Dana Edmund Coates

Formal photo of head and bust of a young man in uniform with a peaked cap, Sam Browne belt, and wings over his left breast pocket.

(Lodgepole, Nebraska, February 5, 1894 – near Stenay, France, November 4, 1918).1

Coates came of restless pioneer stock.  A grandfather, born in Vermont, moved to Ohio prior to the Civil War and became a lawyer and newspaperman.2  Coates’s father worked as a telegrapher and railroad agent, initially in Ohio, then in Lodgepole, Nebraska, where Dana Coates was born (the third of ten children); he then went on to homestead in Hillsdale, Wyoming, before moving to Denver, where he taught telegraphy.3

Coates served in the Signal Corps of the Colorado National Guard and was in the Officers’ Training Corps at Fort Riley, Kansas, when he registered for the draft on May 29, 1917. He attended ground school at the University of Illinois, graduating September 1, 1918.4

Along with most of his ground school classmates Coates chose or was chosen for flight training in Italy and thus became one of the 150 men of the “Italian” or “second Oxford detachment” who sailed to England on the Carmania.  They departed New York September 18, 1917, making a stopover at Halifax to join a convoy for the Atlantic crossing, and arrived at Liverpool on October 2, 1917.  There they learned to their initial consternation that they would not go to Italy but would remain in England and attend ground school (again) at the Royal Flying Corps’s No. 2 School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford University.  A month later, on November 3, 1917, most of the detachment, including Coates, travelled to Grantham in Lincolnshire to attend machine gun school at Harrowby Camp.5

A handwritten list headed "No. 33 Gainsborough" followed by the names of eight cadets.
From Foss’s list of men assigned December 3, 1917. The men going to Gainsborough were Anker Christian Jensen, Gilbert Allan Woods, Coates, Thomas Forrest McCook, George Dana Spear, Arthur Paul Supplee, William Thomas Clements, and Albert Elston Weaver.

Coates was not among the fifty who left Grantham for flying schools on November 19, 1918, but instead remained at Grantham through November.  On December 3, 1917, the remaining men were posted to flying squadrons, and Coates was one of eight assigned to No. 33 Home Defense Squadron, headquartered at Gainsborough, about thirty-five miles north of Grantham; they went from Gainsborough, according to William Thomas Clements, to Scampton, where a flight from 33 was located.6

Gareth Morgan, who had access to Coates’s flying log book, has been able to reconstruct much of Coates’s training in 1918.7  Sometime in February 1918 Coates went to No. 47 Training Squadron at Waddington (about twenty miles north of Grantham) where he trained on two-seaters:  the Armstrong Whitworth FK3 and the DH.6 (both used mainly for training) and the R.E.8, a reconnaissance bomber. From 47, he went to No. 44 T.S (also at Waddington).  There he flew a Martinsyde G102 (a single seater), but, according to Morgan, “much of his flying time with No 44 T.S. was spent learning to fight from a DH.9, and included formation flying, forced landing practice, bomb dropping and firing at ground targets at Saxilby, Lincolnshire.”

In a cablegram dated April 8, 1918, Pershing recommended that Coates be commissioned. Unexpectedly, the cable stipulates that Coates, along with thirty-six other second Oxford detachment men, be commissioned “First Lieutenants Aviation Reserve non flying.”  The “non-flying” status apparently arose from an effort by Pershing to rectify an injustice.  In a cable to Washington dated March 13, 1918, Pershing describes the situation of the approximately 1400 aviation cadets in Europe, some of whom had waited three months to start flying training, and some of whom, after five months, were still waiting and might have to wait another four.  “All of those cadets would have been commissioned prior to this date if training facilities could have been provided.  These conditions have produced profound discouragement among cadets.”  To remedy this injustice, and to put the European cadets on an equal footing with their counterparts in the U.S., Pershing asks permission “to immediately issue to all cadets now in Europe temporary or Reserve commissions in Aviation Section Signal Corps. . . .”   Washington approved the plan in a cable dated March 21, 1918, but stipulated that the commissioned men be “put on non-flying status.  Upon satisfactory completion of flying training they can be transferred as flying officers.”  Coates, like most or all of the other second Oxford detachment members recommended in Pershing’s cable of April 8, 1918, had almost certainly completed sufficient training to be considered a flying officer, but was apparently lumped together with men still awaiting training.  Washington took its time responding to the April 8, 1918, cable.  On April 30, 1918, Pershing wrote: “Request action taken on . . .” and lists cables dated March 29 through April 8, 1918.  The confirming cable from Washington, finally, is dated May 13, 1918.8  At the end of the month Geoffrey James Dwyer of the American Aviation Office in London sent a memo to men of the second Oxford detachment regarding these “non-flying commissions.”

