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Kaiser Cows
Bovine Saboteurs of WWI

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
They appeared to walk around aimlessly, blending into the landscape so as to look totally innocent until the right opportunity presented itself.

Then, moving as quickly as they could, they struck the unguarded flying machine. Soon, its two linen wings ripped to shreds, an airplane that cost Uncle Sam $5,465 in 1918 dollars had been rendered useless until it could be repaired.

At least twice these destroyers of government property succeeded in their designs, grounding two of the Army’s training planes at Love Field in Dallas. And that’s just the loss reported at one installation. During World War I, the Army also had airfields at Fort Worth (Hicks Field), Houston (Ellington Field), San Antonio (Kelly Field), Waco (Rich Field), and Wichita Falls (Call Field). How many biplanes had their wings damaged at these other aviation facilities has not been determined, though the answer surely lies buried somewhere in the military’s voluminous records.

Who instigated these long-forgotten home front attacks on American aircraft? Trench-coated German saboteurs? Disloyal Texans bent on hampering America’s war effort? Draft dodgers – known then as “slackers” – venting their anger at the government for waging a war they wanted no part of?

Nope, cows. Not seditious cows, not even mad cows. Just hungry cows.


Discovery that Texas cattle will eat the wings of an airplane if the machine is left unguarded is one of the reasons why a general order to ‘stick to the machine, no matter what happens’ is impressed upon every cadet aviator training in Texas,” the Associated Press reported from Dallas on June 1, 1918.

The planes Texas cows found so tasty were the Curtiss JN-4Ds, better known as Jennys. Powered by a 90 horsepower engine, the two-winged planes had a maximum speed of 75 mile an hour with a ceiling of about 7,000 feet. But that was nothing compared to European fighter aircraft, which were far superior in speed, ceiling and maneuverability.

All the Jennys were good for was primary flight training and observation. And, for a time, providing tasty snacks for brazen bovines. Before the Armistice, some 6,000 Jennys had been delivered to the Army’s Signal Corps and 9,000 men had been trained to fly them.

The Jennys, first flown in 1914, did have one thing in common with the superior aircraft manufactured by Britain, France and Germany: Their two wings were made by stretching linen over a wire-supported spruce frame. To make the wings airtight, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company covered them with cellulose.

Army aviators called it “dope.” For cattle, it was dinner if they could get it. The cellulous, as the AP said, “softens under their tongues and the cattle in their eagerness to obtain it will chew the expensive linen planes to pieces to extract the… ‘dope’ flavor.”

Cows unintentionally doing the Kaiser’s work were not the only problem facing the Signal Corps soldiers at Love Field and the other aviation training camps in Texas.


Airplanes also made attractive targets in a monetary sense. Not that someone was likely to swipe a plane – not many people outside the military knew how to fly – but items inside or attached to a plane held a particular attraction to thieves.

“An airplane is a valuable piece of property,” the AP reported, “with many detachable parts offering an attractive invitation to looters if one were left unprotected in a lonely field or on a road.”

Even worse than thieves were souvenir hunters.

“Aviators who have made forced landing[s] while on cross country flights say it requires their utmost vigilance to keep curious spectators from breaking up their ‘ships’ and carrying them away piecemeal, so eager are the country people for souvenirs,” the AP story continued.

Indeed, a Love Field aviator who had to make an emergency landing in a wheat field not far from Dallas in the spring of 1918 found himself facing a second crisis.

“The curiosity…in him was so great that in less than an hour the field was so crowded that the owner of the ground had to call the Dallas Police to clear the field to prevent his growing crops from being stamped into a total loss,” the AP said.

That’s a good thing. A trampled field would have left the farmer’s cows looking for something to eat.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
- January 25, 2005 column
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