James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff
Shared war experiences often forge the most unbreakable of bonds, and perhaps no friendship in the Lafayette Escadrille was stronger than that between Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. While their lives before the war mirrored and diverged in intricate ways, they emerged from the battle as lifelong friends and literary collaborators, producing some of the most popular works of the 20th century, including Mutiny on the Bounty.
James Norman Hall was born in Iowa in 1887, and from an early age, aspired to be an adventurer, traveler, and writer. However, his early writing career was less than successful; he took to papering his room with rejection slips from publishers. During a trip to Britain to visit his idol, Joseph Conrad, world events conspired to provide Hall with the adventure and writing material he sought. When World War One broke out, the overly-adventurous Hall joined the Lord Kitchener’s expeditionary force, claiming that he was a Canadian, and thus eligible to join the British Army. Hall fought in some of the worst early engagements of the war, including the devastating Battle of Loos. Despite his service, the discovery of his true nationality resulted in an honorable discharge, and he returned to the US. Hall took his experiences and converted them into a bestseller, Kitchener’s Mob, which finally gave the young author the eminence he desired. Offers to cover the war for various magazines began rolling in, and when Hall heard of the newly formed Lafayette Escadrille, he decided to return to France and cover the Escadrille for the Atlantic Monthly. It was not long, however, before the adventurous Hall could no longer content himself with just writing about the Escadrille; he enlisted with French aviation on October 11th, 1916, joining the Escadrille the following June.
Indicative of his adventurous streak, Hall’s time as a pilot in France was filled a variety of adventures and experiences. Just one week after reaching the front, Hall was wounded on a mission, and subsequently hospitalized for several months. When American soldiers and pilots began arriving in France en masse in early 1918, Hall transferred to the American 94th “Hat in the Ring” Aero Squadron; this transfer distinguished Hall as one of the few soldiers in the war to have fought under three different flags (British, French, and American). Hall was promoted to the rank of captain, and became the American ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s commander. In fact, Rickenbacker’s first kill was jointly shared with Hall. Shortly afterwards, Hall was shot down behind German lines, and remained a prisoner of war in various German hospitals and prison camps until the armistice. For his valor during the war, Hall was given numerous awards by both the French and American governments. However, the most desired honor for the author came when he was commissioned by the US Army to write a history of the Escadrille with fellow aviator Charles Nordhoff.
Like his future collaborator, Charles Nordhoff had a winding path that eventually brought him to the Lafayette Escadrille, though considerably later in the war than Hall. Born to American parents in London the same year as Hall, Charles Nordhoff aspired to be writer like his grandfather, and published his first piece in an ornithology journal at the age of 15. By this point, Nordhoff’s family had moved back to the United States and were living in California. In 1916, Nordhoff, like many adventurous young Americans, volunteered for the American Ambulance Corps, and served as a driver in France for the next year. On June 3rd, 1917, Nordhoff enlisted with French aviation, and joined the Escadrille the following February. Nordhoff’s time in the skies was cut short, however; not by bullets, but by bureaucracy. When the Executive Staff of the American Air Service heard of his abilities with words, he was transferred to a clerical job and assigned the droll task of rewriting military reports. Like James Norman Hall, Nordhoff spent the remainder of the war as an unwilling prisoner, trapped behind a desk when he dreamed of flight.
Though their different times at the front precluded a meeting of the two, James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff began working closely together on the history of the Lafayette Escadrille commissioned by the US Army. They soon discovered not only that they enjoyed each others company, but that they also complemented each other’s writing style. The book, The Lafayette Flying Corps, sold fairly well, and the two decided to continue as a duo. At Nordhoff’s suggestion, the two moved to the island of Tahiti to write about the South Pacific, an exotic land that was sure to capture the imagination of readers in the United States. After a few early failures, the team hit their stride and released a series of bestsellers in the 1930’s including the smash-hit Mutiny on the Bounty and other volumes in the Bounty trilogy. Success affected each man differently, however. While Hall basked in the success and continued to successfully write for the rest of his life, Nordhoff gave into alcohol and divorced his Tahitian wife. He stopped writing and ended up leaving his beloved Tahiti in 1936 in search of something else. He eventually passed away after fighting depression and alcoholism for several years, and was buried in Redlands, California, in 1947, a broken man yearning for his paradise of Tahiti.