On July 12, 1918, Coates, along with fellow second Oxford detachment members Fremont Cutler Foss, Joseph Raymond Payden, George Dana Spear, Perley Melbourne Stoughton, Arthur Paul Supplee, and Gilbert Allan Woods, was ordered to No. 2 Fighting School at Marske in the northeast of Yorkshire.9 There Coates trained on Avros and DH.9s and DH.9As (the DH.9 with a more powerful engine). From Marske he went to No. 117 Squadron at Norwich in Norfolk where he flew DH.4s as well as DH.9s, DH9A’s and R.E.8s.  He put in time as a ferry pilot, making at least one trip across the Channel, from Lympne to Marquise.10  According to the biography of Coates in History of the 11th Aero Squadron U.S.A. he left for France on July 5, 1918; at least some of his time over the summer was spent at the Aerial Bombardment School at Clermont-Ferrand.11

On September 20, 1918, Coates, along with fellow second Oxford detachment members Ralf Andrews Crookston and Spear, reported to the U.S. 11th Aero Squadron at Amanty.12  The 11th had arrived in France in mid-August. Its first flying officers arrived on September 1, 1918, and more on September 12 (including Vincent Paul Oatis, Robert Brewster Porter, Fred Trufant Shoemaker, and Walter Andrew Stahl from the second Oxford detachment), but the squadron was still not up to full strength.13  With an insufficient number of planes (DH-4s 14) and pilots, and with most of the pilots inexperienced in combat, the 11th nonetheless joined the 96th and 20th Aero Squadrons to make up the 1st Day Bombardment Group two days before the opening day of the St. Mihiel Offensive (September 12, 1918), which it was to support.  By the end of the day on September 18, 1918, fourteen pilots and observers (35% of the roster of officers) from the 11th had been killed or taken prisoner, including their commanding officer.14a This was the decimated and demoralized squadron that Coates joined two days later.

The new C.O. assigned to the squadron was Charles Louis Heater, whom Coates probably already knew from the second Oxford detachment.  Heater had considerable experience flying DH.4s with No. 55 Squadron of the Independent Air Force, and between his skilled leadership and recognition by higher ups that changes needed to be made, the 11th was able to come back from the brink. In a very short period, Heater taught his pilots close formation flying, and the 1st Day Bombardment Group started using larger and thus better protected formations during the Meuse–Argonne Offensive, whose way had been prepared by St. Mihiel.15

Morgan notes that Coates, soon after his arrival at the 11th, had three brief flights to familiarize himself with the area.  On one of these, on September 24, 1918, he flew from Amanty to the squadron’s new field at Maulan, about twenty miles to the northwest.16  Two days later, on the opening day of the Meuse–Argonne Offensive, with James Stephen Yates as his observer/gunner, Coates flew his first combat mission.  Eight planes from the 11th, soon followed by six from the 20th, set off mid-afternoon for Etain, where they dropped their bombs and returned, arriving back at Maulan about an hour and a half later.17 On September 29, 1918, Coates, this time with observer Morton Forrest Bird, participated in his second mission.  A first formation of nineteen Breguet planes flown by men from the 96th and 11th squadrons led off to bomb Grandpré, soon followed by about eighteen DH-4s flown by the 11th and 20th to bomb nearby Marcq.  The raid was a success, despite a number of Breguets having to turn back because of engine trouble and thirteen DH-4s, including Coates’s, because they “could not keep up with formation.”18  The next mission of the 1st Day Bombardment Group, on October 1, 1918, was similar: two large formations, most of the Breguets of the first formation reaching their objective, most of the DH-4s of the second formation having to return before reaching the lines, including Coates, whose observer this time was Horace H. Jones, Jr.

