He was no Eddie Rickenbacker. He did not grow up poor, was not forced to drop out of school and work on factory floors after his father’s untimely death. He did not need boundless energy and ambition just to escape the clutches of financial insecurity. Far from it. Hamilton Coolidge was born to both security and privilege.
When he entered the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron in April, 1918, he was a graduate of an elite East Coast boarding school, on leave from Harvard, and the close friend of Quentin Roosevelt. Sounding like Jay Gatsby, he admonished his younger brother in a letter to “get husky and wise at Groton this year, old boy.” He appears to have had the natural talent that often accompanies the well-born, too. At least one of his comrades thought him one of the two best aviators in the squadron.
Fortune knows no favorites, though, and Coolidge had a string of bad luck in his early months. He had to make the first forced landing during training at Issoudun in December 1917, clipping a tree with his wing tip. “Poor old Ham,” wrote fellow aviator Douglas Campbell. “Didn’t get a scratch himself, but the machine was all smashed up, and he has been badly kidded ever since.”
As members of the 94th and 95th squadrons began racking up victories against Boches fliers in the May and June, Coolidge remained winless. Even when he teamed up with Jimmy Meissner to bring down an enemy plane he did not receive official credit, “as we were too far inside their lines for our observation balloons to see it,” he explained. But Coolidge never griped about his ill luck. He understood that it was all in the game. “Conditions are very seldom right for a good combat at equal odds.” If one or the other side is outnumbered they invariably turn tail and head for their own side of the line. Besides, he recognized that he was in good company. “Some of our best pilots have never had the luck to be in a position where they could have shot a Boche down.”
We know so much about Ham Coolidge because he was such a diligent correspondent. “I must write fast and briefly,” he opened to his mother on October 5, before going on to pen a fifteen-hundred-word letter. (His letter of September 15 was closer to two thousand words.) He had an obvious love for each member of his family and wrote each one as often as war would allow. “Beloved Mother,” “Mother Dear” “Dearest Mammy,” are some of the ways this warrior of the air greeted his mother in his letters.
The letters are rich in detail about the mechanics aerial combat, and they are satisfying for the light they shed on their author. The overriding sense we get of Ham Coolidge is one of humility. He is generous in his praise of others, and revealingly honest about himself. Telling of his latest scrape, when he and eight others were ambushed by a formation of “eighteen more Boches,” he writes, “I don’t mind saying I was thoroughly scared. …fortunately our Spads are very fast and that is what saved us.” (Note: not superior aerial ability.) In a later, one-on-one dogfight, Coolidge admits matter-of-factly, “I…managed things so unskillfully that I found I was the goat.”
Coolidge is even modest about his modesty. That is, he does not overindulge his self-deprecation. Nor is he afraid to share his excitement at taking part in an otherwise horrifying war: “The end of the scrap would have been sad had we been fighting with human beings [instead of planes?], but I frankly confess that a thrill of pleasure came over me as I saw the flames burst out.” There are many moments like this, Coolidge sharing the blow-by-blow of aerial combat: “We circled, twisted, and dived and always the black bursts appeared at the spot where we had been only a fraction of a second before. It was absolutely thrilling.” He obviously is keen to share his exploits with his family, but he is equally reluctant to have them shared in the wider community. “Lu, for goodness’ sake,” he begs his sister, “be a sport and don’t talk about the junk I write in these letters.” After all, “there are a few thousand other men in the air service all doing the same thing.”
In mid-July Coolidge lost his Harvard buddy, “Q,” as he called Quentin. But in early August he finally broke through with his first official kill. (“…but why make a fuss about it. People are doing it every day….”) Then the Allies went on the offensive in September, and Coolidge came into his own. After a particularly satisfying balloon-strafing mission he explained his elation, saying, “I felt as if we had just won a Yale game!” In a single sortie on October 3, he scored three victories in a matter of minutes. (“…it was due to no cleverness or bravado on my part…”) He became an ace and the American pursuit pilot with the second most official victories after Eddie Rickenbacker. He was promoted but felt keenly uncomfortable about it, saying, “I don’t know any conceivable reason why I should have been made a Captain while our Commanding Officer, a man with eighteen official Boches…and admittedly one of the best C.O.’s on the front, remains a lieutenant.” Coolidge was being disingenuous. He well knew how he and the other Ivy leaguers had given Rick a hard time in their early days at Issoudun. The issue was class then, and it was class now. But Coolidge had lived and flown with Rick for six months, and his views had expanded and changed.
