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Profiles In Badassery: Karl Schoen

One of the first flying Aces for the U.S. in World War I was a Boilermaker.

The Distinguished Flying Cross
The Distinguished Flying Cross

It has been far too long since I have done a proper Profile in Badassery, featuring a select Purdue alum that has risen above regular circumstances to become a certifiable badass in their chosen profession. After looking for a subject last night I was pleased to see one that goes way, way back. In fact, this one goes so far back I doubt many people know who this guy is, let alone that he was associated with Purdue.

Karl Schoen - World War I flying ace

Purdue has long been known as a leader in aviation sciences. We have had many men and women work in the aviation industry and space program. In 1930 the Purdue Airport became the first University-owned airport in the United States and it has since been used as a training ground for the likes of Amelia Earhart and Chesley Sullenberger. Before that time, even, a young man by the name of Karl Schoen came to Purdue.

Mr. Schoen was the son of John and Effie Morgan (Johnston) Schoen and was a local kid form Indianapolis. He was born October 10, 1894 in Indy and eventually found himself at Purdue. After spending much of his early time at Purdue as World War I raged in Europe, young Karl felt his patriotism rising as America got drawn into the conflict.

The U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Just 16 days later, Karl Schoen enlisted into the United States Air Service, a precursor to today's air force.

Aviation in 1917 is from what it is today. The Wright Brothers had just invented the airplane less than 20 years earlier, so much was unproven. It was an incredibly dangerous pursuit, but Karl Schoen was clearly a badass with danger as his middle name. On February 28, 1918 he was ordered to France as part of the 139th Aero Squadron.

The 139th trained in Texas before going overseas with a total of 204 men. A total of 25 officers were sent overseas and eventually trained at the tours Aerodrome in France before flying missions out of the Vaucousleurs Aerodrome on May 28, 1918. Eventually, they were assigned SPAD VII and SPAD XIII biplanes and started to fly in combat by the end of June.

Schoen, a First Lieutenant by now, was part of the group that flew patrols and saw few German aircraft at first. As the war progressed, however, the Germans began to mount pressure. By August the 129th had 12 combat actions. As action picked up Schoen proved to be one of the best pilots in the group.

From July until late October of 1918 Schoen flew several missions and eventually became one of the first American Aces in air combat that flew under the American flag. In his SPAD XIII he was credited with seven victories in the air. He was credited with shooting down two Pfalz D.III planes on September 18, 1918 at Pagny-sur-Moselle. Just eight days later he grabbed his third kill at Bois de Consenvoye when he shot down a DFW C. Kill No. 4 came on October 10, 1918 when he shot down a Fokker D.VII at Andevanne.

On October 22, 1918 Schoen officially became an ace when he shot down a Hannover CL at Bayonville. He was officially one of 107 American aces during the war, but one of the first to fly exclusively under the American flag as opposed to British or French forces.

A week later at Damvilliers Schoen notched his sixth and seventh kills, both Fokker D.VII's that he shot down during an afternoon dogfight. Unfortunately, those were his final kills. A letter written by ground observer was given to his mother and it describes the circumstances of his death:

"My Dear Mrs. Schoen: I want to extend my most sincere sympathy in your great sorrow over the death of your brave boy, and also give you a full description of the plucky fight he put up....

"On the afternoon of Oct. 29, I was in an advanced ammunition dump getting powder when three German planes came over, bent on destroying it....

"I...turned my attention to the other American machine, which...was piloted by your son. First he would be on top and then the boche-both planes maneuvering for the most advantageous position, but as the minutes sped by one could tell he was putting up a losing but game fight. They drove him down until barely 300 yards separated him from the ground. The odds were against him-four machine guns and two men against one machine gun and one man in a much smaller plane....

"He was so near the ground that he could have landed and have been alive today, but to quit... was not in him; instead of quitting he pulled hard on the steering lever and his little machine bounded straight up under his adversary.

"...his machine gun must have jammed, for I saw him pull his pistol and fire several shots, one or more being effective, as the German observer dropped limp in his seat, and I thought for a moment that he would come out victorious but a sudden burst from the boche's machine gun broke your son's arm, and losing control, his machine started into a fatal nosedive and as it did I saw your boy fire several more shots with his pistol at the then departing boche, and when we picked him up he still had the automatic clasped tightly in his right hand, brave boy that he was, fighting till the last...."

Is anyone surprised that it was a Purdue guy that went down fighting against overwhelming odds, taking two of his superior opponents with him as he went down? This was an impressive display and it earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously. The award was officially given for his action on October 10, 1018:

The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Karl Joseph Schoen, First Lieutenant (Air Service), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Ancerville, France, October 10, 1918. While leading a patrol of three machines, Lieutenant Schoen sighted nine enemy planes, Fokker type, and immediately attacked them. Although greatly outnumbered, he destroyed one of the planes and put the others to flight. He was killed in action October 29 and has been officially credited with destroying seven enemy aircraft.

Less than two weeks later the war was over. Of all the American Aces with 7 kills, Schoen was the only one killed in action.

Karl Schoen had a widow he left behind and a 10-month-old daughter he likely did not know well given his training time and time in France. He is buried in an American cemetery in France not far from where he was shot down. His Boilermaker Badassery is unquestioned as one of the first great American pilots that paved the way for so many others after him.