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- Air Service Boys in the Big Battle - 10/29 -
was a system, though a civilian would not have understood it.
"Well, let's find out where we're at," suggested Torn, to his chum.
"Right 0, my pickled grapefruit!" agreed Jack with a laugh. "Let's get into the game."
They were about to ask their direction from a non-commissioned officer who was directing a squad of men in the unloading of a truck which seemed filled with canned goods, when some one said:
"There goes Black Jack now!"
The two air service boys looked, and saw, passing along not far away, a tall man, faultlessly attired, who looked "every inch a soldier," and whose square jaw was indicative of his fighting qualities, if the rest of his face had not been.
"Is that General Pershing?" asked Tom, in a low voice of the non-commissioned officer.
"That's who he is, buddy," was the smiling answer. "The best man in the world for the job, too. Come on there now, you with the red hair. This isn't a croquet game. Lay into those cases, and get 'em off some time before New Year's. We want to have our Christmas dinner in Berlin, remember!"
"So that's Pershing," commented Jack, as he looked at the American commander, who, with his staff officers, was on a trip of inspection. "Well, he suits me all right!"
"The next thing for us to do is to find out if we suit him," remarked Tom. "Wonder if he knows we're here?"
"I don't even believe he knows we're alive!" exclaimed Jack, for the moment taking Tom's joke quite seriously.
As General Pershing passed on, receiving and returning many salutes, Tom and Jack made their inquiries, learned where they were to report, and went on their way, longing for the time when they could get into action with the American troops.
"Oh, so you're the two aviators from the Lafayette Escadrille," commented the commanding officer, or the C. 0., of the newly formed American squadron, as Tom and Jack, drawing themselves up as straight as they could, saluted when he looked over their papers and their log books. These last are the personal records of aviators in which they note the details of each flight made. They are official documents, but when a birdman is honorably discharged he may take his log book with him.
"We were told to report to you, sir," said Tom.
"Yes. And I'm glad to see you. We're going to establish a purely American air force, but as yet it is in its infancy. I need some experienced fliers, and I'm glad you're going to be with us. Of course I have a number who have made good records over there," and he nodded to indicate the United States, "But they haven't been under fire yet, and I understand you have."
"Some," admitted Jack, modestly enough.
"Good! Well, I'm to have some more of our own boys, who are to be transferred from the French forces, and some from the Royal Flying Corps, so with that as a start I guess we can build up an air service that will make Fritz step lively. But we've got to go slow. One thing I'm sorry for is that we haven't, as yet, any American planes. We'll have to depend on the French and English for them, as we have to, at first, for our artillery and shells."
"We can fly French or British planes," remarked Tom.
And, as my old readers know, the air service boys had had experience with a number of different models.
"We can fly a Gotha if we have to," said Jack. "One came down back of our lines last month, and we patched it up and flew it for practice."
"I hope you can get some more of that practice," said the commanding officer with a smile.
"But, now that you're here, I'll swear you in and see what the orders are regarding you. I'm afraid there won't be much fighting for you at first--that is strictly as Americans. I understand our air front, if I may use that term, will have to grow out of a nucleus of French and English fighters."
"That's all right, as long as we get the right start," commented Tom.
It was necessary to swear the boys into the service of the United States, even though they were natives of it; since, on entering the Lafayette Escadrille, they had been obliged to swear allegiance to France. But this was a matter of routine where the Allies were concerned, and soon Tom and Jack were back again where they longed to be--enrolled among the distinctive fighters of their own country.
They were assigned to barracks, and found themselves among some other airmen, many of whom were student fliers from the various aviation camps of the United States. Few of these youths had had much practice, though some had been to the Canadian schools. And none of them had, as yet, fought an enemy in the air.
To aid and instruct them, however, were such fighters as Tom and Jack, and some even more experienced from the French, Italian and British camps, who had been detailed to help out the United States in the emergency.
The next few weeks was an instruction and reconstruction period, with Tom and Jack often filling the roles of teachers. They found their pupils apt, eager and willing, however, and among them they discovered some excellent material. As the commanding officer of the new American air forces had said, the planes used were all of English or French make. It was too early in the war for America to have sent any over equipped with the Liberty motor, though production was under way.
After this period had passed, Tom and Jack, with a squadron of other birdmen were sent to a certain section of the front held largely by American troops, supported by veteran French and British regiments.
It was the first wholly American aircraft camp established since the beginning of the World War, and it was not even yet as wholly American as it was destined to be later, for the aviators were, as regards veterans, largely French and English. Torn and Jack were, in point of service, the ranking American fliers for a time.
There had been several sharp engagements across No Man's Land between the mingled French, British and French forces and the Huns, and honors were on the side of the former. There had been one or two combats in the air, in which Tom and Jack had taken part, when one day word came from an observation balloon on the American side that a flock of German aircraft was on the way from a camp located a few miles within the Boche lines.
There was a harried consultation of the officers, and then orders were given for a half score of the Allied machines to get ready. Two veteran French aces were to be in command, with Tom and Jack as helpers, and some of the American aviators were to go into the battle of the air for the first time.
"The Huns are evidently going to try to bomb some of our ammunition dumps behind our lines,"' said one officer, speaking to Tom. "It's up to you boys to drive 'em back."
"We'll try, sir," was the answer. "We owe the Huns something we haven't been able to pay off as yet."
Tom referred to the loss of Harry Leroy. So far no word had been received from him, either directly or through the German aviators, as to whether he was dead or a prisoner. Letters had passed between Bessie and Nellie and Jack and Tom, and the sister of the missing youth begged for news.
But there was none to give her.
"Unless we get some to-day," observed Tom as he and his chum hurried toward the hangars where their machines were being made ready for them.
"Get news to-day? What makes you think we shall?" asked Jack.
"Well, we might bring down a Fritzie or two who'd know something about poor Harry," was the answer. "You never can tell."
"No, that's so," agreed Jack. "Well, here's hoping we'll have luck."
By this time there was great excitement in the American aviation headquarters. Word of the oncoming Hun planes had spread, and not a flier of Pershing's forces but was eager to get into his plane and go aloft to give battle. But only the best were selected, and if there were heart-burnings of disappointment it could not be helped.
Two classes of planes were to be used, the single seaters for the aces, who fought alone, and the double craft, each one of which carried a pilot and an observer. In the latter cases the observers were the new men, who had yet to receive their baptism of fire above the clouds.
Tom and Jack were each detailed to take up one of the new men, and the air service boys were glad to find that, assigned to each of them, was the very man he would have picked had he had his choice. They were eager, intrepid lads, anxious to do their share in the great adventure.
Quickly the machines were made ready, and quickly the fighters climbed into them. The roar of the motors was heard all over the aerodrome, and soon the machines began to mount. Up and up they climbed, and none too soon, for on reaching elevations averaging ten thousand feet, there was seen, over the German lines, a flock of the Hun planes led by two or three machines painted a bright red. These were some of the machines that had belonged to the celebrated "flying circus," organized by a daring Hun aviator and ace who was killed after he had inflicted great damage and loss on the Allied service. He and his men had their machines painted red, perhaps on the theory that they would thus inspire terror. These were some of the former members of the circus," it was evident.
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