Their machines were made of wood, wire and doped fabric, powered by appallingly unreliable engines. With no parachutes, the young pilots would debate philosophically whether it was better to jump from 2,000 feet or stay in their burning cockpits to the end.
Among them was a son of Kansas City — 1st Lt. John Francisco Richards II — who, on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 1918, was at the stick of a patched-up, nose-heavy French Salmson 2A2 biplane.
That was the opening day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a battle that led to the Armistice 47 days later. The mission of Richards and his observer in the second seat was to spot German guns in the Varennes area and direct U.S. artillery fire on them.
Richards and 2nd Lt. Austin Hanscom did not return to their muddy airdrome near Remicourt that day and were initally listed as missing. Crews searched hospitals and flew over the exploding forested terrain to find them, even dropping notes to the enemy inquiring about the fate of a friend called “Dickie.”
It wasn’t clear until about a month later that Richards had stayed with his machine all the way down.
“Most interesting, heroic and pathetic” had been the 22-year-old officer’s journal observation about the grave-strewn and shattered French countryside. The words fit his own story well.
For much of his life, Richards kept this daily accounting. “Writing seems to have been one of his greatest pleasures, no matter what the conditions were as to time or place,” said his father, George Richards, in the foreword of “War Diary and Letters of John F. Richards,” published in 1925.
Richards loved flying. “It is the most wonderful sensation and I can see that I shall never give it up. Sixty miles an hour up there is like about fifteen on the ground,” he exulted in a diary entry.
Now, amid the 100th anniversary of the Great War, this young officer’s forgotten story reopens a window on the air war over France. Though it was a world away from the terrible trenches, death was just as imminent.
To repeat all the entries would, well, take a book. This story picks among the pieces to put together a sense of this convivial and purposeful young man.
Introduction to France
March 23, 1917, the Yale senior signs up for duty: “War has surely gotten to everyone. Personally, I think we ought to go and go in hard if we do,” he writes. “I am thinking seriously of aerial work. It means a first lieutenancy in about four months. Good pay, too.”
Aug. 4: Richards is aboard the S.S. Orduna, with U-boats and facial hair on his mind: “Yesterday Harry Reynolds and I got some boxing gloves and had a bit of exercise. A nice salt bath afterward felt grand. However, between the boxing and the matter of getting up a lather with salt water, I would say the latter was the more strenuous.
“Have been growing a mustache since we sailed from New York. It is coming along quite well, but don’t know whether I will keep it or not. It does not feel quite natural.”
By Aug. 13, Richards is in Paris, the first of many visits to the capital, either to pick up new airplanes or girls.
“Country we passed through is much like part of the United States. Many German prisoners working along the road. I believe they consider themselves lucky. I guess they are…
“Paris seems to be dead. Few people about and all quiet.”
A couple of days later, he’s at a French training field about 3 miles outside of Tours. He finds 10 hangars, about 200 machines and a French nonchalance about the appalling number of mishaps and injuries:
“In general the French look on an accident as a joke. The other morning a machine nosed over on its propeller. We were all watching and the chief pilot almost split laughing. On the average of a half a dozen machines a day are busted up somehow. The mechanics on the field fix immediately.”
The diary begins its inventory of planes he will fly and find fault with: Nieuports, Salmsons, Dorand ARs, SPADs, all French, all one-engine with two seats, except for the bi-motor Candras called “Jay Cats.”
Aug. 16: “Up at four-thirty and given coffee and bread. Assigned to class of five with Thierot. Given a passenger ride as high as 326 meters through clouds and right into the sun. Clouds below with now and then patches of ground. Very pretty country.…
“The French are funny. They do not fly at all unless the weather is perfect. No flying at all in the middle of the day. I guess it is rather ‘bumpy’ then.
“There is no white bread to be had in France, all brown war bread, made up largely of sawdust. As to water, it is most difficult to get. Everyone drinks wine of some sort.”
Learning to fly
For all his enthusiasm, Richards seems to have not been a “natural” at the stick. In fact, he becomes quite depressed at how his friends move up the training schedule, leaving him behind.
Aug. 20: “Yesterday we were allowed to take the machines off the ground. They do not want you to get off very fast or to climb quickly. Today I landed the machines for the first time. Thierot said ‘bon.’”
Sept. 6: “A most interesting day! … After I got off the ground about 75 meters the motor didn’t sound very good. I climbed slowly to the 100, as per instructions, got ready to make my final turn, when the motor got worse and stopped. I kept my eyes open for fields all the way around, so picked the one directly in front of me, nosed her down and began immediately to manipulate the levers, but no success.…
“Passed over a tree about twenty feet and was pulling like the devil for an open field, which would have been a peach to land in, but it was a bit too far.… I pulled my stick into my belly, but the wheels tripped on the last row of the vineyard.… The first thing I knew I was hanging head down by my strap, wondering if the engine was going to drop on me. It did not, so I unfastened the belt and climbed out. The machine was unhurt except for being on its back, the rudders were bent slightly. Not even a wire was broken and the propeller only had a bit of mud on it.…
“Chic Wacker, Bill and I had a bottle of wine at the canteen and drank to ‘lucky accidents.’”
