Last installment of Kossuth County Historical Society WWI stories
Claire Blossom Laird was the youngest child of J. R. and Ella Laird. J.R. had run a thriving furniture and undertaking business in Algona until his death in 1913 when Claire was only 18 and a senior in high school. In August of 1917, at the age of 21, Claire enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He participated in 22 missions with the French and was brought down during his eighth mission with the Americans.
In the February 6, 1919 edition of the Bancroft Register, Clair gave an account of his plane crash behind enemy lines and his experience as a prisoner of war. Here is his story in his own words:
In August, 1917, I was sent to the University of Texas where we were trained in the Aeroplane school. In November we were sent to New York and across. After several weeks’ waiting, I volunteered as an observer, whose duties are to drop bombs and signal the pilot on his course. There is little sensation in flying, in fact it was a great disappointment to me.
With the French.
On June 10 I was attached with my pilot to the French escradrille 127 group de bombardment 5. We were located at Plessis Bellville below Chateau Therry. My pilot was Roger Chapin of Boston, and we were together to the finish. We made several flights over the lines when we were transferred on August 21st to the American aero squadron, First bombardment crew. “Dud” McDonald, the Burt aviator, had been with squadron number 96, of the same group but was lost in July. I did not get to see him in service.
On September 18 ten left the field, all practically new pilots. Roger Chapin and I were in the lead. We had two objectives or targets upon which we were ordered to drop bombs. One was a village with a number of troops and the other an aerdome, then kilometers across the line. Our machines were D.H. 4s equipped with Liberty motors. Four of the planes turned back because of engine troubles and but six crossed the line. It was very cloudy and the first target to be bombed, the barracks, was hidden from view so we went on over to the second, the aerdome.
Crashed to Earth
We did our bombing and had started home when we were attacked by about fifteen Fokkers from the front. Usually an attack is made at the rear. One machine got right under our plane and the rattling of their guns sounded like the explosion of a bunch of firecrackers. I was slightly wounded on the shin by fragments of an explosive bullet but during the excitement paid no attention to it. Our gas tank was punctured badly and full of holes. To make matters worse my right gun jammed and was useless, and all the while the German machine was right under our tail doing their utmost to down us. I gave them all I had with one gun. It was just a matter of a few seconds and we were close enough to see the expressions on the faces of our enemy. It was something awful while it lasted. Our tank was shot to pieces and it is a miracle that the explosive bullets did not set the gasoline on fire.
Our motor, getting little gas, was practically useless and Chapin was forced to leave formation and managed to volplane into a cloud. We were in this cloud a couple of minutes. Coming out of the cloud we saw nothing more of enemy planes or our own formation. We had lost a great deal of altitude. Anti air craft guns opened on us from the ground and continued shooting at us until we crashed. Our motor was giving us little aid and Chapin was forced to keep it in a continual glide. We were working air pumps on the gas tank and at times the motor would pick up a bit only to practically stop again. Getting closer to the ground “Chape” attempted to pull up over some telegraph wires but the motor failed again and crashed into the wires. I remember nothing more until I came to under the plane. The plane was lying upside down with Chapin hanging from a leg hooked under the rudder bar. I thought he was dead but after unfastening his clothing and rubbing his face and hands he began moaning and finally came to. I could not set the plane on fire as we had been instructed to do in case of accident or capture, with him hanging there. He is a big man and it was some job to get him down.
Just as I had finished this I looked down and saw boche boots all around the machine. They did not walk around the wings but cut their way through and said, “Kamrade.” One of them asked if we were hurt and helped Chapin up. There must have been two or three hundred about by this time and they were all laughing as though they considered it a great joke. An officer then appeared and took us to a village. Here another officer appeared who spoke English and said we should be thankful that the war was finished for us. We couldn’t exactly see it that way with the stories of German camps in our minds. They questioned us and asked what we were doing over there and you may bet we did not tell them we had been bombing but just reconnoitering.
Germans Very Polite.
They were very polite, too d- -m polite, and searched us carefully. We asked how far we were from the line and they told us one hours’ walk.
Then appeared an officer who stated that the anti-aircraft guns or “Archies” as they are called, wanted to know if they were entitled to the credit of bringing us down and we told them yes, signing a paper to that effect, they might as well have it as anyone. We were then taken to the Division headquarters. We were also asked why we were in the war and we replied, President Wilson’s Peace terms explained it. It was about 5:00 p.m. when we were brought down and it was 9:00 p.m. when we reached division headquarters. Two huns marched back of us with fixed bayonets and a sergeant in front leading the way. He was an old farmer and had some feeling for us. My leg hurt badly and he permitted us to rest and gave me a first aid bandage. With our big coats and my leg hurting badly, it got very hot, but I kept going for fear that Chapin and I would be separated. Believe me I was good and scared and on this march I never expected to reach headquarters and from stories we had been told of how prisoners were shot down, Chapin and I both thought our end was near. The sergeant allowed us to rest several times and generously gave us a German made cigarette. In about one half hour we were taken into another room. It was a fine room full of maps and desks and several fine looking officers, and one who spoke perfect English appeared. “Come to spend a while in Germany?” he asked, “But you may not be here long as a prisoner of war exchange conference is now on in Switzerland.” He said, “I have no questions to ask but wish to talk for a while.” He asked why America entered the war and said he lived in this country for five years and that Americans were in it for the money. He said he could not understand the feeling that existed. At one time he said he was engaged to wed a Philadelphia girl. He wanted to know why America confiscated docks and ships and asked us if we thought a commercial war against Germany would result.
