PRYOR RICHARD PERKINS
Pryor Richard Perkins or as he preferred, “Richard” or “Dick” is one of the namesakes of our post. Perkins was a Newport News resident, a former Virginia National Guard Mexican Border veteran who rose from the ranks to become a pilot, officer and the first Newport News aviator to be killed in France. Born in 1891, at time of death he was 27 years old, which was quite old for a Lieutenant and pilot. The son of Carter and Mary Sue Perkins of 111 32nd Street, we know little about his early life aside that he graduated from Newport News High School, and the College of William and Mary. In 1909 he is listed as a clerk for the Clyde Steamship Company at River Road and 19th street, where he will work for three years. In 1912 he joined the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway as a clerk at the 23rd St Station. He remained with the company for the rest of his civilian life transferring to the Freight Office, and by 1916 the General Agent’s office.
With war clouds gathering across the Atlantic and the sinking of the Lusitania, there was a belief we would soon be at war. Perkins along with other patriotic citizens of Hampton and Newport News formed Battery D, of the 1st Virginia Field Artillery (later Battery D, 111th Field Artillery) in 1915. In the summer of 1916, he was mobilized for service on the Mexican Border. As one of the charter members of the battery, he was one of the lucky men who had uniforms, it was a battery without horses or guns and many of the new members marched off to federal service in Civilian clothes.
He was sent to Camp Stuart, Richmond where the battery equipped and waited… and waited. Rumors abounded as did boredom. By late July he had become jaded to army life. Writing to his cousin he wrote that “I no longer believe anything or anybody.” Finally late in the summer they were sent to Texas to begin their training in earnest. Perkins must have soured to the artillery life and wrote towards the end of January that he had “strong hopes of receiving my appointment in the Aviation Corps very shortly though and hope to be a good distance away from here by that time.” About a week after he wrote he was in the Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He had caught a serious cold while on guard duty and then to make matters worse, was kicked by one of the battery horses which “crippled” his leg and caused him to be bedridden for over a week, under the attentions of “very sweet members” of the Red Cross. Rumors swirled around the bored men including that they were going to be sent to Panama but he remarked that “I don’t believe a thing now until it happens.” The following month the battery was ordered to pack up its equipment and it headed home in March of 1917 where they were demobilized.
Perkins had little time to get settled in, when in April of 1917, America entered the Great War. The Battery along with the rest of the National Guard was mobilized. While the more established Batteries A-C were sent to Ft Oglethorpe to train ROTC Candidates, Battery D was ordered to Camp Brabson in Newport News, to guard the shipyard against German Submarine attacks. It was a trying time for Battery D, when in a fit of patriotism all of the Battery officers resigned their commissions to take up better paid war work in the shipyard. While here, Perkins received his long awaited for appointment as an Aviation Cadet in the Signal Corps.
In July He departed for Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. There he joined Squadron 8 – the last all college graduates squadron in the aviation training program. Three weeks of intensive military instruction were followed by five weeks of theoretical and technical instruction. Among the subjects studied were signaling, aerial gunnery, aircraft, engines and aerial observation. As part of their instruction the cadets were required to build an aircraft that would be used for training. Having graduated from ground school, Cadet Perkins was sent to Camp Mitchell, Long Island, NY to await shipment overseas. He did not pass on the opportunity to visit New York City for a week and sent a letter to his cousin telling her that mail for him should be sent to the American Legation in Rome, Italy.
At noon, September 18, 1917 Perkins departed from Pier 54, New York aboard the RMS Carmania a former merchant cruiser being used as a transport. He was one of over 2,500 Americans heading “over there.” As a cadet he was entitled to first class accommodation, better than the second class accommodation the enlisted personnel of the 5th Machine Gun Battalion and 9th Infantry of the 2nd Division had. Among his traveling companions was a young captain, Fiorella LaGuardia, destined to become famous fighting on the Italian front and later as long serving mayor of New York City. After stopping in Halifax, Nova Scotia they arrived safely in Liverpool after an uneventful voyage on October 2, 1917.
Perkins reported to Oxford where he received more training, this time from Members of the Royal Flying Corps. During breaks in training he made several visits to London. During one of these Perkins witnessed a heavy German air raid “in which a good many people lost their lives and one German machine was brought down.” He wrote that he “had the good fortune of seeing the German machine brought down.” As the spring started his training intensified. By May he had qualified for his wings and anxiously awaited his commission. He did not know where he would be posted, but believed he would be sent to “some bombing squadron.” From March through July he trained with 2nd Flight, 5th Training Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. In August he was transferred to A Squadron, Royal Air Force, Stonehenge. During his training he accumulated 95 flight hours on the following aircraft: The Avro 29, BE2C, BE2D, BE2E, RE8, DH6 and DH9. He also accumulated 4 ½ hours flying American-made Liberty Engine equipped aircraft. On September 27th He wrote home that he was leaving for France the following morning. He had less than a week to live. Upon arrival, LT Perkins was assigned as a combat replacement to the 20th Bombing squadron, arriving October 2, 1918.
The 20th Bombing squadron, known as “The Mad Bolsheviks,” had arrived for training in England in December 1917 and had been sent to France in August 1918. The Squadron first saw action during the St Mihiel offensive in September. It was a unique squadron in that unlike most American squadrons it was completely equipped with American made aircraft. The 20th was equipped with Liberty Engine equipped DH-4 bombers that fired the American made Marlin machine gun. In support of the Meuse Argonne offensive the Squadron participated in a disastrous raid in September on Dun-sur Meuse. Of seven aircraft sent, five were lost. Of 14 pilots and crew 11 were killed wounded or captured. Among those captured was Lt Merian Cooper who later produced “King Kong.” On October 2nd Perkins was one of “a few new officers” assigned to the 20th “there being a shortage of officers owing to our casualties.” The next day Perkins was dead.
“LIEUT PERKINS KILLED IN AIR BATTLE, FRANCE” read the Daily Press headline. Word came to the Perkins family not through official channels but a letter written by his best friend Albert S. Woolfalk, a fellow pilot in the 20th. Woolfalk wrote “I regret that I am not at liberty to tell you everything that I know, however, you may be sure he was an expert pilot.” More recent writings have stated that he was killed while returning from a mission in bad weather and another plane landed on top of him. The reality is less glamorous, on the Morning of October 3, 1918 Perkins and his observer Lt. Leonard Fuller went up in a DH4 to “familiarize themselves in the handling of a heavy plane before making a trip over the lines.” This would have been Perkins first experience flying the DH4 with a liberty engine. On his first flight in this aircraft “something went wrong with the engine and they crashed, killing both instantly.” It is also noted in the squadron history that he was killed in a crash while “trying out D.H.4 plane.”
Perkins was buried two days later in grave Number 44, A.E.F. Cemetery No. 1 Gondrecourt-sur Meuse. The grave was marked with a cross and the ceremony was performed by Captain Harold J. Lockin, Chaplain, Quartermaster’s Corps. He was buried next to his observer who died with him, 2nd LT Leonard Fuller. His body was subsequently moved to the Meuse-Argonne America Cemetery in Romagne where he is interred in plot D, row 42, grave 1. In September 1926 Mary Sue Perkins, his mother and charter member of the Post Auxiliary, visited his grave along with all the others in of Newport News’ dead, bringing soil from the city to be placed upon their graves. “No act, no symbol, no talisman could better serve to bring them nearer home than a bit of earth from their beloved city placed above the spot where rests all that is earthly of them.” As we approach the centennial of his passing, let us remember him and the spirit that animated him, that he shall not be forgotten.