In the summer of 1916, a young French soldier named Georges Guynemer was shot down by German troops and taken prisoner. He was sent to a POW camp in Germany where he would languish for the next three years.

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Only one of four buddies who were among the first Americans to train as combat pilots in France made it through the war.

Bruce C. Hopper, 75, looked back on his life with satisfaction…and some skepticism in July 1968. “My ability to live continues to amaze me,” he said. Hopper told a group of Harvard University alumni that his “long record” of near calls began in World War I, when he was a bomber pilot with the United States Army Air Service (USAS) in northeastern France in his mid-20s. He claimed that in July 1918, he had miraculously survived the crash of his Sopwith Camel and had been pulled from the debris by a doctor wielding pliers. He was temporarily hospitalized, but instead of being sent home, he returned to the battlefield—“not because of a yearning for air warfare, but out of a natural urge to stay with the gang.” 

Hopper conducted 29 bombing flights as a flight commander of the Army’s 96th Aero Squadron “Red Devils” during the following several months, earning him a Pershing Citation and a Croix de Guerre for his efforts.

Hopper was born in Litchfield, Illinois, on August 24, 1892, and spent his youth in Billings, Montana, where his father was a rancher. He enrolled at the University of Montana in 1913. According to an article in the Great Falls Tribune, he and his buddy and fellow sophomore Verne Robinson were bitten by a mix of “wanderlust and worthy purpose” after two years. Soon after, the two were planning to join the American Red Cross in war-torn Europe.

Flying and Dying in World War I France: A Red Devil’s Odyssey At an American training field, a Breguet 14.B2, the 96th’s primary bomber, crashes. (Photo courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum)

However, Hopper’s ambitions were put on hold when he was granted a scholarship at Harvard University. With the United States having joined World War I in favor of France, Great Britain, and Russia, he chose to leave Harvard after less than two years and go to Europe on his own.

Hopper boarded the French liner SS La Touraine in New York on April 28, 1917, a little more than three weeks after the United States declared war on Germany. During the journey, he met three boys from Andover, Massachusetts’ Phillips Academy—Jack Morris Wright, William Taylor, and Jack Sawhill—who, like him, were going to France to enlist for war duty. The four soldiers, who dubbed themselves the “Four Musketeers,” joined the French army’s motor transport section and were assigned to carry military equipment and people along the Soissons and Reims fronts with Motor Transport Unit 526 (Réserve Mallet). 

Hopper subsequently said that he admired Wright, who was born in the United States but reared in France, and that they had a passion for education. Phillips Academy director Alfred E. Stearns said in the preface to a collection of Wright’s letters home from Europe, published in 1918, that his student’s admiration of the French had driven him to participate in their “great fight.” 

Wright had told Stearns, “I am confident I can assist them,” and “I owe them so much.” 

“With guns flashing next to me…while sitting on a truck load of ten thousand pounds of dynamite,” Wright wrote to his mother from France, where he was driving a five-ton Pierce Arrow truck to and from the front and eating bread and cheese, “while sitting on a truck load of ten thousand pounds of dynamite.” In a letter to his aunt dated June 11, 1917, he said that he had seen witnessed aircraft “fall to their deaths” and “heard the injured scream.” 

Flying and Dying in World War I France: A Red Devil’s Odyssey (Left) Hopper’s passport picture from 1922. (Right) In a Royal Flying Corps uniform, Hopper’s close buddy Jack Morris Wright sent many vivid letters home, which were published after his death. (Image courtesy of Historynet Archives)

Despite the dangers, Wright joined the USAS and began training as a pilot. He wrote to his mother, “It is a hazardous service.” “Many people do not return…. You won’t have a son in the trucking industry anymore; instead, you’ll have a son in aviation.”

Around the same time, the other members of the Four Musketeers—Hopper, Sawhill, and Taylor—registered as pilots. They and others received their first flying instruction at the 2nd Air Instruction Center, a complex of French military airfields near Tours.

In a letter to Wright’s mother, Sara Greene Wise, a well-known artist at the time, Hopper said, “We came to Tours together and learnt to fly.” “Jack understood the broader importance of flying better than most of us…. Flying was awe-inspiring in actuality, almost magical, as if it were a heavenly gift…. As he raced with the gripping force of the propeller, he said he always felt as though unseen hands of a cosmic giant were holding the fragile wings of linen and wood.”

“You realize [you are] dangling in space by two thin wings and slowly advancing by the loud engine and crazy propeller…” Wright wrote to his mother in early September 1917, following his maiden flight at Tours (with an instructor at the controls). [and] that the space you’re floating in is a breathing medium—that you’re laying like a speck in the infinite in the arms of a huge, enormous god.”

Wright was given charge of the ship the following day. “I came down with the belief that I could never create an aviator,” he remarked. I thought it was impossible for me to ever be able to hang properly in space and attend to all of the necessities at the same time, since even the little error meant you were done.” That night, he slept restlessly, imagining himself climbing into the aircraft and “swinging that machine around to the gale as I wanted, making myself at home and comfortable, or breaking my neck in the process.” I was dead set on flying or else.”

“I climbed in [the aircraft], we checked the engine, and off,” he wrote to his mother as the sun rose the next day. “As if in a hammock, the sun shined brightly, and I thought to myself, ‘Fine day today; the countryside will look nice.’ We’ll have a good time on the vacation. Ah! We’ve made it to the top. I was becoming dissatisfied with the planet!’ I sat and awaited the signal. My pilot finally touched me on the back at 200 meters after passing over another aircraft. I grabbed the controls and recalled what I was meant to do quietly…. There were no ‘bumps’ or ‘pockets’ in the weather. I was steering the ancient boat like a man, as I had planned. The results were achieved at the end of the tour. I had chosen the confident running of the aircraft over the smash-up—and, trust me, I really enjoyed it. Now I must proceed, since I have much to study, resist, and overcome if I are to become an aviator.”

However, his joy was tempered by constant thoughts of his impending death. “[D]eath is the universal comedy of the day; it makes us laugh….it is constantly present,” says the author. 

Flying and Dying in World War I France: A Red Devil’s Odyssey The 96th Airlift Wing’s aircrews get gunnery training. (Alamy/Aviation History Collection)

Hopper, Wright’s roommate and fellow Musketeer, subsequently claimed that Wright’s “naive curiosity” had led him to “stunt” with his aircraft several times before he was a master of the controls. Hopper said that a competition had erupted between Wright and Jack Sawhill at the advanced flying training school at the Issoudun airfield, approximately 150 miles south of Paris, over who would make the most fast progress toward earning the coveted French brevet. 

“One day [Wright] circled the field counter-traffic, that is, he went right on the take-off when the two balls at the pilotage signaled obligatory turning to the left,” according to Hopper. “He was removed off the flying list for two or three days for that mistake, much to Jack Sawhill’s pleasure. The following day, though, Jack Sawhill landed crosswind and received a similar penalty. This amicable competition lasted until Jack Sawhill was rushed to the hospital with a fractured arm after falling in a Nieuport.”

Hopper said his goodbyes to Wright at Issoudun on January 16, 1918, before returning to Tours to work as a flying teacher. “I said I’d see him in Paris, or at the front, or behind the moon in July…. But it wasn’t with me that he had a meeting; it was with Death.”

A few weeks later, Hopper wrote to Wright’s mother, claiming that on January 24, Wright had spiraled down from a height of 1,000 meters “with a cold motor,” only to find himself drifting short of the field. According to Hopper, Wright attempted to extend his landing angle but leveled out at 50 meters height, the aircraft stopped, and it “wing-slipped” to the earth. The accident claimed Wright’s life.

Wright had written to his mother only two days before the disaster, stating that he had been practicing spirals near the airport, which he found terrifying: “[Y]ou’re hung up in space some three thousand feet when you cut…the engine and start,” he wrote. “I brought the aircraft over on a perpendicular and down [and] back a bit on the stick to let her spin gently, and out she went, the clouds spinning past like a cyclone—a battle of the gods, with the wind screaming at me like a constant fog-horn and tugging on me hard.”

“Round like a top, down, down towards the ground, like a tumbling merry-go-round, the aircraft carried me like a bolt through space,” Wright said. I dimly recall admitting that even if the bus did crash, it was still a fantastic experience, and [it] was the pinnacle of the game.”

He quickly took to the skies after landing for a second try. “My second was better, and when I came out of it, it seemed like I had been holding my breath under water for a long time. I simply let go and screamed and sung to the top of my lungs.”

Between tries, Wright informed his mother that he had seen the fatal accident of another student pilot he knew. “I don’t feel heartbroken for him as much as for the mother back home,” he wrote.

As for the other two Musketeers, Sawhill’s shattered arm never completely healed, and he returned to the United States at the conclusion of the war after a long hospital stay. Bill Taylor finished his flying training and joined the 95th Aero Squadron, but on September 17, 1918, he was killed in action.

Flying and Dying in World War I France: A Red Devil’s Odyssey The 96th’s Breguets embarked on a bombing mission against a German target. (From the National Archives)

Hopper spent the rest of the war as a lead bomber pilot with the 96th Aero Squadron, flying the Breguet 14.B2 from the squadron’s base near the front at Amanty Airdrome. Initially, the squadron had to make do with ten outdated Breguets that were constantly in need of significant repairs in the spring of 1918. Hopper stated, “It was difficult to obtain replacement components.” “The squadron mechanics were obliged to use worn out farm equipment abandoned by peasants in the area of the airdrome when they were instructed to make the Breguets ready for service above the lines.”

With a formation of six Breguets, the 96th launched its first bombing mission of the war on the train yards at Dommary-Baroncourt on June 12. During the four-hour attack, the Americans dropped almost a ton of explosives, creating a path of explosions over the yards and a nearby warehouse.

Due to bad weather and poor navigation, the squadron suffered a significant loss on July 12 when six Breguets were forced to land in enemy territory. All six bombers’ pilots and observers were captured, including the 96th’s commanding commander, Major Harry M. Brown.

