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North Carolina's World War I Aviators


"James R. McConnell (14 March 1887-19 March 1917) and Kiffin Yates Rockwell (20 September 1892-23 September 1916) were the first of the scores of North Carolinians who served with the France air force during the war. McConnell and Rockwell were part of the Lafayette Escadrille, an all-American squadron of forty-eight pilots within the French air force. The other North Carolina aviators in France were among the 228 Americans assigned to various French units. They were known collectively as the Lafayette Flying Corps. Hundreds more aspiring North Carolina pilots trained with the Navy and Army air corps in the United States but never saw active duty. In addition to pilots, many other North Carolinians worked as ground support for aviation camps or with observation balloon crews that floated above the frontlines. (As historian Thomas Parramore has observed, the unfortunate loss of service records makes it impossible to pinpoint the exact number of wartime Tar Heel flyers.)

It is fair to say, however, that North Carolinians helped lead the nation in the development of aviation before and during World War I. Since the days of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, the flying bug had bitten hundreds of Tar Heel engineers and amateur pilots. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 accelerated the Europeans' development of the airplane as a weapon. The United States military lagged far behind other nations in the development of air power, but several North Carolinians forged ahead. They included inventors of aerial bombs, giant aircraft, and antiaircraft guns. The later was the brainchild of William D. Polite, an African American waiter in Wilmington. Polite won a patent for his invention, but it was never developed.

In 1913, Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, former publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, pledged to develop a Navy air corps. The Army began its tiny air wing in 1909, but seven years later, it had only twenty-five planes and twenty-three pilots, including a few North Carolinians. In 1916, McConnell and Rockwell were already flying combat missions in France.

McConnell and Rockwell became close friends. They each had an adventurous spirit, which led them to volunteer for the French army and then head into the skies as pilots. James McConnell was born in Chicago in 1887. As a teen, he grabbed headlines for driving a car from Chicago to New York. He entered the University of Virginia in 1908 but was more interested in pulling pranks, socializing, and founding the college's first aviation club than in his studies.

McConnell left school in 1910 to join his family, who had moved to Carthage, North Carolina. He worked for a local railroad and the board of trade, where he excelled in writing promotional literature for the region. Restless, he yearned for more, however. Soon after war broke out in Europe in 1914, he volunteered for the American ambulance corps in France. At the same time, he wrote war dispatches for North Carolina newspapers and for national magazines. McConnell won awards for gallantry, but ambulance service was not thrilling enough for him. In 1916, he transferred to the recently formed Lafayette Escadrille, an all-American squadron within the French air corps.

Kiffin Yates Rockwell, who had co-founded the Lafayette Escadrille with another American flyer in March 1916, seemed to have found his life's purpose. Born in the mountains of east Tennessee in 1892, he moved to Asheville in North Carolina in 1906. Stories of Confederate gallantry on his mother's side of the family inspired in the teenage Rockwell a desire for military service, but his wandering spirit soon got the better of him. At age sixteen, he enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute. Within a year he received an appointment to the Naval Academy. Rockwell declined the appointment, however, and left VMI to join his brother Paul at Washington and Lee College.

Paul was training as a journalist, and Kiffin dabbled in this pursuit, while gaining a reputation as a charming ladies man. Kiffin dropped out of Washington and Lee, however, and drifted from San Francisco, to Asheville, then to Atlanta pursuing various careers. Both Kiffin and Paul shared an admiration of French culture. Within days of Germany's declaration of war against France, the Rockwell brothers were headed for Europe to volunteer in the French Foreign Legion. Paul was soon injured and spent the remainder of the war as a correspondent. Kiffin fought in the trenches for another year, before he too was injured in 1915. (For a more extensive, reverential treatment of Rockwell's youth, see R. B. House's biography, pp. 151-3.

It is worth interjecting that R. B. House had an abiding interest in World War I. During the war, he served as an infantry lieutenant. He later became the Collector of War Records for the North Carolina Historical Commission, in which capacity he collected over 100,000 official and personal documents. House went on to edit the North Carolina Historical Review as well as important public papers and government reference works. House is best known, however, for his long career at the University of North Carolina, where between 1926 and 1962 he served variously as executive secretary, dean of administration, chancellor, and a professor of English.

Meanwhile, as Kiffin recovered from his wounds in 1915, he met William Thaw, a fellow American, who was also a pilot. Thaw was trying to form an American air unit. Though Rockwell had no flying experience, he quickly signed for the romantic adventure. At first, the French authorities showed little enthusiasm, but they relented when Rockwell and Thaw convinced them that the well-publicized exploits of a group of Yankee flyers might help galvanize public opinion back in the United States on behalf of American entry into the war. On March 3 1916, Rockwell, Thaw, and five other Americans formed the Lafayette Escadrille. Over the course of the war, the unit grew to forty-eight men, including McConnell.

