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Guy Nasuti Articles
Hitler Youth: An Effective Organization
Lafayette Escadrille Pilots
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Motivations of the Lafayette Escadrille Pilots
Motivations of the Lafayette Escadrille Pilots
by Guy Nasuti

The experience of American pilots who flew and fought for France in the early years of the First World War led to the spectacular showing of air power by the United States. In addition, the pilots' knowledge contributed greatly to advances in the aeronautic and military use of aircraft. These young volunteers, especially of the Lafayette Escadrille, were motivated by a longing to get out of the horrors of the trenches, the innovativeness of flight coupled with a romantic sense of adventure, and revenge.

Aeronautics was about a decade old when the war began in 1914. It was therefore still in its infancy, and the militaries of the belligerent countries were beginning to see some use, however small at first, for these new machines. Aerial combat had not yet begun, and aerial bombings were still primitive at best. The airplane was used mainly in photographic and topographical areas. Already many forward-thinking young men were viewing the new innovation of flight as an enthralling and challenging instrument of the future.

A core group of these young men had been serving with the French army in the trenches of the Western Front. Bert Hall, an American from Missouri and one of the first members of the Escadrille, wrote in his memoirs:

"It was a jolly life, those trenches! I wish I could get it down on paper exactly the way it was, but I'm afraid I can't. There was something besides the facts-something more than the mud and the blood and the grave-digging, and shell-shocked days and nights-something ghastly-something unbelievable." [1] 

The hellish sights in the trenches caused the young men to look skyward, where they witnessed some of the first aerial combats in history. The allure and excitement of these new machines caused "imaginations [to be] stirred by the sight of the rackety old planes over their heads. Fed up to their necks and preferring anything to the muck and gore and rigors of trench life, they felt a compelling urge to get into the war in the new element." Some of these men decided quickly to transfer to the aviation corps and get out of the infantry or ambulance corps. The small number of American volunteers for the new field of aviation had as yet caused any concern in the French government, so they were allowed their transfers and began flight training.

Horace Clyde Balsley, a Pennsylvanian who had graduated with honors from the West Texas Military Academy, was supposed to follow his father into the ministry, according to his father. But Clyde wanted to become involved in the European war and in aviation, which he called "the newest game in the world." He left for France in January 1915. A Californian named Kenneth Archibald Marr, who had enlisted with the American Ambulance Service, had been gassed at the bloody maelstrom that was Verdun, and then joined the French Foreign Legion before finally entering aviation simply ‘to get a clean shirt and the blood off my clothes.' [2] Edwin Parsons, a Massachusetts native, was the son of an insurance broker and a descendant of Coronet Parsons, a founder of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1636. Parsons, who had attended the University of Pennsylvania per his father's request, went to France after dropping out, to seek adventure in the war. His father was violently opposed to this. He later said this about his hasty decision:

"I have no hesitation in confessing that I had gotten into this scrap through a pure desire for adventure and without any clear idea of what I was letting myself in for." [3] 

Almost every American volunteer who had served in the trenches had been wounded at least once, making this a prime motivator in seeking a new post within the aviation corps. Also, "for the magnificent sum of twenty-five centimes a day, the equivalent of an American nickel, the legionnaire endured the frozen winter darkness, the lack of sanitation, the reek of decaying waste, the steady diet of cold rations, the intermittent rain of crashing shells….and the specter of death lurking beyond every next tick of the clock." Some of the legionnaires decided to take their chances elsewhere in order to escape the horrors of the trenches.

Vermin of all kinds played a part in the constant misery. Bert Hall testifies that "in the trenches we spent our time reading, talking and sleeping when possible. Also killing to-tos. The to-tos were our most popular form of sport, at first. That's the French name for them, and some people call them seam-squirrels, or just plain vermin. They get to be pretty good-sized if permitted to thrive." Rats were another pest that made life in the trenches unbearable. "When we first saw a rat we used to feed him, but soon we found that we had made a mistake. Almost over night they were with us by the thousand." Hall went on to say that "between the rats and the to-tos there was little sleep to be had." [4]

