The Most Curious History of Airship Captain Jack Libra

Of all the World War I heroes known to history, one name stands relatively unsung and unknown: Airship Captain Jack Libra. Very little is known about him. He refused all interviews, refused to profit from his heroic actions, and nearly everything outside of his life in military service is unknown. What little history and few photographs could be found, have been gathered into this article from old family archives.

Jack Libra grew up the son of a pioneering family in the largely unsettled Trinity River Valley of Texas, between present-day Fort Worth and Dallas. Life was hard in the Valley; when the heat, hail, tornadoes, and diseases didn’t try to kill you, the critters reckoned it was their turn to try. Jack Libra had to grow up strong and fast. His reputation as a crackshot and horseman was only outdone by his reputation as a hellraiser. By the turn of the century, when the Texas pioneer life proved “too soft” for him, he traveled through Europe, seeking adventure and ended up in France where he learned the finer arts of social graces and found love in a certain miss Marthe Richard, known only as the result of a letter he wrote back home during this time. Though the reasons why are lost to history, the two parted ways in 1905 and Jack, in a fugue, joined the French Foreign Legion, lying about his age to gain admittance. It is estimated that he was 15 at the time, though his official registration in the legion listed him as 18.

The exact timeframe of what happened next is unclear, but during his six year term of service, Jack’s Cavalry compagnie was separated in Algeria, and his section found itself and his men under ambush in the N’Ajjer Tassili canyons. Caught between snipers on either ridge, and a pair of nested Maxim machine guns, Jack found himself one of only five survivors. His Lieutenant’s last order was to for Jack to “take out those damnable Maxims!” Jack, to his credit, did just that, with only his sidearm, and inexplicably “the left stirrup of my poor fallen steed, which was put to great effect in silencing the second nest after I ran out of bullettes [sic].” According to his report later at then Fort Charles de Gaulle outside of Djanet, he then proceeded to climb the ridge under fire, taking three bullets in the process, then charged, leapt upon, and managed to kill both a sniper and spotter, whereupon he “took the heathen’s crude rifle and employed it in removing the threat of the other four snipers and their aids before the remainder of the raiders surrendered.” When processing the prisoner count, the total came to 94.

Through stroke of luck, each bullet left a clean wound, and impaired nothing but perhaps Jacks common sense. Eventually, life in the legion became too dull, and with the rank of Caporal Chef there was nothing other than the soft life of an officer ahead of him. And so he left, hoping to find action in the British Navy, using the citizenship papers of a Basil Dowd, whom had died during the Tassili strike.

To hide his obvious lack of a British accent, he rarely spoke, and even then, only in the briefest of terms. He became known as a hard worker, and learned his craft from the inside out, starting in the Engine Room and working his way up to the Cabin just before the outbreak of World War I. In 1918, while serving aboard the HMS Furious, there was to be a bombing run on Tondern. After he “regretfully, put to sleep a gentleman scholar and pilot with a boiler wrench,” he donned the pilot’s uniform and assumed the seat of his Sopwith Camel 2F1. He then, along with six others, bombed the German airbase, achieved a confirmed 34 aircraft kills, and destroyed the two L54 and L60 Zeppelins stationed there.

“It caused me profound grief to have destroyed so beautiful and graceful a work of art,” he later wrote in his report about the destruction of the zeppelins. “Alas, it could not be avoided, for the German menace would use them to evil ends, but I should only wish to have such remarkable airships at our disposal.”

Jack would get his wish, but only after being sentanced to brig for assault upon a superior officer. After serving an indefinite period of time in the brig, it was discovered that his was not, in fact, Basil Dowd, and that his last verifiable residence had been France. He was turned over to French authorities in the middle of winter, where he was disappointed to discover that the war had ended, and asked if he might return to the Foreign Legion. The French government, in turn, discovered his actual American citizenship, whereupon he was turned back over the the American embassy in Paris. After another indeterminate length of time, Jack was put into the test pilot program for an experimental line of airships to be designed by a Mr. Albert Caquot.

The C-Type Airship was the only heavy-combat dirigible of its type. Semi-rigid in form, it housed a staggering twenty 50kg bombs, eight machine guns, four Sopwith Camels, and a device only briefly referred to in paperwork as “The Wombler,” believed to be an early tank-like all-terrain vehicle. Despite the excellent handling of the airship under all testing conditions, the lack of warfare led to lack of funding, and the program was eventually scrapped in 1927.

Without a home, a purpose, or even employment, he left the embassy one night to seek out his old love, Marthe Richard, once more. When he finally managed to locate her in Versailles, he found to his dismay that she had already married. Broken-hearted, his last tie to France having been destroyed, he returned home to America, where he traded his numerous service metals and remaining cash for an old Hildebrand & Wolfmüller motorcycle. He then rode off west, and despite unsubstantiated and often conflicting reports of contact with him in the following years, he was never seen or heard from again.

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