Key Point: Ingalls would be the first fighter ace in American history. He would also go on to have a fascinating political and military career.
Although U.S. Army Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s victories in World War I were exceptional feats, the exploits of his naval counterpart, David S. Ingalls, remain virtually unknown. Both men were from Ohio, but that is where the similarity ends. David Ingalls was born in Cleveland on January 28, 1899 and was destined to become the only U.S. Navy ace of the war.
In 1916, at the age of 17, David Ingalls entered Yale University where he took up flying by joining the university’s flying club. The organization, founded by F. Trubee Davison, became known as the First Yale Unit. The members were wealthy students who were able to purchase their own airplanes.
Ingalls was an exceptional student pilot but, because of his young age, was not permitted active-duty status. He continued flying, however, and was accepted for active duty on his 18th birthday. Ingalls graduated from flight school as U.S. Navy Aviator Number 85 and went overseas in September 1917.
While waiting for new planes to arrive from the United States, Ingalls was assigned to various squadrons in England for further training. On July 9, 1918 he was transferred to the Allied Naval Base at Dunkirk, France and attached to RAF Squadron 213 for combat experience. The squadron flew Sopwith Camel fighters and escorted bombers in raids on German airfields in Belgium. With the exception of heavy antiaircraft fire, the attacks were usually unopposed by enemy planes. The Camel’s reputation had made the German pilots wary of trying to engage the faster and more maneuverable British aircraft.
After two weeks of what he called “exhilarating work,” Ingalls was sent to Flanders to help with the construction of a flying field for the U.S. Navy’s Northern Bombing Group. He was unhappy with this boring duty, however, and managed to wrangle permission to rejoin his squadron.
David Ingalls: Making U.S. Navy History
Once back at Dunkirk, it did not take long for David Ingalls to begin making U.S. Navy history. While on patrol with an English pilot, he sighted a two-seater German Albatross. The enemy pilot spotted the Camels at the same time, and dashed toward Ostend. The hungry Camels raced in pursuit—firing 150 rounds in short bursts. The Albatross quickly began to smoke—went into a slow spin—and plunged to earth in flames.
In articles about his exploits published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ingalls described the daily routine of flight operations from the naval air station: “There were several kinds of patrols. Planes engaged in ship escort duty flew at low altitude—always within sight of the fleet—during Allied destroyer sorties against German bases on the Belgian coast. Very few enemy aircraft were seen during these missions, but our pilots could always look forward to a cold bath in the event of engine failure.
“In good weather, regular patrols were usually flown twice a day—morning and evening—when enemy aircraft were also out en masse. Two flights were sent up during these patrols—one above the other for protection. Every time we clashed head-on with the Germans, it developed into the most confusing air battle imaginable. Friend and foe swarmed about the sky in all directions. The roar of motors, chatter of machine guns, and the zip of bullets past the ears was like a deadly serenade. Midair collisions were not unusual. A couple of times, I witnessed enemy planes smash into each other.
“If the weather was bad, we flew small patrols up the coast, and below the clouds, looking for German seaplanes. They were fond of flying in stormy weather.”
Germans Reluctant To Take on the Large Armadas
“In addition to our regular patrols, we often accompanied bombers to Brugge, Zeebrugge and other enemy bases. We were seldom attacked while on these missions, because the Germans were reluctant to take on an armada of 30 or more bombers and fighters.”
In the early morning of August 13, RAF Squadron 213 carried out one of its most successful raids against the large German aerodrome at Varsenaere—about 20 miles southeast of Ostend. Two Camel flights took part in the attack. One group was fitted with phosphorus bombs, and the other with 25-pound shrapnel bombs.
Ingalls recalled the mission: “Considerable confusion was created by taking off in the pre-dawn hours, since a Camel is difficult enough to fly in the daytime. But finally everyone was climbing toward 10,000 feet where we were to rendezvous with another squadron. By the time we reached our assigned altitude, the sky was beginning to lighten, and it was possible to make out the shadowy shapes of the aircraft that were to join us. The leaders of the different flights flashed signal lights to get their men in formation, just as the first rays of sunlight appeared over the horizon.
