The Unsubstantial Air: A book review by Bob Morris

Unsubstantial AirThe Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War
Samuel Hynes
Farrar Straus Giroux (2014)

Substantial heroism in the skies above France’s blood-soaked battlefields during World War One

As Samuel Hynes explains, “There is a story to be told about those young men and the air war they fought. It’s not military history; it’s not about generals and their strategies and the movement of armies; rather, it’s a story of the experience of becoming a pilot and then of flying in combat over the Western Front. It’s about the men, and the planes; the French earth and sky; the flying, and killing, and dying, and surviving. That experience is new and strange, and unimaginable till you’ve had it. The closest a noncombatant can come to it is through the testimonies of [and about] the young men themselves, the pilots and observers and gunners who were there. We must listen to their voices as they recorded their war lives in letters and diaries and journals at the time and in the memoirs that some wrote, often long afterwards.”

Hynes focuses on seven “eager young men” who joined the French cause in the first months of the war. (Note: It was more than half over when the United States entered it in April 1917 and well into its last year before American troops engaged enemy forces on the Western front.) The young men trained in the Service Aéronautique, and were the first to join what became the Lafayette Escadrille, the first squadron of American pilots to fly for France. They came from different places and from different lives. Their names are Kiffin Rockwell (VMI and Washington and Lee), Victor Chapman (St. Paul’s and Harvard), James McConnell (Haverford School and University of Virginia), William Thaw (Hill School and Yale), Norman Prince (Groton and Harvard), Elliot Cowdin (St. Paul’s and Harvard), and Bert Hall (uneducated) who worked as a farm hand, a section hand on a railway, a chauffer, a circus performer (he was the “Human Cannonball”) and a seaman before he reached Paris and took up taxi driving. Hynes characterizes Hall as a wanderer, jack-of-all-trades, and free spirit.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Hynes’s coverage:

o Bert Hall (Pages 9-12 and 213-214)
o U.S. entry into World War One (15-18)
o Colonel Hiram Bingham (17-20 and 104-105)
o U.S. Air Service (38-42, 103-105, and 281-282)
o Lafayette Escadrille (41-42 and 214-215)
o Richard Blodgett (57-58 and 138-145)
o American Aviation: Center at Issoudun (60-71 and 109-112)
o Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt (110-113)
o Captain Albert Deullin (119-123)
o German Air Services (128-144 and 206-215)
o Waldo Heinrichs (152-154, 165-166, and 239-240)
o General William (“Billy”) Mitchell and his strategies (190-199)
o Ninety-Sixth Bombing Squadron (197-202, 205-205, and 227-228)
o Joe Eastman (220-221, 262-263, and 265-272)
o Hobey Baker (274-277)

Several times while reading this book for the first time, I felt as if Hynes was pushing pieces of a puzzle across a table so that I could eventually assemble them in proper order. Yes, his focus is on American flyers in the First World War but, demonstrating several of the skills of a world-class anthropologist, he examines cultural components that include the Ivy League universities, so-called “high society,” private flying schools, unique challenges faced by those involved with the American Ambulance Field Service, and differences of opinion about airplanes. The opinions of general officers ranged from a passion for using them to fight rather than to observe to an insistence that they not be used at all.

What are Samuel Hynes’s concluding thoughts? “Like old Nestor in the Odyssey, I look back on the war and think, ‘So many good men gone.’ How young they were, how promising those young lives that would not be lived out, what talents they had that their country might have used well in the years ahead. And what good guys they were — funny, risk-taking, good friends and good fliers. War is a cruel devourer of the young. And flying is a gamble that even the best pilots don’t always win.”

So many died while learning to fly. So many others died after surviving a dogfight against formidable opponents. And still others died in combat. It must be said that taking off in one of those planes was itself an act of faith, an act of courage. There have been countless warriors throughout military history who were indeed made of the “right stuff.” The air above the battlefields in France during World War One may have been unsubstantial but that cannot be said of the courage of those who ascended to engage their enemy, often for the last time.

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