Charles Chouteau Johnson
In the Lafayette Escadrille, death truly was the greatest tragedy. Each death weighed heavily on the men left behind, and perhaps no man in the Escadrille had to endure as many funerals of friends and comrades as Charles Chouteau Johnson. A native of St. Louis, Johnson volunteered for the Ambulance Corp in France. However, like many of his fellow aviators, the horrors of the battlefield prompted Johnson to seek a more active role in the war. On May 29th, 1916, Johnson became one of the first members of the Lafayette Escadrille, and established himself as capable pilot. As original member after original member found their demise in the skies of France, Johnson became something of a mythological figure to younger aviators, and he enjoyed relaying stories of the old-days, when he and his fellow founding members began making history with the Escadrille. Johnson had the good luck to never have been injured during his 17 months on the front, but the task of repeatedly burying began to take its toll on him. Though it pained him to leave his beloved Escadrille, Johnson decided to accept an instructor position at the American Aviator School in Tours. The combat experience gained by Johnson and passed on to his students at the school was invaluable to the United States as it began to form its own air force.
James R McConnell
James Roger McConnell’s record in the war, and the changes wrought by his experiences overseas, epitomized the changing attitudes of a great majority of Americans who volunteered for French service before the US declaration of war. McConnell sailed for France in January, 1915, to join the American Ambulance Field Service, motivated largely by a sense of adventure. His journals and letters, detailing the heavy fighting he saw at Pont-a-Mousson and Bois-le-Pretre, were published in the magazine Outlook. The vivid imagery and humor in his publications spurred many other young Americans to seek adventure in the Ambulance Corps; however, the endless slaughter exacted a toll on McConnell, and he began to take a much more serious attitude towards the war and the principles at stake. McConnell resolved to have a much more active role in the war, eventually trading his ambulance for a Nieuport.
On February 6th, 1916, just one year after arriving in France, McConnell passed his flying exam, and in April, went to the front as one of the original members of the Lafayette Escadrille. McConnell continued to write about his experiences in France, but now his writings were laced with the romanticism of flight, and his book “Flying for France” did much to inform American public opinion prior to the US declaration of war. Described as “a pilot as modest as he was brave,” McConnell was as skilled at flying as he was in writing, and his fellow pilots came to depend on him as steady and daring companion over the front lines. After a terrible crash in August, 1916, that severely injured his back, McConnell was hospitalized until the next March. However, upon hearing news that the French were preparing a major advance, McConnell could lie in bed no longer. He convinced the doctor to allow him to return to the skies to help his fellow pilots; this, however, may have led to his demise. On the morning of March 19th, McConnell and Genêt were flying over the battlefields of the Somme when they encountered a pair of German two-seaters. Both squared off with one of the opposing pair, but after Genêt downed his foe, he could not find McConnell’s plane. Heavily damaged, Genêt returned to the airfield, vainly waiting for his friends plane to land. Several days later, advancing French troops found the wreck of McConnell’s Nieuport, and his body next to it. Within the diary in which he had kept such scrupulous and vivid notes, words that had inspired numerous others to cross the ocean in defense of liberty, the last sentence written was, “This war may kill me, but I have it to thank for much.”
Norman Prince - Founder, Lafayette Escadrille
Of the nine Harvard alumni who flew for France in WWI, perhaps none was more important than Norman Prince, the founder of the Lafayette Escadrille. Prince had taken a keen interest in flying ever since hearing of the Wright Brothers historic flight; in fact, he trained at the Wright Brothers aviation school, taught by the founders of powered flight. When war broke out in 1914, Prince knew that his skills could be put into service for the French. However, Prince did not want to serve in the French Air Squadron for long. Rather, he wanted to form an independent squadron of American aviators, and French command was receptive to the idea. Dozens of fellow Americans soon followed Prince’s lead, and in April 20, 1916, the Escadrille Americaine was formed at Luxeuil-Les-Bains, France. Germany protested that the name of the squadron indicated support from a then-neutral America, and so the name was changed to the Lafayette Escadrille, in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of both the American and French revolutions.
Prince’s time with his pet Escadrille was as brilliant as it was brief. He proved himself an apt combat pilot, having been involved in 122 engagements, scoring 5 victories, and receiving several citations for heroism from the French. On the evening of October 12, 1916, Prince was escorting several bombers back to base when his landing gear caught on a high-tension wire that was invisible in the night sky. His craft flipped over in mid air, and Prince was violently thrown from the plane. Despite his fatal injuries, Prince had the presence of mind to order his men to light gasoline fires along the tarmac, so that other planes could see the wire. Prince succumbed from his injuries three days later, and was mourned in both France and the US as a daring and forward-thinking leader. His adopted country bestowed him the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, while his home country honored him with burial in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
Edmond Charles Clinton Genêt
Edmond Charles Clinton Genêt, through both his lineage and his actions, was no stranger to muddying up the waters of American and French relations. A descendant of Edmond-Charles Genêt, the bombastic French ambassador to the United States who had strenuously lobbied for American help against Britain in the 1790’s (and covertly organized mercenaries when Washington refused to help), Edmond Charles Clinton Genêt dreamed of nothing other than flying, and it pained him to hear of the exploits of European aviators during his service as a US Navy sailor. While on leave in New York, Genêt traded his US battleship for a French liner, setting sail for the front in January of 1915; technically, he had deserted, a matter that was never fully cleared up during his lifetime.
