Sunday, May 01, 2011

Swashbuckler and Aviator Pat O'Brien's Adventures After Escaping the Hun

Momence Illinois's pioneer aviator and WWI hero whose exploits rival any script for an Errol Flynn movie was introduced to King George V in a private audience and gazetted to the Order of the Military Cross, but he was only getting warmed up.

Pat O'Brien learned to fly somewhere outside of Chicago and his license to fly was signed by the Wright Brothers in 1912. When Pancho Villa made war on the United States in 1917, O'Brien offered his services but was consigned to training duties and he had the itch to fight as well as fly. The Kankakee County native was released from the S.S. Army and traveled to Canada where he joined the Royal Canadian Flying Corps and shortly sailed to France. O'Brien was credited with one sure kill and one probable, before he too was wounded and shot down, captured and sent by train to Germany. O'Brien leaped from a window on the train and began a flight to freedom that covered 370 miles over 70 days from Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and finally neutral Holland. O'Brien's fighting and flying in combat were over.

Here is some valuable chronology on Pat O'Brien's post-war celebrity. I found several old Chicago Daily News prints of Pat O'Brien in Chicago selling War Bonds. He was a much sought after speaker and writer of the best selling war memoir Outwitting the Hun.

His wanderlust took the hero all over America, Cuba, France and also an auto-trek through Mongolia's Gobi Desert.

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.

A large crowd of people turned out to greet their hero, including his “Mom” Margaret. The town of Momence closed down, stores and schools were shut, the streets decked with flags and bunting and a brass band met him as he stepped off the train. The town had a parade through the streets and a community dinner in the City Hall. Speeches were given by various dignitaries including one given by a nervous Pat.

On his return home he quickly undertook promotional series of talks about his experiences around the country and many newspapers serialized his book. He made the headlines again on the 14 June 1918 when he crashed from about 2000ft, breaking his nose flying a training machine at Kelly Field, San Antonio Texas.

Return to France
There are reports that he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and that he flew over the lines on or just after the armistice which was signed on 11 November. This is all rather confusing although his British passport has a stamp from the French Consul in Chicago dated 16 October giving permission to leave for France. On 22 October he cleared the British Military Control Office in New York with the object of “joining the French Foreign Legion” and the same day he cleared U.S. Customs. Pat disembarked in Bordeaux on the 3 November, and was in Paris on 28 November staying at the Hôtel Édouard VII in early December when he visited the British Consul, where his passport was stamped for travel to New York possibly via the U.K., he actually departed for home from Bordeaux on 2 December 1918 aboard the SS La Lorraine. Further to the above, Pat also obtained an American passport in August 1919 for his trip to China and on the application form he states that he was in the French army and that he used his British passport and his pilots certificate as proof of his identity.

After the War
On the 29 December 1918 a short note in The Decatur Review confirmed that Pat had announced his intention to be the first man to attempt a non stop transatlantic flight in an aeroplane. Work on a suitable aeroplane was due to start in six weeks with the flight attempt to take place in April of 1919. He was aligned with two associates Capt. I. F. Fuller and Lt. C C Robinson, the same man who had been aboard the S.S. Magantic back in May 1917 and who had also served in 66 Squadron. In 1919 a British newspaper, the Daily Mail offered a £10,000. First prize to the first aviator to cross the Atlantic from any point in the United States, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland or the other way in 72 consecutive hours, entrants had to hold an Aviators certificate issued by the International Aeronautical Federation. Ultimately the prize was won by Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy.

During 1919 Pat also undertook a 700 mile trip across the Gobi Desert in an Allen car, travelling from Seattle in the Empress of Russia via. Victoria B.C. Vancouver, Shanghai, Vladivostok, Minsk, Moscow, Caigan, China to Urga, Mongolia, he later said how was delighted with the way the car had performed during the arduous journey. Later in June 1920 an announcement in the Los Angeles Times brought to the attention of the California public the formation of a new company, the Hedding-O’Brien Motor Company, who were selling Allen cars. They were trading from a lot at 512 West Twelfth Street. Interestingly the article notes that Pat had served under eight flags and fought in six wars.

Shadows of the West
The film Shadows of the West was probably shot in the USA during 1918 or early 1919, and was released in 1920 not long after his death. His wife-to-be, Virginia Elizabeth Livingston Allen, using her stage name of Virginia Dale co-stared in the film. One commentator describes the film as “A bizarre mix of yellow peril sensationalism and the ordinary wild west shenanigans”. As you might deduce the film was quite controversial in its day and was withdrawn shortly after release in October 1920 and re-edited and released again in 1921. The background to the film was the “Asiatic Question”; it was released as the U.S. Federal government was in negotiations with the Imperial Japanese government about the number of Japanese émigrés to California where a ballot was due on the anti-alien land-owning measure bill on 2 November 1920

This energetic and larger than life man witnessed a powerful will to live and an unlimited capacity for danger. His book reveals a strong Catholic faith and devotion to prayer in this soldier of fortune.

O'Brien was introduced to a beautiful woman and they married in Cuba. After making a silent film together, they separated. O'Brien attempted a reconciliation, but the woman who introduced the married pair, the mysterious Mrs. Ottis is cited as the cause of the breakup. In December 1920, O'Brien was found dead of a gunshot in his hotel room with a suicide note. Seems strange.

Tomorrow the death of a hero.

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