Paul Rockwell became the unit's publicist, writing many dispatches for American papers about the pilots' heroics. He also published several of the memoirs of the Escadrille pilots, including McConnell's Flying for France (1917) and the posthumously released War Letters of Kiffin Yates Rockwell (1925.) Readers thrilled to the heroism of the dashing young men. During the war, Americans were almost as likely to be familiar with the idealized picture of war presented by the small number of American flyers than they were with the horrors of combat and daily hardships experienced by over one million average American infantrymen. (For more on this, see the introduction to The Soldiers' Experience/Personal Narratives.)

Kiffin Rockwell was a favorite of both the Americans and French. In part, this was because he was the first American to shoot down an enemy plane. He also earned hero status for his reckless style of fighting. In his memoir, McConnell boasted of his friend that "Rockwell. . .attacked so often that he has lost all count, and . . .shoves his machine gun fairly in the faces of the Germans." Rockwell engaged in a record 142 aerial battles before he was shot down and killed on September 23, 1916. McConnell recalled the fateful day in some detail. Rockwell was First North Carolinian to die in the war and the second member of the Escadrille to perish. At his funeral, circling planes showered his body with flowers.

The French government also showered Rockwell with awards, including its highest honor, the Medaille Militaire (the Croix de Gueree with four palms and a star.) Rockwell biographer R. B. House later lionized his subject as the "Aristocrat of the Air." House also made Rockwell the embodiment of American democracy and invisibility. "But with all his love for France" House wrote, "he retained his sense of responsibility as an American. 'I am paying my part of America's debt for Lafayette and Rochambeau,' [two French generals who aided the Americans during the War for Independence] was his expression that has been echoed and re-echoed by American fighters from private to General Pershing. His attitude towards death was a triumphant assertion of immortality."

James McConnell did not have Rockwell's record of success or heroic status, but he was the most well-liked member of the Escadrille. His memoir was widely read and is the most candid and thorough of all of those produced by American flyers. In it, he provides an exciting account of aerial acrobatics, as well as a birds eye view of the savage British and German ground battles at Verdun and the Somme. McConnell also recounts the posh life of the American pilots, living in comfortable hotels, enjoying the best French food and wine, and socializing with the French elite. Young male American readers might have expected a similar adventure when they joined the army after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917. What naiveté and optimism had not been drilled out of the draftees during boot-camp was demolished when they hit the trenches of France and Belgium.

The fact that McConnell wrote his volume while recuperating from a crash in August 1916 is proof that simply flying the flimsy wooden biplanes was a tricky enough task, to say nothing of engaging German fighters in dog fights. He never shot down a German plane or even engaged in much combat. Instead, he wrecked his plane twice when his motor misfired. He was also shot down twice after his own guns jammed. McConnell's second engagement with German planes on March 19, 1917 proved fatal. Four days later, French troops recovered McConnell's body. He received a hero's funeral in Paris.

Aerial combat made pilots like Rockwell and McConnell famous, but the main utility of aircraft in WWI was as bombers or artillery spotters, rather than as fighters or pursuit aircraft. Robert Hanes, a North Carolina captain with the 113th Artillery Regiment, mentions in his diary entry on September 1 the first time he used aerial observation to direct his battery's fire. Airplanes also routinely shot down the manned-observation balloons that floated above the lines. Hanes recounts such an attack on September 27th.

Troops on the ground learned to listen for the sound of an approaching aircraft and to distinguish the noise of German motors from that of the French planes, which the Americans flew. Both Allied and German commanders usually ordered their men not to fire on the planes, knowing that doing so would draw attention to their positions on the ground. At times, however, men could not resist the temptation to shoot at the low flying, slow moving targets. Antiaircraft guns were not widely used, so the pilots usually escaped the rifle volleys unharmed, although several American planes were hit by misdirect American fire. (Arthur Fletcher's History of the 113th Field Artillery and John Walker's History of the 120th Infantry both contain several scattered references to "aeroplanes" and "planes.")

In addition to McConnell and Rockwell, scores of other North Carolinians flew with either the Royal Air Force, French squadrons, or the U.S. Navy during the war. At least sixteen of these aviators died. Tar Heel pilots may have downed over one hundred German planes, but only one of them, Robert Opie Lindsay, a native of Madison, North Carolina, earned the designation of "ace", being officially credited with six kills. Combat victories had to be confirmed by ground observers to be officially counted. Rockwell claimed to have shot down forty or fifty German planes but was credited with only five.)

After the war ended in November 1918, North Carolina retained a close connection with combat aviation. In 1919, the Army Air Corps opened its first base in North Carolina, at Camp Bragg, near Fayetteville. The Army soon named the air base the Pope Field in honor of Harley Pope, a pilot who had accidentally crashed into the Cape Fear River. Pope pilots soon became fixtures at local air shows and army recruiting drives. Many of North Carolina's pilot-veterans remained in the Air Corps, while others bought surplus military planes and launched local aviation businesses. Belvin Womble Maynard, a Baptist preacher from Sampson County, never saw combat in France, but he became North Carolina's most famous veteran-pilot when he won two transcontinental air races in 1919.

Work Consulted: Thomas C. Parramore, First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings to Aviation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.)

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