Kenneth MacLeish – Naval Aviator #74

The brief life of Kenneth MacLeish has a dramatic arc with all the elements of high drama.  Struggling to find himself in the shadow of a successful brother and amongst his high-achieving friends, MacLeish finally found fulfillment in the love of his fiancée and in the desperate war-torn skies over Europe – only to lose everything a scant 30 days before the Armistice.  

The third son of a successful Scottish immigrant and dry goods merchant, Kenneth MacLeish was born September 19, 1894, at Craigie Lea, his family’s rambling estate in Glencoe, Illinois, a comfortable northern suburb of Chicago.  His father, Andrew MacLeish, was not only a successful businessman, he had helped found the University of Chicago and was a leading layman in their Baptist church.  

In the shadow of his older brother – Librarian of Congress and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish – Kenney MacLeish strove to distinguish himself as an exemplary individual while following in his brother’s footsteps to Hotchkiss prep school and Yale University.  Archie had been a true Renaissance man at the Ivy League school: stellar in academics, a football player, captain of the water polo team, editor of the Lit literary magazine, member of the elite Skull & Bones secret society, and voted “most brilliant” by his classmates.  Kenney was popular and well-liked, but struggled academically as he worked to define himself and reassure his parents that he wasn’t too scattered.  

His closest friend was Artemus “Di” Gates from Clinton, Iowa.  The fellow Mid-westerners had met at Hotchkiss and girded each other to penetrate the Eastern elite who would eventually befriend them.  The test for an up-and-coming student was to see whether or not they had “sand” – the grit to achieve position in the socially and competitive atmosphere that was Yale University at the end of the belle époque.  Gates had grit, as shown by the large young man’s starting position as tackle on the football team.  But if MacLeish had sand, it wasn’t yet apparent.  He was slight of stature physically, and though he lettered as a pole vaulter on the track team and played water polo, he couldn’t win a spot on the football team.  To pass his Yale entrance examination he had required tutoring.  His progressive, religious mother found him “never deeply thoughtful” and saw her third son as the type who “took events as they came and found cause for joy in all.”  Kenney struggled to win his parents’ confidence - “I wish you could both have the same confidence in me that I have in myself” – but they were withholding.  

Kenney was exceptionally likeable, however, and a joy to be around.  When Trubee Davison began recruiting some 30 fliers for the Yale Aero Club and Gates suggested he come along, MacLeish signed up.  The problem was, each potential flier had to get their parents’ permission.  The commitment to the Aero Club meant that the members would willingly leave school if the need arose.  With the nation doing all it could to avoid entry into the War, it seemed to the MacLeishs that their son was being irrational.  

Kenney was finally able to put the impending war in terms his deeply religious parents understood:  

“There are many things worth giving up one’s life for, and the greatest of these is humanity and assurance of the laws of Christianity….Do you think for a minute that if Christ had been alone on the Mount with Mary, and desperate men had entered with criminal intent, He would have turned away when a crime against Mary was perpetuated?  Never!....Religion embraces the sword as well as the dove of peace.

“Please think this over and let me know if I can join the Yale aviation corps.” 

By the time MacLeish had written this letter, the Aero Club had been given permission to join the Navy Reserve Flying Corps, to which they were sworn in – with MacLeish in attendance – on March 24, 1917, in New London, Connecticut.  MacLeish’s emphatic letter reached his parents several days later:

“I have thoroughly made up my mind to join AN aviation corps in case or war.  There is absolutely no argument there!  That is the branch of the service for which I am best fitted, and in which I could do most.  I am only being radical and headstrong because I am perfectly sure that you don’t understand the conditions, or else you think I am the kind of man who can stay at home and let someone else do the fighting.  I realize the fact that at least five men are needed at home to support one in the field, but that realization will never, never, never, suffice me!  I could never stay at home if there was fighting of a real nature.” 

