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
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.