This Korean War era jet was placed here in the city park in Gravette to memorialize World War One flying ace Field Kindley. The marker next to the plane declares Kindley to be the third ranking ace in the First World War.
As is often the case with these markers, that depends on how you slice the pie.
Kindley had twelve air victories. There were sixteen American flyers in WWI who had thirteen or more victories. There were 102 English pilots, 127 German pilots and 25 French pilots who had 13 or more victories. Throw in the Italians, Canadians, Scots, Russians, Hungarians, Austrians, Australians, Belgians and what have you, and before long Captain Kindley drops out of the top few hundred.
To justify calling him the third top ace of WWI, we first have to limit the field to American Flyers in the United States Air Service, disqualifying expatriate Americans who spent the whole war in foreign air units. Next, we count only airplanes destroyed, not balloons. That puts him in the top six, sharing third place with three other guys who also shot down twelve enemy aircraft. We justify ranking him at the top of that bunch because he had more decorations for bravery.
Making the rankings even more difficult is the fact that different parts of the front had different rules governing credit for air victories. Americans serving in the British sector (like Kindley) could only claim a victory if somebody saw a German plane reduced to a burning pile of sheets and sticks. Pilots serving in the French sector could claim a victory if the German plane they were shooting at was last seen spinning out of control.
I don't mean to denigrate Captain Kindley's accomplishments by this. I just wish the people who place monuments in Arkansas' parks didn't feel like they have to encourage a misunderstanding in order to have something to be proud of. I guess it's the same mentality that causes people to fudge on their resumes. They just think nobody will check very closely.
From what I've read of Kindley, he seemed to think all this ranking and scorekeeping was a waste of time anyway-- perhaps a necessary nuisance from the standpoint of military intelligence, but not really a relevant measure of a pilot's value.
Field Kindley was just about everything you'd want a Flying Ace to be, charming, charismatic, well-liked and respected, tough, humble, quick reflexes, a deadly shot, tall, handsome and dashing, blue-eyed, brave and cool-headed in a crisis. What he lacked in formal education he more than made up for in common sense. And he had this little English bulldog named Fokker, which seemed to attract cameras. Most of the pictures of Kindley are also pictures of Fokker.
Kindley was born on an Ozark farm near Pea Ridge, Arkansas, site of the largest Civil War battle in the state. The only son of George and Ella, his mom died before he was three years old. Shortly thereafter, his dad moved to the Phillippines to take a job as an education supervisor and Field moved to Bentonville to live with his grandmother and two aunts. At age 7 he joined his dad in the Phillippines, but returned five years later to make his home in Gravette with his uncle A. E. Kindley, his aunt Molly and their kids.
His high school career was undistinguished. Some school athletics, some school plays, mediocre grades. In his high school years he had a part-time job as a movie projectionist. He managed to graduate and became a traveling salesman. Quickly tiring of that, he became part owner and manager of a movie theatre in Coffeyville, KS. (Field Kindley High School is in Coffeyville, and most of Kindley's personal papers are kept there.)
He must not have liked that much either, because he enlisted in the infantry within a month of the declaration of war in 1917. Turns out he didn't much like the army, so he signed up with the newly forming aviation branch of the Army Signal Corps as a way of getting out of the infantry.
He liked the Air Services, but the Air Services tried pretty hard not to like him. His English flight instructor, Captain Howard, wrote in his evaluations "...very slow on learning... one bad landing... heavy on controls... very bumpy... very bad landing...." His teachers thought him dim-witted and clumsy in the air, even reckless. On ending his second solo flight, he set the plane down hard enough to collapse the undercarriage.
And as if he didn't have enough disadvantages, he was also unlucky and accident prone. "Snakebit," as we say in Arkansas. In one week of training he had mechanical failure on seven out of ten flights. His first assignment was flying airplanes back and forth across the channel. I suspect his superiors thought they were doing him a favor, giving the poor dolt something he could handle. He sometimes got lost and landed at the wrong aerodrome. And one day while lost in a heavy fog he developed engine trouble. He throttled back to save the engine and crashed into the face of a cliff at Dover. He returned to flying after a few days in hospital, but the plane was a total loss. It's really a toss-up whether he eventually destroyed more Allied or German planes.
After the crash at Dover he was transferred to British air squadron near the front (maybe his superiors secretly hoped he would get killed), and by the end of May, 1918, he was flying combat missions. I imagine it went something like this, "Kindley, you'll be happy to know that your last crash made you a German ace. We're transferring you to a combat unit. That way you might crash into an enemy plane and we can at least break even on one transaction." It was right about this time that the ugly duckling discovered he was an eagle.
