How I Found Austin—And How He Found Me
By Robert Eugene Johnson
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
Note: Robert Eugene Johnson is the author of Austin in the Great War, the story of his father Austin Johnson's service in the 12th Balloon Company of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.
My family always longed to know what happened to Austin during the Great War. When I retired I resolved to find out.
At the outset of my research I had only the barest facts about my father’s time “over there.” One of these was from his own lips—the only thing he ever uttered, either to me, to my mother, or to my eight siblings: “We left for France from Norfolk, Virginia.”
A few months later, three more pieces of information had made their way to me:
• A Great War Victory Medal, left among my father’s things, which had been saved by my sister Genevieve after our mother died. The three clasps on it read “Defensive Sector”; “St. Mihiel”; and “Meuse–Argonne.”
• A single red Private’s stripe—Dad had never even told us his rank—found in a side drawer of my mother’s old (treadle-powered) Singer sewing machine;
• A tightly folded, yellowed, tattered copy of a full-page newspaper article from the New York Times Magazine dated April 13, 1919 titled “Balloons: Eyes of the Army,” which had been sequestered in the same drawer. One paragraph on the second page of the article had been circled—by whom, I never discovered. It mentioned the 12th Balloon Company, and a special commendation it earned for bravery under fire.
It was when I read that NYT text that I began to realize there was a much bigger story hidden under my father’s iron reticence than I ever suspected. And it was the first (of many) cases of goosebumps when I finally got to the bottom of the story hinted-at by its sub-head: “Twenty-three Arose in a Blinding Storm at St. Mihiel and One Broke Its Leash, But Its Observers Gave Germans No Comfort.” (It was my father’s balloon that “broke its leash”—an accident that saw the only capture of AEF balloonists in the war.)
So off I went, chasing down the names contained in the NYT article using the search engines that were ballooning (no pun intended) month-by-month with ever more vast holdings of data on World War One. I was to become especially familiar with the online Fold3.com and the goldmine of information it led me to in “Gorrell’s History,” especially in Book “F”—“Balloon Section.”
Another especially important source then came to light, a book by S.W. Ovitt and L. G. Bowers, The Balloon Section of the American Expeditionary Forces. At 286 pages, BSAEF was the sole contemporary (1919) publication of any significant length that treated all balloon companies that came under fire on the Western Front.
I learned that Capt. Ovitt had commanded the 6th Balloon Company and Lt. Bowers had been an aerial observer with the 5th; as a result, the two had intimate knowledge of the Balloon Service. Furthermore, Ovitt was wounded in the gas attack on his company on October 3, 1918 and turned over his company’s balloon to my father’s outfit a few days later, thus both could write tellingly about wartime ballooning and its hazards. Their book is replete with photographs, cartoon artwork, and biographical data.
A further major breakthrough occurred close at hand. I live in Palo Alto, California, two miles from Stanford University and its renowned Hoover Institution on War, Peace, and Revolution. Searching its card files for information on balloons one day, I struck on a mention of the wartime memoirs of Birge Clark, chief architect of numerous landmark buildings and residences in and around our town. The abstract said, “The Captain of the Third Balloon Company in WWI relates the compelling story of the perils that attended aerial observation of enemy troop activity from a highly flammable hydrogen balloon a half-mile over the trenches.”
Reading Capt. Clark’s book unveiled a multitude of avenues for further research, one of which was contact with his family members, who still live in the area. Thanks partly to them, I learned the names of other books that treated the subject. Those works revealed still more places to check, and soon I was immersed up to my neck in references of all sorts (my book’s nine-page bibliography lists them).
Each new discovery began goading me to dig further. I learned things never before reported on (see “More Goosebumps” later in this writing), and I realized that if I was to do a decent job of understanding my father’s story, I would have to reach both backward and forward in time from the strict 1914–1918 span of years, and outward to other kinds of information about the Great War itself. Plus, I soon knew that a visit to the French battlefields was essential.
Only a Family History—or Something More?
