(Honolulu, Hawaii, June 6, 1894 – Honolulu, Hawaii, May 30, 1995).1
Anderson was of Scots descent; his mother’s father, a mechanical engineer from Lanarkshire, had come to Hawaii in the 1860s and founded an iron works that created machinery used in the cane sugar industry. Anderson’s father, also of Scottish ancestry, was born in New York, trained as a dentist, and moved to Hawaii. Both of Anderson’s parents were musical, and he himself became a composer.2
Anderson graduated from Cornell with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1916 and went to work for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. Shortly after the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted and was sent to Fort Niagara, where he volunteered for aviation training.3 He was sent to ground school at Cornell, graduating August 25, 1917.4
Along with three quarters of his Cornell ground school classmates, Anderson was selected for training in Italy and thus among the 150 cadets of the “Italian” or “second Oxford detachment,” who sailed to England on the Carmania, departing New York on September 18, 1917, and departing Halifax as part of a convoy for the Atlantic crossing on September 21, 1917. The cadets had the good fortune to be travelling first class. They were evidently assigned to staterooms initially in alphabetical order, but some horse trading ensued. Lloyd Ludwig “exchanged with another fellow so as to get into the same stateroom with Andy and Baldy”; Anderson, Guy Maynard Baldwin, and Ludwig had been together at Cornell ground school.5 After an uneventful crossing, they docked at Liverpool on October 2, 1917. There they learned, to their initial considerable dismay, that they were not to go to Italy after all, but to train with the R.F.C. in England. They attended ground school (again) at Oxford.
On November 3, 1917, Anderson went with most of the detachment to machine gun school at Harrowby Camp, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. An entry in War Birds from this period (November 9, 1917) reads in part: “Lord, I have the blues, the worried blues. Anderson was in here playing his steel guitar. How that boy can play!”
Anderson was among the fifty cadets selected later in November to go to flying schools, and he left for Wyton, about fifteen miles northwest of Cambridge, on November 19, 1917, along with Earl Adams, Baldwin, Thomas John Herbert, and Stanley Cooper Kerk.6 Nos. 5 and 31 Training Squadrons were based at Wyton near Huntingdon, and it was presumably at one of these that “Alex took four hours of dual instruction before he soloed on a DH 6. . . . The weather was so bad . . . that it took nearly two months for Alex to accumulate eight hours of qualifying flight time.”7
Anderson went from Wyton to London Colney, where he spent three months training on Avros, Sopwith Pups, and Spads.8 By late March he had done enough flying to qualify for his commission, and Pershing forwarded the recommendation to Washington in a cable dated March 29, 1918. His recommendation, however, was one of a large number that became backlogged, and it was not until May 17, 1918, that the confirming cable was sent.9 From London Colney Anderson went on to Turnberry and Ayr in April of 1918.10 He trained on S.E.5s at Ayr, rather than on the all too often deadly Camels. He also took the opportunity to acquaint himself with a captured Albatros at the Ayr airfield; this gave him some confidence later, when he was a P.O.W., that an escape plan involving a German airplane might be feasible.11
On July 21, 1918, he was assigned to the pilots pool at 1 A.S.D. at Marquise in France.12 He was posted to No. 40 Squadron R.A.F. on July 22, 1918, arriving there the next day, and joining Reed Landis of the first Oxford detachment and Donald Swett Poler of the second, both of whom had been there since April.13
