Delaware Military History
The War in the Air
Brig. Gen. Kennard R. Wiggins Jr., (DE ANG Ret)


First Lieutenant Laurence Roberts

Laurence Roberts was one of those young men with a bright future.  He planned to be
an electrician.  Roberts stood some five feet ten and a half inches with brown hair, blue
eyes and a fair complexion.  Born December 27, 1895 he was the son of Mr. and Mrs. W.F.
G. Roberts of 1600 North Jackson Street, Wilmington, Delaware. Roberts enlisted in the
First Delaware Regiment, Delaware National Guard in April, 1914.

When the Guard was mobilized for the Punitive Expedition to Mexico, Laurence was
among the Delaware boys who went to the Mexican border in 1916.  He had advanced to
the grade of sergeant by this time.  Arriving home he entered Officers Training Camp at
Fort Meyer Virginia in Field Artillery.  After six weeks, he applied for aviation and was
subsequently sent to Toronto University where he trained as a cadet in the British Royal
Flying Corps. The United States had not entered the war.  

A pilot required a youthful physique, keen eyesight, quick reflexes, personal initiative,
confidence in oneself, and unwavering nerve.  To qualify as a pilot required 25 flying
hours and fifty landings along with various cross country flights.  But much more
would be required to be competitive in aerial combat against seasoned veterans of the
German Aviation Service.

Upon graduation, Roberts was sent to Fort Worth Texas and was commissioned as a
First Lieutenant on his 22nd birthday.  On January 31, 1918 he sailed for England as a
member of the 22nd Aero Squadron. The 22d Aero Squadron was organized at Kelly
Field, Texas, on June 16, 1917. Initially 150 men, it was later expanded to a size of 200.
Once organized, the 22d was sent to Toronto, Canada, on August 9 to begin formal
training under the auspices of the Royal Flying Corps at their facilities. In Canada, the
squadron trained on the Curtis JN-4 "Jenny", and detachments attended schools at
locations around the Toronto area. The men received instruction on engine and aircraft
maintenance.

On October 19 the squadron finished its initial training and was sent to Hicks Field, near
Fort Worth, Texas. Hicks was also designated Field #1 of the Camp Taliaferro training
complex, operated also by the British Royal Flying Corps. When the squadron arrived,
Hicks Field was still under construction; however, flying training in the JN-4 was
conducted and 42 flight cadets soloed in the Jenny. Orders were received for overseas
movement to France, and the squadron left for the Aviation Concentration Center, Long
Island, on January 21, 1918, arriving on the 25th. The squadron boarded the RMS
Adriatic in New York Harbor on the 31st, arriving in Liverpool, England on February
16 after an uneventful voyage and proceeding to a "Rest Camp", where the pilots were
sent to various advanced training schools in England, while the enlisted support
personnel were sent to France for training with RFC units on the continent.

After more training in flying and aerial gunnery in various camps in Stockbridge and
Turnberry Scotland, Roberts was assigned to the 17th Aero Squadron in France on June
23.  The squadron was part of the 65th Wing, Royal Air Force which was attached to the
British 3rd and 4th Armies. The 17th Aero Squadron was an Air Service, United States
Army unit that fought on the Western Front during World War I.

As a Day Pursuit (Fighter) Squadron. its mission was to engage and clear enemy aircraft
from the skies and provide escort to reconnaissance and bombardment squadrons over
enemy territory. It also attacked enemy observation balloons, and performed close air
support and tactical bombing attacks of enemy forces along the front lines.

The unit achieved a number of "firsts". It was the first United States Aero Squadron sent
to Canada to be trained by the British; the first squadron to be completely trained prior
to be sent overseas with its complete quota of trained pilots; the first squadron to be
attached to British Royal Air Force squadrons and the first to be sent into combat.
Roberts made his first trip over the lines on July 6th. At Petite Synthe Airdrome the 17th
received its official insignia, secret at the time, a white Dumbbell painted on each side of
the fuselage aft of the cockpit. Later, in anticipation of its return to American command,
the squadron adopted its own symbol, the "Great Snow Owl". However, it was with the
Dumbbell that the squadron engaged in combat. The squadron was assigned to the 65
Wing, Royal Air Force for operations.

After several weeks of familiarization flights, the 17th Aero Squadron entered combat on
15 July 1918 for the first time. The front was very quiet. Lt. Wilson brought down its
first enemy airplane not far from Ostend, Belgium about 09:45 on 20 July when the
squadron encountered a formation of five German Fokker biplanes at approximately
21,000 feet. That same day, the first casualty of the war was suffered by the squadron,
when Lt. Glenn was seen diving deeply south of Ostend after being attacked by a
German Fokker.

