O'Brien, Patrick Alva MC
This account of Pat O’Brien’s life would not have been possible without considerable help from Marcia Tedford, to whom I am indebted.
Pat O'Brien was eager to join in the war and like many Americans he crossed the border to join the RFC in Canada. His story is one of heroism, determination and adulation by the American public with a brief glimpse of fame, but finally rejection.
Pat had lain in an unmarked plot in the town cemetery in Momence, forgotten by the Townsfolk who once revered him. In 2006 Rex Rowe, former Momence City Alderman and Mayor for 26 years, himself a WWII Veteran and prisoner of war, decided that Pat’s last resting place should be honoured by the community. The Cemetery caretaker marked Pat’s grave and plans were made as 12 local people raised money for a grave marker to be placed on the site of his grave.
The formal dedication to honour Pat took place in Momence on 31 July 2007, many members of the O’Brien family attended as well as people from Momence. Prayers were offered, bagpipes played and speeches given by Mr B. Cotter, Director of the Momence Honour Guard, The British Consul-General of Chicago the Honourable Andrew Seaton presented a Union flag to Pats family Gerald Petro, Pat’s great-nephew, spoke on behalf of the family and Rex Rowe. Mr Rex Rowe the man who first decided to honour Pat gave a short address and finally Dr. B. Olofsson led a fly-by of two biplanes, it should be noted that Marcia Tedford was involved with research and many administrative tasks to make the day a success.
Patrick Alva O’Brien was born in the small Illinois town of Momence, Kankakee County near Chicago on the 13 December 1890, the seventh of nine children born to Margaret O’Brien nee Hathaway and her labourer husband Daniel O’Brien. It should be noted that the family bible gives his name as Alva F O’Brien. Pat states in his book “Out Witting the Hun” (Harper Brothers published March 1918) that he started flying at the age of 18 in 1912 (If this date is correct he would have been born in 1894). His mother, some of his brothers and sisters resided in the town during 1917-21, he had another brother, Merwin who was living in California at the time of his death.
Pat started his flying career in 1912 near Chicago, and later went to California where according to Pat he and an unknown associate built their own aircraft. Before 1916 it is known that he was living in Richmond, California and was working for the Santa Fe Railway company as a Fireman.
United States and the Punitive Expedition 1916
In January 1916, a group of villistas attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and killed 18 American employees of the ASARCO company. This raid was though to have been instigated by Pancho Villa. On 9 March 1916 the Mexicans attacked Columbus New Mexico. The US decided to respond to the Columbus raid by sending 6,000 troops under General John J. Pershing to Mexico and pursue Villa. During the search for Villa, the United States Air Service under took its first air combat mission with eight Curtiss JN3 aeroplanes from the 1st Aero Squadron. At the same time Villa, was also being sought by Carranza's Mexican army. The U.S. expedition was eventually called off after failing to find Villa, and Villa successfully evaded capture by either force.
Patrick joined the Aviation Section of the US Signal Corps and in 1916 hoping to join in the action against Villa, but he was be stationed at San Diego for about eight months with the Army Flying School. North Island San Diego Aviation Camp was established in 1911 by the Signal Corps after Glenn Curtiss made the first flight on the uninhabited island on 26 January 1911. In 1915 the Camp became a permanent A.S.C. aviation school. Congress purchased the site in August 1917, by which time Pat was probably a prisoner of war. The Camp became known as Rockwell Field in 1918 and was shared with the Army and Navy until 1939. But I digress; Pat became restless after some eight months due to the lack of action, so he resigned and made his way north to Canada and joined the Royal Flying Corps. Some sources say that he joined the Canadian Army in Victoria B.C. Unfortunately I have not been able to confirm this. Pat then joined the R.F.C. in Canada, if he followed the usual pattern he would have been sent to 4 School of Military Aviation in Toronto for basic training and then to 81 CTS at Camp Borden for his initial flying training, later he became a flying Instructor.
