Harrison Barbour Irwin

(Washington, D.C., April 27, 1891 – Baltimore, June 16, 1964).1

Harry Irwin’s father was William Manning Irwin, a graduate of Annapolis and career naval officer.2 His mother, born Elizabeth Barbour, was from a family that had become prominent in Washington, D.C., commercial and social circles.3 Irwin attended Princeton, graduating in 1912. He studied law at Harvard, apparently without taking a degree, and worked for a time in real estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.4 He returned to Washington, D.C., where he was employed by the banking company, Crane Gilpin & Co.5 When Irwin registered for the draft he noted that he had applied to the “Aviation Corps,” and at the end of June 1917 he left Washington, D.C., for Ohio to attend ground school.6  He graduated from the Ohio State University School of Military Aeronautics with the class of September 1, 1917.7

Along with most of his O.S.U. classmates, Irwin chose or was chosen to train in Italy, and he joined the 150 men of the “Italian” or “second Oxford detachment” who sailed to England on the Carmania. They left New York bound for Halifax on September 18, 1917, and set off from Halifax as part of a convoy for the Atlantic crossing on September 21, 1917.

Detail, edited, from a photo of Irwin taken at Oxford by John Chadbourn Rorison. The white band on his R.F.C. cap indicates his cadet status. The full photo is reproduced on p. 34 of Doyle, “War Birds Pictorial.” I have not been able to locate Rorison’s original album and photos. My thanks to the League of WW 1 Aviation Historians for permission to reproduce this.

When the Carmania docked at Liverpool on October 2, 1917, the detachment learned to their initial consternation that they would not go to Italy, but remain in England and repeat ground school at the Royal Flying Corps’s No. 2 School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford University.  On November 3, 1917, most of the detachment, including Irwin, went to Grantham in Lincolnshire to attend gunnery school at Harrowby Camp. He initially trained with a group that included Joseph Kirkbride Milnor, who kept a photo of the group.  Fifty of these men departed on November 19, 1917, for flying schools, but Irwin was among the men who remained at Grantham until early December and completed two two-week machine gun courses, the first on the Vickers, the second on the Lewis machine gun.

On December 3, 1917, the remaining men at Grantham were posted to squadrons for flight training. Irwin, along with Robert Jenkins Griffith, Edward Carter Landon, Robert Thomas Palmer, Pryor Richardson Perkins, Hilary Baker Rex, and Albert Sidney Woolfolk (all of whom, with the exception of Rex, had been in his O.S.U. ground school class), was assigned to No. 50 Squadron, a home defense squadron with headquarters at Harrietsham near Maidstone in Kent.8   Its available aircraft at the turn of the year included the B.E.2e and the A.W. FK.8, both two-seaters used for reconnaissance and bombing, and the B.E.12b, a single-seater night fighter.9  Palmer’s pilot’s flying log book and one of his letters home provide some information about the men’s time at No. 50.9a  The weather was, of course, not often good for flying at this time of year. Nevertheless, Palmer was able to put in a little time as a passenger in both a B.E.2e and an A.W., and Irwin was perhaps able to do the same. Palmer’s log book indicates that these were in the main joy rides rather than instructional flights.

I have found no information on Irwin’s further training.   He was among the many men whom Pershing recommended for commissions as “First Lieutenants Aviation Reserve non flying” in a cablegram dated April 8, 1918; the cable confirming the appointment is dated May 13, 1918.  Irwin was placed on active duty toward the end of the month, presumably having been transferred flying status.10

On September 26, 1918, Irwin reported to the U.S. 166th Aero Squadron at Maulan, about thirty miles west of Toul. Fellow second Oxford detachment members John Joseph Devery, Jr., Albert Elston Weaver, Paul Vincent Carpenter, and Perley Melbourne Stoughton were already at the 166th; they were followed in October by Fremont Cutler Foss, Linn Daicy Merrill, and Phillips Merrill Payson.11

The 166th Squadron had gotten off to a confused and confusing start. For a time it was expected to do salvage and repair as an Air Park Squadron, but DH-4s appeared, marking it as a bombardment squadron. Then a new C.O. showed up with the expectation that 166 would be an observation squadron (and the DH-4s promptly went to other squadrons). The men betook themselves to Colombey-les-Belles aerodrome south of Toul around the beginning of September and awaited developments. Towards the middle of the month, it was once again decided that the 166th was to be a bombing squadron.12

On September 25, 1918, the day before Irwin’s arrival, the squadron had moved about thirty miles west to Maulan aerodrome and joined the 1st Day Bombardment Group. The Meuse-Argonne offensive, to which squadrons of the 1st Day were dedicated, began the next day. The 166th Aero, however, needed time to settle in and do practice sorties before actually taking part in raids and did not participate in a mission until October 18, 1918.

Operations order for the 166th’s second mission.

On October 22, 1918, fourteen teams of pilot and observer were assigned to fly the squadron’s second mission; Irwin, in DH-4 32569, and observer Ralph Owen Waltham made up one of the teams.13 All “returned before reaching objective on account of rain and very dense clouds near the lines.”14

There was an eventful mission the next day, October 23, 1918, but Irwin and Waltham (and DH-4 32569) were not among the thirteen participating teams; perhaps some mishap to the plane on the previous day’s flight had left them grounded.15 Irwin does not appear to have flown any further missions for the 166th, although Waltham was assigned to accompany Carpenter on the squadron’s next mission on October 27, 1918, and Foss flew DH-4 32569 on that same mission. Irwin was “dropped from rolls,” i.e., left the squadron, on October 29, 1918.16

On November 2, 1918, Irwin joined the U.S. 104th Aero, an observation squadron flying Salmson 2 A2s.17 He was thus reassigned from a bomber to an observation squadron and from American to French planes. Particularly because information on Irwin’s training is not available, I cannot assess how difficult these transitions might have been. Irwin was the only member of the second Oxford detachment assigned to the 104th Aero, and apparently the only member to fly Salmsons.

