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American Boys in the Great War

“...the best WWI flying story since “The Blue Max.”

Karl Kunkle: Book Reviewer

The story follows the lives of two boys who grow up in an orphanage in North Carolina and “adopt” each other to become brothers for life.  They join the group of young Americans who rush to France at the outbreak of WWI to join the Foreign Legion and fight in “Mankind’s last great conflict.”  

The protagonist, Ward Cartwright, and his “brother,” Dan Cason, survive the second battle of the Marne then, at Artois Ridge, Ward is wounded twice and told that he is no longer fit for infantry duty.  Rather than be mustered out because of his wounds, Ward applies for pilot training and is accepted because flying is a “sitting down” job and does not require the pilot to march and carry heavy loads.

On convalescent leave in Paris before going to flight school, Ward meets and flls in love with Antoinette Packham, an English girl who works in the British Embassy.  During subsequent meetings over a period of a year their feelings for each other grow more intense and they eventually marry.

Dan joins Ward in flight school and, after graduation, goes to the famous Lafayette Escadrille while ward is assigned to a regular French unit on the front at Verdun where he distinguishes himself by shooting down a German plane on his first combat patrol.

As one of the world’s first fighter pilots, Ward discovers within himself a natural talent for flying and fighting in the sky.  Within a few weeks he has downed five enemy planes thus becoming an “Ace” and a hero in the French press.  One of his fellow pilots, as a joke, tells reporters that Ward is the illegitimate spawn of a liaison between an American girl and a French Count.  The newspapers pick up the story and soon Ward is known on the western front and in the papers back in the U.S. as “Duke” Cartwright.

Axel Uhler is Ward’s Doppelganger in the Imperial German Air Service. Easy to recognize because of the green snake coiled three times around the fuselage of his fighter, which is always painted white, Uhler kills several of Ward’s friends and Ward has sworn to kill the “Snake.”  They meet and fight several times over the Marne and the Somme rivers but each time the German either gets the upper hand or outmaneuvers Ward and escapes.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Antoinette is fired from hr job when the embassy officials discover that she is pregnant.  When Ward sees her at their apartment in Paris, he realizes that she is terrified by the almost nightly Gotha bombing raids so he sends her to have their child at her ancestral home in England.  Early in 1917, she dies giving birth to their son.

America enters the war in 1917 and most of the Americans serving with the French transfer to the U.S. Aero Service.  One of the exceptions is Lannie Morris who saved Ward’s life at Artois Ridge and later became histories first black fighter pilot.  In spite of having flown at the front for over two years the U.S. Army is not ready to accept the grandson of a slave as an officer and gentleman.  They turn him down as “physically unfit to fly.”

Ward’s final fight occurs two days before the end of the war when “The Duke” and “The Snake” clash over Verdun where they first met.  The two aces engage in a fierce and prolonged dogfight high over the raped city with its necklace of cemeteries faceted by the white crosses of almost half a million men.  Wounded and with his Spad leaking oil and coolant, Ward finally gets Uhler centered in his ring sight but before he can press the toggles to fire his machine guns Antoinette’s voice comes to him from the void telling him to stop.  Two days later the Armistice is signed.  The killing is over.

There are funny moments in The Legionnaire such as when Ward and his friends stage a fake bomb raid on Arras in order to steal chairs and tables for their mess.  There are tender moments as a young Ward and a virginal Antoinette learn about love.  There are aerial battle scenes of such intensity the reader will feel the tug of the harness holding him in the open cockpit as the long hairs of tracers whip past his Spad.  And there is the poignant scene when Ward goes on leave to England and stands by the fresh grave of his wife.  In the end, after four years of fighting, when the weary young/old pilot burns his own plane, the final message of The Legionnaire is the enormous and senseless waste of the lives of an entire generation of young men.

The story is historically and geographically accurate but the author has avoided a metronomic recreation of dates and events that do not bear directly on the daily survival concerns of Ward Cartwright.  Many of the anecdotes, pranks and incidents derive from the author’s own experiences as a civilian pilot and his twenty-two years in the US Air Force.

The Legionnaire is told in first person as transcribed from taped interviews with the ninety-five-year-old Ward by his granddaughter, Belle.  The verbal interplay between Ward and Belle in the prologue and epilogue allows the author to lay the groundwork for a possible sequel

set in The Barnstorming Years.

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