Dana Edmond Coates was born in Lodgepole, Nebraska, in 1894, the third of ten children. He was descended from one Charles Coates, a British soldier sent to America during the Seven Years War (1756-1763 - although hostilities started two years earlier in North America) who settled in the country after hostilities ended. Charles' descendants fought in the American War of Independence and in the Civil War. His mother was born in true pioneer style in a ‘soddy' (a house made of earth sod) in Nebraska. At the time of Dana's birth, the Coates family ran the train depot and the telegraph station in Lodgepole. The family later moved to Denver, Colorado, where his father ran a telegraph school, and two of his sisters were noted as being exceptional in their mastery of the telegraph.
Dana served in the Colorado National Guard Signal Corps and saw service on the Mexican border during the US Army's 1916 campaign against the revolutionary Pancho Villa. We can only wonder if he saw the Curtiss JN-3 aeroplanes flown by the US Army during the campaign and decided then that aviation was the way that he'd like to wage war.
Following the US entry into The Great War in April 1917, Dana enlisted in the US Army on 15 August 1917 and volunteered for the US Air Service, then a branch of his old regiment, the Signal Corps. James Sloan, in his book Wings of Honor, lists Dana Coates as a member of the second group of 204 American Cadets sent to England in August and September of 1917, known as the Oxford Group. They were selected from the group of graduates from the Schools of Military Aeronautics at Princeton, the University of Illinois, Texas and California. These cadets were originally informed they would be sent to Italy. An undated newspaper article (probably in the Denver Post) announced that "1st Lieutenant Coates has been sent to Italy to serve with the American squadron of aviators."
After transport across the Atlantic Ocean, and arrival in England, Cadet Coates and his travelling companions were informed that they would be sent to Oxford, along with other potential pilots from the US Army, to commence flying training with the British RFC. His flying clothing was issued on 15 November 1917 at No 44 Training Squadron at Waddington, Lincolnshire, where he may have undergone some basic flying training. He then attended the School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford University, with Squad 20, Course No 6, and was billeted in Exeter and King's Colleges.
Photo: Cdt D E Coates USAS (in flying clothes) in front of a DH 6, probably at No 47 TDS, Waddington (Thompson family)
Photo: A tent scene at Waddington. It looks like the men are waiting to fly, hence the casual clothes. Cdt Coates, on the right, seems to be wearing a British Service Dress officer's tunic, with provision for a shirt and tie, rather than a US tunic with the plain collar. The British-style tunic was popular with many US fliers, and it wasn't uncommon for airmen to have jackets tailored in the British fashion. (Thompson family)
During his time at Exeter College he was invited out for afternoon tea by Sir William and Lady Osler, the Canadian-born Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford (Sir William was a descendant of American War of Independence hero Paul Revere, and died during the influenza pandemic of 1919; his son, Lt Revere Osler, was killed in action while serving with the 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion in October 1916).
At Oxford, Cdt Coates used an Ideal note book - best described as a 1917 version of a loose-leaf binder, but one with instructions complex enough to be an aircrew selection test - and his notes are interesting reading, especially a printed piece about there being five armies in the BEF in France, with another forming. References to a possible 6th British Army are rare, and the reader has to wonder where the required men were supposed to come from, as there was considerable difficulty in keeping the existing five armies in France up to strength. Was this just a mistake by the RFC administration who handed out the notes, or was it some sort of morale-boosting exercise? Perhaps the author had visions of the US troops then arriving in France forming a separate Army in the BEF? We shall probably never know.
After ground training at Oxford, Dana moved back to Waddington for flying training at No 47 Training Sqn about February 1918. It appears that he had flown his first solo prior to this date, but, unfortunately, his logbook has suffered some damage and the first two pages are no longer legible. Another problem with the logbook is that Coates appears to have been one of the airmen who filled in the details some days after events occurred. Unfortunately, Cdt Coates, like many Great War airmen, omitted the letter prefix when referring to aircraft that he flew. Nevertheless, they can be identified. His logbook indicates that he flew the following aeroplanes while with No 47 TS:
- Armstrong Whitworth FK 3: B9638 and B9639;
- Airco DH 6: C7224, C7228, C7229, C7230, C7236, C7240, C7251 (collided with DH 9 C1201 of No 44 TS on 7 June 1918, when Sgt A W Pitkin was killed), C7254, C7257, C7274, C7279, C7351 and C7374;
- RE 8: A3913, B3431, B4095 (an aeroplane re-built from wrecked components by No 2 (Northern) Aircraft Repair Depot at Sheffield), B5099, B5894, B6671 and C2452.
