The Warren County Historical Society Logo newly adopted January 2015. Design by Copyright 2015 Warren County Historical Society, Queensbury, NY.The Warren County Historical Society Logo newly adopted January 2015. Copyright 2015 Warren County Historical Society, Queensbury, NY.  Design by

Warren County Historical Society Presents …

The Digital Version “REWIND”

May 16, 2015

 Herbert Beecher Hudnut

By Joan F Aldous

Herbert Beecher Hudnut 1916.

Herbert Beecher Hudnut 1916.

      Herbert Beecher Hudnut was in his early 20s when the United States joined World War I.

He was born February 4, 1894 at Port Jervis, New York, one of five children of William Herbert Hudnut and Harriett Beecher Hudnut.   He was the father of Dr. Herbert Beecher Hudnut of Glens Falls, NY.

      On April 6, 1917 Congress declared war on Germany at the request of President Wilson. Herbert, a recent graduate of Princeton, for patriotic reasons, enlisted the next day in Cleveland, Ohio. He was commissioned Second Lieutenant on August 15, 1917 and became an artillery officer in the First Tennessee Regiment at Camp Sevier, Greenville, South Carolina. Eventually he was assigned to the 115th Field Artillery 30th Division and chosen to go in an advanced detachment of officers of the 115th to France, sailing on May 7, 1918, and arriving on May 18th. While training at the French Artillery Range at La Valdahon, Hudnut had his first balloon ride as a passenger before returning to his division.

      Before leaving France he volunteered for the Air Service to hasten his arrival at the Front. New orders transferred him to Tours. Now as an aerial observer he photographed enemy territory through as hole cut in the floor an old training plane. On August 15th he became part of the Balloon Service at the Front. Writing to his Uncle Robert Chapin in November he said, “If I had stayed with the aeroplanes I would never have seen the front…… . I wanted action and volunteered for any job at the front and got my orders to join the 8th Balloon.” He joined the 8th Balloon Company on August 21st, as one of eight officers. Training included instructions about gas attacks and folding some parachutes.

     The observation balloon has been an important part of intelligence gathering during wartime. Their use began during the French Revolutionary Wars; the first at the battle of Fleures, June 16, 1794, and has continued to modern times. The peak for balloon reconnaissance was during World War I. Twenty-three balloon companies actually served at the front.

      The mission of the balloon was to regulate artillery fire, locate targets, report all activity seen within the enemy lines by day, and to report all that could be seen a night. The importance of their mission resulted in the balloons being defended by anti-aircraft guns, groups of machine gun for low altitude defense and patrolling fighter aircraft.


World War 1 Balloon.

World War 1 Balloon.

     Balloons were made of fabric envelopes and filled with flammable hydrogen causing them to be extremely vulnerable to destruction by enemy aircraft. Hundreds were destroyed by both sides.

Close-up view of an American major in the basket of an observation balloon flying over territory near front lines during World War I.

Close-up view of an American major in the basket of an observation balloon flying over territory near front lines during World War I.

        During World War I artillery had advanced to the point where it was able to engage targets beyond the visual range of ground based observers. The placement of observers in balloons located a few miles behind the front lines at altitude allowed the artillery to take advantage of this increased range. Of course, this made the observation balloons prime targets of enemy aircraft and enemy pilots relished the challenge of the risky opportunity to attack.

Balloon winch, to hold and retrieve the balloon.

Balloon winch, to hold and retrieve the balloon.


     The implementation of parachutes for the balloon pilots occurred during World War I. The pilot wore only a simple body harness around his waist with line attached to the parachute bag. First adopted by the Germans these parachutes were later used by the British and French for their balloon crews. Parachutes were actually used in balloons before aircraft.

      A little over a month after becoming a balloon observer Hudnut participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Early in the morning of September 26th, he and fellow observer, Lieutenant Cleo J. Ross, entered the basket and were put aloft in the dark, about 5a.m. According to Ross they had box seats at 1100 meters for the greatest battle ever staged in the history of the world. Unknown to them, their FATEFUL DAY WAS HERE!


Herbert B. Hudnut's military ID card.

Herbert B. Hudnut’s military ID card.

     Hudnut wrote in his diary the following of that fateful day: . . . “About 2:15 a Boche (french slang for a German soldier) shot into us from the sun. We both yelled Jump and I cleared headfirst in a tangle. My parachute opened and I saw the balloon explode and catch Ross’s chute on fire. Then I realized that the Boche had followed me and was pumping at me but the wind carried me safe and whirled me around.” . . .

 Lt. RossCleo Jepson Ross


     . . . “There were thirteen American balloons in the air that day. Thirteen observers jumped (twelve of the safely) from six balloons that were attacked. Three of the balloons burned, hit by the same enemy raider who shot down the 8th Balloon.” . . .  

      Hudnut and Ross had been attacked by a Fokker D. VII.

      Ross’s chute burned as he fell to the ground. Lt. Cleo J. Ross was the only recorded balloon observer to die in action during World War I. He is buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. He received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre and the Army Balloon School at Ross Field, Arcadia, California was named in his honor.


   Hudnut was honorably discharged on April 12, 1919, and returned home. He married Edith Schaaf on June 3, 1924, and started a family that would consist of four children. He eventually entered Western Theological Seminary at Pittsburgh, PA to become a Presbyterian minister. Having had his life spared ‘that fateful day.’ he felt he should do something especially worthy with his life. He ministered in churches in Dallas, TX; Cleveland, OH; Bellevue, PA and retired to Glens Falls in 1965 having served 25 years at the Woodard Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit, Michigan.


   He died in Glens Falls, in 1987 at the age of 93.



That Fateful Day, the Story of Two Lieutenants in the American Balloon Service of WWI, Herbert B. Hudnut Jr., Glens Falls Printing, 2006

 The US Air Service in WWI, volume 1, Editor Mauer Maurer

 American Armies and Battlefields I Europe, 1937 Edition

© May 16 2015, Warren County Historical Society.

Rewind maintained by Gary Evans 16 May 2015



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