A few of the American volunteers, such as Norman Prince, William Thaw, and Raoul Lufbery already had previous flight experience which led to their quick decisions to join the aviation corps. In fact, it is Norman Prince, a Massachusetts native and Harvard Law School graduate who is generally credited as being the one who had the idea of forming an all-American flying squadron to serve in France. The truth is there were more than a few Americans who had the idea and developed it with Prince. The young legionnaire Bill Thaw was actually the first to express the hope of forming a "squadron of American volunteers." Thaw's enthusiasm for flight had rubbed off on other fellow Foreign Legion members. Bert Hall was inspired by the daring tales of Thaw's flying exploits and the excitement and skill that went along with it. A colorful if far from reliable storyteller, Hall claimed he had learnt to fly as early as 1909 and had been the "first to fly in the Turkish air service during the 1913 Balkan War." His first try at flying at flight school in St. Cyr, France however, suggested otherwise, as he inextricably crashed on the runway without ever leaving the ground. When the French officer in charge of training pulled him from the wreckage of the plane and asked if he had ever been in an airplane before, Hall "confessed that he had not." After the officer asked why he had started down the runway the way he had, Hall replied, "Well, I thought I might be able to fly." His enthusiasm apparently did not match his skill level, but the officer was struck by Hall's eagerness to learn, and gave him a second chance.[5]

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, a number of Americans had family ties to France which probably contributed in their rushing to get to the front lines. Either because of family connections to the Old Country, a sense of duty in saving France from the barbaric Hun, or a combination of both, these men were determined to return the favor provided by the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who sympathized and fought with the rebel colonists in the American Revolution. Formerly called the Escadrille Americaine, the name was later changed to honor Lafayette and his service to what would become the United States. The Escadrille's top ace, Raoul Lufbery was born in France, but due to prior service in the U.S. Army, was already considered an American citizen. Edward Foote Hinkle was led to join the Foreign Legion due to his mother's French ancestry and his lifelong dislike of Germans. Norman Prince's wealthy family owned an estate at Pau. Prince came to regard France as "my second country." Edmond C. C. Genet was the great-great-grandson of Edmond Charles "Citizen" Genet, the French minister plenipotentiary to the United States in 1793. Genet and the other pilots hoped their example of fighting for France would lead the United States into the war. In his diary entry of Wednesday, April 4, 1917, Genet writes of his happiness that the U.S. has finally entered the war:

"The declaration will come to-day. The whole country there must be upheaving with excitement….and Paris is decorated with Old Glory everywhere….Am mighty well affected with the news….I wish we could fling out in sight of all the Germans the glorious stars and stripes to defy them. I'm mighty glad I'm one of the few Americans who are already over here fighting." [6]

In Bert Hall's memoir, written while on leave in the U.S. while the war was still raging in Europe, he exhorts other Americans to follow the example of their countrymen in the Escadrille:

"I must go and help clean up the Boche as we will need all the help we can get. And if all the boys knew what they were missing there would be a great rush to enlist, as I have never felt better nor had a more pleasant period in my whole life…So come along boys! Be men and show them what you can do. I know you can all do as much and more than I have done. So take a chance and go to France. You will like it." [7]

This call to adventure is common to all young men of all wars. Kiffin Rockwell was a young southerner itching to get into some kind of action. Rockwell talked his younger brother Paul into joining him, and they set out for France in 1914. Their distraught mother asked why they were going, perhaps off to their deaths, and Kiffin told her:

"You know I have always been a great dreamer and I just couldn't keep myself from this trip. If I should be killed in this war I will at least die as a man should and would not consider myself a complete failure….I think if anything will make a man of me, it is this giving of one's best for an ideal." [8]

Instead of being content with the relatively dull routine of a foot-soldier's life, the men in the Lafayette Escadrille wanted something more. The relative newness of aeronautics tickled the longing for exploration and adventure that flight brought with it. No longer content to live out their short lives waiting for a machine gun bullet or artillery shell to put them down in the mud of the trenches forever, these new pilots were enthralled by the joys of flying. Hall vividly remembered one of his first times up while in training as a pilot in France:

"I left the earth in darkness. As the "Bert" (his personal airplane) shot upward I entered a world of soft light. Up here the dawn comes first. As it began to illuminate the Eastern sky, I pointed straight into it, thrilled and quickened by its inspiration…the red old sun loomed up before me and, although it was still dark below, things began to get clearer but smaller…." [9]

