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French-American relations have been strained for more than a year, given that the government in Paris flatly opposed the U. S. incursion into Iraq. This essay provides a broader historical perspective on relations that go back more than two centuries.—Ed.

I Pay My Debt for Lafayette: Volunteers and the Franco-American AllianceThere is a lovely drive from Williamsburg, Virginia, down the peninsula that ends in the Yorktown Battlefield National Park. If you go into the visitors’ center and look at the exhibits, you can quickly learn about the essential role of France in the birth of the United States. It is probably one of the few places remaining in our country where this cogent fact about our existence is so simply and directly taught. Without the presence of the young Marquis de Lafayette, originally a volunteer in our cause, and his countrymen, the thirteen colonies might well not have been able to achieve their independence from Britain.

The Lafayette Memorial near Paris, upon its dedication in 1928.

Three thousand miles away, across the Atlantic in a western suburb of Paris called Marnes-la-Coquette, there lies in quiet seclusion the beautiful ten-acre Lafayette Memorial Park. The Memorial was created following the First World War, in 1928, in the full spirit of Franco-American alliance and most definitely should be preserved in that same spirit. France donated the land; the large, impressive monument on the grounds was built through the subscription of private funds, both French and American. William Nelson Cromwell, a prominent American international lawyer, provided an endowment for its upkeep.Now, in 2004, the Yorktown National Park remains as ever in first-class condition, but not so the Lafayette Memorial. Its arch-of~triumph-type monument’s stone façade has become begrimed and pitted with age. Ground water damage in the crypt below threatens the entombed heroes therein with a not-too-eventual watery grave. Eleven of these tombs were placed for the dead of the famed Lafayette Escadrille (Squadron), the only all-American squadron of volunteers flying under the French flag in World War I. The squadron included thirty-eight members at final tally. In all, 269 American aviators served France as volunteers in what came to be designated officially by the French government as the Lafayette Flying Corps, including the Lafayette Escadrille.

Members of newly formed Lafayette Escadrille, Summer or Fall 1916. From left, James R. McConnell, William Thaw, Raoul Lufbery, Kiffin Rockwell (partially obscured), Didier Masson, Norman Prince, Bert Hall.

For many years there was an elaborate annual ceremony at this monument near Paris to commemorate the American fliers and to renew the spirit of the alliance that their heroism and sacrifice exemplify. In a profound sequence during the ceremony, schoolgirls laid a rose on each of the tombs, one by one, now sixty-seven in all. A voice intoned, “Mort pour la France.” The most recent of these ceremonies was held in July 2001. Since then, ceremonies have not been held in the crypt due to its deteriorated condition.As inscribed on its walls, the first objective of the Memorial is “To keep alive in the hearts of men the spirit which inspired the members of the ‘Escadrille Lafayette,’ all Americans, to volunteer for the universal cause of Liberty under the Flag of France, before their Country’s entrance into the Great War.”

It is this spirit of volunteerism that stands out in the instance of Lafayette and of the Americans who flew many years later in the air group named for him. Two instances illustrate the point:In June 2000, Dr. Henry Mattox, his son Robert Mattox, and this writer traveled to Flavy-le-Martel, a small town seventy-five miles north of Paris, to attend the unveiling of a large new stone marker at the site where an American pursuit pilot, James Rogers McConnell, was shot down and killed on March 19, 1917. A dignified and impressive ceremony at the monument was followed by a Vin d’Honneur (formal toast) with speeches, after which came an informal but sumptuous two-hour buffet luncheon in the town hall.

The author, left, and Editor Henry Mattox at the 2000 McConnell monument dedication, Flavy le Martel, France. Photo by Robert W. Mattox.

During the Vin d’Honneur, Dr. Mattox, who had visited the town and the crash site years before and had written about McConnell’s service to France,* learned for the first time from a local official that one female member or another of a family residing close by had, on March nineteenth, placed a red rose on the place where McConnell had died every year since 1918, the year after he fell from the skies. The rite of commemoration by this Flavy-le-Martel family had just passed to the third generation. The spot was long known, but not marked officially previous to the occasion we attended.

