Many North Carolinians served as aviators during the First World War. Tar Heel pilot Robert Opie Lindsay of Rockingham County earned the title ace by downing six enemy planes in combat. But the most famous North Carolina aviator during the war was Kiffin Rockwell, an original member of the Lafayette Escadrille, an American volunteer squadron formed in France in 1916, one year before the United States entered World War I. He was also the first American pilot to shoot down a German plane in combat.
|Original Members of the Lafayette Escadrille|
James McConnell, Kiffen Rockwell, Capt. Thenault, Norman Prince, Victor Chapman
Rockwell was born on 20 September 1892 in Newport, Tennessee. When he was 14, his family moved across the Appalachian Mountains to Asheville, North Carolina. Rockwell and his brother Paul spent a lot of time as children on their grandfather’s cotton farm. Enoch Shaw Ayres, a Confederate veteran, probably influenced his grandson’s decision to enter the military. Rockwell enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute in 1908 and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy and Washington and Lee University. He was working for an advertising agency in Atlanta when war broke out in Europe in 1914.
President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would remain neutral in World War I. But Rockwell wanted to fight for France, and on 3 August he wrote to the French Consulate in New Orleans to volunteer for the army. Without waiting for a reply, Rockwell sailed with his brother to France on 7August. The Rockwell brothers joined the French Foreign Legion, and in May 1915 both were injured in combat. Paul, a newspaperman by trade, became a correspondent for the remainder of the war. Kiffin joined the newly formed Escadrille Americaine [renamed the Lafayette Escadrille in December 1916 after German protests about neutrality violation]. Although he had no previous flying experience, Rockwell soon became adept at aerial combat. On 18 May 1916, only 28 days after formation of the escadrille, he shot down an enemy plane. He quickly earned a reputation as a fearless fighter for his habit of getting within feet of his enemy in the air before firing his machine gun. Rockwell’s fellow aviators admired his enthusiasm and recognized him as a leader in spirit if not in rank.
On 23 September 1916, Rockwell spotted an observation plane while he was flying cover for a bombing raid against Germany. He dived at great speed, closing the 11,000 feet separating the two planes, and fired his gun just before a collision seemed certain. Soldiers on the ground thought that the German Albatros plane had been struck, but it was Rockwell’s Nieuport that crashed into a field of flowers behind French lines. When news of Rockwell’s death reached the squadron, the men mourned deeply.
Friend and fellow squadron member James McConnell of Carthage in Moore County later wrote, “No greater blow could have befallen the escadrille. Kiffin was its soul.” Rockwell’s grave in France stands as a memorial to the brave Americans who fought not only for an ally but also for “the
cause of humanity” in World War I.
Sources: North Carolina Museum of History; Photos from Steve Miller and Tony Langley