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Neosho Daily News - Neosho, MO
  • WES FRANKLIN: Neosho’s WWI pilot

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  • I noticed the other day that the old Bill Dougan house at 211 E. Hickory St. in Neosho is up for sale.
    I’ve been a fan of Dougan for years. In fact, his was my favorite story to tell visitors at the Newton County Museum while I was director there. When there were kids in the group, or sometimes even if there weren’t, I would include my own machine gun sound effects (a poor imitation) as I described how Dougan took on a German balloon in his bi-plane – and got sprayed, and seriously wounded, by ground fire in the process. I would talk about how he crashed into a farm house and was rescued by the same Germans he had just been shooting at. And then I would show Dougan’s leather jacket, likely the same one you see here in this photo, and point to the bullet holes in it. He was shot eight times in all.
    Lastly, I would show the letter Dougan received from King George V of England, thanking him for his service.
    It’s all at the museum.
    William Leigh Dougan was born in Salem, Mo., in 1891 and moved with his mother and siblings to Neosho in 1912 when he was about 21 years old. They lived in the house at 211 E. Hickory Street where Bill would later spend the rest of his days.
    After World War I fired up in 1914, and a full three years before America entered the war, Dougan went to Canada and enlisted in the British Army. He served first with the infantry, then the motor pool, then the ambulance corps, before finally getting a sought-after transfer to the British Royal Flying Corps in 1917. He didn’t know how to fly at that time, but was trained in England. He was slightly injured during his training, when his plane crashed to the ground and he was thrown about 20 feet.
    Lt. Dougan was assigned to the 29th Squadron, and in the summer of 1918 was involved in several dogfights with German planes, though he didn’t get a kill. That was about to change.
    In late September, just a couple of months before the war ended, his squadron was involved in a series of combat operations over Belgium, as part of a major offensive.
    Sept. 28, 1918, was a bittersweet date for Dougan. In a letter to his mother he said he experienced “the greatest half hour I ever had in my life.” He managed to shoot down a two-seater German aeroplane and no less than four manned enemy balloons (used for observational purposes), but he may have bit off more than he could chew. The fifth balloon was anchored close to the ground and Dougan took enemy machine gun fire. Bullets pierced through the thin fabric of his bi-plane and traced a path up his left leg. Dougan later wrote that he could have made it back to his lines but then an eighth bullet hit him in the chest and nipped his lung. Gasping for air and bleeding from his eight bullet wounds, Dougan knew he was about to pass out. He shut off his engine and tried to glide into a field but crashed through a farmhouse instead and was knocked unconscious. The crew of the balloon he had attempted to shoot down ran over and pulled him from the wreck, bandaged his wounds, gave him a drink, and then took a photo of them all together (I wish we had that picture today. Who knows if it still exists, perhaps in some German family’s old photo album).
    Page 2 of 2 - Dougan remained a prisoner of war for only a short time, and that time spent in the hospital, before the armistice was declared. Afterward, he received the aforementioned “thank you letter” from King George V, now on display in the museum (along with his bullet-riddled flight jacket, surgically-removed trousers, and x-ray showing the bullet that hit him in the chest.)
    Dougan has several pages devoted to him in the book “In Clouds of Glory: American Airmen who Flew with the British in the Great War.”
    Dougan left the British service in October 1919, but he didn’t leave his love of flying. He returned to Neosho and spent the rest of his life working as a private pilot, an aerial photographer, a crop duster, and any other work he could find to do with an airplane.
    Dougan married Helen North in 1922 and together they lived in the house at 211 E. Hickory St. until Dougan’s death in 1968. Helen died in 1991. They are buried in Neosho’s IOOF Cemetery. I was strolling through the cemetery some time back and came across their gravestone. It says nothing of Dougan’s wartime service. It doesn’t say much at all, in fact. Just names, birth years and death years. That’s it. Not even specific dates.
    But in that line etched on stone, connecting birth year with death year, an adventure was had.

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