With the RFC
In May 1917 along with seventeen other Canadian cadets he left for England onboard the S. S. Magantic. Other members of the draft are quite interesting from a 66 Squadron perspective. Those from the British Empire and Dominions were T L Atkinson (46 sqn pow 22/11/17), F C Conry, A C Jones, C R Moore (59 Sqn kia 8/3/1918), A Muir, C. Nelmes, J R Park, P H Raney (66 Sqn KIA 21/08/1917), E A L F Smith (57 Sqn kwf 27/9/1918). From America came A A Allen (46 Sqn kia 11/10/1917), H K Boysen (66 Sqn), E B Garnett (61 T S kwf 27/1/1918), F S McClurg, H A Miller, C C Robinson (66 Sqn), H A Smeeton (66 Sqn) and A Taylor. As can be seen five of these pilots would serve with 66:
• Howard Koch Boysen (wia. 28 January 1918)
• Patrick Alva O’Brien (pow 17 August 1917)
• Paul Hartley Raney (kia on 21 August 1917)
• Charles Claude Robinson
• Herbert Arthur Smeeton
After arriving in England they all underwent further flying training. On gaining his wings Pat was awarded Royal Aero Club certificate 5397 on 16 June 1917, he gave his home address as 43 Powell Street, San Francisco, California. Pat was sent to 23 (Training) Wing in England arriving on 28 June 1917. 23 Wing’s main aerodrome was at South Carlton with a half flight at Thetford. By the 20 July 1917 he had been posted to Reading and 1 School of Instruction. His record indicates that he was then posted to 81 Squadron on 25 July, although 81 Squadron was not officially due to form at Scampton as a training unit until 1 August 1917 under the control of 23 Wing, but Pat O’Brien was posted to 66 Squadron via the Pilots Pool in France on 28 July 1917.
Pat went to France the 28 July along with Edgar H. Garland from New Zealand and Charles. H. F. Nobbs from Norfolk Island Australia.
Garland was captured on the 22 August when his Scout's engine failed and would later attempt to escape Holzminden himself
(see The Tunnellers of Holzminden by Durnford M.C. 1920). Nobbs was shot down on 20 September and like Pat became a prisoner of war.
Pat's first flight with 66 Squadron was on the evening of the 12 August when he flew B1710 with New Zealander
Ralph Steadman and his friend from training days in Canada Paul Raney. In his book Pat notes that he was "taken over the lines to get a look at things".
The next day (13 August) he had a morning practice flight, along with William Keast and Paul Raney arriving back at the aerodrome at 08.40
a.m. His first combat patrol was made later the same day when along with patrol leader, Evelyn H Lascelles, Ralph Stedman, Frank S Wilkins
and William Keast they undertook the squadron's third patrol of the day.
On the 16 August patrol leader Angus Bell-Irving led Paul Raney, Pat in B1732, Ralph Stedman, William Keast and Evelyn Lascelles on the first patrol of the day. Lascelles dropped out of the formation around 9 a.m. with gun problems landing at 1 squadron’s aerodrome at Bailleul (Asylum Ground), 30 minutes later Pat dropped out of the patrol landing at 100 squadron’s home at Treizennes with engine trouble. He departed 100 squadron at 11.30 a.m. arriving 66 squadron at 1.50 p.m. a flight of some 2hrs 20 minutes although the distance if some 5-6 Kms. Pat in his book states that “After doing our regular patrol, it was our privilege to go off on our own hook, if we wished, before going back to the squadron” later on page 21 he retells the events of the 17 August, his claim of a two seater and notes that he saw “two German balloons and decided to go off on his own hook and see what a German balloon looked like at close quarters”. Does this account for the time he took to return to his home aerodrome the previous day, if he did go of on his own hook the flight should still have been recorded in the squadron record book, even then, would an experienced Squadron Commander like Boyd let a new recruit go off on his own over the Lines? Later on page 23 he says “When our two hours duty was up, therefore, I dropped out of the formation as we crossed the lines and turned back again”. There is no possibility of the Sopwith Scout having a combat endurance of some four hours or more. I suspect that the flight probably took place on the 16 whilst making his way back from 100 Sqn. On 17 August, Pat on his first patrol of the day, claimed an unidentified reconnaissance C type but later in the evening, after shooting down an unidentified D type Scout he was in turn shot down, sustaining a gunshot wound to his neck crashing behind the German lines and became a prisoner of war. Pat was quite close to 2/Lt Paul Raney who signed for Pat’s personnel belongings and sent them back to Cox & Co the RFC Bankers in England. The McKean County Miner (20 June 1918) newspaper carried a photograph of the document and Pat mentions it in his book. He also claims to have witnessed the dogfight of the 21 August when his friend and travelling companion Paul Raney was shot down and killed, possibly by Ltn Weiss of Jasta 28. Also shot down that day and killed was 2/Lt. William R Keast (In his book O’Brien mistakenly calls him “Keith” from Australia, he was a native of Carlton, Victoria, Australia, although his parents lived in Brighton, Melbourne, Australia.) Keast is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.