After 'ab initio' training with No 47 TS, which concluded with experience in the RE 8, he moved to No 44 TS, also based at Waddington (the two units were later combined into No 48 Training Depot Station) and was commissioned as a First Lieutenant on 27 May. While at No 44 TS, he was introduced to the DH 9, and flew the following aeroplanes:
- Martinsyde G102: A6278 (this is the only single seater to appear in his logbook);
- Airco DH 9: C1153, C1169 (known to have been named Uncle Sam), C1197 (when flown by 2Lt C V Felhauer, from Causton, British Columbia, this aeroplane collided with Sopwith Camel B6384, flown by 2Lt A R Frye USAS, on 9 July 1918, and both airmen were killed), C1198, C1199, C1200, C1201 (2Lt R E Heater, from Mingo, Iowa, was flying this aeroplane when it collided with DH 6 C7251, flown by Sgt A W Pitkin of No 44 TS on 7 June 1918, resulting in the deaths of both airmen), C6077, C6201, D1004 (involved in a starting accident on 1 June 1918, when Boy P H Bowers was injured) and D1652. There's also an entry in the logbook for ‘5165' which doesn't match any DH 9 serial; this might be a mistake for D1651, which did serve with No 44 TS.
Much of his flying time with No 44 TS was spent learning to fight from a DH 9, and included formation flying, forced landing practice, bomb dropping and firing at ground targets at Saxilby, Lincolnshire.
On 18 July 1Lt Coates started operational training No 2 Auxiliary School of Aerial Gunnery at Marske - later re-designated as No 2 Fighting School. Here he flew the following aeroplanes:
- Avro 504: B8729
- Airco DH 9: B9341 (Flt Cdt H W W Williams was killed when this aeroplane stalled and spun in on 17 August; his observer, Sgt T S Robinson, died from injuries the next day), C1183, C1227, C1259 and D1298;
- Airco DH 9A: E9670 and F953.
Photo: Cdt D E Coates (left) with a Sopwith F1 Camel fitted with a Hythe camera gun, probably at No 2 (Auxiliary) School of Aerial Gunnery at Marske. (Thompson family)
His logbook includes the entry "Fighting Camel" on 19 July, while he was flying what he described as "DH 9 Liberty F953" - presumably the initial contemporary term for the DH 9A.
After the School of Aerial Gunnery, 1Lt Coates was posted to No 117 Sqn, a unit formed at Waddington on 1 January 1918. The squadron moved to Hucknall on 3 April and then to Norwich (Mousehold Heath) Aerodrome on 15 July, where it was fully equipped with the DH 9 in October. The squadron moved a few more times before being disbanded in Ireland in October 1919. It was a final training and holding unit for airmen destined for bomber units on the Western Front, with a USAS element attached to it; the logbook is countersigned by "1Lt W W Waring American Officers, 117 Squadron RAF". Coates spent much of his time with No 117 Sqn delivering aeroplanes (chiefly those manufactured by the Mann, Egerton Company in Norwich) from No 3 Aircraft Acceptance Park at Norwich to other units,
At No 117 Sqn, the aeroplanes flown by 1Lt Coates were:
- Airco DH 4: A7948;
- Airco DH 9: B9402, B9403 (transferred to No 10 TDS and crashed on 6 November, Sgt W Grant was seriously injured) and D3176
- Airco DH 9A: E9662 (delivered by Coates via Lympne to Marquise in France, where it became No 202 Sqn RAF's first DH 9A, and crashed while landing on 1 October - 2Lt E G Bannerman was unhurt), E9663 (delivered to Lake Down Aerodrome, Salisbury) and E9670 (delivered to No 1 School of Navigation and Bomb Dropping at Stonehenge, despite a forced landing on the way);
- RE 8 A3888.
