By Robert C. Dooley, Col (ret), USAF
03/22/2011 – The monument to the first Americans to fly, fight, win, and for some, to die in combat resides at the edge of Paris, France. Forty-nine of America’s first combat aviators lie in rest at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial, a majestic monument erected over eighty years ago to honor all US volunteer pilots that flew with the French in World War I. These pilots played a significant role in the genesis of US combat airpower, which ultimately led to the establishment of the US Air Force.The future of the Memorial is in serious doubt. The intent of this article is to emphasize what these men and the Memorial represent to the US Air Force’s heritage and to draw attention to the Memorial’s needs.
Col. Dooley with Secretary Wynne, Normandy 2007 (Photo Credit: SLD)
The United States’ first combat aviators were the American volunteers who flew with the French Air Service in World War I prior to the US’s entry into the “Great War.” Most of these pilots transferred to the US Army after the US entered the war and provided the backbone of combat experience for the fledgling Air Service. These gentlemen came from all walks of life – Ivy League bluebloods, mechanics, farm hands and even an expatriate boxer. Despite their social differences, they were all equal if they could hack it in the cockpit, and the impact they made on aviation would resonate well beyond the end of the war.
There were 265 Americans volunteers who started flight training with the French before the US entered the war. 225 would get their wings and about 180 would fly in combat with French front-line units. These pilots, as a whole, would eventually be referred to as the “Lafayette Flying Corps.” As part of a strategy to get the US to commit to the war, an idea was hatched to form an all-American fighter unit, give it copious media attention, and heighten awareness of the conflict back in the States.In April 1916, after a concentrated effort by influential Americans in France and with the assistance of French military and government officials, the “N-124 L’Escadrille Americaine” (“The American Squadron”) was stood up. More than a token gesture on the part of the French, the squadron went to the head of the line to receive factory-fresh Nieuport fighters, personnel, and support equipment.
The initial squadron cadre was made up of seven American pilots under the command of a French officer, Capt Georges Thenault. The unit did initial training at Luxeuil airfield, then quickly transitioned to combat operations. First blood was drawn on 20 May 1916, when Kiffin Rockwell shot down a German observation plane. Other kills would follow and the squadron would gain its desired notoriety in the press while participating in almost all major battles of the war. In fact, the unit drew so much attention that the German Ambassador to the United States lodged a formal protest to the US government about the “American Squadron’s” operations, given that the US was supposed to be neutral at the time. The incident led to changing the squadron’s name to the “Escadrille Lafayette” or “Lafayette Squadron,” an apropos reference to General Lafayette’s and France’s assistance to the US during the Revolutionary War.
The squadron performed on par with its French counterparts and developed its own identity, given its mix of blue bloods and working-class members. The first squadron mascot was a lion cub named “Whiskey,” purchased by squadron members while on leave in Paris. They later got another one to keep it company, which they appropriately named “Soda.” The animals were noted on deployment paperwork as “African guard dogs.” The squadron also kept a bottle of 80 year-old bourbon whiskey on-hand called “The Bottle of Death.” Originally given to Kiffen Rockwell by his brother to celebrate his (and the squadron’s) first aerial victory, the only pilots to swig from it were those that scored confirmed kills.
The US ultimately entered WW I in April 1917. The squadron remained an all-American unit until February 1918, when most pilots in the squadron and the Lafayette Flying Corps were given the opportunity to transfer to the US Army Air Service. Most transferees were initially assigned to the 103rd Pursuit Squadron then farmed out to other US squadrons to spread their wealth of combat experience to uninitiated US pilots. Some former Lafayette members even went on to command US squadrons during the war. While most Lafayette Escadrille members remain obscure to history, Raoul Lufbery is a familiar name to most US fighter pilots, earning seventeen confirmed kills during the war and while also developing a defensive tactic called the “Lufbery Circle.” He became a well known instructor to US pilots after his transfer to the US Army and was praised by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who said, “Everything I learned, I learned from Lufbery” (AF Magazine, 2000, “Rickenbacker” Boyne).
America’s first black fighter pilot, Eugene Bullard, while not a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, was a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps. He left the farms of Georgia as a teenager, made his way to Europe and enlisted in the French Army at the outbreak of the war. While recuperating from wounds suffered in the trenches, he was given the opportunity to enter flight training and flew combat missions with a French Squadron.Thirty-eight Americans passed through the squadron ranks during its existence as an all-American unit. Ultimately, twelve would die before the war’s end. Of the other American pilots flying with French units, another forty-six would not survive the war. Many died wearing American uniforms, having made the transfer to the US Army Air Service. Lufbery himself was a US Army Major when finally shot down in 1918. Sixty-eight out of the one hundred-eighty didn’t make it – proof that the “glamorous” profession was, in reality, a most dangerous one.
