The men of the United States who took to the skies to fight in World War I demonstrated a profound courage to not only crawl into the cockpit of a flimsy airplane and risk being shot down or killed, but volunteering to do so with little more than a decade of science and technology to support their fledgling aviation efforts.
Despite the lack of an appreciable military aviation program in the United States during the early period of World War I, many embraced the opportunity to fly for the French and British in the war, including a young man from Missouri who earned the coveted distinction of “flying ace.”
Henry Robinson Clay Jr. was born November 27, 1895 in the community of Plattsburg, Missouri, a small town north of Kansas City. He went on to graduate from high school in 1913 and later attended the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he participated in Army ROTC and was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity.
“In June 1916 he received an A.B. degree … followed with a year of law at Texas State University,” reported the Plattsburg Leader (Plattsburg, Missouri) in their September 24, 1920 edition. The paper added, “Two months after our country’s declaration of war, he enlisted in the ground school of aviation at Austin.”
According to the July 27, 1919 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, the School of Military Aeronautics of the University of Texas, in which Clay chose to enroll, “was the first effort made by university authorities to aid the Government in the training of aviators.” In addition to training pilots, the newspaper stated that “(e)arly in 1919 over 1,200 cadets were in training at the school and it represented the largest air service training school in ground instruction in the United States.”
The nation’s entry into the air war in Europe was a rather harsh experience, explained David A. Anderton in his book “The History of the U.S. Air Force.” He wrote, “No American-trained airmen fought in the skies of France until more than one year after the entry of the United States into the war.” Anderton also wrote about the perilous conditions Clay and his fellow American airmen were soon to encounter.
“The airmen flew castoffs from the French and British air arms, outmoded airplanes whose performance ranged from indifferent to dangerous. Spare parts were lacking; they were improvised …”
Clay completed his aviation training in July 1917 and was sent to New York to board a troop ship bound for England. Following his arrival overseas, he trained for several months to prepare for the combat conditions he would encounter in the skies over France. Sadly, much of the training provided in the U.S. lacked a focus in critical facets of combat including aerial gunnery.
“He was put over the German lines April 6, 1918, ranking as 2nd Lieutenant and then Captain; July 1st, 1918 he was made Flight Commander of the 148th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps …” reported his hometown newspaper, the Plattsburg Leader, on September 24, 1920.
The young aviator flew missions aboard a Sopwith Camel, which was “among the most produced, versatile and ubiquitous combat aeroplanes of its time, serving over land and sea from England to Mesopotamia, as well as post-war revolution-convulsed Russia,” noted Jon Guttman in his book aplty titled “Sopwith Camel.”
The iconic WWI fighter was a single-seat biplane powered by a rotary engine with two forward-firing Vickers machine guns for its armament. It had the potential maximum speed of 115 miles per hour with a range of 301 miles.
Lt. Clay distinguished himself on a number of occasions, surpassing the five aerial victories needed to earn the accolade of fighter ace. His prowess as an aviator not only allowed him to survive in a deadly battle front, but earned him a coveted British medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, for extraordinary heroism in aerial combat.
“Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919,” explained that on August 16, 1918, “while (Lt. Clay was) leading his patrol, they were attacked by six Fokker Biplanes near Noyon. Clay shot down one in flames and with his (group) drove the others East.” The book went on to describe Clay’s aerial victories on August 27 and September 4, 1918, noting that he was responsible for the destruction of five enemy aircraft and proudly citing he “exhibited on all occasions admirable qualities of leadership and has moulded his flight into a most effective fighting unit.”
Although the specific number of aerial victories Clay celebrated vary between historical books and newspaper accounts, The Aerodrome, a website dedicated to the the history of WWI flying aces and the historic aircraft they piloted, credits eight aerial victories to the Missouri-born pilot.
When the war came to an end with the signing of the armistice, the aviator remained overseas on the staff of Col. Harold Fowler, chief of the Air Service for the occupational forces. He later spent time in Chaumont, France, to assist in writing a manual for aviation tactics; however, on February 1st, 1919, he reported for his new duty assignment in Coblenz, Germany. The aviation hero soon fell ill and was instructed to report to the local hospital. He unexpectedly died from pneumonia in Coblenz on February 9, 1919, having reached only 23 years of age. Though initially interred overseas, his remains were returned to the United States the following year.
"Beautiful and fitting was the tribute paid by Plattsburg and Clinton County on Monday, September 20th, 1920 to our hero, Capt. Henry Robinson Clay Jr….” reported the September 24, 1920 edition of the Plattsburg Leader.
