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Stephen W. Thompson (March 20 1894October 9 1977) was an Americanmarker aviator of World War I, and the first person in the U.S. Military to shoot down an enemy aircraft (see also Kiffin Rockwell).

Early life

Thompson was born in West Plains, Missourimarker. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, he was a senior in electrical engineering at the University of Missourimarker. The school announced that seniors who joined the military before graduation would receive their diplomas in June. So he enlisted in the Army and, after basic training at Fort Riley, Kansasmarker, in June he was sent to Fort Monroe, Virginiamarker for training in the Coast Artillery Corps. On the train coming in to Norfolkmarker he saw an airplane in the sky — the first he had ever seen.

When he got the opportunity he went to the flying field, the Curtis School at Newport Newsmarker, and asked if he could take a ride. Thomas Scott Baldwin, who had been a famous performer in his own balloons and dirigibles, was in charge and said yes. The plane was a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and the pilot was Eddie Stinson, a prominent flyer at the time who later founded the Stinson Aircraft Company. Stinson did a number of aerobatic maneuvers, including looping the loop five times in a row. Thompson said that the only thing that kept him from falling out of the plane at the top of the last loop was the lap belt. By the time he landed he had decided to apply for duty in the Air Service.

World War I

He arrived in Francemarker in September and was assigned to the United States 1st Aero Squadron for training as an observer. The commander was Major Ralph Royce, who became a general in the Army Air Corps during World War II. The training took place from a field in Amantymarker. The French bombardment squadron BR123 which flew the Breguet 14B was nearby at Neufchâteaumarker, and Royce was occasionally able to send one of his men along with the French on a raid.
Croix de guerre 1914-1918 ribbon with palm
A 1914-1918 Croix de guerre

First aerial victory

On February 5 1918 Thompson flew as a gunner-bombardier with the French on a bombing raid over Saarbrückenmarker, Germanymarker. After the bombs were dropped the squadron was attacked by Albatros D.III fighters, and Thompson shot one of them down. This was the first aerial victory by the U.S. military. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm for the action.

In May he was assigned to the new 12th Aero Squadron, and on July 28 he was in another memorable battle. While doing artillery spotting during a battle near Chateau Thierrymarker his plane was attacked by four Fokker D.VIIs from what had been Richthofen's Flying Circus but was then under the command of Hermann Göring. Thompson shot down the first two planes that attacked him, but a bullet from the third hit his machine gun and disabled it. He was then hit in the leg, and his pilot was hit in the stomach by an exploding bullet. The pilot managed to crash land the plane before he died of his wounds. Thompson dug the bullet out of his leg with a pocket knife. The pilot who shot them down was the famous German ace Erich Löwenhardt, who at the time was second only to Richthofen in victories.

The uniform that Thompson was wearing when he shot down the Albatros D.III and the bullet he dug from his leg are on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Forcemarker.

Post-war life

After the war Thompson worked for several years as an engineer at McCook Fieldmarker, the predecessor of today's Wright-Patterson Air Force Basemarker. He then became a high school mathematics teacher. During World War II he taught preflight and meteorology. He maintained an interest in aviation and in 1940 he received U.S. Patent No. 2,210,642 for a tailless flying wing. He died in Dayton, Ohiomarker at age 83.

See also


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