WW I Wildman

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Staff Sergeant

5,000 feet above the French airfield at Verdun the two biplanes dueled. The high-pitched whine of the rotary engines was only interrupted by the sound of machine-gun fire.

Then one plane's wings collapsed and it came spinning down. It was a Nieuport of the Layfayette Escadrille- the all American squadron. The unfortunate pilot's mother had just arrived from the States to visit that afternoon in 1916.

But before the machine hit the ground a white French Nieuport was lifting off the grass. It quickly climbed to engage the German. With a single burst the enemy machine was set afire from gas tank hits. The fire spread over the fabric covering and the plane dropped to the ground. It was still burning when the Frenchman landed nearby.

Soon the intrepid flyer was introducing himself to the slain American's mother. "Madame, here is the murderer of your son," he said as he dumped the immolated body of the German at her feet while she gasped in shock.

The man responsible for this immediate revenge was Captain Charles Eugene Nungesser.

France's most colorful pilot of WW I had 47 confirmed victories with as many again unofficial. Much of the aerial combat took place one-on-one and confirmation was difficult if it occurred behind German lines. It was necessary for a witness to view the kill and that the downed enemy machine be located on the ground. While that worked for the Germans many Allied pilots claims were denied. Nungesser ranked third behind the small, insipid and moody Rene Fonck, who survived the war with 75 victories and the legendary Georges Guynemer with 53 who was weakened with tuberculosis and failed to return from a mission in 1917.

The debonair Nungesser was outgoing and always ready for a fight or fun. After a day in the air he would fly to Paris and spend the night in high-octane parties. He was well known on the boulevards and cafes and always accompanied by at least one beautiful mademoiselle. He even had an affair with the famed Mata Hari.

Born March 15, 1892, Charles became a skilled professional boxer known throughout Europe when he was but a teenager. But his wanderlust put him aboard a freighter to Argentina where he became a gaucho!

Arriving back in France at the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Hussars cavalry outfit and won a medal within two weeks of fighting. From there his wartime escapades read like a Hollywood script.
Once his regiment was surrounded and reinforcements could only be secured from a garrison ten miles distant. Nungesser volunteered to go for help. He drove a powerful car at night without headlights at breakneck speeds over the country roads until enemy soldiers opened fire.

Wounded, he careened off the road, struck a tree and rolled over. He crawled out and hid till morning when he heard a vehicle approach. Throwing some branches across the road the Germans halted to investigate. Nungesser shot all four officers in the staff car; dressed in an Imperial German colonel's uniform and drove their car to the French garrison. Reinforcements arrived to save his beleaguered regiment.

Needing more adventure, he joined the Aviation Militaire in March of 1915. Assigned to a bombing wing, his job was to drop steel darts on German infantrymen. Nungesser had a better idea. He loaded up his feeble Maurice Farman Shorthorn S-11 with hand grenades and flew at near ground level to the German lines. The light aerial bombs of the time were terribly inaccurate anyway. Tossing grenades and shouting insults, he made the first ground attack and strafing run in history.

Given the machines of the time, flying was considered highly dangerous without being shot at. It is no wonder his plane's name was Express for Hell.

Once at twilight he strafed an ammo dump with his machine-gun and the machine caught fire in the subsequent explosion. German antiaircraft gunners painted him with a searchlight and opened up.

"Dead meat," they thought.

With a series of violent maneuvers he fanned out the fire and barreled in to destroy the gun battery, searchlight and the crew.

After 53 missions he transferred to Squadron No. 65 flying the Nieuport 11, known as the Baby (Bébé). The 11 could muster 104 MPH from its 80 HP Le Rhone rotary and mounted a .303 Hotchkiss or Lewis above the top wing. The Baby was ascendant over the Fokker E I and E II monoplane in part due to its lighter weight of 1,058 lbs.

On the evening of June 18, 1916 five Albatross D I's intruded. One carried the markings of 15-victory ace Oberleutnant Max Immelman. Nungesser rose to meet them. Though the D I had 150 HP, the 6-cylinder inline water-cooled Daimler-Benz engine could barely top out at 109 MPH due to its heavier weight of 1,422 lbs. Part of that weight a pair of 7.92 mm LMG 08/15 belt-fed machine guns however.

The Frenchman's gun jammed and he drew his revolver to continue the fight. A lucky round hit Immelman's engine and he dead-sticked into no man's land. As he scurried for his lines Nungesser continued to blaze away with his handgun, but to no avail.