An aside on James Rogers McConnell: He left the United States in early 1915 for France to drive in the ambulance service. He won the Croix de Guerre with Star for his actions in that capacity. McConnell then joined the French foreign legion to learn to fly and in 1916 was an original member of the Lafayette Escadrille. During his last months he was able to fly patrols only occasionally due to near-crippling back injuries suffered in a crash. Awarded posthumously a second Croix de Guerre, McConnell was the last American to die flying for France before the United States entered the war.

In July 2001, at Roderen, Alsace, in eastern France, this observer attended the inauguration of a new marker where Kiffin Yates Rockwell was shot down and killed on September 23, 1916. The ceremony at the site began with a fly-over by jet fighters of today’s Lafayette Escadrille of the French Air Force. Rockwell scored the squadron’s first victory in combat on May 18, 1916, but was brought down himself only nineteen weeks later and only two and a half miles from the site of his first victory.Another aside:

New French foreign legion recruits Kiffin (l) and Paul Rockwell, Paris, fall 1914.

Kiffin Rockwell and his brother, Paul Rockwell, my father, left the United States as soon as the First World War began and joined the French foreign legion in August 1914. They served as infantrymen in the trenches until each was wounded. In 1915 Kiffin began flight training; in 1916, he also became an original member of the Lafayette Escadrille. When his all-too-brief flying career ended, the French government posthumously promoted him to sous lieutenant, making him one of the few Americans in the French service ever to achieve commissioned rank. His squadron commander wrote, “The best and bravest of us is no more.”These commemorations in 2000 and 2001 were attended by French and American dignitaries and others from far and near, but the events were organized and served by local citizens under the direction of their mayors. During both the solemn and the convivial moments of these ceremonies, they placed much emphasis on the fact that the American aviators whom they honored had come to fight for France at a time when the United States was not even at war. Such comments engendered a feeling that went beyond abstraction, the feeling that somehow, even if only through the examples of a few individuals, there had been transmitted to the present generation the sentiment held by the war-wracked inhabitants, an awareness of the conviction that these men had come to protect their own villages.

For 225 years and more, two great nations—the United States and France—have stood together in the long fight for individual freedom, equality, and intrinsic worth. But it is during extended periods of relative peace that even the best of alliances are most difficult to maintain. In lulls between battles against a common enemy we commence to cavil on the ninth part of a hair and like the Greeks of antiquity, we are set to fight amongst ourselves to our mutual disadvantage immediately the enemy descends from view below the horizon.

The Lafayette Memorial is a case in point. Only yesterday, it seems, it was created as a symbol of Franco-American unity on fundamental principles. Men were willing to defend those principles unto death. Yet for decades this writer has heard the the same refrain, recently repeated: “The French want the Americans to pay for the Memorial and the Americans want the French to pay.” Many brave souls lie asleep with honor in the Memorial’s crypt, aviators all. Their willingness to serve in order to help maintain the alliance continues; their remains they leave in place in aid of our renewal of that alliance.Fortunately, as of this writing, the Memorial and its crypts are in the process of being restored with funds appropriated by both France and the United States. The U. S. government has contributed $2.1 million; French government and corporate sources have provided approximately $1. million.

Kiffin Rockwell. July 1916. Photo taken by Paul Rockwell.

Debts incurred for basic existence, sheer survival, and some form of liberty are among those that can never be put paid, and whosoever repudiates those debts acquires an indelible stain. It is folly to forget them. Judgments as to comparative size and power of an ally must be ignored, lest they be clouded by a fatal hubris. In any close-run contest no one ever knows for certain what factor tipped the balance. Mindful of old ties, Plataea, small in numbers but mighty in spirit, to its everlasting glory sent 1,000 men, all it had, to stand with 10,000 Athenians against the Persians at Marathon. From the United States, equally brave men—volunteers all—made their way to France early on to stand with that nation against Imperial Germany in the Great War of 1914-18.Kiffin Rockwell wrote in partial explanation of his taking up France’s fight, “I pay my debt for Lafayette and Rochambeau.” If we in America should stand in mortal peril; and bereft of aid, would we not take heart if some young Frenchman were to arrive in our camp proclaiming, “I pay my part for Pershing and Eisenhower.”?

* Interested readers may see Henry E. Mattox, “’Chariots of Wrath’: North Carolinians Who Flew for France in World War I,” North Carolina Historical Review, July 1996.


The author, a nephew of Kiffin Rockwell, is a retired physician living in North Carolina.


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