Introduction to the Aerostation

This web site is about the early history of U.S. Army Ballooning; with emphasis on its operations during the Great War: and the period shortly thereafter. It will always be a work in progress, and feature many aspects of the activities and men of the U.S. Army Balloon Corps. Along with an abbreviated introductory history, there will be sections on:  uniforms, insignia, gear, company rosters, photos, publications, references, dictionary of balloon terms, noted individuals, detailed histories of each Balloon School, all 102 Balloon Companies (as I compile them), links to related sites and then some.  It will be presented in an easy to read, informal style.

My interest in U.S. Army ballooning stems from when I was 8 or 9 years old, and the stories that my grandfather told me. At that age, I listened with interest, but thought of them as: "old war stories".  He went into the Army in 1913, was with Pershing and Foulois in Mexico and Texas, Fort Omaha, Fort Sill, Camp John Wise, Scott Field, Camp Morrison, ending up with the 12th Balloon Company in France.  All of his papers and military things were thrown away in the late 1950's: just "old junk" which was taking up space. That was unfortunate, but those were the attitudes during those times. He passed away in the early 60's and that resource was lost: leaving just the oral history in my head. In 1967, when I was assigned to Lackland AFB, in San Antonio; I ran across a panoramic photo of Camp John Wise, in the base history museum.  This spurred my interest: Camp Wise was one of those places he had been. Subsequent visits and inquiries resulted in little information: thus I began to dig into the history of Camp John Wise and the Balloon Corps. My research revealed that my grandfather's anecdotes were real events: there was no way he could have known of some of people and details, unless he had been there. Books and articles about those things were not published until years after his passing: there are many of his tales yet to be told, that have not made it to print. 

As I did my research, I found that there were bits and pieces of Balloon Corps history scattered about the globe: not one single place to get the information I wanted. Add to that, the shrinking numbers of WWI vets, it became more difficult. Since the events of 9/11, it has become almost impossible to get into the military's bases and posts: to be allowed to search through the archives. Most of those records are not going to become available on-line and a physical search will have to be done. Perhaps time will soften their attitudes and the general public will again be able to get access to those documents.

In the quest for information, I have gleaned the web for data; dug through library stacks and files; rolled and scanned through miles of microfilm; searched the world's book stores for scarce and rare books; trod the ground that was Camp John Wise; interviewed elderly residents of the area; contacted authors; and hooked up with collectors from across the globe. In the process, I have met others who had a family member in the Army Balloon Corps, and we shared our data.

This web site will always be a work in progress: bits and pieces of the puzzle surface from time to time, and will connect the disjointed parts to fill in some of the gaps.  The size and shape of the puzzle is indeterminate, and changes often. The data presented here are as accurate as I can determine. If you have other facts, references, or documents, that will clarify or shed new light on the places, people or events, let me know: and I will make the appropriate changes or additions.  More than once have I found out that what was supposed to be a part of this puzzle, was part of another. Enjoy the information!

Richard DesChenes

 

 U.S. Army Ballooning: The Early Years

There were thoughts of using balloons at various times prior to the Civil War. John Wise suggested to the Army that they use balloons to bomb Vera Cruz, Mexico during that campaign; but not given much credence. Another time there was a move to use balloons against the Seminoles, but was not permitted when higher command found out about it.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Army reluctantly used spherical  hydrogen balloons as tethered aerial observation platforms:  President Lincoln insisted upon it.  Thaddeus Lowe, John La Mountain, and John Wise provided the technology and their individual expertise to the Army: with varying degrees of success. After the Civil War, the Army did not pursue the use of balloons. Over the following years, the technology was developed and advanced by many individuals and foreign armies. From one end of United States, to the other, and all around the world, balloon and airship ascents were spectacles at fairs and other public events. Some Army officers kept their eye on the technology, because of its military potential, but there was little official support from Washington.

During the Spanish-American War, an observation balloon was used by the Army, to espy the route for the famous charge by Teddy Roosevelt. Again, the Army brass saw little advantage in using spherical balloons: the conditions in the field were not well suited for them; and they were excellent targets for the enemy riflemen and artillery. The balloon technology was put into storage once again.

