WYSO Aviation commentators Dan Patterson and Paul Glenshaw traveled to France in April to witness a significant moment in aviation history. Today they bring us the story of a milestone of American aviation—the loss of the first American pilot in combat.
One hundred years ago, on June 23, 1916, a young flyer named Victor Chapman took off on his last flight.
America was not yet at war, but Chapman was a founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille - the French word for “little squadron.” It was a group of American volunteers who flew for the French before the United States entered World War I.
Chapman was supposed to be delivering oranges to a wounded comrade in a French military hospital, but instead impulsively diverted himself over the horrific Verdun battlefield in search of German fighters. The oranges were never delivered.
There was a time when Chapman and his comrades like Norman Prince, William Thaw, Raoul Lufbery, and 34 others were household names. Before the United States declared war in 1917, their exploits inspired over 200 volunteers who flew in other escadrilles and became known as the Lafayette Flying Corps. The original Lafayette Escadrille remained the only all-American squadron flying for the French.
Today there stands a grand monument just outside Paris to honor the Lafayette Escadrille and Flying Corps.
Last April 20th, it was rededicated to mark the original Escadrille’s centennial in a ceremony of great pageantry and solemnity. The ceremony was full of speeches and anthems, a 21-gun salute, and flyovers of American and French military jets.
Members of several Lafayette Escadrille families attended to pay their respects. Some were meeting for the first time.
Lt. Col. Nick Rutgers is an F-15 pilot for the Oregon Air National Guard and the great-grandson of James Norman Hall, a journalist who joined the Escadrille after being sent to report on them for The Atlantic magazine.
“I’m sure my great-grandfather, flying in the skies over this 100 years ago had no idea that this would exist, nor how great the modern Air Force is—and what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Beneath the monument, there is a crypt for 68 members of the Lafayette Escadrille and Flying Corps. At the emotional high point of the ceremony each of the pilots names were read out, and French students placed a single rose on each sarcophagus.
Victor Chapman has a sarcophagus there, but it’s empty.
A few days later, we visited his official grave, but no one’s sure if he’s actually buried there.
We went to Verdun to see where 60 million shells fell in 300 days in an area smaller than Greene County. More than 300,000 were killed. From the sky, the Escadrille pilots said the ground looked like it was boiling with the impacts of the shells.
Chapman was an architecture student in Paris before the war, known for his caring and artistic nature. When the war began, he joined the French foreign legion and was known for his bravery and aggressiveness in the trenches. On his last flight over Verdun, he was jumped by three enemy aircraft and was shot down quickly.
His Nieuport 11 fighter came apart even before it hit the ground. He was the first American pilot killed in combat.
The Germans mistakenly buried Chapman under the name Clyde Balsley because they’d found a note with that name on the body. It was Balsley whom Chapman was supposed to be visiting and delivering the oranges. But when the remains were moved to a French cemetery, the dental records did not match Chapman’s.
Nevertheless, they were buried as Chapman’s in the Muese-Argonne American Cemetery.
Chapman’s cross sits in the front row at the bottom of a hill on the beautifully kept grounds. Every day at 5:00 pm, “Taps” is sounded.
Chapman served for less than 10 weeks with the Lafayette Escadrille. He was 27 years old when he died. Perhaps someone will lay a rose at his gravesite today.
Paul Glenshaw and Dan Patterson are collaborating with filmmaker Darroch Greer on a documentary about the Lafayette Escadrille—the first American fighter squadron.
Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.