October 8, 1918: Ralph Talbot Becomes First US Marine Aviator to Win Medal of Honor

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A Brief History

On October 8, 1918, 2nd Lt. Ralph Talbot of Massachusetts earned the coveted Medal of Honor, the highest American military honor.  Talbot was the first US Marine Corps aviator to be so honored.

Digging Deeper

Born in 1897 in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, Talbot was both an excellent student and a natural athlete.  After high school he attended Mercersburg Academy (Pennsylvania), a college preparatory school, and then went on to Yale University.  While at Yale, Talbot attended flying school in Delaware, and served in the Artillery Training Corps at Yale, somewhat similar to today’s ROTC.

A Patriotic American, Ralph enlisted in the Navy in October of 1917, was sent to aviation ground training at MIT and flight school in Florida, earning his wings as Naval Aviator #456.  Eager to go to Europe and fight in World War I, Talbot switched to the US Marine Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant, and was shipped to Europe with the first increment of US military to join the combat.

Flying an Airco DH-4 observation/general purpose plane (one engine, a pilot and an observer/gunner, a British design built in the USA), Talbot as the pilot had a forward firing .303 caliber machine gun and his observer had a Lewis machine gun on a flexible mount behind the pilot.  The DH-4 was also capable of carrying a small bomb load (460 pounds).  Not as maneuverable as single seat fighter planes (called “scouts” in those days), the DH-4 was fast for its time, with a top speed of 143 mph.

Talbot participated in many combat missions, and on October 8, 1918, flew into a particularly tricky situation when he was attacked by 9 enemy fighters.  Talbot and his observer survived the uneven dogfight, and even shot down one of the German planes.  A week later during a strike against a German ammo dump, Talbot and another DH-4 were separated from their flight, due to engine trouble.  This time, 12 enemy fighters attacked Talbot and again, he managed to shoot one of those attackers down, but his observer was wounded and the observer’s gun jammed.  Talbot deftly kept his plane out of the machine gun fire of the enemy while the wounded observer un-jammed his Lewis gun, and Talbot rejoined the dogfight.  Ralph’s observer collapsed after being wounded 2 more times, and Talbot managed to shoot down another German Fokker D.VII alone.  Motor coughing and failing, Talbot managed to elude the German fighters and raced with his wounded observer low across the battlefield, crossing German trenches at a mere 50 feet of altitude.  Talbot made an emergency landing at the nearest Allied hospital, delivering his wounded observer to medical care before taking off again and returning to his air base.

For his heroic actions on October 8 and October 14, 1918, Ralph Talbot was awarded the Medal of Honor, although he did not live to receive his medal.  Talbot died on October 25, 1918 while on take-off, testing a repaired engine.  In his birth town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, a street and a school bear his name, and in 1936 the US Navy welcomed Destroyer USS Ralph Talbot  DD-390 to the fleet.  Ralph Talbot died at the age of 21, but his legacy lives on in the many heroic Marine Corps aviators that have followed and continue to serve in his tradition of skill and courage.  Semper fi, Lieutenant Talbot.

Question for students (and subscribers): Has anyone in your family ever earned the Medal of Honor?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dumont, Emma Catherine.  Finding Ralph Talbot: The Unpublished Poems of a World War One Pilot.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

The featured images in this article, a photograph of Ralph Talbot (6 January 1897 – 25 October 1918) and a depiction of the w:United States Department of the Navy Medal of Honor used from 1913 to 1942, are in the public domain in the United States


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.