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The Lafayette Escadrille—Americans Prepare to Enter the Air War

The Insignia of The Lafayette Escadrille

American fliers had wanted to see action in the war from the very first and, as fliers, they were not likely to be content with only reading about the exploits of their European colleagues. Ever since American mercenary fliers flew for the rebels in Mexico in 1913, Americans could be counted on to go wherever their flying services were needed. At the outbreak of World War I, Americans petitioned to be allowed to volunteer for service with the Allies, and permission was granted after a year.

Victor Chapman after being wounded in the head, June 17, 1916, six days before he would lose his life near Verdun, becoming the first Escadille Americaine pilot to die while engaging the enemy.

The corps of American fliers was formed in April 1916, at first under the name the Escadrille Americaine (AEF), but after the German ambassador complained about so partisan an involvement, the name was changed to the Lafayette Escadrille, after the French naval hero who fought with Washington. The group did not have a great impact on the war effort, but it did cement the relationship between the Americans and the Allied aviators, particularly the French, who still remembered the impression the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss had made just a few years earlier.

Kiffin Rockwell scored the first victory by a member of the Escadille Americaine when he shot down a German reconnaissance airplane.

The French also liked the free-wheeling and generous nature of the Americans and were welcoming of one in particular, Raoul Lufbery, an American of French lineage who had served in China and the French Foreign Legion before coming to Europe. In 1914 Lufbery was servicing airplanes for the Stork Squadron and taking flight training on the side.

A portrait of Lafayette Squadron members

The Lafayette Escadrille did not form until two Harvard graduates—Norman Prince, a student pilot who came to Paris for the express purpose of forming the volunteer squadron, and Victor Chapman, doing graduate work in Paris when the war began—and William Thaw, a Legion volunteer from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, teamed up with an influential American in Paris, Dr. Edmund Gros, a leader of the volunteer American medical and ambulance corps serving in France. Together, the four allayed the French fears about spies in the American group and convinced them to supply planes for combat and reconnaissance.

Raoul Lufbery of the Escadrille Americaine

All through 1916 and 1917, Prince and Chapman did aerial combat with Germany’s best fliers, and they and the rest of the corps accumulated some respectable kill totals. Prince downed five planes before being shot down in 1916; Chapman was praised by the French for his bravery, but was killed fighting Fokkers that same year, as was Thaw. The only ace to come out of the Lafayette Escadrille was Lufbery, who had seventeen confirmed victories, as both volunteer and then as part of the AEF.

In 1918, Billy Mitchell led a multi-national force with 1,481 airplanes at St. Mihiel, resulting in German defeat and recovery of St. Mihiel by the Allies for the first time since 1914. This Salmson 2A2 of the 91st Aero Squadron had its lower wing heavily damaged by enemy anti-aircraft fire, September 14, 1918.

In the AEF, Lufbery commanded the 94th Air Squadron, which included Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s top ace in the war. The “Hat-in-the-Ring” squadron, as it was  called (after its insignia) became the elite American air fighting unit under Lufbery’s command and allowed Billy Mitchell, commander of the entire American air forces in Europe, to contemplate and then launch aerial assaults that would determine the outcome of battles. Lufbery died in combat in June 1918, in full view of Mitchell, who was observing on the ground. In all, some two hundred fliers flew in the Lafayette Escadrille.

In 1918, Americans were flying around the clock and. as the action continued, learning to fly new planes, SPAD XIIIs.

They supported tank movements and protected certain targets that they believed held special psychological significance, such as the great cathedral at Reims, a  frequent target of the German bombers. Camped in their barracks at Chaudun, the Americans were famous for keeping two lion cubs, Whiskey and Soda, and were looked upon hopefully as an advance guard for the entry of the Yanks into the field of battle.

The Nieuport 28 was the first fighter airplane flown in combat by pilots of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.