JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
As we related in last month’s issue of Wingtips the 141st Aero Squadron (Pursuit) was part of the 2nd Army Air Service’s 4th Pursuit Group, which was formed on 12 October 1918. The 141st actually started combat operations two days prior to the formation of the 2nd Air Service. Eventually, three other Aero Squadrons (the 17th, 25th and 148th) joined the 141st at Toul in preparation for a planned major offense that was to start 10 November 1918. Interestingly the 17th and 148th Aero Squadrons had already seen extensive combat but as squadrons attached to the British Royal Air Force. The British relinquished command of these squadrons to the American Expeditionary Forces but kept its Sopwith Camel aircraft! The other squadron, the 25th, was formed without aircraft.
As a result, the 4th Pursuit Group lacked sufficient aircraft to equip all four squadrons, and as luck would have it, only the 141st maintained a complement of SPAD XIII pursuit planes and were the only squadron in the Group to see combat. The squadron mainly provided protection of observation aircraft and performed patrols over Germany territory. They ended up engaging in 13 air-to-air combats, shooting down two of the enemy’s Fokker D.VII pursuit planes, without loss. Captain Hobart “Hobey” Baker, the 141st Aero Squadron’s first combat commanding officer, was instrumental in this successful record.
Hobart Amory Hare “Hobey” Baker will forever be associated with the history and heritage of the 141st Air Refueling Squadron for very good reason. Hobey was born on 15 January 1892 in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to fairly well to do parents. He and his one year older brother Thornton were sent to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, where Hobey began his remarkable ice hockey career. Although Hobey appeared to have a natural athletic talent, being an exceptionally fast and agile skater, his success was also a result of his devotion to the sport. He could be seen practicing on frozen ponds every night when not at the school’s ice rink for team practice, rapidly skating back and forth, moving the puck without looking down at it. But his athletic prowess was not limited to hockey; he was named the school’s best athlete in football, baseball, tennis, swimming and track, in addition to hockey.
In 1910 Hobey enrolled in Princeton University’s Class of 1914, majoring in history, politics and economics. Hobey’s parents could not afford to send both sons to university, and Thornton graciously stepped back so that Hobey could attend. Academically Hobey was an above-average student, but athletically, he was exceptional. At 5’10” height and 160 pounds, he was not particularly large by today’s standards. His physical appearance - finely proportioned, wavy blond hair, blue-grey eyes, graceful and lithe build – and disarming and humble personality, made him an exceptionally charismatic young man. He immediately joined Princeton’s hockey, football and baseball teams. Due to a school rule that limits students to two sports, Hobey played baseball first, then dropped that to focus on football and ice hockey. Playing varsity football for three years, Hobey was a standout both in physical appearance and in accomplishments. His blonde and handsome appearance (he did not wear a helmet) caused him to be referred to by sports writers as “the blond Adonis of the gridiron.” He set Princeton and Ivy League football records in yards run and points scored that lasted until relatively recent times. He still holds the record for the number of punt returns in a single game. He was a particularly outstanding football star, being instrumental in the Princeton “Tigers” winning record for the years he played.
But Hobey Baker is mostly closely associated with ice hockey where he truly excelled. He led Princeton to its first national hockey championship in 1914 and during his three-year collegiate career, scored over 120 goals and is credited with over 100 assists, averaging three of each per game.
Upon graduation from Princeton, he was named the school’s best football player, hockey player and overall athlete, garnering the maximum number of “letters” possible. He remains the only athlete named to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was the ultimate sportsman, competitive but more interested in the beauty of the game rather than victory at all costs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who attended Princeton at the same time, modeled a character in his first novel, “This Side of Paradise”, on Baker.
After graduation, Baker spent some time in Europe, and then back in the U.S. he worked at an insurance company and then as a trainee with J.P. Morgan Bank. He spent his free time playing hockey in an amateur league, but sought new adventures. He found that in flying. He learned to fly with a privately funded military aviator training program. He eventually received a reserve officer commission in the US Army Signal Corps and joined the 1st Aero Company of the New York National Guard. In a famous incident, he was part of a formation of Curtiss Jenny training planes that buzzed Princeton’s Palmer Stadium during the 1916 Princeton-Yale football game, after which Baker landed on the playing field! He is believed to be the first and only football spectator to arrive by air!
With the US entry into World War I, Baker volunteered for service in Europe, arriving there in the summer of 1917. He received further training in England with the RAF and then with the French Air Force. 1st Lt Hobart Baker finally got to the front in April 1918, being assigned to the 103rd Aero Squadron, which was under command of fellow Princeton graduate, Charles Biddle. The 103rd was originally formed in August 1917 at Kelly Field, Texas, but after they arrived in France the squadron was augmented with experienced American pilots who had previously served with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. For this reason, the 103rd Aero Squadron took over the distinct “Indian Head” insignia previously worn by the Lafayette Escadrille SPAD VIIs. (Contrary to a number of published statements Hobey Baker did not serve with the Lafayette Escadrille prior to being assigned to the 103rd Aero Squadron.)
The 103rd Aero Squadron was part of the 3rd Pursuit Group, US Air Service, 1st Army. As an interesting historical note the United States Air Service was formed in 1918 as an independent military aviation force reporting to the Department of War. In Europe, the Air Service was part of the American Expeditionary Force [AEF] under the command of Gen John “Black Jack” Pershing. After the end of the war, the Air Service was dissolved, and the aviation assets were reassigned to the Army’s Signal Corps. The US did not have an independent military air service again until the creation of today’s United States Air Force in 1947!
