Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: December 26, 1914

In this issue of Scientific American from 1914, we published the first installment of a three-part first-hand account: “War Experiences of an Air Scout: The Diary of an American Volunteer With the Aviation Corps of the French Army,” by Frederick C. Hild. On the outbreak of war, and two years before the famous “Lafayette Escadrille” took to the air in defense of France, Hild, an active aviator in the United States, enlisted in the French air force.

What high ideals drove this young American man (age 24 at the time) to rush to the defense of France? None, really—he was just in it for the adventure:

Frederick C. Hild, an American volunteer in the French air forces, photographed in his issue leather coat, 1914. Image: Scientific American, December 26, 1914

“It mattered little to me which of the warring nations I would join, and finally I chose to throw in my lot with the army possessing the largest number of aeroplanes. Having been a close observer of aviation, both here and abroad, for the past four years, I came to the conclusion that France possesses the greatest number of aircraft,”

He may have cared nothing for France, but he was not without sympathy for the human condition:

“When the French steamer ‘Espagne’ left New York, on September 5th, I was on board, together with several Americans and about 700 reservists, who were going to France to fight their country's battles. There was much fun and excitement during the voyage, pleasant weather favoring us during the entire journey. The cabin passengers were shown every consideration, but the 500 reservists traveling third-class were treated no better than cattle, which was rather uncalled for, when it is taken into consideration that they were leaving their families and friends to defend their country's honor.”

Hild could not speak French, but at Le Havre he applied to the recruiting office. After four days, despite the fact that he was an American citizen, and apparently the first one attempting to join the aviation corps, the French Minister of War allowed him to take the pilot’s test:

“I was ordered to report to the second aviation reservation at Tours, where I would have to pass the French examination for pilot. This was a simple test, as the requirement was that I take an aeroplane up 7,000 feet and remain at or above that altitude for an hour at least.”

At this point, unfortunately, he signed up with the French army for the duration of the war. He had an interesting perspective on a country that was plunged deeply into war:

“Nearly all factories were closed, and the sight of women, both young and old, sweeping the streets clean and collecting the fares on the tramways was rather peculiar.”

On arrival at Tours, he met a small group of German prisoners (it must be remembered that for years a popular assumption was that France and Russia would be the ones to fight against Germany):

“A few moments later I had the pleasure of viewing about two dozen German soldiers and half a dozen officers, prisoners of war, who were now on their way to the south of France. They were rather sick looking, but seemed to feel rather happy at being in French hands. None of them wore a hat, for these had been taken as souvenirs. I speak a little German, and when I asked one of the officers with the captives if he had been in battle with the English soldiers he appeared surprised to learn that the British were also in battle against the Germans. He said he understood that the English were fighting on the German side. He really doubted my word when I told him the British were his foes, and the others shook their heads unbelievingly when he told them the news I had communicated to him.”

Now on active duty, he was issued with the leather coat he wears in the photograph of him, and joined his fellow pilots at dinner:

“I was introduced to the pilots present (about sixty), and they greeted me with cheers when they learned that I had come from America to fight with them. Some who knew the American national anthem sang it. and I was made to feel at home at once. I felt that I was where I belonged at last, and room was made for me at the rough table by several of the pilots squeezing together on a bench and telling me to sit down.”

This touching scene of grand camaraderie has a spoiler, and here it is: Hild deserted. Probably after only a couple of months. This according to the late Philip M. Flammer, lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, professor of history at the University of Utah, and author of The Vivid Air: The Lafayette Escadrille. Flammer notes that the French were not keen to publicly disclose this fact and kept the news to themselves.

Nevertheless, for at least a few weeks, Hild was a pilot at war.

You can read part II of this trilogy from January 2, 1915, here:

An American Pilot at War, Part II: January 2, 1915

Part III of this trilogy, from January 9, 1915 is at:

An American Pilot at War, Part III: January 9, 1915

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918, including personal reminiscences and articles on the technology of aviation. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi