My novel "Shanghai Rose," which takes the reader from skies over France in WWI to front row seat at the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, begins with this look at aerial warfare.
We are flying from the fields of Flanders across the border to targets of opportunity in Ypres, Belgium. As we had readied for takeoff, a Royal Flying Corps Officer told us the Germans had launched 50,000 mustard gas canisters against our soldiers there.
It isn't just the gas that has me concerned for those below. When a man's foot develops gangrene, doctors amputate it, effectively changing the course of his life. It happens all too frequently in the brutal, seemingly permanent, jagged slashes in the landscape, where soldiers' feet rot away in rain soaked trenches. The guilt I'm feeling in being above it cancels much of the joy I once received from flying.
My plane, the "American Angel," is one of four Sopwith Camels leaving France. Crosby's plane had earlier experienced engine trouble so we are late arriving at the battle. I think conditions are looking good until I notice nine German planes. My body suddenly tightens as I encounter the fear of death that travels with men in war. Concerns for other men cease.
I'm a sitting duck and mutter an oath as my Camel is hit. The plane shudders and I find myself falling in a fast full power spin. I am right over the Hun trenches, so I decide to try to pull out, turn her around, and attempt to reach our nearest airfield. My Camel is badly shot up with many of the flying wires cut, so it won't be easy. Somehow, I interrupt the fall and turn the plane towards our lines. I say a quick prayer, worry I am too close to the ground, and black out.
At the forward aid station, the first focused image I see involves a pair of hazel eyes with a nurses' cap perched above them. I quickly assume I must've crashed somewhere over British lines. When she speaks with perfect diction I feel I've fallen into the library of a British country house.
"Hold on flight lieutenant," she says. "We're going to give you something for the pain."