Thursday, February 05, 2009

Anniversary -- First U. S. Military Aerial Shoot Down

On this date in 1918, Stephen W. Thompson (March 20, 1894 -- October 9, 1977) was the first person in the U. S. Military to shoot down an enemy aicraft.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Thompson was a senior student in electrical engineering at the University of Missouri. The school announced that seniors who joined the military before graduation would receive their diplomas in June. He enlisted in the Army and was first assigned to the Coast Artillery but soon applied for duty in the
Air Service.

He went to France in September 1917 and was assigned to the
United States 1st Aero Squadron as an observer. On February 5, 1918, while visiting a nearby French bombardment squadron, Lieutenant Thompson was invited to fly on a raid over Saarbrücken, Germany, in place of a French observer who was taken ill.

The squadron of
Breguet 14B bombers was attacked by Albatros D.III fighters, and Thompson shot one of them down in the first aerial victory by the U.S. military. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for the action.

Thompson was assigned to the new 12th Aero Squadron, and on July 28
he was in another memorable battle. While artillery spotting, his Salmson airplane was attacked by four Fokker D.VIIs of the former Richthofen Flying Circus, then under the command of Hermann Göring. Thompson shot down two enemy planes before his own plane was shot down by the famous German ace Erich Löwenhardt. Thompson's pilot, Lt. John C. Miller, was able to land the Salmson inside friendly lines before he died of a bullet wound in the stomach. Thompson received a bullet in the leg and, before friendly troops arrived, dug out the bullet with a pocket knife.

The young engineer was apparently an enthusiastic and talented warrior. Thompson intentionally sought out combat in company with the French allies before his own squadron was operational. He managed three kills of first-line German fighter planes. His weapons in both fights were twin .303 Lewis guns on Scarff ring mounts, with rather primitive ring sights. He was stoic enough to perform auto-surgery under adverse conditions.

After the war Thompson worked for several years as an engineer at
McCook Field, later renamed Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He then became a high school mathematics teacher. In 1940 he received a United States Patent for a tailless flying wing. He taught preflight and meteorology during WWII.
Stephen Thompson died in Dayton, Ohio in 1977, aged 83 years.

(It is noted that the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft was Kiffin Rockwell of South Carolina. On May 18 1916, he shot down a German aircraft over the
Alsace battlefield, for which he was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. Rockwell was a member of the French army when this happened, and the U.S. was not yet a belligerent in the War.)


Old NFO said...

They were a different breed! I'll have to go do some reading, as I've never seen either story, thanks JPG!

Anonymous said...

Great post, JPG!
Thanks, amigo.

OldCop said...

Thanks JPG, I really enjoy your little history lessons. "Lest we forget"

J.R.Shirley said...

Hooah! I guess I can give some Army love, since the Air Force wasn't a separate entity yet.


Anonymous said...

in the opening you have his year of death as 1997.....but in the text you show him dying in 1977....

JPG said...

Anon - -

Good catch. That was just a typographical error on my part. The 1977 date is correct, and tallies with a remark that he died at age 83. If 1997, he'd have been 103, a ripe old age indeed.

As an aside, the only records I could locate giving his dates of birth and death were in the Wikipedia article or in others giving credit to Wikipedia. I understand that some have impurned the accuracy of some of their information, but is generally correct. Clearly, I haven't gone to the effort to check birth records in West Plains, Missouri.


Anonymous said...

My father was SWT. Go to The Air Force Historical Research Agency and look for "Personal Papers. Also go to The National Museum of the Air Force.

His birth certificate was burned in a courthouse fire, which was a pain when getting a passport.