would train on FBA (Franco-British Aviation Co.) reconnaissance planes.
At the end of November MacLeish was assigned to the Royal Flying Corps airdrome at Gosport, England, where he soloed in British single-seat Sopwith Camel fighters. He next attended gunnery school in Turnberry, Scotland, in February 1918 before moving on to the School of Aerial Fighting at Ayr, also in Scotland, where he spent several weeks.
After months of training for combat, on 21 March MacLeish, along with fellow Yalies Ensigns Dave Ingalls and Edward "Shorty" Smith, reported for duty at Naval Air Station Dunkirk. Their primary responsibility was to fly antisubmarine patrols in Hanriot HD-2 pontoon scouts and larger Donnet-Denhaut flying boats. The Dunkirk seaplane facility was subject to nightly bombing raids and shelling from enemy destroyers. More danger was soon at hand; when the three young officers arrived at Dunkirk, they could hear the distant rumble of artillery marking the beginning of a massive German offensive in Flanders.
In the coming days, as the enemy drive continued and Allied casualties mounted, Britain's need for aviators became dire. The commanding officer at Dunkirk responded by offering the services of his fliers to the nearby British aerodrome at Bergues, and by the end of the month MacLeish, Ingalls, and Smith were temporarily detached to serve with No. 13 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service (soon redesignated No. 213 Royal Air Force) flying Sopwith Camels. The chance to pilot one of the highly maneuverable fighters in the "greatest battle the world has ever known" electrified MacLeish. "This is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me," he later wrote.
Action at Last
On 2 April MacLeish wrote Priscilla Murdock: "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 . . . we nosed down and dove on them. Thank the lord I didn't fire! They turned out to be Allied machines!"
On the 11th, members of the squadron, their Camels armed with 50-pound bombs, pulled off a daylight raid against a trio of heavily defended targets in Belgium: the German naval base at Bruges and ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, where canals from Bruges emptied into the North Sea. According to MacLeish: "The clouds were only 1,000 feet up, and we were to get near our objective, climb into the clouds, and when we thought we were directly over, to dive down to about 300 or 400 feet and let go our 'pills.'"
MacLeish's plane was the seventh and last in line of the attackers, and he found a hot reception. "The tracer bullets were doing loops and split turns around my neck. I got dizzy watching them. . . . The rapid fire pom-poms were putting up a barrage in front of me, and it was getting closer and closer as I dove." He was nevertheless able to drop a bomb on a seaplane hangar and wrote home that "Today I learned never to be the last machine in a daylight, low bombing stunt."
The next day Sheely flew his first mission over enemy territory. Like MacLeish, he was assigned to Dunkirk but on temporary duty with the RAF, flying as observer-gunner in a No. 202 Squadron de Havilland D.H.4 land bomber. Sheely's plane along with another D.H.4 carried out their recon off Ostend unmolested, but on the return flight, the first of ten German Albatros D.V fighters swooped down on them.
"As he closed in I caught a glance of the iron cross. . . . I also saw that they were all around me, above and below," Sheely wrote his mother. "I had not long to wait for pop! pop! pop! and he was firing at me. My machinegun shoots at a rate of six hundred rounds a minute and I turned and opened fire. For the first time in my life I realized that I was aiming to kill a man. I made it so warm for him that he didn't stick."
After 20 minutes, the Germans broke off the fight when they neared the Allied lines. Safely on the ground, Sheely and his pilot counted 20 bullet holes and two shrapnel hits to their D.H.4. The other Yanks hailed Sheely as the first U.S. Naval Air Service flier "to go over the lines and have a scrap" and called him "The Hun Getter." Actually, Sheely was the first Navy enlisted observer to engage the Germans in combat. Lieutenants Bob Lovett (a First Yale Unit veteran) and Eddie McDonnell had engaged the enemy during raids with Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in mid-March, and MacLeish had been in combat the day before. On 19 April, the American aviators returned to NAS Dunkirk and soon resumed flying antisubmarine patrols.
A Pilot-Observer Team
In Washington, meanwhile, the Navy Department approved a plan to create what would become the Northern Bombing Group-squadrons of heavy land bombers manned by Navy and Marine Corps personnel to attack the U-boat pens and other enemy naval targets at Bruges, Ostend, and Zeebrugge. One of the aviators assigned to the organization, MacLeish chose Sheely as his observer, and in late May they set out for the American Expeditionary Forces Day Bombardment School at Clermont-Ferrand.
