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Kiffin Rockwell: The Carolinas' First Lost Hero in WWI

On September 23, 1916, flyer Kiffin Rockwell died in aerial combat over France. Documenting the American South pays tribute to Rockwell, who is often remembered as the first Carolinian to fall in World Word War I.

Rockwell's father, Baptist minister and poet James Chester Rockwell, hailed from Columbus County, North Carolina, and his mother, Loula Ayres, was the daughter of a Confederate veteran from South Carolina. Rockwell was born September 20, 1892, in Newport, Tennessee, but his parents' strong ties to their home states earned him the Carolina heritage for which he is best known. Rockwell briefly attended Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University in Virginia before leaving to pursue a career in advertising that allowed him the opportunity to travel in the United States and Canada. When Europe erupted into war in the late summer of 1914, Rockwell and his brother Paul left immediately for France to join the French army. After he was wounded in 1915, he began learning to fly planes, and when he finished this training, he joined the famous Escadrille LaFayette, an elite band of flyers.

In a short article from The North Carolina Booklet, R.B. House gives a detailed biographical sketch of Rockwell that spans from his youth to his death and summarizes his achievements: "Kiffin Yates Rockwell was the first North Carolinian to give his life in the world war, the first American volunteer for service in France, the first American to bring down a German plane, the premier fighter of his time in the Escadrille LaFayette, and after Victor Chapman, his comrade, the first American airman to fall in battle" (151).

House goes on to say of Rockwell: "Kiffin Rockwell's achievements in the air and previously in the trenches rank him as one of the greatest of the allied fighters. For his services he received the highest honor the French Government can give. But the most remarkable feature of his life is the perfect coordination of purpose and achievement in his spirit. He was indefatigable in battle because he was invincible in his conviction that he was defending civilization" (154).

In his article "North Carolina's Part in the War," published in the Training School Quarterly, John Wilber Jenkins gives details about the fight that led to Rockwell's death. He explains, "This brave Carolinian lost his life [ . . . ] in a desperate duel in the air over the French lines near Verdun. Plunging through a rain of bullets, he engaged a powerful German machine. He was struck by an explosive bullet and killed instantly; his aeroplane was riddled and crashed to earth" (5). Jenkins also quotes one of Rockwell's fellow fliers, who said that his friend and comrade "was imbued with the spirit of the cause for which he fought, and gave his heart and soul to the performance of his duty. He said: 'I pay my part for Lafayette and Rochambeau,' and he gave the fullest measure. The old flame of chivalry burned brightly in this boy's fine and sensitive being." (5).

Both House's and Jenkins' articles are part of DocSouth's "North Carolinians in the Great War" collection, which examines how World War I shaped the lives of North Carolinians on the battlefield and on the home front as well how the state and federal government responded to war-time demands.

Jennifer L. Larson