On June 26th, he shot down his first German plane, A Pfalz. Within the week, he was transferred to the freshly minted 148th U. S. Aero Squadron; and right away downed an Albatross D-3 near Ypres--the first kill by an American air unit. This made Kindley something of a celebrity. That coupled with his personal charm and his experience relative to the other pilots in the new unit made him the obvious choice to become squadron commander when the original C. O. fell ill. Apparently he believed he had found his calling, for he applied for a commission in the regular army (He began as an enlistee in the National Guard), signalling his intent to become a career military officer.
2 September 1918. Kindley's fifth victory came during a dogfight between twelve Sopwith Camels of the 148th and 20 Fokker D-7's. Kindley managed to get home with 36 holes in his plane and ten or so shots into the butt of his machine guns. One eagle-eyed German pilot even shot the goggles right off Kindley's head. Kindley somehow managed to fly his plane home, but it was a total loss. He himself was treated for minor injuries and kept flying.
The mission which made Kindley a hero went something like this: Friday, 27 Sept 1918 (two weeks after the picture at right was taken) his squadron took off on a routine mission attacking German supply lines. His flight first bombed a large number of transports on a railway near Marcoing. Upon leaving the scene, he attacked, but failed to destroy, an observation balloon. His flight spent the rest of the mission looking for targets of opportunity. Kindley located and strafed a column of German infantry. While he was down there, he located and destroyed a German machine gun nest that had been holding up the British advance. Just as he noticed a second, better camouflaged, machine gun, he was jumped by a Halberstadt two seater. He snaked quickly to the right, then back to the left, allowing the German plane to zip past him. He came up from beneath the Halberstadt and fired into the underside, downing the plane. He spent the rest of his ammunition strafing the German infantry as they retreated.
On his way home from this busy morning, he noticed a lone Allied plane being attacked by two Fokkers. He had no ammunition, but he dove into the battle anyway, hoping to frighten the attackers away. The bluff worked, and he was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to the Distinguished Service Cross and the British Distinguished Flying Cross.
Here's the kind of plane he was flying. It's a Sopwith Camel F-1, faithfully restored, painted in the colors of the 148th and suspended from the ceiling at the Arkansas Aerospace Education Center. The service history of this particular plane is unknown because the identification plate was stolen before it was acquired from the Disposable War Assets Commission in the 1920's. The Camel had a reputation of being difficult to fly, especially at low speeds at takeoff and landing. It has a rotary engine with large propeller and short wings, so it wants to flip when you rev the engine. If you're not moving fast enough for the wings to stabilize the plane, the torque of the engine will roll the fuselage clockwise. Those same attributes that made the plane dangerous also made it extremely responsive and maneuverable, once you got the hang of it, and Camel pilots swore by their planes. It was called a Camel because the raised cowling over the machine guns gave the fuselage a distinctive hump.
Kindley was generally annoyed by the beaurocracy and the politics and the paperwork of the postwar peacetime army. He did enjoy flying in air shows and mixing it up in mock dogfights with other air aces of the Great War, and he wangled those assignments whenever he was able. He was nearly killed at one of those air shows. The plane landing in front of him crashed. The crowd rushed out on the runway to see what had happened to the pilot. In order to avoid hitting spectators, Kindley intentionally crashed his own plane.
In 1919 he was offered a contract by a New York movie concern at the startling wage of $60 a day for two weeks to reenact his war exploits. He refused the job because he thought it might interfere with his army career, and as he wrote to a friend, "...I am sure they will not be able to picture it as it should be pictured and then that would hurt me more than it would do good."
Like so many of his comrades, Field Kindley was killed in a flying accident. In 1920 he was put in command of the 94th Aero Squadron, Rickenbacker's old unit, and was stationed at Kelley Field, Texas. He was leading a flight on a training exercise strafing stationary targets. As his flight approached the target he noticed a group of enlisted men who had gathered to watch the exercise and were standing dangerously close to the target area. He signalled to the trainees to wait while he made a couple of low passes to try to wave the men away. As he pulled up from the third pass, a control cable snapped. His plane winged over, nosed down and plunged headlong into the earth.
Buried in Gravette, he was 23 years old.
There's an American air base in Bermuda named for Field Kindley. It's called Kindley Field.
Hudson, James J., Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I, Syracuse University Press, 1968.
Maurer, Maurer (comp., ed.), The U. S. Air Service in World War I, Office of Air Force History, 1979.
Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 18, 108, 128, 130-131. 35, 132, 137, 139. 27, 271.
Online Resource: The Aerodrome