Kenney was to have his way, and when the First Yale Unit moved to Palm Beach Florida, to train, he became the first of the new batch of fliers to solo, and even beat four of the original set who had been training longer.  But MacLeish endured a major disappointment soon after they arrived.  Tap Day was April 19th, the day Yale juniors were picked for the secret societies.  Two representatives made the trip to Palm Beach, as there were many eligible prospective members with the Unit.  At noon, juniors Trubee Davison, Bob Lovett, Di Gates, John Vorys, and Alphie Ames were tapped for Skull & Bones.  Chip McIlwanie, Reg Coombe, George Lawrence, Erl Gould, John Farwell, and Curt Read were tapped for Scroll & Key.  Oliver James and Bill Rockefeller turned down Wolf’s Head.  The seniors were already members and other underclassmen would get their turn.  MacLeish, almost alone among the juniors, was passed over.  He spent the night on the beach by himself.  Almost six months later he wrote to his girlfriend still despairing: “You’ll never know how terribly disappointed I was in not making a Secret society.  I know why I didn’t and it almost kills me.  I want to get to France and forget the whole thing and start over again…”  

But MacLeish was finding himself in the skies over the Florida beaches.  He had been quite nervous at the idea of first flying solo, but after “[I] shut my eyes and ‘let ‘er go’” on the takeoff, he found himself in the air calm and happy as could be.  He realized he had only been nervous under the instructors, but on his own he felt comfortable and at home.  “The next thing I knew I felt myself grinning from ear to ear and trying to whistle, though the wind blew my lips flat and the roar of the motor and propeller entirely discouraged the attempt….I feel perfectly confident in myself for the first time in my life.”  

After watching the first few of the Unit members ship overseas, MacLeish was ordered to Newport News, Virginia as an instructor. He was nervous that he might be left at home for the duration of the war.  Two months later, at the end of October, 1917, MacLeish was finally cleared for passage to England through the treacherous U-boat-patrolled waters of the Atlantic.  But excited as he was to get to the action, he missed his ship – because of a girl.  

Kenney MacLeish met Priscilla Murdoch in 1914 when he was a freshman at Yale.  Murdoch attended Westover School, along with Kenney’s sister, Ishbel, and Kenney’s aunt was the headmistress.  A romance did not blossom until the Unit returned from Florida and was doing further training at Huntington, Long Island.  The Murdoch family had a vacation home near the Davison’s at Peacock Point, and Priscilla was studying wireless telemetry for the war effort at the Huntington training grounds.  On the eve of MacLeish’s departure, he proposed to Priscilla, and she accepted.  He did not have a ring for her, but with a hand-knit sweater she had made for him and a perfumed handkerchief he ran for the boat, only to see it steaming out to sea.  When he finally shipped, after another week with his fiancée, he was ready for bigger rewards than those from a college campus.  

MacLeish’s separation from his intended would engender a rich trove of letters, not widely known about until 1991.  Indeed, he asked that his letters to her serve as his journal, and from them we learn a lot of the progress of the American effort in World War I, the development of military aviation, and the unique experiences of a 23-year-old stepping onto the world stage at the dawn of “America’s century.”  

When MacLeish finally arrived, the Unit members had been sent to different outposts in France and England.  He would see them sporadically as they shifted between bases, often meeting in Paris where they enjoyed the night life.  MacLeish spent the first months training on both sides of the English Channel at Moutchic, Gosport, Turnberry, Ayr, and Clermont-Ferrand.  He learned to handle a variety of planes: French FBA flying boats, Hanriot-Dupont scouts, and Breguet bombers; British Sopwith Camels and D.H. 9s; and American-built D.H. 4s.  He trained with the Army Air Service, performed office duty in Paris, and served as a test and inspection officer at the navy’s assembly and repair bases at Pauillac, France, and Eastleigh, England.  But the entire time MacLeish itched to get to the front.  His combat duty would include tours at Dunkirk, and missions with two Royal Air Force squadrons.  He escorted patrolling flying boats, bombed enemy targets, and engaged in dogfights over enemy lines.  