The legacy of the Lafayette pilots continues today within the US and French Air Forces. The historical lineage of the 103rd Pursuit Squadron is directly tied to today’s 94th Fighter Squadron flying F-22s at Langley Air Force Base. The Lafayette Squadron itself never ceased to exist with the French – its current pilots now fly Mirage 2000Ns based at Luxeuil Air Base, France. A movement started in the mid-1920’s to build a fitting monument to America’s first combat aviators and symbolize the Franco-American military relationship. The French government granted eight acres of land on the edge of Paris towards the effort, and with funding provided largely by the wealthy families of many Lafayette pilots, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial became a reality. It was inaugurated on 4 July 1928 in a ceremony attended by an estimated 10,000 people.
The name belies the true intent of the memorial – it pays tribute to all American volunteer pilots that flew with the French. The names of the sixty-eight pilots who died are etched on both sides of the grand facades of the memorial’s soaring arch.Beneath the memorial lies a crypt with sixty-eight sarcophagi, forty-nine of which contain actual remains (some pilots’ families chose to bury their loved ones closer to home – and for others, no remains existed). The crypt is also the resting place for its French commander, Lt Col Georges Thenault, along with French General Antonin Brocard, who was influential in establishing the squadron.
A $1.5 million endowment was provided in 1930 by an American, William Cromwell, to create a private Franco-American “Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Foundation” to care for the monument. The Foundation’s other missions were to provide for suitable ceremonies, to “keep alive in the hearts of men the spirit which inspired the members of the Escadrille Lafayette and the Flying Corps,” and to educate French and American youth on the histories of their respective countries and the sacrifices men made in the defense of freedom. The Foundation continues to exist today, but faces serious financial challenges. Eighty years took its toll both on the monument and the resources left to sustain it. In the late 1990’s, its white surfaces were covered in black soot, marble floors were breaking up and the crypt was regularly invaded with water. Senior Air Force leadership took note and spearheaded an effort that lead to a US government grant in 2003 of $2 million to renovate the memorial. The French government concurrently donated $1 million of its own.
The grants were a lifesaver for the Memorial – but the challenge is far from over. This eighty year-old monument looks outstanding from an external point of view, but renovation work revealed further problems needing repair that exceeded the grants’ funding. Another challenge is sustainment. The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial requires systematic maintenance to prevent returning to its previous deteriorated state. Surfaces require periodic cleaning and sealing, structural integrity demands regular inspections by engineers, and someone has to cut the grass, provide security, and pay the water and electric bills. An effort was started about six years ago to find a long-term care solution for the Memorial, buttressed by the steadfast support of General Moseley and Secretary Wynne. Ambassador Craig Stapleton, the US Ambassador to France at the time, bolstered the effort by highlighting the needs of the Memorial to the Bush Administration.
The stars were lined up for Presidential action to bring the monument under US care…until the unplanned change in USAF leadership. The lack of senior AF advocacy coupled with the change of the White House administration brought the effort to a quiet halt. The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Foundation needs a minimum of $100,000 a year to maintain the monument and its surrounding grounds. Unfortunately, the Foundation has less than a year’s worth of operating funds left and lacks the resources to conduct active fundraising (total donations last year were less than $3000). The fate of the Memorial and the aviators buried there is unknown once the Foundation is forced to cease operations. The Marines have Belleau Wood, the Navy has the “USS Constitution,” and the Army has battlefield monuments throughout the world that testify to their heritage and growth as services. The USAF also has a stunning memorial across from the Pentagon honoring it as a military service, but we’ve got another one honoring the actual men who represent our genesis – the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial.
If one has the means to assist the Foundation in maintaining this memorial to America’s first combat aviators or would like to arrange an escorted visit, please contact the Foundations Treasurer, Mr Alexander Blumrosen at [email protected] , +33 -1-4318-8080.
The photo slideshow and credits:
- Picture 1 – Memorial Day 2010 USAF-FAF ceremony at the Memorial: Credit: Air Force News Service
- Picture 2 – Memorial Day 2008 ceremony at the Memorial: Credit: AFNS
- Picture 3 – Spangdahlem F-16s perform a fly-by during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial: Credit: Jean Claude Lemaire
- Picture 4 – A 2006 view looking onto the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial after its exterior renovation. Credit: unknown
- Picture 5 – A view of the Memorial in 2002 prior to its renovation. Credit: Unknown
- Picture 6 – Four of the sixty-eight sarcophagi located in the crypt beneath the Memorial: Credit: AFNS
- Picture 7 – Gen Moseley and French Air Chief Gen Abrial pay homage to Lafayette members buried in the crypt after the 2008 Memorial day ceremony: Credit:AFNS
- Picture 8 – Original members of the squadron with their lion mascot “Whiskey.” Credit:Unknown