When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the United States declared its neutrality. But from the time the war had started, there were already Americans fighting in France–volunteers who went to Europe to fight German militarism. And one group of American volunteers would form one of the most famous fighting units of the First World War–the Lafayette Escadrille.
The Lafeyette Escadrille in 1916
Since the US was officially neutral, American volunteers were initially limited to either signing up with the French Foreign Legion, or serving in noncombat humanitarian roles (many Americans were ambulance drivers on the frontlines). In 1915, the US government finally agreed to allow American volunteers to serve in the French armed forces. This included seven Americans—Victor Chapman, Elliot Cowdin, Bert Hall, James McConnell, Norman Prince, Kiffin Rockwell and William Thaw—who had pilot licenses. All were from wealthy families; several were university graduates. When they reached France in April 1916, they were assigned individually to various French fighter and bomber squadrons, but Prince and Thaw, who had made some connection with Jarousse deSilac, an official in the French Foreign Ministry, began pressuring the French military to form an all-American volunteer flying group. The Foreign Ministry thought it would be a good propaganda idea to help win support for the Entente in the United States and pull it out of neutrality and into the war.
So on April 1916, the French Air Service formed the Number 124 “Americaine Escadrille”. After the Germans officially protested, the squadron’s name was changed in December to the Lafayette Escadrille, named after the French General who had served under Washington in the American Revolution. The Escadrille contained 38 American pilots, and was commanded by French Air Service Captain Georges Thenault. Of the 38 pilots, 28 were already serving in France, and 9 of them already had pilot training. Seven had already flown combat missions with the French Air Service. The rest were hurriedly put through a flight training program.
By May, the group was ready for combat missions, and was stationed at an aerodrome near Luxeuil, a relatively quiet sector at the Swiss border. The plane they flew was the Nieuport 11, known from its small size as “le Bebe“. “The Baby” was powered by a 9-cylinder rotary engine that could drive it at almost 100 mph, and was armed with a single Lewis machine gun mounted on the top wing to fire over the propeller arc. The unit’s first combat patrol was flown on May 13. On May 18, the unit scored its first air victory when Kiffin Rockwell shot down a German two-seat spotter plane. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire. The French had their propaganda score.
After a month at Luxeuil, the Escadrille was considered ready for “real” combat, and was transferred to the fighting at Verdun. Here, the Americans flew 146 combat patrols. By the end of September 1916, the squadron had scored 13 air victories, but had also lost its first pilot–Victor Chapman, who was shot down after being jumped by three German fighters.
The Escadrille was sent back to Luxeuil. While there, someone at the aerodrome obtained the first of two of the squadron’s mascots–a lion cub named “Whiskey”. Not long afterwards, Whiskey was joined by a second lion cub, named “Soda”. The cubs stayed with the squadron until they both got too big to handle, when they were donated to the Paris Zoo.
At Luxeuil, the Lafayette Escadrille was assigned to patrol duty and to escorting British and French bombing and reconnaissance missions. It was during this time that the Americans got their first air ace, when Raoul Lufbery, a French-born American citizen, shot down his fifth victory in October 1916, a Roland C.2 spotter plane. The squadron also lost two of its original members, when Kiffin Rockwell was shot down by the rear gunner on a German plane, and Norman Prince was killed in a crash landing. Shortly later, the squadron was transferred to an area near St-Just, where, over 66 missions, they shot down another 7 German planes.
When the US officially entered the war on the side of France and Britain in May 1917, it was woefully unprepared. The standing Army was tiny, there was no heavy equipment to speak of, and the only American airplane was the Curtis Jenny trainer. The only experienced American fliers were the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, which, for the time being, remained under French officers. There were also another 100 or so Americans flying with other French units.
The Lafayette Escadrille was finally transferred to American control (becoming the Lafayette Flying Corps) in February 1918. The Lafayette flyers had downed 57 German planes, with the high score of 16 going to Lufbery, who was now in command of the group.
The Lafayette pilots were then broken apart and used as the experienced core officers for the new United States Air Service squadrons that were formed in France. The first four American squadrons were grouped together into the 1st Pursuit Group, and were first based at a relatively quiet sector at Toul to gain some experience, then transferred to Chateau Thierry. Like the Lafayettes, they flew French aircraft, starting with the Nieuport 28 and eventually receiving the SPAD XIII.
Over the next year and a half until the end of the war, the US formed 45 squadrons of fighter, bomber and reconnaissance planes. They shot down 781 enemy airplanes and 73 artillery balloons, while losing 289 planes and 48 balloons of their own. There were 71 American aces and 5 double-aces during the war, with the highest-scoring being Eddie Rickenbacker, who had 26 victories.