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February in Aviation History

On February 5, 1918, Lt. Stephen Thompson became the first member of the United States military to shoot down an enemy aircraft. (USAF photo)

Stephen W. Thompson (March 20, 1894 — October 9, 1977) was assigned to the United States 1st Aero Squadron in France for training as an observer. On February 5, 1918 he was invited to fly as a gunner-bombardier with the nearby French bombardment squadron Br. 123 in a Brequet 14 B2 bomber in a raid over Germany. During the raid Lt. Thompson shot down an enemy Albatros D. III fighter. Although there was a previous aerial victory by an American who was serving with the French Lafayette Escradrille, this was the first aerial victory by a member of the U.S. military. Because of Thompson's unique status on this mission, he was not granted credit for his victory during the war. However, with the assistance of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, he was finally granted official recognition for the victory in 1967.

He was later assigned to the new 12th Aero Squadron at Ourches airdrome, and on July 28 he was in another memorable battle. While doing artillery spotting during a battle near Château-Thierry, his Salmson 2 A2 was attacked by four Fokker D.VIIs from what had been Richthofen's Flying Circus but was then under the command of Hermann Göring. Thompson shot down the first two planes that attacked him, but a bullet from the third hit his machine gun and disabled it. He was then hit in the leg, and his pilot was hit in the stomach by an exploding bullet. The pilot managed to crash land the plane before he died of his wounds. Thompson dug the bullet out of his leg with a pocket knife. The pilot who shot them down was the famous German ace Erich Löwenhardt, who at the time was second only to Richthofen in victories.

Lt. Thompson's Dayton connection:

After the war Thompson worked for several years as an engineer in Dayton, Ohio at McCook Field, the predecessor of today's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He then became a high school mathematics teacher. During World War II he taught preflight and meteorology. He maintained an interest in aviation and and in 1940 he received U.S. Patent No. 2,210,642 for a tailless flying wing. He died in Dayton, Ohio at age 83.

Visit the Display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force™

The uniform that Thompson was wearing when he shot down the Albatros D.III and the bullet he dug from his leg are on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force™ in the Early Years Gallery .

During WW I he was awarded the Croix de guerre with Palm, and a Purple Heart.

National Museum of the U.S. Force | 1100 Spaatz St, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH 45433


The National Museum of the United States Air Force™ is site #5 on the Aviation Trail.


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