No. 40 Squadron was flying S.E.5a’s and was stationed at Bryas (now “Brias”), about three miles northeast of St. Pol.14 New pilots at R.A.F. squadrons received two to three weeks of orientation before being allowed to fly missions. Much later Anderson recalled that “they gave us a bit of indoctrination, but it didn’t amount to much. You could call it a tour; they took us up to the line to familiarize us with the terrain and to see what was going on.”15 The squadron record book shows Anderson participating in his first line patrol, accompanied by Henry Harben Wood, the morning of July 29, 1918; they returned after an hour. Visibility was poor, and they sighted no enemy aircraft.16 Anderson made four more line patrols from that date through August 3, 1918. The weather during this period was bad, and this may account for his apparently not flying from August 4 through August 6, 1918.17 On the social side: The evening of August 1, 1918, Anderson and Landis were visited by members of No. 56 Squadron, including Paul Stuart Winslow of the first Oxford detachment and presumably Thomas John Herbert of the second. 56, stationed about twenty miles to the south at Valheureux, had just made a highly successful raid on an aerodrome at Epinoy, and Winslow noted in his diary that “We celebrated by going over to 40 Squadron and seeing Landis and Andy and singing.”17a
Anderson participated in his first offensive patrol the morning of August 7, 1918; he was part of a large formation dropping bombs east of Arras and Lens; he joined in two similar offensive and bombing patrols the next day. Farther south on that day (August 8, 1918) the combined French and British offensive against Amiens began; unlike some of the R.A.F. squadrons that did low level support work and sustained heavy losses during that offensive, 40 did its patrolling at high altitude. Nonetheless, as Anderson recalled, “we were always subject to ‘Archie’ on patrol, some of it pretty close, pretty hot, even though we often flew at 10-12 thousand feet.”18
On August 9, 1918, Anderson again participated in two patrols; he lost the formation after setting out the first time at dawn, but set off again with Alfred Robert Whitten an hour later, returning in time to join the second morning patrol at 10:15 a.m. After his fifth offensive patrol on August 10, 1918, there was a hiatus until August 14, 1918. Anderson was one of several pilots who returned from the afternoon offensive patrol on the 14th with engine trouble; much later Anderson recalled that “we had a lot of engine trouble while I was with Forty. The fellows would fire their Very pistol, then pull out and head back. That was the case later when I got into trouble.”19 (A Very pistol was used to shoot a flare in order to get attention and/or signal distress.)
The 40 Squadron record book indicates that on Anderson’s next patrol, on August 17, 1918, he was involved in a “combat with E.A. twoseater,” as were Francis Helfrich Knobel and Louis Bennett, Jr.; the latter two apparently received credit for it.20 It was perhaps this incident that Anderson recalled in 1989: “We were in occasional skirmishes and on one occasion two of us forced a two-seater to land. I had a chance to get a good burst into him from about 50 to 75 yards while the fellow with me was also firing at him. I don’t know whether it was a kill or whether he got away with damage and wounds, but we certainly shot him up badly. . . .”21
An evening patrol on August 18 and a late morning one on August 21, 1918, were uneventful: “No E.A. seen.” However, on the afternoon of August 21, 1918, fourteen planes from No. 40 Squadron left at 5:00 p.m.; four returned with engine trouble, but the other ten pilots, including Anderson, were involved in a large dogfight: “18 E.A. seen. Engaged 12 Fokker biplanes between 5-45 pm & 6-10 pm SW of Cambrai. Several indec[isive] combats ensued. S.E. drove one Fokker biplane out of control. . . .”22 George Clapham Dixon, commander of C Flight, received credit for a Fokker DVII. 23
The next day (August 22, 1918) it was Anderson who had to return from a dawn bombing mission with engine trouble; the trouble apparently cleared up, he set out again almost immediately in the same plane for an uneventful short flight. In the afternoon, Anderson, still flying C8869, took off with C Flight to patrol the line from Douai to Bapaume, but a jammed rudder bar forced him to land at Fresnicourt, about ten miles east of Bryas; he returned to the squadron the next day. There were uneventful patrols on August 23 and 24, 1918. On the morning of August 26, 1918, Anderson went out on an offensive patrol, dropping four bombs “on small village S of Scarpe”; in the afternoon he participated in his seventeenth offensive patrol: “No E.A. seen.”
