Object of the Month

High Adventure: James Norman Hall's Final Combat during the First World War

Group of Allied prisoners including Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Norman Hall in a German prison camp in Bavaria Photograph

Group of Allied prisoners including Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Norman Hall in a German prison camp in Bavaria

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This photograph, taken at a German prison camp in Landshut, Bavaria, depicts a group of Allied prisoners, including Atlantic Monthly correspondent Captain James Norman Hall, whose plane had been shot down in a dogfight over German lines on 7 May 1918. (An arrow drawn in the top border of the photograph points to Hall.) Hall sent the photograph to his friend and editor, Ellery Sedgwick.

James Norman Hall

James Norman Hall was born in Colfax, Iowa, in 1887. After graduating from Grinnell College, he moved to Boston where he became an investigator for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and attempted to publish his poetry. In 1914 he was on a bicycle tour of England when the First World War broke out, and on impulse he enlisted in the British Army. Hall served in France for more than a year before returning to the United States. While back in Boston on his way home to Iowa, he was introduced to Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Sedgwick solicited a series of articles by Hall on his war experiences that were published in 1916 in the Atlantic, and then in book form as Kitchener's Mob: the Adventures of an American in Kitchener's Army.

An Early "Embedded Correspondent"

In 1916, while Hall was in Boston making plans to return to the war as a noncombatant, Ellery Sedgwick--who believed that the exotic new air combat above the trenches would be of great interest to his readers--convinced him to write a series of articles for the Atlantic on the American volunteers who were flying for France. Hall had a strong interest in aviation and he not only wrote about American flyers, but joined them. The first of Hall's "High Adventure" articles that documented his training and then his combat missions appeared in the August 1917 issue of the Atlantic.

Service in Two Legendary Squadrons

In October 1916, James Norman Hall joined the French Air Service where he trained as a pilot; the following June he was assigned to one of the most famous of all flying units in the First World War--in all of aviation history--the Lafayette Escadrille (Squadron N. 124).The Lafayette Escadrille was formed in 1916 by Americans who volunteered to fly for France before the United States entered the First World War, and named for the most illustrious of the French volunteers who had fought for America in the War of Independence. Hall was shot down and wounded a few days after he joined the squadron and spent the summer of 1917 convalescing before returning the front. He rejoined the Lafayette Escadrille in October 1917 and continued in French service until the spring of 1918 when the unit was taken into the United States forces as the 103rd Aero Squadron. Hall was commissioned a captain in the United States Aviation Service and transferred to the 94th Aero Squadron as a flight commander. The 94th "Hat-in-the-Ring" Squadron (named for its insignia) became the most famous regular American aviation unit of World War I. Eddie Rickenbacker, the highest scoring American fighter pilot, served under Hall's command.

Behind Enemy Lines

On 7 May 1918, during a dogfight over German lines, Captain James Norman Hall's Nieuport biplane fighter lost the fabric on part of its upper wing and almost simultaneously was hit by an antiaircraft shell, and crashed in enemy territory; view the online presentation of a German photograph of Hall's plane. Hall spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. By the time of his capture, Hall was one of the most experienced and highly decorated American pilots in the United States Aviation Service. His disappearance in combat in May 1918 not only dismayed Ellery Sedgwick as a friend, but also disrupted the flow of articles for the Atlantic. In spite of the abrupt hiatus in Hall's narrative--Sedgwick was preparing a memorial to Hall when he received the happy news of his survival--Hall's articles were published together with additional material as High Adventure: a Narrative of Air Fighting in France in June 1918 with an explanatory note that explained his plight.

James Norman Hall Meets Charles B. Nordhoff

After his release from imprisonment at the Armistice, James Norman Hall was given the task of compiling a history of all the American volunteer flyers who had served in the French aviation service, known collectively as the Lafayette Flying Corps. During this assignment, he met Charles Nordhoff, a fellow American volunteer pilot who also had written articles for the Atlantic during the war. Ellery Sedgwick had interspersed Hall's "High Adventure" articles with Nordhoff's "Letters from France" that covered similar topics, but the authors had never met. Sedgwick never let facts get in the way of a good story though and insisted that that Hall and Nordhoff had first met as aviation cadets: "The two young men were wandering about the camp, each with an Atlantic Monthly in his hand. The old yellow cover was their introduction, and their joint story began." However their joint story actually began, it continued for more than twenty-five years, first as they traveled through the South Pacific and continued to contribute to the Atlantic, and after they settled in Tahiti and wrote a series of historical novels together, including their Bounty trilogy: Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), and Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn's Island (1934).

Hall and Nordhoff Letters Featured in the Massachusetts Historical Society Exhibition, "Atlantic Harvest: Ellery Sedgwick and the Atlantic Monthly, 1909-1938"

Atlantic Harvest, the title of Ellery Sedgwick’s 1947 memoir and compilation of favorite articles from The Atlantic Monthly during the years that he was editor is the theme of the Historical Society’s exhibition of Ellery Sedgwick papers that opened on 30 October 2009 and continues through 30 January 2010. The exhibition draws upon Sedgwick’s voluminous personal and editorial correspondence with an extraordinary range of literary and political figures, together with correspondence and photographs from his personal papers and other collections of Sedgwick family papers held by the Society.

The exhibition includes letters that show how Sedgwick brought Hall and Nordhoff to public notice in the pages of the Atlantic, long before they won fame as the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty. The exhibition is supported by the family of Mrs. Ellery Sedgwick, Jr., and is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday, 1:00 to 4:00 PM, from 30 October 2009 to 30 January 2010.

For Further Reading:

Hall, James Norman. High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918.

Hall, James Norman. My Island Home: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1952.

Hall, James Norman and Charles B. Nordhoff. Faery Lands of the South Seas. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1921.

Hall, James Norman and Charles B. Nordhoff. The Lafayette Flying Corps. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920.

Roulston, Robert. James Norman Hall. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Sedgwick, Ellery. The Happy Profession. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1946.