Volume one of a two volume history of the famous American volunteer squadron of the First World War
There can be few who have heard of the Lafayette Flying Corps who are unaware of its history. It was, of course, comprised of the American pilots who volunteered to fight for France in the air and it included the famous Lafayette Escadrille. More than 200 American pilots completed French aviation training and 180 flew in combat. Sixty three brave Americans gave their lives for the French cause and the corps was credited with nearly 160 enemy aircraft shot down. Lafayette flyers included eleven flying aces and four winners of the Legion d’ Honneur. This two volume history of the services of the Lafayette Flying Corps includes contributions by many of it members and is an essential source work on the subject for all those interested in the early history of military aviation.
Volume one is a history of the corps from its formation, and includes details of the origin of the Escadrille Américaine, the Escadrille Lafayette at the front, the Lafayette Flying Corps, enlistment and early training, adventures in action, life on the front, combats and prisoners of war.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
As soon as we pilots had left in our machines, the trucks and tractors set out in convoy, carrying the men and equipment. The Nieuports carried us to our new post in a little more than an hour. We stowed them away in the hangars and went to have a look at our sleeping-quarters. A commodious villa halfway between the town of Bar-le-Duc and the aviation field had been assigned to us, and comforts were as plentiful as at Luxeuil.
Our really serious work had begun, however, and we knew it. Even as far behind the actual fighting as Bar-le-Duc, one could sense one’s proximity to a vast military operation. The endless convoys of motor trucks, the fast-flowing stream of troops, and the distressing number of ambulances brought realisation of the near presence of a gigantic battle.
Within a twenty-mile radius of the Verdun Front aviation camps abound. Our escadrille was listed on the schedule with the other fighting units, each of which has its specified flying hours, rotating so there is always an escadrille de chasse over the lines. A field wireless to enable us to keep track of the movements of enemy planes became part of our equipment.
Lufbery joined us a few days after our arrival. He was followed by Chouteau Johnson and Clyde Balsley, who had been on the air guard over Paris. Dudley Hill and Lawrence Rumsey came next, and after them Didier Masson and Paul Pavelka. Nieuports were supplied them from the nearest depots, and as soon as they had mounted their instruments and machine guns, they were on the job with the rest of us.
Before we were fairly settled at Bar-le-Duc, Bert Hall brought down a German observation craft and Thaw a Fokker. Fights occurred on almost every sortie. The Germans seldom crossed into our territory, unless on a bombarding jaunt, and thus practically all the fighting took place on their side of the line. Thaw dropped his Fokker in the morning, and on the afternoon of the same day there was a big combat far behind the German trenches. Thaw was wounded in the arm, and an explosive bullet detonating on Rockwell’s windshield tore several gashes in his face. Despite the blood which was blinding him, Rockwell managed to reach an aviation field and land. Thaw, whose wound bled profusely, landed in a dazed condition just within our lines. He was too weak to walk, and French soldiers carried him to a field dressing-station, whence he was sent to Paris for further treatment. Rockwell’s wounds were less serious and he insisted on flying again almost immediately.
A week or so later Victor Chapman was wounded. Considering the number of fights he had been in and the courage with which he attacked, it was a miracle he had not been hit before. He always fought against odds and far within the enemy’s country. He flew more than any of us, never missing an opportunity to go up, and never coming down until his gasoline was giving out. His machine was a sieve of patched-up bullet holes. His nerve was almost superhuman and his devotion to the cause for which he fought sublime. The day he was wounded he attacked four machines. Swooping down from behind, one of them, a Fokker, riddled Chapman’s plane. One bullet cut deep into his scalp, but Chapman, a master pilot, escaped from the trap, and fired several shots to show he was still safe. A stability control had been severed by a bullet. Chapman held the broken rod in one hand, managed his machine with the other, and succeeded in landing on a near-by aviation field. His wound was dressed, his machine repaired, and he immediately took the air in pursuit of some more enemies. He would take no rest, and with bandaged head continued to fly and fight.
The escadrille’s next serious encounter took place on June 18. Captain Thenault, Rockwell, Balsley, and Prince were surrounded by a large number of Germans, who, circling about them, commenced firing at long range. Realising their numerical inferiority, the Americans and their commander sought the safest way out by attacking the enemy machines nearest the French lines. Rockwell, Prince, and the captain broke through successfully, but Balsley found himself hemmed in. He attacked the German nearest him, only to receive an explosive bullet in his thigh. In trying to get away by a vertical dive, his machine went into a corkscrew and swung over on its back. Extra cartridge rollers dislodged from their case hit his arms. He was tumbling straight toward the trenches, but by a supreme effort he regained control, righted the plane, and landed without disaster in a meadow just behind the firing line.
Soldiers carried him to the shelter of a nearby fort, and later he was taken to a field hospital, where he lingered for days between life and death. Ten fragments of the explosive bullet were removed from his stomach. He bore up bravely, and became the favourite of the wounded officers in whose ward he lay. When we flew over to see him, they would say: Il est un brave petit gars, l’aviateur américain. On a shelf by his bed, done up in a handkerchief, he kept the pieces of bullets taken out of him, and under them some sheets of paper on which he was trying to write his mother, back in El Paso.
Balsley was awarded the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre, but the honours scared him. He had seen them decorate officers in the ward before they died.
Then came Chapman’s last fight. Before leaving, he had put two bags of oranges in his machine to take to Balsley, who liked to suck them to relieve his terrible thirst. There was an aerial struggle against odds, far within the German lines, and Chapman, to divert their fire from his comrades, engaged several enemy airmen at once. He sent one tumbling to earth, and had forced the others off when two more attacked him. Such a fight is a matter of seconds, and one cannot clearly see what passes. Lufbery and Prince, whom Chapman had defended so gallantly, regained the French lines. They told us of the combat, and we waited on the field for Chapman’s return. He was always the last in, so we were not much worried. Then a pilot from another escadrille telephoned us that he had seen a Nieuport falling. A little later the observer of a reconnaissance plane called up and told us that he had witnessed Chapman’s fall. The wings of the plane had buckled, he said, and it had dropped like a stone.
We talked in lowered voices after that: we could read the pain in one another’s eyes. If only it could have been some one else, was what we all thought, I suppose. To lose Victor was not an irreparable loss to us merely, but to France, and to the world. I kept thinking of him lying over there, and of the oranges he was taking to Balsley. As I left the field, I caught sight of Victor’s mechanician leaning against the end of our hangar. He was looking northward into the sky where his patron had vanished, and his face was very sad.