MacLeish received word of his promotion to lieutenant (junior grade) on 1 June, the same day he soloed in one of the school's big two-seat Breguet 14 bombers. Over the subsequent weeks he learned to fly in 5- to 11-plane formations at 20,000 feet, and the MacLeish-Sheely team became skilled at high-altitude bombing. The lieutenant wrote his fiance that "My observer is a real HE-observer! He invented a modification for a bomb sight whereby you can't miss the target. It's perfectly marvelous."
After completing their training at Clermont-Ferrand in late June, the aviators returned to NAS Dunkirk. MacLeish and Sheely were not there long, however. On 8 July, they, along with two other officers and two enlisted men, were temporarily transferred to No. 218 Squadron, RAF, for day bombing. They would be flying D.H.9 land bombers out of Frethun, just west of Calais.
On 16 July, after only minimal flight time in a D.H.9, MacLeish and Sheely took off on the 13-bomber Zeebrugge raid. "I was very earnest this morning when I told you goodbye forever by mental telepathy did you get it?" MacLeish wrote Priscilla later that day. He continued:
Well, it was this way. There were nine Huns behind me ready to dive. . . . I got over the objective, and dropped my bombs, and then Archie hit me. . . . It was under the tail of the bus. I went into all kinds of dives and gizzy-wiggles before I could get control again. I looked at Sheely and Sheely looked at me, but I don't remember that anything in particular was said. My mouth was so full of my heart that I would naturally have died if I'd opened it.
No sooner had MacLeish pulled out of the dive than his plane's engine cut out. Fortunately, it "began to sputter and gurgle" and "caught on five cylinders." MacLeish was able to nurse the D.H.9 back to base, but the flight took almost an hour.
In the early morning hours of 19 July, the American air crew flew its second mission with No. 218 Squadron, a 12-bomber raid on Bruges. MacLeish and Sheely again suffered engine trouble, this time on the way to the target. "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," the pilot wrote. They reached the objective, but wind blew their bombs 400 yards wide of the targeted factory into a field. "I could weep," wrote MacLeish, "I'm so disgusted."
Feeling "full out" during the flight back, the pilot dove on a "very famous Archie battery," and he and then Sheely opened up on it with their Vickers and Lewis machine guns. Sheely "had no sooner finished than wonk, wonk, woof, old Archie began to bark," MacLeish wrote. "I felt like taking off my helmet to them. Lord, they are good. They only fired four or five shots, but every one of them had my exact altitude and they were no more than fifty yards to one side."
At 0655 on 20 July, MacLeish and Sheely took off on an 11-bomber raid, their third and final one with No. 218. The targets were the dredgers, docks, lock gates, and salvage ships at Zeebrugge, and according to MacLeish's mission report, his D.H.9 dropped eight 25-pound bombs on targets at the mouth of the port's canal.
The Navy Department had meanwhile decided that Marine aviators would fly day bombing missions and Navy fliers night missions during the Northern Bombing Group's forthcoming operations. On the group's first independent mission the night of 15 August, a single Caproni bomber dropped more than 1,250 pounds of munitions on the U-boat pen at Ostend. Squadron-size operations, however, were impossible until the Navy received more heavy bombers.
Frustration Before More Combat
With his second RAF stint completed, MacLeish was transferred to temporary desk duty in Paris before moving on to Naval Air Station Paulliac on the Gironde River near Bordeaux. There, he was in charge of inspecting and testing the increasing amount of arriving aviation materiel—including flying each plane assembled at the base. MacLeish was heartened by his promotion to full lieutenant, as well as his advancement to chief pilot at Paulliac, and expected to shortly join the Northern Bombing Group.
His hope of returning to combat duty, however, was crushed when he received word of his transfer to Eastleigh, England, the staging base for the Northern Bombing Group's offensive. He was to serve as the final test and acceptance officer for the group's planes, mainly D.H.4s, 9s, and 9As. In mid-September, after settling into his new job, MacLeish requested Sheely's transfer from Northern Bombing Group headquarters at St. Inglevert, France, to the English base. "He's a good old horse, and he'll be a useful member of the flight department," the lieutenant wrote Priscilla. On his 1 October arrival, however, Sheely checked into to the Eastleigh hospital with a case of influenza, which was sweeping through the Allies' ranks. MacLeish, in fact, has just been released from the hospital after suffering a relapse of the illness.
