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HERITAGE SERIES: Phelps Collins: American Airman

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of an ongoing series of articles highlighting key figures related to the Michigan Air National Guard)

His name was William Henry Phelps Collins. And long before anyone ever came up with a creed or a motto, he was an American Airman.

More specifically, he was Alpena's Airman.

A favorite son from a small northern Michigan town, Capt. Phelps Collins was the first American pilot to give his life in combat in World War I while flying with an American unit.

March 12, 1918. A flight of five German aircraft, possibly bombers, are reported to be flying toward the French capital of Paris. A "Paris alerte" is sounded by the French Groupe de Combat No. 21. The American 103rd Aero Squadron is the closest unit and five pursuit aircraft are launched.

Eventually, the Americans return to base, never finding the Germans. A false alarm, the fog of war -- maybe they just missed each other. All the pursuit pilots returned to base that is, except for one. Alpena's Phelps Collins. America's Phelps Collins.

Did he make a mistake? Did he see another potential target and try to engage? Or was he simply used up, mentally and physically exhausted from the toll of an entire continent gripped in war?

Collins grew up in Alpena, the son of an early automobile manufacturer. After running the company that built the Alpena Flyer car, Richard H. Collins later had a long career with Cadillac in Detroit. But his son, Phelps, was an Alpena boy through and through. Phelps Collins left town as a teen to go to a military academy high school and later spent a year at the University of Idaho, but both times he came home to Alpena. He opened his own construction materials supply business on Main Street and life for Collins was good.

But the lure of the airplane was strong. He was 10 years old when the Wright Brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk and neighbors later recalled how young Phelps would play in the family's yard with a model airplane. When World War I - known then as the Great War - started in Europe, airplanes began to be employed for the first time in any significant numbers. Collins was among the hundreds of young men who were eager to get into the Air Service even before the U.S. got into the war.

With some help from friends and his Congressman, Collins initially traveled to France to serve as an ambulance driver at the front. This was the time of trench warfare and the conditions were often grisly. After 10 days as an ambulance driver, on Sept. 17, 1917, Collins was able to sign on with the French military, to join a unit that eventually came to be known as the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of mostly American pilots who were flying under the French flag.

Collins excelled as a pilot and quickly earned two aerial victories flying with the Escadrille. A couple more went unconfirmed. Collins was said to be such a skilled pilot that even experienced hands would watch as he took off and flew over his unit's grass field.

In January 1918, Collins and many of the other American flyers got their wish. With America now in the war, most (but not all) of the American pilots transferred into U.S. units. For most, nothing really changed, it was the same unit at the same field with the same airplanes, but now with new uniforms and a new chain of command. Collins continued to perform well, scoring a couple more unconfirmed victories.

But as the winter of 1917-18 wore on, Collins was wearing out. His letters home took on a less jaunty attitude. He began to write of being tired. On March 11, 1918, Collins' best friend in the unit, pilot Ted DeGriff was killed in an accident when his plane crashed in the dreaded "No Man's Land" between the lines of the opposing forces. By this point, Collins had been flying daily, sometimes two and three times a day, for almost seven months.

The next day, the "Paris alerte" was issued and Collins was dispatched to intercept in his SPAD VII. Among his wingmen that day was Capt. James N. Hall, who would later write "Mutiny on the Bounty." The American pilots never saw the enemy aircraft. Shortly after getting airborne, Collins split off from the group. In those days before radios were installed in aircraft, no one knew why Collins split off. Some speculate that he had seen a German artillery position he wanted to attack - possibly even the famed "Paris Gun" aka "Big Bertha," a rail-mounted artillery piece that lobbed massive shells into Paris from miles out. Given his location at the time, such a sighting seems unlikely.

Later, some soldiers on the ground were to report that they saw what turned out to be Collins' SPAD, flying lazy circles in the sky at an incredibly high altitude before it suddenly fell from the sky. The best theory offered by his commanding officer, Major William Thaw, was that an exhausted Collins had simply flown too high and passed out from a lack of oxygen. His plane crashed when it ran out of fuel.

Scrambled on a mission to intercept enemy aircraft, Collins is considered the first U.S. pilot to give his life in aerial combat in World War I.

His death was front page news in Alpena for days. A dozen years later, when Alpena County opened its first airport, the field was named in honor of Phelps Collins. In the 1930s, the Army began using Phelps Collins Field as a training site, a mission that intensified during World War II. Today, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, operated by the Michigan Air National Guard, and the Alpena County Regional Airport exist side-by-side at what many still refer to as Phelps Collins field. The primary training building on the air base is known as the Collins Center.

The Michigan Air National Guard is comprised of the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base and the 110th Air Wing at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base. The MI-ANG also operates the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center and the Grayling Aerial Gunnery Range in northern Michigan.