Kiffin Rockwell prepares to take to the skies of France in his fighter plane. A former Asheville resident, Rockwell, 24, was killed during a dogfight on Sept. 23, 1916.
World War I aviator Kiffin Yates Rockwell may well be a bigger hero in France than here at home, but historian Marc McClure aims to change that.
"He was a household name during the period — sort of a combination of a military hero meets Neil Armstrong," said McClure, a professor at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. "I think what happened is Americans later on didn’t have a good feeling about World War I — this feeling that maybe we were duped into it,' and 'Why did we get involved?' And then World War II came along and kind of sucked all the air out of the room."
McClure, as the guest of the Western North Carolina Historical Association, will do his part to keep Rockwell's memory alive in a presentation Saturday at UNC Asheville titled, "Kiffin Rockwell, Asheville's Celebrated WWI Fighter Pilot." It will include a lecture and the showing of a documentary film McClure made using Rockwell's letters home, period photos and voice actors.
Rockwell, who shot down the first enemy plane credited to the famed Escadrille Lafayette, died 100 years ago, on Sept. 23, 1916, during aerial combat with a German plane.
'Anxious' for military service
A native of Newport, Tennessee, Rockwell was born in 1892 to Loula Ayres and James Chester Rockwell, a Baptist minister who died not long after Kiffin was born. The Rockwells moved to north Asheville in 1906, when Kiffin was 14, settling in a home on Hillside Avenue.
Both of Rockwell's grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and regaled the boy with tales of battlefield glory, sparking a keen interest in military history, not to mention the notion of Southern honor and chivalry. Rockwell completed his preparatory schooling at the Orange Street School in Asheville, and enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in February 1909, then in November moved to Washington & Lee University, where his brother, Paul, was enrolled.
Always restless, Kiffin Rockwell left college in 1911 and traveled to San Francisco, where he ran an advertising agency. He returned to the South in January 1914, rejoining his brother, then working for a newspaper in Atlanta.
When World War I broke out in, Kiffin Rockwell wrote to the French consulate in New Orleans, inquiring about joining the war effort.
"I am very anxious to see military service, and had rather fight under the French Flag than any other, as I greatly admire your nation," Kiffin Rockwell wrote, also promising the services of his brother, according to a passage in "The Lafayette Flying Corps, Vol. I," published in 1920.
But the Rockwells were not patient men, and when they did not hear back quickly from the consulate, they decided to simply get on a ship bound for France. They enlisted in the French Foreign Legion the very first day France accepted foreign soldiers, Aug. 21, 1914, according to "Chariots of Wrath: North Carolinians who flew for France in World War I," published in the July 1996 edition of The North Carolina Historical Review.
America did not enter the war until April 6, 1917, but Americans could join the French Foreign Legion without losing their citizenship.
So the brothers joined the Legion, serving as infantrymen during the first winter of the war, when both sides dug elaborate trenches. This was ugly warfare, highlighted by nearly-suicidal charges against unrelenting machine gun fire, yet Kiffin Rockwell exuded an absolute zest for combat in his letters home.
In a May 15, 1915 letter, he described a bayonet charge against the Germans: "There is nothing like it; you float across the filed, you drop, you rise again...the (sack), the 325 extra rounds, the gun — have no weight. And a ball in the head and it is all over, — no pain."
He called the sight of his compatriots rising from the trench, bayonets fixed, the "finest sight I have ever seen."
"They were falling fast, but as fast as men fell, it seemed as if new men sprang up out of the ground to take their places. One second it looked as if an entire section had fallen by one sweep of a machine-gun," Rockwell wrote.
He describes a French captain, struck by shell fire, blood streaming down his face, declare that it was nothing, then order all the men out of the trench. They would run for 20 meters, dive to the ground, using their sacks as a shield.
"To think of fear or the horror of the thing was impossible," Rockwell wrote. "All I could think of was what a wonderful advance it was, and how everyone was going up against that stream of lead as if he loved it. I kept that up for five hours."
At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Rockwell made a large target, though. That day he caught a bullet in the thigh, and after hiding out in hole where exploding shells covered him in dirt, he dragged himself back across the battlefield. His war was about to change.
Taking to the skies
Rockwell spent six weeks recuperating, but he was unable to continue serving as an infantryman. Undaunted, he managed to garner an assignment to flight training.
After seven months of training, Rockwell took to the skies in April 1916 as a "pursuit pilot," what we call fighter pilots today. He joined a newly formed squadron of American fliers in what was originally called the Escadrille Americaine (American Squadron), later changed to the Escadrille Lafayette, in honor of the famous Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, who supported the American Revolution. Some 38 American pilots served in the squadron.
In a modern world of sleek supersonic fighter jets that can travel at twice the speed of sound, it's hard to fathom just how dangerous the canvas-sheathed, open-cockpit biplanes of World War I were. Rockwell piloted a Nieuport fighter, which carried two machine guns.
"They risked their lives in simply flying the small, fragile aircraft of the day," wrote Henry E. Mattox in the "Chariots of Wrath" article.
When mounted with fixed, forward-firing machine guns, these machines became "lethal warplanes," he wrote. And pilots had no parachutes.
"When an airplane was critically damaged by hostile action or set aflame, the aviator, if still alive and functioning, had the limited options of either riding his aircraft down to crash into the earth or leaping directly to his death," Mattox wrote.