Sept. 9: “I have learned now that I was born to be hung, utterly disgusted with myself.… I got up to about 120 meters and cut too far away. Gave it the gun and it took for a few explosions and died — too late then to turn into the field.… I knew I was going to hit so tried to go between two trees so as to hit a wing preferably.… Sort of whirled around the tree and dropped about 20 feet. Was not in the least hurt, not even jarred. One wing was all smashed and the crankshaft bent. As usual, I did not break the propeller. Being Sunday a crowd collected faster than anything I have ever seen.… Nothing much was said and everyone pleased that I wasn’t hurt. It was a shame to break that nice machine, though, and I felt like perfect fool.”
By the next day, he can tell himself: “I have company now in the matter of breaking machines. Russ came down, breaking his landing gear and one wing. Bill, immediately afterwards went up and had a forced landing. Got his field all right, but continued into a grape arbor, where he turned over. He was thrown out but not hurt. We now have no machines, but glad Bill broke his as it was a terrible one.”
Sept. 13: “Am one tired boy tonight after two hours and forty-five minutes in the air today.… I got a terrible kick just as I passed about fifteen feet above the hangars. Thought it was going to be a wing slip, but by dint of both hands, feet and body I got her straightened. It was quite a strain until one got high up. Don’t seem to be able to land these machines.”
In a week, however, he has been transferred to a different field at Avord, closer to the front.
“The country round about is about my idea of Dante’s Inferno. The camp itself is hell. Bugs and disease everywhere. Somebody killed every day — eleven not long ago. The town is nothing but aviation fields stretched in every direction. About one thousand students are here, I understand.… The barracks we found lousy with bedbugs crawling everywhere. Spent the rest of the day trying to improve same.”
By Oct. 15, he writes that he has had his “first good day, or nearly so” in a Nieuport 28, which has a very delicate stick, requiring only the thumb and forefinger. The “wonderful to run” machines, he finds, are nose-heavy and must be held up continually.
Another reason it was a good day: a box from home with American cigarettes. Richards regularly sent upbeat letters to both his father and mother.
One discouragement is the delays in his group receiving their officer commissions. On Sept. 12, he notes: “Another red-letter day, we got paid. Order has been revoked as to our being sergeants, and through error in service records, most of us are second class privates. As a result I received $100.22 May 22 to September 1.”
By Nov. 20, he has finally gotten his first lieutenant’s silver bar, but his father continues wiring him money and his mother mailing him packages. Once, he writes her not to send him another uniform from Woolf’s because the last one didn’t fit well, and he can get them cheaper in Paris.
(The family’s wealth came from the hardware company Richards & Conover Hardware Co., founded in Leavenworth by the first John Francisco Richards and moved to Kansas City. The older man built a huge house at 31st Street and Troost Avenue, then known as “Millionaire’s Row.”)
On Oct. 22, Richards is “thrown back in the Santa Claus class.… About half the boys left for Issoudun today. I must say I am getting very discouraged on this flying business. Most of my confidence, a very necessary factor, has been knocked out.”
So two days later he tells his diary: “I have put in application to take up bombing, to be learned in England. The work doesn’t give so much personal glory, but it is more interesting and valuable.”
And in his depression he makes a very poor prediction: “Not far off, I believe, the day is coming when the real value of the fighting plane is past.”
By Nov. 11, after a successful second course on the Nieuports, his confidence has returned.
A month later he still worries about his rough landings.
Dec. 5: “Anyone breaking anything now is relegated to Bombing. I’ve got to get through, as I want to get acrobatics as some of the boys are now doing.”
On Dec. 20, he looks up from the field to see a plane in a tailspin and quickly gets to the crash. “I have never seen such a mess. Lieutenant Paule was crumpled up, feet jammed back under the seat. A huge gash in his forehead and bleeding from the mouth. Eyes open and a glazed look in them. I was sure he was dead.… Took 15 minutes to chop him out. No doctors or ambulances as usual.”
In that entry he mentions he has had another crash of his own when trying to glide in with a dead motor. “One wing scraped the ground, I straightened then ZIP, over I went on my back.… As usual, my last thought was ‘I wonder if I will be hurt?’”
In his letter to his father a month later, Richards writes, however, “I don’t want you to believe for a moment that I am in the slightest danger.” That time will come when he’s sent to the front, he says.
The horrors of war
By Jan. 30, 1918, he is at a new field called Amanty, and the war is coming closer.
