North Carolina Centennial of Flight

Kiffin Rockwell

When Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914, two brothers from Asheville, Kiffin and Paul Rockwell, immediately volunteered for the French military. They joined the French Foreign Legion and for two years served as infantrymen. In March 1916, Kiffin and six other Legionnaires formed an American squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille. A month later, the group was ready for combat, having added James R. McConnell of Carthage, North Carolina.

On May 18, Kiffin Rockwell became the first American aviator to shoot down an enemy aircraft, and for his deed he received the Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre. After more successes, the Lafayette Escadrille received tremendous press coverage, becoming a shining example of American involvement in the war. Most of the members were rich and educated, and many wrote chronicles of their escapades for major newspapers. Enjoying the squadron's fame, the self-proclaimed "demon in the sky," Kiffin Rockwell, went into his 142nd dogfight with confidence. Seeing a German observation plane, he swooped down to meet his enemy, but was struck in the chest by an exploding bullet and died. Rockwell's death was widely lamented; he was the second American airman to die in combat.

dogfight

An aerial battle between fighter planes.

Jim McConnell heard about Rockwell's death while in the hospital, recovering from a back injury. Having received numerous injuries in combat, McConnell was encouraged to not return to battle by his Escadrille comrades. Ignoring their pleas, McConnell resumed his sorties, only to go missing during a battle nine days later. His body was found on March 22, 1917, inside a wrecked Nieuport plane.

The Lafayette Escadrille was one of the most well known squadrons of the Great War. Forty-eight American pilots flew for the Escadrille at some point during its existence.