From Petite Snythe Airdrome, the squadron engaged in combat operations almost daily
afterwards, frequently engaging German aircraft in aerial battles over the skies of
northern France and Belgium. Missions included escorting RAF bomber squadrons
attacking enemy positions in occupied areas. A major attack on a German airfield in
Belgium, at Vessanaere, near Bruges was carried out with the RAF 210 and 213 bomb
squadrons. The 17th rendezvoused with the squadrons over the English Channel and
once assembled, the 17th was to provide cover from enemy aircraft interceptors. After
several postponements, the attack was carried out on 13 August. The 17th took off before
dawn and in conjunction with the RAF 5th Group squadrons, the bombers attacked the
airfield from a low level, then proceeded to shoot at hangars and huts on the aerodrome.
A gasoline dump was set on fire with six Fokker biplanes being set on fire on the
ground, with an additional two being hit directly by bombs. Two hangars sere set on
fire and another one severely damaged. The 17th circled the airdrome and attacked enemy
aircraft and ground personnel preparing them to take off. The 17th claimed seven enemy
aircraft destroyed on the ground. Later, it was confirmed that the raid destroyed a total
of fourteen enemy aircraft. Many of the attacking aircraft were hit by ground fire but all
managed to return without loss.

Lt. Laurence Roberts wrote on the death of a comrade killed in an accident in England,
saying, “I hope that if I have to bump off, it will be at the front, where I can give a good
account of myself.”  He did to have long to wait.

On 18 August the 17th was ordered to move to Auxi-le-Chateau Airdrome. The word
came at 23:00 and the squadron pulled out at dawn. They arrived the next day, and were
settled in enough to send the first combat patrol over the lines on 21 August, shooting
down four enemy aircraft. The Chateau Thierry offensive was in full swing, with the
squadron flying low bombing patrols, attacking gas balloons and infantry with their
machine guns. Each pilot went on two patrols each day from dawn until disk. The
squadron over the next few days shot down one enemy gas balloon each day, with the
exception of the 23d when they were put on low bombing dive and strafing missions all
day. Attacks on the enemy were largely concentrated in the vicinity of Cambrai, but the
congestion on the roads behind his lines presented opportunities for much greater
damage to his morale by attacking trucks and troops on the highway from altitudes of
less than a few hundred feet. When flying the low-level attacks, the 17th relied on other
squadrons patrolling higher up to look out for the enemy's Fokkers, while the squadron
received ground fire from the enemy below.

The 26th of August was the squadron's most tragic day. Lt. Roberts had just returned
from the hospital. It had rained during the night and a gusty wind had begun to blow
at dawn and was getting stronger and gustier. Low clouds, with gaps of blue between
them, streamed thickly up from the southwest over the rolling hills beyond the
aerodrome. The Besseneaux hangars bulged up and flapped; the tents were all swollen on
one side and lean and caved in, against the wind, on the other; the aeroplane fabric that
covered the holes that were called windows, in the Squadron Office shack, were bellied
and tense; the little wood was full of the noise of the wind. It was blowing in fits at
seventy or eighty miles an hour.

A History of the 17th Aero Squadron 1918 records, "Tip" got the patrol away in good
style and they disappeared " eleven of them " over the trees. One machine returned before
long with engine trouble, then another with guns jammed. Two hours passed. Then
Goodie and Snoke arrived. Some of us will never forget the look in Goodie's light blue
eyes, as he stood in the dusk, with his back against the door between the Squadron
Office and the Pilots' Room. There was a huge map of the Third British Army front on
the wall behind him. He pointed out where "it" happened, and slowly, bit by bit, from
him and Snoke we got the story while he continued to stare, seeing us only a little, at
the fight that was stamped almost visible on his eyes. He and "Snokie" seemed horrified
and crest-fallen " all broken up " to be standing there, though each of them had put up a
wonderful show, when Tip and Todd and Frost and Jackson and Bittinger and Roberts
had not returned. Dixon too was missing; but after a long wait, in which we gave him
up as lost, he came "hedge-hopping'' over the trees, having been driven down almost to
the ground and having lost his way in the driving mist and high wind.

What really happened was this. Their mission, as we have said, was to cover low
bombing operations, as it turned out, of the 148th Aero Squadron.
The squadron was called for a patrol about 16:30 with a mission to attack a lot of enemy
on the lines and some friendly "low-straffers" in trouble on the Bapaume-Cambrai road.
The squadron took off and upon reaching the lines, and shot down an enemy balloon.
On crossing the line, five Fokkers were seen attacking friendly forces on the line.
Immediately afterwards, a Camel was seen being attacked by the five Fokkers at a height
of about 1,000 feet. This airplane was piloted by a friend of Lt. Roberts. The patrol at once
went to the assistance of the Camel and attacked the enemy aircraft. Soon the Americans
saw that the attack had been an ambush, for out of the clouds came about thirty more
German airplanes. Several other flights of Fokkers were then seen diving from the
clouds. A general engagement took place in which still other flights of Fokkers came
down from higher altitudes. Three 17th pilots were shot down and a fourth only just
succeed in getting back to the Auxi Airdrome with a number of Fokkers on his tail and
firing continuously. All of the downed pilots were given up for loss, but about a month
later that three the downed pilots were prisoners of war, but one was killed according to
the “History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service.” There are conflicting
accounts of the action, with the Germans claiming as many as eight Sopwiths down and
others saying six.

