The RAF Airman Who Wasn’t

The grave marker for John Henry Dorman

Several years ago, an airman called John Henry Dorman was accepted for commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Dorman had been killed in an accident on 21 June 1918 while training at No. 14 Training Depot Station, at RAF Lake Down near Amesbury. The conclusion was that he was Royal Air Force, one of the many Americans who had earlier joined the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Air Force. When I first added his name to the project, I carried out some cursory research and was left with some doubts about this conclusion. Prompted recently to dig further, I am now left with the verdict that he was not Royal Air Force but was, indeed always had been, a member of the Aviation Section of the United States Army Signal Corps serving with 155th Aero Squadron.

John Henry Dorman Jr. was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, on 3 December 1894, one of the six children of John and Emma Dorman. His father was from Pennsylvania, and of Bavarian descent, and his mother was from St. John’s, Illinois.[1] After Dorman left school, he eventually became a machinist like his father and before he enlisted he worked over the Mississippi river in the St. Louis Navy Yard. Having enlisted or been drafted after America entered the war, Dorman joined the United States Army Signal Corps for service with the Aviation Section as a mechanic. 155th Aero Squadron was raised in Texas on 1 December 1917 but a few days later it moved to Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois and that is almost certainly where Dorman joined the unit; he was allocated the service number 288796 and was soon promoted to Corporal.

In late 1917 it had been agreed with the Royal Air Force that 15,000 aero mechanics would be trained in the United Kingdom beginning in early 1918. The agreement called for 4,000 men to be sent from the United States in December 1917 with 5,000 following in January and 6,000 in February. Men would subsequently be sent in sufficient numbers to maintain 15,000 undergoing training, i.e. to replace the squadrons of men sent to France. The message sent to Washington on 5 December, the day the agreement was signed, also ordered that: ‘They should be sent in Squadrons with enough officers for discipline and supply.’[2] 155th Aero Squadron sailed from New York for England on 16 February 1918 aboard the SS Carmania.[3] On the manifest were four officers, including the medical officer, and 141 other ranks, including Corporal John H. Dorman. The Squadron arrived at Liverpool on 4 March and after a few days at a rest camp at Romsey in Hampshire, marched to Larkhill Camp, north of Salisbury. On 19 March the Squadron arrived at its new home at RAF Lake Down, the location of the newly formed No. 14 Training Depot Station, Royal Air Force. The Squadron remained there until it was dispatched to France in early September 1918, the first night bombardment squadron to join the American Expeditionary Force.[4]

RAF Lake Down, 1918

While at RAF Lake Down on 21 June 1918, Dorman was working on an Airco DH-6, a training aircraft used by the Royal Air Force. Although largely replaced in the training squadrons by mid-1918, the DH-6 was still used in some numbers in various roles. When Dorman swung the propeller of aircraft B-2758 that morning the engine fired, and the revolving propeller hit him causing a compound fracture of the skull. He was taken to the nearby Fargo Military Hospital[5] but died of his injuries that evening. At the subsequent inquest[6] testimony was given by an officer and two NCOs of 155th Aero Squadron—Lieutenant Dolor I. Beaupre,[7] Corporal John E. Mattson[8] and Sergeant Dean H. Harris.[9] Importantly for this story, Beaupre stated that Dorman was ‘…a corporal in the Aviation Section of the United States Army, stationed at Lake Down.’ From the evidence provided it appears that the earth wire of the magneto was not connected, rendering the aircraft’s ignition switch useless. A verdict of accidental death was returned. On 26 June, Dorman was buried in Durrington Cemetery, Wiltshire in grave 286.

