Saturday, April 30, 2011

WWI Momence, IL Aviator - Lt. Pat O'Brien Royal Canadian Air Corps

The Illinois border town of Momence in Kankakee County hugs the banks of Kankakee River at Route 17 and Route 1 -known here in Chicago as Halsted Street. The town was first platted in 1846 and named after a local Potowatomi named Isadore Moness. The town was used in the movie Road to Perdition. It is a classic Midwestern Town. The Claretian Priests and Brothers operated a seminary there and also Good Shepherd Manor which serves young men with Downs Syndrome. Prominent in the town is St. Patrick's Church and School.It was here that Patrick Alva O'Brien, one of America's first aviators and hero of WWI, was baptized and schooled.

Pat O'Brien, like the more famous gent who portrayed Knute Rockne, was also a film star. Shortly, after makining a silent action movie, Pat O'Brien was reported to have committed suicide.

Lt. O'Brien wrote a best selling account of his amazing escape from a Germany bound prisoner of war train after being shot down in a dogfight over France. Outwitting the Hun was a best-seller and subject of O'Brien's international speaking tour. In this book, O'Brien speaks of his Catholic Faith nurtured in Momence, Il and his early fascination with flight and adventure.

O'Brien's life is fit subject for a movie: Here is a bit of it taken from the research of John at 66 Squardon.

Early Life
Patrick Alva O’Brien was born in the small Illinois town of Momence, Kankakee County near Chicago on the 13 December 1890, the seventh of nine children born to Margaret O’Brien nee Hathaway and her labourer husband Daniel O’Brien. It should be noted that the family bible gives his name as Alva F O’Brien. Pat states in his book “Out Witting the Hun” (Harper Brothers published March 1918) that he started flying at the age of 18 in 1912 (If this date is correct he would have been born in 1894). His mother, some of his brothers and sisters resided in the town during 1917-21, he had another brother, Merwin who was living in California at the time of his death.

Pat started his flying career in 1912 near Chicago, and later went to California where according to Pat he and an unknown associate built their own aircraft. Before 1916 it is known that he was living in Richmond, California and was working for the Santa Fe Railway company as a Fireman.

United States and the Punitive Expedition 1916
In January 1916, a group of villistas attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and killed 18 American employees of the ASARCO company. This raid was though to have been instigated by Pancho Villa. On 9 March 1916 the Mexicans attacked Columbus New Mexico. The US decided to respond to the Columbus raid by sending 6,000 troops under General John J. Pershing to Mexico and pursue Villa. During the search for Villa, the United States Air Service under took its first air combat mission with eight Curtiss JN3 aeroplanes from the 1st Aero Squadron. At the same time Villa, was also being sought by Carranza's Mexican army. The U.S. expedition was eventually called off after failing to find Villa, and Villa successfully evaded capture by either force.

Patrick joined the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps and in 1916 hoping to join in the action against Villa, but he was be stationed at San Diego for about eight months with the Army Flying School. North Island San Diego Aviation Camp was established in 1911 by the Signal Corps after Glenn Curtiss made the first flight on the uninhabited island on 26 January 1911. In 1915 the Camp became a permanent A.S.C. aviation school. Congress purchased the site in August 1917, by which time Pat was probably a prisoner of war. The Camp became known as Rockwell Field in 1918 and was shared with the Army and Navy until 1939. But I digress; Pat became restless after some eight months due to the lack of action, so he resigned and made his way north to Canada and joined the Royal Flying Corps. Some sources say that he joined the Canadian Army in Victoria B.C. Unfortunately I have not been able to confirm this. Pat then joined the R.F.C. in Canada, if he followed the usual pattern he would have been sent to 4 School of Military Aviation in Toronto for basic training and then to 81 CTS at Camp Borden for his initial flying training, later he became a flying Instructor.