 The Army did establish a balloon facility at Fort Meyer, Virginia in 1900, but it was more for experimentation with the technology and learning balloon operations. For the most part, the balloons they had left over from the early years. Because of poor storage conditions, they were no longer serviceable and they hired civilian experts to do repairs. It was used very little over the next few years because of  manpower and funding issues; and lack of compressed hydrogen. The Army built another balloon facility at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, in 1905, but it too was poorly funded. During the first decade of the new century, many forward looking Army officers took detached service, and flew balloons in events and various races in Europe and the United States.  Lt. Frank. P. Lahm and Maj. H. B. Hersey won the first  Gordon Bennett Balloon Race, held in Paris, in 1906. For several more years, Army Signal Corps officers would take advantage of detached service to fly balloons and airships: hitching rides whenever the opportunity arose. This gave them the experience and knowledge which they would use in later years.

In 1907, because of constant nagging by civilian and military aeronautic experts, government leaders, and various aero clubs; the Army issued and re-issued specifications for an aeroplane and airship.  During the summer of 1908, the aviation trials were held at Fort Meyer, Virginia. The secretive Wright Flyer proved its mettle: making a very public demonstration of its capabilities. However, with its crash; subsequent death of Lt. Selfridge; and serious injury to Wilbur Wright, the Army backed off from buying that technology: until it could be further proven. The Wright brothers had to wait until the following year to sell their aeroplane to the Army. It was Capt. Baldwin's hydrogen filled airship (which had flown its trials several days before the Wrights' aeroplane), that met the Army's specifications; and became the first powered aircraft purchased by the Army: the SC-1. (Signal Corps-1)

                 

   Baldwin Airship: SC-1 being moved at Ft. Meyer.                       Baldwin Airship, SC-1: in flight over Ft. Meyer.

After Fort Meyer trials, the Baldwin Airship was assigned to the Signal Corps Balloon School at Fort Omaha, which was commanded by Capt. DeForest Chandler. The balloon facility had been used, off and on, since 1905, and was the only place that had a good hydrogen generator, working compressor and a large balloon hanger. The airship was flown to Fort Omaha by Lt. Benjamin Foulois, along with several other officers. Shortly after delivering the airship, he was then assigned to duty in Europe and then to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio: where he had to learn how to fly the Army's new Wright aeroplane; which they had just purchased.  The airship had a capacity of 20,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, was about 100 feet long, could lift about 450 pounds; and had a diameter of 22 feet. The engine was built by Glenn Curtiss and was mounted in a 90' long "car"; suspended below the balloon's envelope; and propelled by a 10' diameter blade. The Balloon School flew the SC-1 until some time in 1911, when it was no longer serviceable. The school continued to train officers and enlisted men in free balloons; along with French and English kite balloons; and  a German "Drachen" balloon: until the school was abandoned in October 1913; and the serviceable  balloon equipment was sent to Fort Leavenworth for storage.  Fort Omaha's Balloon School turned into a government weather station.

                  

            Free ballooning at Ft. Omaha                        Captive balloon at Ft. Omaha                      "Drachen" at Ft. Omaha           

 

Again, the Lighter-Than-Air technology languished in the hands of the U.S. Army: they put their limited funding, energies and focus into the technology of the fixed wing aeroplane. During Pershing's "expeditions" into Mexico, the Goodyear Company provided the Army with an airship: to be used as an observation platform. It was flown by Ralph Upon, a civilian, with the Ohio Field Artillery.  It  it met with about the same success as Foulois' aeroplane squadron: less than optimal.  It's fate is unknown: this sole candid snapshot, taken by a soldier, is the only record of the airship used in the Mexican expeditions.       

