By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
A mission of dropping propaganda pamphlets might sound pretty tame these days. But in 1918, just months after the U.S. joined most of Europe in fighting the Germans, Austria-Hungarians, Ottoman Empire and Bavaria, it was a vital and often dangerous effort to turn the citizens against their oppressors. And in Austria, those caught dropping such leaflets were executed.
And so it was, 96 years ago today, a leaflet-dropping mission began with five fighters and two bombers – all Americans pilots – flying Italian planes from Porto Corsini, Italy to Pola, Austria. Porto Corsini is located just 65 miles from Austria’s largest naval port, where the occupying Germans and Austro-Hungarians were launching submarines and battleships into the Mediterranean campaign from the heavily defended port with 18 forts and 114 anti-aircraft guns.
That Americans were part of this mission was a remarkable partnership between Italy and the United States. Italian instructors trained American pilots how to fly their Macchi flying boat planes: the M.8 2-seater equipped with a machine gun and capable of carrying four 24-pound bombs and the single seat M.5 fighters with two machine guns and the ability to carry a couple of light bombs. Although using Italian planes with Italian mechanics, the base would be operated by the United States, and so it was July 24, 1918, when the American flag was first raised over U.S. Naval Air Station Porto Corsini, Italy.
The Austrians welcomed the American pilots the next day by bombing the new naval air station.
Back to Aug. 21, 1918, and the seven-plane leaflet flight on its first bombing mission. Within 15 minutes of take-off, a fighter and a bomber turned back due to motor problems, leaving four fighters flown by Ensigns George Ludlow, E. H. Parker, Dudley Vorhees and Baltimore-born Charles Halverstine Hammann. They were flying at 12,000 feet as they approached Pola, but the bomber couldn’t get higher than 8,000 feet. As the leaflets were dropped, Austrians responded with anti-aircraft fire. Five Albatross fighters took flight and within five minutes, the dogfight was on at 8,000 feet.
Ludlow attacked the lead plane, forcing him into a dive. But Parker and Vorhees struggled with machine guns that jammed, eventually forcing them to leave the fight along with the bomber. That left Ludlow up against three planes and Hammann facing two. Ludlow fired on one fighter until it was smoking, taking hits in his plane’s propeller and engine. With oil streaming behind, the plane burst into flames. Ludlow put his crippled fighter into a spin, knocking out the fire, and then pulled it up to make a water landing five miles off the harbor entrance of Pola.
Hammann saw Ludlow’s plane go down and once he realized the pilot was not injured, he pulled out of his fight to rescue his fellow aviator. If captured, he faced execution as a spy. Despite damage to his own fighter, Hammann landed on choppy water in 20 mile-per-hour wind. Ludlow wasted no time scrambling over to Hammann’s single-seat plane, perched behind the pilot’s seat and under the motor, hanging onto the struts to keep from being pulled into the propeller or swept to sea. Ludlow had already punched holes in the wings to help the plane sink, so once Hammann’s Macchi was airborne, he fired the rest of his ammunition into the crippled craft. As it slipped under the waves, Hammann headed back for the 60-mile trip to base. The Austrians, perhaps admiring Hammann’s daring rescue, made no effort to pursue what would have been an easy target.
But the danger to Hammann and Ludlow was far from over. Hammann still needed to land the plane in the always tricky 100-foot wide canal often hit with crosswinds. While the landing was good, water pouring through the bow caused the plane to flip, destroying it. The pilots suffered bumps and bruises, but both were back on duty a few days later.
For his effort, Hammann would receive the Medal of Honor, the first aviator to earn the honor. “Although his machine was not designed for the double load to which it was subjected, and although there was danger of attack by Austrian planes, he made his way to Porto Corsini,” the citation stated.
The Air Station itself was recognized as having “the distinction of being the most heavily engaged unit of the 78 U.S. Naval Forces in Europe,” as stated by Adm. Henry Thomas Mayo, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, during a Nov. 10, 1918 inspection of the base.
Less than a year later, on June 14, 1919, Ensign Hammann was killed in an air accident while piloting a Macchi flying boat at the fledging Langley Field in Hampton, Va. He was but 27.
The Navy has named two ships after Hammann: USS Hammann (DD 412), which was sunk during the Battle of Midway in June 1942, and a destroyer-escort, USS Hammann (DE 131) that was commissioned in 1943 and decommissioned in 1974.
As for the rescued Ludlow, he would survive World War I, being discharged at age 29 as a lieutenant junior grade in 1926. But after the United States entered World War II, the 45-year-old Ludlow returned to his Navy in 1942 and served until retiring as a commander in 1953.