David Gunby, in his history of No. 40 Squadron, writes that on “26 August the British 1st Army struck at Arras . . . and the following day 40 was heavily engaged in flying covering patrols for strafing single-seaters and corps reconnaissance aircraft directing fire on German positions.”24 This describes the task of the patrol Anderson undertook on August 27, 1918. He almost did not fly that morning; the engine of his plane refused to start.25 But another S.E.5a (C8882) just acquired by the squadron was available, so he took off at 6:15 heading east with the three other pilots in C flight: George Clapham “Tiny” Dixon (leader), Alfred Robert “Whit” Whitten, and Francis Helfrich “Noble” Knobel.26 Anderson provided an account of this patrol in “The Dawn Patrol,” published in 1919; he also recalled it towards the end of his life for Patrick Mallahan, who transcribed parts of the taped interview in “Shot with Luck!” Anderson recollects that soon after C flight set off, Whitten had to return because of engine trouble, and that Knobel did the same some time later. The squadron record book has Whitten completing the mission—and seeing “S.E. [presumably Anderson] cut off by large formation of Fokkers near Arras-Cambrai Rd.”—and Knobel turning back with engine trouble about fifteen minutes into the mission.
Anderson goes on to recall that sometime after entering “Hunland,” flying low at about 5,000 feet due to cloud cover, and keeping an eye on the artillery observation machines they were protecting, he saw Dixon alerting him and Knobel to the presence of enemy aircraft intent on ground strafing; C flight attempted to dive on them, but the enemy planes quickly made off east. Shortly thereafter, in Anderson’s account, he, Knobel, and Dixon turned back west; they were back over Allied lines when Knobel, in Anderson’s recollection, left the formation to return to the aerodrome. At around 7:45, according to the clock on his instrument board, and southeast of Arras, Anderson and Dixon saw five Fokker biplanes, “Germany’s latest and most successful effort in the air” (DVIIs).27 Anderson recalls that he and Dixon each dove and fired on a plane without apparently doing damage, and that Dixon then started back for the aerodrome. Anderson tried once again to fire at the German plane, to whose aid the other four now came. Turning and dodging, Anderson momentarily lost his sense of direction. Just as he spotted Arras and was able to reorient himself, he took bullets in his back and knee, with a Fokker right on his tail. The engagement had begun at two thousand feet, and he had since lost height, so that when he dove away, he was already close to the ground.
He was able to pull up a bit, so that his landing, when it came, in enemy territory about ten miles east southeast of Arras, was less forceful than it might have been. (Dixon’s report in the squadron record book reads: “Saw an S.E. machine land apparently O.K. . . . after combat with Fokkers.”) Anderson succeeded in climbing out of his plane and started to run, but between his wounds and his clumsy flying clothes, he was not able to outdistance the Germans who soon captured him. When he was searched, he managed to hide and keep his pocket compass, which would later prove useful.28
Anderson was initially marched (despite his wounds) to a casualty clearing station; from there he was taken by train to a hospital for prisoners of war in Mons where his wounds, which turned out not to be severe, were treated, and where he remained until September 22, 1918. Once recovered from his injuries, he started thinking about escape. His “pet scheme” was to get to a German aerodrome and fly back to friendly territory in a stolen plane; this would be where his experience with the German Albatros at Ayr could come in useful. He hoped to put the escape plan into effect when he left Mons, particularly as he assumed he was being taken into Germany where he would not be able to count on friendly locals. In fact, however, he was made to travel on foot and by train not into Germany, but west and south from Mons via Péruwelz and Condé-sur-l’Escaut to a prison camp at Fresnes-sur-Escaut in German-occupied France. His plans for escape en route came to nought.29
The night of his arrival at Fresnes, Anderson was left in a room for officers where he almost immediately encountered Theose Elwyn Tillinghast of the 17th Aero Squadron. Tillinghast had made a forced landing southeast of Cambrai and been taken prisoner the day Anderson left Mons (September 22, 1918). The next day, at the behest of a German intelligence officer (probably Hans Schröder), Anderson was moved to another building nearby where a number of men, mainly British officers, were being held pending transport to Germany.29a Among them he found Owen Cobb Holleran (“Halloran” in Anderson’s account) of No. 56 Squadron R.A.F., whom he had met about a month previously while a dinner guest of Tommy Herbert and Paul Stuart Winslow at 56 (which was stationed about twenty miles south of Bryas at Valheureux). Holleran told Anderson of two captured Americans who were being held in solitary as punishment for a recent escape attempt; they were John Owen Donaldson from No. 32 Squadron R.A.F. and Oscar Mandel of the 148th Aero.