“Stuffy Spencer reported killed in action at Front returning over the lines. This is the first friend I have had killed and I can’t help but wonder about those to follow. It gives me a weak feeling inside.”
Feb. 2: “Rode over to Gondrecourt in one of the cars and got my pay check, $183.00 but we are not getting the 25% flying pay. Spent part of the afternoon on the machine gun range. Scores (111), (123) out of a possible 235. Also good try with the Hotchkiss gun and tracer bullets.”
Feb. 10: “McConnell and I gave a party here tonight — poker and beer.… This crowd here is crazy about cards. Usually manage to break a trifle ahead.” (But not on May 18, when he lost a fourth of his month’s pay.)
Later in February, many fliers are sent to Paris to ferry Dorand ARs up to the schools. By now Richards is familiar with the Folies Bergere, Harry’s Bar and the Casino de Paris (a music hall) and professes to be bored. The doughboys filling the trenches to the north probably would have traded places.
“One night the five of us, including Nig and Wally, made a violent search of Paris for a rumored ‘hashish’ joint.”
While in Paris, “News came that Hagadern was killed in a defective plane at Cazaux. Makes me wonder how it will all end.”
March 23: “I was assigned both sergeant and machine as my own and am pleased, as I picked a good one of each.” The plane was a SPAD.
April 23, at a field called Ourches: “Thought my plane was ready, but found the carburetor was about to fall off.… I am off the Spads now, engines aren’t worth a hang. Five A.R.’s have been sent over for us to use, as so many of our Spads are shot. Heaven help the man over the lines in one of them.”
A few days later he will add: “We have learned that these Spads were condemned by the French. The whole squadron is disgusted.”
May 13: “Everyone swanked up for more decorations. The Major, Myers and Garside work at low altitude under machine gun fire. The French colonel kissed them all and nearly caused a riot. Later Barney went up and flew a bit for exhibition. Some of the stuff that was near the ground had us all worried. The five men decorated gave a party in the mess hall for the squadron. I drank a bottle of beer and came home to bed. Others didn’t.”
After nine months of training in France, on May 16, Richards writes: “At last got off to ‘war.’ Perry and I made a reconnaissance of his target. Gave me a chance to learn the sector, too. There are enough landmarks to fill a museum. Had one anti-aircraft battery shoot at us.”
These guns they called “Archies.” A near burst, Richards says, reminds him of the sound when a cow draws her foot from deep muck.
On May 19, the fliers learn Maj. Raoul Lufbery, who began flying with the French early in the war, has leaped from his burning machine at 2,000 meters. “With 22 Boche kills to his credit,” Richards notes. “Best man we had, too, and a great loss.”
Three days later, “Barney and Ken Culbert had a fall just off the field. Got into a vrille (spin) and fell with full motor.… Barney died at 8:06 p.m. Little hope for Ken. There is little use saying how ‘low’ the whole camp is.”
Meanwhile, mechanics are struggling to keep his “Old No. 7” flight-worthy. Despite the cards and dice painted on the wheels, it is not a lucky ship. “My motor is laid up several days now, bearings in reduction gear loose. I have never had the plane up that something has not happened.”
To help support an American attack, he talks another pilot into lending his machine.
June 2: “Pulled off my first photographic mission at twenty-five hundred meters. The Archies were all off. Fitz’s machine ‘called it (a) day’ when we got back, gears shot. Apparently I am too, when it comes to flying, can’t land to save my soul. Touch and eye all off. Guess I need a vacation.”
Then on June 6, he writes that the daily average number of machines available is from three to none at all. “The squadron is shot.” Richards is, too, exhausted, ill and dreading to fly now. The French had a word for it: “cafard.”
July 4: “Had a real sleep without dreaming of airplanes and did not get up until noon.”
He is given three weeks leave to recover from trench mouth, a bout of “Spanish grippe,” an impacted wisdom tooth and war weariness. Some he spends in Paris near the hospital, but then he goes to Bordeaux, where his uncle, a U.S. general with the 41st Division, happens to be, and then to Biarritz, with its beaches.
The last months of the long, terrible war are about to unfold, but it is hard to see.
His last days
Richards writes from a field near Toul on Sept. 2 that his plane has shrapnel holes, and the German bombing is every night.
One official record says that on Sept. 4, Richards, “by skillful manuevering, and making good use of the clouds,” pulled off a valuable recon despite five enemy planes in the region. His diary, however, says Sept. 4 was quiet.
Written to recommend the airman for a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross, the document also notes his later gallantry in twice pushing “over into German territory in the face of enemy machines in large numbers” to bring back important photographs. Again, no mention of this by Richards.
Sept. 9: “For two weeks now trucks have been going past here to the lines. The rainy season, however, seems to be on us already, and not a great deal of flying. I place the drive to start on the 12th (Richards is correct). Reading and bridge the only recreation these days.”