Aside from the breathtaking views provided by flying over the shell-hole ridden countryside that was the Western Front in 1916-17, pilots also came to realize that their exploits were seen by many as being chivalrous, with a nod toward the knights-of-old. And they took full advantage of it when possible. The fighter pilots were the darlings of France. They never had to request leave. If bad weather halted frontline operations, they simply flew to Bourget and were driven to Paris, where they were idolized and feted. Worshipful women wrote them constantly, and they often found the jewels and addresses of adoring female patrons stuffed into their coat pockets. [10]

Edwin Parsons noted the better conditions extended the pilots of the Escadrille: "There were no roll calls or other military frills. Instead of the hard chicken-wire bunks they slept on as student pilots, each man had a soft bed and was entitled to the services of an orderly." He goes on to say that "all pilots messed together regardless of rank." At their base in Luxeuil,

"the boys were quartered in a luxurious villa close to the warm baths and messed in the best hotel in town. There was always a staff car at their beck and call to carry them to the field, and while they were waiting for their planes to be completely equipped they were taken on long drives through the Vosges Mountains….it was a war de luxe for them." [11]

These pilots, whom the public both in France and back home worshipped, became the focus, even the prisoners, of a cult of heroism. They became the knights of the sky, romantic descendants of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and their derring-do in the land of Camelot. In his memoirs of his service with the Escadrille, Edwin C. Parsons wrote that "popular belief built us into legendary characters and credited us with being a heroic race of supermen without fear or reproach." He deflates the claim by stating:

"We were far from supermen or iron men or any other strange breed of cat…we were merely very wild, but very frightened, youngsters, fighting with unfamiliar weapons in a new element, leaping to fame and being made heroes overnight by newspaper publicity…our sole claim to real heroism was in being half scared to death and doing our best in spite of it!" [12]

Pilots were often amused with their "machines" as they called them. Bert Hall remembered:

"We started training on Caudrons. These machines were used for regulating artillery fire and reconnoitering work. They were fair, not very speedy, but good climbers and good for doing stunts…many amusing incidents happened [to us] here…such things as one machine landing on top of another and running into the hangars. Turning over was a daily occurrence and, strange to say, it was always the fault of the machine according to the young flyer." [13]

Interestingly, Hall also records a pilots training on these new "machines."

"The test for your license consists of one voyage in a straight line to a specified point and return, about 100 miles in all. Then, after that, you do a triangle of 200 miles, passing two unspecified points. Your next stunt is to stay one hour at above 7,000 feet elevation. This terminates your raining for a military license. If the man who has done this successfully proves also to be an apt flyer he is picked for a fighting pilot…If chosen for a fighter, he is trained on the rapid machines and when perfected is sent to the acrobatic school where they are taught all sorts of stunts, such as looping, vrille, tail and wing slips, and all the modern stunts." [14]

He goes on to describe the "fighting part" of training which includes shooting school, where the pilots practice shooting moving targets and small balloons. From shooting school, the pilots go to the "superior ecole de perfectionment , which is located in the army zone. From there he is sent to the front." The entire training "requires about six months." How could any young man resist such excitement? [15]

A grand sense of adventure lay just underneath the dreams of all pilots of the First World War who saw the airplane as a new and exciting way to fight war. Far removed from the death, decay, and daily routine of what was occurring on the ground, a pilot was almost a demi-god in that he was able to see for himself the horrors of war while being able to separate himself and look at it objectively, both literally and figuratively. An infantryman was not afforded the same privilege. His dreams began and ended in the dirt and carnage of the trenches. For many pilots, the constant updates of their airplanes were a thrilling thing, and many of these young men must have felt like kids at Christmas when brand new Nieuport or Spad aircrafts arrived at their aerodrome. After the Lafayette Escadrille began losing planes to daily combat, Hall wrote:

"at last the new ones [Nieuports] arrived, and we were glad to discover that they were of a new model, each equipped with a 110-horse-power motor. They were rigged up for effective fighting too, with a machine gun shooting through the propeller…they were faster and better climbers, and could make about 1,000 to 1,300 feet per minute, with a speed of 115 miles per hour. The guns on these machines were timed with the motor, so that the bullets did not hit the propeller. This very simple device, which never gives any trouble, was invented by a mechanic named Alcyon." [16]

