Imperishable Inheritance: Sermon at the Memorial Service for Norman Prince and the Lafayette Escadrille
By Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben, CHC, USN
Chief of Navy Chaplains
(Note: Rear Admiral Kibben delivered the Sermon at the Centennial Memorial Service for Norman Prince and the Lafayette Escadrille on Friday, October 14, 2016, at the Washington National Cathedral. The following is the text of the sermon.)
A very good afternoon to all of you: members of the Prince family, representatives from the World War One Centennial Commission, and nos amis français. You have traveled from all corners of the world to give honor and tribute to Lieutenant Norman Prince, to share with his family the heritage from which they are privileged to have come, but perhaps most important, to remember all those who gave their lives in the war to end all wars, in sacrifice for the greater good. In this we are all inheritors, in as much as it is the legacy that they left which allows us the freedom to gather, which has preserved our countries’ liberty, and which has ensured that we maintain the privilege to worship freely the One who sustains us in the face of adversity and who remains with us throughout the ages.
In his 1896 Memorial Sermon, the Reverend Dr. John W. Sayers, Chaplain, Dept. of Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic, shared this sentiment:
“Human life is of short duration. Of all our years but few may be devoted to the accomplishment of great purposes. ...
It is, therefore, not so much what men may accomplish in this life as it is what their work may do for the world after they are dead. ...
the good lives always to a noble purpose and keeps the world slowly moving toward the right.”
It would be 20 years later, when the few, whom we honor today, demonstrated their devotion to the accomplishment of great and noble purposes. The Great War which began as a local disturbance eventually spread into a worldwide struggle. And as war in Europe raged, it intensified through the use of dangerous new weapons which took over fields of livelihood and tranquility and turned them into desolate, trenched moonscapes littered with corpses and wreckage. But as horrified as Americans were with the ravages of war, they remained neutral, isolating themselves from any involvement.
...except for a few hundred idealistic young men who volunteered to fight as pilots or soldiers or to save lives as ambulance drivers, independent of America’s involvement, to assist France repel the German army. Men like Edward Mandell Stone, the first American killed in action on February 27, 1915, from shrapnel wounds in the trenches near the Aisne River. Or Ernest Hemingway, whose book, A Farewell to Arms memorialized his ambulance experience during his service in Italy. Other Americans were poet Alan Seeger, famed for his poems inspired by combat, and who died at the Somme on July 4th 1916, in the attack on Belloy-en-Santerre. Two hundred Americans had A Rendezvous With Death before the United States entered the war, to include Norman Prince and many of the heroes of the Lafayette Escadrille.
Many of you who have gathered here are well-versed in the journey of Norman Prince’s life and the circumstances of his death. It was January 1915 when Norman sailed to France and finally persuaded the French to allow the founding of the French Nieuport Squadron 124 in April 1916. Captain Georges Thénault, the Escadrille's commander, credits Norman for conceiving the idea of bringing together his countrymen with some of those of the French Foreign Legion in a squadron of flyers in what eventually became known as the Escadrille Lafayette. Elliott C. Cowdin, in an article which he published in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin (March 7, 1918) gave the full credit for the formation of this flying corps and for its incorporation in the French flying service to the energy and persistence of Norman Prince. As a sergeant in the French air service, Prince was involved in 122 aerial combat engagements in which he was officially credited with five victories. He was also thought to have brought down four additional hostile planes which were not confirmed. As documented by Terry Johnson, on October 12th, 1916 Norman Prince was part of the escort that protected a flight of British and French bombers on raid on the Mauser rifle works at Oberndorf, Germany, during which he shot down an enemy plane. As they returned from their mission shortly after sundown that evening, Norman brought his Nieuport 11 to land at a field called Corcieux. Visibility was limited and he struck an electrical line on his approach. His undercarriage caught the wire, somersaulting the small biplane and he was ejected. Three days later, on October 15th, Norman Prince died from his injuries. For his service Prince was awarded la Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, le Médaille Militaire and la Croix de Guerre.