The 104th, like the 166th, had a rocky start. Its pilots initially were to have flown DH-4s, but in early August 1918 the decision was made to fly French Salmson 2 A2s instead.18 Arrived at Luxeuil-les-Bains, just forty miles from the Swiss border, on August 8, 1918, the 104th reported to the head of V Corps Observation Group and awaited pilots, observers, and planes. The planes, when they trickled in, required a good deal of maintenance, as did the rusty Lewis guns that were supplied for them.19 On September 6, 1918, the 104th was ordered to move one hundred miles north-northwest to Souilly. Because of severe weather, only about half the men and planes—despite increasingly peremptory telegraphed orders—were in place at the opening of the St. Mihiel Offensive.20 Nonetheless, working in cooperation with the 99th Aero, the other American squadron of V Corps Observation Group, the 104th participated in missions on September 12, 1918.21 The remaining men and planes—much the worse for flights and landings in bad weather—arrived at Souilly, and on the 13th the 104th Aero was able, “with its own pilots and observers” to perform reconnaissance for V Corps.22 By the end of the day on September 18, 1918, they had flown a total of sixty-one sorties.23 The next day, they began the move, as unobtrusively as possible to avoid alerting the enemy, a few miles west to Foucaucourt-sur-Thabas in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, in which the 104th was active.24

Most of the 104th’s pilots and observers were assigned to the squadron in August and September, but Irwin was one of approximately ten who joined at the end of October and the beginning of November 1918.25 The names of four of the late arrivals, not including Irwin, appear in the summary descriptions of the squadron’s activities during the period November 3–10, 1918, so it is clear that they were not held back for orientation.26 (In the meantime, around November 4, 1918, the 104th moved approximately 10 mile north from Foucaucourt to a field between Récicourt and Parois, putting them closer to the front line as the Germans retreated.27) I have not been able to locate operations reports for missions flown by the 104th which might provide more detail and perhaps document Irwin’s activity.

Back in Washington, D.C., Irwin’s family had been through a harrowing time. “H. B. Irwin” appeared on a casualty list published in early October 1918; by one account he was noted to have been killed August 20, 1918. Discrepancies left room for hope: Irwin’s mother had received a telegram from him dated September 1, 1918, and the casualty list connected “H. B. Irwin” with the navy. At some point in mid-October the welcome news came that the casualty report had been in error.28

Irwin was able to return to the U.S. comparatively early; he left Bordeaux on the S.S. Siboney on December 25, 1918, and arrived at Hoboken on January 3, 1919.29 After the war Irwin went to work for the Cunard shipping line, initially in New York, and then in Baltimore.

mrsmcq April 24, 2018


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

1  For Irwin’s place and date of birth, see Ancestry.com, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918, record for Harry Barbour Irwin. For his place and date of death, see “Memorials” [1964, January].  The photo is a detail from a photo of his ground school class (Squadron 8) at Ohio State University.

2  See the article on William Manning Irwin in Class of ’71, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. (unpaginated).

3  See documents available at Ancestry.com.

4  On Irwin at Princeton and in Brookline, see “Memorials” [1964, January].

5  See Irwin’s draft registration, cited above.

6  See brief notice in “Society” (The Evening Star).

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

8  See Foss’s list of “Cadets of Italian Detachment Posted Dec 3rd” in Foss, Papers.

9  On the planes used at 50, see Philpott, The Birth of the Royal Air Force, p. 408.

9a  Palmer, Pilot’s Flying Log Book; Palmer, Letter dated December 12, 1918.

10  See cablegrams 874-S and 1303-R, and McAndrew, “Special Orders No. 147” and “Special Orders No. 205.”  See here for information on the “non-flying” status.

11  Hicks, “History of Operations of the 166th Aero Squadron,” p. 87 (this page is a roster of officers).

12  “The Squadron has an Eventful History.”

13  Hicks, “History of Operations of the 166th Aero Squadron,” p. 91.

14  Rath, “First Day Bombardment Group, Account of Operations,” p. 131.

15  Ibid., p. 132.

16  Hicks, “History of Operations of the 166th Aero Squadron,” p. 87.

17  Sutton, “The 104th Aero Squadron (Corps Observation),” p. 21.  Gilchrist, in his roster of officers on p. 134 of his The 104th Aero Squadron, has Irwin with the 104th from September 21 to December 31, 1918, but the start date is almost certainly an error.

18  Ibid., p. 4.

19  Ibid., pp. 4–5.

20  Ibid., pp. 6–7.

21  Ibid., p. 9.

22  Ibid., p. 7.

23  Ibid., p. 16.

24  On the move, see Sutton, “The 104th Aero Squadron (Corps Observation),” p. 10; Sloan, Wings of Honor, p. 321, provides a different account. On the 104th and the Meuse-Argonne offensive, see Sutton, pp. 11 ff.

25  Sutton, “The 104th Aero Squadron (Corps Observation),” pp. 20–23 (squadron roster).

26  Ibid., p. 39.

27  See reference to move in Mortimer M. Lawrence’s letter of November 5, 1918, and commentary, posted at “Archives for: November 2009, 05” at Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affair, Eyes of the Army.

28  See “Washingtonian in Casualty List” and “Mourned as Dead, is Alive and Well.”

29  See War Department, Office of the Quartermaster General, Army Transport Service, Lists of Incoming Passengers, 1917 – 1938, Passenger list of military personnel returning to the United States, p. 47.