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France Pays Tribute to Early U.S. Fighter Pilots

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WWI memorial

A memorial outside Paris honors members of the Lafayette Squadron, which was started by a group of young American men in 1914 who wanted to fight for France when World War I broke out. The U.S. had not yet entered the war. (Eleanor Beardsley/NPR)

Every Memorial Day weekend, a ceremony takes place just outside Paris to honor a group of Americans who fought in France.

They're not D-Day veterans, but a little known group of pilots who fought for France in World War I, before the U.S. entered the war.

This year's ceremony in the tiny town of Marnes-la-Coquette began with a flyover by two French air force Mirage fighter jets from the Escadrille Lafayette, or Lafayette Squadron, paying tribute to the men who founded the group nearly 100 years ago.

"In April of 1916, seven Americans enlisted in the French military to form the corps of the Lafayette Escadrille," said Major Gen. Mark Barrett, chief of staff of the U.S.-European command, who took part in the ceremony. "The squadron grew to include 38 American pilots, led by a French officer, who's also buried here. These pilots from America and France, who banded together to form the Lafayette Escadrille, were pioneers in a new form of warfare, as aviation brought the battlefield to the skies."

The young Americans were studying in France in 1914 when World War I broke out. They wanted to volunteer and fight but couldn't join the French army because they would lose their American citizenship. The U.S. ambassador to France at the time found a way around the problem: The men could either join the French Ambulance Corps or the French Foreign Legion.

Present-day U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin also was on hand to honor each of the founders of the Lafayette Squadron.

A memorial to these volunteer pilots features massive marble arch walls carved with the Lafayette Squadron's insignia, the head of a Sioux Indian chief. And their major battles: at Verdun and Somme.

Mike Britt, 72, from South Carolina, says he's been fascinated by the Lafayette Squadron since he was a young boy.

"These young men were my heroes," Britt said. "Because I was fascinated by aviation and I like to build model airplanes. And the notion of young men volunteering to leave their country and fight for anybody — but in this case for France — is just a very heroic, altruistic thing which you don't find, particularly in today's world."

The monument and its vast grounds were dedicated on July 4, 1928. They're partially supported by the French and American governments, but run mostly on private donations. Treasurer Alex Blumrosen said he wishes more Americans knew about the squadron.

"They were very symbolic, they were very inspirational for the rest of the United States," he said. "And I think they were important in bringing the United States into the war and ending that conflict as quickly as they did."

Blumrosen said the Lafayette Squadron broke ground in other ways, too. For example, it had the first African-American pilot, some 30 years before the Tuskegee Aairmen.

The ceremony marked a day for French-American friendship, as the sound of the two languages floated in the air and attendees milled about — civilians and military personnel, the old and the young.

Parisian Isabelle Malard was there with her three children. She had just returned from Valdosta, Ga., where her husband took part in an exchange program with the U.S. Air Force. She said it's important for new generations to learn about the sacrifices that have been made.

"Peace is something every generation has to work for, and we can never forget this," Malard said. "I feel this particularly, because my grandfather was deported to a concentration camp during the second World War."

Malard's 8-year-old daughter, Romane, carried a U.S. flag in her hands and wore heart shaped U.S.-flag earrings. She participated in this year's ceremony.

"I was holding the flag," the girl said proudly. "I was like all the other flag porters."

All told, 250 pilots, French and American, joined the squadron. Fifty-nine were killed and are buried in a crypt below the memorial.

Categories: History, Military