Do you know about Captain Frederick Libby?
Libby was a cowboy who grew up on a ranch in Sterling, Colorado. He made his living by roping, herding cattle, and breaking horses. When the war in Europe began in 1914, he was working in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
He immediately joined the Canadian army, and after a year of training was sent to England, which led to his eventual deployment in France. When the British Royal Flying Service issued a call for machine gunners, he
quickly volunteered again. He was among the first to be accepted and was posted to the Number 23 Squadron, which was flying F.E.2b two-seater pushers—a wooden, two-seater biplane.
Roping while riding on horseback must have honed Libby’s hand-eye co-ordination, because on his first patrol, he shot down an enemy plane. He went on to shoot down ten German aircraft in a few short weeks. He was the first American ace in that war with his fifth shoot-down. By May of 1916, Libby had completed training and was commissioned as an officer and pilot in the British Royal Flying Corps. He flew the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter and the DeHaviland DH-4. And it would be almost a year before the United States entered the war.
The Colorado Cowboy meets the Red Baron
He soon distinguished himself in some the world’s first aerial battles, including an encounter with the Red Baron, Germany’s legendary ace Manfred von Richthofen. Libby went on to shoot down fourteen enemy aircraft while flying for England, and King George V personally awarded Libby the British Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in action.
Libby’s Royal Flying Corp squadron commander, a major, suggested to Libby that he should “use the flag [American] as a streamer or streamers just to show the Hun that America had a flyer in action.” For the next five months, Libby flew into combat over the German lines with one or two American flag streamers attached to struts of his fighter. It was not done, he said, to be a stunt. It was done in the line of duty and at the suggestion of his squadron commander.
In October 1917, Libby returned home, bringing his tattered American flag battle streamers with him. He donated them to the Aero Club of America, which auctioned them off in Carnegie Hall in New York City, in a fund raiser for Liberty Bonds. The modest Libby was embarrassed by the event, never imagining the overwhelming and enthusiastic response to him and his scraps of flag. The crowds were deeply stirred with great emotion.
The sum of the parts is greater than the whole
The faded and ragged streamers, unmistakably the Stars and Stripes, went up for auction right after the cordon (ribbon) from a French Legion of Honor, which sold for a large sum. Once the bidding on the Libby’s streamers began, someone in the audience shouted, “If the cordon of the French Legion of Honor is worth a million dollars, how much is Old Glory worth?” The National Bank of Commerce (presumably of New York) bought the flag streamers for $3,250,000. To top it off, the bank insisted that Libby keep his flag streamers.
It was a staggering sum of money, but it demonstrated Americans’ deep and abiding love for their flag and country, and their affection for a new kind of hero—the aviator. In 1961 Libby’s wrote his autobiography, Horses Don’t Fly, but it wasn’t published until 2000.