Photo: Montage of photographs of US DH-4s from the 11th Aero Squadron USAS in France. (Thompson family)
In September 1918 1Lt Coates was posted to the 11th Aero Squadron USAS in France. The squadron was originally formed at San Antonio, Texas, in May 1917 and transported to the UK from New York in December. After being split up for training at various locations in the UK it was reunited at Waddington (where Dana Coates trained) in late July. After a period at Waddington, the unit moved to Delouse in France on 26 August to be equipped with the US DH-4 and to serve as a bombing squadron on the Lorraine - St Mihel - Meuse-Argonne sector of the Western Front. Commanded by 1Lt Charles L Heater, it moved to Amanty aerodrome on 6 September, and then to Maulan on 24 September. Maulan was also the home of the two other units in the First Day Bombardment Group, the 20th and 96th Aero Squadrons. Later they were joined by the 166th Aero Squadron, also a DH-4 unit. It was at Maulan that the 11th Aero Squadron adopted the cartoon character Mr Jiggs (from the George McManus comic strip 'Bringing Up Father') as its symbol, and commenced painting the little man on its aeroplanes.
Photo: Airmen of the 11th Aero Squadron USAS, with the Mr Jiggs emblem on the nose of the DH-4 aircraft.
1Lt Coates had his first flight in a US DH-4 at Amanty, AS 23292 (which he described as a "Liberty DH 4") on 24 September before flying AS 32808 to Maulan. After a navigation exercise to Ligny, Bar-le-Duc and St Dizier on 25 September, Dana flew his first combat mission on 26 September when, with 2Lt Lauren R Thrall, from Bone Gap, Illinois, as observer, he flew DH-4 AS 33043 in a six aeroplane bombing raid on Etain, flying at 12,000 feet. The raid was assessed as being very successful, and all the US aircraft returned to Maulan. Coates didn't take part in a successful six aeroplane raid on Grandpré, on the extreme left of the American sector of the front, on 29 September.
The 11th Aero Sqn didn't carry out a raid again until 2 October, although several of its flying crews were loaned to the 96th Aero Sqn to operate that unit's Bréguet XIVs. Probably due to his relative lack of operational experience, Coates wasn't one of the airmen who were loaned to the 96th, and he spent time test flying DH-4s with a sergeant in the observer's cockpit. The squadron was short of qualified observers at this time, and there was an effort to recruit suitable enlisted men and ground-based officers to train for flying duties.
On 1 October the 11th and 20th Aero Sqns experimented with a large combined formation, with each unit forming one arm of a ‘V"; the 11th formed the left arm and the 20th the right arm. 1Lt Coates was flying DH-4 AS 32950, with Lt Jones as observer, when he suffered engine trouble after 15 minutes and had to return to Maulan. The rest of the unwieldy formation broke up shortly after and the raid was abandoned. The 11th Aero Sqn experienced many problems with the Liberty engines of its DH-4s, and it was very common for aircraft to turn back early from operations.
Coates' next effective combat mission was a bombing raid on St Juvain on 2 October when, with 2Lt Thrall as observer, he flew DH-4 AS 32605. The bombing was assessed as successful, and all the squadron aircraft returned to Maulan.
On 3 October Lt Coates flew DH-4 AS 32905 (aircraft ‘18') with 2Lt Thrall in a practice formation flight; his logbook states "Started formation. Dud engine". Later on that day he was flying DH-4 AS 32950, with a Lt Archer in the observer's cockpit, on a practice flight when he crashed while landing at Ourches.
The next day, during a morning practice flight, he experienced an engine failure in AS 32599 due to a defective front bearing. Back in AS 32905 with Lt Thrall, the airmen had to withdraw from the formation during an afternoon raid on Doulcon by the 11th and 20th Aero Squadrons, and landed at Chaumont.
On 5 October the squadron bombed Aincreville from 15,000 feet with six aeroplanes. 1Lt Coates and 2Lt Thrall started on the raid in AS 32905 but again fell victim to the unreliable Liberty engine and had to leave the formation to land at Landres.
6 October saw eight aircraft from the squadron raid Doulcon, about 45km north west of Verdun, in a trial of low-level bombing from 4,000 feet. The Coates and Thrall combination took part, flying AS 32905. Although the DH-4s experienced heavy fire from ground machine guns, no enemy aircraft were seen and all the US aircraft returned.
The squadron's next raid was three days later, on 9 October, when seven machines bombed St Juvain from 10,000 feet. Coates and Thrall started on the flight in AS 32905, but had to return due to a vibrating engine. After service, the DH-4 was able to successfully participate in a morning raid on the railway yards at Milly devant Dun on 10 October, when Coates and Thrall crewed one of the eight squadron aircraft that flew at 12,000 feet and returned safely. The afternoon saw another raid on Milly devant Dun, which was bombed from 11,500 feet by eight aeroplanes. A third raid on Milly devant Dun was ordered in the late afternoon, and the DH-4s were made ready, but the operation was cancelled before take off. Unfortunately, Dana's logbook entries cease at this point: no doubt he intended to write up the details at some later time.
