Kiffin Yates Rockwell set out to settle multiple scores with the ‘Boche’ over France.
In early August 1914, the French consulate’s office in New Orleans received an unusual letter. Just days after France entered World War I, two American brothers had written to volunteer for the French army. Although the United States would not officially enter the war until 1917, the brothers were eager to participate—so eager that they didn’t wait for the consulate’s response before sailing to France. It was rash behavior typical of Kiffin Yates Rockwell and his older brother Paul, two of the first Americans to volunteer for service in that conflict.
The Rockwell boys had spent their youth primarily in rural South Carolina. As young men they found their way to Atlanta, where Paul began working as a reporter at the Atlanta Constitution and Kiffin entered the world of advertising.
Why did they put their careers on hold in 1914 to fight for the French? They could trace their family roots back to medieval France. And while they were very different—Paul tended to be easygoing, while Kiffin was hotter tempered—both were mindful of their family’s history of military service. Two ancestors had served as officers under George Washington in the American Revolution, while both grandfathers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Kiffin wrote his mother, “If I should be killed in this war I will at least die as a man should and would not consider myself a complete failure.…I think if anything will make a man out of me, it is this giving of one’s best for an ideal.”
Once in France, they enlisted with the French Foreign Legion as part of the first group of volunteers. In October 1914, after a month’s training, they were sent straight to the trenches. Any sense of adventure quickly evaporated once they arrived. Kiffin wrote: “There is no romance or anything in the infantry. It is not a question of bravery, but a question of being a good day laborer.”
In December 1914, while making a bayonet charge, Paul was blown back into his trench by a shell blast. He broke his collarbone and subsequently developed a severe case of pneumonia. Sent to a hospital in Paris, he was judged unfit for further combat.
Kiffin remained at the front until May 1915, when he was severely wounded in the right thigh during the assault at La Targette. While recovering in Paris, he pondered his next move.
Other Americans who had also fought in the Foreign Legion had likewise begun to explore their service options. Among them was William Thaw, an experienced pilot who along with others such as Norman Prince and Victor Chapman was pursuing the idea of forming an all-American squadron. Kiffin talked with Thaw and became intrigued with the prospect of flying. Following Thaw’s suggestion, Kiffin managed to secure a spot in the French air service. He completed flight training in October 1915, graduating at the head of his class.
The public relations value of Americans participating in the war soon became obvious to the French military, resulting in quick approval of the American squadron proposal. When Escadrille N.124, also known as l’Escadrille Ameri caine, was officially formed on April 16, 1916, Kiffin was among the first pilots accepted.
L’Escadrille Americaine was sent into action a few weeks later near France’s Vosges Mountains at Luxeuil-les-Bains. During training Kiffin had learned of the deaths of many men with whom he had served in the trenches. He wrote a friend, “I have many scores to settle, and there is more than one ‘Boche’ aviator to settle them, or I will not live to tell the tale.”
The squadron flew Nieuport 11s powered by 80-hp Le Rhône rotary engines and 16s powered by 110-hp Le Rhônes, with a maximum speed of 90 to 100 mph and about two hours’ worth of fuel. A .30-caliber Lewis machine gun was mounted above the wing to fire over the propeller arc. Rockwell personalized his own plane by painting his initial “R” in white on the side of the fuselage.
Soon after Rockwell took off on his fourth patrol on May 18, 1916, his engine began to act up. As he turned back toward base, he spotted a German LVG two-seater 2,000 feet below him. The American dived directly at the enemy plane, and soon they were dogfighting in the clouds.
Rockwell approached to within 30 yards of the LVG before being hit with a burst of enemy fire that severed his plane’s main wing spar. He somehow managed to hold steady until he could make out the observer’s features. But when he pressed the trigger, he got off only four rounds before his Lewis jammed. Rockwell was then forced to swerve to avoid a collision. Those four bullets found their mark, however; the American watched as the LVG spiraled out of control and crashed in flames. Thus Rockwell became the first American documented with scoring a victory in aerial combat.
Brother Paul, who had been kept out of the squadron because of the severity of his wounds, hurried to Luxeuil upon hearing the news Now acting as the squadron’s official historian, he presented a bottle of 80-year-old bourbon to Kiffin and his fellow pilots to mark the occasion. From then on, every time a squadron pilot shot down an enemy plane, he became entitled to one shot from what became known as the “Bottle of Death.”