With the RFC
In May 1917 along with seventeen other Canadian cadets he left for England onboard the S. S. Magantic. Other members of the draft are quite interesting from a 66 Squadron perspective. Those from the British Empire and Dominions were T L Atkinson (46 sqn pow 22/11/17), F C Conry, A C Jones, C R Moore (59 Sqn kia 8/3/1918), A Muir, C. Nelmes, J R Park, P H Raney (66 Sqn KIA 21/08/1917), E A L F Smith (57 Sqn kwf 27/9/1918). From America came A A Allen (46 Sqn kia 11/10/1917), H K Boysen (66 Sqn), E B Garnett (61 T S kwf 27/1/1918), F S McClurg, H A Miller, C C Robinson (66 Sqn), H A Smeeton (66 Sqn) and A Taylor. As can be seen five of these pilots would serve with 66:

• Howard Koch Boysen (wia. 28 January 1918)
• Patrick Alva O’Brien (pow 17 August 1917)
• Paul Hartley Raney (kia on 21 August 1917)
• Charles Claude Robinson
• Herbert Arthur Smeeton

After arriving in England they all underwent further flying training. On gaining his wings Pat was awarded Royal Aero Club certificate 5397 on 16 June 1917, he gave his home address as 43 Powell Street, San Francisco, California. Pat was sent to 23 (Training) Wing in England arriving on 28 June 1917. 23 Wing’s main aerodrome was at South Carlton with a half flight at Thetford. By the 20 July 1917 he had been posted to Reading and 1 School of Instruction. His record indicates that he was then posted to 81 Squadron on 25 July, although 81 Squadron was not officially due to form at Scampton as a training unit until 1 August 1917 under the control of 23 Wing, but Pat O’Brien was posted to 66 Squadron via the Pilots Pool in France on 28 July 1917.

66 Squadron
Pat joined 66 on 28 July along with Edgar H. Garland from New Zealand and Charles. H. F. Nobbs from Norfolk Island Australia. Garland was shot down on 22 August when his Scout’s engine failed and would later attempt to escape Holzminden himself (see The Tunnellers of Holzminden by Durnford M.C. 1920). Nobbs was shot down on 20 September and like Pat became a prisoner of war. Pat’s first flight with 66 Squadron was on the evening of the 12 August when he flew B1710 with New Zealander Ralph Steadman and his friend from training days in Canada Paul Raney. In his book Pat notes that he was “taken over the lines to get a look at things”. The next day (13 August) he had a morning practice flight, along with William Keast and Paul Raney arriving back at the aerodrome at 08.40 a.m. His first combat patrol was made later the same day when along with patrol leader, Evelyn H Lascelles, Ralph Stedman, Frank S Wilkins and William Keast they undertook the squadron’s third patrol of the day.

On the 16 August patrol leader Angus Bell-Irving led Paul Raney, Pat in B1732, Ralph Stedman, William Keast and Evelyn Lascelles on the first patrol of the day. Lascelles dropped out of the formation around 9 a.m. with gun problems landing at 1 squadron’s aerodrome at Bailleul (Asylum Ground), 30 minutes later Pat dropped out of the patrol landing at 100 squadron’s home at Treizennes with engine trouble. He departed 100 squadron at 11.30 a.m. arriving 66 squadron at 1.50 p.m. a flight of some 2hrs 20 minutes although the distance if some 5-6 Kms. Pat in his book states that “After doing our regular patrol, it was our privilege to go off on our own hook, if we wished, before going back to the squadron” later on page 21 he retells the events of the 17 August, his claim of a two seater and notes that he saw “two German balloons and decided to go off on his own hook and see what a German balloon looked like at close quarters”. Does this account for the time he took to return to his home aerodrome the previous day, if he did go of on his own hook the flight should still have been recorded in the squadron record book, even then, would an experienced Squadron Commander like Boyd let a new recruit go off on his own over the Lines? Later on page 23 he says “When our two hours duty was up, therefore, I dropped out of the formation as we crossed the lines and turned back again”. There is no possibility of the Sopwith Scout having a combat endurance of some four hours or more. I suspect that the flight probably took place on the 16 whilst making his way back from 100 Sqn. On 17 August, Pat on his first patrol of the day, claimed an unidentified reconnaissance C type but later in the evening, after shooting down an unidentified D type Scout he was in turn shot down, sustaining a gunshot wound to his neck crashing behind the German lines and became a prisoner of war. Pat was quite close to 2/Lt Paul Raney who signed for Pat’s personnel belongings and sent them back to Cox & Co the RFC Bankers in England. The McKean County Miner (20 June 1918) newspaper carried a photograph of the document and Pat mentions it in his book. He also claims to have witnessed the dogfight of the 21 August when his friend and travelling companion Paul Raney was shot down and killed, possibly by Ltn Weiss of Jasta 28. Also shot down that day and killed was 2/Lt. William R Keast (In his book O’Brien mistakenly calls him “Keith” from Australia, he was a native of Carlton, Victoria, Australia, although his parents lived in Brighton, Melbourne, Australia.) Keast is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Pat O’Brien was determined to escape from his German captors and the story is well told in his inimitable style in “Outwitting the Hun,” his book. After his initial capture he was put through the usual interrogation by the Germans and then on the 9 September he was sent to the Officers prison camp at Courtrai. Later Pat and five other British and one French officer were to be sent to another camp in Germany via Ghent. Luckily his injuries were not too severe and on 9 September Pat O’Brien escaped from his German escort by leaping from the train whilst in motion. Making his way through Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland he returned to England on 19 November 1917, he covered the 320 miles in some seventy two days. (for a fuller account of his trials and tribulations see his book).

