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William Thaw

pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille

William Thaw, born 12 August 1893 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Benjamin Thaw. After abandoning his studies at Yale in 1913, Thaw obtained a pilot's certificate from the Curtiss school and became a flight instructor. When war broke out in Europe, he volunteered for the French Air Service but was rejected. Instead, on August 21, 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion and served in the trenches. Despite poor vision, defective hearing and a bad knee, as soon as he was able to pull enough official wires Thaw was permitted to join the French Air Service on December 24, 1914.

Thaw was no stranger to aircraft, nor a novice as a pilot, like Norman Prince, he had done some flying in the United States before the war, though not, as he admits in one of his letters, over land. He returned to the United States on a brief furlough in the autumn of 1916; and this visit recalled to a writer in the Yale Alumni Weekly that at the beginning of his sophomore year Thaw had arrived at New Haven in a hydroaeroplane.

At the end of December, 1914, Thaw was at Mervel, attached to Escadrille D 6 of the French Aviation Corps as an observer. His capacity for this work and his personality evidently impressed the French officers, and they made his pathway easy. The contrast, moreover, between his present mode of life and that of the trenches made him very contented.

From the same group of Thaw's letters to his family from which quotations have already been made---originally published in the Yale Alumni Weekly--- a few more selections relating to this period may be taken. Thus, under date of December 2S, 1915, he wrote: About three or four times a week I have to go on little joy-rides in a good machine (we have six 80-gnome Deperdussins) with a good pilot (two of the six here have won the Legion of Honor and two the Military Medal), mark the position of German batteries, and regulate by means of smoke signals the firing of our guns.

News paper clipping

A career as an observer and as a regulator of artillery-fire did not, however, satisfy Thaw's ambition; he wanted to fly his own battle-plane ! So he schemed and maneuvered to secure admittance to a military training-camp, where he could obtain in time a license to fly. Finally, in February, 1915, he carried his point and was sent to the Reserve of Pilots, as it was called, Caudron Division, at Buc. His letter of February 14 tells how he evaded being sent to school at Pau:

They wanted to send me to the school at Pau, but I know what schools are, so I told them that my name was W. Caudron Thaw, and finally persuaded them to give me a try. I was rather up against it though, as I'd never flown on land, never with a rotary motor, never with the propeller in front, and never with that control, and at Buc they have nothing but the big regulation 80 H. P. machines. But one of my favorite mottoes is, "try anything once," so the second day I got a ten-minute ride as a passenger to get the feel of the machine, and since then, in the occasional streaks of fairly good weather, I have flown alone twice, and the Captain says that I can take the brevet militaire the first good day. But that is very simple, as they have eliminated the cross-country tests, and all you have to do is to stay up for one hour at two thousand metres.

So I hope to be back at the front in two or three weeks (and this time with a good job instead of being a ditch-digger), probably with my old escadrille, which, I believe, is going to change to Caudrons. Anyway, the Captain (of D. 6) who is now at Buc practicing, having changed from Dep. to Caudron, has asked to have me with him, whether he takes the same escadrille or not, so I should worry !

Under date of April 7 Thaw wrote that the French aviation centre had been moved from Buc to Bourget, only a few miles from Paris, which was easily reached by tram-car. Evidently he had made good progress, for he said that he had been acting as a sort of instructor, "teaching green observateurs how to observe."

At the time of writing Thaw had just reached the front again and was glad to be there:

The Caudron, though very slow (113 kils. p. h.*), is really a remarkable little machine. Day before yesterday four of us came over here to Lunéville, where we are located indefinitely on the champ des manoeuvres, about 8 kils. behind the lines; the other two are coming over later.... It is interesting to note that although I am supposed here to be a pretty good pilote, it was my first cross-country flight. And it certainly is sport sailing along through the clouds, steering by map and compass.

Under date of April 18 Thaw wrote of his first meeting with a German "Taube":

Another short letter, just to say " Hello " and "tout va bien."---The past few days since I wrote you have passed very quickly---just enough work to seem to be busy, and very, very interesting work at that. Have made six reconnaissances to date, and to-morrow morning I do my first regulating of artillery fire, having tried out my wireless to-day. Have so far flown about 1200 kils.* over German territory and have more than once brought back fairly important information. So, as I said before, it certainly feels great to be really doing something.---Met my first and only "Taube" last Thursday morning, and, believe me, I was scared. But so was he and beat it straight down, much to my relief, as we were 40 kils. from our lines.---Every day something new' something exciting. It's a great life.