Getting back to our story, when Baker joined the 103rd, the unit was Foucaucort Aerodrome in the Aisne sector of France. On 2 May 1918 the unit moved to the Ypres-Lys sector of Belgium. On 21 May 1918, Baker shared an aerial victory with Biddle and two other squadron mates. Baker wrote home to his mother after this event, stating, “It was the biggest thrill of my life.”
When Biddle assumed command of the newly arrived 13th Aero Squadron flying SPAD XIIIs from Souilly Aerodrome in the Meuse area, he asked Baker to join him as flight leader. Baker was hesitant to make the change but on 20 July 1918 he participated in that squadron’s first aerial victory. For some reason, however, Baker did not receive official credit for the kill. Shortly thereafter Baker was promoted to Captain and assigned to another newly arrived squadron, the 141st Aero Squadron as squadron commander. However, it was not until October that the squadron received its aircraft, new SPAD XIIIs. In recognition of the well-liked squadron commander Baker’s Princeton background, the aircraft soon were painted with 12 inch orange stripes with 1 inch black borders (Princeton’s colors) and were adorned with the squadron’s insignia designed by Lt Sam Slaughter, a powerful Princeton tiger mauling a German helmet. There is one reference that states that the tiger insignia was only added to a pilot’s aircraft if that pilot had participated in air-to-air combat, but this has not be confirmed.
On 28 October 1918, while cruising high over enemy lines, he encountered a German two-seat observation plane and after a prolonged dogfight, managed to shoot it down. He and his flight-mates were subsequently jumped by a large flight of Fokker D.VIIs but the Americans managed to escape with no losses. Baker was credited with the kill. On 5 November, just a few days before the German surrender, Baker and his flight encountered more Fokker D.VIIs, and managed to shoot one down with no losses to the American side; Baker shared the kill with four of his squadron mates.
The Great War, as World War I was known at the time, officially ended “on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” (11AM, 11 November 1918). Most historians agree that Hobey Baker’s pursuit pilot career was just getting started and had the war lasted longer, he would have easily achieved ace status and perhaps would have become one of the war’s leading aces. Instead, Baker, with his three aerial victories (officially credited as 1.45 kills due to the sharing of credit on two of the three victories) was ordered to return to the US with a departure date of 21 December 1918.
Since he was not scheduled to depart Toul Aerodrome until the 8pm train to Paris, Baker decided to take one more flight in his beloved SPAD VIII, aircraft #2. His squadron mates pleaded with Baker to stay on the ground in what was a dark, rainy and windy day. Capt Baker insisted to go ahead, but before he could climb in, the mechanics wheeled out SPAD #7 that had just been repaired after engine trouble. Baker told his squadron mates “I think I should test the repair as the safety of the squadron is still my responsibility until I leave for Paris.” Taking off in front of the rest of the squadron, Baker immediately pulled up sharply in an attempt to perform a Chandelle maneuver that combines a 180-degree turn with a steep climb – in those days a somewhat risky maneuver even in good weather with a good airplane. At a critical moment, the engine failed; instead of immediately trying to put down the SPAD in the nearest clearing, Baker tried to glide to the airfield to save the aircraft. The SPAD stalled and nose-dived into the wet ground just a few hundred feet short of the landing field. Hobey Baker died that day; his orders to return home found in the pocket of his flight jacket.
Hobey Baker was buried in a small military cemetery near Toul. In 1921, his mother had his remains moved to her family plot in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania where a tombstone was erected with the following inscription:
You who seemed winged, even as a lad,
With that swift look of those who know the sky,
It was no blundering fate that stooped and bade
You break your wings, and fall to earth and die,
I think some day you may have flown too high,
So that immortals saw you and were glad,
Watching the beauty of your spirits flame,
Until they loved and called you, and you came.
Hobey Baker left a great legacy as a sportsman and athlete; he also left an indelible mark on American aviation history and particularly, the heritage of the 141st ARS.
The 141st Aero Squadron After Baker
The squadron was devastated by the loss of their well-loved leader. As a mark of mourning, the orange stripes on the SPADs were painted over in black. In an effort to hold the squadron together, Capt Field E. Kindley, a proven combat pilot with 12 aerial victories to his credit while serving with the 148th Aero Squadron, was assigned as the new squadron commander.
Promptly after the signing of the Armistice, the American Expeditionary Force was reorganized, with the 3rd Army ordered to march immediately into Germany to occupy that country. As part of that occupation force, the 141st Aero Squadron was reassigned to the 5th Pursuit Group and transferred to Coblenz Aerodrome, Germany, and re-equipped with the British-built Sopwith F-1 Camel. However, that assignment ended in May and on 15 June 1919, the 141st Aero Squadron personnel were part of the 2,548 veterans who set sail for Brooklyn, New York on the USS Tiger. (How appropriate is the name of the ship, considering the 141st Aero Squadron’s Princeton connection through Hobey Baker!) On 19 July 1919, shortly after arrival in the US, the 141st was demobilized at Hazelhurst Field, Long Island, New York, the same airfield where the squadron had first assembled in January 1918 prior to being sent to Europe. Incidentally, Hazelhurst Field was the Army’s part of the larger Roosevelt Field, historically significant as Charles Lindbergh’s departure point on his 20 May 1927 transatlantic flight.
Our unit history continues next month with a jump forward to World War II and the exploits of the 348th Fighter Group, and the 341st Fighter Squadron. The linkage of these famed WWII outfits to the 108th Wing and the 141st ARS will be explained.