Pat O’Brien was determined to escape from his German captors and the story is well told in his inimitable style in “Outwitting the Hun,” his book. After his initial capture he was put through the usual interrogation by the Germans and then on the 9 September he was sent to the Officers prison camp at Courtrai. Later Pat and five other British and one French officer were to be sent to another camp in Germany via Ghent. Luckily his injuries were not too severe and on 9 September Pat O’Brien escaped from his German escort by leaping from the train whilst in motion. Making his way through Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland he returned to England on 19 November 1917, he covered the 320 miles in some seventy two days. (for a fuller account of his trials and tribulations see his book).
On his return to England he was debriefed by a Capt. J S H Moore on 23 November 1917, the report carries little of note, the military must have been content with his story or no doubt he would not have been awarded the MC. He very quickly sent a telegram to his mother on the 28 or 29 November saying “escaped from German prison: letter follows”. Whilst in London he sought out the U.S. Ambassador Walter Hines Page for advice on how to transfer to the American Flying Corps. Whilst recuperating in England he must have started to write his book “Outwitting The Hun” which was published in March 1918. Pat relinquished his commission on 21 March 1918 whilst on three months leave. His Military Cross was gazetted on 12 December 1919.
Pat was presented to King George V (1910-36) on the 7 December 1917 at Buckingham Palace and talked to the King for nearly an hour. Then Pat returned to the USA and his family in Momence. He departed Liverpool on 23 December 1917, on board was a comrade from that fateful flight when he was shot down, Lt Evelyn H Lascelles. They travelled via Dublin, St. John, New Brunswick, New York and Chicago where he caught the train to Momence arriving on 11 January 1918.
A large crowd of people turned out to greet their hero, including his “Mom” Margaret. The town of Momence closed down, stores and schools were shut, the streets decked with flags and bunting and a brass band met him as he stepped off the train. The town had a parade through the streets and a community dinner in the City Hall. Speeches were given by various dignitaries including one given by a nervous Pat.
On his return home he quickly undertook promotional series of talks about his experiences around the country and many newspapers serialized his book. He made the headlines again on the 14 June 1918 when he crashed from about 2000ft, breaking his nose flying a training machine at Kelly Field, San Antonio Texas.
Return to France
There are reports that he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and that he flew over the lines on or just after the armistice which was signed on 11 November. This is all rather confusing although his British passport has a stamp from the French Consul in Chicago dated 16 October giving permission to leave for France. On 22 October he cleared the British Military Control Office in New York with the object of “joining the French Foreign Legion” and the same day he cleared U.S. Customs. Pat disembarked in Bordeaux on the 3 November, and was in Paris on 28 November staying at the Hôtel Édouard VII in early December when he visited the British Consul, where his passport was stamped for travel to New York possibly via the U.K., he actually departed for home from Bordeaux on 2 December 1918 aboard the SS La Lorraine. Further to the above, Pat also obtained an American passport in August 1919 for his trip to China and on the application form he states that he was in the French army and that he used his British passport and his pilots certificate as proof of his identity.