Norman Prince’s story is no more compelling than those of his comrades but the hundredth anniversary of his death tomorrow and the interment of his body in such a grand cathedral give more than adequate occasion to speak of his life and the sacrifices he and so many others made during the Great War. In fact, 116,710 Americans died; our European comrades, exponentially more. In total, 10 million servicemen and seven million civilians gave their lives.
It is to these brave heroes that we are truly indebted. It is more than their commitment to the stated objectives of national integrity, political independence, and freedom of the seas. Or their determination to ensure that Winston Churchill’s prediction that a European war would end “in the ruin of the vanquished and the ... exhaustion of the conquerors” would never find us among the defeated. It is more than just their stalwart loyalty to our allies, our ties with Britain and France.
We are, indeed, heirs to these noble causes, but there is so much more we have received from those men who willingly took off in the renowned Nieuport aircraft, wooden framed bi-planes strung together with bailing wire. Men like William Thaw, Elliot Cowdin, Bert Hall, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, and James McConnell, and the others, very few of whom had any flight training and who were “taught to fly by the seat of their pants” and wished a sardonic “bonne chance” on take-off.
These were America’s sons, rough and rowdy, clever and cunning (who adopted lion cubs and named the first Whiskey and the second Soda), who had been raised in families, who were committed to the God of their parents, obeying his voice and holding fast to him. Not isolated from the sentiment of the day, these men were encouraged to live lives of "Christian action" by becoming warriors against evil, and they would risk life and limb in the face of various trials, to preserve the dignity of God’s creation and the preservation of the peace to which he called us.
In the end, the inheritance we have received is the legacy of faith. It is true that when the United States entered the war, we fought for patriotism, comradeship, home, and country. But as we’ve since discovered, nationalism only goes so far. Few in this generation feel obliged to defend their loyalties to hearth and home, certainly not to the extent that they would risk their comfort, their personal security, a budding law-practice, a wealthy lifestyle. And yet, in retelling Norman Prince’s story, and that of so many who served with him, it is exactly these selfless sacrifices they offered, confidently, some would say impudently, but nevertheless courageously so that we would remain free from harm and able to enjoy the bounty of God’s grace shed on this country.
What else but faith could provide them the strength and courage they needed to withstand the untold horrors of war? What else but certainty in the God of their forbears would undergird their willingness to defend to the grave their commitment to the ideals on which this country was founded? What else but in the hope of the resurrection would compel them to risk their future, thus ensuring us ours? What else – more specifically who else – than the One who laid down his life for us?
If this is our legacy, then how have we received it? As we commemorate the lives of those who died that we would continue to enjoy God’s protection over our nation, to celebrate the freedoms he has afforded us which they have so valiantly defended, what then of our faith? We also are called to remember that our redemption – as a nation, as a community, as individuals – is grounded in what we proclaim this day:
We are just as much heirs to God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s loving protection, God’s saving plan as those whom we honor today.
How then do we receive this inheritance, purchased for us in the saving death of Jesus the Christ, defended by the sacrifices of Norman Prince and his comrades, and by those who still struggle to preserve the dignity of God’s creation and the preservation of the peace to which he has called us?
We first pause to remember. We come to this table of remembrance where we recall God’s most profound, mysterious, and merciful gift granted to us, the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of his own Son. That laying down his life, he has given us life. And in receiving this sacrament, we proclaim God’s saving plan for us as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.
And then fed, nourished, inspired, we choose the life that God has given us. The noble purpose to which God has called each one of us – to preserve our countries’ liberty, to exercise the privilege to worship freely the One who sustains us in the face of adversity, and to live lives of faith proclaiming the One who remains with us throughout the ages.
So as we commemorate the lives of our American heroes, the men and women who offered themselves for the sake of America’s survival, let us do it with profound gratitude for the extraordinary common grace given to each of us, responding with confidence, maybe even impudence, but nevertheless with the courage that our faith in Christ demands.