Lambert Memorial Park Beech Bottom, WV

April 24, 2023

I often see historical markers alongside highways while traveling and I usually try to read them (often at 60+ mph) without stopping but when I saw one complete with a flagpole I had to check it out.  This particular marker is along Route 2 just north of Beech Bottom WV and honors the first WV resident to have died in World War 1 as well the site of first military airfield in the state of West Virginia.

Near this site, on land along the Ohio river, Louis Bennett, Jr. founded the West Virginia Flying Corps on April 16th, 1917 (just 10 days after the US officially entered WW1), thereby establishing the first military airfield in the state.  Bennett also established an aircraft factory in nearby Warwood to supply aircraft for the Army Air Service and parts and aircraft for the WVFC.  

A hangar large enough for 3 aircraft, a barracks, mess hall and a workshop were constructed, the Army supplied a drill instructor, volunteers were enlisted and training commenced.

From the signage at the site, it's unclear why no flight training was scheduled but the WVFC did own 4 aircraft.  

One was a 2 seat Curtiss NJ-4 with dual controls that was to be used for flight training.  Another was a "penguin", a short-winged aircraft that was incapable of flight but allowed the students to get used to controlling planes by taxiing around the airfield.

The remaining two were disassembled biplanes. As the students were to be thoroughly schooled in aircraft construction as well as flight mechanics, these planes were to be assembled onsite and were likely the focus of the "shop work" listed on the drill itinerary.

It is likely that any flight practice would have also been scheduled at these times or after supper as the weather allowed but this is speculation on my part and based on references to "calm conditions" prevailing on day of the fateful flight of Cadet Courtney Lambert.

The WVFC began flying sorties on August 3rd, 1917. It is unclear if Cadet Lambert was the first to fly that day but around 6pm he and Flight Instructor William Frey took off from the airfield.  They flew around the Beech Bottom power plant to the South, circled West to the Ohio River and followed it North, receiving a grand ovation as they passed the airfield buildings.  

At 6:26 pm, as they were preparing to land, the aircraft shuddered, one of the wings dipped and the Curtiss nosedived into a nearby cornfield.  Cadet Lambert was killed on impact but instructor Frey, though badly wounded was cut out of the wreckage (with an axe) and survived.

The WVFC was setup as a reserve unit instead of a generic Army training squadron. The Wilson administration rejected the idea of using volunteer units, the draft began taking the airmen and mechanics and the WVFC was forced to disband.

Capt. Bennett put on a final air show for the residents of Wheeling and, deciding that the fastest way to becoming a combat pilot was to join the Canadian Royal Air Corps, he left for Canada in October of 1917.

Signage at the site indicates that Bennett was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the RAF and, although it seems that he flew combat missions for just 9 days, during his service, he was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross.  

On August 24, 1918 he was shot down after destroying 2 German observation balloons.  He was killed in action and was buried with military honors by the Germans in Wavrin, near Lille, France.

At the rear of the site the wooden platform gives access to the Brooke Pioneer Rail Trail, a paved hiking / biking trail that connects the Wheeling Heritage Trail in the South and the Wellsburg Yankee Trail to the North.  

It also provides a view of some interesting uses of worn out footwear.  

While I would not have thought to use worn-out boots in this manner, it certainly seemed like the local bird population appreciated the effort.

Probably the worst part of visiting the site is that there's no real parking and you just stop on the berm of Highway 2.  Luckily, it's not a super busy road and the berm is widened a little to allow for a vehicle.

I'm glad I stopped.