World War I observation balloons were so often attacked by enemy planes that the men assigned to them frequently had to jump using parachutes. On October 6, 1918, a single balloon (the 11th Balloon) was attacked four different times, and the two men inside, 1st Lt. J.A. McDevitt and 2nd Lt. G.D. Armstrong, had to jump twice, bringing McDevitt to three jumps within twenty-four hours. In another instance, a student observer, 1st Lt. D.M. Reeves, had to jump three times during the four hours he was in the air.
Not everyone escaped from the balloons safely, however. Many men were wounded by shells, and others were injured during their jumps—some died as a result. When 1st Lt. C.J. Ross’s balloon was attacked, he allowed the other man in the balloon to jump first. A piece of the burning balloon fell on Ross’s parachute, incinerating it, and the resulting fall killed him.
During World War I, American observation balloons, each holding two observers, often accompanied the infantry to serve as an “eye in the sky.” With the balloon attached to a vehicle below, the men could spot, from their vantage point at 3,500 feet, a man on the ground 5 miles away, a vehicle 10 miles away, and a train 30 miles away. The observers were tasked with reporting on enemy troop and supply movements, confirming the fall of artillery projectiles and numbers of downed enemy planes, and making general observations about the terrain and objects of interest.
Although the balloons were protected by men on the ground armed with machine guns or anti-aircraft, they were often the targets of enemy planes because of the important information a balloon could gather. In one region of France alone (between the Meuse and the Argonne Forest), September 26 to November 11, 1918, twenty-one balloons were destroyed by either enemy planes or shells.
Read more in the Fold3 archives about the history of the Balloon Division or specifically about how balloons were involved in Meuse-Argonne operations, September 26 to November 11, 1918. Or read an article from the New York Times in 1919 about observation balloons.