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In 1916, before America entered WW1, a squadron of American pilots formed to help France fight its war. The name given to the squadron was ‘Lafayette Escadrille’. The unit included thirty-eight Americans and four French pilots.
In only 20 months, the squadron had knocked 57 German planes to the ground. Most were downed by their French Ace Raoul Lufbery, (holding gloves) seen here with their Commander, Lt. Col. Georges Thenault.
Despite the First World War spreading across Europe, the United States was reluctant to enter the war. Yet during this period many Americans with family in Europe, felt they had a role to play in the war. And the only way they could become part of the war was by joining the British or French military.
As a U.S. national, joining a foreign military organization was a huge risk. It could mean a loss of U.S. citizenship. This fear put many people off signing up with the British or French military.
But joining via the French Foreign Legion didn’t go against President Wilson's U.S Neutrality policy. This route was enough to encourage some Americans to discretely join the French Air Service.
These Americans were the first U.S. aviators to see combat in WW1 operating in bombing and reconnaissance roles.
THE IDEA FOR LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE
However, in 1916 a group of affluent American expatriates living in Paris suggested creating a unit made up of only American pilots. They wanted to do this to preserve American identity and encourage the U.S. to join the war.
The idea was the brainchild of Norman Prince, a Harvard graduate and an American already flying with the French Air Service, and his two partners William Thaw of Pennsylvania and Dr Edmond Gros, an expat living in France.
Using their personal wealth, a committee was created, and financed efforts to form an independent French Air Service unit.
In April 1916 their efforts and determination finally found success. The Lafayette Escadrille – led by French Lt. Colonel Georges Thenault – was formed.
Lt Col Georges ThenaultOriginally called Américaine Escadrille, the unit was renamed - Lafayette Escadrille - after protests from the Germans, who disputed the U.S. involvement as they claimed to be neutral.
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Lafayette Escadrille became part of the U.S. forces and was renamed the 103rd Pursuit Squadron.
The French pilots, who were not eligible to join the American forces, created a separate unit, Escadrille SPA 124 'Jeanne D’Arc.'
LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE – THE NAME
The squadron was named after Marquis de Lafayette. He was a French aristocrat and military officer and regarded as a hero who fought for the French Revolution and for the U.S. in the American Revolutionary War.
Lion cubs Soda and Whiskey, two unofficial Escadrille Américaine members, provided relief from battle stress for the pilots and remained with the unit until they were almost fully grown.
Today, throughout France and in several states in the U.S. you will find plaques and monuments dedicated to the Americans who volunteered to fight for France during WW1 with Lafayette Escadrille.
And every year at Marnes-la-Coquette, on the outskirts of Paris, the squadron is commemorated at a ceremony held beside the beautiful Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Arch.
Not only does this magnificent monument celebrate the courage of those early American volunteers, it’s also the resting place for many of the original pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, including Ace Raoul Lufbery.