Donaldson and Mandel were already making plans for another escape, and it was decided that Anderson and Tillinghast as well as an English P.O.W., George Rogers, would make the attempt with them. Late in the evening of September 25 or 26, 1918 (accounts differ) the five of them made their way through a hole in the roof of the building where Donaldson and Mandel were housed and set off; by the next day they were in Belgium.30 They travelled mostly by night; numerous Belgian citizens assisted them with food, lodging, clothing, and intelligence. When they neared Brussels, Rogers and Mandel, less conspicuous in acquired civilian garb, went into the city to look for the home of a Belgian acquaintance of Rogers. If all was well, they would come back for Donaldson, Anderson, and Tillinghast. They never returned, having at some point been recaptured.31 After a long, vain wait the three remaining men set off again, passing through Brussels and then more or less stumbling into the grounds of a chateau belonging to a family who, fortunately, spoke excellent English (Rogers and Mandel had been the group’s best linguists) and who welcomed and assisted them. The daughters of the house were married to Belgian army officers “who, in order to gain the Allied side of the lines, had crossed the Dutch frontier,” just as Anderson and his companions hoped to do.32 Details of the crossing were limited, but the three men learned that it would involve getting through an electric fence on the border. After a respite at the chateau, and provided now with civilian clothing and maps, the three men set out once again. For a time they focussed on finding an aerodrome where they might steal an airplane, but unfortunately they found only Zeppelin hangars with massive doors they could not open.
Eventually they reached the village of Rauw near the border with Holland. As they were heading east out of the village they happened upon a hardware and bicycle repair shop belonging to a man named Gustaaf Hus who responded to their broken French in very adequate English and who, along with his brother Jan, ensured their passage into Holland.
The Hus brothers were acquainted with men who served as guides for the border crossing. The three escapees stayed for some days with Jan Hus, apparently at nearby Baelen-Nethe (Balen-Neetlaan). Photos were taken there of the three Americans with the Hus brothers and, according to Donaldson, buried until after the war.33 Finally, on the evening of October 21, 1918, Anderson, Donaldson, and Tillinghast were taken to the guide’s house. They set off, now a party that included two civilians and three French soldiers, at three the next morning, heading, counter intuitively, east southeast for Bocholt. An hour short of the village, they paused for a rest, and their guide outlined the plan:
Leaving an hour before sundown, we would reach the village at dusk, crossing the canal by the bridge just after dark, when there was no sentry on guard. Once across the canal we would make directly for the fence, only two or three kilometers away. . . . There were three fences: first a low, plain wire one, uncharged; six feet beyond, the death-trap, the highly charged fence some ten feet high, whose wires a foot apart were supported by poles at five-yard intervals. Close to one of these poles the guide [protected by rubber gloves and hip boots and the rubber-covered handles of his clippers] would clip the four lower strands of electric wire. The tension would draw them away from the pole as they fell to the ground. We should immediately dash through, taking care to duck well under the lowest of the uncut wires. There would be a second plain wire guard fence six feet beyond, then another cleared space, across which we must run as we never had before, into the protection of the woods beyond.34
It took them several hours to approach the fence, wriggling on their stomachs in tall grass, but once the signal came, shortly after two in the morning of October 23, 1918: “In less time than it takes to tell we had scrambled between the first wires, ducked under the lowest charged strand, squeezed desperately through the farthest barrier, were dashing for the trees!”35