After the War
On the 29 December 1918 a short note in The Decatur Review confirmed that Pat had announced his intention to be the first man to attempt a non stop transatlantic flight in an aeroplane. Work on a suitable aeroplane was due to start in six weeks with the flight attempt to take place in April of 1919. He was aligned with two associates Capt. I. F. Fuller and Lt. C C Robinson, the same man who had been aboard the S.S. Magantic back in May 1917 and who had also served in 66 Squadron. In 1919 a British newspaper, the Daily Mail offered a £10,000. First prize to the first aviator to cross the Atlantic from any point in the United States, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland or the other way in 72 consecutive hours, entrants had to hold an Aviators certificate issued by the International Aeronautical Federation. Ultimately the prize was won by Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy.
During 1919 Pat also undertook a 700 mile trip across the Gobi Desert in an Allen car, travelling from Seattle in the Empress of Russia via. Victoria B.C. Vancouver, Shanghai, Vladivostok, Minsk, Moscow, Caigan, China to Urga, Mongolia, he later said how was delighted with the way the car had performed during the arduous journey. Later in June 1920 an announcement in the Los Angeles Times brought to the attention of the California public the formation of a new company, the Hedding-O’Brien Motor Company, who were selling Allen cars. They were trading from a lot at 512 West Twelfth Street. Interestingly the article notes that Pat had served under eight flags and fought in six wars.
Shadows of the West
The film Shadows of the West was probably shot in the USA during 1918 or early 1919, and was released in 1920 not long after his death. His wife-to-be, Virginia Elizabeth Livingston Allen, using her stage name of Virginia Dale co-stared in the film. One commentator describes the film as “A bizarre mix of yellow peril sensationalism and the ordinary wild west shenanigans”. As you might deduce the film was quite controversial in its day and was withdrawn shortly after release in October 1920 and re-edited and released again in 1921. The background to the film was the “Asiatic Question”; it was released as the U.S. Federal government was in negotiations with the Imperial Japanese government about the number of Japanese émigrés to California where a ballot was due on the anti-alien land-owning measure bill on 2 November 1920
The Events Surrounding Patrick’s Death
After his return to America it is known that Pat spent some time in Washington D.C. where it is though he met Virginia. “The Lowell Tribune” 13 May 1920 carried a report that Pat had announced his marriage to Mrs E E Allen and that after a three week romance they married in Havana, Cuba in January 1920, although he might not have needed them, there are no stamps in his British Passport which was valid until 1921 to confirm that he had visited the Island. Pat and his bride moved to California, setting up home in Pasadena, California.
Things turned sour between Pat and his wife and they separated, Virginia went to stay at the fashionable Alexandria Hotel Los Angeles, which in those days was a major meeting place for people like Charlie Chaplin and other movie moguls and stars. Pat went and booked into the Hotel and attempted to reconcile himself with Virginia, but the attempt failed and on the 17 December 1920 he ended his life with a shot to his head. In a note that he wrote in his hotel room, Pat wrote to Virginia ”…..and bring back trouble, sickness, disgrace and more bad luck than anyone else in the world has ever had and curse forever that awful woman that has broken our home and has taken you away from me”. Mrs Sarah Ottis of Springfield Illinois was Virginia’s travelling companion, who it later transpired had initially introduced Virginia to Pat. Ottis took on the role of spokeswoman on behalf of the widow, she went on to say that Mrs O’Brien expressed the opinion her husband had been mentally unbalanced and that he planned to kill her had she responded to a telephone request to meet him. It turned out that Pat was talking about Mrs Ottis as the woman concerned of having interfered in the family affairs, although Mrs O’Brien refuted the allegation. She went on to say that on the last Thursday Pat had broken her finger in a fit of temper, which prompted her to leave the home and move to the hotel.
