by Terry Baker.
The World War I aviator is a pop-culture icon, a champion of single-combat heroism that evokes images of the boy David slinging stones at Goliath. In 1918, high above France, the German Goliath was everywhere. One of the Allied pilots who would daily rise to the challenge of single combat with giants in the skies was Nashville’s own Captain Ed Buford Jr. The young Tennessean experienced a brief moment of fame and then, with the sun behind him, was all but lost to history.
The Germans invented the eight rules of air combat in World War I, one of which was to “keep the sun behind you,” the best way to avoid being seen by foes. Captain Buford still seems to be hiding against the sun when one tries to find information about him, but there are a few undeniable facts on record. He was born in Nashville in 1891, attended Vanderbilt from 1909 to 1911 (without graduating), and in 1917 volunteered to go to war.
While on patrol over France on May 22, 1918, Buford single-handedly attacked five German biplanes, shooting down one and scattering the rest. For that act of heroism his country would award him its second highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross. France would also honor him with her two highest military decorations, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, for his actions over Chateau Thierry and the Toul sector.
Eddie Rickenbacker‘s 94th Aero Squadron shared the same aerodrome as Buford’s own 95th. Rickenbacker knew Buford, but his assessment of the Nashvillian was not complimentary: his book downplays Buford’s skills, gossiping about his disdain of maps and his habit of getting lost.
Buford’s sun, though now eclipsed by Rickenbacker’s, was still blazing high and white-hot when he talked to reporters on his return home on March 17, 1919. If the reporter for the Banner can be believed, Ed never wanted to fly again. He refused to answer any questions about his air combat, leading the Banner to imply that their man had merely eavesdropped on a private family conversation.
Perhaps because the reporter for the morning American interviewed him at the family home at 2300 Elliston, Ed came across in their story as a truly genial host. One incident he described could have come right out of a Hollywood script. Ed and his fellow officers had been taking tea with some French girls at the aerodrome when someone suggested they go up on a hunt for the enemy. The lads took to the skies, and Ed bagged a German plane, one of his official kills.
Whether he shot down three planes, as reported in the Banner, or only two as the American stated, the number falls short of the five required to be officially called an ace. Both papers agreed, though, that he had another five unofficial kills. Ace or not, Captain Buford was still a hero.
The hero’s welcome Ed received on his return to Nashville gave no hint of impending tragedy. After spending five weeks in a Red Cross hospital in Paris where he battled both pneumonia and the infamous 1918 flu, the worst seemed to be behind him. However, three days after his arrival, his mother became ill, dying one week later of pneumonia. Lizinka Elliston Buford may well have picked up the flu when she met her son’s train at the crowded Union Station.
The details of Captain Buford’s post-war career are sketchy. After his father’s death in 1928, the war hero seems to have lost interest in the company his father had founded in 1889, Buford Brothers Wholesale Hardware. He married Clara Payne around 1930 and, by 1932, was living in Florida and working in the auto parts business. According to the archivist for Special Collections at Vanderbilt University, Buford retired around 1952 and died at age 71 on May 9, 1962, in Tampa. Ed Jr. may have been so lost in the sun without a map to the future, that we may never know whether he had any second thoughts about leaving it all behind.
1. Captain Buford actually went by “Eddie,” and I’ve learned one or two other important details since writing this piece. Eddie actually did fly under the famous Eddie Rickenbacker for a time, so it would be better to say that Rickenbacker not only knew him but was his commanding officer.
2. A check of Lizinka Elliston Buford’s death certificate at TSLA shows that, while pneumonia was the cause of her death, influenza was a contributing factor. Given the date of 1919, that almost certainly makes it the same Spanish flu that Eddie had suffered with in Paris prior to his return home.
3. Eddie’s marriage to Clara Payne took place in Escambia County, Florida, in 1928, and there is some evidence that it was his second marriage. His first wife was evidently named Margaret.