The top gun in France’s squadron of aces in 1918 wasn’t a Frenchman.
Escadrille Spa.3, known as “Les Cigognes” for the stork emblem on the sides of its airplanes, was the most famous squadron in the French air service during World War I. It was credited with the most enemy planes—175—and boasted some of France’s most renowned fighter pilots, including second-ranking ace Georges Guynemer. Guynemer’s death on September 11, 1917, seemed to take some of the élan out of the unit, but a new generation of pilots upheld his tradition in the war’s final year. Foremost among them, curiously enough, was an American, Frank Baylies.
Born in New Bedford, Mass., on September 23, 1895, Frank Leaman Baylies was the son of a grain merchant, for whom he later worked as a salesman. While in New York, a speech by a minister just returned from the Western Front inspired him to volunteer for the American Ambulance Service on February 26, 1916. Awarded the Croix de Guerre for his courage under fire at Verdun, Baylies transferred to Salonika, then enlisted in the air service on May 21, 1917, through the Lafayette Flying Corps (LFC).
After training at Avord and Pau, on November 17 Corporal Baylies reported to Spa.73 of Groupe de Combat 12. As the 13th pilot on the squadron roster at the time, he was assigned Spad XIII no. 13, about which he commented in a letter home: “Cannot afford to be superstitious; nothing like being a fatalist.”
On December 1, Baylies was joined by Corporal Edward David Judd, a 23-year-old LFC volunteer from Boston. Both airmen were transferred on December 18 to GC.12’s top squadron as Spa.3’s first American members. On January 22, 1918, Judd left to accept a commission in the U.S. Navy.
Baylies scored his first victory on February 19, 1918, when he shot down a twoseater in flames. “It was mighty exciting,” he wrote,“much better than duck shooting and much more profitable.”
On February 26, Spa.3 got its third American, Edwin Charles Parsons. “Ted” Parsons had learned to fly in 1912, and briefly trained airmen for Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Later serving in N.124, the famed Lafayette Escadrille, he chose to remain with the French when Spa.124’s American personnel transferred en masse to the U.S. Army Air Service on February 18, 1918.
Baylies’ best friends at Spa.3 included future aces Benjamin Bozon-Verduraz, Louis Risacher and André Dubonnet, scion of the famous wine-making family. “I had none but the greatest admiration for Baylies,” Risacher said.
After scoring his second victory on March 7, Baylies was promoted to sergeant and downed an enemy fighter on March 16. Then, on the 21st, the Germans launched their last great offensive, hoping to destroy the British army and take Paris before the U.S. Army could arrive on the Western Front in full strength. As the Germans approached Montdidier, Spa.3 fell back on Mesnil-St.- Georges aerodrome on March 24, withdrawing to Raray the next day.
Amid the retreat, Ted Parsons told a tale of how Baylies returned to base from a dawn patrol wearing his flying suit over his pajamas, with his main fuel tank almost empty—to see a lot of unfamiliar airplanes marked with black crosses. The Germans had just overrun the aerodrome. Baylies spun his Spad around and headed back down the runway with two Germans grabbing his wings, shouting for him to surrender. When his engine began sputtering, Baylies switched to his auxiliary gravity tank. Ten minutes after taking off in a fusillade of rifle fire, he landed at GC.12’s new airfield.
On March 28, Baylies had what he called another “real dime novel affair.” As he attacked a two-seater over Montdidier his engine quit, its magneto wire severed by a bullet. He glided to a rough landing in no man’s land, then sprinted for his life while French troops shot three pursuing Germans.
On April 11, Baylies shot down an artillery-spotting plane in flames. He became an ace the next day by downing another two-seater. While returning from a patrol on May 2, he spotted three Rumplers overhead. Baylies wrote that he stood the Spad on its tail and “let Mr. Hun have the benefit of two perfectly-working, well-regulated machine guns. He didn’t have much to say and…fell out of control, hit the ground with an awful blow, and lay there a crumpled mass of debris.” The next afternoon Baylies and Dubonnet destroyed a two-seater.
Ted Parsons opened his account at Spa.3 by shooting down a two-seater on May 6. On the 9th he and Baylies were subjected to a lecture on tactics by Lieutenant René Fonck, leading ace of Spa.103, whose manner rubbed many GC.12 pilots the wrong way. Parsons wrote, “Baylies and I bet Fonck a bottle of champagne that on the patrol on which we were all leaving shortly, we would get a Hun before he did.”
The Americans lost contact in the haze, but Parsons found a Halberstadt CL.II at 12,000 feet and was about to engage when he saw another Spad attack it from the side and recognized the Spa.3 stork and Baylies’ number 21. Parsons claimed he and Baylies caught the Halberstadt “in a merciless cross fire” until it went down. Only Baylies was credited, but both Americans basked in the glory until Fonck came back.
Delayed by ground fog, Fonck took off at about 1500 hours, but an hour later he shot down three German two-seaters. In a second patrol that afternoon, he downed an Albatros two-seater and two Pfalz escorts in just eight seconds. With six victories in one afternoon, Fonck won the champagne.
Baylies and Georges Clément downed a two-seater on May 10, while Dubonnet got another. After a bout of bad weather, Baylies caught a German fighter menacing a French artillery spotter on May 28, shooting it down near Courtemanch. He downed another enemy plane the next day, and on the 31st he and Dubonnet teamed up to wreck a two-seater, bringing his total to 12.
On June 17, Baylies was leading Dubonnet and Sergeant François Macari on patrol when they spotted four rotary-engine planes above them that they assumed were British Sopwith Camels. As they climbed to join them, Dubonnet reported that Baylies’ Spad suddenly “leaped upward and then swung over on one wing” as he realized his error and three Fokker Dr.Is dived on him. Baylies looped onto the tail of one triplane, but the fourth German, flying top cover for the other three, pounced on his Spad and shot it down in flames near Rollot. Macari disengaged safely, while Dubonnet just barely managed to nurse his riddled Spad over the lines to make a pancake landing.
Baylies and Dubonnet were credited to Lieutenants Wilhelm Leusch and Rudolf Rienau of Jasta 19. On July 6, a German plane dropped a message in the French lines: “Pilot Baylies killed in combat. Buried with military honors.”
In 1927 Baylies’ remains were reinterred at the Memorial de l’Escadrille Lafayette in the Parc Revue Villeneuve l’Étang, outside of Paris. At a ceremony held in New Bedford’s Fort Tabor Park on April 6, 2008, the 91st anniversary of America’s entry in the war, François Gauthier, consul general of the French embassy, presented Baylies’ medals— the Légion d’Honneur, Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with 12 Palms—to the 74- year-old son of his father’s cousin, also named Frank Baylies.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.