Once while relaxing and performing his infamous stunt flying near his base, his engine quit and he crashed through the window of a house. The young lady inside was unharmed but figured the pilot was certainly dead.

Clambering from the wreck the suave ace removed his helmet and with a bow remarked, "Forgive the intrusion mademoiselle."

In Paris dancers and actresses competed to accompany Nungesser on his nightly party tour of the capitol. It was rumored that the skullcap beneath his flying helmet was made of Mata Hari's stockings.
Mata Hari was suspected of spying for the Germans. With American airman Bert Hall, passed off as a millionaire's son, they delighted in feeding Hari outlandish "classified intelligence" for several nights running in the cabaret where she danced. Berlin replied to her "information" in a coded message that she should lay off the liquor!

Captain Nungesser volunteered to test pilot the Ponnier M.1. On January 19, 1916 he suffered a bad crash in it, fracturing his skull, jaw, one leg and shoulder. A rib punctured a lung and the joystick pierced his throat forcing him to use an artificial gold palette to be able to talk during his remaining years.
Doctors said he'd never fly again, but the indefatigable Nungesser went AWOL from the hospital two months later and was in a new SPAD S.VII busting balloons when the German offensive pushed Verdun.

Ignoring protests from his senior officers he continued to fly during the battle and one day while balloon busting he was set upon by five Fokker D IIs. He had shot down one but while holding an explosive round in his teeth, to be inserted in his gun for the balloon, it went off prematurely and shattered his jaw again. The SPAD, being the Thunderbolt of its era, soon out-dived the Germans.

Upon return to his field he climbed out and saluted the famous Marshall Joffre, who was on an inspection tour, and collapsed. Four days later he was AWOL from the hospital having rejoined his group.

The SPAD was a sturdy ship able to match any German machine for ruggedness and speed. It mounted a Hispano-Suiza 8Aa V-8 pumping out 150 HP in the blunt nose. On the cowl rested a 7.7 mm Vickers machine gun. The next model, the S.VIII, had twin Vickers. The bi-wings were nearly equal with the upper spanning 25.75 feet. The fabric-covered fuselage was 20 feet long.

The SPAD weighed a hefty 1,552 lbs. loaded but most planes by now were increasing in brawn. It could hit 132 MPH in level flight at 6,560 feet and dove at 220 MPH. Climb to that altitude was 4.6 minutes. American ace Eddie Rickenbacker gained many of his 26 kills in the beefy SPAD.

In December 1916 he alone attacked 20 Halberstadts and flamed their leader in a head-on attack. Two more German machines collided in the confusion as the wild man dived to attack an Albatross that was peppering a British recon plane below.

His stealthy approach allowed him to soon be above the German fighter where he dropped a hand grenade into the cockpit. The explosion buckled the top wing of his SPAD and he spun in. He regained consciousness to find his head cradled in the lap of Queen Marie of Romania who was visiting a nearby convent and was witness to the air battle. And once again he was soon escaping the confines of the hospital to the sanctity of flying and fighting.

Captain Nungesser ended the war as the most decorated airman in the world. Every award and medal the Allies presented he had earned and received. When he wore them all on ceremonial occasions he was festooned from his shoulder top to his waist! He had served with squadrons V106, N65, V116 and Spa65.

The $25,000 prize for being the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop was a dangling carrot for Nungesser. Three attempts to cross west to east had failure.

On May 8, 1927, twelve days before Charles Lindbergh took off from New York, Nungesser and co-pilot Major Francois Coli rolled out a big white-colored Levasseur Marine biplane at Le Bourget airport. Its destination was Roosevelt field, N.Y. L'Oiseau Blanc- The White Bird- could cruise at 110 MPH for 4,300 miles with its 450 HP. engine.

The plane struggled to the air and was seen off the coast of Ireland. The weather over the North Atlantic turned sour later in the day with high winds, rain and snow.

Off Newfoundland coast Guard Cutter Tampa stood vigil with searchlight beacons penetrating the fog but the indestructible Nungesser and Coli never arrived though people on the ground in scattered locals heard a lonely aircraft engine in the fog. This was a time when aircraft were still rare and none flew in foggy weather by choice.

In 1961 fishermen off Jewell Island, Maine trawled up a piece of aircraft wreckage that some experts said was from the White Bird.