By chance, Genêt was on the same ship as Norman Prince, the eventual founder of the Lafayette Escadrille, and Prince told him of his plans to form an American flying squadron. Upon arrival in France, Genêt enlisted with the French Foreign Legion, but quickly switched to the Escadrille when Prince’s request was granted. Flying was everything Genêt had dreamed of; after his first training flight, he wrote “this is what one can call the real thing… this is sport with all the fascination and excitement chances that any live fellow could ever wish for.” After his first bad crash, Genêt also learned to respect his aircraft for more than just the sport it provided.
Genêt began flying missions with the Escadrille a little less than a year after arriving in France, and revelled in the camaraderie and bonhomie of his fellow American aviators. All seemed to come from different walks of life, be they Harvard graduates or Navy deserters, but were all drawn together by a belief in the French cause and a passion for flying. “It seemed like old times, the roar of old comrades,” Genêt wrote his mother, “Our living room, where we are most of our time when off duty, is a mighty attractive little den.” Genêt’s time at the front was short-lived, though; he was killed by an artillery shell on April 17th, 1917. America had declared war on Germany only 11 days earlier, and this fact helped to clear up confusion about his deserter status, as he and the United States were now fighting the same enemy. Edmond Charles Clinton Genêt was declared the first official American casualty of the war, and the War Department notified his family that his service, including his technical desertion, was to be considered honorable in all respects.
Whiskey & Soda Lion Mascots
For the members of the Lafayette Escadrille, German antiaircraft fire, malfunctioning equipment, and poison gas were not enough excitement. To spice things up even more on the front lines, several of the pilots purchased a lion while on furlough in Paris, naming it Whiskey (how they got it back to base on a passenger coach is another story). After a while, though, one lion in their camp wasn’t enough; they purchased a second lion, and aptly named it Soda. Whiskey and Soda soon became fixtures in the Escadrille base, developing feline affection for several of the pilots, especially Gervais Raoul Lufbery. Unfortunately, though, after the two alpha-predators ate one of the Captain’s expensive hats, Whiskey and Soda were donated to the Paris Zoo.
Ray Claflin Bridgeman
Ray Claflin Bridgeman, of Forest Park, Illinois, enlisted in the Escadrille in July of 1916 and was posted to the front in April of 1917. Although originally opposed to the war, Bridgman left his studies at Yale to volunteer for the Red Cross in France. It was en route to Paris that Bridgeman decided to focus his energies on aviation, and discovered a natural ability for flying. Bridgeman was considered an excellent patrol leader and a tenacious fighter, and throughout his service, Bridgeman was often called “the luckiest of unlucky men” for the sheer number of times his patrols were attacked by German two-seater aircraft. Rarely did Bridgeman’s plane return without damage, yet Bridgeman himself suffered no serious injury, despite being on active duty at the front for 18 months straight. His French citation for bravery from October of 1917 reads “a combat pilot skillful, modest, and conscientious; has always fulfilled with the greatest keenness the missions entrusted to him.”
Courtney Campbell and his three wing plane
One of the most remarkable accidents in the history of French aviation happened to Courtney Campbell during his service with the Escadrille Lafayette. While a patrol was assembling over the aerodrome at Chaudun, on the Aisne sector, he lost an entire lower wing of his Nieuport. Despite the typical problems associated with losing a wing of an airplane, Campbell was able to safely land the plane back at the airfield. Theoretically, this should have been impossible, but it was in Campbell's nature to entertain and baffle his comrades. Friends described him as a born jester. Sometimes, after a hard and disappointing day, when dinner at the popote was passing glumly, Campbell would shatter the gloom with one of his ridiculous comments. As many of his friends attested, he rode his jokes as he rode his old Nieuport: zoom up after a play on words, get under the tail of some stale old joke, and bring it triumphantly down with new absurdity. Unfortunately, Campbell’s bonhomie could not save him from German shells; he was shot down behind enemy lines on October 1st, 1917, posthumously receiving the Croix de Guerre.
Keeping the tradition alive!
Flying World War I-era Nieuport 11s, the Kansas City Dawn Patrol was formed in 1988 to show folks at Missouri fly-ins the first airplane flown in combat by an organized U.S. squadron.
One of the founders, Dick Starks, says that when F-22 or F-15 pilots accept an invitation to jump in his Nieuport cockpit, “They’re amazed. Three instruments on the panel, a stick, rudder, and throttle. And that’s all.” (Video: Chris Gerlach and Tim Gerlach)