Love's letters: Book tells story of hometown hero
PRESCOTT - Today, the name "Ernest A. Love" is a fairly generic local title - almost a household term. But for one early-1900s Prescott family, the significance of the name went much deeper.
Dozens of letters that young Ernest Love sent to his parents throughout his college and military years make it apparent that the Prescott High School graduate and World War I fighter pilot was not only a beloved hometown hero, but a cherished son as well.
Even though 90 years have gone by since Love died while piloting a fighter plane in France during World War I, his name still endures in the community. As the namesake for both Prescott's airport and its American Legion Post, Love occupies a permanent spot in local history.
His letters are on record at Prescott's Sharlot Hall Museum, and were central to the research that aviation historian Alan Roesler did for a new book, "An Arizona Aviator in France."
Roesler discussed Love's brief but notable life during a meeting of the local chapter of the American Aviation Historic Society at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University this past week.
The presentation attracted more than 75 people - many of them Embry-Riddle students who appeared to be no younger than the images Roesler showed of Love: a fresh-faced pilot-in-training, proudly sporting his new aviator gear.
Love, too, began as a college student, studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. But for Love, war intervened. In 1917, he enlisted in the Army, where he received flight training and became one of America's first military aviators.
The letters, which Love's mother likely gave to Prescott's American Legion Post 6 before her death, offer a vivid glimpse of life as an early fighter pilot. The Legion Post later donated the letters, along with the original envelopes, and other documents to the museum.
While many of the letters focus on flight training - at one point, Love writes, "I'm getting so doggoned tired of this continual training" - they also describe his foray into combat. Just a month before his death in September 1918, Love wrote to his parents, "I was under fire this morning for the first time in my life..."
Despite the obvious trauma of the day, Love focuses on details rather than emotion: "The only thing to do when the archies (anti-aircraft fire) start is to zigzag about and keep changing altitude so as to make it a case of luck rather than good figuring if you are hit," he wrote.
Many of Love's letters also revealed the close ties he had with his parents and the friends he left behind.
For instance, while spending Christmas Eve 1917 in New York City as he awaited his orders to go overseas, Love wrote: "Well, here it is the night before Christmas and the first one I can remember spending away from you."
Later, as he traveled through Paris on his way to Italy, Love wrote again: "Paris is a wonderful place and I hope we may all see it sometime together."
Love also mentioned in numerous letters his appreciation for the hand-knitted sweaters, homemade cakes, and constant letters that his parents sent to him.
"I wear that sweater you made me all the time, and I don't know what I would do without it; it certainly is handy," he wrote as the weather turned cold in New York.
Roesler, after conducting extensive research and transcribing many of Love's communications, feels an obvious bond with the young man who penned the letters.
"I feel like I know him better than almost anybody's ever known him," Roesler said, as he signed books after the Embry-Riddle presentation.
And by all accounts, Love was a likeable over-achiever - a young man who, during his short 23 years of life, had gained hometown-hero status as a Prescott High School All-State football player, had enrolled at the prestigious Stanford University, and had gained a wide circle of friends, both at home and abroad.
And throughout his career as a fighter pilot, Love never flinched from his duties. In one of his letters to his parents, Love related his experiences while training in Italy.
"I don't know whether I told you in my last letter that some of us may be sent to the Italian front," he wrote, "and I have put in my application to go if any are sent."
That was typical of Love's attitude, Roesler said.
"Ernest was one of those guys who volunteered for everything," he said, pointing out that a written account of flights in Gorrell's "History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service" indicate that Love always was up for his next challenge.
"If I look at the roster (from Gorrell's record), I can tell you who the slackers were," Roesler said, adding that Love was not among them. "He squeezed a lot of combat patrols into a very short time."
Love never did get to the front in Italy. Rather, he returned in the summer of 1918 to France, where he almost immediately began flying combat missions.
On Sept. 15, 1918, as Love prepared to leave on a patrol with his squadron, he encountered engine problems with his plane, causing the other pilots to leave without him.
In a decision that would doom him, Love opted to leave on his own a few minutes later. He never caught up with his squadron and ended up facing German fighter planes alone.
A German fighter plane ultimately shot down Love's aircraft, and for years afterward, the Army designated Love as "missing in action."
But an account that Love's childhood neighbor, Amelia Henry Oldershaw, made to Sharlot Hall Museum in 1991 related the story that Love's parents learned in the early 1920s.
According to Oldershaw's interview account, the Loves received a letter from a French priest, reporting that Love "was shot down on French soil, occupied by the Germans." The priest rescued the U.S. pilot and took him to a French "dressing station" and tried to care for his badly mangled left arm and other wounds.
"Before Ernest died, he gave the priest his family's name and address," Oldershaw said in the interview. "The priest and his parishioners buried Ernest. After the war, Love's body was removed to Flanders Field, where it remained for several years."
Oldershaw said the news of Love's last days brought comfort to his parents. "They were very relieved and grateful to know their son had been rescued and died in friendly hands and was given a Christian burial," she said.
Later, the Loves had their son's body moved again - to Arlington National Cemetery, where it remains today. Roesler pointed out that the rest of the Love family, including two young sons who died as children, lie at Prescott's Mountain View Cemetery. There, the family placed a marker for Ernest that states: "There is no way I would rather go than serving my country."
Roesler's book is available for sale at the Sharlot Hall Museum bookstore, 415 W. Gurley St.