They reached the town of Weerth in Holland and there, after a wait of several hours, took a train, along with their unnamed guide, to Rotterdam. The next day they dined with American Consul General Soren Listoe in Rotterdam, and on October 25, 1918, were in possession of emergency passports issued in The Hague allowing them to travel to England.36 The next evening Jesse Frank Campbell, who was in London on leave from the 17th Aero Squadron, wrote in his diary that “Tillinghast (17 sq), Anderson (40 sq) and Donaldson (32 sq) arrived here tonight having escaped from Germany. They had a wonderful experience. 30 days walking across Belgium to the Holland border and finally cutting the electrically charged wire there.” On November 1, 1918, an article appeared in the Ithaca Daily News telling of their escape; it was followed by an account written by United Press correspondent Don Chamberlain, datelined London, November 4, 1918, that was published in many U.S. papers on November 8, 1918.37
Anderson spent the brief remainder of the war at Ayr, where he was an instructor.38 He returned to the U.S., along with a number of other men of the second Oxford detachment, on the Mauretania, departing Liverpool on November 25, 1918, and arriving at New York on December 2, 1918.38a Once in New York he met an editor of McClure’s magazine who persuaded him to write an account of his experiences as a prisoner of war; this was published in installments from August 1919 through February 1920. He then returned to Hawaii, on the same ship as Paul Winslow, who later married Anderson’s sister Ruth. Anderson himself married Margaret (Peggy) Center, a protégée of Dame Nellie Melba, and pursued a career in business as well as in music.39 When he died in 1994, just short of his 101st birthday, the last of the war birds had made his final landing.
mrsmcq April 15, 2017
(For complete bibliographic entries, please consult the list of works and web pages cited.)
1 Anderson’s place and date of birth are taken from Ancestry.com, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, record for Robert Alexander Anderson (1918). His place and date of death are taken from Stone, From A Joyful Heart, p. 161. The photo is a detail of a group photo of his Cornell ground school class.
2 On Anderson’s family see Stone, From a Joyful Heart, pp. 16–20.
3 On his degree, see The Cornellian, vol. 48, p. 63; on his employment and enlistment, see Stone, From a Joyful Heart, p. 37, and Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!” p. 154.
4 “Ground School Graduations [for August 25, 1917].”
5 Ludwig, diary entry for September 18, 1917.
6 Hooper, Somewhere in France, letter of November 14, 1917; Foss, Diary, entry for November 15, 1917.
7 On training squadrons at Wyton, see “Training Squadron Locations.” The quotation is taken from Stone, From a Joyful Heart, pp. 37-38.
8 A photo of Anderson and Spad VII A8867 is reproduced on p. 11 of Stone, From a Joyful Heart (where the plane is misidentified as an S.E.5), and on p. 158 of Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!” Among the photos for Chapter 7 of Hooper, Somewhere in France is one of Hooper standing next to the same plane at London Colney in January 1918, and the log books of both Hooper and Curtis document their having flown it.
9 See cablegrams 811-S and 1337-R.
10 On Anderson’s training at London Colney and in Scotland, see Stone, From a Joyful Heart, p. 38.
11 On this captured plane, see Hooper, Somewhere in France, letter of April 19, 1918, and two photos of the plane after Chapter 9. For Anderson’s having flown it, see Anderson, “Trudging Along with the Boches,” p. 12.
12 See The National Archives (United Kingdom), Royal Air Force officers’ service records 1918-1919, record for Robert A Anderson. See mickdavis’s contribution to “Marquise Aerodrome” regarding the location of 1 Aeroplane Supply Depot.
13 See Munsell, Air Service History, p. 224 (32), and Gunby, Sweeping the Skies, p. 68, on Anderson’s assignment to and arrival at No. 40 Squadron. Scott, From a Joyful Heart, pp. 38–39, indicates Anderson joined 40 on August 1, 1918, but this is almost certainly incorrect. On the arrivals of Landis and Poler at No. 40, see Gunby, Sweeping the Skies, pp. 52 and 55; and Munsell Air Service History, pp. 235 and 239 (42 and 46).
14 On the location of No. 40 Squadron, see Philpott, The Birth of the Royal Air Force, p. 404.
15 Quoted on p. 158 of Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!”
16 For this and records of Anderson’s later flights with 40, see No. 40 Squadron Record Book (RFC/RAF).
17 Gunby, Sweeping the Skies, p. 69.
17a “Attached to No. 56,” p. 316.