On the morning of the offensive, he notes being awakened at 1 a.m. by the Allied artillery barrage to soften the Germans, but he is not ordered up in the poor weather.
The entry notes that almost every squadron lost a plane, and Richards’ was no exception. “Harry Aldrich and Ker failed to return. Former brought by ambulance, shot in legs and burnt when gas tank exploded when brought down.”
Aldrich’s survival was miraculous. He rode the falling machine until it exploded over the ground, breaking his fall. Lt. Ker, his observer, was not so lucky.
Sept. 14: “Reconnaissance with two of our planes to protect at 6:20 a.m. A lone plane came towards us; impossible to see what it was till almost above; too late to shoot, so swing to give rear guns a chance. He apparently did not see us either and passed other two planes within fifty meters, all too late to shoot. It was a Halberstadt, we think. Saw one other Boche plane. Motor almost let me down twice, so came back early. Up again for photo protection about three o’clock.”
On Sept. 16, he put in a quiet two-hour-plus reconnaissance flight. “Toute seule,” he writes, all empty, except for one Boche who stayed well away, and the Archies had moved from their positions near a big lake.
Later in the day, he drives to the front in a futile attempt to find Ker’s body.
“We got out in No Man’s Land of old trenches north of Limey and walked down the old Boche line through Remenauville and Regnieville. Had thought that Limey was blown to pieces, but both of these towns were absolutely razed. Ate lunch with some infantry. Went down in some old dugouts — thirty feet below ground. Gloomy, but interesting. A few souvenirs. Some dead Boche and Americans still lying around.… Found Liberty plane and pilot still in it — awful mess, only about half there. After some disgusting work got his name, etc.”
His superior officer would recall that “a good many broke under the strain,” but not Richards.
By Sept. 20, his squadron has been moved up to a remote field outside Remicourt. His engine problems persist, their collapsible barracks are cold, but he and his friends find an old woman in Givry to cook them a rabbit and French fries for supper.
Back at Toul to bring up extra planes on Sept. 22, Richards notes he got a chance to walk in the afternoon with “my little friend from Nancy. Had a devil of a time locating her, and at last ran into her by chance.”
Richards’ writings indicate he finds a girl to walk, talk and dine with about anytime he’s off the airfields. His charm seems to work on country girls, divorcees, singers, movie actresses. There is the Parisian hatmaker who likes to flirt; the “lady friend No. 3” in Tours; and the English girl named Vu Vray who lives in Paris.
Suzanne, whom he calls “a little crook,” he met under the clock at the Gare St. Lazare for “romantic stuff.” He repeatedly finds Gaby, who performs with a jazz band at Casino de Paris. And the rather short Kansas Citian has chances to chat with Old World baronesses and a Hanoverian princess.
But back to rainy Remicourt and the entry for Sept. 24: “Yesterday bad all day, so not started till today. Clouds from Bar-le-Duc on very low. Tried to cross the last forest just over the trees and couldn’t. No chance of seeing the ground over one hundred meters, so landed on a French field for a while. At last got in for lunch, afterwards a truck of us went up to see Corps Headquarters and advance field. Attack near.”
That is the last one.
Richards’ death was not reported in his hometown newspaper, The Star, until Nov. 16, when it said “anti-aircraft guns brought down the plane.”
That Oct. 23, 1919, War Department recommendation for the award, however, tells it differently. “At 14:15 o’clock he dived at an enemy machine which was performing a similar mission. A short combat ensued, which was indecisive, until reinforcements arrived from the (German) patrol above.… Lieutenant Richards continued the fight bravely, making no attempt to escape to his own side of the line, but after his ammunition was exhausted one of the enemy machines shot him down in flames.”
Where that version comes from is unknown.
The different stories do agree, though, that his SPAD escort had engine trouble, and Richards escorted it back to the American lines. He then returned to the German side, possibly because he or Hanscom had spotted an enemy target.
Later in the day, their bodies were found, but apparently not identified, by American soldiers capturing a maze of trenches. The dead men were hastily buried near the crash site, then later removed to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Romagne.
In 1924, his father visited all the spots mentioned in his son’s writings and said he even found the metal remains of the plane where a wheat field met a forest. Two years later, Richards’ remains were transferred to a final resting place at Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence.
Kansas City’s little air field at Gregory and Blue Ridge boulevards was named after the fallen hero; then the newer airport just across the Missouri River from downtown was dedicated by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 as New Richards Field.
It quickly was renamed the Kansas City Municipal Airport, however, and now is known as the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.
An airstrip south of Kansas City was next to have the name as Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base (Lt. Col. Arthur William Gebaur Jr. died in the Korean War), but in 1998, that facility, too, closed.
But Richards’ story should not be forgotten.