Ham Coolidge only outranked his C.O. a few weeks. Rick was soon promoted to Captain. In the meantime, there were rumors of the end of the war, and Coolidge felt an unbidden awkwardness: “This peace talk is awfully bad for a fighter, because when a man starts to get ‘careful’ of himself, he stands the best chance of getting killed.” He assures his mother that her “Hammy will forget about [the rumors]” and carry on as before. He got killed anyway. On a routine protection patrol, escorting bombers on their return from Germany, Captain Coolidge’s Spad took a direct hit from an anti-aircraft shell. It had been at least five months since he and his comrades had accustomed themselves to “Archies,” their concussions, buffeting their planes into disconcerting rolls and yaws. They had long since lost their terror of Archies and relegated them in their minds to mere nuisance. Nevertheless, on the morning of October 27, the “black burst” did not miss. This time the Archie got him. It was plain bum luck. In his war memoir, Fighting the Flying Circus, Eddie Rickenbacker explained the tragedy succinctly: “For no other American pilot, and but one or two other aviators during the whole course of the war were shot down from on high by and Archie in full flight.”
The best surviving photo of Ham Coolidge shows him looking over his right shoulder from the cockpit of his plane. His leather pilot’s jacket rides high up his neck, but his head is clear of goggles or hood, and his hair is neatly combed. He is smiling, a half-dimple in his cheeks. His dark eyes, looking just askew of the camera’s gaze, radiate warmth. Ham Coolidge was a gentleman in every sense of the word. Born to privilege, he recognized his duty to serve. He felt no need for glory but rather was eager to share credit with others, including God. “The feeling I have on looking back on three victories in an hour is not on of triumphant power. It is rather a feeling, stronger than ever, that we mortals are mere specks of dust on the wind, blown about at His pleasure….” This was not the kind of attitude one needed to become America’s Ace of Aces. It was not the mindset of a man who would become president and CEO of one of the country’s most important companies.
Not like Eddie Rickenbacker.
Rick was not a gentleman in the narrow sense. His education came so obviously from the city streets, the shop floor, and the highly competitive world of automotive racing; not the rarified halls of Groton and Harvard. Rick was self-taught and had the unseemly (to a gentleman) air of a striver. Rick was not the most skilled pilot in the squadron, but he was the most single-mindedly focused. Rick worked harder than anyone and had an unquestioned ability to lead. He cared deeply about the men of the 94th and they, in turn, respected him boundlessly. Rick needed their respect. His ambition was driven by a need for attention and a need to make his mark on the world. (When a visiting American reporter showed up at the Rembercourt airfield, Rick invited him to stay with the squadron for a few days. He pointed to an empty cot, indicating that it was available, Captain Coolidge having been killed just that morning. Ouch!) Yet Rick had high praise for Coolidge in Fighting the Flying Circus. Coolidge, he wrote, was “on of the top score aces and one of the most popular men in the service. …He possessed all the qualifications of leadership and a brilliant career in any profession he might have chosen to adopt.”
Ham Coolidge, had he lived, would be hardly more remembered than he is now. He would have returned to the United States, begun a career, built a family, lived a quiet life. He might have done important things; he surely would have done them well, as Rickenbacker suggested. But he would have shunned attention. He would not have become an “American hero” as Rickenbacker did. The world is made of all kinds of people. We can be grateful for the Rickenbackers of the world, but equally so for the Ham Coolidges.
- Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Frandsen, Bert. Hat in the Ring: the birth of American air power in the Great War. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003.
- Rickenbacker, Edward V. “Eddie V. Rickenbacker WWI Diary,” National Museum of the U. S. Air Force, March 2, 2018.
Rickenbacker, Eddie V. Fighting the Flying Circus. New York: Doubleday, 1965 (1919): 336.
- Woolley, Charles. The Hat in the Ring Gang: The Combat History of the 94th Aero Squadron in World War I. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2001: 9, 13, 115, 127, 141, 143, 149, 153, 167, 172, 176, 183, 186, 187, 191.
- Wikimedia Commons: all images