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.