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Remembering Manderson

November 11, 2018

July, 1918

ST. DIZIER, France — Manderson Lehr donned his flight jacket, picked up his leather helmet and goggles and strode out.

It was hot, and the jacket was too heavy, but he would need it later when he was 20,000 of feet in the air and the temperature was considerably lower than on the ground.

To make matters worse, a steady rain poured from the bank of low, grey clouds that hung overhead. Lehr looked up and pondered the sky and the rain. It was not a good day to fly, but the Germans had been spotted between Chauteau-Theirry and Dormans, so fly he would.

It had been almost a month since he and his observer, Lt. T. Carles, had seen much action — just an occasional bombardment and usual patrol. For the most part, they had been resting up.

In fact, Lehr and his buddy, Johnny Cotton, had even gone to Paris to celebrate the Fourth of July and happened to run into “Ham and Si” otherwise known as Miss Hamilton and Miss Simons, two nurses they had met at Neufchateau when they were based there.

The chance meeting pleased Lehr, and the four of them spent the day together.

Around midnight, Lehr and Cotton returned to base, and the next morning, they received their orders to move to the Champagne region on the Marne River.

Lehr didn’t necessarily like the area — too flat and white — he often said. But “Ham and Si” were close by, which made the situation more tolerable.

Around 10 a.m. on the morning of the 15th, Lehr and Carles, set out with two other planes. The commander of the squadron was at the head and Lehr and Carles at the right.

The planes passed over enemy lines in the clouds. They emerged from the gloom with a German patrol on their tail, and the attack began.

* * *

Manderson Lehr was born in Petersburg in 1895 to Henry and Anna Lehr. They named him after State Sen., Charles Manderson. But most people called him “Bud.” After he was born, the family moved to Albion, where Manderson graduated from high school in 1913.

When the winds of war started rattling Europe, Lehr was safely tucked away at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis. But the accomplished athlete and student wanted to do more than play football and read books. So before the United States entered the fray, Lehr went to France to drive ambulances for the French government.

It wasn’t enough.

“We are not in the trenches. We are safe. Of course, there are some risks, some chances, but not enough. That is, we are doing work that others could do and we could go into something else ... in which we could be of far more value to the cause,” Lehr wrote to his uncle Lou in May of 1917.

By the end of the month, Lehr had decided to join the Franco-American Flying Corps or the Lafayette Flying Corps, a unit of American fliers organized in 1916 under French command.

He wore the uniform of an aviator — bright red pants, black coat with gold buttons and gold wings on the collars and sleeves, a black cap with red top and high top boots.

But life was far from luxurious. In fact, he and the other fliers slept on planks placed on two saw horses. Their mattresses were made of straw and infested with fleas and the meals were rotten, he said, and often included horse flesh.

“This war is terrible, and we are far from through,” Lehr once wrote. “When our shiploads of reformees return to the U.S. armless, legless, shot to pieces and a great many not every returning, then will you poor dear ones at home realize it’s meaning.”

Lehr persisted and in August earned his wings. He couldn’t wait to go to the Front. He didn’t want anyone to say he “hadn’t been through it all,” he wrote.

“Although anyone who finishes these schools has been through a large part of the mill,” he said.

In October, Lehr’s wish came through.

“Up 25,000 feet and 10 miles into Germany is my record so far, and I’ve actually had one combat with a German. He was below me at first, far in the distance. I was supposed to be protecting a bombing expedition. I climbed, went faster and faster until I had the sun between us and the German below. Then I dove. He heard me and banked; we both looped and then came head on, firing incessantly.

“My machine gun was empty and the German got in behind me and “putt! putt! putt! past my ear he came. So I dove, went into a vrille (nose dive) with him on top, came out and squared off and he let me have it again. All I could do was to maneuver for I had no shells left, and I did not want to beat it, so I stuck. We both came head on again, and I said a little prayer, but the next time I looked, the German had gone home.

“I found my escadrille, accompanied them home and when I got out of my furs, I was wringing wet in spite ofthe fact it was cold as ice where I had done my flying. Twenty-five pilots in the last month have been killed by wings dropping off. A man is so utterly helpless, he must merely sit there and wait to be killed.

“Yet here am I, a supposedly educated man fighting against other educated men and why? Well, if I don’t get the German he will get me. Fine work isn’t it? Yet the U.S. declared war and france, England, Germany and poor Russia also, so we must fight because six or seven men said we should.”

During the next few months, Lehr flew many missions and had his share of close encounters, including one during which his plane was shot four times and a bullet scraped the belt that went across his chest and held him in the machine.

In January of 1918, Lehr encountered “15 of the best German fliers — the Flying Circus led by Manfred Von Richthofen — known as the Red Baron — and his Flying Circus.

“They have preculiarly marked machines so you always know them. ... they will never stop us because we are too many of them and won’t run until the do for it is quite an honor to have a scrap with the Flying Circus.”

But Lehr survived.

He and his company moved from place to place, sometimes living in difficult circumstances and sometimes living in what seemed the lap of luxury.

On July 15, 1918, his unit received word that Germans had been spotted and they were to fly between Chateau-Theirry and Dormans.

The weather was bad with rain coming in torrents. Clouds hovered close to the ground.

Three airplanes set out, with Lehr at the controls of one of them. With him was his observer, Lt. T. Carles.

On passing over the enemy lines in the clouds, the airplane at the head lost Lehr and Carles, and they emerged from the clouds, with a German patrol on their backs.

While Lehr maneuvered the plane, Carles released a “torrent” of shot and struck the wing of an attacker’s plane. The plane made a nose dive and disappeared only to be replaced by another one.

Carles fired again in order to make Lehr see the attacker, and only then realized that his friend ... “had given up his stick and no longer moved.”

* * *

October, 1918

ALBION — Henry Lehr opened the door and accepted the envelope handed to him by the postman. He noted the postmark — France — and wondered at the name on the return address: Lt. T. Carles.

Lehr tore open the envelope, retrieved the letter, read the words, returned the letter to the envelope and took it to his wife, Anna.

The postman had delivered handsful of sympathy letters and cards in the past few months, but this one was different. It was an account of the last moments of their son’s life. The moment on July 15 when Manderson was tangled up in a dogfight with a German over the Chauteau-Theirry area of France.

Manderson was hit, and the plane crashed.

Back in Albion, life for the Lehrs went on as usual. Neither the United States or the French governments had told them that Manderson was missing. It was only after their letters to their son were returned that the couple began to investigate his whereabouts and were told Manderson was dead.

But Manderson’s letters kept arriving, and for a while, the couple believed the government was wrong--that somehow he had survived. That hope was crushed when Manderson’s letters stopped, and their letters to him were returned, stamped deceased.

Manderson was dead. That they knew.

But where was his body?

The governments — French and American — didn’t know. They suspected someone had buried him, but he had been badly burned, so identifying his body would be difficult. The governments promised to keep looking, but in reality, millions of men were lying in unmarked graves, they said, so the process would be difficult.

Even though Carles could tell them where the accident happened, but he could give no details as to where Manderson was buried.

Finally, in May 1924, when plans to establish a memorial for the Lafayette Escradille began, Manderson’s grave was located near Verdun. His parents asked for his body to be returned, but it’s not known if that ever occurred.

Today, his name is inscribed on the wall of the Missing at the LaFayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery near Marnes-la-Coquette, France.

He is also memoralized on a tombstone in Rose Hill Cemetery near Albion.

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