The 103d Aero Squadron was an aviation pursuit squadron of the U.S. Air Service that served in combat in France during World War I. Its original complement included pilots from the disbanded Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps. One of those pilots, Paul F. Baer, became the first ace of an American unit in World War I.
The 103d Aero Squadron was the first U.S. pursuit squadron in action during World War I and had the longest combat service, from 19 February to 11 November 1918. It earned six battle participation credits, flew 470 combat missions, engaged in 327 combats, destroyed 45 German aircraft in aerial combat and claimed an additional 40 as probably destroyed, shot down two balloons, flew 3,075 hours over the front lines, and dropped 4,620 pounds of bombs. Its casualties were five killed in action, two killed in flying accidents, four prisoners of war, three wounded in action, and one injured in a forced landing.
The commander of the 1st Pursuit Wing, in general orders, said of the 103d:
"In February last the Lafayette Escadrille of the French Army was transferred to the 103d Aero Squadron, United States Army. It was the first, and for nearly two months it was the only American Air Service organization on the front. Since that time it is not too much to say that pilots who served in this squadron have formed the backbone of American Pursuit Aviation on the front...No task was too arduous or too hazardous for it to perform successfully. In the recent decisive operations of the First American Army the 103d Aero Squadron has done its share." — Lt. Col. Burt M. Atkinson, 16 November 1918
The history and lineage of the 103d Aero Squadron continues as part of the 94th Fighter Squadron of the United States Air Force.
The 103d Aero Squadron was organized on 31 August 1917 at Kelly Field, Texas, where its enlisted members, drawn from other units, trained until being moved to Garden City, New York for preparation for overseas movement. On 23 November 1917 the unit sailed on board the RMS Baltic from its port of embarkation at New York City. The Baltic joined a convoy at Halifax, Nova Scotia and arrived at Liverpool 7 December 1917. Because of a measles outbreak, it was quarantined at Winnall Down Camp outside Winchester until 23 December 1917, when it proceeded to France through Southampton and Le Havre. The squadron arrived at Issoudun on 28 December 1917, where it spent the month of January constructing hangars for the instructional school being built there. On 1 February it resumed training for combat at the front.
On 11 February 1918 Major William Thaw, formerly with the Lafayette Escadrille, took command of the 103d Squadron at the Ferme de La Noblette, near La Cheppe, followed on 18 February by the assignment of 17 former pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps. Combat operations, using Spad VII fighters and flying with Groupe de Combat 21 (21st Pursuit Group) of the Aéronautique Militaire in support of the French 4th Army, began immediately and the squadron recorded its first aerial victory on 11 March.
From La Noblette the squadron was moved west first to the Reims area, then to the coast of the North Sea at Leffrinckoucke, to support the French 6th and 8th Armies and the Detachment of Army of the North until 29 June. While at Leffrinckoucke its airdrome was subjected to frequent air attacks, and it received a citation 22 October 1918 from the commander in chief of the French Armies of the North and Northeast for its "brilliance" in operations in the face of adversity.
The display of its distinctive "Indian Head" insignia from the Lafayette Escadrille was authorized by the Chief of Air Service AEF, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Foulois, on 6 May 1918. Two days later 1st Lt. Paul F. Baer shot down two German airplanes to become the first ace of an American unit. By mid-May the 103d was the leading American pursuit squadron, with half of the AEF's 28 aerial victories. Baer was the sole ace of the AEF, with nearly one-third of all victories, but he was shot down in a fight with eight Albatros D.Va fighters of Jasta 18 near Laventie on 22 May, after Gefreiter Deberitz of Jasta 18 severed the flight control cables of Baer's SPAD VII with the gunfire from his Albatros, and Baer was captured following his crash, with only a broken knee as his sole injury.
On 4 July 1918 the squadron relocated to Toul and was assigned to an American command, the 2d Pursuit Group. On 29 July Thaw moved up to command of the new 3d Pursuit Group and was replaced by Lafayette Escadrille veteran Capt. Robert L. Rockwell. The 103d relocated to Vaucouleurs in the Meuse department of France for operations with the 3d Pursuit Group. In September the squadron shifted northwest to Lisle-en-Barrois to support the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On 18 October, Capt. Robert Soubiran, another Escadrille veteran and a former member of the 103d, returned to the squadron to take command. The squadron recorded its last aerial combat on 4 November near Montmédy, claiming three aircraft destroyed. At the hour of the armistice, the squadron had 21 Spad XIIIs and 21 pilots available for operations.
