Distinctive markings. That’s how the English pilots described the biplane that had shot down six of their boys. What the hell did that mean, Henry Owens wondered? Aside from the blood-red triplane the French called le Petit Rouge, most of the German planes were the same drab greens and browns as the French and English.
Since joining the War three months ago, Henry had quickly distinguished himself as a flying ace. Though chastised by the British commanders for his recklessness, Henry delivered victories in spades and had never lost a pilot under his command. Thus, when he heard of this new German ace, he immediately volunteered to shoot him out of the sky.
During the briefing, the commander discussed strategic locations compromised by this new German menace. Henry had no ear for language, and the names scrawled on the map meant nothing to him. They didn’t need to. Henry had a keen eye for landmarks and could orient himself over even the remotest stretch of countryside.
As the commander spoke, he pointed to a spot on the map where two rivers forked. Henry had flown over that same spot only ten days earlier in one of his greatest aerial feats.
A kind of mad arrogance had seized him that day. His squadron had surprised a small German patrol on reconnaissance. Noting the inexperience of the enemy fighters, Henry chose this moment to help his men hone their skills. He signaled his pilots in a series of clever maneuvers that brought the Germans down with frightening speed.
As the last Fokker flamed out of the sky, he spotted another racing for the German border. Cursing himself for not having noticed it before, he motioned for his squadron to return and chased after it. The German pilot, most likely young like his fallen comrades, was no match for Henry. The American toyed with the German by making ever-widening loops as if deciding to break off pursuit and then change his mind. Henry could only imagine the terror of the young pilot as his Nieuport darted in and out of the clouds, but he didn’t care.
On his final pass, Henry came ahead of the fighter broadsides, strafing a perfect line from engine to tail. He passed over the plane and turned a lazy circle to finish it off, but there was no need. Smoke and oil trailed from the engine and the plane was falling. Henry had not damaged the engine very much, so he knew that the drop in altitude must mean that the pilot had been shot and was slowly weakening. Henry considered another run on the plane—a mercy killing really—but decided instead to head back to the airfield to celebrate his victory.
After the briefing, Henry reviewed his strategy twice with his pilots. If this German was as good as they said, they could afford to make no mistakes. He also had no intention of losing any of his men and ruining his flawless record.
Henry wasted no time in leading his squadron to the spot where the last English pilots had fallen. Before long, he spotted the thin fork of the river gleaming dully beneath him. He was about to signal to the plane on his left when a Fokker screamed out of the sky and clipped the plane to his right.
Henry dropped between them and spun around to a better position. To his horror, he saw both wingmen plummet to the earth in sickening spirals. He spotted three Fokkers crisscrossing the air in a series of wild maneuvers that broke the discipline of his men. And then he saw it.
In the distance, a Fokker was lazily flying about as if watching the battle. Henry noticed a series of dark and streaked markings running down the side of the plane. Enraged at the pilot’s arrogance or cowardice, Henry sped after him.
He bore down on the plane, but just as it was coming into range of his twin Vickers, it veered away. Henry fired a barrage, clipping the Fokker’s rudder as it vanished into a dark bank of clouds.
Henry plowed after it. He knew the German was as blind as him, so he bided his time, preparing for his move once he reached clear skies. Suddenly, a stream of bullets tore through the canvas and wood frame of his left wing. He dove hard, desperate to escape the treacherous clouds. Another barrage struck his rudder sending him pitching into the open gray skies.
The Fokker was there too, drunkenly spinning in lazy spirals ahead of him. Henry struggled to regain control of his Nieuport as it pitched and twisted in the sky. The Fokker drifted dreamlike before him and Henry laid hard on the Vickers. His shot hit home, tearing into the right fuselage of the plane. Amazingly, the German kept control of his plane and climbed out of sight into the clouds.
With a mix of fear and rage, Henry followed his foe, fighting for control of his plane with every foot he climbed. In the patchy clouds, he caught an occasional glimpse of the oddly marked Fokker. Fearing that he would lose the German a second time, Henry risked climbing higher in an effort to clear the clouds.
Reaching open skies, Henry was starting to bank when his cockpit suddenly exploded all around him. Bullets ripped through his leg and sides and he gasped for breath. The Nieuport was in tatters, and it was only Henry’s raw skill that kept it from dropping out of the sky. His body in agony, he struggled to level his plane as it lost altitude. The earth rushed up and he fought to guide his plane to a level patch of ground just beyond with the rivers forked apart.
The Nieuport’s wheels hit the ground hard. The plane pitched forward, tipping on one wing, and then fell back. Pain, raw and savage, slammed through Henry’s body. His lap was wet as blood poured from his body and filled his seat.
Henry heard the low, sputtering of an engine as the Fokker soared overhead. It banked and turned, and Henry prepared for the final strafe that would end his life. Instead, the German brought his plane down right in front of him. Slowly rolling to a halt, it turned, giving Henry a clear view of its markings. Random streaks of black flowed from the engine and merged with a set of red streaks that streamed from the middle of the cockpit.
Henry began to feel weak, and then dizzy. He sputtered a feeble curse at the German. Slowly, the pilot rose from his cockpit and climbed out. Henry wiped his eyes to get a better look at him. The German was gaunt and pale and wore a coat blackened with oil and torn through with bullet holes.
With a final clarity, Henry recognized the perfect line of bullets he had once sent tearing through the side of the Fokker and its pilot. As the first wave of death passed through Henry, he saw the German buckle and fall to his knees. His eyes drifting shut for the last time, Henry saw the pilot pitch forward and fall still.