L’Escadrille Lafayette : 

Unité Volontaire de Combat Oubliée de l’Amérique

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Has America forgotten the men of the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps? Some aviation historians would not agree.  They would perhaps point to the variety of books written by them and about them.  They would also cite Raoul Lufbery, the Lafayette Escadrille’s greatest hero, and point to the Memorial dedicated in their honor.  However, the truth is that Lafayette aviators have faded from the American historical landscape.

America’s History of Volunteer Unit

America has a long, rich tradition of volunteer fighting units.  The notion of the “citizen soldier” has been an important part of American military history since the American Revolution when a group of colonies fought for its freedom from the British.  Afterwards, the newborn states did not want large standing armies and so volunteers remained an important part of the American armed forces in its early history.  This tradition would continue, with Americans volunteering as necessary to fight its country’s wars and assist others in defense of freedom.  The volunteer spirit has proven to be a huge influence throughout American history.

From the turn of the century to the beginning of World War II, many Americans volunteered to fight abroad; indeed, this period may be considered the heyday of the American volunteer fighting unit.  Special volunteer units were created to fight the Spanish in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.  Many left neutral America in droves to drive ambulances as volunteers or to fight under the flags of other countries in 1914, 1915, and 1916, before it would officially enter the Great War in 1917.  American men flew for the Polish in 1919 against the Russians.  They went off to fight in Spain in the 1930’s against the Fascists during that country’s civil war.  American men flew and fought against the Japanese long before Pearl Harbor.  They flew for the Royal Air Force against the Germans during the Battle of Britain.  And of course, the men of the Lafayette Escadrille flew and fought for the French a full year before America entered World War I. 

Many of these volunteer units have a glorified tradition in America.  The 1st Volunteer Cavalry Unit, also known as the “Rough Riders,” led by the future President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, attacked San Juan Hill in Cuba in one of the most famous charges in American history.  The American Volunteer Motor Corps founded by Richard Norton, and its World War I sister units, the American Field Service and the American Ambulance Corps, included famous American volunteers like Earnest Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford, and other soon-to-be famous authors.  The American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers, enchanted America with its exploits against the Japanese, and General Chennault and fighter ace “Pappy” Boyington, became household names.  The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which fought in the Spanish Civil War, would be made famous by Earnest Hemingway and other writers who reported what they saw to the world.                         

The Lafayette Escadrille has never captured the American imagination and spirit as has its cohorts.  Why has the story of the Lafayette Escadrille not held up over time? Why are they not as formidable a part of America’s volunteer tradition and memory? What has been lost in the translation of the story of these noble men’s lives? Why are they not as well known as the other volunteer units from the 20th Century? -- units that in some cases achieved no more or less than the Lafayette Escadrille? Why has America failed to keep its promise to remember these men and their noble contributions? Why has their Memorial been allowed to decline into such a state of neglect?

One in Five

Are the Lafayette aviators being forgotten? To test the legitimacy of this premise, the author approached the question through a simple survey.

Three groups totaling 500 Americans were chosen as a target audience.  The majority of the 500 people were military and had a college education or higher.  The purpose was to prove that even with a predominantly educated and military background, the results would show that the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps are noticeably less well known than other volunteer organizations. 

All attempts were made to maintain the utmost impartiality and to remain completely faithful to proper survey taking techniques.  The first group of surveyed personnel had no direct contact with the surveyor.  People chosen from a general population received surveys in the mail, which were to be immediately completed and promptly returned to the author.  The other two groups surveyed consisted of military cadets.  These groups were surveyed by military officers using a similar process; the author is confident that the same fidelity was used. 

The survey itself was composed of five “YES or NO”-type questions; either the survey taker would know or not know the answer, and he or she was to reflect that accordingly.  Five American volunteer units of various acclaim and historical significance were chosen as subjects for the survey.  The Lafayette Escadrille was of course one of them; the 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment of Spanish American War fame, the American Field Service and the American Ambulance Corps of World War I fame, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War, and the American Volunteer Group of pre-World War II fame were chosen as additional volunteer units.  The survey simply asked whether the surveyed person had ever heard of the volunteer unit – a simple “Yes” or “No” was all that was needed to successfully answer the question.  The survey is presented below in Figure 1.

Survey/Questionnaire on U.S. Volunteer Organizations

Please answer the following questions by simply circling ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  It is important to the research being conducted that you answer as honestly as possible, so please mark ‘Yes’ only on those that you really know.    

