- From Alabama to the Skies of France, 1917–1918: Penrose Vass Stout’s Improbable Journey
It was late afternoon, september 28, 1918. a lone aircraft appeared over an American airfield in France. Montgomery native Penrose Stout was at the controls. He had departed a few minutes earlier, and his ground crew did not expect him back so soon. After making a smooth landing, he climbed out of the cockpit. He took a few steps and then collapsed from wounds inflicted by five German aircraft that had surprised him shortly after takeoff.
Stout was a member of the 27th Aero Squadron, one of four squadrons that made up the 1st Pursuit Group. As a combat pilot, Stout was part of a select cadre: approximately 50,000 American men applied to train as pilots in the Great War; only about 1,400 saw combat.1 In some ways Stout was typical of American pilots during the war. He was college–educated, white, and a professional, but he was unlike many of his comrades in several important ways. First, he was thirty–one [End Page 291] years old, substantially older than most other pilots, whose average age was about twenty. In fact, he was older than Eddie Rickenbacker, considered well advanced when he started flight training at twenty–eight.2 Second, he was a southerner who had migrated to the North for economic opportunity. Third, he left a well–established career to volunteer for the Air Service. Fourth, he was a talented artist who documented his service with his drawings. Finally, he flew with one of the most successful and elite American air units of the war, the 1st Pursuit Group. It included such famous pilots as Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke, both recipients of the Medal of Honor.3
Stout’s combat duty lasted scarcely a month and he did not down any enemy aircraft. Nevertheless, his story offers important insights into the experiences of America’s first combat pilots. His letters [End Page 292] home contain descriptions of daily routines, accounts of combat missions, and much more. But just as important as the words of his letters are the numerous sketches he scattered throughout his correspondence. In addition, he compiled a sketchbook that documents his military service. Recognizing the value of Stout’s wartime letters and artwork, his family preserved them over the decades and recently donated them to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
penrose stout was born february 28, 1887, the eldest son of Robert Platt and Zemula Vass Stout of Montgomery. Pen, as he was known to family and friends, was named for his maternal grandfather, Horatio Penrose Vass, who was born in Maryland and migrated to Mobile.4 Pen’s father was a cotton broker and earned a modest income.5 Despite the family’s modest circumstances, Stout completed high school and went on to college at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University).
Perhaps the earliest surviving example of Stout’s artistic talent appears in the Auburn yearbook. Over a half–dozen of his sketches appear in the 1905 edition.6 He apparently entered Auburn in 1904 as a sophomore, majoring in civil engineering.7 Like all male Auburn students of that era, he was a member of the corps of cadets. He excelled and rose to the rank of cadet lieutenant. He was a brother in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, president of the German club, and secretary of his senior class. The description with Stout’s senior photograph in the yearbook declared him “the best artist in the [End Page 293] school.”8 In 1907 or 1908 he completed a degree in civil engineering but remained at Auburn and to enter the newly launched architecture program .9 He was in the first class of five and also served as an architecture instructor. In 1909 he completed a second bachelor’s degree, this time in architecture.10