I recently was interviewed about Bert Hall for the November issue of Air and Space. It’s always a strange thing for me when I forget about these interviews and they then show up in print.
Bert was a member of the Lafayette Escadrille – one of the founding members. He didn’t fit the mold of the aristocratic young men from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Virginia that made up the squadron…not by a long shot. Hall was a scoundrel. His father had been a die-hard Confederate, one of the few that had taken part in the Exodus of Confederates into Mexico hoping to forge a state there. While he had a relative that fought in the American Revolution, Bert himself was a bit of an opportunist.
When the war broke out in 1914 Hall was driving a cab in Paris. He drank with the younger American students that gathered there, befriending them. Seduced by the concept that the war was going to be a six month affair, Hall was part of the original “Band of Brothers” that enlisted in the French Foreign Legion to fight for France, a full three years before the United States entered the fray.
Hall was part of that first phase of the war, before the long lines of semi-static trenches. He saw good men, Americans and French, die horribly. When the opportunity came to transfer to the French Air Service, he jumped at it. It had to be better than the random death on the front lines.
Despite his Hall ended up being at the right place at the right time when two of the young Americans pressed for an all-American squadron. Hall was one of the founders, and one of the early members of the brotherhood of American aviators in France – the Lafayette Flying Corps. He scored victories in the Escadrille Américaine (the early name of the Lafayette Escadrille).
Hall didn’t fit in with the rich boys. He cheated at cards, allegedly stole from them, and crossed some of the members as the unit began to suffer deaths. He was transferred to another unit, where he scored more victories.
Hall was transferred to Romania, being the only American to fly on both the Western and Eastern fronts in the war. He ended up in St. Petersburg Russia when the revolution broke out, traveling across the embroiled country to return to America and became a film writer and actor – portraying his “life story” in A Romance of the Air. Bert Hall was a sort of real-life Forrest Gump – ending up in China between the wars, where he was made a Chinese General commanding local air forces; though he was much more of a mercenary and arms dealer. Hall gambled his way across China and was eventually arrested for a shady arms deal. Hall collected ex-wives and children all around the world. One of his sons even raced in the Indy 500 while another flew for the British in WWII.
Say what you will about this “lovable rogue,” he certainly tromped the Earth. While his impacts are negligible, his story is unique and incredible, even as you wade through his self-promoting hype. Want to read more? Check out my book, The Bad Boy – Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies (Fonthill Media).