  1. Have you ever heard of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Regiment, “The Rough Riders,” which participated in the Spanish-American War? Yes No
  2. Have you ever heard of the American Field Service of the American Ambulance Corps, which participated in World War I? Yes No
  3. Have you ever heard of the Lafayette Escadrille or the Lafayette Flying Corps, which participated in World War I? Yes No
  4. Have you ever heard of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which participated in the Spanish Civil War? Yes No
  5. Have you ever heard of the American Volunteer Group, “The Flying Tigers,” which participated in the war against Japan? Yes No

 

The first group represented the general population; it consisted of 100 people of various backgrounds, sex, race, and education, ranging in age from 17 to 70.  This group was surveyed by mailed questionnaire.  The second group, composed of 233 cadets from the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, ranging in age from 18 to 22, were surveyed in May of 2002, by an individually appointed testing officer, a lieutenant colonel stationed at the Academy.  This group represented a captive military audience geared toward the study of aviation history and USAF tradition.  The last group of 167 polled, were cadets from the United States Military Academy (USMA) in West Point, New York.  This group also ranged in age from 18 to 22, and represented a captive military audience that is geared toward the study of military history and U. S. Army tradition.  The cadets were surveyed by an individually appointed testing officer, a major on the USMA faculty staff.  The poll was also conducted in May of 2002.  This group was chosen as a counterbalance control group of military personnel, to offset the USAFA group.

Of the overall population of 500 persons polled, only 18% recognized the Lafayette Escadrille or Lafayette Flying Corps name.  This compares to 86% who recognized the Rough Riders; 76% who recognized the Flying Tigers; and 43% who recognized the American Field Service or the American Ambulance Corps from World War I.  Only the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a relatively obscure organization in the United States, and unpopular due to its Communist leanings, fared worse, at 15%.

Of the general population group of 100 people that were surveyed, only one in four, or 25 % recognized the name of the Lafayette Escadrille.  In this population, 81% recognized the Flying Tigers; 77% recognized the Rough Riders, 47% recognized the name of the ambulance organizations, and 23% recognized the name of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  Of this population, a couple of additional trends were perceived: of the population that went to the University of Virginia, where two of the members of the Lafayette Escadrille had attended school – James Rogers McConnell and Andrew Courtney Campbell – and who have statues and plaques erected to them on campus -- 13 of the 15 personnel polled had never heard of the Lafayette aviators.  Of 18 military aviators polled, representing the USAF, the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps, eight of the 18 personnel polled had not heard of them. 

Very surprising results came from the USAFA.  Of the 233 cadets polled, 47 had heard of the Lafayette Escadrille, meaning that 186 responded that they had never heard of the Lafayette men -- a mere 20 % from the institution that teaches the traditions of the USAF.  This compares with 100% who had heard of the Flying Tigers, and 98% having heard of the Rough Riders.  Forty-six percent had heard of the ambulance units, and only 11% had heard of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The USMA followed the pattern of the others polled, only this time the Lafayette Escadrille fared the worst.  Only 9% had heard of the Lafayette aviators.  This compares with 75% of the 167 who had heard of the Rough Riders; 45% of the Flying Tigers; 36% of the ambulance units; and 16% of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The chart below shows the results of the survey.

             Name of Organization               General Population (100)  USAFA(233)  USMA(167)  

1) 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment           77%                             98%                 75%

2) WWI Ambulance services                    47%                             46%                 36%

3) Lafayette Escadrille                              25%                             20%                    9%

4) Abraham Lincoln Brigade                    23%                             11%                   16%

5) American Volunteer Group                   81%                            100%                 45%   

a)      General population: 100 of 187 surveys returned.

b)      USAFA: 233 of 300 surveys returned.

c)      USMA: 167 of 200 surveys returned.     

The author was not able to commission an independent, professional organization to conduct his surveys although he tried; the cost was prohibitive.  The author was, however, able to consult an independent source about the validity of the survey.  It was estimated by the independent reviewer that the survey contained a 3- to 5-percent error margin. 1   Nonetheless, it is believed that the data speaks for itself.  Three different control groups, constituted of 500 people, reached the same proportional and overall conclusion.  The one in five, or 20%, testimony supports the suspicion that the Lafayette Escadrille is being forgotten.

Possible Reasons

No fiction could be written that could top the story of the members of the Lafayette Escadrille.  It is the tale of a colorful unit of men, almost alone as Americans on the Western Front, fighting for the French without the consent of its nation. They led the way in a fight against a common foe, all in the name of liberty.  These men were fighting in a new arena, the air.  The United States Air Service (USAS) did not even technically exist at the time these men were strapping on their machines and taking to the air to fight the enemy.  They were truly American pioneers in this new domain.

That the illustrious deeds of a few gallant men in a unique unit be forgotten by a nation is not truly indicative of the grander scheme of things.  All nations have units, men, or wars that have been forgotten with the passage of time.  Perhaps the Lafayette Escadrille is just one of these units, destined to be forgotten.  There are other, more definitive reasons that have made them less memorable.   

First, the historical context of the unit must be considered.  The Great War was not a popular war; indeed it created a great aversion of all things pertaining unto war for a generation afterwards.  The interwar periods would produce some of the greatest anti- war and counter-cultural movements in the 20th century.  The war and its costs were something many people would just as soon forget.  And aviation, as glorious a new combat arm as it was, had played a relatively small part in the total conflict.  When compared to the massive overall efforts demonstrated on the ground, the aviators were just a tiny percentage of the whole.  Strategists would not understand aviation’s role for years to come, and it would continue to be treated as a novelty and a second rate, supporting arms service. 

