Ask Rufus: The Birdmen and their buzz wagons

 

In August 1918, pilots from Payne Field, U.S. Army Air Service, flew to a barbecue in Artesia and landed in a field near the Methodist Church. The late Sam Kaye found photographs of the barbecue, including this one of the Payne Field pilots, in his mother’s scrapbook.

In August 1918, pilots from Payne Field, U.S. Army Air Service, flew to a barbecue in Artesia and landed in a field near the Methodist Church. The late Sam Kaye found photographs of the barbecue, including this one of the Payne Field pilots, in his mother’s scrapbook. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Carolyn Kaye

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Just 10 years after the Wright brothers had delivered the first airplane to the newly formed U.S. Army Air Service, aircraft were playing an important role in World War I. With the need to rapidly increase the number of pilots, the Army Signal Corps began establishing pilot training based around the country. In 1917 West Point, Mississippi, was selected as the site for one of those training bases. The field was constructed on 533 acres of open prairie about four miles north of town and named Payne Field. 

 

The pilots at Payne Field trained in Curtiss JN-4 airplanes which were called "Jennys." The Jenny had a top speed of 75 mph and a ceiling of 11,000 feet. The first squadron arrived on March 10, 1918. By May 1 the field was fully operational with 125 Jennys soon in the air. Eventually, about 1,500 pilots would train at the field. 

 

Most people around West Point had never seen an aircraft before and called the Jennys "buzz wagons." The aviators were called "birdmen." The aircraft were used for pilot training and missions related to base operations. Planes did flyovers at public events such as Liberty Bond drives. In 1918, after Aviation Cadet Joseph Peters, of Columbus, was killed in an air crash at Kelly Field in Texas, his funeral was at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus. Pilots from Payne Field flew over the funeral service dropping flowers as Peters' body was lowered into his grave. 

 

However, there apparently were many flights by pilots that were under the radar -- if they had even had radar back then. One which was authorized but out of the ordinary was newspaper delivery. on Aug. 21, 1918, a base newspaper, the Payne Field Zoom, was established. It was announced that area towns that had at least 50 subscribers would receive weekly delivery of the paper by airplane. The towns in the coverage area included Macon, Artesia, Columbus, Starkville, Okolona, Tupelo, Aberdeen and Brooksville. Payne Field planes would land near each town and bundles of papers would be picked up by post office personnel for delivery. 

 

In September 1918, a Payne Field story made national news. Wardie Dawson was a "paralyzed crippled boy" living in Okolona whose brothers were in the military but be was unable to serve and lived at home. He wrote Lt. Col. Jack Heard, the field commander, a letter asking if a plane might land at his house so that he could see it. Heard wrote back a letter of encouragement but that there was no place for a plane to land. Heard then had a plane deliver the letter by flying at tree top level over the boy's house and drop the letter to him. 

 

While those uses of aircraft are such as the Air Force might do today, others were not. I heard family stories about my grandfather, T.C. Billups, who lived at Billups Gate near Artesia. In the fall he had dove hunts and pilots from Payne Field would be invited. They would fly down, land in a pasture and then go hunting. After the hunt and after the hunt party was over, they would fly back to the base. On Aug. 16, 1918, there was a big barbecue and Brunswick stew picnic in Artesia. It was said that almost 1,000 people attended. The barbecue was held next to the Methodist Church and a number of pilots from Payne Field flew down and landed in an open field near the church. Pictures of the event with the pilots and their planes were taken. Several years ago the late Sam Kaye found those photos in his mother's scrapbook. 

 

Probably the most unusual flights, though, left no record. In 1918, Columbus Police Chief John Morton, Payne Field Intelligence Officer Lt. McClean and Federal Revenue Agent Fry raided a bootlegging/moonshine operation on the Pickensville Road, 12 miles southeast of Columbus. 

 

The raid was based on information that pilots from Payne Field may have been flying down, landing in a field near the location of a still and buying moonshine. The raid turned up 2 gallons and one quart of moonshine but only "some evidence" that there had been a still there. The moonshiner was found guilty by Justice of the Peace G.D. McKeller and sentenced to pay a fine of $50 and spend 30 days on the County Farm. It is interesting that only evidence there had been a still was found and that it was the Columbus Police Chief and not the sheriff who participated, though, the raid was in the county, not the city. 

 

The early days of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Air Service must have been very interesting. 

 

Thanks to Carolyn Kaye for help with this column.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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