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Escadrille Lafayette

The Escadrille Lafayette, July 1917.

Injured Victor Chapman

Victor Chapman after being wounded in the head, June 17, 1916, six days before he would lose his life near Verdun, becoming the first Escadille Americaine pilot to die while engaging the enemy.

Kiffin Rockwell

Kiffin Rockwell scored the first victory by a member of the Escadille Americaine when he shot down a German reconnaissance airplane.

Shot down SPAD VII

A SPAD VII that had been shot down and captured behind German lines, August 18, 1917.

Raoul Lufbery

Raoul Lufbery of the Escadrille Americaine.

Nieuport 28

The Nieuport 28 was the first fighter airplane flown in combat by pilots of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.

Whiskey & Soda mascots

The mascots of the Escadrille Americaine, two lion cubs named Whiskey and Soda.

SPAD XIIIs with bombs

This image is the 25-foot by 75-foot mural in the World War II Gallery of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.. The B-17G, 42-38050, "Thunder Bird" of the 303rd Bomb Group, based at Molesworth, England, is seen at 11:45 AM, August 15, 1944, over Trier, Germany, on its return to base from a mission to Weisbaden. B-17Gs "Bonnie B," "Special Delivery," and "Marie" are seen below as a Messerschmitt 109G and Focke Wulf FW 190 attack "Thunder Bird's" element.

Damaged Salmson 2A2

In 1918, Billy Mitchell led a multi-national force with 1,481 airplanes at St. Mihiel, resulting in German defeat and recovery of St. Mihiel by the Allies for the first time since 1914. This Salmson 2A2 of the 91st Aero Squadron had its lower wing heavily damaged by enemy anti-aircraft fire, September 14, 1918.

DeHavilland DH-4

Although many designs were sent over, the English-designed De Havilland DH-4 was the only U.S.-built plane to see combat in Europe.

United States Participation in World War I

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Three years after the war in Europe had begun, the Americans brought fresh energy and troops to the conflict.


Aviation was perhaps the biggest problem with wartime mobilization. Although America had been the first nation to fly, the industry had failed to develop, hindered mostly by disputes over patent rights. In 1916, while European armies were competing in an aerial arms race, the U.S. Army was fighting Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in the mountainous southwestern United States, with aerial support from the First Aero Squadron. The squadron was equipped with the best the military had to offer--six Curtiss JN-2s, nicknamed "Jennys." Although Jennys would eventually prove themselves as trainers, they failed miserably as America’s first warplane. The weak engines could not get the planes over the mountains. The squadron lacked ground mechanics to make engine repairs, and almost all the pilots found their engines failing. When the performance of the aerial group was reviewed after the expedition, it was decided that with better planning, an aerial unit could be of great benefit to the ground operations. The government began to investigate how to improve military aviation.


There were many disagreements about how to do this; no one single group was in charge. The Signal Corps, Aircraft Production Board, Joint Army and Navy Technical Board, and many others all had a part in the decision-making. The country also lacked an industrial infrastructure to build on--there were fewer than a dozen aircraft factories with less than 10,000 skilled workers. So the country mobilized to build an industry. Congress allotted money to encourage growth. It also negotiated agreements that allowed patents to be used by competing companies, ending the patent war between the Wright Company and the aircraft community. The army assigned 27,000 men to the Spruce Division to run forests and lumber mills for building airframes. Land was designated in the South to grow castor beans for engine and propeller lubricants, and contracts were negotiated to buy 450,000 dogskins from China for flyers’ coats. Finally, the Signal Corps formed an aerial division, the United States Air Service.


The most glaring problem, however, was that the United States lacked a good aircraft designer on par with Anthony Fokker or Louis Blériot. No one in the country knew how to design a good warplane. Once the United States officially entered the war, the Allies offered their airplane designs for production in the States. Although many designs were sent over, the English-designed De Havilland DH-4 was the only American-built airplane to see combat in Europe. It was manufactured by Dayton-Wright, a new company formed by the major automakers to bring assembly-line production techniques to airplane production. There were a number of startup problems, and the first DH-4s did not arrive in France until February 1918. Although the factory was producing 1,000 planes per month by the end of the war, only 200 arrived in France in time to be used in the war.


The United States also lacked pilots and mechanics. Vocational schools were built around the country to train mechanics, and pilots arrived at army bases to learn to fly Jennys. But without experience and a decent warplane, they could not teach themselves combat techniques. So contracts were set up with the Allies and in November 1917, the first group of pilots arrived at flying schools in France and Italy. Conditions were so miserable that one veteran said even his accommodations as a prisoner of war were preferable to those as a cadet. But when they graduated, the cadets were trained in the latest combat techniques on the airplanes that the U.S. government had bought from the Allies--mostly Nieuport 28s, Breguets, and Caproni bombers. And the pilots were ready for combat.


Not all Americans had stayed home to fight Pancho Villa. Some, eager to become involved in the European conflict, volunteered as ambulance drivers or infantry with the French Foreign Legion. At the end of 1915, some of these men transferred to the French Aviation Service to train as pilots. With the financial backing of millionaire W.K. Vanderbilt, the Escadrille Americaine reported for duty on April 20, 1916, in time for the Battle of Verdun. The unit was composed of seven pilots serving under the command of a French officer. On May 18, 1916, Kiffin Rockwell scored the unit’s first victory. One month later, Victor Chapman became its first casualty.


