As World War I spread across Europe, the US remained reluctant to enter the conflict and remained so for almost three years. During this time, some Americans thought the US had a duty to enter the war and wanted to take a more active role. Several patriotic Americans volunteered to drive ambulances for the French at the front lines (notably Ernest Hemmingway and Walt Disney). The only option to actually fight in the war was to join the British or French military. Joining the British military had to be done via Canada and led to a loss of US citizenship. However, France had a well-established Foreign Legion and the US government permitted Americans to retain their citizenship through this avenue. A handful of Americans used this to discretely joined the French Air Service through the Foreign Legion and were truly the first American aviators in the war. These unsung patriots mainly served in reconnaissance and bombing roles until trench warfare took hold in 1915, providing the catalyst for the evolution of aviation from scout/reconnaissance flights to engaging the enemy in air combat and close air support.
In 1916, the growing influence of the affluent American expatriate presence in Paris created a push to establish a unit within the French Air Service that consolidated the Americans to preserve their identity and possibly even increase the case for the US to finally declare war. Led by Norman Prince, a Harvard graduate, American, and current French Air Service pilot, these efforts were financed by the personal wealth of a committee of Americans, the most notably William Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. On April 20, 1916 French Captain Georges Thenault officially took charge of the Lafayette Escadrille to which four other French officers and a half dozen Americans were assigned. Originally called Américaine Escadrille (“American squadron”), the name drew protests from Germany because the US was still neutral, so it was changed. The new name honored a man named Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War (he was also a close friend of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.)
It was decided the unit’s insignia should be distinctively American, so the Lakota (Sioux) Indian chief head was chosen. Additionally, decorative marks, rather than numbers, were used on each aircraft for pilot identification; remember, there were no radios in airplanes yet. In a diary entry dated March 14, 1916, Edmond Genet wrote:
Painted a distinguishing mark on my aeroplane in p.m. Put on the tricolor, red, white, and blue in broad Cheviron stripes and a large white star in the center of the top side of the fuselage. It makes a mighty neat and clear design and entirely different from the marks of the others. We all have the Escadrille insignia on each side of our machines-the head of an American Indian Chief but each one has in addition a particular distinguishing mark so we can tell each other.
Christopher Ford used a red, white and blue lightning streak while Charles Nungesser’s
plane was decorated with a skull and crossbones. Others didn’t put as much thought into their marks; Edwin Parsons simply wrote his initials, ‘ECP’, on his plane and Didier Masson used a large red swastika, a common symbol for good luck (the swastika is also found in the head dress of the Escadrille insignia, well before it was adopted by the Nazis and given a negative connotation).
A month later, Lafayette Escadrille pilot Kiffin Rockwell would go down in history as the first American to score an aerial victory (a year before the US declared war). Of his May 18, 1916 victory he wrote:
This morning I went over the lines to make a little tour. I was a little on the other side of the lines, when my motor began to miss a bit. I turned around to go to a camp near the lines. Just as I started to head for there, I saw a Boche machine about seven hundred meters under me and a little inside our lines. I immediately reduced my motor, and dived for him. He saw me at the same time, and began to dive toward his lines. It was a machine with a pilot and a mitrailleur [French for machine gun], with two mitrailleuses, one facing the front and one the rear that turned on a pivot, so he (the gunner) could fire in any direction. He immediately opened fire on me and my machine was hit, but I didn’t pay any attention to that and kept going straight for him, until I got within twenty-five or thirty meters of him. Then, just as I was afraid of running into him, I fired four or five shots, then swerved my machine to the right to keep from running into him. As I did that, I saw the mitrailleur fall back dead on the pilot, the mitrailleuse fall from its position and point straight up in the air, the pilot fall to one side as if he was done for also. The machine itself fell first to one side, then dived vertically toward the ground with a lot of smoke coming out of the rear. I circled around, and three or four minutes later saw a lot of smoke coming up from the ground just beyond the German trenches.
By the fall of 1916, recruiting efforts paid off and a total of 269 men had volunteered. This influx of Americans led to the establishment of the Lafayette Flying Corps. Unlike Lafayette Escadrille, these American pilots were spread out amongst the French flying units. The efforts of these volunteers can not be overstated. When the US finally entered the war in April 1917, 128 of these seasoned American pilots were immediately transferred to the Aviation Section, Signal Corps and provided crucial combat experience for new US flying units. Gervais Raoul Lufbery, a French-American Lafayette Escadrille pilot, would amass 16 aerial victories by the time the US entered the war. As one of the most successful Lafayette Escadrille pilots, he was tapped to become the first commander of the first US squadron that would see combat: the 94th Aero Squadron. Though he would leave behind “Whiskey”, his pet lion of many years (the larger of Lafayette Escadrille’s two lion mascots), he would teach the inexperienced Americans how to fly, fight, and win. One of his new 94th Aero Squadron students was a man who would soon become famous in his own right: Eddie Rickenbacker. Lufbery would garner one more victory (his 17th) before being shot down and killed in May 1918. Sadly, 63 of the 269 volunteers for the Lafayette Flying Corps would be lost during the war. Of the original Lafayette Escadrille, 11 of the 38 American pilots would also perish in the war, including founder Norman Prince.
Edwin Parsons wrote of his time with the Escadrille:
Thirty-eight daring, plucky young Americans had been on its active roster. They had a sum total of fifty-seven victories, officially confirmed, over enemy planes. Nine were killed while in the Escadrille, one so seriously wounded that he was invalided out, and one taken prisoner. From April 20, 1916 to February 18, 1918, as a unit they served France, and incidentally America, with honorable distinction. They were the first and only group of organized volunteer active combatants flying and fighting against Germany, and their exploits made history. Many more of these young heroes were killed while in the American Air Service….but their glorious exploits and the magnificent accomplishments of the Lafayette Escadrille will forever remain imperishable.
The story of the Lafayette Escadrille was depicted in the 2006 movie Flyboys. Though historically inaccurate details persist (as in all movies), the movie captures the spirit of the Escadrille and the beginning of US air warfare.