At Clermont-Ferrand, MacLeish excelled in bombing and gunnery courses and “succeeded in arousing so much enthusiasm and keeping all hands so good-humored that we made fast progress, and incidentally broke most of the school records,” reported a fellow flyer.  He was also able to visit his brother Archie who was stationed nearby.  He was infatuated with flying, as he related to Priscilla in countless letters:

“Lord, there’s no game like this in all the world.  You’re always taking such wonderful chances, and it’s a grand feeling to get away with them, because you gain such self-confidence.  I’m getting to feel quite at home now.  I used to get lost in vertical banks and spins, but I know just where I am all the time now.”  

MacLeish’s first flight over enemy lines came on July 16, 1918, with an attack on the German submarine mole at Zeebrugge, Belgium.  Battling heavy winds, a balky motor, and incessant anti-aircraft fire as well as enemy scouts, he barely hobbled back to base.  After some frustrating bureaucratic work and some time in Paris enjoying boxing matches, amateur shows, movies, and an exhibition baseball game, MacLeish achieved the rank of full Lieutenant in mid-August.  In Eastleigh, where he held the ultimate responsibility as final test officer for aircraft headed to combat squadrons, he was offered command of a night bombardment squadron in Robert Lovett’s Northern Bombing Group.  MacLeish turned it down, preferring to fly the day bombers instead.  In early October, he got his wish and was sent back to France to a front-line squadron.  

MacLeish flew to Dunkirk on October 13 where he met Bob Lovett and others of the Northern Bombing Group.  The friends commiserated at the recent news of the disappearance of Di Gates, last seen in his SPAD making a climbing turn “onto a Hun’s tail” with over a dozen Fokkers all around him.  No one saw him get hit and the hope was that he had been safely downed and was a prisoner of war.  In one of the last letters he would write to Priscilla, MacLeish lamented:

“Dearest Old Pal, I haven’t dared write for the last few days because I’ve just been hoping against hope that poor old Di would show up, but I guess that the chances are slim.  Oh pal, of all the men on earth that it’s hard to lose!  I’m just crushed – I’ve never, never taken anything so badly – I’ve lost lots of friends, but Di was different – I’ve been brought up with him, and he’s one of two men that I actually love – Arch is the other.” 

The next morning, MacLeish made a short test flight, then went on patrol with the 213 squadron of the Royal Air Force.  They were flying the agile, squirrely Sopwith Camel, the greatest Allied plane of the war, credited with downing some 1,300 enemy aircraft.  They went on a high-altitude bombing attack over Ardoye, Belgium, and in a dogfight, with the help of Captain Green, MacLeish scored his first aerial victory, downing a Fokker biplane.  

Two hours later, MacLeish left with fifteen other Camels to patrol the Channel coast.  Just north of Dixmude, the RAF squadron encountered 11 Fokkers at 8,000 feet, with three more diving down from 12,000.  A wild dogfight ensued in which several Fokkers went down.  But when it was all over, three planes failed to return to Dunkirk, including Captain Green and Kenney MacLeish.  

It wasn’t until almost three months later – after the Armistice and the day after Christmas – that a Belgian farmer returning to his flooded farmland discovered the body of Lieutenant MacLeish.  Two hundred yards away lay the wreckage of his bullet-ridden plane.  He was still wearing his aviator’s gloves and helmet.  In his hand he clutched a bloody handkerchief.  

The farmer, Alfred Rouse, collected his possessions and, after the RAF identified the body, buried the airman in a casket with a wooden cross overhead.  He wrote a kindly letter to MacLeish’s mother telling her all the details she would like to know.  A plain headstone was placed on his grave, and on Memorial Day, 1919, Kenneth’s brother Norman visited the site and placed a bouquet of flowers over his brother.  The following year, the remains were interred to the military cemetery in Waereghem, Belgium.  In December of 1919, as one of several tributes, destroyer #220 was named for MacLeish.  He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for “distinguished service and extraordinary heroism.”  

The Millionaires’ Unit by Marc Wortman
The Price of Honor – The World War One Letters of Naval Aviator Kenneth MacLeish edited by Geoffrey L. Rossano

Photo: Courtesy Daniel Davison

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