10 Firsts in America’s Involvement in World War I

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7. First Major Battle: Battle of Cantigny

The first US military unit to arrive in Europe was the 1st Aeronautical Detachment, under Kenneth Whiting, on June 5, 1917. The Americans entered the front line trenches in small groups by the winter of the same year. It took until the spring of 1918 to have enough men to enable the Americans to launch a battle of their own. Men from the famed “Big Red One,” the US 1st Division, was selected to push the German Eighteenth Army out of the village of Cantigny in France. Among those fighting was the 5th Field Artillery Regiment, which is the oldest American military unit on continuous active duty, and Major Theodore Roosevelt, Jr the oldest son of future President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt.

At 06:45 [H Hour] on May 28, 1918, around 4,000 Americans, helped by French manned artillery, tanks, and planes, climbed out of the front lines trenches and moved toward the German trenches. The Americans and the French tanks carefully followed a deadly rolling artillery barrage that advanced 100 meters every two minutes. They quickly captured the village and spent the rest of the battle fighting off German counterattacks. When the dust settled the advance cost 1,603 American casualties that included those Wounded in Action, Missing in Action, taken Prisoner and 199 soldiers Killed in Action. The Battle of Cantigny was the first major American battle of WWI.

6. First Air Kill

Airplanes were pioneered by the Wright brothers in America starting in 1903. Just over a decade later, aviation technology had exploded and in WWI control of the skies became a deadly goal fought over by all parties. The first dogfight occurred just days into the war when on August 15, 1914, an Austro-Hungarian and a Serbian pilot fired pistols at each other. Soon the skies became just as bloody as the ground.

Like Americans who joined other armies, pilots sought to join the Air Forces of other nations. In 1916 American pilots formed one such squad, Lafayette Escadrille, for the French Air Service. At its peak, there were 38 Americans in the squadron. One of these pilots was Newport, Tennessee born Kiffin Rockwell (pictured above). On May 18, 1916, he downed a German two-man observational plane over the Alsace battlefield. He became the first American of the Lafayette Escadrille to shoot down an enemy plane. Later in the year another American member of Lafayette Escadrille, Gervais Raoul Lufbery, became the first American ACE pilot when he shot down the required fifth German plane on October 12, 1916.

America finally joined the war in 1917. While waiting for its Air Force to become active over the slaughterhouse of the Western Front, American airmen would hitch rides on French planes. One US flyer, Stephen W. Thompson, participated as a gunner-bombardier on a French Air Service plane. While this squadron was returning from a bombing raid over Saarbrücken, Germany he became the first member of the United States military to shoot down an enemy aircraft when he downed a German plane on February 5, 1918.

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