In mournful tribute to their fallen hero, the paper added, “The remains were brought to his old home for burial and a throng of people, estimated at from two to three thousand, came to honor our illustrious American Ace, who fought valiantly through the war … only to succumb to pneumonia (and) thus ending a brilliant and brief career.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
Wyman S. Basinger has a reputation that endures following his years of service as sheriff of Cole County, earning him the distinction as a firm, but fair, law enforcement official. His engagement with a number of organizations in the community hardened his noble reputation; however, few realize that his spirit of public service was developed and forged during his service with the Marine Corps, which earned him a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts during World War II.
Born in Cedar City on August 10, 1922, Basinger went on to graduate from. Jefferson City Senior High. According to his registration card, the 19-year-old was employed by Montgomery Ward in Jefferson City when he registered for the military draft on June 30, 1942. Rather than wait on a determination of his local draft board, Basinger “enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps (on September 1) 1942, serving 31 months with the First Marine Division in the South Pacific,” reported the Jefferson Post-Tribune on January 3, 1968. “He participated in four major campaigns, including New Britain and New Guinea,” the newspaper further explained.
In late December 1943, the 23-year-old Marine was embroiled in the thick of combat when “the 1st Marine Division landed on the western tip of New Britain to seize an important airfield at Cape Gloucester,” wrote Trever Dupuy in “Asiatic Land Battles: Japanese Ambitions in the Pacific.”
According to a history of the 1st Marine Division listed on the website of the U.S. Marine Corps, the division was “the first ashore at the Battle of Cape Gloucester on 26 December 1943; and continued fighting on the island, at such places as Suicide Creek and Ajar Ridge, until February 1944.” Although the next battle of the war for 1st Marine Division, the Battle of Peleliu, is considered the bloodiest and most costly of the war in terms of lives with the division losing 1,749 Marines in 10 days of fighting, Basinger was fortunate to survive without any injuries. Sadly, the providence that had protected the Marine evaporated during the division’s next major battle—the Battle of Okinawa.
On April 1, 1945, “more than 60,000 soldiers and US Marines of the US Tenth Army stormed ashore at Okinawa, in the final island battle before an anticipated invasion of mainland Japan,” notes an article by the National World War II Museum. “After a largely unopposed initial advance, US forces soon encountered a network of Japanese inland defenses.” During the intense fighting that unfolded in the next two and a half months, Basinger was wounded when struck by shell fragments on one of his hands. On June 18,1945, he incurred a more serious wound when peppered by shell fragments across his back. He survived and recovered from his injuries; however, approximately 12,000 of his fellow Americans were killed during the struggle to take Okinawa.
While on furlough from the Marines Corps, Basinger married the former Frances Virginia Hunter on August 21, 1945, during a ceremony in Kansas City, Kansas. The Marine sergeant received his discharge on November 9, 1945, and shortly after his return to Jefferson City, embarked upon a career as a printer with the Commercial Printing Company. He began to acquire law enforcement experience as early as 1949, when he became a member of the American Legion Police—an organization comprised of volunteers who assisted the local police force in times of emergency or when additional officers were needed.
The Daily Capital News reported in their January 4, 1968 edition that the World War II veteran had been “recalled to active duty in the Korean War…” He was stationed in California, where he “served as a weapons and demolition instructor” for Marines preparing for combat overseas until receiving his second and final discharge on March 11, 1952.
Shortly after his return to Jefferson City, he embarked upon a life of volunteerism when elected president of the Jefferson City Jays Booster Club, coached the American Legion junior baseball team and was a deputy sheriff for a number of years. Additionally, he was an active in several local veterans' organizations including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the Marine Corps League.
Basinger left his career as a printer in 1968 when he was elected Cole County sheriff. While serving his fifth consecutive term as sheriff in 1986, he died from a massive blood clot after he was involved in a vehicle accident when responding to an emergency call near Brazito.
A section of State Highway 179 was designated the Wyman S. Basinger Memorial Highway in 2006 through Senate Bill 990, which was sponsored by the late Senator Carl Vogel of Jefferson City. Additionally, the VFW Post in St. Martins, Basinger-Sone Post 1003, is co-named in honor of the late Marine,
“Wyman and Frances never had any children of their own and I think that allowed them to do so much for so many kids in the area,” said Becky Hunter Ambrose, Basinger’s niece. “He often dressed up as Santa Claus around Christmas and visited homes where a child might be having a problem or there was a single parent living there.”
She continued, “He was so respected that I can remember at his funeral visitation, there were lots of men who came through the line and said things to my Aunt Frances like, ‘Wyman arrested me a bunch of times but kept me from getting into real trouble.’ When the hearse and procession left the church and drove past the old jail, a jailer and two trustees stood on the steps of the jail and saluted.” Softly, she added, “Not many sheriffs would be treated that way.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.