Arcadia Was Site of Unusual Army Training School

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On this Memorial Day, we honor the men and women who gave their lives defending this country. During the First World War, an army lieutenant lost his life on the battlefields of France and was memorialized in Arcadia. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde has the story of an unusual army training facility named after Lt. Cleo J. Ross of the Army Air Service's 8th Balloon Company.

Kitty Felde: In May of 1918, four army officers came to the old Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia. They didn't come to gamble on the ponies. Instead, they were starting a school to train soldiers to spy on the Germans, using an early version of a spy satellite: a giant balloon.

Richard Des Chenes: The balloons were a stable observation platform.

Felde: Richard Des Chenes is a schoolteacher in Florida and the national expert on the nation's World War I balloon corps.

Des Chenes: Airplanes were still new. They could only stay up about 30 minutes at a time, and when they landed, they broke. Every time the plane landed, something broke. It broke a wire, a strut, a wheel fell off, propeller hit the ground, so it was always' under repair. Balloons could go up, be in the air for six, eight, ten hours at a time, up over the battle, observing what's going on, and report back to the ground what they are seeing in real time.
Felde: Wouldn't people just shoot at the balloons and knock them out of the sky?
Des Chenes: Yeah, they were very difficult to shoot down, because they were at about 5,000 feet. They were about a mile up in the air. And they could be attacked by airplanes, but they weren't easy to shoot down. You could fill them full of holes, and they wouldn't deflate immediately. Only when they used incendiary bullets, they'd catch on fire, but then the pilot and observer would jump and parachute down, and they'd get another balloon up and go back up the same day.

Felde: The U.S. Army's hydrogen-filled balloons were attacked 89 times during the war, but Des Chenes says the Balloon Corps had the lowest casualty rate of any frontline unit. More soldiers died in training accidents and from influenza than in balloons.

Des Chenes: The only balloon pilot that was ever killed in combat was Cleo J. Ross. He had parachuted out of his balloon, and part of the burning balloon fell on his parachute. And they renamed the balloon school at Arcadia Ross Field after him.

Felde: Wartime balloons weren't a new technology, or even a new strategy. Abraham Lincoln insisted that a reluctant Army use tethered balloons during the Civil War, and the United States used observation balloons to spy over Cuba during the Spanish-American war.

By the end of World War I, nearly 7,000 troops served in the Balloon Corps. Ross Field was the training ground for almost half of them. Richard Des Chenes says it didn't take any special skills.

Des Chenes: Well, the only major requirement: you had to be a minimum weight. They needed ballast to hold the balloons on the ground when they were maneuvering them.

You've seen the Macy's day parade, where the men are walking balloons through the streets? This is exactly what these guys were doing when they were maneuvering a balloon on the ground. They'd each grab a rope, and walk the balloon across the battlefield.

Felde: Southern California's weather made training ideal most of the year. Except for one thing:

Des Chenes: The army failed to take into account the Santa Ana winds.

Felde: But even when the wind was blowing at Ross Field on the floor of the San Gabriel Valley, soldiers could still practice by going up to the top of Mt. Wilson. It had an altitude similar to that of a hovering balloon.

There, soldiers would make notes and maps while fellow soldiers fired live artillery down in the valley below. Richard Des Chenes says a passion for balloons runs in his family.

Des Chenes: My grandfather was in the balloon corps. He told us, as we were children, his stories, and we just kind of passed them off as old war stories. You know, just kind of what old men do. It wasn't 'til I started researching it that I found out that most of the stories he told were true events, because the only way he could have known about some of them was to have been there.

Felde: But Des Chenes says a year after the balloon school opened, the balloons were obsolete. Airplanes were getting faster, sturdier, and more reliable. Ross Field switched from balloons to airships, blimps with motors and steering capacity. After the war, in 1924, the Army moved out of Arcadia.

But today, there are still remnants of the balloon school. Ross Field became Arcadia County Park. It's right next to the Santa Anita Golf Course. The Senior Center there is the last Army building from the days of Ross Field. And the swimming pool in the park was the same one used by the aeronautical heroic members of the U.S. Army Balloon Corps.