The Escadrille Americaine received much publicity and, under protest from the German government that it was a violation of American neutrality, its name was changed to "Lafayette Escadrille." Although the unit never had more than 20 pilots at a time, among these were such aces as Raoul Lufbery, William Thaw, Norman Prince, and James Hall. In February 1918, the unit was taken over by the U.S. Air Service and designated the 103rd Aero Squadron. One by one, its pilots were gradually transferred around the Air Service into leadership positions. There, they used their skills and experience to help pull the inexperienced pilots together and prepare them for combat. More than all the other contributions of the Escadrille Lafayette, it was this role as leaders that was its greatest.


The first U.S. squadrons arrived for duty in April 1918 and were stationed in France outside of Toul, an inactive area where the pilots could ease into their duties. They were armed with Nieuport 28s, already outdated planes. On April 14, Lieutenants Allan Winslow and Douglas Campbell of the 94th Aero Squadron were sent out to intercept some incoming German airplanes--a Pfalz D.III and an Albatros D.V. Less than five minutes later, the two pilots returned to base, each with a victory. They were the first victories recorded by a U.S.-trained unit.


In June 1918, reports were received that the Germans were initiating a buildup along the Marne in Chateau-Thierry, and American ground troops were sent to halt the advance. Under the command of USAS Combat Commander Colonel Billy Mitchell, four squadrons were merged into the First Pursuit Group and sent to support the ground troops. The Germans sent over 16 squadrons (called Jagdstaffeln), which included many of their best pilots. The skills of the Germans in Fokker Dr.VIIs greatly outweighed the novice Americans in borrowed, obsolete Nieuports.


Improbably, the Americans held their own. They were flying around the clock and. as the action continued, learning to fly new planes, SPAD XIIIs. But under the leadership of Colonel Mitchell and with the assistance of squadrons from Allied nations, they were successful in helping to halt the German advance. The Americans suffered 36 losses but scored 38 victories. More importantly, they gained experience and confidence.


In September 1918, Mitchell commanded 1,500 airplanes from all the Allied nations to form the greatest aerial force of the war. Covering Pershing’s advance at Saint-Mihiel, Mitchell used a third of these airplanes for direct troop support, and the rest for bombing and strafing, especially on the back line to divert Germany’s focus from the front line. The large number of aircraft allowed Mitchell to experiment with different formations and attack systems. The Air Service performed magnificently. During the four days of the attack, Mitchell’s airplanes maintained air superiority and scored more than 60 victories, helping the Army recapture that area for the first time since 1914.


But Mitchell and his pilots were not given a chance to enjoy their victory. The French transferred their planes to other places they were needed. Mitchell, promoted to brigadier general, had only 800 airplanes left to help the First Army push their advance into the Meuse-Argonne. And the Germans were sending in the Richthofen Flying Circus, under the command of Hermann Goering.


The Battle of Meuse-Argonne started at 4 a.m. on September 26, when the U.S. Air Service began attacking German observation balloons. For the next six weeks, they attacked the Germans relentlessly and provided cover for the ground troops. Their duties included bombing, reconnaissance, strafing, artillery targeting, and troop contact patrol. At the end of Meuse-Argonne, the war was over. The U.S. Air Service had proved its worth.


America’s contribution to World War I was not immense; by the time the country entered the war, aviation engineering and tactics had grown beyond them. But the nation did bring a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to help push victory through in the final months of the conflict. In just over eight months of operations, the U.S. Air Service scored 773 victories, flew 35,000 hours, dropped 275,000 pounds (124,738 kilograms) of bombs, and took more than 18,000 reconnaissance photographs. But more essentially, the United States emerged from the war with an aviation industry and a national enthusiasm for flying. The Golden Age of Flight was about to begin.


--Pamela Feltus


Sources and further reading:

Dunton, Gardner. The Letters of a World War I Pilot in the Army Air Corps, December 1917 to January 1919. Manhattan, Kan.: Kansas State University Press, 1977.

Gordon, Dennis. Lafayette Escadrille Pilot Biographies. Missoula, Mont.: Doughboy Historical Society, 1991.

Hudson, James J. Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Kennett, Lee. The First Air War: 1914-1918. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Mason, Jr., Herbert Molloy. The Lafayette Escadrille. New York: Random House, 1964.

Morrow, Jr., John H. The Great War in the Air:  Military Aviation from 1909-1921. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Thayer, Lucien H. America's First Eagles: The Official History of the U. S. Air Service, 1917-1918. Mesa, Ariz.: Champlin Fighter Museum Press, 1983.


On-Line References:

"1st Aero Squadron: In Pursuit of Pancho Villa." http://www.thehistorynet.com/AviationHistory/articles/1997/1197_text.htm.

Foulois, Benjamin. "Report of the Operations of the First Aero Squadron Signal Corps, with the Mexican Punitive Expedition for the Period March 15 to August 15, 1916." http://cavalry.org/pershingtext.htm. 

League of World War One Aviation Historians: http://www.overthefront.com.

"The Aerodrome." http://www.theaerodrome.com/index.html.

U.S. Air Force Museum: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum.

World War I Aviation: http://www.wwiaviation.com.



Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the economic and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.

National Center for History in the Schools

US History Standards

Era 7

Standard 2

The changing role of the United States in world affairs through WWI.