A typed page of operations orders for October 2, 1918, listing 21 teams of pilot and observer, with a sketch showing the formation in which they were expected to fly, roughly like a flock of geese in a V formation, about 8 on each edge, an additional plane in the middle, and four planes closing the back end of the V.
This description of how a mission was to be carried out indicates the size and shape of the formations used by the 1st Day Bombardment Group. (This is one of the documents appended to [Heater], “Report .”)
 The next day, as part of the now standard large formation, Coates flew with Loren Renfrew Thrall, who became his regular observer/gunner.  From here on out Coates participated in one or two missions every day that the 11th flew, with the exception of October 29, for a total of nineteen missions.19  On the mission flown October 27, 1918, with four squadrons now participating (the 166th Aero Squadron had been added to the 1st Day Bombardment Group), Coates and Thrall did not reach the objective (Briquenay), but were credited with downing an enemy plane.20 Coates’s actions on one mission prompted an unidentified observer to write:  “I have always thought that Dana Coates did something fine when he came back to protect our machine one day when Gus dived to take a better look at Germany, not knowing the Huns were directly below us. Things were hot till he came back and sat just over us.”21  Large formation flying did, indeed, improve the survival rate for aircraft and personnel in the 1st Day Bombardment Group during the Meuse–Argonne Offensive.  Although the 96th and 20th Aero Squadrons suffered some losses, especially on the opening raid of the offensive on September 26, 1918, the 11th, after the disaster of St. Mihiel, was spared during Meuse–Argonne up until their penultimate mission of the war on November 4, 1918 (and no planes from the 11th actually crossed the lines on the final mission the next day).  The late afternoon raid on Montmédy on November 4, 1918, in which approximately forty-eight planes from the four squadrons of the 1st Day Bombardment Group participated, encountered aggressive attacks by enemy formations, and two planes from the 11th did not return to Maulan:  “1st Lt. Dana E. Coates pilot and 2nd Lt. Leroy B. Thrall [sic] observer of the 11th missing; thought to have gone down in flames; 1st Lt. Cyrus J. Gatton pilot and 1st Lt. George E. Bures observer, missing from the 11th.”22  The History of the 11th Aero Squadron, U.S.A. provides this account:

The main formation found trouble waiting for them just after bombing, when eighteen or twenty Fokkers attacked them in a mass. A strong head wind was retarding our formation’s return over enemy territory and the Huns made the most of their opportunity. . . . Coates and Thrall, superior flyers and fighters, were flying one of the rear positions, and these were called on to bear the brunt of the fight. In spite of almost perfect defense the outnumbering Huns came in closer and finally Coates’ plane was seen to burst into flame and start downward. But neither he nor Thrall were through yet. Coates side-slipped his plane first one way then the other, in an effort to hold the fire only in the tanks; Thrall kept his guns going and got one of the Huns who were following them down. This fight against odds that were unbeatable kept on as far as the machine could be seen, but it was a losing one, for the bodies of the men were found near the charred remains of the plane and buried there near Stenay by the peasants.23

An unidentified squadron member wrote:  “On the raid of November 4th Coates and Thrall were just ahead of me during the awful fight.  Thrall was down in his cockpit, struggling to stand and shoot, but fell back time after time, undoubtedly badly wounded in the first of the fight.  Both he and Coates were fighting even as their machine went down, leaving a trail of dense black smoke behind.”24

A typed page summarizing the results of the November 4, 1918, raid on Montmedy, with, under "Miscellaneous," the information that Coates and Thrall are missing.
Last page of the raid report for the mission on November 4, 1918. (From First Day Bombardment Group.)

Morgan, without citing sources, writes that the German pilot who shot down Coates and Thrall was Friedrich Noltenius of Jasta 11.  Noltenius’s diary for November 4, 1918, recounts setting off at 4 p.m. on his second mission of the day and attacking three separate planes during an encounter with a bomber formation in the vicinity of Carignan (about nine miles due north of Stenay).  His account of the second attack, referring as it does to a plane in the rear position, may be a description of Coates’s downing:  “I turned off in the direction of the main formation, where we met head-on over Carignan.  Weaving heavily, I passed by the ten D.H.s and with a smart turn positioned myself behind the rearmost one. In a longer battle I first shot him smoking, and then shot his engine to pieces.  This slowed him down; then I got nearer and shot him down in flames. (21st confirmed victory).”25