That Rockwell landed in the French air force, where death lurked on every mission, seems perfectly appropriate to McClure.
"He clearly was not going to be content with what other people could find contentment with in life," McClure said. "He really needed something big and grand to do."
On May 18, 1916, Rockwell became the first member of the Escaidrille Lafayette to shoot down an enemy plane. He described the encounter in a letter to his brother, Paul Rockwell, who had also been wounded in combat but remained in France as a writer.
Kiffin Rockwell noted that his motor had begun to miss a bit and he turned back to his lines, but then spotted a German plane about 700 meters beneath him and dove on it.
The German plane carried two men, the pilot and a machine gunner who operated two guns, one facing forward, the other rearward. Rockwell clearly had the same gusto for aerial combat as he did for ground fighting.
“The gunner immediately opened fire on me and my machine was hit, but I didn’t pay any attention to that and kept going straight for him until I got within 25 or 30 meters of his machine,” Rockwell wrote. “Then, just as I was afraid of running into him, I fired four shots, and swerved my machine to the right to avoid having a collision…I saw the gunner fall back dead on the pilot, his machine gun fall from its position and point straight up in the air, and the pilot fall to one side of the machine as if he too were done for.”
The German plane, trailing smoke, then fell from the sky. Rockwell was awarded the Medaille militaire and the Croix de guerre for the feat.
“The Lafayette Flying Corps” notes that in July 1916 on the Verdun front, Rockwell participated in 40 aerial combats and another 34 in August. At one point he was hit in the face by an explosive bullet, and despite the insistence of his commander that he go to the hospital, Rockwell was aloft the next day.
He is credited with four official kills, but he well may have had more, as during that time planes had to fall in friendly trenches to confirm the action.
McClure said nothing other than intense battle would have satisfied Rockwell, who is described as having a lanky, graceful air and steel blue eyes.
"Kiffin Rockwell certainly had this Southern chivalry thing going, and this had to have exceeded anything he ever could have imagined," McClure said, referring to birth of aerial combat. "This was a young man who heard stories from his grandfathers about valor on the battlefield, where the highest honor a man could achieve was valor during war. This must have surpassed anything he could have thought of."
Over dozens of air battles, Rockwell’s stayed true his signature in combat – diving perilously close to the enemy craft, machines guns blazing, then veering away at the last moment. Indeed, on his last mission, on Sept. 23, 1916, observers on the ground described a classic Rockwell attack.
“The Lafayette Flying Corps” states that Rockwell became separated from his wingman but attacked a German two-seater plane nonetheless: “In his daring and headlong fashion, he plunged straight at the enemy, paying no attention to a stream of bullets from the observer. He did not open fire until at such close quarters that watchers on the ground thought a collision inevitable – his gun stammered faintly, and the Nieuport turned its nose down, losing one wing as it hurtled toward the earth. A great wound, where an explosive bullet had passed through his chase at the base of the throat, must have caused instant death.”
In a funeral worthy of a general, Rockwell's squadron commander, Capt. Georges Thenault, said, "When Rockwell was in the air, no Germans passed...and he was in the air most of the time. The best and bravest of us all is no more."
In "Chariots of Wrath," Mattox noted that fellow pilot and North Carolinian Jim McConnell wrote this about Rockwell's death: "No greater blow could have befallen the escadrille, Kiffin was its soul. He was loved and looked up to by not only every man in our flying corps but by every one who knew him."
Rockwell had just turned 24 at the time of his death.
Keeping his memory alive
A historical marker on Merrimon Avenue honors Rockwell and his legacy, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Newport, Tennessee, and in Asheville are named in Kiffin Rockwell’s memory. A stained glass window honors him at VMI.
Still, Rockwell's notoriety here has faded with time.
"Oddly enough, he’s better known in France than he is here," said Bill Lineberry, a member of the Western North Carolina Historical Association's program committee.
Rockwell, according to his wishes, is buried near where he fell, in the cemetery at Luxeuil-les-Bains, France.
The French posthumously awarded Rockwell the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the country's highest honor, and the French honor the Escadrille Lafayette each year during a memorial service.
Lineberry hopes to spark more interest in Rockwell's story with Saturday's event, and he says the young pilot's life story is worthy of genuine awe, especially in today's political climate.
"Asheville could use a little patriotism," Lineberry said.
While Rockwell was not immune to disillusionment as the war slogged on, he never lost his passion for what he was doing, according to "The Lafayette Flying Corps." Late in his service, in a letter to his mother, Rockwell wrote:
"If I die, you will know that I died as every man should – in fighting for the right. I do not consider that I am fighting for France alone, but for the cause of humanity, the most noble of all causes.”
Visiting Our Past: Historical force bred in Asheville’s Rockwell
Want to go?
What: Lecture and documentary film about "Kiffin Rockwell, Asheville's Celebrated World War I Fighter pilot. Professor Marc McClure, Ph.D., of Walters State Community College, will present a program and his film about Rockwell.
When: 2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 1.
Where: Reuter Center, UNC Asheville.
Tickets: $5 donation.
Hosted by: Western North Carolina Historical Association.
For more information: (828) 253-9231 or wnchistory.org
Story and photo gallery: http://www.citizen-times.com