Survival and Rescue at Sea: The First Mission of Ensign Kenneth R. Smith, USN

Published: 17 February 2024

via the Roads to the Great War website

Early 1917—The Yale Aviation Group Joins the War Effort

Early 1917—The Yale Aviation Group Joins the War Effort

Newly commissioned Kenneth Smith was a 1917 graduate of Yale University and member of the First Yale Aviation Unit.  The story of his first combat mission is an epic one.

Kenneth Smith (R) and Henry Davison with their Squadron Mascot

On 22 November 1917, a French Tellier seaplane flown by him was forced down at sea on his flight out of Naval Air Station Le Croisic at the mouth of the Loire River to investigate a report of German submarines south of Belle Isle. Two days later and minutes before his aircraft sank, he and his crew of two were rescued by a French destroyer. It was U.S. Naval Aviation’s first airplane to crash land while on a combat patrol in Europe in WW I.

The communication and air/sea rescue techniques were a far cry from the effective speed of such operations today. His base at the time of the crash was a little fishing village of about 3,000 inhabitants 18 miles from St. Nazaire, called Le Croisic. The United States had established there on the French coast its first Naval Air Station overseas as a part of WW I operations.

In extending the American naval air service on the French coast, it was decided to place a station close to the harbor of Brest, the most crowded of all ports in the gigantic disembarkation of troops and supplies. The U.S. Navy began patrol operations from Naval Air Station, Le Croisic, France, in November 1917, utilizing 34 French Tellier flying boats.To Ensign Kenneth Smith was assigned the task of organizing the flight patrols of this new station.
The first flight from Le Croisic was made on 13 November 1917, and it was  five days later that the first patrol flight  was made and operations officially started. From that date, weather permitting, patrol and convoy flights were made regularly with six French seaplanes of the Tellier type. Communication facilities were inadequate, and since the time and position of passing convoys were uncertain and there were no adjoining air stations to cooperate in escorting convoys along the coast, long flights were necessary.
The Mission
On 20 November, when two German mines were reported off Les Grands Cardinaux, two seaplanes were sent out and the district was patrolled, but the mines were not discovered. On 22 November, submarines were sighted south of Belle Isle and a seaplane was sent out on patrol, piloted by Ensign Kenneth R. Smith with Homer N. Wilkinson, Electrical Mechanic, and T.J. Brady, MM2C.

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