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Remembering Kiffin Yates Rockwell of the Lafayette Escadrille

kiffin rockwell lafayette escadrille

These are highlights from an article about Kiffin Yates Rockwell that was sent to email subscribers.

Of the Lafayette Escadrille pilots - American pilots fighting for France before America entered the war - Kiffin Rockwell was not the first to die. That was Victor Chapman on 24 June 1916. But as any branding expert could tell you, a memorable name sticks in the mind better (see here for what it feels like to be named Kiffin), and more importantly, on 13 May Rockwell had scored the first aerial victory for the Lafayette Escadrille, the first victory to an American pilot.

If Hollywood made a movie that stuck as closely to the facts of Rockwell's life as the recent Red Baron movie stuck to the facts of Richthofen's life, the summary would be: "Drafted into a war he didn't believe in, Rockwell experienced the despair of the trenches. Though wounded in 1915, he was unable to get out of the war and fulfill his mother's pleas to come home. He tried to escape the meaninglessness and the mud through aviation, but shortly after accidentally shooting down another pilot he didn't really consider an enemy, he was tragically shot down by vengeful warmongering proto-Nazis."

In reality, Rockwell's life was much more interesting: in a generation that believed in causes, he had one, and fought and died for it. 

Like many Lafayette Escadrille pilots, and American WWI pilots in general, Rockwell came from America's upper class and old families. (The rest of American pilots tended to be dropouts and runaways, such as Raoul Lufbery, Bert Hall, Eugene Bullard, and Eddie Rickenbacker. Not many of the early aviators were inbetween these two classes.) Rockwell's American ancestry went back to a Puritan deacon in the 1630s, though the family name originally was French: Rocheville. So although the family had been American since long before Lafayette, Rockwell knew of his French ancestry and unlike most Americans, was watching overseas events.

While August 1914 brought news almost daily of new declarations of war, Kiffin and his brother Paul were already headed across the Atlantic in the first few days of August, and were probably the first Americans in the war.

They joined the French Foreign Legion and spent months in the trenches. Kiffin was wounded in 1915. Paul had already been wounded badly enough to be invalided out of the war, but stayed close to events, becoming a war correspondent. Kiffin, far from quitting in disillusionment, got into aviation, which may have been more exciting than being in the trenches, but not always in a good way, as accidents killed more than the enemy did. Note his description of pilot training here (from his letters home; see the site for a paperback of Paul Rockwell's collection of Kiffin's letters), 

Have been very busy lately and now have time for only a note. I have at last gotten what I have been trying to get these past two months. I am transferred to the aviation as a student-pilot. That is a jump from the lowest branch of the military service to the highest. It is the most interesting thing I have ever done, and is the life of a gentleman, and I am surrounded by gentlemen.

I have been here only this week but I fly each morning and afternoon with an instructor sitting behind me, directing my movements. It is very easy to fly but I must get the habit of the movements, and understand the air currents.

In spite of everything nobody knew about flying at the time, Rockwell survived training and became one of the original members of the Lafayette Escadrille and had other confirmed and unconfirmed victories, receiving the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. He died 100 years ago today being killed in the air not far from the site where he scored the first victory for America. 

What Kiffin died for, his brother Paul lived for - furthering French-American relations even into WWII and later years, as described in this article by Kiffin Rockwell's nephew.

In memoriam Kiffin Yates Rockwell, 23 September 1916



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