On his return to England he was debriefed by a Capt. J S H Moore on 23 November 1917, the report carries little of note, the military must have been content with his story or no doubt he would not have been awarded the MC. He very quickly sent a telegram to his mother on the 28 or 29 November saying “escaped from German prison: letter follows”. Whilst in London he sought out the U.S. Ambassador Walter Hines Page for advice on how to transfer to the American Flying Corps. Whilst recuperating in England he must have started to write his book “Outwitting The Hun” which was published in March 1918. Pat relinquished his commission on 21 March 1918 whilst on three months leave. His Military Cross was gazetted on 12 December 1919.

Pat was presented to King George V (1910-36) on the 7 December 1917 at Buckingham Palace and talked to the King for nearly an hour. Then Pat returned to the USA and his family in Momence. He departed Liverpool on 23 December 1917, on board was a comrade from that fateful flight when he was shot down, Lt Evelyn H Lascelles. They travelled via Dublin, St. John, New Brunswick, New York and Chicago where he caught the train to Momence arriving on 11 January 1918.

Tomorrow - O'Brien's post war adventures in Mongolia, Cuba, and Hollywood.

Monday - O'Brien's marriage to actress Virginia Dare and the mysterious activities of the odious Mrs. Ottis of Springfield, IL. Did O'Brien commit suicide in 1920? Was he murdered? Was there a lesbian-affair between Mrs. Ottis and Mrs. O'Brien?
Was O'Brien assasinated by Japanese agents?

Tell me this man's life is not the stuff the legends!


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hickey
I take the liberty to quote from your article regarding Lieutenant Pat O'Brien.
“O'Brien's life is fit subject for a movie: Here is a bit of it taken from the research of John at 66 Squadron.”
It appears to me your enthusiastic interest in Lieutenant Pat O'Brien, 1890-1920, was copied word for word from Lieutenant O’Brien’s biography posted on "".
John Grech, Hinckley, England, is the author and owner of this website. He is also a historian of the 66 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, a member of the Cross & Cockade International and a contributing writer to the same, and member of The Australian Society of World War One Aero Historians and the League of WW1 Aviation Historians.
It appears to me that proper credit for a copy of this biography would have been noted by at least by listing the full website address. Also, in all my research, I find that Alva (Pat) O'Brien was raised in the Methodist faith and not a Catholic as it might be assumed with the last name of O'Brien.
Marcia Tedford

pathickey said...

Dear Ms. Tedford,

Yes Ma'am, you are quite correct on that fine site.

That site is noted and by clicking my post title that fine site and scholarship is fully attributed.

Thank you,

Pat Hickey