The Columns

Remembering an Alumnus and World War I

— by on February 28th, 2012

World War I is having a moment in popular culture these days, what with the movie “War Horse” and the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” Another example comes from the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and on Feb. 26 published a look at Tennessee veterans of WWI,  one of them a Washington and Lee alumnus: Kiffin Yates Rockwell, of the Class of 1913, who was a pioneering military aviator.

Kiffin, a native of Newport, Tenn., attended both W&L and the Virginia Military Institute. According to his biography at the VMI Archives, he volunteered for the French Foreign Legion along with his brother, Paul, in 1914, before the U.S. entered the conflict. Kiffin was wounded twice during his infantry service but recovered and transferred to become a founding pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille, a French aviation squadron. During a dogfight in May 1916, he became “the first American to shoot down a German plane,” according to the Knoxville newspaper. Kiffin earned a reputation and medals as a daring pilot; he earned immortality in September 1916, when he died in aerial combat. He is buried in France. His hometown has a historical marker outlining his exploits, and a marker in Lee Chapel commemorates his life as well.