July 28, 2009
Each year the ranks of surviving veterans of World War I—which began on this day 95 years ago—get thinner. Now just a handful are left. Henry Allingham, who joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a teenager in 1915, died on July 18 at the age of 113. He was the last British veteran of the war, and, at the time of his death, the world’s oldest man. Allingham will be buried on Thursday, with full military honors.
Allingham recalled his experiences in a 2007 BBC interview:
Altogether, some 10 million soldiers died in World War I. American Ace Eddie Rickenbacker described one deadly encounter in his memoir, Fighting the Flying Circus:
I kept my altitude and set my machine towards the rear of the Stenay Fokkers, which I immediately observed wore the red noses of the von Richthofen Circus. They were heading in at the [Squadron] 147 Formation which was still separated almost a mile away from our other Spads. Lieutenant Wilbur White of New York was leading No. 147′s pilots. He would have to bear the brunt of the Fokker attack.
Evidently the Fokker leader scorned to take notice of me, as his scouts passed under me and plunged ahead towards White’s formation. I let them pass, dipped over sharply and with accumulated speed bore down upon the tail of the last man in the Fokker formation. It was an easy shot and I could not have missed. I was agreeably surprised, however, to see that my first shots had set fire to the Hun’s fuel tank and that the machine was doomed. I was almost equally gratified the next second to see the German pilot level off his blazing machine and with a sudden leap overboard into space let the Fokker slide safely away without him. Attached to his back and sides was a rope which immediately pulled a dainty parachute from the bottom of his seat. The umbrella opened within a fifty foot drop and settled him gradually to earth within his own lines.
I was sorry I had no time to watch his spectacular descent. I truly wished him all the luck in the world. It is not a pleasure to see a burning aeroplane descending to earth bearing with it a human being who is being tortured to death. Not unmixed with my relief in witnessing his safe jump was the wonder as to why the Huns had all these humane contrivances and why our own country could not at least copy them to save American pilots from being burned to a crisp!
I turned from this extraordinary spectacle in midair to witness another which in all my life at the front I have never seen equaled in horror and awfulness. The picture of it has haunted my dreams during many nights since.
Upon seeing that my man was hit I had immediately turned up to retain my superiority in height over the other Huns. Now as I came about and saw the German pilot leap overboard with his parachute I saw that a general fight was on between the remaining ten Fokkers and the eight Spads of 147 Squadron. The Fokker leader had taken on the rear Spad in White’s Formation when White turned and saw him coming. Like a flash White zoomed up into a half turn, executed a renversement and came back at the Hun leader to protect his pilot from a certain death. White was one of the finest pilots and best air fighters in our group. He had won seven victories in combat. His pilots loved him and considered him a great leader, which he most assuredly was. White’s maneuver occupied but an instant. He came out of his swoop and made a direct plunge for the enemy machine, which was just getting in line on the rear Spad’s tail. Without firing a shot the heroic White rammed the Fokker head on while the two machines were approaching each other at the rate of 230 miles per hour!
It was a horrible yet thrilling sight. The two machines actually telescoped each other, so violent was the impact. Wings went through wings and at first glance both the Fokker and Spad seemed to disintegrate. Fragments filled the air for a moment, then the two broken fusilages, bound together by the terrific collision fell swiftly down and landed in one heap on the bank of the Meuse!
For sheer nerve and bravery I believe this heroic feat was never surpassed. No national honor too great could compensate the family of Lieutenant White for this sacrifice for his comrade pilot and his unparalleled example of heroism to his Squadron. For the most pitiable feature of Lieutenant White’s self-sacrifice was the fact that this was his last flight over the lines before he was to leave for the United States on a visit to his wife and two small children. Not many pilots enter the service with loved ones so close to them!
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