But the final chapter comes from a recent search that turned up parts that seem to be from the ill-fated plane in a remote area of Maine. The White Bird had made landfall but was lost in the fog.

When this author was in college many years ago I worked at a restaurant with a lady who was a French nurse during WW I. I asked her if she'd heard of Nungesser, which I pronounced "Noneguesser." Her matter-of-fact reply was, "Oh yes. Only we pronounce his name differently. He was in my hospital on several occasions but we could never keep him there. He was much too wild."
He's some...


First of three search expeditions for the White Bird, the aircraft flown by Nungessor Coli, who vanished on transatlantic flight in 1927. October, 1984.

Early on May 8, 1927, twelve days before Charles Lindberg was to make his historic flight, two famous WWI French flying aces took off from Le Bourget airfield near Paris on an east to west flight across the Atlantic to New York. They were one of the first who successfully managed to get off the ground with a fuel-over laden airplane and soar out over the Atlantic.
Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli were already the toast of France. Nungesser had shot down 44 German planes and barnstormed in Europe and the United States after the war. Coli was also an ace, but later gained fame on a long distance flight to Africa.

After takeoff the L'Oiseau blanc (the White Bird), a Levasseur bi-wing, open cockpit aircraft powered by a 450 horsepower Lorraine-Dietrich 12 cylinder engine, dropped its landing gear and flew out over the English Channel. It was last sighted heading over the ocean from the eastern shore of Ireland.

The White Bird then simply vanished and was never seen again. It was not until 1980 when Gunnar Hanson, a freelance writer, researched and published an article on a man by the name of Anson Berry who was living near Machias, Maine, in 1927 and who claimed to hear an aircraft fly over his isolated camp late in the afternoon of May 9th, 1927. Anson, told several friends and neighbors he had heard the plane overhead in the overcast and but could not see it. He also stated the engine sounded erratic and it sounded to him as if the plane crashed in the distance.

Gunner dug deeper and found a number of other reports and a few sightings beginning in Newfoundland and traveling on a line south past Nova Scotia and into the coastal region of Maine. He then ran onto a report by a hunter who said he'd found an old engine buried in the ground sometime in 1950. The site was within a mile of where Anson Berry heard the plane pass.

Gunner organized a group, including the hunter, a gentleman by the name of Ray Beck of Chatham, New York. Coincidentally, Bob Fleming and I were also researching the mysterious flight and heard about Gunner. I contacted him, offered to fund some of the search and flew up to Bangor, Maine.

The country is beautiful, and in the bog areas impossible to penetrate. The first trek we accomplished very little. While preparations were made for a second attempt, I contacted the well respected psychic, Ingo Swann, and asked him to take a crack at it.

He accompanied us on the second try and we came up dry. At the same time there was a group led by a Rick Gillespie who was also searching for the lost plane. Interestingly he didn't know about our efforts. None of us wished to join his organization because he lived on media hype. And my feeling has always been not to make a big deal out of an expedition unless you can prove you actually discovered your intended target.

Swann later arranged for an experiment with several other psychics. Strange as it seems, working separately they all put the downed aircraft within a quarter of a mile from each other's projections on the southern slope of the Round Hills near Round Lake.

What can I say. We combed the area foot by foot on the third attempt. The White Bird isn't there.

The search goes on, however. No one wants to quit.

My personal theory, two in fact, is that it did not come down near where Anson Berry heard it, but some miles further south. Or, and I like this over any others
Where I grew up as a kid (Staten island, NY) there was a woman who lived in the same apartment building as us who said she was related to Francois Coli - I think she said he was her grandfather.
Regarding Nungesser's story, I was curious about 2 points:

1. What was the source?
2. In the story, Nungesser reportedly encountered Max Immelman in his Albatros. I recall Immelman did not fly the Albatros before his demise in his Fokker Eindecker.

Regarding Nungesser's story, I was curious about 2 points:

1. What was the source?
2. In the story, Nungesser reportedly encountered Max Immelman in his Albatros. I recall Immelman did not fly the Albatros before his demise in his Fokker Eindecker.

Hard to say but the guy who posted this did so about 2 years ago....
Great story, if that were made into a movie it would get panned for being too far fetched. It's the kind of tale that could only have come from a WW1 pilot really
I had an old book of Canadian WW1 aces, including Ball and Bishop, and Collishaw, check their record!!

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