On the morning of August 21, 1918 US Navy pilots carried out their first raid against the Austrian naval base at Pola, on the Adriatic Sea that was launched from the new American Naval Aviation Station in Porto Corsini Italy. The raid was designed to drop propaganda leaflets on the city of Pola by two Macchi M-8 bombers. The M-8’s were Italian built two seat bombers, mounting a single machine gun and could carry up to four 24 pound bombs. They were to be escorted by five Macchi M-5’s single seat fighters that were mounting two machine guns each.
Early into the flight an M-8 and an M-5 developed engine trouble and returned to Porto Corsini. The remaining four fighters were piloted by squadron leader, Ensign George Ludlow, Ensigns E.H. Parker, Dudley A. Vorhees and Charles H. Hammann. At 1120 hours, the lone bomber dropped its leaflets at 8000 feet and turned for home as two enemy Lohner seaplanes and five Austrian Albatros fighters rose to challenge the American pilots. Ludlow signaled his squadron to protect the bomber with the Lohners dropping from view. The Albatros’ were closing rapidly as Ludlow dived to meet them with Hammann following. A wild dogfight ensued with Parker’s guns jamming intermittingly and he (Parker) broke off his engagement with the Austrian after peppering the Albatros with one operational gun, and rejoined the M-8 returning to Porto Corsini. - As Vorhees entered the fight, both guns jammed. He spotted Parker and the M-8 and followed them home.
* “Ludlow and Hammann were now left to carry on the vicious air battle. Ludlow managed to get the tail of an Albatros in his gun sight and squeezed the trigger. The enemy plane began to smoke and lose altitude. But, as Ludlow followed the plane down to the water, he was suddenly attacked by two Albatros fighters. Machine gun bullets ripped into the Macchi. Ludlow’s propeller was splintered. His engine was hit. Oil quickly spread across the fuselage and burst into flames. Ludlow threw his plane into a spin, puffing out the fire. He pulled out of the dive and straightened out, just as his plane sliced into the sea, about five miles out from the Pola Harbor entrance.
Hamman glanced down and noticed the battered Macchi seaplane bobbing up and down in the water. He also saw that Ludlow was uninjured, and trying to balance himself on the wing of his sinking aircraft. There was no hesitation on Hermann’s part. Ludlow had to be rescued, but it would be a risky gamble. Hammann would have to land his M-5 on a choppy, white capped sea, while bucking winds of more than 20 miles per hour. To make matters worse, part of the bow on Hammann’s fighter had been shot away by enemy machine gun fire – and whether the seaplane would hold together during the landing was a big question mark.
There was also another problem to consider. The M-5 had been built to carry only one person. A successful takeoff with a damaged aircraft in a choppy sea while balancing the weight of two men – would be a remarkable feat.
Hammann broke off his air battle with the enemy and spiraled down to the sea. The Macchi bounced hard when it hit the water – further crushing the bow. Hammann maneuvered his aircraft as it sliced through the heavy seas until it pulled up alongside the crippled fighter. Ludlow opened the port in the bottom of his plane’s hull, and kicked holes in the wings. As both planes lurched back and forth in the wind swept sea, Ludlow successfully jumped the few feet separating the two aircraft. His nearly frozen fingers grabbed the edge of the cockpit; he pulled himself up and carefully climbed behind the pilot’s seat. Ludlow positioned his body under the Macchi’s laboring engine – and tenaciously gripped the wing struts to keep from being drawn into the spinning propeller or falling back into the sea. “
Hammann with Ludlow now aboard, struggled to get the M-5 airborne. After clearing the white caps, the Macchi quickly gained altitude as enemy patrol boats made their way toward Ludlow’s aircraft. Hammann placed his plane into a circling dive and riddled Ludlow’s plane with his machine guns till it sank and then set a course for home.
“Upon reaching Porto Corsini, Hammann made a satisfactory landing in the canal. But, water flooding into the wrecked bow, capsized the plane. Ludlow and Hammann scrambled out of the overturned M-5 and were hauled aboard rescue boats. Ludlow had suffered a severe cut on his forehead and Hammann was badly bruised”
For this daring exploit, Hammann received the Medal of Honor and Italy’s Silver Medal of Valor. – Ludlow received the Navy Cross and Italy’s Bronze Medal of Valor.
Ensign Hammann was killed in an air accident at Langley Field, Virginia on June 14, 1919. Oddly, he was flying a Macchi M-5.
• From Air Classics, “Medal of Honor at Pola”, 2000