First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew For France in World War I by Charles Bracelen Flood is a collection of short informative true stories of Americans at war, before America was at war. Flood was born in Manhattan and graduated from Harvard, where he was a member of Archibald MacLeish’s noted creative writing seminar, English S, and was on the literary board of the Harvard Lampoon. He is a past president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization, and has served on the governing bodies of the Authors League and Authors Guild.
Growing up I was fascinated with World War I, especially with the development of combat aircraft. While other kids were talking about F-111s and F-14s I was much more interested in SPADs and Sopwith Camels. I read about the war and still regularly re-read Ernest K Gann’s In the Company of Eagles. As a middle-aged adult, I am still fascinated by the war and how it shaped the twentieth century.
Flood bases his book on the members of the Lafayette Escadrille, Americans who volunteered to fight for France in the first world war. America was still neutral and its citizens could not legally fight in the war, but joining the French Foreign Legion was a viable loophole. Some Americans joined the Legion and eventually found their way to pilot training. Other Americans volunteered to fly, and entrance into the into the program was rather lax as Flood tells of a one-eyed American passing the eye exam. France needed help and Americans were willing to step up with visions of glory. Thirty-nine Americans flew for the Lafayette Escadrille and ten would die in service including Kiffin Rockwell who scored the squadron’s first victory.
There were colorful pilots. Bert Hall was a con man and a liar, but also produced some of the most interesting stories including of how he got caught up in the Russian Revolution while training new Russian pilots. He tried to escape back into Europe, but was turned back and crossed Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, jumped a freighter to the US and ended up back in France. Edward Genet, tired of waiting for the US to enter the war, deserted the US Navy to fight for France. Genet said, “If I die wrap me in the French flag, but place the two colors upon my grave to show I died for two countries.” On April 17, 1917 he was killed by anti-aircraft fire and buried according to his wishes. Ironically, dying for two countries is what happened. Although Genet was still in the Lafayette Escadrille, America had entered the war on April 2nd making Genet the first official American casualty. Bigger than life people also had bigger than life pets like Whiskey and Soda, two lion cubs, the mascots of the squadron.
War is hell and life in planes though romanticized was also hell. Freezing at altitude facing a fiery death was a more probable outcome than glory. Even worst of time pilots were able to make the best of it. Stories of pilots flying behind enemy lines to ferry back wine or capturing a downed German pilot before he could burn his plane by punching him in the face. The German was outraged not by being shot down, but that another pilot resorted to using his hands in a fight. Flood brings the story of the horrors and the lighter side of the war to light. I wish I had this book while I was growing up. It would have made a great addition to my collection. First to Flyis a great read for all ages interested in World War I.