He spoke of the atrocities reported as having been committed by German troops and said they were difficult to control, especially when they were making rapid gains. He said many atrocities had been committed by Americans. He told of an American raid over the top and how a number of prisoners taken were questioned and later taken to a woods and shot. We declared it could not be as Americans did not fight in that manner, so he said he had absolute proof and sent out for a private who come in and vouched for the story. When we continued to express our disbelief the German bared his back showing three flesh wounds and told of how he was one of the captives and fell when shot slightly wounded and later made his escape. The officer then said they knew the regiment that did this and that they had captured two men out of that same regiment. Well maybe we did not feel creepy, thinking perhaps we were the two men and that we would be dealt with accordingly. He asked us, “What would you do?” and we could only answer we didn’t believe the story. He said, however, that these men would have a fair trial. He then said, “You are lucky to have been captured by troops of this division.” But we doubted it. During this time we had no food and were pretty hungry. Mr. German officer apologized very profoundly promised us better treatment and something to eat. We had been warned in school, however, of how the first few days we would receive excellent treatment until all information possible had been gotten from us and were suspicious. We were taken to a building and locked in a room in the cellar with board cots, but no meal was in sight.
In the morning one of these “pleasant” officers called and took us to breakfast. We were given black coffee, made out of chestnuts, no milk or sugar, some black, sour, soggy bread and a jam, which they told us was a coal tar product, although it did not taste bad then. He then opened a little tin box and gave us a small slice of meat. He asked what we usually ate for breakfast and we told him ham and eggs, bread and butter, coffee and milk and sugar. He did not believe us but questioned us no further about food. He then told us we would be taken back from the lines and as they had not conveyance we would have to walk. Of course he was “very sorry.” We stated about9:00 a.m. with two guards and the sergeant and walked to Joeuf, a small place near Metz, where they had an aviation headquarters. Here they asked plenty of questions, told us they had heard of us before when we led a flight over the lines September 14. They said they had had two or three of our men there and that one of them had papers on him giving a great deal of information.
Eight days at Joeuf.
The officer here told us that we would be there at least eight days and that they placed us upon our honor that we would not attempt to escape during that time. We at first refused to sign an agreement to that effect but finally did so upon threat of continual guard and solitary confinement, we were both so tired and worn out. They gave us pretty good quarters except for beds, there were too many inhabitants of foreign nature. Here they told us that one man had been killed in our raid but we refused to answer their many questions.
Germans Tell Lies.
They named several of our men and said they were in a nearby hospital and asked us if we would like to see them. We asked for food and drink. They asked what we would have to drink and we replied water. Here they treated us well and one officer asked in very good English, “How do you like Germany?” Another officer then asked for the number and location of our aviation field that they might drop a note to our friends telling them that we were well and safe but Chapin suggested that they might drop some pills, at which the officer replied, “O no,” and finally became angry and put us in a cell in a Kaiserlich gendarmerie. There we remained all night with no food. This officer was one of those surly ones with the Heidelberg scars on his face and as I later learned was a good way to tell a Prussian. About 9:00 o’clock the next morning the first officer “called,” apologized for the treatment we had received, stating that the man who had locked us in this hole had a bad temper. He took us to better quarters, but the beds there were also occupied by vermin. We were in this town for five days and were questioned thoroughly twice each day.
Invited Out For Dinner.
One day we were taken to the officer’s home for dinner and while he did not ask questions direct, his conversation kept us on the alert so completely that we could not enjoy the dinner.
Hear American Music.
He had a phonograph and played several American pieces which I presume he thought would have its effect and it surely did make us good and homesick. He then asked again for the location of our air squadron and we told him he could not expect us to answer that question, when he remarked that he had other ways of securing the desired information, which would not sound very good to us. But after we again refused he did not put his threat into action. We asked to go to the hospital. He then said our friends had died that morning, which was all a lie as three of the planes in our flight had come down in flames, we later learned.
Very Poor Food.
All of these only made our spirits lower and we could not talk of them for days. The first five days we were captives we had little to eat, one and a half loaves of black, soggy bread, a two days’ ration for five, two Americans and an Englishman having joined us, chestnut coffee for breakfast, a little soup for dinner and what soup that was left over with a little coal tar jam for supper. There appeared to be plenty of good food in the country, with a shortage of sugar, all fats and meat.
Moved to Karlsruhe.
From here we were taken to Karlsruhe, which city is a wonderful place, and told that we would be quartered in a hotel. Here is where we thought our promised good eats would come in. I was there one night. The wound on my leg having become infected with no attention in Joelf, but promises, and I was taken to the camp for treatment. I was there six days and fared pretty well through the Red Cross.
Meets Captain Hall.
The hotel is said to have been full of Dictaphones in order to secure information from prisoners. Capt. Norman Hall of Colfax, Iowa was at Landshut, the second camp I was sent to. He, at that time, was writing a book on German prison camps, which will be, I am sure, a true account so far as he knows prison life.
A few days after the armistice was signed we were informed of the fact and day after day were promised our release. It was on November 29 that we left traveling through Switzerland to France.
By the end of his service in WWI, Claire Laird had attained the rank of lieutenant. He continued his military career, serving during WWII and finally retiring as a Major. He then settled in Des Moines where he lived until his passing in 1979.
Until next time,
Kossuth County History Buff