                                                                                                 

Goodyear airship in Mexico, 1916, flown by Ralph Upson

The Great War: The Balloon Schools

Ft. Omaha, Nebraska

It was the outbreak of the Great War, that forced the U.S. Army into full scale observation balloon operations. The English, French and Germans had been using "kite", or captive balloons for battlefield observations for many years. Again, the U.S. Army set up its balloon training operations at Fort Omaha, and had to play "catch-up". The equipment that was sent to Fort Leavenworth, was not worth using: having deteriorated while in storage, and had to be rebuilt. Capt. DeForest Chandler was promoted to Major, and assigned to Washington: to become the chief officer of the Signal Corps' balloon operations. The Fort Omaha Balloon School command was passed on to Capt. H. J. B. Mc Eglin, and then to Major Frank P. Lahm.  Early in June, Major Lahm was seriously injured while playing polo: he fell from his horse; received a concussion; and suffered a crushed leg. The command was passed to Major Hersey. After his recovery, Major Lahm was sent to France to command balloon operations and training there. Ancillary balloon operations were set up at nearby Florence Field and Fort Crook. They also assigned officers for free balloon training to the Missouri Aeronautical Society Schools, in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Antonio, Texas.

Training was rather difficult at Fort Omaha: the weather was bad much of the time, and it was impossible to keep balloons in the air for long periods. The Army decided they needed Balloon Schools, in warmer, more stable environments, and selected San Antonio, Texas and Arcadia, California.  In January 1918, some officers and enlisted men were sent to San Antonio, and in the summer, three Balloon Companies were sent to Arcadia: to start the new Balloon Schools. Keeping balloons in the air was not their only problem. Since this was a relatively new organization within the Army, and growing rapidly; the assignment of Balloon Squadrons, Wings and Companies became confusing: with their original number and letter combinations. Thus the organization and numbering the companies  was changed to numbers only. The following table lists the Balloon Companies assigned to Ft. Omaha during the Great War.

Company

               Notes

1st

To France: 12/08/1917

2nd

To France: 12/08/1917

3rd

To France: 12/08/1917

4th

To France: 12/08/1917

5th

To France: 01/31/1918

6th

To France: 01/31/1918

7th

To France: 01/31/1918

8th

To France: 01/31/1918

9th

To France: 06/29/1918

10th

To France: 06/29/1918

11th

To France: 06/29/1918

12th

To France: 06/29/1918

13th

To France: 06/10/1918

14th

To France: 07/17/1918

15th

To France: 07/17/1918

16th

To France: 07/26/1918

17th

To France: 09/13/1918

18th

To France: 09/21/1918

19th

To France: 09/21/1918

20th

To France: 09/21/1918

23rd

To France: 10/12/1918

30th Formed in Waco, Tex.: 03/1918, to France: 09/02/1918

46th

To Camp Morrison, Va.: 11/6/1918

47th

 

48th

 

49th To Camp Morrison, Va.: 11/6/1918

50th

 

53rd

To Camp Morrison, Va.: 11/6/1918

59th  

60th

To Fort Crook: 12/1/1918

61st

Orders for France: 11/09/1918,   but stayed at Florence Field

62nd

 

63rd

 

64th

To Ross Field:  07/04/1918

65th

To Ross Field:  07/04/1918

66th

To Ross Field:  07/08/1918

73rd

 

74th

To Fort Crook: 11/09/1919

75th

 

81st

 

10th Detachment From Camp Funston: 11/05/1918

In early 1919, the Fort Omaha and Fort Crook balloon operations were abandoned; activities and equipment were  moved to Florence Field.  In 1921, Florence Field was also abandoned and the men and equipment were sent to Scott Field, near Bellville, Illinois. Thus closing this chapter in Balloon Corps' history around Fort Omaha.
 

Camp John Wise, San Antonio, Texas

 

Camp John Wise was situated just north of  San Antonio, on a bluff overlooking the Olmos Basin: across from Alamo Heights. When construction began in January 1918, the officers and enlisted men from Fort Omaha were housed in tents at Fort Sam Houston: about one mile away. This site was selected because of the number of recruits and supplies in close proximity at: Camp Travis, Camp Wilson, Fort Sam Houston, and the Missouri Aeronautical Society's Balloon School two miles away. Plus, the Army had already had plenty of experience with flying aeroplanes at Fort Sam Houston, and the Kelly Fields. The Signal Corps had determined that this part of Texas provided some of the best flying conditions in the country: some 270 days a year, of clear flying weather.  The camp was named after one of America's most noted early aeronauts: John Wise; an intrepid balloonist and scientist. He launched his final balloon from St. Louis, Missouri on September 29, 1879, and was last seen soaring over Lake Michigan; where he and his balloon were presumed to have crashed.

