This week marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Escadrille Américaine, later known as the Lafayette Escadrille. Sadly, most Americans know little of this unit today, but at the time, the exploits of these pilots in the Great War were daily newspaper articles. In 1916, young boys wanted to be these heroes of the air and young men headed off the Europe to join them. Ladies wrote them, sent packages and gifts, swooning over these young aviators.
America would not declare war for another year and it would be many months later before any American squadrons arrived and joined the fight. In the meantime the men of the Lafayette Escadrille (and the broader Lafayette Flying Corps) would be the core of the American Air Service, the only combat-experienced American aviators.
While the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron whose ranks were Americans, they were led by a French commanding officer. The unit is often confused with the Lafayette Flying Corps (which most men were joint members of.) The flying corps was much larger and its member were Americans that were seeded into French escadrilles. Both of these volunteer organizations were at war long before America as a nation stepped up to the plate.
Many of the members of the unit began in the American Ambulance Service and the French Foreign Legion. They came to Europe for many reasons, most believing that the war would be over in a few months. When they formed the Escadrille Américaine it spurred an international incident because America was officially neutral. The eloquent solution was to rename the organization to the Lafayette Escadrille.
Most of the original founders came from rich families. There were a few rogues in the mix – namely men like Raoul Lufberry and Bert Hall; older more seasoned than the high society college boys. The war they fought was one of bitter stinging cold open cockpits. Parachutes were not part of their kits. They flew planes that were spruce and metal covered with doped linen. Their cockpits were not armored and often the men sat next to or on top of their fuel. Death could come at any angle at any moment – yet that did not deter these brave men.
There was a romantic air about these men (pun unintended). Their mascots were two pet lions – Whiskey and Soda. They had a bottle of champagne that was a “Bottle of Death” reserved for the last surviving member to toast his fallen comrades. In may respects, their exploits were crafted for Hollywood. Two movies have been made about the unit, but both sadly missed any degree of historical accuracy.
The Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps were to become the heart and soul of the American Air Service. Without these men, America’s aviation pursuits in WWI would have been a disaster – with countless more casualties. The formation of the escadrille marked the start of a true US Air Force.
This week, the French honored the Americans at their massive memorial outside of Paris. I received my invitation to attend but was too late. That was okay. I’ve had the honor to write about such men in my books Lost Eagles and The Bad Boy – Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies. I have enjoyed the honor to chronicle exploits of such men. And in this week, marking the centennial of the start of their incredible historical journey, I wanted to take a moment to remember what these volunteers did for the American Air Force.