“We flew along the coast until midway between Ostend and Zeebrugge, then dived and headed inland. Evidently the enemy was still asleep, as no antiaircraft fire greeted us until we were roaring above the countryside at 200 feet. Our objective soon came within sight, and the squadrons split up.”
David Ingalls pushed his throttle to full power and raced across the airfield. With his wheels almost touching the ground, he sprayed 450 rounds of machine-gun bullets into a line of Fokkers about ready to take off. Then, pressing for altitude, Ingalls zoomed his Camel low over the defending antiaircraft batteries. Barely escaping enemy fire, he banked his plane in a wide circle, threw the Camel into a dive, and headed for the hanger area. Quickly picking his target, Ingalls released four shrapnel bombs. Explosions ripped through a hanger and a searchlight emplacement.
“The Attack Rapidly Developed into a Grand Melee”
Ingalls continued his account: “For several minutes, we were busy diving, turning and shooting in all directions. The attack rapidly developed into a grand melee with many near collisions. The frightful blasts of shrapnel bombs—combined with the deadly clouds of phosphorus smoke—created a hellish scene right out of Dante’s Inferno.
“Finally, before we killed each other, our squadron commander fired a flare from hisVery pistol—the signal to return. We almost clipped the treetops streaking for home.”
As Squadron 213 hurried back to Dunkirk, all remaining machine-gun ammunition was expended over German trenches. The mission had accomplished its objective, and all Camels returned safely to base.
Large-scale air attacks of this kind were infrequent, since their success usually depended upon the element of surprise. During a major infantry advance, however, Allied squadrons staggered their flights over German trenches so that there was always a group of planes covering the enemy’s lines of communication and looked for targets of opportunity.
On September 15, David Ingalls participated in a surprise raid on the German aerodrome at Uytkerke. Using the same tactics that proved so successful at Varsenaere, Ingalls dived out of the clouds—dashed low across the enemy field—and fired four hundred rounds into a camouflaged hanger. He then pulled up sharply, made a tight circle, whipped across the flight line, and dropped four shrapnel bombs on a group of Fokkers.
Sending Enemy Aircraft Crashing into Flames
Returning to Dunkirk, Ingalls and his wingman, British Lieutenant H.C. Smith, were just west of Ostend when they sighted a German two-seater Rumpler reconnaissance aircraft. The enemy pilot noticed the Camels about the same time and dived toward Ostend. Ingalls and Smith quickly followed. The Camels were much faster, and a few machine-gun bursts at close range sent the Rumpler crashing in flames.
Three days later, while patroling near Ostend with two other Camels, David Ingalls sighted an enemy observation balloon at 3,500 feet. These so-called gasbags were tantalizing targets, but were well defended by antiaircraft guns and captured many an inexperienced pilot in their deadly webs.
Ingalls vividly described the dangers involved in trying to shoot down an observation balloon: “We flew up the coast at 8000 feet—just beneath a thick layer of clouds. Opposite Ostend, we turned inland and, nosing over slightly to pick up speed, we approached the balloon in a wide curve.
“The enemy guns had plenty of time to get our range, and accurate antiaircraft fire rapidly began to blister the sky. One shell exploded under the right wing of my plane—sending shrapnel ripping through the fuselage—barely missing my legs.
“As we dived on the balloon, the German ground crew began hauling it down. We attacked the gasbag from different directions, but our bullets had no effect. I made a quick turn, gained altitude, and dove again. This time, I kept firing until I had whipped past the target. Looking back, I saw the two observers jump from the basket. Their parachutes opened just as a burst of flame shot up from the balloon. Within seconds, the gasbag exploded into a ball of fire—then collapsed and dropped on three balloon sheds. The buildings also promptly erupted in flames.
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