On July 26, 1918, during his 10th sortie as a fighter pilot with the 95th Aero Squadron, George W. Puryear shot down his first and only German plane during World War I. Unfortunately for him, he was also taken prisoner the same day. After being transferred to a number of different prisoner of war camps and making one unsuccessful escape attempt, he would take part in a mass escape attempt from a camp in Villingen, Germany, on October 6, 1918. Five days later, he would swim across the Rhine River to reach Switzerland, thus becoming the first American officer to successfully escape from a German prisoner of war camp during World War I.
George's older brother, Alfred I. Puryear, played an equally important, albeit much less glamorous, role in the Air Service during World War I. Alfred was a supply officer in the Stock Records Subdivision, Material Division, and was stationed in Paris. He was responsible for all of the manifests of supplies that were shipped to all the various Air Service units throughout France.
U.S. Army Airship TC-3, Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas, November 1923
Alfred Puryear was a student pilot aboard the TC-3.
Both George and Alfred stayed in the Air Service after the war. George was assigned to the 9th Aero Squadron based at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, but he was killed in an airplane crash on October 20, 1919. Alfred worked in the office of the Chief of Air Service in Washington, D.C., upon his return from France. In 1920, he acted as supply officer on the team supporting Captain Rudolph W. Schroeder in the 1920 Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup race. In 1921, Alfred completed his flight training and qualified as an airship (dirigible) pilot. He would retire from the Air Service/Air Corps in 1933. Their stories give us insight into both the history of the Army Air Service and of the development of aviation itself.
The Air Service that George and Alfred belonged to was not the Air Force as we know it today. When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, it was singularly ill-prepared and ill-equipped to fight an air war in Europe. The Air Force did not exist as a separate branch of the U.S. military at that time. It was not even an independent branch within the Army. It was created in 1914 as the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, and even then it existed primarily in name only.
Unidentified American pilot in a Nieuport 28 fighter plane, France, 1918
The French-built Nieuport 28 was fast and nimble, but it had the unfortunate habit of shedding the fabric off of its top wing during a steep dive.
When the U.S. entered the war, the Aviation Section consisted of only 65 officers and about 1,100 enlisted men. It had no experienced pilots capable of training new pilots in the aerial combat techniques necessary to fight in the skies over the Western Front. While there were training facilities in the U.S. to teach prospective pilots how to fly, all of the combat flight training and aerial gunnery training would be carried out at facilities in France and would be taught by French instructors.
The Aviation Section also had only about 200 airplanes at its disposal and all of those were trainers unfit for combat. The U.S. had no expertise in designing and building combat aircraft. The construction techniques for building aircraft also did not lend themselves to mass production on a significant scale (and certainly nowhere near the scale that would later be achieved during World War II). As a result, most of the aircraft flown by the U.S. during the war were predominantly of French design and manufacture.
Despite their best efforts, the Signal Corps proved to be largely ineffectual in organizing, expanding, and preparing the Aviation Section in order for it to fight in Europe. As a result, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order in May 1918, which removed the Aviation Section from the Signal Corps, renamed it the Air Service, and made it an independent branch of the Army. By the end of the war, the Air Service had grown to include 7,738 officers and nearly 71,000 enlisted men. It was operating 45 squadrons with 767 pilots, 481 observers, and 740 aircraft. American pilots had shot down 781 enemy aircraft and 73 enemy observation balloons, while 289 American aircraft were shot down with the loss of 235 personnel killed, 145 captured, and 130 wounded.
Major Carl A. Spaatz and Lieutenant Colonel William Thaw, Western U.S., 1919
Spaatz would become the first Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force in 1947.
Wilson's executive order making the Air Service an independent branch of the Army was a temporary measure intended to only last through the end of the war, but it was reaffirmed by another executive order issued in 1919. It was made permanent by the National Defense Act of 1920. In 1926, the Air Service was renamed the Army Air Corps, which was, in turn, renamed the Army Air Forces in 1941. In 1947, it was made a separate branch of the U.S. military, thus becoming the U.S. Air Force as we know it today.
The albums within this collection document not only George's and Alfred's careers in the Air Service during and after World War I, they also serve to document the early history of aviation itself. In the days before the aircraft industry would be dominated by the likes of Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing, and in the days before standardization and aerodynamics factored into aircraft design, the albums record the rich assortment of aircraft that were built and used during the early years of aviation. This collection, therefore, provides a fascinating visual record of this early history and aircraft of the Army Air Service and of aviation itself.
For more detailed information about the Puryear Family Photograph Albums collection and about the lives of George and Alfred Puryear, see the finding aid for this collection.
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