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#18 “Daredevil” Hersey: Rough Rider and Aeronaut

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Henry HerseyHenry Blanchard “Daredevil” Hersey, Norwich class of 1885, led a colorful and adventure-filled life in which he played many roles, including as a meteorologist, balloonist and member of the Rough Riders.

A native of Williamstown, Vt., Hersey entered Norwich in 1881. Like many students in the nineteenth century he left after two years to enter the United States Signal Service at Fort Myer, Va. He was assigned to the US Weather Bureau and became inspector for the bureau’s Western Department, which covered the West and Southwest.

When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Hersey was commissioned a major in the First United States Volunteer Cavalry, commonly known as the “Rough Riders.” The enthusiastic volunteers were a motley assortment that included college athletes, cowboys and “Fifth Avenue Boys,” men from socially prominent, wealthy families. Hersey served ably as a drillmaster of the regiment, but his role was eclipsed by Theodore Roosevelt, who served first as lieutenant colonel and later as commander of the regiment.

In widely circulated accounts of the activities of the regiment, including the dismounted assault against Kettle and San Juan Hills in Cuba, the “Roosevelt” Rough Riders became the objects of adulation by an admiring American public. Roosevelt’s book The Rough Riders (1902), greatly magnifies his own role in the war at the expense of others, including Henry Hersey.

Henry Hersey and Frank Lahm in the basket of a balloon

Maj. Hersey and Lt. Frank P. Lahm stand proudly in the basket of the balloon named the United States, at the start of the first Gordon Bennett race.

After the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt’s attention became fixed on the White House, and Hersey was drawn to ballooning and arctic exploration. In 1906 he participated in the first Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race. Seven countries were represented by sixteen balloons in a race that started in Paris.

Hersey and his partner, Lt. Frank P. Lahm, upset the favored contenders in the race. Hersey’s expertise in meteorology was undoubtedly helpful in taking advantage of wind currents that carried their balloon across the English Channel to the Yorkshire coast, just short of the North Sea. They traveled 402 miles in 22 hours, beating Italy by 31 miles. Lahm and Hersey shared a 12,500-franc prize and brought to the United States not only its first trophy in international aerial competition, but the honor of hosting the next international competition in St. Louis.

Maj. Hersey was one of the first American aeronautical analysts to recognize that dirigible balloons and the primitive “aeroplanes,” then under development by the Wright brothers, had enormous military implications. In a 1909 article he wrote for Century Magazine, he reported that most of the great nations were in the process of developing battle fleets of “war-balloons.” He also ominously warned that airships with the capability of “hovering like vultures over cities, harbors and fortifications, dealing, with hawk-like swiftness, death and destruction, and then disappearing as suddenly” constituted a grave potential menace. The development of aeroplanes, Hersey speculated, would be tantamount to the creation of a “cavalry” unit in an aerial army and the heavier dirigibles would “constitute a combination of infantry and artillery.” Dirigible bombers would not only have great destructive power resulting from their ability to drop “aerial torpedoes” inside lines of defense, but would also serve to undermine enemy morale. Given those circumstances, Hersey urged the United States to devote more resources to aerial warfare and, eventually to create a separate aerial corps within the US Army.

During World War I, Hersey was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and given command of the US Army Balloon School at Fort Omaha, Neb. As school commander, he tried out every new parachute before allowing a student to use it. Promoted to colonel, Hersey next served in France with the Balloon Division until 1919. In addition to his aeronautical and wartime achievements, Hersey was an active member of the Aero Club of France and the Aero Club of America. Hersey was also a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society of London.

Hersey was conferred a Bachelor of Science degree from Norwich (designated as for 1885) in recognition of his substantial accomplishments. He was also awarded a Master of Science degree in 1906. The statoscope (an instrument for measuring a rise or fall in balloon altitude) that Hersey used in the 1906 Gordon Bennett Race is on display in the Sullivan Museum and History Center at Norwich University.

—Gary Lord, Professor of History

These excerpts are from an article titled “Henry B. Hersey: Rough Rider and Aeronaut” that was originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of The Record.

Additional information on Henry Hersey, including the full article written by Prof. Lord for The Record, can be found in the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections.