A US Air Force B-52 bomber flies over the restored Lafayette Escadrille Memorial in Marnes-la-Coquette (US Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua DeMotts)

Pioneering US WWI pilots remembered in France

Posted on centenarynews.com on 03 May 2016
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France and the US paid tribute to America's first airmen of the Great War at a rededication ceremony for the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial near Paris on April 20th 2016. Patrick Gregory reports for Centenary News.

The fighter and bomber aircraft on display in the skies above were from a more modern era, but the men they remembered flew their missions over the battlefields of Europe a century ago.

French and United States airforces joined together for the flyby, F-22s and Mirage jets to the fore, as once airmen had flown in the same squadron. They were there to pay homage to the men of the Lafayette Escadrille, formed in late April 1916, as a joint initiative to get American pilots into the air under the auspices of the then French Air Service.

On the ground to commemorate the day at Marnes-la-Coquette outside Paris were U.S. and French military and civic leaders, paying their respects to the volunteer pilots who flew under French command a year before the U.S. entered into WWI.

They were grouped around the monument erected to the men in 1928, a memorial celebrating not only the 38 original pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, but all those – over 200 in number - who flew with the French Air Force as part of the larger Lafayette Flying Corps. Many are interred at the memorial’s crypt.

French veterans bearing the colours at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial (US Air Force Photo, by Tech. Sgt. Joshua DeMotts)

In attendance at the ceremony were the American ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, and the French Minister of State for Veterans and Remembrance, Jean-Marc Todeschini. The latter was keen to praise the airmen by placing them in what he saw as their proper historical context:

"Remembrance of the Escadrille’s deeds is not known well enough by our fellow citizens. It was however a decisive step in the United States decision to enter the war - a decision whose centenary we will celebrate next year - and in the strengthening of the bonds existing between our two countries. The century-old bond uniting American and French pilots takes its roots in the Great War torments. It had been prepared by the voluntary enlistment of many American pilots willing to defend the values of freedom. These pilots chose to defend a country in which they hadn’t been born, but with which they shared democratic values."

His remarks were echoed by the US Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James who said she thought the pilots ‘laid the foundation for an American Air Force that will forever stand with France.’

The event was attended by relatives and representatives of those who had flown with the escadrille, among them Eugene Richardson and Theodore Lumpkin, there to remember the so-called ‘Tuskegee Airmen’, African-American pilots like Eugene Bullard, the ‘Black Swallow of Death’, who flew with the Lafayette and ultimately earned France's Legion of Honour; and Lt. Col. Nick Rutgers, great-grandson of one of the original squadron, Capt. James Norman Hall, and who himself is a modern-day fighter pilot, flying with the Oregon Air National Guard.

Sources: US World War I Centennial Commission; American Battle Monuments Commission; French Government

Images: US Air Force photos by Tech. Sgt. Joshua DeMotts

Reporting by: Patrick Gregory, Centenary News