McConnell notes that during the autumn of 1915 Thaw was doing excellent work at the front as the pilot of a Caudron biplane carrying an observer. During the autumn and winter, however, he was co-operating heartily with Norman Prince and Elliott Cowdin in their efforts to persuade the French authorities to allow them to form a purely American flying squadron.

When, late in the winter, the project seemed likely to succeed, Thaw is found elaborately planning to have Captain Thenault appointed to the command of the new squadron. Thus in a letter dated February 21, 1916, Victor Chapman wrote:

Now we must have a French Captain. But first, as to the people who are running this. They are, of course, the three you know---Thaw, Cowdin and Prince. Thaw, though the youngest, has perhaps more weight, being a sous-Lieutenant. Thaw wants his old chief at his Caudron Escadrille, Capitaine Thenault, a charming fellow, but young. Balsan, after being asked to look into the matter, gave some uncertain answer. Thaw wants him if it's physically possible. Meanwhile we wait, and if nothing is done, we greatly fear that Thenault may be definitely refused us and some service" Capitaine be dumped upon us to make our life unpleasant.

Thaw as usual carried his point: Captain Thenault was put in command of the Lafayette Escadrille, with Lieutenant de Laage de Mieux second in command. A year later Edmond Genet, in one of his letters describing the American Escadrille as it then was, wrote of Thenault:

We have a very pleasant captain of the escadrille, and the lieutenant (de Laage) is a dandy fellow. Of course, Thaw, who is a lieutenant, looks out for us a good deal, but de Laage is our regular lieutenant. Both he and the captain speak English---particularly de Laage. We all eat together in one mess, and our cook is an A1 man.

Thaw and Cowdin had become expert fighting pilots before the Lafayette Escadrille was finally assembled on the Alsatian front in May, 1916, and had seen service at Verdun, where Cowdin had brought down a German machine, and by so doing had become the first American to win the Médaille Militaire "the highest decoration," McConnell calls it, "that can be awarded a non-commissioned officer or private." Almost before the members of the squadron had got settled at Bar-le-Duc, after the transfer from the Alsatian front, Thaw brought down a Fokker one morning. In the afternoon of the same day, however, in a big combat far behind the German lines, he was wounded in the arm. His wound bled profusely, but he succeeded in landing just within the French lines, although in a dazed condition. French soldiers carried him, too weak to walk, to a field dressing-station, and from there he was sent to a Paris hospital. On his recovery he rejoined the American Escadrille.

In a news despatch dated April 24, 1918, which stated that Major Thaw---like Lufbery, he had been taken into the aviation service of the United States Army with the rank of major--- commanding the Lafayette Escadrille, had just brought down his fifth enemy plane and a captive balloon on the same day, and that he was thenceforth to be classed among the "aces" in aviation in France. Long may he live to fly !

William Thaw of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, served with the foreign Legion, August 21 to December 24, 1914. He enlisted in French Aviation Service on December 24, 1914, and earned his brevet March 15, 1915. He served at the front with Escadrilles D-6, C-42, and N-65 until April 15, 1916, when he transferred to the Lafayette Escadrille. He served as a lieutenant with the Lafayette until Feruary 18, 1918. On January 26, 1918, he was commissioned as major, U.S. Air Service, and served as commanding officer of the 103d Pursuit Squadron until August 10, 1918. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel November 12, 1918, and served as commanding officer of the 3d Pursuit Group until the Armistice. He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, Legion of Honor, and Croix de Guerre with four palms and two stars.

By the time this squadron was disbanded in February 1918, Thaw had achieved two confirmed victories. While serving with the 103rd Aero Squadron, he scored three more victories to become an ace. The first American to be cited for gallantry and promoted by the French, Thaw may well have been the first American to participate in aerial combat during World War I. When the war ended, he returned to the United States and became an insurance agent. On April 22, 1934, he died from pneumonia, age 40, at his home in Pittsburgh.