About then, I could feel the makings of a book growing in me, a book about Austin and his time in the US Army’s Balloon Service—including but not limited to his own outfit, the 12th Balloon Company. (Beforehand, I had only meant to record a piece of our family’s history.) As much as anything, it was the act of commitment to writing a book that seemed to supply an untapped source of unseen energy, the essence of which was captured by a Mt. Everest pioneer:
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
-- W.H. Murray — The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951)
Sure enough, things started happening for which there was little or no explanation, a sequence of happenstances and glimpses of signposts that teased me and led me on. Reading Eileen F. Lebow’s A Grandstand Seat (Praeger, 1998) gave me a timeline for the entire Balloon Service, which had to have included Austin’s company. This information led me to search the holdings of the Douglas County (Nebraska) Historical Society—Douglas County being the site of Ft. Omaha, where the first balloon companies were trained. Searching The Gasbag, the post’s weekly paper, I stumbled on a reference to the “heroic 12th Balloon Company”—my father’s outfit!
The Gasbag revealed more leads: In its pages I learned that the archives of the State of North Carolina contain 66 pages written by Capt. James A. Higgs, Commander of the 7th Balloon Company. His writings and aerial photographs disclosed a lot about what also happened at the front to the 12th—the two companies advanced side-by-side through the most brutal action of the Meuse–Argonne Advance.
The Gasbag also filled me in on the events leading to the death of the sole balloon observer to perish in combat, Lt. Cleo J. Ross, 8th Balloon Company. Details of the mishap were recounted meticulously and chillingly in That Fateful Day, privately published in 2006 by Herbert B. Hudnut, Jr., M.D., the son of the balloonist who parachuted to safety and thus survived the same attack that killed Lt. Ross.
At about the midpoint in my research for the book—I had begun it in 2008—and after I had established a tentative timeline for the 12th BC and my father’s duties in it, I began writing some portions of it and exposing them to review. Austin’s descendants formed the most significant group of first readers. Originally, I tried to use standard English usage—albeit limited in its vocabulary—but when some nephews and nieces read a few chapters they objected, saying “that’s not how Grandpa would have said it,” or “Austin wouldn’t have prettied it up like that,” or “where are the ‘aint’s?’”
Two sets of students from writing classes I attended at Stanford comprised an important second contingent of reviewers. Their responses to the standard English voicing I first employed were encouraging, if somewhat tentative. Some preferred a third-person voicing, but that would have made the narrative too-much mine and not Austin’s. So I tried three alternative voicings, all first-person: 1. correct English and spelling; 2. vernacular English and spelling; 3. vernacular English but correct spelling. The consensus supported the latter alternative—it seemed to the group the least-intrusive while conveying the down-home flavor of the narrative.
These accumulating reactions forced me to make a fundamental decision: would I adhere to my father’s country persona, or amend his language and thereby convey the false impression of a higher level of education than he had attained? After 20 years as a professional editor, I was painfully—sometimes overly—aware of errors in the writing of others, so how could I in good conscience abide the sorts of notional and grammatical gaffes that often plagued my father’s language?
I decided to be true to what I heard from Dad when I grew up, and that presented another problem. One of the hardest tasks confronting me was to ride herd on my own training—then embedded in my editor’s mind—and keep hands-off from automatically writing it “my way,” not to mention guarding it from Microsoft’s own predacious grammar-checker.
A further concession to my classmates was my decision to include alternative “voices” in the narrative. These asides were a distraction to some students, but most welcomed the variety the variations afforded—including one writing instructor, who one day admitted that Austin’s substandard usage had become “somewhat relentless.” To be honest, it had started to grate on me as well.
To “wire around” any intrusive quality relating to writing style, I decided to insert factual elements consisting of alternative first-hand takes on what was happening in the war, plus some observations, summaries, and conclusions of my own. Some were culled from strict memoirs written by other balloonists and members of ancillary units, some from histories written by noted Great War scholars such as John Keegan. These took the form “I Was There,” “Another Voice,” and my own observations, denoted as “REJ.” Collectively, those “non-Austin” voicings comprise about 12 percent of the total text, not counting five pages of Chapter Notes at the end of the book, which number 2,735 words in addition.
Chapter 7: “They Was Just Flotsam.” At two years into my research I began extrapolating the 12th BC’s firm timeline from the sea of information I found myself swimming in. As I pursued the timeline, I found out about the tragic ramming and sinking of a British merchant vessel by the ship carrying my father to France.