The entries for this date in Franks, Bailey, and Duiven, The Jasta War Chronology, include a combat victory for Gustav von Hantelmann near Stenay with the note that his victim was Coates’s DH-4 32905.26  The entry for Coates in Henshaw’s The Sky Their Battlefield reads in part “[bombing mission to] Cheveney le Château combat with 18 Fokker DVIIs . . . heavily shot up fuel tank on fire, down in flames crashed near Stenay,” but Henshaw does not speculate on the identity of the pilot responsible for downing Coates’s plane.27

Coates and Thrall were initially listed as missing in action, but by early 1919 they were moved from the missing to the killed in action list.28  Hard as this must have been for Coates’s family, it would have been even harder for Thrall’s; his only sibling, Lloyd Elton Thrall, a member of Company L, 41st Infantry, stationed at Camp Funston in Kansas, had died October 16, 1918.29

As noted above, Coates and Thrall were buried near their crash site in the vicinity of Stenay.  According to a newspaper story distributed initially on March 3, 1923, one of the graves was marked with Coates’s name, the other as “unknown.”  When the bodies were disinterred in order that they could be reburied in a cemetery, a laundry mark, “L. R. T.”, was discovered on the clothing of the unidentified man, along with a label indicating the uniform had been made by a firm in Rochester, N.Y. Inquiries of retail firms that had carried the uniform led to a store in Austin, Texas, where Thrall had bought one on February 8, 1918, a week before he graduated from the University of Texas ground school.  Military records confirmed that Thrall had been flying with Coates, and identification was complete.30

Thrall was reinterred in the cemetery in his home town of Bone Gap, Illinois, where his brother was also buried.31  Coates’s final resting place was in France, in the Meuse–Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, about ten miles south of where he was shot down.32  His mother was able to visit the grave in 1930.33


(For complete bibliographic entries, please consult the list of works and web pages cited.)

1  The spelling of Coates’s first name (sometimes given as Edmond) and his date and place of birth are taken from Ancestry.com, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, record for Dana Edmund Coates.  The photo is one that has been handed down in Coates’s family to a great-nephew and is attached to Thompsor58 [pseud.], “Thompson Family Tree,” record for Dana Edmund Coates.

2  On John Briggs Coates, see Durant, A History of Union County, part 5, p. 87.

3  On Charles N. Coates, see Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, record for Charles M Coats [sic]; Ancestry.com, 1900 United States Federal Census, record for Chas N Coates; Dobson, “Lincoln Highway Photos”; and entry for Charles N Coates in Ballenger and Richards Denver Directory 1916.

4  See “Ground School Graduations [for September 1, 1917].”

5  Morgan, “From Lodgepole to Stenay,” suggests Coates initially did basic flying training at No. 44 T.S. Waddington and before going to Oxford; I suspect that this is a misunderstanding due to incomplete sources.

6  Foss, “Cadets of Italian Detachment Posted Dec 3rd” (in Foss, Papers).  Clements, “World War Diary of W. T. Clements 1917-1918,” entry for December 3, 1917.

7  Morgan, “From Lodgepole to Stenay.”

8  See cablegrams 726-S (March 13, 1918), 955-R (March 21, 1918), 874-S (April 8, 1918), 1029-S (April 30, 1918), and 1303-R (May 13, 1918).  Geoffrey James Dwyer, who was in overall charge of the cadets training with the R.F.C., also recognized the injustice of delayed commissions; his memo on the topic can be seen here.

9  Biddle, “Special Orders No. 116.”

10  Morgan, “From Lodgepole to Stenay.”

11  History of the 11th Aero Squadron U.S.A., p. 13.

12  See [Heater], “Report upon the Organization and Training of 11th Aero Service Squadron . . . ,” p. 5. The dates given in this roster for when men reported to the squadron sometimes differ, usually only slightly, from those provided in Wings of Honor by Sloan, who presumably had access to a different list.

13  [Heater], “Report upon the Organization and Training of 11th Aero Service Squadron . . . ,” pp. 4–6; Sloan, p. 239, on the inadequate staffing and equipment and pp. 240–43 on preparation for and participation in the St. Mihiel Offensive.

14  Conventionally “DH.4″ refers to the British built, original version of the plane; “DH-4″ to the American built plane with the “Liberty” engine. I would not care to put my hand in the fire and swear that I have always identified which plane was being used, but have done my best to distinguish the two.

