From an August, 1984 Gazette edition:
Walter D. Rheno, a decorated fighter pilot in World War I, was the Vineyard’s own. At a time when the United States had not yet entered the war, there were still stories of heroism about Americans who went to fight in France against the German invasion. Mr. Rheno joined the French Lafayette Esquadrille early in the year of 1917 and within a year returned a hero.
Mr. Rheno was not only to be remembered as a soldier in the First World War, but also as one of the first to enter the new battlefield high in the air. Today we honor our astronauts for landing on the moon. In 1917, Mr. Rheno was honored by his Island as a pilot in the French Air Squadron, and then it was only 14 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright made history by flying over Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Rheno’s exploits in the air over Europe captured the attention of his homeland. In an April, 1917 Vineyard Gazette there is a story about a letter received from this gallant flier, and with it some history of the pilot’s road to battle. “Just a little over a year ago he left Vineyard Haven for New York. There he decided to study to be an airman. He saw his opportunity in Europe and departed on the first steamer afterwards. Arriving in France he became attached to the Lafayette Esquadrille under Lieutenant Thaw. Mr. Rheno was born and brought up in Vineyard Haven, where nearly everybody knows him. His mother, Mrs. Clara Rheno, is still living in Vineyard Haven, as is his brother, Winthrop. It is to them, he has written about the war as he sees it.” His letter in part follows:
“Just received your letter of the 19th of March. I have received about eight letters from you since I have been in France. You will see my name many times in the paper before long. I hope you may see where I have brought down a few German machines soon. I shall do my best.
“I am beginning to realize now the work that I have got to do in and above the clouds to fight with life and death. Am just crazy to get to the front to get a crack at those Germans. Each day I will go up to a height of 20,000 feet to watch for some German plane and when I do see him I will drop down and fight it out with him. Glad when that day comes.” That summer Mr. Rheno’s wish for war arrived and it was only a short time later that he was decorated with the French War Cross, having single-handedly shot down a German two-seated Albatross, considered a remarkable performance for so young a pilot.
Another clipping from that summer reads:
“Rheno, with three others of the Esquadrille, was flying low over the enemy lines, when he sighted a German monoplane speeding along at the same height. Rheno left his patrol and climbed to an altitude of 9,000 feet. He then pointed the nose of his machione toward the unsuspecting German and when within 300 feet of him opened fire with his machine gun. The German monoplane quivered for an instant and crashed to earth within the German lines. Hardly had the machine struck the ground when three other German aviators, flying high above Rheno, darted at him, but he succeeded in evading them and reaching his lines in safety.”
In November of that year Rheno returned to the Vineyard, and a clipping offers an account of the returning Island hero.
“Vineyard Haven has celebrated the return of war heroes in the past. But never before has the old town welcomed home a sky pilot, and realizing this fact, she outdid herself to show him her pride over his achievements and pleasure at his safe return. Word came that he would be on the Uncatena yesterday afternoon and there as the steamer hove in sight, stood a straight young figure in sky blue with a queer little cap on his handsome head. One could see the silver wings and propellers on his aviation buttons, and the silver and carmine wings of the French military licensed pilot on his collar. And on his left breast, on a bit of red and green ribbon, hung the coveted Croix de Guerre — the high prize of heroism.
“Crowds gathered at the ferry boat landing, to witness a war hero’s arrival and to wave the American flag. Boy Scouts led a parade from the wharf to the little white cottage where Mrs. Rheno lives. People filed by for more than 30 minutes to shake the aviator’s hand and tell him they were glad to see him back, safe and sound.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner