Simanaitis Says

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IT WAS just about 100 years ago that American pilots transferred their service from the Escadrille Lafayette to the newly formed U.S. Army Air Service. In addition to the 38 American volunteers of the Lafayette Escadrille, there were perhaps another 180 Americans who flew in World War I combat in the French Air Force.

A Lafayette Escadrille pin. Prior to World War II and the Nazi usurping of it, the swastika was recognized among early aviators as a symbol of good luck. Indeed, it has an ancient lineage; in my Japanese maps, mirror images of the swastika shown here represent Buddhist temples.

This escadrille was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette who joined colonists in the American Revolutionary War.

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette, 1757–1834, French aristocrat and military officer, close friend of U.S. Founding Fathers.

Dr. Edmund L. Gros, one of the founders of the American Hospital of Paris in 1906, also organized the American Ambulance Field Service in 1914. At the time, the French word ambulance meant a temporary military hospital; its name for the emergency vehicle grew out of wartime use of converted Model T Fords, built in the Levallois-Perret Ford plant near Paris.

Edmund Louis Gros, 1869–1942, American M.D., instrumental in the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille.

American expatriate Norman Prince was already flying for the French Air Service. He and Dr. Gros persuaded the French government to form a squadron, an escadrille, of volunteer American pilots in 1916. (The U.S. was not to enter WWI formally until April 1917.)

Norman Prince, 1887–1916, American lawyer, pilot in WWI, instrumental in the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille with Dr. Edmund Gros, crashed returning from combat, died October 15, 1916.

The Lafayette Escadrille was authorized by the French Service Aéronautique on March 21, 1916, as the Escadrille de Chasse Nieuport 124 with seven American members; eventually, its full roster would include 38 American pilots.

The seven original Lafayette Escadrille pilots in front of a Nieuport 17 aircraft, March 1916. Victor E. Chapman, Elliot C. Cowdin, Weston (Bert) Hall, James R. McConnell, Norman Prince, Kiffin Rockwell, and William Thaw. Also shown: their commander, French Captain Georges Thénault; Lieutenant Delnage, and (tail-wagging) Fram. Below, Whiskey and Soda, the squadron’s lion cub mascots.

The squadron’s first combat was in the Battle of Verdun, May 13, 1916. Five days later, Kiffin Rockwell scored the Lafayette Escadrille’s first aerial victory. In June, Victor Chapman was the unit’s first casualty. Nine of the 38 Lafayette Escadrille members died in combat; others perished after the unit’s dissolution and formation of the U.S. Army Air Service.

In 1928, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Arch was erected in Marnes-la-Coquette, Hauts-de-Seine, 8 miles west of Paris. The memorial commemorates both members of the Lafayette Escadrille and those of the Lafayette Flying Corps.

The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Arch, in the Paris suburb of Marnes-la-Coquette.

Official member or not of the Escadrille Lafayette, these brave pilots could legitimately say, “Lafayette, we are here.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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