The Lafayette Escadrille: Americans who flew with French in WWI honored

With the Fourth of July just around the corner, I wanted to look back at America’s involvement in World War I and specifically, those daring young men in their flying machines.

Little did I know that my research would open some doors into the subject that would end up with me having a talk with the head of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission in Virginia.

Living here in the Antelope Valley with all its aviation history and firsts, it is easy to think that the warbirds of the world and especially the United States were home grown — but that is actually far from the truth. The development of the modern-day combat aircraft came into being in the skies over France and Germany in World War I, when two individuals took to the skies with only side arms and attempted to shoot each other till they ran out of ammo, and then just waved at each other and flew home. That was the beginning of what would grow into a worldwide quest to own the skies. The United States would soon have their own chapter flying in those same skies and would form a group of volunteers who would become legendary in the world of American aviation: the famous Lafayette Escadrille.

Members of the Lafayette Escadrille in France during World War I. (Courtesy photograph)

The Lafayette Escadrille was formed thanks to three individuals: Norman Prince of Boston, Mass., William Thaw of Pittsburgh, Penn., and Dr. Edmond Gros, an American expatriate living in France.

Seeking to aid the Allied cause, they lobbied officials in Paris to create an all-American squadron within the French Air Service. The Allies were in need of more combat forces, and were fully aware of the positive propaganda value that Americans flying under the French flag could afford in garnering United States support for the Allied cause.

French officials approved the concept on Aug. 21, 1915, and the beginning of American Combat aviation was born.

The new squadron, officially designated N.124, The Lafayette Escadrille, was formed eight months later under the command of French Air Service Capt. George Thenault. While a handful of the Americans joining the unit had previously served in the French Air Service, most were novice aviators — just having mastered the most basic elements of flight.

More than 200 Americans flew with French squadrons during the course of the war. Men who were considered part of this elite flying group came from diverse backgrounds, including authors of fiction, a professional polo player, all-American football players, an FBI special agent, and a U.S. ambassador to name a few. Of this number, only 38 were assigned to the Lafayette Escadrille — the term escadrille means squadron in French. The rest served in other French flying units. Collectively, all Americans in the French Air Service, known as the Service Aéronautique, were considered to be part of the Lafayette Flying Corps, an unofficial designation. Many of these aviators transferred to American squadrons once the U.S entered the war in April 1917.

As tales of the Lafayette Escadrille spread around the globe, these young men stood as noble champions of the Allied cause. Hundreds of Americans traveled to France in a quest to join the famed squadron. Unable to accommodate the flood of volunteers within the original unit, French Air Service leaders formed the Lafayette Flying Corps — an effort that saw more than 200 American volunteers join a variety of French squadrons. Their contribution to the war was undeniable, with the volunteers shooting down 199 German aircraft.

But with these numbers, there came a heavy price to be paid in those early years of air combat. Risks associated with daily combat operations were pronounced. Despite the celebratory status afforded to the men of the Lafayette Escadrille, flying in combat for more than two years proved exceedingly costly. Nearly one third of the 38 aviators who served in the original squadron gave their lives to the Allied cause during the war. Flying amidst such odds yielded a stark understanding regarding dedication to duty and sacrifice.

In the memorial crypt beneath the memorial, are 68 sarcophagi, one for each of the aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps who lost their lives during World War I. Forty-nine of these aviators are entombed in the crypt, along with two of their French commanding officers. The remainder rest in other locations, or their remains were never recovered. (Courtesy photograph)

So why did I feel it was necessary to take a look back at these brave and adventurous young pilots from so long ago and understand how they fit into the patchwork quilt fabric of the American journey?  It really comes down to the word Freedom, as well as those words in the previous paragraph that mentioned dedication to duty and sacrifice. There is no doubt that early on, the thoughts of adventure played a big part in a lot of young men’s decision making — but when the realities of war became a part of their everyday lives they did not turn around and head back home. The majority stayed the course until death, sickness or combat closed the book on their short lives. From these first American Airmen and with the United States entering the Great War in 1917, the pioneering airmen of the Lafayette Escadrille formed the foundation on which American combat aviation was built. Donning United States Air Service uniforms, the veteran flyers continued to fly and fight, while also teaching their newly arrived counterparts about the nuances of combat aviation. This continued service proved critical, with American airpower helping win a series of battles that ultimately brought victory to the Allied cause in November of 1918.

As this history fades ever farther in the rearview mirror of history, I felt it was necessary that, as we celebrate the independence of America, we remember the heart of what the flag waving and patriotic displays are all about. Independence Day is a special day when we celebrate the journey of every man, woman and child who in some way contributed to our freedoms.

The words of Capt. George Thenault, the commanding officer of the Lafayette Escadrille, pretty well puts into perspective the mindset of those early day American volunteers and the true meaning of their sacrifice on the world’s behalf, “They were the precursors of the mighty awakening of the West — of that gigantic effort of America — unparalleled in history — the greatest of all crusades, where every qualified man was enrolled under the Stars and Stripes, for no selfish aim, for no world-conquest, but for the great ideals upon which civilization depends and for which the entire resources of the nation were unsparingly contributed to assure victory.”

So while doing research on this, I became aware of the monument that was erected to honor these Americans and I was distressed to find out it had fallen on hard times and was in need of a $14 million restoration. Wanting to know more, I called Michael Conley, the chief of staff at the American Battlefields Commission, to get some more background. He shared the news that over the last years, the monument had changed ownership and is now under his direction and care as an American Cemetery on foreign soil. The insight he shared brought me peace of mind that these real American heroes now safely rest in the arms of those who care about their service and sacrifice.

(Courtesy image)

After the Armistice, Lafayette Flying Corps veterans worked with American and French leaders to build a memorial dedicated to those who flew with the Service Aéronautique. The memorial would also serve as a final resting place for many of those who lost their lives during the war.   

Dedicated in 1928, the memorial cemetery consists of an ornate central arch, half the size of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with a French inscription on the façade, and an English translation on the rear. The central arch is flanked by wings on either side that include open hallways terminating in end pavilions. A reflecting pool runs the length of the structure. Behind the memorial is a semi-circular terrace that forms the roof of the crypt below. Stained-glass windows in the crypt depict the major battles of the Western Front.

In the memorial crypt are 68 sarcophagi, one for each of the aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps who lost their lives during World War I. Forty-nine of these aviators are entombed in the crypt, along with two of their French commanding officers. The remainder rest in other locations, or their remains were never recovered.

By the early 21st century, decades of delayed maintenance to the memorial had led to structural damage, water intrusion and corrosion that required large-scale repair. Understanding its significance in the history of American military aviation, ABMC, through an agreement with the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Foundation and the French government that included financial support, led restoration efforts in 2015 and 2016, in time for the 100th anniversary of the formation of the squadron. In January 2017 ABMC officially assumed ownership and responsibility for the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery, making it the 9th commemorative World War I cemetery administered by the agency.

Happy Fourth of July friends, and never forget those that blazed the trail of freedom in our skies. No matter the war or era, they were all part of what we call family here in America.

Until next time, Bob out …

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