A Brief History
On February 5, 1918, American US Army soldier Stephen W. Thompson while flying as a machine gunner in a French airplane shot down a German aircraft, the first ever air to air combat victory by an American member of the US Military. Previous incidents of Americans shooting down enemy airplanes and balloons during World War I came as those Americans were NOT part of the US military, but were fighting as part of a foreign military, such as the volunteers that flew for the Lafayette Escadrille.
In 1917, as the US was about to enter the Big Show (World War I), the University of Missouri announced that seniors that enlisted in the US military would be given their diplomas even without finishing their final semester. Stephen Thompson, an electrical engineering student, joined the Army and thus graduated early.
Once in the Army, he saw his first airplane and immediately knew what he wanted to do. An opportunity to take a ride in a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny sold the young soldier on seeking a career in the air. Thompson asked to be transferred to the Air Service and his wish was granted.
Thompson was assigned to the United States 1st Aero Squadron in France for training as an aerial observer, and as part of a familiarization program for American flyers he got a chance to fly as a gunner on French bombers, namely the Breguet 14 B2. American airmen were often given a chance to fly on missions with the French in order to get the Americans a taste of combat under the tutelage of veterans. It was on such a flight that Thompson was flying as the bombardier/gunner when his flight was attacked by German fighter planes, the feared Albatros D.III. Thompson managed to shoot down one of the German fighters, earning his place in history as the first American military man to shoot down an enemy plane in combat. For his achievement he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.
A few months later Thompson was involved in a harrowing aerial combat while flying as an artillery observer on an American flight in a French made Salmson 2 A2 observation aircraft. When attacked by German Fokker fighters, Thompson shot down an enemy airplane and then a second enemy fighter, but had his own machinegun disabled when it was hit by enemy fire. Thompson himself was grievously wounded when struck in the leg by a machine gun bullet and the pilot of the A2 was hit in the stomach by an exploding enemy bullet! The mortally wounded pilot managed to safely crash land the airplane, though he soon died. Stephen treated his own wound by digging the offending bullet out of his leg with a pocketknife! Thompson survived, having earned a Purple Heart medal and lived until 1977!
Thompson moved to Dayton, Ohio after the War, and worked as an aerial engineer and then as a high school math teacher. He also trained Americans in meteorology during World War II. He married and had 3 children, 2 of which became doctors. The uniform Thompson was wearing when he was shot down and wounded, along with the bullet he dug out of his leg are both on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton. (Note: This free admission museum is absolutely fantastic! We strongly urge anyone that it able to go there to visit this fine museum.)
American pilots, aircrew, and ground crews have performed as well or better than any others in the world during the history of aviation, including both land and sea based aviation. We salute these fine men and women and admire the job they do.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite American aviator? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Herris, Jack. WWI Aircraft Photo Extra 1: A Centennial Perspective on Great War Airplanes. Aeronaut Books, 2019.
US Air Force. The Final Report and A Tactical History: The U.S. Air Service in World War I. CreateSpace, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Stephen Thompson in the uniform he was wearing on Feb. 5, 1918, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license versions 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0.