The Columns

Over There: Kiffin Rockwell, W&L’s French Fighter Pilot

— by on September 26th, 2016

One hundred years ago this month, Sept. 23, 1916, a young man named Kiffin Rockwell became the first alumnus of Washington and Lee University to give his life during World War I — not as an American doughboy, as you might expect, but as a founding member of the French air squadron known as the Escadrille Americaine, or the Lafayette Escadrille.

Kiffin was born in Tennessee, grew up in North Carolina, and studied at Virginia Military Institute for a few months in early 1909. He entered W&L in the fall of 1909, a member of the Class of 1913, studying alongside his brother Paul (Class of 1912). He left W&L in 1911, before graduating.

In 1914, after WWI began in Europe, the Rockwell brothers enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. (The U.S. would not join the fighting until 1917.) Kiffin was wounded in 1915 during infantry combat. After he recovered, he transferred to the French air force. In April 1916, he and other pilots founded the Lafayette Escadrille, made up entirely of Americans. Shortly thereafter, “he became the first American pilot to down an enemy plane,” according to his VMI bio. Just four months later, Kiffin met his final fate.

Kiffin was held in high regard by his fellow pilots, and “Paul’s role as wartime unit documentarian, lifelong unit historian, and preserver of his brother’s compelling story secured his place in the unit’s history,” according to Seth McCormick-Goodhart, senior assistant in Special Collections & Archives at W&L’s Leyburn Library. He writes about the Rockwell brothers in the upcoming fall issue of FOLIOS.

FOLIOS, which comes out twice a year, is a benefit of membership in W&L’s Friends of the Library.  The organization supports the academic mission of the university by strengthening the library’s collections and services.

McCormick-Goodhart also writes: “On April 20, 2016, a large and formal 100-year anniversary commemoration took place at Marnes-la-Coquette, just west of Paris, France. The ceremony took place at the site of the French memorial to America’s first aerial combat unit, the Lafayette Escadrille (LE). The event included a rededication of the large arched monument that houses the remains of 49 of the 68 LE pilots who died between 1916 and 1919. Distinguished guests included families of the original pilots who joined the LE, American and French military and government officials, and historians. Descendants of brothers Paul (Class of 1912) and Kiffin Rockwell (Class of 1913) were in attendance.”

He also explains the brothers’ passion for wartime service: “Hailing from North Carolina, the Rockwells were educated, adventure-seeking entrepreneurs of French Huguenot ancestry. Considering their joint ethos and a history of military service in the family, their decision to fight for the cause of France likely surprised no one, and it didn’t take them long to see it through.”

McCormick-Goodhart and his colleagues in Special Collections & Archives oversee the Paul Rockwell collection, which he writes is “rich in original correspondence and documents, but has no equal worldwide for its photographic holdings which document, both candidly and posed, the original unit members and their experiences. The majority of the photographs were taken by Paul Rockwell himself in the field with the escadrille.” (Like his brother, Paul Rockwell did not graduate from W&L.)

In 2014, Special Collections staff welcomed to W&L Steven A. Ruffin, an aviation historian and retired Air Force colonel. This past summer, Ruffin published “The Lafayette Escadrille: A Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron” (Casemate). McCormick-Goodhart reports that “at least two more publications and two documentary films are forthcoming, each being the product of individual researchers who have spent fruitful time in the Special Collections reading room over recent months.”

Kiffin Rockwell is also the centerpiece of an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of History, in Raleigh, “Kiffin Rockwell: A North Carolinian Flies for France.” In another salute to the aviator, it opened on Sept. 23. Tom Camden ’76, head of Special Collections & Archives, McCormick-Goodhart, and Byron Faidley, collections assistant, represented W&L at the event.

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