When the Free French Forces Trained in the U.S.

During World War II, more than 4,000 French pilots, navigators, radio operators, machine-gunners, bombardiers, and mechanics were trained in the United States. A little-known chapter in the history of the French Air Force.
A groupe of French aviators in front of their B-26 bomber at Selfridge Field, Michigan. © Courtesy of Patrice Laverdet

Boston, June 23, 1943. The French soldiers disembarking from the U.S.S. West Point were ashen-faced, having spent two weeks aboard a luxury ocean liner that had been transformed into a transport ship. Their uniforms were shabby and their shoes worn out. The awaiting crowds initially thought they were Italian prisoners of war, before realizing their mistake and welcoming them with cheers and applause!

The 120 students were part of the first class at the Centre de Formation du Personnel Navigant en Amérique, the American training center for French air crews, founded on February 1, 1943. This Franco-American program was designed to reinforce the French Air Force after the Allied landings in North Africa, and to train 500 pilots, navigators, and mechanics. The results far surpassed expectations, and 4,084 Frenchmen were trained in the United States between 1943 and 1946.

Some members of the first group of French aviators to be trained in the United States, 1943. © Courtesy of Patrice Laverdet

“Not all the students wanted to be pilots,” says Patrice Laverdet, whose grandfather was part of the first group sent overseas. This amateur historian and aviation enthusiast based in the Paris suburbs has created a whole website for this American chapter of French military history. “The selection was carried out at the air crew preparation center in Casablanca, Morocco. Those who achieved the highest scores became pilots, while the others were trained to be navigators, machine-gunners, mechanics, and photographers.”

The United States, a Land of Plenty

The French recruits arriving in the United States were from the North African colonies, veterans from the Free French Forces, and resistance fighters who had escaped through the Pyrenees Mountains and Spain. They couldn’t believe their eyes. After the hardships of war, they discovered an affluent America filled with Coca-Cola, hamburgers, drive-in theaters, and boogie-woogie music. “We are fascinated and astonished by everything,” one of them wrote. “The stores are filled with all sorts of products, and everything is new and shiny. We have not witnessed such a spectacle for a very long time!”

Their first stop was at an air force base in Selma, Alabama. The cadets spent four weeks being introduced to American military discipline, taking medical tests, and learning English. They were handed a glossary of aeronautic terms, and their instructor were U.S. pilots who spoke French. In an effort to deal with the lack of Francophones, instructors were then recruited from among the graduates from the first classes.

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Raising of the French and American colors at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, August 1943. © U.S. Signal Corps/Courtesy of Patrice Laverdet
Ground training with a U.S. instructor (left) and an interpreter, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, August 1943. © Courtesy of Patrice Laverdet

In Selma, the French contingent also received their uniforms, comprising a sand-colored shirt and pants, a black tie, and a leather flying jacket. To set themselves apart from their American counterparts, they also wore French Air Force caps and the French Cadets badge created by Cartier in New York, featuring three chicks in red, white, and blue protected by a soaring eagle. The group’s motto was Ils grandiront, or “They will grow up!”

A Harsh Selection Process

The next training stage was held across several bases in the South of the United States. More than half of the aspiring pilots were turned down and instead ushered into other professions and different training centers. The navigators were sent to Louisiana, the bombardiers to Texas, the radio operators to Illinois, the gunners to Florida, the mechanics to Mississippi and Nebraska, and the photographers to Connecticut and Long Island.

Between their flight training and Morse code classes, the French soldiers integrated into American life. They saved up to buy radios and cars, and dances were organized with students of French from local universities. Several newspapers were even printed in French, including F-Mail, Le Courrier de l’Air, Altitude 195, and L’Escopette, launched by student gunners stationed at Tyndall Field in Florida.

A group of French aviators with their American instructor (center) at Hawthorne Field, Texas, 1945. © Courtesy of Patrice Laverdet

These publications were a way to connect the French cadets scattered across America. They told stories of their lives before the war and their accomplishments in battle, paid homage to their fallen brothers – 75 cadets killed in training are buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama – and shared their experiences of the United States. A trainee stationed in Dodge City, Kansas, wrote about “excellent rodeos during peace time, lots of wind […], and a cemetery that can be visited if there is nothing else to do.” In Alabama, another cadet observed that “the black community is subjected to certain rules. Segregation is everywhere in 1944-1945. Their churches are separate from those attended by white people, and so are their buses, night clubs, and almost all other places.”

Precious Help in the Liberation of France

In June 1944, the French students from the first group received their certificates. A few cadets remained in the United States as instructors while the others were sent back to the war. With their P-47 fighter planes and their B-26 bombers, they supported the landings in Provence, battles along the Rhone Valley, and assaults in the Vosges, Alsace, and Germany. “Among the 22 groups sent to America, 15 saw action,” says Patrice Laverdet. “They provided precious help in the liberation of France.”

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Charles de Gaulle (left) visits Selfridge Field, Michigan, on August 27, 1945. © Courtesy of Patrice Laverdet

The training program was suspended after the armistice (although it was relaunched during the Cold War between 1950 and 1955) and the final soldiers were sent back to France by boat in February 1946. Most of the French pilots trained in the United States never lost their love of America. Cadet Jacques Habert was elected senator for French citizens living in North America, and was the director of France-Amérique for 18 years. And Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, who founded the magazine L’Express in 1953, continued to wear the leather jacket he was given in Alabama for the rest of his life!