May 13, 1916 The Lafayette Escadrille

Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Norman Prince

Knowing his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.

A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons.

Prince would not live to see the article, in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

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Lt. Col. William Thaw II with lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.

Explanations that this was an “African dog” proved less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

captain_georges_thenault_and_fram_1917 (1)A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

Kiffin Rockwell "In American Escadrille "movie" picture May 1916"
Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916.

Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918 when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916 when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

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Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

ICYMI – Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

If you speak of France, most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass and 95.9% of the population, of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.

First_Indochina_War_COLLAGEWhat historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

Na SanThe war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

Dien_Bien_Phu, baseIn June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropping into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Vo felt that he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien_bien_phu-resupplyThe French staff made their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. The communists didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, Piroth circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Last moments
Last moments of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954, as depicted by North Vietnamese artist Huy Toan

“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall, it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and south alike.

US support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem-supported village leaders.  President John F. Kennedy responded in 1961, sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.

 

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