Friday, November 11, 2011

The Lafayette Escadrille - by James R McConnell

Before the “Eagle Squadron” of WWII (Yanks in the RAF), there was The Lafayette Escadrille.  The Lafayette Escadrille was a French air unit with American aviators. 

I think you would find they are largely forgotten now.  Of course, they had a high rate of casualties as they were inventing air warfare as well as the plane.  Being young adventurous men in a high risk enterprise, volunteering before the US was at war with Germany, it is unlikely they had children and the unit was small in number - so they don't have a lot of descendents.

On Nov. 11 when we salute our veterans, it is also good to look back and try to learn about those who are not as well remembered.

One of the flyers, James R McConnell, wrote this short memoir, ”Flying for France,” in 1915. (US Edition)  (UK Edition)

"What's wrong now?" inquires one of the tenants of the tent. "Everything, or else I've gone nutty," is the indignant reply, delivered while disengaging a leg from its Teddy Bear trousering. "Why, I emptied my whole roller on a Boche this morning, point blank at not fifteen metres off. His machine gun quit firing and his propeller wasn't turning and yet the darn fool just hung up there as if he were tied to a cloud. Say, I was so sure I had him it made me sore--felt like running into him and yelling, 'Now, you fall, you bum!'"

The eyes of the poilus [French infantry soldiers] register surprise. Not a word of this dialogue, delivered in purest American, is intelligible to them. Why is an aviator in a French uniform speaking a foreign tongue, they mutually ask themselves. Finally one of them, a little chap in a uniform long since bleached of its horizon-blue colour by the mud of the firing line, whisperingly interrogates a mechanician as to the identity of these strange air folk.

 "But they are the Americans, my old one," the latter explains with noticeable condescension.

It is not all funny stories of course.  You get a picture of his war …

I've concluded the pleasantest part of flying is just after a good landing. Getting home after a sortie, we usually go into the rest tent, and talk over the morning's work. Then some of us lie down for a nap, while others play cards or read. After luncheon we go to the field again, and the man on guard gets his chance to eat. If the morning sortie has been an early one, we go up again about one o'clock in the afternoon. We are home again in two hours and after that two or three energetic pilots may make a third trip over the lines. The rest wait around ready to take the air if an enemy bombardment group ventures to visit our territory--as it has done more than once over Bar-le-Duc. False alarms are plentiful, and we spend many hours aloft squinting at an empty sky.

That is something you encounter in every war memoir, the easy waiting and edgy waiting, but lots of waiting.  This writer spares you the tedium, but you know you are hearing a true account of his war.
In making a turn too close the tips of their wings touched. The Nieuport turned downward, its wings folded, and it fell like a stone. The Sopwith fluttered a second or two, then its wings buckled and it dropped in the wake of the Nieuport. The two men in each of the planes were killed outright.

One note, the conversion of the text is fine, but the chapter headings are full of crazy characters.  It does not mar the reading.

So, here is to the Lafayette Escadrille and those young flyboys from long ago and all the men and women who have served. 

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