The Lafayette Escadrille had 38 American pilots along with their French commander Captain Georges Thenault and two French lieutenants.
The ages of the pilots ranged from 20 to 40 years of age and thirty had college degrees or had been in college when they volunteered. The majority of them were from the Eastern part of the United States, nine from New York and two from the West. Eleven were sons of millionaires. Twenty-eight had served in France in combat or driving ambulances on the front lines before joining the Lafayette Escadrille.
Only nine of the 38 had pre-war flying experience!
The original seven volunteer pilots-in-training were Norman Price, Victor Chapman, James McConnell, William Thaw, Kiffin Rockwell, Elliott Cowdin and Bert Hall. All were sons of millionaires with college education except for Bert Hall, who would be the only survivor of the original seven.
According to French war statistics the average lifespan of a pilot in combat was 15 hours, yet from its inception to its dissolving, the Lafayette Escadrille defied the odds with only 14 American pilots being killed, three captured by the enemy and four wounded in action (although pilots were often injured in crash landings and returned to combat).
By the last day of American involvement in the squadron on December 22, 1917, the Lafayette Escadrille had seen 465 days of combat, had 39 confirmed kills, almost half of the kills attributed to pilot Raoul Lufbery and five kills by French pilots assigned to the squadron. The overall kills of the Escadrille are likely higher since they did not count the German aircrafts that crashed behind enemy lines since they couldn’t be confirmed. (see the National Air and Space Museum website’s Lafayette Escadrille operational logs)
Once an American had volunteered for the Lafayette Escadrille, they had to pass the physical and eye exams before starting their training. France being pragmatic as well as grateful for any and all the help they could get administered the exams to American volunteers with a far from critical eye. The following account was given by soon-to-be pilot Ned Parsons. He had joined the Foreign Legion and been an ambulance driver before applying to be a pilot. He described his physical condition at that time in the book First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I by Charles Bracelen Flood.
He said he…”had some defects…addicted to swollen tonsils, the lid of my left eye drooped…I had lost the first two joints of the little finger of my right hand…that in itself,…would have been enough to bar me from American [military] aviation…” Parsons quickly passed through a cursory examination of heart and lungs (administered by a French Major military doctor), but feared the eyesight test.
He said …”The major placed him ten feet from an eye chart that…had letters as large as a sign in Times Square. He commanded me to read. ‘The second line,’ he’d say, ‘the third letter. I see there a B. What do you see?’
“Sure enough it was a B, and I’d say so…his ‘Bons’ (French for “Good”) grew bigger and better with each answer.
“‘Bon,’ he’d explode enthusiastically…Then…the color charts, where we repeated the same delightful process.
“‘I see red. What do you see?’…’Red, Major.’…In two shakes of a lamb’s tail it was all over.
“He gave me a friendly pat on the back that sent me staggering across the room and, signing his name to my papers with an official flourish, he congratulated me for being a perfect physical specimen and told me that as far as he was concerned I could go out and get myself killed at any time ‘pour la France.'”
Once the physical and eye exams were completed, the Americans were sent to one of four training schools for three months. They began their training in what they called “Penguins” which were planes with their wings clipped so they couldn’t fly. In these they learned to taxi on the runways. The early planes had one seat, so once they went on to learn how to fly, the training flights were solo on Bleriot planes.
One Escadrille pilot, upon seeing the aircraft he would fly in, gave the following description. He said it looked like it was put together with…”odds and ends of wood,…metal…discarded matchsticks…wired together…Then old handkerchiefs were sewed together to cover the wings and that part of the fuselage around the pilot’s seat. The remainder of the fuselage was left naked, which gave the plane a sort of half-finished appearance.”
The pilots’ final exam consisted of two three-legged flights of 150 miles, flown at a minimum altitude of 3,000 feet and completed in 48 hours. The last part of the test involved flying at 6,000 feet for one hour.
Because of the intense cold in an open cockpit of an aircraft made of sticks, metal pipes and cloth, the pilots wore heavy fur-lined coats or one-piece flight suits they called “teddy bear suits” with fur boots, heavy wool sweater, gloves and as one pilot described it “a huge cork safety helmet which Wisdom tells him to wear and Common Sense pronounces impossible. Common Sense wins.” (First to Fly: The Story of the American Heroes Who Flew For France in World War I by Charles Bracelen Flood)
After graduating from training, the pilots could get their uniforms made, so off to Paris they went. Because this was a new unit, they had a choice of several styles. To get it made would cost $50.00 in today’s money.
On the collar would be a pair of red tabs with a flier’s embroidered insignia of a gold wing and a star. On the sleeve was a horizontal winged propeller emblem. One pilot described the usual choice of uniform for the Americans: “…went in for a musical-comedy-style aviation uniforms, fearful to behold, guaranteed to knock the not-too-difficult little mademoiselles right square on their backs…” The headquarters for the Lafayette Escadrille was at Bar-le-Duc, 130 miles from Paris. The pilots acquired some unusual pets, including two lion cubs named Whiskey and Soda. On a trip to Paris, one of the pilots saw an advertisement from a lady in Paris for a lion cub.
The pilot Raoul Lufbery was the most vocal against getting the cub but ended up becoming the most attached to it and they became inseparable. The pilots also had dogs, including an Irish Setter that went on low-flying recon missions with its owner.
One of the most historical figures that would later come out of the Lafayette Corps is American Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first black fighter pilot.
He was originally from the state of Georgia in the U.S. and heard from some traveling gypsies that black men faired much better in France than in the U.S. He stowed away on a ship when he was 16 and eventually made it to Paris as a boxer with a troupe from London. At 19 he joined the French Foreign Legion and was a machine gunner on the front lines. He received the Croix de Guerre with bronze star for valor. He heard about the Americans flying for France and applied with references from French officers. He received his orders in 1916 and flew more than 20 combat missions. He married a French countess and they had two daughters.
Question: With all the combat that the pilots experienced, both on land and in the air, do you think they might have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? When was this condition first truly recognized and officially given a medical diagnosis?
In the next installment, we will look at the rapid evolution of the airplanes and their weapons used by the Lafayette Escadrille.
To find out more about the Lafayette Escadrille here are some resources:
First to Fly: the Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, The American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I by Charles Bracelen Flood
The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille: Told By Its Commander by Georges Thenault
The Lafayette Escadrille: a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron by Steven A. Ruffin
Kiffin A. Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force by T. B. Murphy
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum https://airandspace.si.edu (where you can also read the pilot’s operational logs!
New England Air Museum website: https://www.neam.org/Lafayette-escadrille/
Flood, C.B. (2015). First to Fly: the Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew For France in World War I. New York: Grove Press.
Morrow Jr.,J.H. (1993). The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Carroll, A. (2017). My Fellow Soldiers: General Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War. New York: Penguin.