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Saturday
November 17, 2018
Magnolia Banner News

History Minute with Dr. Ken Bridges

This article was published November 8, 2018 at 7:58 a.m.

World War I has been largely forgotten in the century since it ended. Millions of brave Americans fought for America and nations around the world to be able to live free from tyranny. It was also a time of many firsts as aircraft began being used by the US in large numbers during the war. One of the men responsible for establishing America as an aviation power was an Arkansas native, Col. Raynal Bolling.

He was born Raynal Cawthorn Bolling in Hot Springs in 1877. His father was a businessman who traveled often and moved the family from one end of the country to the other.

As a young man, he enrolled at Harvard University, graduating in 1900 with a bachelors degree before earning a law degree from Harvard two years later. He soon began a successful career as a corporate attorney for US Steel. At the end of 1903, he learned of the first successful airplane flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright and was immediately fascinated by the idea of flight. And he foresaw the possibilities for defense and industry alike with aviation.

Bolling joined the New York National Guard and began taking flying lessons. He used his influence to help organize the First Aero Company within the New York National Guard in 1915, the first air component to any national guard unit. His role expanded in 1916 as this group became the First Reserve Aero Squadron, beginning the air reserves. After President Woodrow Wilson declared war in 1917 after a series of German provocations against the United States, Bolling and his unit was one of the first American units to arrive in France.

However, Bolling met with many obstacles on his arrival. Aircraft manufacturers in Europe refused to supply him with aircraft or engines or replacement parts. At the time, the air corps was still a branch of the army signal corps, whose primary function was communications. Many of the generals fighting World War I were still using nineteenth-century tactics and failed to see how aircraft were going to change warfare and did not see aviation as a priority. Nevertheless, Bolling was soon promoted to colonel and given direct responsibility for procuring supplies for the air corps while working with another military aviation pioneer, Gen. Billy Mitchell.

By the spring of 1918, with German forces from the Eastern Front being shifted to France after defeating Russia, the Allies faced a desperate new chapter of the war. American forces were not yet in place. Bolling pressed forward with his duty regardless. He and his driver left for a British airfield on the morning of March 26. They found the post abandoned and moved forward closer to the German lines to scout the situation in person. They moved quietly ahead three miles from the British post and stopped.

The early morning quiet was shattered by German machine guns. Bolling was killed, but his body was never recovered. In the chaos of that war, many bodies were never identified or able to be recovered. He was the seniormost American airman killed during the war.

Bolling was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously while the French awarded him the Crois de Guerre, their highest award. He was only 40 when he died, still with the promise of so much life ahead. Eight more months of fighting would follow until the war ended in a cease-fire agreement on the morning of November 11.

The armistice of November 11, 1918, planted the seeds of hope for a war-weary world, hope that their sons would not have to die in faraway lands in distant conflicts. The death of Bolling and so many others led America to be a force for peace and democracy in the century that followed, on both the field of battle and in the annals of diplomacy.

This month marks the centennial of the end of that war, a day noted afterward in the United States as Armistice Day and later as Veterans Day. The world had paid a heavy price for peace. President Wilson’s prayer that the 118,000 American lives lost in the war could be transformed into a new age of understanding and cooperation among the nations of the world would not come to fruition. As the guns fell silent and the world moved on from the Great War, the seeds of the next war were being sown and dark plots were hatched against the peace of the world.

A statue was later dedicated to Bolling in Greenwich, Connecticut. Bolling Field was established in the summer of 1918 in Washington, DC. It was later expanded into Bolling Air Force Base in 1948. Today, the United States has the most advanced aircraft and air force in the world because of the vision for the future of men like Bolling.

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