Kiffin Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force

Kiffin Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force

T. B. Murphy

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 200 pages

Book Review published on: January 12, 2018

Who in the world was Kiffin Rockwell, and why should anyone care? T. B. Murphy does a superb job of answering that question in Kiffin Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force. It is not only a fascinating story, but it is also a story that lays the foundation—a starting point—for the lineage and history of the United States Air Force (USAF). Murphy makes a brief but impassioned argument that the real lineage of the USAF leads to the Lafayette Escadrille (a French squadron comprised of predominately American pilots) rather than the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His argument compares the administrative lineage through the Signal Corps to the cultural lineage of the Lafayette Escadrille, and the attributes of “character, spirit, and soul” of the USAF to the Escadrille. This particular argument may seem trivial, but the rest of the book is rich with history that is not well known or well recorded.

Murphy not only narrates Rockwell’s fascinating biography masterfully, but he also weaves the context of the times with equal skill. While Woodrow Wilson and an isolationist Congress did their best to keep the United States out of the “European” war, a significant body of U.S. citizens concluded there was a right side and a wrong side in the conflict. American neutrality, however, prevented the average citizen from contributing to the allied effort of the Entente Powers against the Central Powers. Young American males, filled with nationalistic fervor, admiration for France, and a desire for adventure, found other outlets for their passions. Perceiving France as the victim of German aggression, they rallied to the French cause, risking the wrath of their native country, including potential loss of citizenship. Despite these obstacles, Kiffin Rockwell and his brother Paul enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.

Paul and Kiffin were both wounded; Paul never returned to combat, and Kiffin’s experience in the trenches motivated him to seek an appointment to the French Air Service. During his convalescence, most of Kiffin’s American friends in his Legion regiment were killed. He returned briefly to the Legion and then received his appointment to flying school. Although he was a marginal flying student, he passed. He ultimately received an assignment to the Escadrille Americaine (later renamed the Lafayette Escadrille, to pacify isolationists in the United States) when it was formed in April 1916. It did not take long for Kiffin to make his mark; he shot down a German plane on 19 May 1916, becoming the first American pilot to do so. The path of his blazing star across the sky was bright but brief. On 23 September 1916 he was dead, killed in aerial combat.

Although the focus is on Kiffin Rockwell and the Lafayette Escadrille, Murphy does a truly commendable job of describing the environmental context surrounding the Lafayette Escadrille. He explains the political context and the challenge of American neutrality, describes diplomatic and financial efforts of private American citizens, and illuminates the opposing strategies of Entente and Central Powers. His description of the tactical situation on the ground, and how it related to the war in the air is genuinely surprising. Good historians explain history by pulling the pieces together in a way we can understand. Murphy is an exceptionally good historian. Find this book and read it before the centennial observance of the Great War is over.

Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas