Feb 27, 2008

My Dutiful Balloon: Precarious reconnaissance in The Great War

While wandering through a churchyard the other day we found an odd line on a gravestone: 28 BALLOON CO. That was a new one. We were a stone's throw from the border of Aberdeen Proving Ground and it got me to wondering if APG was home to a balloon company, and even stranger, what if the guy landed here and was buried on the spot? Well, he didn't land there, dead in a graveyard, but the base was home to the 28th Balloon Company, also a balloon school, and a unit of the 18th Airship, whatever that was.
The balloonists were hoisted in the air in baskets, hanging from little blimps, which were tethered to the ground, in order to see what the enemy was up to. The enemy didn't care for it and would shoot at the balloons. The balloonists were well protected with covering fire to discourage attack, but this didn't deter enemy aircraft from targeting them anyway; there was a whole class of aces known as "balloon busters." The balloonists were equipped with parachutes which they seemed to use use rather often. But it must have been an effective way to gather information as there were a lot of balloon outfits on both sides. According to Stars And Stripes, there were 35 American balloon companies in France during World War One. 23 of the companies were active at the front, making 1,642 ascensions.

I imagine the balloonists were a breed apart. Who would take such hazardous duty? One story from Stars and Stripes relates how a French soldier, forced to parachute from his burning craft (Did I mention the balloons were filled with flammable hydrogen?), found himself being strafed by a German plane, the balloonist calmly pulled a pistol from his holster and started blasting away at the pilot.
The paper also noted that the members of the balloon corps were usually near the top of the list when it came to generosity, donating liberal amounts of their pay to various charity drives.
By 1923 it was all over; lighter than air technology was on its way out and the army was through with the balloon corps. Nearly a hundred years later, it is just another forgotten aspect of an unpopular time.


wvgirl said...

What a great piece of forgotten history! Gravestones can be excellent source of local history clues...bravo!