American Battle Monuments Commission honors WWI Aces at Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery
ARLINGTON, Va. (September 22, 2022) — As part of this year’s European Heritage Days widely celebrated throughout Europe, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) hosted the “First World War Aces” exhibition at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery in Marnes-la-Coquette, France.
The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery commemorates the birthplace of American combat aviation, and is the final resting place for some of America’s first combat aviators and their French officers. This educational and chronological exhibit pays tribute to the American aviators of the Great War, recalling the major stages of the development of aviation and the progress made in this industrial sector during the war.
The exhibit profiles several of the daring American pilots who flew with the Lafayette Flying Corps in 1916 and will be displayed in the cemetery’s memorial crypt.
“It is our honor to share the legacy of the brave American volunteer pilots who flew with French squadrons during World War I,” said ABMC Secretary Charles Djou. “The sacrifices of those entombed and memorialized at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery represent both the leading edge of Americans in the war effort and a transformational period for the history of our military forces. This is history worth preserving.”
Within the memorial’s crypt are 68 sarcophagi, one for each of the aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps who lost their lives during World War I. Forty-nine of these aviators are entombed in the crypt along with two of their French commanding officers. A full listing of those honored at this site is available here.
Edwin Parsons, Frank Baylies, Charles Biddle, James Rogers McConnell, Raoul Lufbery, and Paul Frank Baer—the first flying ace in U.S. military aviation history—are among those honored at the memorial and are featured below.
Paul Frank Baer
Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Paul Frank Baer is noted for being the first flying ace in U.S. military aviation history.
In February 1917, he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps in France and was assigned to the Spa80 Flying Squadron, with a reassignment to Escadrille N124 several months later. As the U.S. officially entered into World War I, Baer was a first lieutenant and has been transferred to the 103rd Aero Squadron—the first U.S. pursuit squadron in action during the war.
Baer scored his first air victory on March 11, 1918, and alone attacked a group of seven enemy pursuit planes, destroying one which crashed to the ground near the French lines northeast of Reims. By April 23, 1918, he had downed his fifth enemy aircraft and in doing so became the first American ace of the U.S. Army Air Service.
During a mission in Armentieres, France, on May 22, 1918, Baer had claimed his ninth victory but was himself shot down and seriously injured. He was captured by the Germans and remained a prisoner of war until after the Armistice ending the war.
In February 1919, he returned to his hometown. His post war service included a position as a test pilot for an aeronautical lab and an inspector for the Department of Commerce, plus later he flew to South America and assisted in establishing an air mail service. Baer was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in both 1918 and 1919, and both the French Legion of Honor and Cross of War.
He died in 1930 at the age of 36 when his aircraft crashed during takeoff from Shanghai, China.
Edwin Parsons, a native of Holyoke, Massachusetts, was one of the few volunteers to join French aviation while already serving as a pilot. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Parsons spent time flying with the Mexican Army’s Aviation Corps.
He joined the war in Europe at the end of 1915, joining the U.S. Ambulance Service before enlisting in the French Foreign Legion and becoming a pilot with the French Air Service in 1916. By January of 1917, he was flying with the Lafayette Escadrille.
Even after the United States joined the war after April 1917, Parsons opted to remain with the French Air Service until the end of the war. He was assigned to SPA3, the most famous French squadron.
Parsons finished the war credited with downing eight aircraft. He joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1934 and served as a flight instructor at Pensacola Naval Air Station during World War II. He later took part in the U.S. campaign to liberate the Soloman Islands from Japan, earning the Bronze Star for his actions. He ended his naval career as a rear admiral.
The last surviving ace of the Lafayette Squadron, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor by Gen. Charles De Gaulle. He died in 1968 at age 75.
Frank Baylies was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He went to France in 1915, and served with the U.S. Ambulance Service transporting wounded troops along the Western Front to hospitals. His courageous actions under enemy fire earned him the French Cross of War.
Shortly after his first introduction to flying, Baylies completed his own pilot training. He had joined the French Foreign Legion in 1916 and went on to become a pilot with the French Air Service, despite reportedly being rejected from the U.S. Army due to poor eyesight. In 1917, he was assigned to one of the top units in the French Air Service.
