Poem for Combat Pilot Veterans

It is Veterans Day.

When I was in Ireland back in May/June, I learned that, despite being part of the UK at the time, Irish men were exempt from the World War I draft. Nonetheless, quite a few volunteered. The most dangerous job was surely that of pilot. William Butler Years wrote a poem about these volunteers: “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The first few lines…

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;

In our risk-averse age it is difficult to fathom how anyone would have volunteered to serve in combat in World War I, let alone volunteer to get into a machine that most pilots would today consider far too dangerous to take around the pattern.

3 thoughts on “Poem for Combat Pilot Veterans

  1. My great uncle Frank Horgan was a pilot in WWI, based in the UK. The story is that after the war he decided to visit the village that his relatives had come from in Southern Ireland (that side of the family arrived in the US some time in the 1840s-1860s). The story as told by my grandmother was that he took a boat to Ireland, then a train to the village, and when he got off the train he took one look around and said, “My God, I know why they left”, and took the next train back to the boat, the UK, and then home. So it’s quite possible that flying was a pretty swish gig at the time, and wasn’t particularly dangerous compared to say picking potatoes or digging coal.

    You ask much the same question I have today about men from Central America who stand on the street corners looking for work here. How bad must it be there that it’s worth traveling 1000s of miles to stand on a street corner every day looking for work.

    If you haven’t read Paul Theroux’s new book On The Plain of Snakes – A Mexican Journey, I highly recommend it. Then go back and read his Deep South too.

  2. WWI bombers were converted into the 1st passenger planes. They had solid wood interiors. Their mane problem was running out of fuel. The pilots sat outside.

  3. I’ve read a few accounts of those pilot’s lives. They died very quickly, weeks or months seemed to be a very normal survival time at the front. The enemy was good at their work, and their engines were very unreliable. In the earlier part of the war, they were even denied parachutes, on the theory they would be too quick to abandon valuable and potentially savable aircraft.

    Could we find modern volunteers to fly missions on those terms? I believe we could – just look at what wingsuit pilots will do for kicks.

    Phil, next time you are in London, the Imperial War Museum is worth a visit.

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