William T. Badham is one of four Americans to earn the title of "Ace" as an observer during World War I. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 27 September 1895. As a young boy in Blount Springs, Alabama, he learned about war from Mary Gordon Duffy, a celebrated dispatch rider for the Confederate States Army. After finishing preparatory school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, he enrolled in Yale University where he participated in golf and football. During his freshman year, he tied for the championship in the Southern Invitational Golf Tournament but lost a sudden death playoff to his friend, Bobby Jones. Graduating with a degree in Philosophy in 1917, Badham sought to become a naval aviator, but failed the rigorous vision test. In May 1917, he was accepted into the Army's Officer Training School at Fort McPherson, Georgia, and in November, Second Lieutenant Badham was shipped to France as a casual officer. He then volunteered for aerial gunnery officer duty with the French Army. After training, he reported to the 210th Observation Squadron of the Fourth French Army near Metz, where he flew Latour and Breguet aircraft.
In May 1918, he transferred to the 91st Aero Squadron, an American observation unit flying Salmson 2A2s at Gondreville-sur-Moselle. His first mission ended in a crash landing in friendly territory after taking heavy antiaircraft fire. Badham scored his first victory on 15 September and on 23 October downed two more enemy aircraft for which General Billy Mitchell later awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. On 29 October, he scored the last of five victories gained over the battlefields of Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. First Lieutenant Badham remained with the 91st until January 1919 when he transferred to the Army of Occupation.
Shortly thereafter, he returned to America. Following release from active duty, he soon made the first of many trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to pursue his love of painting. In 1922, he returned to Birmingham and founded a chemical business. In 1947, he invented a process for refining naphthalene from crude tar oils. For many years he spent much of his time painting and traveling with his wife, Margaret W. Tyson. Retiring as President of the Naphthalene Products Company in 1960, he spends the summer and fall months high atop Lookout Mountain in the village of Mentone, Alabama. This year he published a three-language memoir, which contains reproductions of many of his landscapes--a fitting tribute to this aviator turned artist.
The 91st Aero Squadron was one of the outstanding Air Service units of World War I. During the Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives of 1918, the 91st flew deep into German-held territory to provide reconnaissance for the " doughboys" fighting in the mud and trenches below. In addition to the hazards of heavy antiaircraft fire and enemy pursuit aircraft, crews faced complex duties. The observer had to navigate, direct the pilot, and operate cameras, radios, and signaling devices--all while maintaining situational awareness and using a pair of Lewis machine guns to defend his Salmson. William Badham, despite the hazards posed by enemy aircraft, freezing temperatures at 5,000 meters, and fight with no parachute, excelled in his duties and became one of only four Air Service observers to become an ace.