Lt. Col. James Prentice was the first commander of Camp John Wise, along with a few officers and enlisted men, set up a course of instruction; and had a balloon in the air by the middle of February. In April, Col. Prentice became ill with  appendicitis and was taken to the hospital at Fort Sam Houston for surgery. Major Albert B. Lambert, owner of the Missouri Aeronautical Society's Balloon Pilots' School on the west side of San Antonio, had just been assigned to the camp; was made temporary commander. Major Lambert's school had been providing instruction to Army officers (at $1000.00 apiece) in free balloon operations. Once the balloon school at Camp John Wise was functional, the Army shut down his schools. Col. Bower arrived two weeks later, from Fort Omaha, and replaced Major Lambert. When Lt. Col. Prentice had recovered, he was assigned to Balloon Corps staff duty in Washington.

   

Location of Camp John Wise, in relation to Fort Sam Houston. 

The school's facilities were completed very quickly and recruits were arriving at a steady rate. A full course of balloon instruction was established for enlisted men and officers: which together, totaled almost 2600. In early June, two Balloon Companies left for Arcadia, California, to  establish the west coast's Army Balloon School. The influenza epidemic which hit all the Army camps in the San Antonio area, took its toll on Camp Wise: over 1000 men were taken ill, of which 23 died. With quarantines in place, those men that were not down with the flu, were shuffled through several Balloon Companies to complete their training; then deployed to France. The following table lists the Balloon Companies that were assigned to Camp John Wise.

Company

           Notes

34th To France: 10/21/1918
35th To France: 10/21/1918
36th To France: 10/21/1918
37th To Ross Field: 07/03/1918
38th To Ross Field: 07/03/1918
39th  
40th To Brooks Field
41st  
42nd To France: 06/29/1918
43rd To France: 06/29/1918
44th To France: 07/10/1918
45th To France: 09/30/1918
58th To France: 10/21/1918
67th To Brooks Field
68th To Brooks Field
72nd To Brooks Field
76th  
77th To Brooks Field
78th To Camp Travis 12/20/ 1918 then to Brooks Field
79th To Camp Travis 11/25/1918
80th To Camp Travis 12/20/ 1918 then to Brooks Field
93rd To Brooks Field
94th To Brooks Field
95th To Brooks Field
96th To Brooks Field
97th To Brooks Field
98th To Brooks Field
99th To Brooks Field

                        

                      Balloon bed at Camp John Wise.                                     Balloon beds from the air over Camp John Wise.

        

              

                   Balloon ready to fly at Camp John Wise.                         Balloon winch truck and crew at Camp John Wise.

Camp John Wise functioned vigorously through the end of the war, and into the early months of 1919. At the war's end, most men were mustered out of the Army, and sent home.  In early 1919, the Army made a decision to close Camp John Wise, and assign the remaining Balloon Companies to a new school to be set up south of town at Brooks Field.  On May20, 1919, Camp John Wise was abandoned: the serviceable equipment and remaining 15 Balloon Companies having moved to Brooks Field. The buildings and excess materials were later auctioned at a public sale; and the property sold to land developers. The city of Olmos Park now overlays the site.

Ross Field, Arcadia, Ca.

 

In the early part of June 1918, the Army established an airfield at Arcadia, on the site of the Santa Anita Race track: it was commanded by Col. W. M. Hensley. Within days, two Balloon Companies from Camp John Wise; three Balloon Companies from Fort Omaha; and the men of two Balloon Companies from Kelly Field arrived and erected a tent camp. Training began quickly and balloons were in the air by the end the month. The hydrogen plant was on line by the end of July: which would allow them to get more balloons up each day. By the end of summer most of the building construction had been completed.

In the rush to get an Army Balloon School on the west coast, the Signal Corps did not consider the Santa Ana winds: which blew in from the desert. These winds created much havoc with the aerial observation,  ground training, and balloon handling. They were limited as to how high the balloons could be flown on those very windy days. In order to simulate high altitude observations, they would truck the officers to a camp site at the top of Mt. Wilson: to observe live artillery fire from the field below the mountain. The altitude of Mt. Wilson was similar to that of being in a balloon basket: but without the handling issues caused by high winds.