The fighting was terrific as the wind was blowing at fifty knots toward the German
border while they maneuvered in the aerial dogfight.  Roberts was among those lost,
falling near the town of Cambrai.  This was the last seen of him. By October 9th there
was a report that he was a prisoner, but it was not known which camp.

Later information came to Robert’s mother from an American who had searched German
Aviation files and reported that:

      “…on the day that your son was lost they reported having shot down eight
Sopwith Camels, seven of which were in the region northeast of Bapaume.  One was at
Bapaume and the others at Lanicourt, Morchies, Beugny, Vauix, and Sapignies.”

These towns lie some 10-15 miles miles northwest of Cambrai.  The American
correspondent went on to say:

“…2nd Lt. Harry Jackson, 2nd Lt. Howard Bittenger, and your son 1st Lt Laurence
Roberts, who was last seen over Cambrai, were all shot down in the same combat.  (They
are all listed on the casualty rolls of the 17th Aero Squadron as reported killed on
August 26.) Lt. Knotts of the same squadron who had been taken prisoner soon
afterwards and with whom I talked after his return, told me that he had learned from Lt.
Schroeder, the German Intelligence Officer, who had questioned him, that all these three
officers had been killed.”

By the following July 30, 1919, the US War Department reported that 1st Lt Roberts, 17th
Aero Squadron – missing since August 26, 1918 – was presumed killed.  German records
did not confirm death or place of burial.  

Roberts’s family was at a loss.  They had lost a son and now could not even properly
lament him because there was no known grave.  There was only the faintest glimmer
that he might remain alive.  They would hope and prey.

In the meantime, the Laurence Roberts Post, #21 of the American Legion was founded in
July 1920.  It was organized by C.H. McKinney and L.R. Webb of Wilmington with an
initial membership of fifteen.  By April 1921 they had acquired property at 1301 Market
Street and the post membership had increased to 135.  In selecting an honoree, the name
of Lt. Laurence Roberts was chosen because of his dauntless war record, and because he
has been a good friend and classmate to many members who felt pride in his friendship,
who desired to perpetuate his memory in this way.

In the eighteen months since hearing from the War Department, Many if the American
troops returned home.  Then on January 18, 1921, the Roberts family received a letter
from George Larsen, formerly of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles.  Larsen stated that he
had been:

      “…one of a detail of four sent out to pick up wounded and bury the dead in a
certain territory.  We came across the body of Lt. Roberts which was lying a short
distance from a destroyed plane.  He was identified by the identification tags…Lt. Roberts
had been shot, probably by machine gun fire. “

The Roberts later received a letter from one of their son’s fellow officers who wrote them
that:

      “…Bobbie (as he was called by his companions) was one of the most popular boys of
the squadron, and a great favorite with all…He was secretly very proud of his mother
and sister…I held him always in the highest esteem…He was a man in whom you can
have the greatest pride—a typical American…he put up a wonderful scrap and fought to
the end as a valiant son of the Western Democracy should.”

It was not until the beginning of 1922 that his mother learned that Laurence was buried
in the cemetery at Cambrai.  Later, his remains, along with others, were moved to the
American Cemetery near the little village of Bony, halfway between Cambrai and St.
Quentin. The area itself lies a bit north of Paris.

Characteristic of many families in those days with the loss of a loved one in the battle
field, death hung around the home fires as well.  The Spanish Flu epidemic devastated
populations in late 1918.  The Roberts family was no exception.  Roberts’s sister was
taken away by diphtheria and three weeks later his father was lost as well.

Roberts’s mother visited her son’s grave for the first time in 1927 courtesy of the
American Legion.  She last visited it as a member of the Gold Star Mothers in 1931 before
her death in 1942.

As in many places across the country, trees were planted for lost ones who did not come
home after the war.  Such was the case in Wilmington when in 1928 some twenty trees
were planted along Bayard Boulevard (now Bancroft Parkway) in memory of departed
heroes.  One such was for Lt. Laurence Roberts.  Today most of these trees still stand,
although Lt. Roberts has since fallen by the way.

His grave is marked beautifully in the little country cemetery near Bony.  There it is quiet
and peaceful as the makers stand like silent sentinels all in neat rows as the breeze blows
gently over them and Old Glory.  Lieutenant Roberts’s grave and thousands like it
symbolize, according to President Lincoln, “the last full measure of devotion” to their
country.

      “…We were children, we ranged
      Half in cloud, half in sun;
      But now I am changed,
      And must be gone.”
              -- Robert Hillyer


Sources:

Roger A. Martin “Tales of Delaware”,  1991

Maurer, Maurer (1978), The US Air Service in World War I, The Office of Air Force
History, Headquarters USAF Washington

Series "E", Volume 4, Histories of the 16th, 17th and 19th-20th Aero Squadrons. Gorrell's
History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917–1919, National Archives,
Washington, D.C.

Clapp, Frederick Mortimer. (2013).  A History of the 17th Aero Squadron 1918. London:
Forgotten Books. (Original work published 1920)
A Sopwith Camel, as flown
by the 17th Aero Squadron.
A replica from the collection
of the National Museum of
the United States Air Force.