Cadet James Austin Byrnes

Cadet James Byrnes was an American, living in New York, who enlisted in 1918 for service with the Royal Air Force. He was killed in a flying accident in Canada in June 1918.

The grave of Cadet James Byrnes
The grave of Cadet James Byrnes

James Austin Byrnes was born in Chicago, Illinois on 6 October 1893, the second of the six children of Robert and Margaret Byrnes.[1] His parents were English-born of Irish ancestry; they emigrated to the United States in 1889 and settled in Chicago. Early in the new century, the family moved to New York, where they lived on Eagle Avenue. His father was a machinery inspector for the railroad; James became a railroad linesman and worked for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company—the operator of the New York subway.

After the outbreak of war, Byrnes travelled to the United Kingdom where he enlisted on 17 March 1915 in Cardiff for service with the Army Service Corps Remount Service.[2] He joined the Remount Deport at Ormskirk in Lancashire but did not serve for long. He was discharged on 30 April as ‘not being likely to make an efficient soldier ’—the cause of this decision is not known. After his discharge he returned to the United States and returned to work for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company in August 1915.

After the United States entered the war, he enlisted into the United States Navy on 11 August 1917 at the recruiting station in New York and joined the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, Florida as a Landsman for training as a ‘Machinist’s Mate, Aviation’. He was sent to New York for training subsequently as a ‘Quartermaster Aviation’—pilot training—but appears to have been discharged from the Navy on 18 October 1917.[3]

His final attempt to serve during the war saw him enlist into the newly-formed Royal Air Force in the spring of 1918 as a flying cadet; he was allocated the number 152840. After a period of ground training, he joined 87th Canadian Training Squadron in 44th Wing at Camp Bordon in Ontario on 10 May 1918.

Curtiss JN-4 Training Flight
Curtiss JN-4 Training Flight

On 28 June 1918 Cadet Byrnes was flying a Curtis JN-4, serial C1202, when he went into a spin and dived into a wood half a mile east of Camp Bordon—he was killed instantly. The subsequent inquiry recorded that:

Putting the engine on when he was coming out of the spin, he was unable to get the machine out of the nose dive before hitting the ground, owing to the downward pull of the engine and increased speed of the machine.’[4]

His body was returned to New York and he was buried in Saint Raymond’s Old Cemetery, Bronx.[5] His mother was buried with him in 1927.

Cadet Byrnes is commemorated incorrectly on page 584 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance as ‘James Arthur Byrnes’; that page is displayed on 18 December.

The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Cadet Byrnes
The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Cadet Byrnes

His brother, George Porter Byrnes, enlisted into the New York National Guard on 29 March 1916 and served in the Mexican Punitive Campaign (the Pancho Villa Expedition) with Battery ‘D’, 2nd Regiment Field Artillery. In November 1917 the Regiment became 105th Field Artillery, in 52nd Field Artillery Brigade, 27th Infantry Division. The Brigade was detached subsequently, however, and in France supported 33rd Infantry Division. Private First Class George Byrnes served in France from March 1918 and was discharged on 3 April 1919.

1. (Back) Robert John Byrnes (6 July 1865-20 June 1940) married Margaret (née White) (December 1864-28 September 1927) on 27 September 1888 in Liverpool, England: Robert Benjamin (his twin sister died at birth) (26 March 1892-January 1981); Margaret (August 1895-30 November 1900); George Porter (9 November 1897-11 July 1976); Bertha B. (later Marx) (4 July 1900-12 August 2002); and Anthony Aloysius (20 July 1902-30 January 1951).
2. (Back) He was allocated the number R/4/063166.
3. (Back) Landsmen (unrated Seamen 3rd Class) trained as United States Navy pilots under an enlisted ranks pilot training scheme. The first such group began training in January 1916 at Naval Aeronautical Station Pensacola and a second group began training in March 1917. A third group began training after the United States entered the war, in addition to men selected to become a Machinist’s Mate, Aviation, responsible for aircraft maintenance. Those who qualified as pilots were promoted to Quartermaster 2nd Class, Aviation (a Petty Officer 2nd Class); most were promoted subsequently to Warrant Officer and/or commissioned. See: Van Wyen, A O. (1969). Naval Aviation in World War I. Washington DC: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
4. (Back) Byrnes, J A. Royal Air Force Museum. Casualty card.
5. (Back) Saint Raymond’s Old Cemetery lies north of the Bruckner Expressway and Bruckner Boulevard and is accessed from East Tremont Avenue. Cadet Byrnes’  grave is in Section 6, Range 13, Grave 53.

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