Lt. George W. Puryear next to a SPAD S.XIII
fighter plane, France, 1918
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the United States' involvement in World War I, the Tennessee State Library and Archives' (TSLA) newest online collection, the Puryear Family Photograph Albums, tells the story of two brothers from Gallatin who served in the Army Air Service during and after World War I. Comprised of three photograph albums and several loose items and pictures, this collection offers a rare and remarkable visual record of the early history and aircraft of the Army Air Service.
On July 26, 1918, as a fighter pilot with the 95th Aero Squadron, George W. Puryear shot down his first and only German plane during World War I. Unfortunately for him, he was also taken prisoner the same day. After being transferred to a number of different prisoner of war camps and making one unsuccessful escape attempt, he took part in a mass escape attempt from a camp in Villingen, Germany, on October 6, 1918. Five days later, he swam across the Rhine River to reach Switzerland, thus becoming the first American officer to successfully escape from a German prisoner of war camp during World War I.
George's older brother, Alfred I. Puryear, was a supply officer and was stationed in Paris, where he was responsible for all of the manifests of supplies that were shipped to all the various Air Service units throughout France.
Both George and Alfred stayed in the Air Service after the war. George was assigned to the 9th Aero Squadron based at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, but he was killed in an airplane crash on October 20, 1919. In 1921, Alfred completed his flight training and qualified as an airship (dirigible) pilot. He would retire from the Air Service/Air Corps in 1933.
These brothers from Gallatin were on the "ground floor" of aviation as it developed. The photos they preserved give us insight into both the history of the Army Air Service and of the development of aviation itself. Depicting the days before the aircraft industry became dominated by the likes of Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing, and in the days before standardization and aerodynamics factored into aircraft design, the albums record the rich assortment of aircraft that were built and used during the early years of aviation.
For more detailed information about the Puryear Family Photograph Albums collection and about the lives of George and Alfred Puryear, see the finding aid for this collection: http://www.tn.gov/tsla/history/manuscripts/findingaids/D-0011.pdf