Airco DH-6

The details of the accident may also be found on a Royal Air Force casualty card and this is where the confusion as to Dorman’s service arises.[10] The card correctly records his service number as 288796 but records his unit as ‘RAF 14 TDS’, i.e. No. 14 Training Depot Station. That RAF service number, however, belongs to an airman called Peter Sinnott from Co. Wicklow in Ireland,[11] who enlisted in August 1918—this series of RAF service numbers was not issued until after Dorman’s death. The United States Army service numbers in this series were allocated to the men of 155th Aero Squadron, which may be seen on the Squadron roster of returning men who travelled back to the United States aboard the USS America in March 1919.[12]

In sum, John Henry Dorman was never a member of the Royal Air Force and is incorrectly commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Soldier’s Memorial, Jones Park, East St. Louis

After considerable, and often bitter, debate the law allowing the repatriation of United States war dead was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The law entitled the next of kin to choose between permanent interment in an American military cemetery on foreign soil, repatriation of the remains to US soil for interment, or repatriation of the remains to the individual’s homeland or that of their next of kin. Dorman’s parents requested his repatriation and his remains were returned to the United States on 25 May 1920 and on 31 May his funeral service was held at First Methodist Church, East St. Louis and his remains were interred in what would become the family plot in Mount Hope Cemetery, Belleville, not far from what is now Scott Air Force Base. His grave is in Section H, Lot 314; it is about half-way up the eastern part of Section H near the path that divides the section. Corporal John H. Dorman is commemorated on the East St. Louis Soldiers’ Memorial—the memorial previously stood near Jones Park but it has been removed pending replacement and relocation—and in in Soldiers of the Great War, Volume 2 on page 182 in the list of those who enlisted in Missouri and who died in accidents.


1. (Back) John Henry Dorman (22 February 1866-1 October 1934) married Emma Elizabeth Campbell (27 November 1870-25 November 1938) on 28 May 1889 in St. Clair county, Illinois: Clarence Albert (15 August 1889-NK), Annie (later Marx) (November 1892-NK), Ruth Helen (later Schirmer) (January 1900-13 August 1942), Raymond H. (9 April 1905-5 October 1981), and Louis E. (1 May 1909-29 June 2001).
2. (Back) The United States National Archives. Gorrell, E S. A History of the American Air Service in Great Britain. History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service 1917-1919. Series B, Volume 2, p 14.
3. (Back) The United States National Archives. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985. Lists of Outgoing Passengers, 1917-1938.
4. (Back) The United States National Archives. Gorrell, E S. Squadron Histories. History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service 1917-1919. Series E, Volume 20, p 40.
5. (Back) One of several facilities built to service the burgeoning training and garrison camps on Salisbury Plain, the site of this 1,200-bed wartime hospital was east of the B-3086 near the northern end of Fargo Plantation, near what is now the ammunition compound (The Packway) for the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill.
6. (Back) A transcript of the inquest on South Wiltshire Coroner’s Inquests 1868-1920 may be found here.
7. (Back) First Lieutenant Dolor Israel Beaupre, United States Army Medical Reserve Corps (10 October 1886-1962). A medical doctor, after training with the United States Army Medical Reserve Corps he was posted to the Aviation School, United States Army Signal Corps, at Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois in December 1917. There he joined 155th Aero Squadron as its medical officer, with which he sailed for England in February 1918. Beaupre served in France as the medical officer with 137th Aero Observation Squadron. He returned to the United States in March 1919.
8. (Back) Corporal John Elmer Mattson, Aviation Section, United States Army Signal Corps (2 February 1889-9 July 1969). A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Mattson joined 155th Aero Squadron at Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois and sailed with it for England in February 1918.
9. (Back) Sergeant Dean Hamilton Harris (30 April 1893-January 1967). Born in Ohio but, like Dorman, a resident of East St. Louis, Illinois, Harris joined 155th Aero Squadron at Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois and sailed with it for England in February 1918. He moved to France with the Squadron in September 1918 and returned to the United States with the Squadron when it sailed from Brest, France aboard the troop transport USS America in March 1919.
10. (Back) The Royal Air Force casualty card may be found here.
11. (Back) The National Archives. Royal Air Force, Airmen’s Service Records 1912-1939.
12. (Back) The United States National Archives. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985. Lists of Incoming Passengers, 1917-1938.

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