Sunday, April 12, 2015

George W. Puryear and the Victory Loan Flying Circus

George Wright Puryear of Gallatin served as a fighter pilot with the 95th Aero Squadron during World War I. On July 26, 1918, during his 10th sortie as a fighter pilot, Puryear forced down his first and only German plane during World War I. After landing his plane on what he believed to be Allied territory, he soon realized he was behind enemy lines. The Germans quickly captured Puryear and imprisoned him on the same day. Just four and a half hours after Puryear landed, the French 63rd Division captured that area from the Germans. However, the Germans had taken Puryear away by that point.

George W. Puryear's POW identification card, Villingen, Germany, September 15, 1918
Puryear Family Photograph Albums

In the months that followed, the Germans sent Puryear to several different POW camps. On October 6, he took part in a mass escape attempt from a POW camp in Villingen, Germany. After five days on the run with very little food and covering around 25 miles on foot, he swam across the frigid, swift-flowing Rhine River to reach Switzerland, thus becoming the first American officer in World War I to successfully escape from a German POW camp. As newspapers trumpeted his successful escape, the United States government sent Puryear to various Air Service units (including his old squadron) so that he could relate his experiences in German prison camps to his fellow pilots.

Map of southern Germany showing George's escape route from Villingen to the Rhine River. The places between Villingen and Waldshut where he stopped to rest are circled and the date written next to them. An "X" across the Rhine River from Waldshut marks where he came ashore in Switzerland.
Puryear Family Photograph Albums

After the war, he was assigned to the 9th Aero Squadron based at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, and from April to May 1919, he served as a pilot with the No. 3 (Far West) Flight of the Victory Loan war bond campaign. The Victory Loan war bond campaign brought together groups of former combat pilots to stage air shows across the country in order to induce people to buy war bonds to help pay for the recently-won war in Europe. It was also referred to as the Victory Loan Flying Circus, a reference to the Allied nickname for Jagdgeschwader 1 (the German fighter squadron commanded by Manfred von Richtofen, a/k/a the infamous Red Baron). The Far West Flight put on air shows throughout California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, and Arizona. The commanding officer of the Far West Flight was Major Carl A. Spaatz, who later commanded U.S. Army Air Forces in the European theater during World War II and became the first chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.

George W. Puryear, Maks Dembinski, George Higbee, and "Dutch" McCroskey standing next to a Fokker D.VII, serial number 8542, during the Victory Loan war bond campaign, April-May 1919.
Puryear Family Photograph Albums

A curious incident occurred while the Far West Flight was in San Francisco, California. On April 12, 1919, the group put on an air show there and a two-page article about it appeared in the next day's issue of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The article contained a photograph of Puryear flying a Fokker D.VII in the air show, and it quoted him giving a fantastical account of his escape. The article stated:

"Lieutenant George W. Puryear crashed two Hun planes before, as he says, he 'pulled the second biggest bone of the war,' followed down a German he had crashed and got himself captured. He was so disgusted with himself that, not caring what happened to him, he made a break in broad daylight, jumped the German trenches and the wire, dashed across No Man's Land, and made the American lines in safety."

First of all, official Air Service records only give George Puryear credit for shooting down a single German airplane (and he shares the credit with four other pilots from the 95th Aero Squadron). Second, anyone with any knowledge (especially firsthand knowledge) about conditions on the Western Front would know that his story about leaping trenches and barbed wire and racing across no man's land was complete and utter balderdash. So, why did he tell such an outlandish story about his escape?

April 13, 1919 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper showing George W. Puryear piloting a Fokker D.VII (top right) during the air show on April 12.

There are several possible answers to that question. On the one hand, the reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle could have greatly embellished Puryear's story or even invented it from whole cloth. While that explanation is certainly plausible, it does not seem very probable. It could also be that Puryear embellished his story for his own personal aggrandizement, but that does not seem very probable either. Accounts of his escape had been appearing in U.S. newspapers for months, and the first half of his own autobiographical account of his escape had appeared in that month's issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine (with the second half appearing in the May issue), so the true account of his escape was already known or, at least, easily verifiable. Furthermore, since the other pilots in the Far West Flight were all veterans of the air war on the Western Front, any such blatant attempts at self-aggrandizement by Puryear would probably have not sat very well with them. Instead of being an attempt at self-promotion, Puryear's account of his escape could also be read as a group of veterans having a laugh at the expense of a gullible civilian. One can almost imagine the group of them looking at each other with knowing smiles, embellishing the story to an absurd degree simply to see how much of it would be believed. It could also be that Puryear was simply bored with having to repeat the same story over and over again. Ultimately, however, the true reason why Puryear gave that outlandish story about his escape will never be known for certain.

Crowd watching Lieutenant Colonel William Thaw II sitting in the cockpit of a SPAD S.VII, serial number B9911, at San Francisco, California, on April 12, 1919. Ornamental statues salvaged from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915) form the boundary of the roadway. The view is toward the Golden Gate.
Puryear Family Photograph Albums

When the Victory Loan war bond campaign ended, Puryear resumed his duties with the 9th Aero Squadron at Rockwell Field (which was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1935 and is now part of Naval Air Station, North Island). While on border patrol on October 20, 1919, he flew to El Centro/Calexico, California, the eastern terminus of the patrol route. Source documents list both places as the airfield's location, but the two towns are only a few miles apart. Shortly after taking off around 2 p.m. on his return flight to Rockwell Field, the engine of his DH-4 cut out. He attempted to bank and regain the field but didn't have enough air speed to complete the turn. The plane stalled and struck the ground on its left wing and nose and then rolled onto the right wing. He suffered a broken leg, broken jaw, and skull fracture. He died of his injuries within minutes of the crash.

On October 27, his remains arrived, via train, in Memphis and were taken to the home of his brother, David. An article in the next day's issue of the Tennessean newspaper gave a detailed account of the procession from the train station to David's home. On October 28, George Puryear's remains arrived in Gallatin and funeral services were held in Gallatin Cemetery. Sometime later, the airfield at El Centro/Calexico was named Puryear Field in George Puryear's honor.

George W. Puryear's grave (on the right) in Gallatin Cemetery, Gallatin, Tennessee, ca. October 28, 1919.
Puryear Family Photograph Albums

The Puryear Family Photograph Albums, 1890-1945, on the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) provides a fascinating visual record of the early history and aircraft of the Army Air Service, which would become the United States Air Force after World War II. Visit this one-of-a-kind TeVA collection at:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

No comments:

Post a Comment