by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The First World War, which the Homestead commemorated in 2017 and 2018 for the centennial of the participation of the United States in the horrific four-year conflict from 1914-1918, featured a short-lived, but notable, innovation in reconnaissance of troop movements, camp positions and other field operations during the conflict.
This was the use of balloons, or blimps, and the United States Army created a series of “balloon schools” throughout the country to train personnel to use the craft for observation in the European theater. One of these was located in Arcadia and, though it only lasted from June 1918 through early 1920 (several online sources say it was closed a year earlier than that, but newspaper articles clearly show that it was operation beyond then—), it is a fascinating, if little remembered, element of regional military and transportation history.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is a rare issue of The Arcadian Observer, denoted “the official paper of the United States Army Balloon School, Arcadia, California.” The 28-page weekly publication was actually issued from the office of the Monrovia Daily News, though it was produced by enlisted personnel at the school.
The site was formerly the original location of the Santa Anita Race Track, which was opened by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, longtime owner of Rancho Santa Anita, in December 1907. A state law outlawing betting on horse races led to the closure of the track in 1909, the year of Baldwin’s death.
The announcement that the balloon school was coming to Arcadia was made on 12 March 1918, with the Army’s Signal Corps working out an arrangement to lease 200 acres of the Santa Anita ranch from Baldwin’s daughter and heir, Anita, with intense lobbying carried out by the very powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. At the time, it was proclaimed that some 4,000 personnel would be at the school when it was fully operational.
By late June, work was actively underway at the school and, on the evening of the 26th, over 500 personnel, with a few left in Arcadia on guard duty, were feted in a big way. A delegation of local and state officials greeted the soldiers at the Pacific Electric Railway depot and then everyone went to Clunes’s Auditorium for a showing of The Eyes of the World, a production from the theater’s owner William H. Clune. Clune, who had a profit-sharing arrangement with D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking and racist film, Birth of a Nation (1915), hired Donald Crisp, a Griffith actor, to direct The Eyes of the World. Crisp, who directed many movies through the 1920s, returned to acting and is best known as the winner of the best supporting actor Oscar for 1941’s How Green Was My Valley.
Much of the media coverage in the opening months of the school’s existence focused on athletic teams fielded by the several companies at the facility, the use of personnel for a Y.M.C.A. film and a tug-of-war contest held between school personnel and Navy divers from San Pedro. Yet, training went on in a vigorous pace with dozens of dirigibles in the local skies.
There were also dangers with the work underway. On 20 September, a smoke bomb practice session, in which flashes were used to simulate artillery fire, went awry in a freak accident and two men were killed and three others badly or seriously wounded. Notably, the exercise was not held at the school, but “on a stretch of ground . . . between Puente and El Monte,” which seems to indicate the Bassett area, a couple of miles west of the Homestead.
Towards the end of September, a branch camp was announced with 50 men sent to the top of Mount Wilson, home of the famous observatory and where observations and other elements of balloon training had been conducted since the school opened. The facility was simply known as Camp Wilson.
In mid-October, it was reported that the Army was greatly expanding its balloon training program, particularly at three locations, one in Virginia, another in San Antonio, and the last at Arcadia, where it was expected that the facility’s operations would basically in double in scope.
A few days later, another unanticipated problem was reported, as some two dozen men at the school came down with influenza as the Spanish flu epidemic, the deadliest in recent world history, raged throughout the planet. The pandemic was particularly acute with the military of various countries, because of the close proximity of soldiers and other personnel with one another and a lack of the kinds of medical facilities found in the civilian world.
On 10 November, it was reported that the first local soldier at the school to graduate and get his commission. Walter A. Ham, a Boyle Heights resident and graduate of the University of Southern California law school, went to an aeronautical school in Columbus, Ohio and then to Fort Omaha in Nebraska before completing his training at the Arcadia facility, where he was commissioned a lieutenant. It was also in November that the facility was renamed “Ross Field” named after Lieutenant Cleo J. Ross of the 8th Balloon Company, who died in France on 26 September 1918 after his balloon was attacked by a German Fokker aircraft. He was the only Balloon Corps fatality during aerial activity.
The following day came the joyous news that the Germans had surrendered and the war was at last over. The first article in the issue of The Arcadian Observer concerned “Peace” and it stated that “such an ovation as greeted the glad tidings, never has been probably never will be equalled in the history of mankind.” The writer added “with the readjustment period approaching, it behooves all of us to put our shoulder to the wheel and give impetus to the wheel of Progress . . . so that the sacrifices of the hose who gave their lives for Democracy need not have been in vain.”