Edmond Genet apparently disagreed with Hall's appraisal of the Nieuport aircraft. In his diary entry for Wednesday, the 20th of September 1916, he wrote: "Had 2 flights in late p.m. but wind was too strong for further work. Can't get so I feel altogether at home & comfortable in the Nieuport." The cause of this was revealed in a letter Genet wrote to Paul Rockwell, the brother of Lafayette Escadrille pilot Kiffin Rockwell, and later official historian for the group, in a letter dated September 24, 1916. In the letter, Genet wrote, "The only bad day I had was the 16th-my first day on the Nieuport. I smashed one machine by caputating on the ground." [17]

One added bonus for the American pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille was their being allowed to decorate their own aircraft. Personal motifs were used for identification, rather than numbers. The side of Lieutenant Charles Nungesser's Nieuport 17 was decorated with a strange skull and crossbones and other symbols inside of a black heart outlined in white. First Lieutenant Christopher Ford's SPAD VII had a red, white and blue lightning streak covering the mid-section of the plane, a reminder to all that, while he may be flying for France, he was still an American. The unit's definitive insignia, the Lakota (Sioux) Indian head is probably not as well-known as the more famous insignia of the famed "Hat-in-the-Ring" squadron used by American pilots flying in the U.S. Air Service towards the end of the war. However, the picture of a screaming Indian head was painted on all the Lafayette Escadrille's planes beginning in the Autumn of 1916 as a way for allies to recognize that these American pilots were serious about their business, and for their foes to know that they would fight as savagely and bravely as any Native American ever did. In a diary entry dated March 14, 1916, Edmond Genet wrote:

"Painted a distinguishing mark on my aeroplane in p.m. Put on the tricolor, red, white, and blue in broad Cheviron stripes and a large white star in the center of the top side of the fuselage. It makes a mighty neat and clear design and entirely different from the marks of the others. We all have the Escadrille insignia on each side of our machines-the head of an American Indian Chief but each one has in addition a particular distinguishing mark so we can tell each other."

All of these trappings collectively added to the pilots' sense of adventure. Many of these young Americans were seekers of an adventurous good fight, a good woman or both, and many had traveled from country to country in a dizzying wanderlust that led most of them to converge on Europe, finding themselves in either England or France as war broke out in 1914. [18]

Raoul Lufbery, the Lafayette Escadrille's highest-scoring ace, with 16 credited victories (and scores of others presumably unaccounted for), worked in jobs in North Africa, Turkey, the Balkans and Germany as well as the U.S. He went to Cuba and then New Orleans, always working odd jobs, and then on to San Francisco, where he joined the U.S. Army in the Philippines, attaining his citizenship. He moved on to jobs in Japan, China and India. He met up with a French exhibition pilot named Marc Pourpe, and the two became fast, inseparable friends. Lufbery became Pourpe's mechanic and traveled with him to shows in China and Egypt, when the two found themselves in France at the start of the war. But for Lufbery, the war was not just about adventure. His motivation for fighting the Germans was larger than nationality, propaganda or civilization. For Lufbery, as for other pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, they were motivated simply by the cold-blooded desire for revenge. [19]

"I only know one certain thing about him," Edwin Parsons later wrote. "Raoul Lufbery lived, fought, and died for revenge." This came about when Lufbery's best friend, Marc Pourpe, was killed on December 2, 1914. Some sources claim that Pourpe was trying to land at night in fog, while others, such as Edwin Parsons, claim that Pourpe "met his death in one of the first air battles of the war." Whatever the case, Lufbery blamed the Germans for his friend's death, and forever-after would make them pay. "He swore a great oath of savage, unrelenting vengeance, and, as the first step toward his goal, applied for and immediately received a transfer to a military school for pilots," wrote Parsons. Kiffin Rockwell had begun his career as a pilot wanting to exact revenge upon the Germans for the deaths of many of his Foreign Legion comrades. In November 1915 he wrote a letter to a friend that "I have many scores to settle, and there is going to be more than one "Boche" aviator to settle them, or I will not live to tell the tale." He shot down three German fighters in his need for revenge before finally being killed by a disintegrating bullet to the chest in September 1916. Lufbery had been flying with Kiffin Rockwell before Rockwell was shot down, and was forced to land due to trouble with his Vickers gun and attempted to readjust its synchronization gear. As field telephones spread the word of Rockwell's death a "vengeful Lufbery took off from Fontaine and hovered over Habsheim aerodrome, trying to bait German aircraft to come up, but none accepted the challenge." Lufbery, like Rockwell, would also be killed continuing his quest for revenge. Edwin Parsons suggests it was Lufbery's desire for vengeance that ultimately burnt him out, as it was the only emotion left that the French-American ace could feel anymore: "It was unquestionably the burning urge for revenge which aided him to overcome every obstacle to fulfill it, for, aside from that, every other emotion in Luf seemed to have died with Pourpe, leaving only the empty shell. Certain it is that he showed no affection for anyone else."