On 18 October, Coates and Thrall manned one of 11 aeroplanes that bombed Bayonville though mist. On 23 October the duo took part in a raid on Buzancy when five Fokkers were seen near Bayonville, followed by another five Fokkers and one Albatros south of Buzancy. One enemy aircraft went down ‘out of control' near Imecourt.
Lts Coates and Thrall were back in ‘18' on 27 October when 10 DH-4s bombed Briquenay. The USAS summary of operations reported: First Lieutenant Dana E Coates and Second Lieutenant Loren R Thrall, 11th Aero Squadron, 1st Day Bombardment Group, are hereby credited with the destruction, in combat, of an enemy Pfalz, in the region southeast of Briquenay at 15:10. There is no corresponding fatal casualty in German records, so the enemy pilot must have survived the incident.
Dana was not involved on 29 October when nine machines bombed Damvillers.
The unreliable nature of the Liberty engine was well demonstrated next day when Coates and Thrall had to turn back from both the morning raid on Barricourt and the evening sortie to Belleville.
A German aerodrome between Barricourt and Bayonville was visited by 10 machines, including Coates and Thrall in AS 32905, on 31 October, and the formation was attacked by ten Fokkers over Tailly. The duo also bombed Martincourt on 3 November.
On 4 November 12 aircraft led by 1Lt Walter A Stahl took off to bomb Cheveney le Château from 12,000 feet, including Coates and Thrall in AS 32905, who were at the rear of the unit's formation. Three aircraft were forced to turn back before the formation reached the Lines. Back at Maulan, 1Lt Cyrus J Gatton, from Bozeman, Montana, a flight commander and veteran of 12 missions with the French and 13 with the USAS, and 2Lt G E Bures, a four-mission veteran from Cicero, Illinois, both of whom had just returned to the squadron from leave, volunteered to reinforce the raiders. Five minutes after the departure of the main formation, they took off from Maulan in another DH-4 and endeavoured to catch up with the formation, only to be shot down when in sight of the main body, probably by flak. Both airmen were killed.
After bombing, the formation was attacked by about twenty Fokker D VIIs from Jagdgeschwader 1's Jasta 11, one of which was flown by Ltn Friedrich Noltenius, an ace then credited with 20 victories. Noltenius concentrated on AS 32905, and hit the fuel tank, setting the aeroplane on fire. It was Noltenius's 21st, and last, victory of the War. Lt Coates sideslipped in an effort to reduce the effect of the flames while 2Lt Thrall continued to fire at the Fokkers, one of whom was reported to be shot down, though German records don't show a corresponding fighter loss, so it is likely that the pilot survived the encounter. The DH-4 crashed near the town of Stenay and the crew was killed; they were buried by French civilians. (Although the DH-4 was nicknamed 'The Flaming Coffin', only eight of the 33 USAS DH-4s lost to enemy action were shot down in flames.)
A raid on Mouzon by the 11th Aero Sqn on 5 November was abandoned due to adverse weather; it was the squadron's last operation of the War. If 1Lt Coates had survived the raid on 4 November, he would almost certainly have survived the War. The Armistice came into effect at 11.00 (Allied time) on 11 November 1918.
Ltn Noltenius survived the War, and subsequent fighting against Bolsheviks in southern Germany, before resuming his medical studies and becoming a doctor. He lived in South America for ten years before returning to Germany in 1933. On 12 March 1936 he was killed in an aeroplane accident at Johannistal while flying a Bucker Jungmann.
1Lt Dana Coates now rests in Plot F Row 3, Grave 31, Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne, France. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the WWI Victory Medal with Battle clasp for Meuse-Argonne, and the WWI Victory Button.
Article contributed by Gareth Morgan, President, The Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians Inc.
I am greatly indebted to Rob Thompson from Indiana, USA, a relative of 1Lt Dana E Coates. I was able to view a copy of Coates' logbook, which formed the framework around which the article was written.
De Havilland Aircraft of World War I, Part 1; Colin Owers
Fokker D.VII Aces of World War I, Part 1; Norman Franks & Greg Van Wyngarden
History of the AEF Air Service; E S Gorrell
Hostile Skies; James J Hudson
The American DH-4 Profile; Peter M Bowers
The DH 4/DH 9 File; Sturtivant & Page
The Sky Their Battlefield; Trevor Henshaw
Cross & Cockade (US)
Over the Front