After the disaster, which left the 96th virtually without aircraft, Hopper stated in a postwar study titled “Tactical History of American Day Bombardment Aviation” that bombing operations halted until early August, when 11 additional Breguets were brought to Amanty from Colombey-les-Belles. During two weeks in August, Hopper claimed, twenty raids were carried out and 21.1 tons of explosives were dropped. He said that the August 20th assault on Conflans was especially effective, with 40 German aircraft destroyed on the ground and 50 workers and troops killed.

Over the following three days, Hopper took part in a series of successful bombing missions, including those targeting the train yards at Longuyon and Audun-le-Roman on August 21 and Conflans on August 22, 23, 25, and 30, as well as September 3.  

Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell, commander of the First Army Air Service, was relocating his headquarters to Ligny-en-Barrois, a few miles from the front, in preparation for the St. Mihiel Offensive, a massive Allied attack against German fortifications. He would thereafter command the biggest assemblage of aviation assets engaged in a single combat throughout the war, with approximately 1,500 planes supporting 550,000 American and 110,000 French soldiers on the ground.

Flying and Dying in World War I France: A Red Devil’s Odyssey General John J. Pershing meets with Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell (left), the commander of the St. Mihiel air arm. (Getty Images/Bettmann) )

The day the assault started, September 12, was “the worst flying day in many months,” according to Hopper. According to him, a strong southwest wind made formation flying very hazardous, and low, fast-moving clouds made visibility less than a mile and a half ahead impossible. The weather cleared up in the afternoon, and the 96th was able to complete three missions—all of which failed miserably. Eight aircraft were destroyed or rendered obsolete, and three 96th personnel were killed.

The following few days’ outcomes were not much better. The squadron bombed German soldiers on the Moselle River routes between Vittonville and Arnaville, scoring a superb strike at the neck of the railroad yards at Conflans. However, according to Hopper, the 96th lost 16 pilots during the four-day mission in St. Mihiel, as well as 14 aircraft that were either destroyed in battle or forced down in enemy territory.

However, during the last Allied attack of the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, from September 26 to November 11, 1918, the 96th scored a series of significant bombing victories. 

“The chase aircraft worked closely with the bombers for the first time since the squadron had been operational,” Hopper wrote. The chase aircraft’ protection…[was] very valuable for precise bombing.”

The 96th also used bigger formations of up to 20 aircraft over the Meuse-Argonne, according to Hopper. “The large formation’s success did more to boost the squadron’s morale and courage than any event in its history,” he remembered.

On October 1, Hopper led 13 aircraft on a bombing mission over Banthéville, which was one of the first successes of the new-style formation. On the 18th of October, a flight of 14 planes commanded by Hopper arrived in Sivry and dropped 1,600 kg of bombs on the town center and nearby highways. “On this operation, 250 soldiers were killed and 700 wounded,” he said, citing intelligence information from French sources. 

Hopper produced a history of the 96th Aero Squadron shortly after his release from the USAS in 1919, which he subsequently described as “a pathetically tiny document since there was just one log book as a record.” He subsequently embarked on a global tour with an Army friend, Cass Canfield (who eventually became president and chairman of Harper & Brothers Publishers). In a felucca, the two sailed down the Nile River, sleeping on the riverbank at night. In the winter of 1920-21, they journeyed through China on foot, on raft, and by sampan for three months, arriving in Shanghai, where Hopper spent a year writing editorials and a column for the China Press and Shanghai Evening Star.

Hopper also disguised himself as a peasant and traveled across the Urals. He went to Murmansk and inland to Luvozero by reindeer-drawn sled with Junius B. Wood, a Chicago Daily News reporter.

Flying and Dying in World War I France: A Red Devil’s Odyssey General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz adds a belated Silver Star to Hopper’s World Conflict I Victory Medal decades after the war. (From the National Archives)

In 1924, he returned to Harvard to finish his bachelor’s degree, which was followed by a master’s degree in 1925. He spent two years as a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs in the Soviet Union from 1927 to 1929, and then finished his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1930, joining the faculty as an assistant professor of government. Three Kennedy brothers were among his pupils throughout the years: Joseph P., John F., and Edward M.

In March 1942, Hopper created a division of the Office of Strategic Services in Sweden, which functioned as a forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, where he spent a year observing and interpreting Soviet operations in the Baltic area. He then worked as the chief historian for the United States Eighth Air Force and the United States Strategic Air Forces, and then as a special consultant and speechwriter for General Carl A. Spaatz at the Pentagon.

Hopper was a member of the United States Air Force Academy’s site selection board in 1946-47. He subsequently returned to Harvard, where he worked as an associate professor specializing on Soviet politics for the next 13 years, until his retirement in 1961. On July 6, 1973, he died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 80.  

Gary G. Yerkey worked as a foreign reporter for Time-LIFE and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications in the United States. He is now living in Washington, D.C., where he works as a journalist and novelist. Further reading: James J. Hudson’s Hostile Skies; Hugh T. Harrington’s Destiny’s Wings; Jack Morris Wright’s A Poet of the Air; and James J. Sloan Jr.’s Wings of Honor.

This article was first published in the May 2022 edition of Aviation History. Today is the last day to subscribe!

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