On the morning of May 24, Rockwell and several other squadron pilots encountered 12 German aircraft. In the ensuing scrap, Rockwell’s windscreen was hit, lacerating his face with glass and bullet fragments. Nearly blinded by blood, he somehow downed another unconfirmed German plane before landing, his fuel almost completely spent.
Heavily bandaged—and having refused hospital treatment—Rockwell was once again strapped into his Nieuport only 24 hours later. He reportedly believed that he should fly again as quickly as possible, to steady his nerves. Highly respected by his peers, he seemed to have been emboldened by his combat experience. “When flights were accomplished, he would set out again…barely allowing his mechanic time to refill his tanks,” squadron commander Captain Georges Thenault later re marked. Only rarely did Kiffin have opportunities to visit Paul in Paris, who had begun work as a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.
Life was simple enough for Escadrille Americaine pilots. Kiffin Rockwell wrote his mother: “We live like princes when we are not working. An auto comes to take us to the field, we climb into our machines—which the mechanics have taken care of—they fasten us in and fix us up snugly, put the motor en route, and away we go for two or three hours to prowl through the air, looking for an enemy machine to dive on and have it out with.”
On the afternoon of June 23, Kiffin’s close friend Victor Chapman was killed while attacking a German fighter. The death of Chapman, whom he had first met during flight training, was a heavy blow. “Last night I went to bed,” he wrote, “but I couldn’t sleep, thinking about him, especially as his bed was right beside mine.” The next day, he wrote, “I am afraid it is going to rain tomorrow, but if not, Prince and I are going to fly about ten hours and do our best to kill one or two Germans for Victor.”
Kiffin took his revenge for Chapman’s death on September 9, when he attacked a German two-seater, hitting it with his first shots. He pursued it down to 4,000 feet before enemy fighters forced him to pull away. Ground observers later confirmed the crash.
A short time later, Rockwell and some other escadrille pilots were passing through Paris when they spotted a four-month-old lion cub for sale. Figuring the squadron needed a mascot, they bought the cub and brought him back to Luxeuil, where they named him Whiskey. He became a valued part of squadron life, even befriending dogs at the squadron base.
Three days after his 24th birthday, on September 23, 1916, Kiffin took off on a morning sortie with Raoul Lufbery. Their mission was to engage several German Fokkers spotted nearby. Soon after takeoff, Lufbery developed mechanical trouble and landed, while Rockwell continued on alone. When he spotted a German Albatros two-seater far below, as usual he dived directly at it, holding his fire until the last second.
But before Rockwell got his chance, fire from the German hit his Nieuport. Observers saw his plane fall into a steep dive, losing a wing before crashing in a field near the French town of Rodern. The French soldiers who found the American pilot’s body concluded that he had died instantly after being hit by an illegal explosive bullet. Armed with photos of Rockwell’s body, France made a formal protest to authorities in Geneva, but they chose not to act on the information. Kiffin Rockwell’s mother received the announcement of his death via a cablegram. Just hours earlier, she had received a letter from him telling her about a recent leave spent in Paris with Paul.
Although Kiffin had requested that he be buried wherever he might be killed, he was interred two days later with full military honors in the cemetery at Luxeuil. The French government posthumously promoted him to sub-lieutenant, making him one of the few Americans in the French service ever to receive a commission. He had also received several French military medals during his service, included the Croix de Guerre.
“No greater blow could have befallen the escadrille,” fellow pilot James McConnell wrote. “Kiffin was its soul.” A grief-stricken Paul Rockwell remained in Luxeuil-les-Bains for a few days after the funeral.
Shortly after Kiffin’s death, as the result of German diplomatic protests, the United States re – quested that France refer to N.124 with the much more neutral name l’Escadrille des Volon – taires. However, the remaining American pilots found the name boring and successfully lobbied to have the squadron renamed l’Escadrille Layfayette, choosing as their namesake the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought as a volunteer alongside Wash ington in the Revolutionary War.
Paul Rockwell continued to work as a war correspondent in Paris. In 1925 he was medically cleared to once again volunteer for the French army. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in North Africa, Sicily and Western Europe. He is the only American to be decorated with three French Croix de Guerre medals.
In July 2001, a new marker was unveiled on the site where Kiffin Rockwell was shot down outside Rodern. The ceremony began, appropriately enough, with a fly-over by jet fighters of today’s Lafayette Escadrille of the French air force.
Dr. W.J.K. Rockwell, Paul’s son and Kiffin’s nephew, visits the Rodern area often.“The French still remember, appreciate and honor the Lafayette Squadron volunteers in a touching way, as if they were guardian angels hovering over their towns,” he said.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.