France, U.S. reaffirm commitment in preserving memory of ‘founding fathers of U.S. military aviation’

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Markus M. Maier
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe Public Affairs
Ninety-six years ago, more than a year before the U.S. entered WWI and the establishment of the United States Army Air Service, American aviators left their homes and set out for Europe to volunteer to fly under the French flag on the front lines of what is now known as the "Great War."

Sanctioned by the French government, seven American pilots - Victor Chapman, Elliot Cowdin, Bert Hall, James McConnell, Norman Prince, Kiffin Rockwell and William Thaw, under the command of French Capt. Georges Thenault, formed what would ultimately become known as the "Escadrille Lafayette" or Lafayette Squadron May 13, 1916.

"They were America's first combat aviators," said Charles H. Rivkin, U.S. Ambassador to France during a recent Memorial Day ceremony. "Their unit marked the birth of the U.S. Air Force. They represent the best of America's past and future, reminding us in these times of tremendous global challenges that no issue is too great for our two countries to solve together."

The squadron's growing success encouraged more American aviators to volunteer to join the escadrille, and by the time the U.S. officially entered WWI in 1918, approximately 200 American volunteer pilots were already flying combat missions for France as part of the Lafayette Flying Corps.

The Lafayette Escadrille ceased to exist on February 18th, 1918, when it became the first American squadron, the 103rd Pursuit Squadron after the establishment of the U.S. Army Air Service. By the end of the war, American flyers were credited with 199 aerial victories.

"The Lafayette Escadrille is well known amongst all American Aviators," said Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, 3rd Air Force commander. "They were pioneers in a new form of warfare. Raoul Lufbery for example, whose name is inscribed [in the memorial], has an aerial maneuver named after him, the Lufbery Circle, which I learned about when I was a young Airman learning to fly the F-16."

To honor the Lafayette Escadrille legacy and provide a resting place for the remains of 49 of the 68 American Airmen who died during the war, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Foundation was formed.

Consequently, a monument was built on the outskirts of Paris, France in 1928, inspired by a former pilot, Edgard Guerard Hamilton, who assisted the allied forces to locate the remains of fallen American pilots.

The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial is composed of a central arch, flanked by two columned wings, which are centered on a large reflecting pool with a fountain. Underneath the monument is a crypt, which houses 68 sarcophagi illuminated by thirteen stained-glass windows depicting some of the battles the pilots were involved in.

"Walking through the crypt really sent chills down my spine," General Franklin said after a recent visit to the memorial. "I was standing on hallowed ground where really legendary aviators set the foundation for the United States Army Air Corps and the United States Air Force. Looking back at the foundation of how we employ airpower and how we think about airpower, this is where it started, right here with the Lafayette Escadrille."

Over the years the memorial has undergone several restorations and repairs, which were funded by U.S. and French governments and private donations, however economic challenges lead to a reduction of financial resources available to care for the structure resulting in the Memorial falling into a significant level of disrepair.

In 2003 the U.S. government provided a $2.1M grant to renovate the monument but construction had to be stopped at the beginning of 2005 when water leaks damaged the crypt.

Since the end of 2007, following lengthy studies, a supplementary program was initiated by the French Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs so as to make the crypt watertight. This action was funded in equal parts by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the U.S. Congress with the assistance of the US Air Forces in Europe and the Embassy of the United States in France.

On April 12, 2012 the Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs of the Republic of France and the American Battle Monuments Commission of the United States of America signed a memorandum of understanding as an initial step towards a 'bilateral agreement for joint oversight and management of the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial, with funding from public or private sources.'

"The Lafayette Memorial contributes to an essential mission," said French Gen. Patrick de Rousiers, inspector general of the French armed forces. "The mission of keeping vivid the memory of those American pilots who came by their own will to France, and finally died for our freedom. Their conduct continues to inspire young people and it also guides the most experienced. It should also lead us to hold high the values they both loved and defended. Those values that France and the United States of America share in brotherhood."

Together, the two organizations hope to devise a plan and secure funding in an effort to preserve the monument and the memory of the early beginnings of the U.S. Air Force.

"President John F. Kennedy once said that a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers," Ambassador Rivkin said. "And we will always remember the men of the Escadrille, because they are true legends, real modern heroes."