Kiffin Rockwell scored the first victory by a member of the Escadille Americaine when he shot down a German reconnaissance airplane.
The Rockwell brothers, Paul and Kiffin, were idealistic that summer of 1914 when Europe exploded into war and the might of the German war machine fell on France.
When Germany declared war on France on the first day of August and sent its juggernaut rolling into the French countryside, 21-year-old Kiffin Rockwell was a student at Virginia Military Institute, and Paul, his 25-year-old brother, was a reporter on The Atlanta Constitution.
For the summer, Kiffin was home in their huge frame house on Hillside Street. On Aug. 1, he spent the evening talking about volunteering to fight for France, explaining that Americans would be accepted in the French Foreign Legion. He was deadly serious.
He called Germany the aggressor nation and France our sister nation that needed immediate help. "We can't sit back," he said, "and let the Kaiser take over the world."
In late July, when Germany's threats hung over France like an axe, Kiffin and Paul, both of whom loved France, had discussed the possibility of going to war if France's fears of a German attack were fulfilled.
Kiffin wrote the French consul in New Orleans, offering both himself and his brother to fight with the Foreign Legion. The consul wrote directly back and accepted the services of the Rockwell brothers. They were to report immediately to New York for embarkation for France.
Paul took his leave from the Constitution and hurried home from Atlanta and after both said their goodbyes they took the train for New York, shipped out for France, and went to war.
Upon arrival in France, Kiffin and Paul were taken directly into the French Foreign Legion. By November they had finished training and were sent into the trenches.
Kiffin wrote home that they were looked upon as mercenaries, but they felt anything but mercenary when payday arrived and they received one sou per day, which was about one American penny. They were paid every ten days, and three sous were automatically deducted for a tobacco allotment whether they smoked or not.
That's how the Rockwell brothers became the first Americans to fight for France, which made them also the first Americans to enter the World War.
Just before Christmas, Paul was severely wounded in trench warfare and was judged unfit for further infantry duty. Because of his journalistic background and his fluent French, he offered himself during his recovery to the Section d'Information of the French Army as a combat correspondent, and was accepted. He spent the remainder of the war in the role of war correspondent.
Kiffin continued to fight. On May 9, 1915, during a bayonet charge at La Targette, a German infantryman ran his bayonet through Kiffin's thigh, ending his fighting from the trenches.
He found something else to do, however, for there was talk of forming an American squadron in the French Air Service. He applied and was accepted, and the remainder of the story is history. He became the first American to shoot down a German fighter plane, and he became an original member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille. His commander, Capt. Georges Thenault, said he could confirm ten kills by Kiffin in aerial combat.
On Sept. 23, 1916, Kiffin received a hit in the chest by an exploding German cannon shell, fired from an enemy plane, and was killed. Paul said many times later than the shell that killed his brother was an illegal weapon.
Paul survived the war and lived to an old age. One of the highlights of my own journalistic career was sitting numerous times in the parlor of Colonel Rockwell's home on Hillside, listening to the yarns he spun about the World War and the daring escapades of the brave young men of the Lafayette Escadrille.
Taken from the article Brothers Fight for France.
You might also be interested in the article Kiffin Rockwell blazed a hero's path in World War I from the same newsletter.
More information can be found on my Kiffin Rockwell tribute page.