Another interesting piece concerned the story of Mrs. Augustus Basta of Chicago, a widower who was facing eviction from her home and told the judge that her three sons were in the service and their pay was delayed. He replied that the eight dollars rent due wasn’t much and that the looked like “a big strong woman” and exhorted her to go out and get a cleaning job to raise the funds. The article hoped that support for Mrs. Basta would be generated so she could pay her arrears and avidly wished that voters in the Windy City would repay the jurist for his cold-hearted pronouncement from the bench.
In a weekly newsletter section, reprinting of a War Department memorandum honoring eight men associated with aero squadrons and air service for extraordinary heroism was included. One of these was First Lieutenant Eddie Rickenbacker of the 94th Aero Squadron, who was recognized with a Bronze Oak Leaf for his engagement with four German Fokkers in a 14 September battle in which was one was shot down and the others dispersed and for another the following day in which he downed another German plane and forced the other five to break formation. Rickenbacker became one of America’s greatest air pilot heroes of the war.
Another recognition was for observer Second Lieutenant Howard G. Rath of Pasadena, who was honored for acting while a leading observer of three planes that were then attacked by a squadron five times that size. Despite the odds, Rath carried out his mission and bombed the assigned targets and, while in a running fight on the return, he and the pilot “continued the unequal fight and succeeded in returning to their airdrome with valuable information.”
With the war recently ended, a particularly noteworthy piece in the paper, titled “Germany’s Revenge,” reported that a Leipzig newspaper warned that, “by their insane hatred of everything German, the Americans are preparing for themselves a sinister future.” Claiming that German-Americans were the basis for “practically all that may be spiritual, lofty and humanizing” in the United States, the paper claimed that “the noble element” of German migration would vanish.
Because of this, the argument went on,
the Latin-Slav-Mongolian admixture will be enormously strengthened and stimulated, and these elements will evetually become paramount in politics as in industrial life. Thus America’s face will before very long be as that of a hybrid, a blend of yellow, brown and white. Her Germanic complexion will gradually fade away, and in appearance she will be more Asiatic than European. This constitutes the punishment of a nation which flippantly embarks on a war from which there is not the least justification.
Without addressing the question of the “Latin-Slav-Mongolian” admixture, the writer merely stated that “the Huns would surely be doing us a great favor by remaining at home.” From the German editorial, though, can be discerned the type of attitude that welcomed Hitler fifteen years later, but also is striking given the current anti-immigrant stance of many in this country today, a century later.
The longest of the articles is one concerning a sheep hunting expedition in the remote Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet today, but there are many shorter pieces, including news from the several companies at the school, as well as the medics and cadets; the formation of an Air Service Club for commissioned men from the Air Service of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps; news from flyers associated with the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus and the Y.M.C.A.; sports results; a report from the school band; as well as humor, with jokes and several cartoons by Private Robert Sparks.
The medics column made an interesting comment concerning “our old but unwelcome friend, SPANISH INFLUENZA” who, it claimed “seems to have left us for good and all.” As noted in an earlier post on the raging pandemic, the outbreak in the U.S. among the military began in a significant way in spring 1918 and spread rapidly, as many researchers have stated, throughout the nation first, then by soldiers deployed to France, and then the world. In October, nearly 200,000 Americans died during a horrific second wave that was the deadliest of the three that hit. The last was in the first few months of 1919 and then the epidemic gradually subsided.
Also of note in the publication are the many advertisements from local companies, including rom Los Angeles, Pasadena, Monrovia, but it is fitting to end this post with part of a poem from Private Charles Divine of the 107th Infantry, titled “On a Troop Train”:
It’s “Right by file!” the sergeant says; the line pours in the door.
“Three men to each two seats.” Equipment’s tucked upon the floor.
A “day coach” from an ancient day, a black an’ grimy car;
“Hey, Engineer!” Where do we go? An’ what’s the dope, how far?
The window’s up, an’ heads are out; the engine breathes a snort,
An’ starts along an unknown way for some unmentioned port.
A guard is posted at each door. “Heads in!” goes up the cry
But every window’s occupied to see the world go by,
To watch the houses flyin’ past, the meadows rollin’ green,
Or where a flash o’ white reveals a maiden’s to be seen.
An’ some—the noisy, shoutin’ lads—fling jests at every tree.
An’ some are writin’ home—or where their home some day will be.
The noisy, shoutin’ lads resume their pagan bursts of cries,
An’ one reveals a secret vice—a mouth organ he plies!
A tenor an’ ten other men, who make a small “quartette,”
Remind “Sweet Adeline” they love her—’til she can’t forget.
At length, a bugler blowin’ “taps” is heard beyond the door—
Then everybody for their bunk and all begin to snore.