14a  See Sloan’s summary on p. 245 of Wings of Honor and the roster on pp. 248–49.

15  On Heater, see Skinner, “Commanding the 11th.”  On the decision to use larger formations, see Maurer, The U.S. Air Service in World War I, vol. 1, p. 371.

16  See Morgan, “From Lodgepole to Stenay.”  Morgan, using Coates’s logbook and other sources, describes these and Coates’s subsequent flights.  My account, based mainly on sources in Gorrell, differs somewhat, and it will require a comparison of the Gorrell sources and Coates’s logbook to account for the discrepancies.

17  Pp. 106–08 of First Day Bombardment Group, which provide a rather confusing account of that day’s two missions, lists the “teams” from the 11th on the Etain raid and names Yates as Coates’s observer. Morgan writes that his observer was Loren R. Thrall, but according to the squadron roster ([Heater], “Report upon the Organization and Training of 11th Aero Service Squadron . . . ,” p. 5), Thrall did not join the 11th until October 1, 1918.  For the number of planes from the two squadrons and time of the raid, see the respective “raid reports” for that day appended to [Heater], “Report upon the Organization and Training of 11th Aero Service Squadron . . . ,” and Sellers, “History of the 20thAero Squadron Air Service, U.S.A.”

18  See First Day Bombardment Group, p. 111–12, and the raid report (p. 71) among the documents appended to [Heater], “Report upon the Organization and Training of 11th Aero Service Squadron . . .”; there is a third brief account of the raid on p. 55 of Norris, [History of operations of the 11th Squadron during St. Mihiel Offensive].  The three reports do not agree in some respects (times of departure and return, number of planes, place bombed), and such discrepancies occur in accounts of subsequent missions in these documents.  Additionally, Morgan writes: “Coates didn’t take part in a successful six aeroplane raid on Grandpré, … on 29 September”; possibly Coates failed to record it in his log book.  I have relied here and subsequently mainly on the most detailed account, that included in First Day Bombardment Group.

19  In the list of “Raids Credited to the Officers and Men of the Eleventh” on pp. 183-84 of History of the 11th Aero Squadron U.S.A., Coates is credited with 11 raids.  Perhaps some of occasions when he had to turn back are not included in this count.

20  On the victory credit, see Sherman, comp., Operations of Air Service, First Army from August 10th to November 11th, 1918, p. 88.

21  History of the 11th Aero Squadron U.S.A., p. 182; Gus is not further identified.

22  First Day Bombardment Group, p. 149.  The 11th’s raid report for this mission describes an encounter with eighteen enemy aircraft, “Fokkers, Pfalz and Albatros” (appended as p. 89 to [Heater], “Report upon the Organization and Training of 11th Aero Service Squadron . . .”).  The entry for Coates in Henshaw, The Sky Their Battlefield, refers to “18 Fokker DVIIs.”

23  History of the 11th Aero Squadron U.S.A., p. 175.

24  History of the 11th Aero Squadron U.S.A., p. 182.

25  Ferko, “Jagdflieger Friedrich Noltenius,” p. 340.

26  Franks et al. also for this same date credit Noltenius with a DH-9 near Carignan.  One should perhaps not ascribe too much importance to the distinction between a DH-4 and a DH-9, as they were difficult to tell apart, particularly in the heat of battle.  Noltenius himself (unless this is a transcription or translation error) writes of D.H.12s (!) in the November 4, 1918, encounter.

27  I take Cheveney le Château to be an alternate form of Chauvency-le-Château, about two miles west of Montmédy.

28  “Americans Killed and Wounded on the French Front” (January 11, 1919).

29  Crites, “Lloyd E. Thrall.”  Note: Lloyd Thrall’s middle name, as it appears in the signature on his draft card, could be read as “Etton.” However, the name “Elton” appears frequently as a first and middle name in his family.

30  See “Dead Aviator at Last Known”; the identity search is also recounted in Demobilization by Crowell and Wilson, pp. 90-91.  On Loren R. Thrall’s graduation from ground school, see Kroll, Kelly Field in the Great World War, p. 176.

31  Crites, “2LT Loren R. Thrall.”

32  See “Dana E. Coates.”

33  See Sewell and Palin, U.S. World War I Mothers’ Pilgrimage, 1929, record for Mrs Amanda B Coates; and Ancestry.com, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, record for Amanda B Coates.