Three of the five pursuit groups operational at the end of the war were commanded by former pilots of the 103d Aero Squadron, and ten other pilots were selected to command pursuit squadrons. 14 pilots received 21 awards of the French Croix de Guerre, and eight received 17 awards of the Distinguished Service Cross. Seven pilots were recognized as aces with five recording all their kills with the 103d. Beginning 13 September 1918, 1st Lt. Frank O'D. Hunter shot down eight German aircraft in six weeks, tying Baer for the lead in squadron victories, for which he received five awards of the DSC and the Croix de Guerre with palm. Baer was released at the Armistice by the Germans and returned to the squadron. He submitted a claim for a kill occurring on the morning he was shot down, which was confirmed, and became the leading ace of the 103d with nine victories.
After the armistice, the squadron was based at Foucaucourt and assigned to the First Army, alerted for possible occupation service with the Third Army. It received nine new pilots in early December, but was taken off operations on 14 December. The squadron's SPAD aircraft were delivered to the Air Service American Air Service Acceptance Park No. 1 at Orly Aerodrome to be returned to the French. There practically all of the pilots and observers were detached from the Squadron. All of its pilots except four were transferred out of the squadron by 4 January 1919, and those four by 24 January.
The remainder of the squadron and its equipment followed by truck within a week. Soubiran turned over command to the squadron adjutant, 1st Lt. John P. Healy, at Colombey-les-Belles on 1 February 1919. Personnel at Colombey were moved to their port of embarkation at Brest and sailed to New York aboard the armored cruiser USS Frederick on 19 February 1919. The 103d returned to Garden City to muster out its personnel, and became a unit on paper only by 18 March. It officially demobilized on 18 August 1919.
On 8 April 1924 the 103d Aero Squadron was reconstituted and consolidated with the 94th Pursuit Squadron to maintain its history and lineage.Organized as 103d Aero Squadron on 31 August 1917
Re-designated as: 103d Aero Squadron (Pursuit)
, 13 February 1918
Absorbed American pilots of Escadrille de Lafayette (Aéronautique Militaire), 18 February 1918
Re-designated as: 103d Aero Squadron
, 4 March 1919
Demobilized on 18 Aug 1919
Post Headquarters, Kelly Field, 31 August 1917
Aviation Concentration Center, 5 November 1917
3d Air Instructional Center, 28 December 1917
Air Service Headquarters, AEF, 13 February 1918
Attached to Groupe de Combat 21
, Fourth Army (France) 18 February 1918 - 10 April 1918
Attached to Sixth Army (France) 11 April 1918 to 30 April 1917
Attached to Army of the North (France) 31 April 1918 to 4 July 1918
2d Pursuit Group, 5 July 1918
3d Pursuit Group, 7 August 1918
1st Air Depot, 5 February 1919
Commanding General, Services of Supply, 6–19 February 1919
Eastern Department, 4 March-18 Aug 1919
Lt. Paul F. Baer, DSC, 9 (2 shared)
Maj. Charles J. Biddle, 1 (1 probable)-Biddle had a total of 7 aerial victories, 1 while serving with Spa73 of the French Air Service, and 5 after being transferred to the 13th Aero Squadron.
Lt. George W. Furlow, DSC, 5 (4 shared)
Capt. Frank O'Driscoll Hunter, DSC, 9 (3 shared)
Capt. G. DeFreest Larner, DSC, 5 (3 shared)- Larner a total of 7 aerial victories, 2 while serving with Spa86 of the French Air Service.
Lt. William T. Ponder, DSC, 3 (2 shared- Ponder had a total of 6 aerial victories, 3 while serving with Spa163 of the French Air Service.
LtCol. William Thaw II, DSC, 3 (2 shared)- Thaw had a total of 5 aerial victories, 2 (along with 2 probables) while serving with N.124 of the French Air Service.
Lt. Edgar G. Tobin, DSC, 6 (2 shared, 1 probable)
DSC: Distinguished Service Cross; SSC: Silver Star Citation; KIA: killed in action
Former members of Lafayette Flying Corps in italics; former members of Lafayette Escadrille in bold
A ♦ symbol indicates present for duty on 11 November 1918