The history of the Lafayette Squadron is the story of one of the most unknown but most glorious episodes of World War I. In August 1914, when war broke out between France and Germany, young American citizens were residing in France. Many of them came from wealthy families, living a life of luxury, participating in competitions with their yachts or airplanes. A statement by the Swiss writer, Blaise Cendrars, appeared in the French newspaper "Le Figaro" calling on all foreign residents to enlist in the French army.
All those adventuresome young Americans were ready to fight for France in order to defend its freedom. But all was not as simple as it seemed. The United States was not involved in the war against Germany and any American citizen serving in a foreign army would loose his constitutional rights and citizenship. The young men decided to pay a visit to the U.S Ambassador in Paris who found a solution in suggesting that they should either enlist in the French Foreign Legion or enlist in the Ambulance Corps. No sooner said than done.
William Thaw of Pittsburgh, PA, one of the first Americans to learn to fly, offered his services as a pilot for the French army a few days after hostilities started. His offer was refused, and instead he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.


Raoul Lufbery, of Wallingford, CT, who had been a mechanic for Marc Pourpe, a famous French air pioneer, also tried to enlist in the French air service, but was refused and settled for the Foreign Legion. These two men were not alone, as 21 other Americans destined to become La Fayette Flying Corps pilots joined the Legion. After training for a few weeks, the volunteers went into the trenches and it was not until December 1914 that William Thaw, James Bach and Raoul Lufbery were allowed to transfer to the air service. In 1915, they were joined by Kiffm Rockwell, Victor Chapman, Bert Hall and Paul Pavelka, some of whom had been wounded in the spring of that year. By then other volunteers had arrived from America and were able to enlist directly in the French Air Force. Among these were Norman Prince, Dudley Hill, Clyde Balsley and James McConnell.

Meanwhile, a movement began to get all the American pilots together into one squadron. French military authorities did not take kindly to the idea at first. The concept was spearheaded by Thaw, Prince and Elliot Cowdin. Endorsed by many French and American civilians in Paris, such as Doctor Gros of the American Hospital, and with the aid of Gaston Menier, a senator, Monsieur de Sillac of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and General Hirschauer, an all American unit was authorised in the spring of 1916.

At first named "l'Escadrille Americaine", the name was changed to l'Escadrille La Fayette following a German diplomatic protest to the U.S Government. Two French officers, Captain Georges Thenault and Lieutenant Alfred de Laage de Meux were named to command the seven Americans selected. They were, along with Prince, Thaw and Cowdin, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, James McConnell and Bert Hall.

The new squadron was organised at Luxeuil-les- Bains near the front on the edge of the Vosges mountains. The first American pilots to arrive were officially welcomed into their newly created unit on April 20th 1916 by General Franchet d'Esperey. They were joined by Clyde Balsley, Dudley Hill, Chouteau Johnson and Raoul Lufbery a few days later.

The first victory of the Squadron was won by Kiffin Rockwell, on May 20th, 1916. He shot down a German two-seater observation plane at the foot of the Hartmanns-willerkopf, in Alsace. The squadron was then ordered to Verdun where the mightiest battle of the war was raging. On May 24th, the entire American squadron took part in a pitched battle with a superior force of German aeroplanes. Thaw, Rockwell and Chapman were wounded. Thaw's arm was broken and he was forced to enter a hospital. Chapman's and Rockwell's wounds were facial; They had themselves bandaged and continued their work over the front. Clyde Balsley was so badly wounded that, after over a year in a hospital, he was discharged, but, unfortunately, he was permanently crippled.

The first four pilots to arrive at the front with the American squadron were also the first four to die. Victor Chapman was killed in aerial duel over the Verdun battleground on June 23rd", 1916. Kiffin Rockwell was slain in a fight with an enemy plane, on September 23rd, 1916.

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Norman Prince was mortally injured in an aeroplane accident on October 12 , 1916. James McConnell was brought down by two enemy aeroplanes on March 19th, 1917, near Ham during the German retreat in the Aisne. James McConnell was the last American aviator killed by the enemy before America's entry into the World War. His comrade Edmond Genet was the first American flier to die after the United States declared war against Germany , shot down by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17th, 1917, not far from where McConnell fell.

During 1916 and 1917, other American volunteers continued to arrive, so that in spite of heavy losses, the ranks of the La Fayette Escadrille were never depleted. The overflow of newly trained American pilots was sent to other French units. As a result the La Fayette Escadrille became part of a much larger organisation called the Lafayette Flying Corps.

By August 1917 the La Fayette Escadrille had won four Legions of Honor, seven Medailles Militaire and thirty one citations, each citation accompanied by a Croix de Guerre. American pilots in the other squadrons were also winning their share of medals.

Flight lieutenant Thenault was the only officer to be in command of the Lafayette Escadrille. Promoted Major after three years of aerial battles, he left the front to take charge the headship of the flying school in Pau. Excellent fighter pilot, he was credited with seven victories among which four confirmed. Much more important was the fact that he perfectly succeeded in creating and commanding the squadron which will become the core of the first American fighter group.

The Capitaine Thenault and his dog Fram in front of a Spad

The La Fayette Escadrille ceased to exist on February 18th, 1918, when it became the first American pursuit squadron, "S103". It kept its French planes and mechanics. Out of some 265 American volunteers in the French Air Force 225 received their wings and 180 flew combat missions at the front in French uniform. Fifty one pilots were killed in action, six were killed in training accidents and six more died from illness. The American flyers were credited with one hundred and ninety nine victories.

Most of the dead of the La Fayette Escadrille and the La Fayette Flying Corps were buried in military cemeteries scattered along the front in France, Belgium and Italy. In February 1921, a committee was organised to search for a fitting single resting place for the fallen. A number of sites were considered in Champagne and near Verdun, but abandoned because of the distance from Paris. A large lot in the park of Villeneuve 1'Etang at Marnes-la-Coquette was offered by the French government and was accepted by the committee, which began to plan a proper memorial monument.