The lieutenant nevertheless ferried a D.H.4 over to the Marine Day Wing base near Calais on 3 October. While in France he was both distraught to learn that one of his closest Yale Unit pals, Di Gates, had been lost over enemy lines while flying a scouting mission and elated to receive word that he was being reassigned to No. 213 Squadron to again fly Sopwith Camels. After a quick trip back to Eastleigh, he arrived at Dunkirk on 13 October and spent the evening with Bob Lovett and other friends in the Northern Bombing Group before driving over to the No. 213 aerodrome.
At about 0945 the next day, 19 of the squadron's Camels, including one flown by MacLeish, took off on a high-level bombing raid against enemy forces at Ardoye, Belgium. From 10,000 feet, MacLeish dropped four small bombs on retreating German troops. During an ensuing dogfight with a large group of enemy fighters, the lieutenant and Canadian ace Captain John Greene shot down a German Fokker biplane—MacLeish's first and only aerial victory. Two hours after returning to base, he took off on a second sortie of 15 Camels, and just north of Dixmude, Belgium, the group spotted 14 Fokkers. During the wild melee that followed three Allied planes went down. Kenneth MacLeish's was one of them. According to the squadron logbook, "Lieutenant MacLeish was last seen attacking about seven Fokkers single-handed."
A Pilot's Fate and a Friend's Tribute
Reports of the capture of a naval aviator in the vicinity of Dixmude filtered back to the Navy and MacLeish's friends, yet no definitive word of his fate was known for more than six weeks after the 11 November Armistice. Then, the day after Christmas, several local Belgians investigating war damage on an abandoned farm found a decomposed body in buttoned uniform and flying helmet and gloves resting on a pile of debris next to a damaged building. About 200 yards away was the aviator's wrecked Sopwith Camel. Papers and an engraved metal disc found on the remains identified the body as MacLeish's.
By the time his former pilot's remains were discovered, Irving Sheely was already back home in Albany. Promoted to chief machinist's mate/air ten days before the war ended, he set out for the States on 4 December in the USS Leviathan. Several weeks after arriving home he learned the tragic news of MacLeish's death, and on 5 January 1919 Sheely wrote his friend's father a letter filled with respect, poignancy and fond recollections:
My Dear Mr. MacLeish:
It was my pleasure to know Kenneth, your son, after coming into the Naval Flying Service. I met him in Dunkirk, France, in April, 1918, and had been with him up till his unfortunate flight across enemy lines. I will try and tell you something of our acquaintance, and what he afterward meant to me. . . .
I will never forget the day when "Ken", as I always called him afterward, came to me and asked me to be his observer, and how delighted I was, for I considered it a great honor to fly with him. I had often admired his work in the air while on patrol over the North Sea. . . .
Danger never entered our minds, and we successfully carried out bombing raids on Bruges and Zeebrugge, which were then of great military value. . . .
During this time it was rumored about camp that some of the observers would have to fly with the Marine pilots. I remember what Ken said to us boys when we consulted him about this. This is what he told us, "Well, I guess not, Irv' isn't going to fly with any Marines."
How pleased I was to have him think and say so much of me.
I resolved to do everything in my power, if danger ever threatened him, to give my life if it ever should become necessary, to save his. . . .
It was the saddest moment of my life when word came to me in October, while I was ill, and in confinement in a hospital in England, that Ken had been shot down by the Huns.
I know you are proud of your boy, and the recollection of him who was the first to answer his country's call, and who insisted on the opportunity which led to his misfortune, will help you in this hour of sorrow.
Yours most sincerely,
Irving E. Sheely
This article is mainly based on two collections of letters: The Price of Honor: The World War One Letters of Naval Aviator Kenneth MacLeish, edited by Geoffrey L. Rossano (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991) and Sailor of the Air: The 1917-1919 Letters and Diary of USN CMM/A Irving Edward Sheely, edited by Lawrence D. Sheely (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993).
Other sources include:
A. B. Feuer, The U.S. Navy in World War I: Combat at Sea and in the Air (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999).
James J. Sloan Jr., Wings of Honor: American Airmen in World War I (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1994).
Archibald Turnbull and Clifford L. Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949).
Marc Wortman, The Millionaires' Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2006).