December, 1948, Aircraft & Airport
There were only six men in the U.S. Army Air Corps when Herbert Marcus, a Canadian, joined the new unit and thus became one of its pioneers.
Man had not yet conquered the air when young Marcus crossed into the United States. He joined the infantry corps in 1895 and fought in the Spanish-American War. He was sent to the Philippines on guard duty and while there his future in the air was being shaped.
Two unknown brothers named Wright made the first flight of a powered air machine from the lonely sand hills of Kitty Hawk. The thrill of this epochal event fired Marcus’ imagination. Later when the army became interested in the Wright invention as a military weapon and they needed men to push the new machines around, Marcus jumped to volunteer.
So he became one of about six infantrymen who formed the nucleus of what was to become the enormous U.S. Army Air Force. Wherever there was flying, Marcus was there and he became friendly with pioneers like Alexander Graham Bell, Octave Chanute, Glenn Curtis, the Wrights and others. He helped trundle the machine around and swing the prop when Orville Wright demonstrated “Number One” to the army at Fort Myer, Virginia, in September, 1908. The army agreed to buy one for $25,000.
He saw Lieut. F.P. Lahm (later Brigadier-General) go aloft with Orville Wright to become the world`s first airplane passenger. Seven days later he raced to the scene of the army’s first airplane crash, when Wright`s machine threw a propeller and careened to earth. He helped bring out the body of Lieut. Thomas Selfridge who had gone up as the third passenger and become aviation’s first airplane victim.
Wright was injured in the crash. “The motor was lying across Wright’s body and I heard him say ‘Get this thing off my chest’ as we cleared away some of the wreckage,” Mr. Marcus recalls, his memory as accurate as a log book recalling dates and incidents with ease.
After handling these intriguing bird machines for several months he was itching to get at the controls and try his hand. “At San Antonio, Texas in 1908 I got a chance to fly Wright Machine Number Two,” he says. “I simply sat on the bar seat and after a few instructions opened the throttle and took off.” He makes it sound very simple when he tells it, but he exemplifies the courage and do-or-die attitude of those early sky-blazers. After a little more practice he was a full-fledged pilot and received U.S. aviation certificate Number 13.
Those first aerial warriors wanted something on their uniforms to distinguish them from the ordinary groundlings and so the U.S. wings came into being. “I designed those wings for us one day, someone put on the crossed propellers and they’ve stayed pretty much the same ever since,” he says.
During World War I, he instructed at Chanute Field, Illinois, passing to young fliers his years of experience. During this lifetime of flying Mr. Marcus piled up 912 hours and never had a crash. Even at 73 he hasn’t lost the spirit of adventure and this spring went up for a ride in a jet fighter, flying from New York to Philadelphia and Washington.
“Boy, that’s some flying,” he says and his eyes light up with their old enthusiasm. He retired from the Air Force in 1921 and has been living in Los Angeles, California. This summer he returned to his home village in Canada and enjoyed talking with his boyhood friends. He would put his hands in his hip pockets, look off into the distance and quietly tell about the days when airplanes were bamboo, wire and cotton and there were only six or seven men in the United States Air Force.
This article originally appeared in the December, 1948 edition of Aircraft & Airport magazine. The image of the plane is of a Wright bi-plane c, 1911, similar to the plane Marcus flew and is from the museum’s library and archives.