Americans throughout history have enlisted in foreign militaries. Whether caught up in a cause, yearning for adventure, itching for a fight, or just looking to escape their problems and make a fresh start, young would-be heroes — including some Islanders — have gone abroad to fight in conflicts in which the United States remained officially neutral. Among Island veterans of modern wars, few have risen to the status of “war hero” to the extent that Walter Rheno of Vineyard Haven has. But Rheno never served in the U.S. armed forces. He fought for France.
Walter Rheno was born in 1895 in Vineyard Haven, the son of Simeon and Clara Rheno. His father had been a Boston dancing teacher, cruelly abused by his adoptive family as a child, and he and Clara abruptly left their first marriages and children to elope to Martha’s Vineyard together and open a cabinetmaking shop, about where the Bunch of Grapes bookstore is today.
When he was 14, Walter was found guilty of stealing $300 and sentenced to the Lyman School, a reform school for boys in Westborough. Upon release, he returned to the Vineyard and was arrested again in 1912, together with his father and his younger brother, for assaulting Azorean immigrant Frank Mello. The case was eventually discharged, but then his father Simeon abandoned the family, moving suddenly to California.
“I knew people who knew him,” writes Steve Flanders of Chilmark, “and when asked about him, they all laughed and said he was pretty wild. The Methodist Church had Bible study class at night in the basement, and Walter would jump into the window-area wells and moon them.”
Walter began work at the Dukes County Garage at Five Corners, learning the trades of mechanic and chauffeur. But it was while traveling, perhaps on a visit to his father in Fresno, that he saw his first airplane. “Out in California I had seen flying and gone through an airplane factory, and I wanted to be a flyer,” he would later tell a Boston Globe reporter. He tried to enlist with the Navy to become an aviator, but was turned down. Only officers were allowed to fly, he was told. At the age of 21 he moved to New York City to find work as a chauffeur, but unsatisfied, in late 1916 he boarded the steamer Espagne to Paris, and joined the French Foreign Legion.
Perhaps because of his experience with automobiles, or maybe just through good timing and bold ambition, Rheno was accepted into the new Lafayette Flying Corps, comprised of American pilots volunteering with the French. After four months of training, he was given a one-man Spad S.VII biplane equipped with a machine gun and sent to the Verdun front.
Rheno shot down at least three German Albatross biplanes over a period of less than one month, impressing his superiors and wowing newspaper readers at home. He spotted his first mark while flying at 20,000 feet — a two-man German flying machine with four machine guns –— and after a 5,000-foot nosedive and 11 minutes of air combat maneuvers, shot it down over the French trenches. Two weeks later, disobeying orders to remain with his squadron, he shot down his second German plane. (“I was full of fight anyway, and of the 99 percent rum they gave us before we go up,” he would later explain.) His third fight nearly killed him. He shot down a German decoy plane, only to be attacked by three others hiding at a high altitude. Saved by French antiaircraft guns, he crash-landed in the treetops, breaking his plane into pieces. It took rescuers 45 minutes to cut him out of the wreck, but he escaped without a scratch. He was said to have shot down seven additional enemy planes, but they fell too far into German territory to be confirmed.
In October 1917, Rheno returned home to a country now formally at war. Arriving in Vineyard Haven on the Uncatena in his French military uniform hung with the Croix de Guerre, he received a hero’s welcome and a Boy Scout parade to his mother’s home. He published his letters in the New Bedford Times, and spoke to audiences in New York City. In mid-November he spoke at the Capawock, as well, charging 35 cents admission to hear his adventures. But when he reapplied to the U.S. Air Service, he was again denied. So he returned to France.
But only days after arriving in Paris, Rheno was felled by a far deadlier killer than the Germans, a mortal threat that would exterminate far more victims than the war ever would: the Spanish flu. His body was sent home, and is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven.
“In the context of his time, he was a real adventurer,” concludes Flanders. “Left the Island under a cloud and returned a conquering hero.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, will be released June 1.