The police were called and Detective Williams was assigned to the case, although what he made of the case has yet to be revealed. Pat’s sister Mrs Clara Clegg had gone to California to visit Pat for the winter. She was contacted by the Police and in turn Clara sent the sad news to Mrs O’Brien in Momence, Clara also notified her brother, Merwin (sometimes called John) and nephew Jack Clegg who were visiting San Francisco at the time.
Claim and Counter Claim
The family were reluctant to acknowledge that Pat might have committed suicide; a story went round that whilst Pat was in China he had obtained two Buddha images from a temple and that it was known that two Chinese agents were following him around America in an effort to retrieve them. It is reported that one of the agents visited Momence when the images were on display in the show window of Burdick’s drug store. Another newspaper rumour which was true said that Pat had invested a considerable amount of money in an “anti Japan film” (Shadows of the West) which had been shown around the Pacific coast.
Clara Clegg and other members of the family claimed the death was caused by murder. Brother Merwin emphatically denied that Pat had killed himself and that Pat had not been married to Virginia Allen. The widow issued a statement that he had killed himself because his mind was unbalanced and that they had married in Havana, Cuba on 1 January 1920 and the witness was Mrs A V Deckham of 5217 Romaing Street. Attempts by the press to interview the witness were unsuccessful.
On the 20 December Merwin O’Brien is also quoted as saying “I cannot understand what became of my brother’s fortune”, he goes on to say that his brother Patrick had more than $150.000 in stocks, Liberty bonds and cash less than a year ago. Merwin continued that there was $50.000 in cash held in banks in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, $50.000 in steel stocks and $25.000 in Liberty bonds. Royalties from his book netted him around $15.000, there was also money from his magazine articles and lectures. The same day in another report the widow’s companion Mrs Sarah Ottis said that Mrs O’Brien is so broken up she is unable to speak for herself but if the truth must be known it might as well come from me. Pat O’Brien was financially embarrassed; he had spent all his money and he owed money all over Los Angeles. Finally he pawned Mrs O’Brien’s rings which she had before the marriage, and then the end came. Despite Merwin and friend Virgil Moore’s efforts on 30 December 1920, Capt. Charles R Moffatt who was in charge of the Los Angeles Detective Bureau announced that a second investigation of the death confirmed the findings of the first investigation.
A Sad Day in Momence
The body of Pat accompanied by his sister and nephew departed Los Angeles on the 21 December and arrived in Momence the following Thursday the 23rd. A crowd assembled at the station to meet Mrs Clegg and the body at Momence station. There were no bands or a gay parade this time. The funeral was arranged by his fellow Masons, the service taking part at the Methodist church on a bitterly cold Monday 27th. Due to the train carrying the British government representative from Chicago Colonel Brandt being an hour late, the funeral started around 1100 a.m. The procession left the O’Brien home and was led by some fifty ex-servicemen, next followed a party of 75 masons, the hearse followed behind surrounded by pall bearers, the family and others following the cortege in cars numbered around 100. After the service he was laid to rest in Momence Cemetery near his father who had died in 1901. Patrick did not come from a wealthy family and it would appear that he had no money left and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
A Strange Twist
In February 1921 the parents of a Byron Munson, a movie actor, went to court to have the marriage of their son and Gwendolyn Ottis, daughter of Dr Daniel Mortimer Ottis and Sarah of Springfield Ill., annulled on the grounds that Byron contracted the marriage on the ground of marriage without consent of his parents before he was of age and that he is not self-supporting. The report goes on to say that Mrs Ottis was the woman mentioned in the Pat O’Brien suicide as “that awful woman”. Munson gave an interview in Los Angeles on the 15 February 1921 saying that he had spoken to Pat, who had informed him that he was going to commit suicide; Munson said “thinking he was joking I told him it would be a darned good thing”. The report states that Byron and Gwendolyn “quarrelled all the time. She left me a month ago and went back to her father at Springfield”. “I guess I’ll let mother pick out my next wife” he said.
Last updated 28 December 2010
This account of Pat O’Brien’s life would not have been possible without considerable help from Marcia Tedford, to whom I am indebted.