                                      

                                                         Panorama of Ross Field, Arcadia, Ca., from a balloon.

The school was named in November, after Lt. Cleo J. Ross, Army's Air Service: an observer with the 8th Balloon Company. On September 26th, near Brabant, France: while aloft with Lt. Herbert Hudnut, they were attacked by a German Fokker, and their balloon burst into flames. Lt. Ross delayed his jump until Lt. Hudnut was clear. After Lt. Ross left the basket, some burning balloon pieces dropped on to his opened parachute: he fell to his death from three thousand feet. Lt. Ross was the only U. S. Army balloon pilot or observer to be killed in action. He was buried in France, near where he fell. None of the companies from Ross Field were assigned for overseas service.

                                                                    

                                            Baloon up, in front of Mt. Wilson.                                           

 The following table lists the Balloon Companies that were assigned to Ross Field.                                                                                                                                                                           

Company            Notes
37th From Camp John Wise
38th From Camp John Wise
51st From Kelly Field
52nd From Kelly Field
64th From Fort Omaha
65th From Fort Omaha
67th From Fort Omaha

While the Balloon School at Ross Field was in operation, it trained about 200 officers as observers. In the early spring of 1919, the field was abandoned, and most of the men were released from Army service. Those that stayed in, went to Ft. Omaha, Scott Field and the remaining equipment and some men went to Brooks Field. The land and buildings were transferred back to the previous owner: Anita Baldwin.

 

Since this is a work in progress, here are some of the subjects that will be addressed: but not necessarily in this order:

Balloon School at Camp De Souge, France

Balloon School at Cupperly, France

Other Places Where Balloons Were Stationed in the States During the War:

     Fort Sam Houston, Texas

     Camp Travis, Texas

     Camp Stanley, Texas

     Fort Sill, Oklahoma

     Camp Morrison, Virginia

     Lee Hall, Virginia

     Scott Field, Illinois

     Fort Meyer, Virginia

Other Places Where Balloon Companies Were Formed for Basic Training

     Waco, Texas

     Kelly Field, Texas

     Camp Funston, Kansas (or Texas: Camp Funston at Leon Springs became Camp Bullis)

Uniforms

Insignia

Equipment

Balloon Technology

Photos

Civil War Ballooning

        North

        South

Seminole Wars

Spanish American War

The Great War

Early Balloonists

Detailed Balloon School Histories

Balloon Company Histories

Balloon Company Rosters

Post War Balloon Activities

       Places

       Events

The American Balloon Corps Veterans' Association

Noted Individuals' Biographies

My Balloon Corps Museum and Artifacts

My Grandfather's stories

Publications for Sale:

    My recently published book is available.

It is 134 pages of photos and descriptions of the U. S. Army Balloon Corps balloon pilot and observer wing badges, shoulder patches, hat and collar pins, uniforms, period advertisements, gear, and related ephemera. There are sections on: fantasy pieces, copies and fakes; references and resources; along with suggestions on conservation and preservation. It even holds a few surprises for the seasoned collector.

 

If you are a WWI aviation collector, this is a must have reference book for your shelf. Much of the data were reviewed by Duncan Campbell before he passed away. As one major collector put it: "It picks up where the other books on wing badges and insignia left off." It is in an easy-to-read 8 x 11 format: with high resolution images. This is a very limited publication and not available in book stores.

 

It sells for $70.00, including postage.

Contact me for payment details at: deschenes_rich@sbcglobal.net

 

   

References

Balloon Terms

Want List

Other Early Aviation Stuff

Other WWI and Balloon Related Links:

http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/balloon43.htm   My article about the 43rd Balloon Company

http://www.worldwar1.com/tgws/smtw.htm     Great War Society Web Page

http://www.worldwar1.com/tgws/tgws2.htm       Monthly WWI newsletter

http://www.earlyaviator.com/archive3.htm       Balloon and Airship images

This web site is maintained by Richard DesChenes and is wholly responsible for its content.  deschenes_rich@sbcglobal.net

All photographs are from the public domain or my private collection.

Last update 11/14/2009