The Lafayette Escadrille: French-American Friendship and the Dawn of Aviation

A high point in the historic ties between France and the United States was the parabolic rise of the Lafayette Escadrille, the all-American squadron of pilots who volunteered for service in the French Air Force in World War I, before the U.S. entered the conflict.
From left: James McConnell, Kiffin Rockwell, Georges Thenault, the French commander of the Lafayette Escadrille, Norman Prince, and Victor Chapman. © Dan Patterson Archival Collection

The unit was officially commissioned as Squadron 124 on April 18, 1916; by the end of 1917 it had been released from under French command and transferred wholesale into the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force in France. Yet the collective exploits of its 38 pilots in those 18 months, which the New York Times once called “blazing chapters in the history of war time aviation” created a lasting legend of idealism and heroic sacrifice that captured America’s imagination, earned France’s gratitude, and has continued to be celebrated to the present day.

In March 2016, American and French officials gathered at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery, a monument and burial site at Marnes-la-Coquette, near Paris, built in 1928 with private donations. They had come together to mark the centenary of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille and at the same time pay tribute to the more than 200 other American aviators who flew under the French flag “in the universal cause of Liberty,” as it says on the massive memorial arch. 

The ceremony for the 100the anniversary of the Lafayette Escadrille, at the Marnes-la-Coquette memorial, 2016. © ABMC

Their universal gestures remember the Lafayette Squadron’s young aviators (average age: 26) who tended to be scions of wealthy American families. With their influential contacts in both France and the United States they were able to prevail upon an initially skeptical French government to accept the notion of an all-American unit. Eleven of the 38 flyers were the sons of millionaires. William Thaw – one of the seven original members of the squadron – arrived in France flying his own plane, a gift from his father, which he presented to the French government. Harvard had nine alumni in the squadron, and Yale had five.

Some were seeking the adventure that flying promised a mere dozen years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. But many joined because they could not sit on the sidelines while the United States debated whether to enter the war. “I pay my debt to Lafayette and Rochambeau,” was how Kiffin Yates Rockwell, another of the original members, expressed it. And General T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff from 2005-2008, would later observe that they volunteered because “it was the right thing to do.”

Assigned a French commander (Captain Georges Thenault) and an executive officer (Lieutenant Alfred de Laage de Meux), and given agile but fragile Nieuport 17C-1 fighters, the American Squadron was initially called l’Escadrille Américaine and sent to the Western Front. When Germany protested via diplomatic channels that the squadron’s name violated American neutrality, it changed to Lafayette Escadrille. The Americans first saw action at Luxeuil-les-Bains in the Vosges sector where Kiffin Rockwell claimed their first kill, flying directly at a German two-seater reconnaissance plane and firing his machine gun at practically point blank range. By May 1916, the squadron was in the thick of it at Bar-le-Duc, operating over the deadly battle-ground of Verdun, where Bert Hall scored their second aerial success on May 22, and where the squadron began to suffer casualties. Victor Chapman was the first pilot shot down and killed in an air battle with three German fighters.

As a group they were idealists, individualists, but also boyishly high-spirited. They had, for example, two lion cubs as squadron pets called Whiskey and Soda – until one of the lions got too playful with a French instructor and they had to go. After Rockwell downed his first enemy his cousin presented him with an 80-year-old bottle of Bourbon. Rockwell took just one swig, and after that drinking from the “Bottle of Death” became a squadron ritual, with every pilot who shot down a plane allowed one victory belt. 

The Lafayette Escadrille ca. 1916. © Library of Congress

But the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille also gained a reputation for favoring bravado over caution. It took a special kind of courage to hurtle across the sky in their flimsy wood and canvas structures and engage an equally determined and skillful enemy in single combat, and the Americans got results. Raoul Lufbery had been the former mechanic of the French air ace Marc Pourpe and had barnstormed with him through China and India. When Pourpe was shot down early in the war, Lufbery joined the American squadron to avenge him and by the end of 1917 had 17 official kills. Even so, squadron losses were significant. In its brief existence, the Lafayette Escadrille lost nine of its 38 aviators in combat, and another nine were shot down or injured. So the French sent the squadron back to Luxeuil for further training in newer SPAD VII and XIII with which they were able to challenge the German fighters more effectively.

The press at home devoured tales of their exploits and made the young pilots household names, encouraging many more American volunteers, especially to the French Air Force. The publicity, in turn, strengthened U.S. ties with France and reinforced the consensus in favor of an American intervention. October 1916 found the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille at Cachy, in the Somme sec-tor, assigned to the Groupe de Combat n°13, where they remained for the rest of their service under the French flag.

Volunteers continued to join the squadron until the final sortie. Among the last was Edmond Genet, direct descendant of Edmond Charles Genet, Revolutionary France’s first minister to the United States (i.e. ambassador), who had presented his credentials to George Washington and remained in the United States for the rest of his life, becoming an American citizen. By February 1918, Escadrille veterans were integrated into the U.S. Air Service, providing a valuable nucleus of combat-hardened fliers, some of them with more aerial successes to their name than the American air ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

The Lafayette Escadrille has been remembered over time in scores of books by and about squadron members, two movies, and an annual ceremony at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery where 49 American pilots who flew in French squadrons are buried. During the ceremony, a rose would be placed on each of the tombs, one by one, while a voice intoned “Morts pour la France.” The memorial ceremony stopped after 2001 as the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Arch became too dilapidated through neglect amid controversy over who would fund its renovation. In the end both the U.S. and French governments have contributed to its repair in time for the 100th anniversary ceremonies.

Jean Réno is Georges Thenault, the French commander of the Lafayette Escadrille, in the film Flyboys. © Electric Holdings

Cinematically, the squadron deserved to be honored better. In the 1950s, Hollywood released Lafayette Escadrille, directed by William Wellman but justifiably slammed by the critics. The New York Times called it “one of the dullest flapdoodles.” For years, Wellman claimed to have flown with the Lafayette Escadrille, and in the picture cast his son, William Wellman Jr., as himself. It has since become known that Wellman had been a volunteer pilot, yes, but in another French unit. Flyboys, made in England in 2006 and directed by Tony Bill, hews closer to the facts, has some good aerial footage (mostly digitalized), but can hardly be said to do justice to the squadron. A reviewer for the New York Times dismissed it as “a soppy fantasy.”

But perhaps the greatest tribute is the fact that the French Air Force has kept the number 124 as an active squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille, based at Saint-Dizier-Robinson southeast of Reims, and its planes still carry the Sioux feathered head insignia of the original Escadrille Américaine.

Article published in the May 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.