Army files did not give me much information—Capt. McKinley, the 12th’s Commander, stated only that the 12th had arrived in France after an “uneventful voyage.” Nothing could have been farther from the truth—morale would have suffered in both countries.
I began to get suspicious when a CO of one of the other balloon units on the ship repeated the exact-same phrase, as if copying from a script.
Sure enough, the Navy’s records for the USAT America (ID-3006) revealed the story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_America_(ID-3006)
In mid-ocean the America rammed the SS Instructor, bound for Montreal, Canada out of Portland, England and sank her in ten minutes with the loss of 31 lives (11 survived).
Chapter 17 and Appendix I: “When the Bough Breaks” and “Report on Capture and Treatment During Captivity.” On September 12th, 1918—kickoff of the San Mihiel Campaign—a violent windstorm tore the 12th BC’s balloon loose from its connection to the winch-truck that reeled it up and down, carrying its pilot and observer many miles downwind. Landing behind enemy lines, the two men were subjected to harassing interrogation amounting to torture, including being placed in the direct line of incoming American artillery fire. The men were released after the Armistice. Appendix I gives the story.
Chapter 26: “Fire in the Sky.” OnOctober 1st, 1918, beginning the second week of the Meuse-Argonne Advance, the 12th BC was in position on a hillside near Cheppy Wood, east of Varennes. With the help of some unseen observer—probably from a German aircraft or balloon—fire from distant artillery found their grounded balloon. Men maneuvering it (my father among them) watched in horror as the 92-foot long hydrogen bag exploded over their heads. Luckily, only one man was injured, everyone having dived off the roadway just in time to avoid the collapsing gasbag and the rain of flaming rubber fragments.
These actions were acknowledged by a battlefield commendation, the only such issued during the course of the war to any balloon company. It was that action that the New York Times later reported on, the copy of which article I had happened on at the beginning of my research.
Chapter 28: “Each Dies His Own.” When bad weather prevented flights, balloon men were often called on to help other units. Combing online newspaper archives for leads about the 12th BC one day, I found an article in the Altoona, PA, Tribune of March 31, 1919. Their reporter interviewed Fred A. Ingham, Austin’s comrade, who corroborated what I knew from the 12th’s Commander’s own account: “The men were engaged in building roads and assisting at a field hospital nearby.”
As was Capt. McKinley’s practice, his spare discourse concealed details that subsequent interviews—such as the one with Pvt. Ingham—revealed. On one day, the men of the 12th “laid away the bodies of thirty-one Americans who died in a field hospital.” I was to learn in their own accounts that men of the neighboring 6th and 8th BCs also had to perform the same solemn, often gruesome, duties.
A Final Revelation: One Last Case of Goosebumps
The present account mostly treats what I found surprising, shocking, or previously unreported in the realm of the AEF’s Balloon Service, or on findings of general military or reference interest. For example, as regards the latter item—reference—my book contains the only comprehensive record (Appendix III) of casualties of balloon soldiers who served under fire on the Western Front. So, I have striven to keep this article always oriented toward military matters and away from “family”—but one surprise remains, one that overlaps both realms.
After his return from combat in April 1919, Austin met and became friends with Pvt. Frank Wagner of Winner, South Dakota. Frank also served in France, in the 313th Ammunition Train, 163rd Field Artillery Brigade, 88th Division—20 miles from Austin’s outfit. Austin would marry Frank’s sister Lillian—my mother—in 1921, but there was always a question of how and why he and Austin met and became friends. A photo postcard found among Uncle Frank’s artifacts after his death solved the puzzle.
The photo was of two brothers standing beside Uncle Frank at their farm in Wilson Township, five miles south of Winner. Joe and John Brom were immigrants, part of the region’s growing Czech community, which included the Wagners (who were of German/Czech extraction).
Tracing out the path Austin took after his return stateside, I searched for an address somewhere near Colome, SD—I knew that his parents moved somewhere near there from Nebraska during my father’s deployment. Looking at maps of nearby farms, I spied one labeled WS Johnson, my grandfather! And there, directly across the road on the west, were two plots labeled Brom!
With that, a circle closed not unlike the one Alex Haley told of in Roots, hearing from a historian beside the Bolong River in Gambia how slave-traders had snared his forefather. One last case of goosebumps!