Baylies’ first aerial victory was on February 18, 1918, when he shot down a German plane north of Forges, France. Within a few months, he had a dozen confirmed enemy shoot-downs, solidifying his status as an ace. Despite earning his commission in the U.S. military, he chose to remain with the French Air Service.
On June 17, 1918, Baylies’ plane was shot down by German forces. An article in the New York Times from June 22, 1918, recounted eyewitness testimony that Baylies went into a long, controlled dive after being taken by surprise by enemy aircraft. He crashed deep behind enemy lines, and though his fellow pilots expressed hope he was alive, his death and burial near the Franco-Belgian border were confirmed soon after. Baylies was just 22 years old. His remains were later exhumed and reburied at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery with other fallen aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps.
The member of a prominent Philadelphia family, Charles Biddle has the unique distinction of being a distinguished attorney prior to attaining the status of World War I flying ace.
The Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate felt the call to serve upon America’s entry into World War I. He left his law practice, sailing to France to enlist in the French Air Service and begin his training as a pilot. In June 1917, he received his French certification to fly and was assigned as a fighter pilot with a French squadron, attaining his first enemy victory shortly thereafter.
Though he technically had transferred to the U.S. military, Biddle remained with the French Air Service until January 1918 at which point he became part of the Lafayette Escadrille (which later became the foundation of the U.S. 103rdAero Squadron).
Biddle ended the war with seven victories, becoming Pennsylvania’s first flying ace. He had spent some time in command of the U.S. Air Service 4th Pursuit Group, and after leaving service returned to his law practice.
In 1924, Biddle returned to service and was tasked with organizing a new flying squadron headquartered at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. Biddle went on to become the first commander of the State Air Service prior to his retirement in late 1924, in essence becoming the founding commander of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.
Biddle was inducted into the Pennsylvania Air National Guard Hall of Fame in 2000.
“The Aviator” and James Rogers McConnell
“The Aviator” is a sculptural work commissioned in honor of James Rogers McConnell, who was the first of 64 University of Virginia students to perish during World War I. In 1915, McConnell sailed to France to serve with the U.S. Ambulance Service. He soon entered into aviation training and began flying with the Lafayette Escadrille.
McConnell served in numerous operations, including the Battle of Verdun. He was ultimately killed on March 19, 1917, when his plane was shot down by two German planes near Saint-Quentin, France. His body was discovered with the wreckage and buried nearby in the village of Jussy. His remains were later reburied at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery with other fallen aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps.
The statue, which resides outside the Clemons Library on the grounds of the University of Virginia, was designed by Gutzon Borglum, who also sculpted Mount Rushmore. Dedicated in 1919, it measures 12 feet tall, 8.6 feet wide, and is inscribed with the words, “Soaring like an eagle into new heavens of valor and devotion.”
Raoul Lufbery was born in France in 1885 to a French mother and American father. He was raised in France by maternal relatives after his mother’s death and father’s emigration to the U.S., but began traveling the world around age 19. Upon reaching San Francisco, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent time in Southeast Asia where he befriended a French pilot named Marc Pourpe who helped to inspire Lufbery’s career in aviation.
When World War I broke out, Lufbery—then a U.S. citizen—joined the French Foreign Legion, while Pourpe joined the French Air Service. After hearing his friend had been killed in 1914, Lufbery was granted permission to begin training as a pilot, and in May 1916 became part of the Lafayette Escadrille.
Lufbery was credited with 17 enemy victories. He was commissioned into the U.S. Air Service in November 1917 and spent time training new American combat pilots, including Eddie Rickenbacker, who went on to become the top U.S. flying ace by the end of the war with 26 confirmed kills. Shortly after the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, Rickenbacker was quoted as saying, “Everything I learned, I learned from Lufbery.”
Lufbery did not see the end of the war, however, as his plane was shot down near Toul, France, by enemy fire. His plane reportedly caught fire and Lufbery, with no parachute, jumped from the burning aircraft hundreds of feet to his death.
He was buried with full military honors shortly after the crash, but in the 1920s his remains were reburied at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery with other fallen aviators of the Lafayette Flying Corps.
The “First World War Aces” exhibit was developed in partnership with L’Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre/the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, (https://www.onac-vg.fr/).
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