Lufbery's Nieuport caught fire during an aerial engagement on May 19, 1918. Jumping to escape the flames from a couple thousand feet up, he landed in the garden of a peasant French woman and was impaled on her wooden fence. Parsons recalls:

"Raoul Lufbery had extracted an overwhelming payment for the death of his beloved friend and comrade, and the scales weighed heavily in his favor as he went to join Pourpe in the Great Unknown. I have always been proud and happy that it was my great good fortune to fight side by side with all of these gallant heroes." [20]

After the death of James McConnell, Edmond Genet, who blamed himself for "Mac's" death wrote that he "asked Lieut. de Laage to go out on the first patrol and put me on it. I'm out after blood now in grim earnest to avenge poor MacConnell." He also rather ominously added that "after this I vow I'll be more than reckless, come what may." It came in April 1917, when Genet was killed when his Nieuport 17 fell "into a corkscrew dive with its engine on full power, shedding a wing before crashing onto the road north of Montescourt." Genet died about 300 meters from where his friend McConnell fell. [21]

On February 18, 1918, the Lafayette Escadrille passed out of existence as a French unit and became the 103rd Pursuit Squadron of the American Air Service, the first American pursuit squadron on the Western Front. Although allowed to keep their Spad aircraft and Indian-head insignia, many of the men of the Lafayette Escadrille were indignant at the way the top brass wanted to change things around. A few members stayed on to fight with the French, but most joined up with the Americans to train and fight alongside the green U.S. pilots. With the entrance of the Americans into France, Parsons said that the "real career of the Lafayette Escadrille ceased when it passed into the American army and merged its identity and personnel with all the other pursuit squadrons." But the American Air Service would have to live up to what many of its countrymen had already accomplished. Parsons eulogized the Escadrille:

"Thirty-eight daring, plucky young Americans had been on its active roster. They had a sum total of fifty-seven victories, officially confirmed, over enemy planes. Nine were killed while in the Escadrille, one so seriously wounded that he was invalided out, and one taken prisoner. From April 20, 1916 to February 18, 1918, as a unit they served France, and incidentally America, with honorable distinction. They were the first and only group of organized volunteer active combatants flying and fighting against Germany, and their exploits made history. Many more of these young heroes were killed while in the American Air Service….but their glorious exploits and the magnificent accomplishments of the Lafayette Escadrille will forever remain imperishable." [22]

These men were motivated by the love for their country above all. They were young, often reckless, and wanted to help save France, a second home for many of them. A few of these American volunteers had started out as foot soldiers and quickly grew tired of that kind of life. They then saw the strange, relatively new airplanes pass over their heads, and equated these winged machines with freedom and chivalry. Once they had made it through training, they enjoyed all the perks that came with being fighter pilots, but they could not wait to engage the enemy in one-on-one combat to avenge all of the friends who had died or were suffering in the trenches or had been shot down so far away from home. They were fighting for France, to repay the debt owed to the Marquis de Lafayette, the young Frenchman so enthralled by the ideals of liberty that he left the comforts of his previous life to fight for a cause he believed in. Like the Marquis, the men of the Lafayette Escadrille also fought in order to show their fellow countrymen that the fight was just. Their names and exploits have been all but forgotten by us today, but their selfless heroism lives on still.

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

* * *

Copyright © 2006 Guy Nasuti.

Written by Guy Nasuti. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Guy Nasuti at:

About the author:
Guy Nasuti was raised outside of Detroit, Michigan, and is a veteran of the US Navy, having served in the Iraq War.  A gradute student seeking his Masters in Military History with a concentration in World War II, Guy currently attends American Military University and is also attempting to write his first book about his grandfather, Guy I. Wetherell, a veteran of the Second World War.  He currently resides in historic Martinsburg, West Virginia. 

Published online: 11/11/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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