20 September 2013 | Polk City, Florida. The recent celebrations relating to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Aviation Centennial bring to mind the service branch’s days of combat flying during the First World War. For instance, Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot and Gunnery Sergeant Robert G. Robinson, of Squadron C, U.S. 1st Marine Aviation Force, earned the Medal of Honor. The aeroplane they crewed was a DH-4. Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida, owns examples of this historic type.
Already an experienced combat pilot, 2nd Lt. Ralph Talbot found his DH-4 under attack by 9 German air force (Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte) fighters while on such a raid over Belgium on October 8, 1918. During the fight Talbot shot down one of the enemy aeroplanes. Almost a week later, while attempting to strike an enemy ammunition depot near Pittem, his and another DH-4 became separated from their formation due to engine trouble. A dozen enemy aircraft attacked the two DH-4s.
During the melee, Ralph’s DH-4 shot down one of the enemy before observer Robert Robinson took hits and the wounded gunnery sergeant’s Lewis guns jammed. Now largely defenseless from the rear and sides, Talbot maneuvered the DH-4 while Robinson worked to cleared the machine guns.
The Marine Corps DH-4 then rejoined the fray. Robert Robinson continued to fire bursts until he collapsed from two more bullet wounds. In total Robinson had 13 wounds in the abdomen, chest and legs. Furthermore, his left arm was cut through at the elbow and remained attached only by a tendon. Despite Robinson being incapacitated, Talbot went on the offensive and shot down another enemy D.VII fighter. He then dove to escape the remaining Germans.
Talbot kept his malfunctioning DH-4 aloft, while crossing the German trenches at some 50 feet of altitude. He soon spotted a Belgian hospital, and Ralph promptly landed beside the building.
Subsequently, with Robinson safely delivered to a medical facility, Ralph Talbot returned to his aerodrome. Unfortunately, 2nd Lt. Talbot died about a week later when his DH-4 crashed on takeoff during an engine test flight.
Some of the credit for the two Marine aviators’ survival must go to the rugged DH-4. It was fortunate that America possessed the airplanes. The story of how the U.S. came to build and fly them is a testament to American industrial ingenuity and the planes’ British designers.
Prior to the First World War domestic military aircraft development in the U.S. was lagging. In fact, a National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (NMUSAF) Fact sheet (Spad XIII C.1) bluntly records the situation: “Since the United States entered World War I without a combat-ready fighter of its own, the U.S. Army Air Service obtained fighters built by the Allies.” Disappointingly, the only aeroplane produced in the United States to see combat during the First World War was the versatile British Airco DH.4, built from a proven Geoffrey de Havilland design. This flying machine was innovative in that it incorporated interchangeable components that enabled mass production and easier maintenance and repair.
Production practicalities for the American version of the British forerunner necessitated the adoption of the new and powerful water-cooled 400 horsepower Liberty V-12 engine as well as many other changes. The Dayton-Wright Company factories in the southwestern Ohio cities of Dayton, Miamisburg and Moraine produced 3,106 units. Other manufacturers were Fisher Body Division of General Motors in Cleveland, Ohio, and Standard Aircraft Corp. of Patterson, New Jersey.
Armament was adequate for the era, consisting initially of two fixed Marlin .30 caliber machine guns firing forward and two flexible Lewis .30 guns for the rear crewmember. Under the wings were racks for a respectable complement of bombs.
In his book Dayton Aviation, Kenneth M. Keisel notes (page 56) the following: “Built as a light two-seat bomber, it was considered the most successful single-engine bomber of World War I. When the United States entered World War I” American air services “had no American aircraft able to compete with German fighters.” Notably, these “Liberty Planes” were nearly as fast as contemporary fighters. On page 54 Keisel explains that two-bladed propellers were on early production DH-4s, and larger, four-bladed propellers were for use on the Liberty engine-powered DH-4 Liberty Fighter.
Dayton bombers were the first to reach France in May 1918, and initial combat with the type took place the following August. The Army Air Service utilized DH-4s for bombing, reconnaissance and spotting for artillery. The Navy and Marine Corps also operated them. DH-4 aircrew included 4 Medal of Honor recipients.
After the conflict DH-4s became transports, air ambulances, photographic planes, target tugs, forest and border patrollers and aerial racers. Jimmy Doolittle piloted one on his 1922 transcontinental flight, as did Charles Lindbergh during 1926-1927 while transporting mail via air for the U.S. Post Office. Importantly, these airplanes also contributed greatly during the development of turbosuperchargers and other equipment at McCook Field, Ohio. Furthermore, in 1923 DH-4s were the first to successfully refuel while aloft. In the postwar years Boeing and Atlantic Aircraft built DH-4Bs with welded steel tubing fuselages. The last military DH-4 served until April 1932.
The replica at Fantasy of Flight is an airplane built from plans. The facility also possesses an original airframe that is undergoing restoration. Fantasy of Flight is at 1400 Broadway Southeast in Polk City, Florida. Admission information is available by telephoning (863) 984-3500.
The author (John Stemple) thanks the staff of fantasy of Flight for their cooperation during the preparation of this article.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Airco DH.4 – Wikipedia
Fantasy of Flight
Kenneth M. Keisel, Dayton Aviation: The Wright Brothers to McCook Field (Images of Aviation Series), Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2012.
Ralph Talbot – Wikipedia
Robert G. Robinson – Wikipedia
Société pour l’Aviation et ses Dérives (Spad) XIII