This is a guest blog by Jennifer Proctor, a metadata technician. Jennifer is working on the U.S. Reports project with Julie McVey and Quinn Smith. She is also working on the Statutes at Large project.
You’ve probably heard of the Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) – the most famous German fighter pilot in history – but it may be harder to recall the great U.S. pilots who fought against him in the skies over the trenches of the First World War. Though little known today, for much of the war the most famous American pilots – Norman Prince, William Thaw, Elliot Cowdin, Raoul Lufbery, and Kiffin Rockwell, among others – belonged to the Lafayette Escadrille and they fought for France.
When World War I broke out and the United States declared its intent to remain neutral, these pilots volunteered and formed a squadron of their own within the French Air Service, known first as the Escadrille Américaine (or American Aviation Corps), then later as the Lafayette Escadrille.
The United States maintained strict neutrality for the early years of the war. Maintaining that neutrality, however, was hard work. It required many resolutions by Congress, speeches and appeals by President Wilson, and volumes of diplomatic documents (1914-1917). These documents show the existence of hundreds of protests and incidents both by and against the United States about everything from whether tobacco was a strategic war supply to the risks faced by American merchant ships.
While many Americans fought for the French Foreign Legion at the time, the unprecedented celebrity of these American pilots caused special complications. In December 1915 during one of several stateside media tours by pilots from the unit, a pro-German newspaper editor wrote a scathing opinion (pg. 25) that ran in many prominent newspapers and attracted international attention. It condemned the American Escadrille as a violation of American neutrality and led to the German Ambassador lodging a protest with the U.S. State Department. Both the State Department and the French Ambassador were drawn into the controversy. While initially stalling until the pilots had returned to their unit, the State Department was eventually forced to determine that the pilots could keep flying but the “American Aviation Corps” would have to go. On December 6, 1916, the unit officially became the Escadrille Lafayette (or the Lafayette Escadrille to its English-speaking members), named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who served as a general for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.Four months later, the United States joined the war and many members of the Escadrille chose to transfer to the U.S. Army Air Service. Although the U.S. Army was willing to bend the rules (pg. 173) on age, infirmity, eyesight, and balance to allow the other war-battered members of the unit to transfer, they would not bend the rules on segregation for Eugene Bullard. While the pilots that had formed the Lafayette Escadrille were dispersed to various units to train new American pilots with the benefit of their war experience, the Lafayette name carried on in the Lafayette Flying Corps, a U.S. Army Air Service unit made up of Americans who had transferred from other French units, including the ground forces of the Foreign Legion and the Ambulance Service. The name and neutrality controversy lasted nearly a full year, more than half of the life of the unit, because these pilots were celebrities whose popularity and personal positions on American involvement in the war influenced many.
Despite their popularity back home, aviation was new, aerial combat newer still, and life at war was often tragically cut short. Though being an excellent combat pilot, Rockwell was killed in action only months into his service. Prince died as the result of a devastating crash when returning from a combat mission. Lufbery too was killed in combat, but not before he had trained new pilots for the U.S. Army Air Service in aviation mechanics and the tactics of dog-fighting, many of which he pioneered. In time, their early achievements were surpassed by pilots who had the benefit of their training and tactics, who flew better machines, and who survived to fight longer. And while the unit, just like the man it was named after, still holds a special place in Franco-American relations, the grip it had on the popular imagination at the time has faded.