18 Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!” p. 158.
19 Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!” p. 158.
20 Gunby, Sweeping the Skies, p. 73.
21 Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!” p. 158.
22 No. 40 Squadron Record Book (RFC/RAF).
23 Gunby, Sweeping the Skies, p. 75.
24 Gunby, Sweeping the Skies, pp. 75-76.
25 Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!” p. 159; Anderson, “The Dawn Patrol,” p. 20.
26 I am grateful to members of the Aerodrome Forum for the identification of the flight members; see “40 squadron RAF, ‘Whit,’ ‘Noble,’ ‘Tiny’ of C Flight.” See also Mallahan, “Shot with Luck,” p. 159. Whitten’s full name was Alfred Robert Ward Whitten, but he appears as Alfred Robert Whitten in R.A.F. records.
27 “The Dawn Patrol,” p. 21.
28 The serial number of Anderson’s plane and the site of his landing (“Sh 51B P.32.d”) are taken from the No. 40 Squadron Record Book. On understanding such map references, see the December 22, 2015, post by Fetubi [Henshaw] at “Boswell A.T.W and Gundill R.P. crashed and missing.” I find no R.A.F. incident casualty card related to Anderson’s capture, although there is a person casualty card that appears initially to have confused him with another man with a similar name; see “Anderson, R. A.”
29 Information on Anderson’s time at Mons is taken from his “Days in a German Prison Hospital”; on his move to Fresnes from his “Trudging along with the Boches,” on his time at Fresnes, from his “Long Days in Captivity.”
29a See p. 49 of Anderson, “Long Days in Captivity” for Anderson’s description of his encounter with the intelligence officer. There is a description of a similar encounter on p. 439 of Revell, High in the Empty Blue (Appendix 17: “The Spy Who Came to Dinner”).
30 Anderson’s wrote of the escape in “At Last We Escape,” where the date of the escape appears to be September 25, 1918. Donaldson’s “Escaping from Two German Prisons”, 7.6: 27, gives the date September 26, 1918. The account of Mandel’s escape in Presenting the Experiences of Air Service Officers who were Prisoners of War in Germany states, p. 190 (3), that “on September 25th or 26th Lieutenant Mandell [sic] escaped again with four others.” The problem of dating is presumably that associated with overnight occurrences.
31 Mandel remained in various prison camps until the end of the war when he was released. I have not been able to find information on George Rogers, beyond the fact that he was recaptured; see Holleran, Holly His Book, p. 190.
32 Anderson, “In Full Swing for Freedom,” p. 75.
33 See the reproduction of a photo of the three Americans with the Hus brothers dated October 15, 1918, on p. 253 of Donaldson’s “My Capture and Escape” (also on p. 106 of Reed and Roland, Camel Drivers, and p. 163 of Mallahan, “Shot with Luck!”). On p. 73 of Stone, From a Joyful Heart, a similar photo of the three Americans with, probably, Jan Hus, dated October 13, 1918, is reproduced; the date and comparison with the Donaldson photo suggests that Stone is in error in identifying the man on the right as the guide.
34 Anderson, “The Thrill of Getting Through,” p. 71. Donaldson, “My Capture and Escape,” writes that he and Tillinghast “decided that, as Andy had taken electrical engineering at Cornell, it was up to him to cut the electric wire, and after some arguing, Andy consented.” I suspect that Anderson’s more circumstantial account is the correct one.
35 Anderson, “The Thrill of Getting Through,” p. 72.
36 Ancestry.com, U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, records for Robert Alexander Anderson, John Owen Donaldson, and Theose E Tillinghast.
37 Chamberlain, “Three American Aviators Escape Teuton Prison.” Chamberlain’s article appeared under various titles, including “Cornellians Flee Hun Prison Camp.”
38 Stone, From a Joyful Heart, p. 77.
39 On Anderson’s post-imprisonment and post-war career, see Stone, From a Joyful Heart, passim.