The Birth of U.S. Naval Aviation on the Ile d’Oléron

On August 20, 2018, Ile d’Oléron (in the Charente-Maritime département) will be paying homage to the 383 U.S. soldiers who lived on the island during World War I. Posted more than 400 miles from the trenches, these aviators, sailors, and mechanics from the U.S. Navy were tasked with defending the French coast against German submarines.
A recruiting poster for the U.S. naval aviation, 1917-1918. ©U.S. Army Center of Military History

Located on the Atlantic Ocean halfway between Nantes and Bordeaux, Ile d’Oléron is a popular spot with summer crowd thanks to its maritime pines, dunes, and oyster farms. The buildings of the former U.S. naval air station are now home to a center for handicapped adults and an experimental high school. But they are still steeped in the island’s military history, offering a testament to the time when Ile d’Oléron was an outpost in the fight against German submarines.

When the United States joined the war in spring of 1917, every Allied craft became a target for the German U-boote, including civilian transports and fishing vessels. And so began a period of “unrestricted submarine warfare.” In April 1917 alone, almost 860,000 tons of goods were sunk in the North Atlantic.

In an effort to escort and protect boats carrying troops and supplies, the United States financed the construction of 15 seaplane bases between Dunkirk and Arcachon. The seaside resort of Saint-Trojan-les-Bains was selected for its strategic location on the southern tip of Ile d’Oléron, from which it could control access to the ports of La Rochelle, Rochefort, and Bordeaux.

Aerial view of the St. Trojan base in 1918. © Naval History and Heritage Command

The St. Trojan site was approved by the French Ministry of the Navy on August 23, 1917, and the U.S. Navy allocated a budget of 1.2 million francs. Four seaplane hangars and two launch ramps were built, along with barracks for soldiers and officers, a refectory, an infirmary, a wood workshop, an armory, and a dovecote. In June 1918, the U.S. soldiers welcomed their first aircraft: two French Georges Levy 40 HB2 biplanes.

The American naval aviation was in its teething stage at the time, with just 48 pilots and 54 planes available when war was declared. As a result, U.S. pilots were trained in France. They were sent to Tours for the first piloting classes, to Saint-Raphael for specialty classes, and to Lacanau Lake in the Landes region to learn sea-patrol and anti-submarine techniques. More than 1,600 U.S. pilots and 20,000 technicians and mechanics were trained by the French army.

246 Escort and Reconnaissance Missions

Under the command of Lieutenant Virgil Childers Griffin, a native of Montgomery, Alabama, St. Trojan Naval Air Station was inaugurated on July 14, 1918. American seaplanes began carrying out up to five missions per day, and their patrol zone stretched 40 miles across the sea from Ile de Ré in the north to the mouth of the Gironde River in the south.

The U.S. pilots completed 246 missions in total, despite an accidental explosion that killed nine sailors on August 20, 1918 and an epidemic of Spanish flu that paralyzed the base in September. But not a single German submarine was destroyed. “The results were quite low when considering the resources provided,” says local historian Philippe Lafon, who recently wrote a book about the Saint-Trojan base. “The depth charges were not very powerful and the lack of any real ability to aim made direct hits very difficult. However, the constant presence of American seaplanes had a dissuasive effect and considerably hampered the enemy’s submarine missions.”

An American Curtiss H-16 flying boat at St. Trojan in the fall of 1918. © Courtesy of Philippe Lafon

After the Armistice, the 24 U.S. planes were burned and the base was abandoned. The dead soldiers’ bodies were repatriated to the United States in 1921. The only trace left behind is the grave of Randolph Thomas Lee, a seaman who died of pneumonia at the age of 23 and was buried in the local cemetery.

St. Trojan is the only American seaplane base from World War I still standing in Europe. The buildings were fully repainted in 2012 by a group of U.S. sailors, and a pecan tree – Francophile U.S. president Thomas Jefferson’s favorite – will be planted on the site on August 20 at a ceremony attended by Daniel Hall, general consul to the United States in Bordeaux. “There’s life in this base yet,” says Philippe Lafon. “And we have to maintain it in honor of these young Americans who came to defend France during World War I.”