There are more tangible reasons that have influenced the Lafayette men’s historical standing.  The original Lafayette Escadrille was small; only 38 men would fly in it during its approximate 23 months of existence.  The number slightly increases to 42 if you count the French commanders that flew for the Escadrille as well during this period.  Only 209 men would fly for the Lafayette Flying Corps during the entire war.  Meanwhile, hundreds of divisions comprising millions of men fought throughout the conflict.  What could this small number of men possibly accomplish that would reverberate through history? Unless they were able to single handedly influence the outcome of the war, or achieve a number of kills that no other aviation unit on the Front could match, they were destined to be forgotten.  Their combat record was not remarkable.          

Some of the unit’s decline in recognition can be attributed to events during the war and after America had entered it.  Despite being the first true American combat aviators, the Lafayette Escadrille would suffer an ignominious fate when the United States Air Service (USAS) finally arrived in Europe.  The USAS was intent on doing things its own way, as was the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  The Lafayette Escadrille unit would be disbanded, the men integrated into different units, and although the 103rd Aero Pursuit Squadron (APS) would allegedly carry on its colors, traditions, and history, the Lafayette Escadrille would be lost in the shuffle.  It was almost if the Lafayette Escadrille was an oddity, destined to be treated like an unwanted orphan or stepchild by the USAS.  This failure by the USAS to honor and integrate the Lafayette Escadrille by including it in its ranks, would cement the unit’s historical fate.    

The lack of historical significance rendered to the Lafayette Escadrille would continue long after the war.  No unit properly carries on the tradition and colors of the Lafayette Escadrille, nor of its successor, the 103rd Aero Pursuit Squadron.  No collective monument has ever been erected in the United States to honor these men.  Only privately funded statues, monuments, and plaques exist, and these are dedicated to individuals and not to the unit.  No museum is dedicated to their memory.  No central facility or institution tells their story or recounts their exploits.  American aviation museums offer little to nothing as a tribute to these men and their legacy.  What exists in research institutions is small, incomplete, and often unorganized.  Most official USAS and USAF histories and records treat the Lafayette Escadrille as an afterthought, though the USAF’s top personnel often tout it as the pioneer combat American aviation unit.  As the results of the USAF Academy surveys might suggest, the USAFA is not even teaching its young officers at its premiere institution about its first pioneers. 

And, sadly, the overall legacy of the squadron members is not a happy one.  As in all units dissension and discord existed, yet the Lafayette Escadrille had a problem with egos, jealousy, and the sharing of glory that would taint its legacy.  The squadron was split into cliques, and the men were petty and distrustful of each other.  Some of the men became disenchanted with the Escadrille, and some even hated flying and were considered shirkers that avoided combat.  Unfortunately, the bad blood would spill over into the later years and affected the unit’s morale and unity.  There was even a row over the construction of the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial and the list of men it was supposed to honor.  Many of the members of the original 38 would die young, as recluses or as alcoholics, often in trouble with the law.  Those who did succeed to lead normal lives, did not do enough to promote their legacy from detractors and scam artists.  When a few of the survivors did come together to save their reputation and name, it was too little and too late.  

These factors contributed to the demise of the Lafayette Escadrille’s and the Lafayette Flying Corps’ memory.  Alone, any of these factors might not have detracted; but together these problems constituted obstacles too formidable for the aviators to overcome.         

A Note about this Dissertation

The researcher’s purpose in this dissertation is by no means to castigate or criticize what he believes to be a truly inspirational unit of men.  It is one of the most original and compelling stories in the history of American volunteerism.  However, it is important to examine why the Lafayette Escadrille has not captured the same amount of support and admiration from Americans as some of the other volunteer units in her history.  Only by understanding what transpired to detract from these men’s glory can one begin to rectify the Lafayette’s history.     

It is not the purpose of this dissertation to reach any definite conclusions; it is impossible for the author to speak on behalf of America as a whole.  Instead, the author intends to lay out the evidence to those few readers who know the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps, to allow them to understand perhaps why these men have failed to find the place in history they assuredly deserve.  Although the material extensively pored over by the researcher has appeared in some places before, this same material, to this author’s knowledge, has never in America or France been scrutinized with such an objective in mind.  The author believes he has seen almost all of the primary sources available in museums, archives, and special collections (exceptions include some private collections unavailable to the author).  The author, therefore, has attempted to tie the available material from all of these collections to generate a trail for the reader to follow. 

A great deal of interest has been expressed in this author’s research from those who have helped him.  It is only hoped that he will be able to provide some valuable insight into this perplexing question.  It is hoped that all will understand the men of the Lafayette so much the better in the end.             

 

1. La source indépendante : Le Major Brandi S. Barham USAF, diplomé d’un « Bachelor of Science Degree in Behavioral Sciences » de l’U. S. Air Force Academy, 1992.

 

 Copyright www.stratisc.org - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin