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Kiffin Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force

Kiffin Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force by T. B. Murphy. McFarland and Company, Inc.  2016, 200 pp.

With Kiffin Rockwell, the Lafayette Escadrille and the Birth of the United States Air Force, T. B. Murphy—a fighter pilot himself—reminds readers of the US Air Force’s (USAF) long legacy dating back to the American pilots who flew in the French Air Service with the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I.

The book is primarily a biography of Kiffin Rockwell, an American who fought in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion before he transferred to aviation and became one of the key personalities and leaders of the Lafayette Escadrille. The most engaging part of the book, especially for readers not as familiar with the early culture and traditions of the Air Force, will be Murphy’s examination of Rockwell, who he identifies as the soul of the Lafayette Escadrille. The author directly traces the early American fighter pilot’s desire to control the skies and achieve air superiority to the modern Air Force’s “fighting spirit” (p. 4–5). His argument that this abstract concept of spirit dates to Rockwell and is present across the USAF today is both a debatable and difficult-to-prove point asmany other factors certainly influenced the modern traditions of the service.

Murphy gives his reader a sense of Rockwell’s early life by focusing on the surrounding political events of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the impact of the legacy of the Civil War on a young man from the south, and the idealism of the fighter pilot and likeminded young men (including his brother, Paul Rockwell, and poet, Alan Seeger) who felt compelled by strong moral principle to enlist in the French Foreign Legion at the outbreak of war. The second part of Murphy’s work focuses on Rockwell’s pilot training and time in the Lafayette Escadrille, where he became the first American to score an aerial victory during the war before he perished in aerial combat.

The author takes special care not to glorify the experiences of the battle-hardened veterans of the trenches while placing special emphasis on the development of the American aviators’ “fighting spirit” as they score victories against the Germans in the skies. The reader will be struck by the clear contrast he makes between trench and air warfare. Although life as an infantryman or as an aviator could be famously short during World War I, the nature of flying seemed to make the sacrifice of a pilot much nobler in comparison to being killed in the trenches.

The author devotes his last few chapters to the origins of the US Air Service, the dawn of American airpower, and the forgotten legacy of the Lafayette Escadrille. These chapters are less organized than the previous chapters and read as if they are targeted to a reader with an elementary grasp of American airpower theory and the history of the USAF. Murphy uses these pages to discuss the lives and achievements of Rockwell’s immediate successors, notably Raul Lufbery, Eddie Rickenbaker, and Billy Mitchell, drawing a direct line from these early aviators and to the famed World War II and Vietnam fighter pilot, Robin Olds. Olds’ father, Robert, was also a fighter pilot, a good friend of Rickenbaker, and aide to Mitchell. These pages tying Rockwell to the modern Air Force through Olds represent the evidence for Murphy’s main argument that the present-day “fighting spirit” of the Air Force can be traced back to Rockwell. Although Murphy makes a strong argument for this, the reader is left wondering how else Rockwell’s legacy might have been transmitted to the modern-day Air Force. Surely, many other later pilots were influenced by Rockwell and the Lafayette Escadrille, not only by the legacy of this abstract fighting spirit, but by the tactics developed by the early American pilots as well.

Although Murphy mentions concepts of airpower throughout the book (e.g., air superiority, strategic bombing), he never enters a full discussion of these ideas. He leaves the nonexpert reader guessing at how exactly does an air force gain air superiority, how does it maintain it, and what advantage does it provide? The book would have benefitted greatly from a more thorough discussion of the development of early airpower theory and how the members of the Lafayette Escadrille understood that theory with regards to the unit’s missions. Indeed, a discussion of the development of air tactics during World War I and how they subsequently evolved over time could have provided the book with a stronger overall argument relating to Rockwell’s enduring legacy. Additionally, Murphy mentions several famed airpower theorists, notably Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard, but does not greatly elaborate on their contributions to early aviation. Many readers will undoubtedly be familiar with these individuals, but a brief summary of their achievements in the chapter notes would have been helpful for those who are not.

Murphy’s sources for his book are a mixture of English language primary and secondary sources. He relies heavily on his subject’s war letters to his friends and family, as well as the memoirs of many of Rockwell’s fellow soldiers, pilots, and contemporaries to illustrate the surrounding environment that his subject encountered at home, in the trenches of the Western Front, and in the skies. Lastly, the book may have benefitted from archival research and an examination of French sources, especially if such research could have provided a fresh look at Rockwell’s legacy 100 years after World War I.

At 200 pages, the book is a quick read as the author’s enthusiasm for the culture and traditions of the Air Force is ever apparent. The book will particularly appeal to individuals who have some familiarity with Air Force history and traditions. The shortcomings of the book are of minor concern and may prompt readers to engage in further reading on early American aviation history and the men of the Lafayette Escadrille.

 

Capt Herman B. Reinhold, USAF
US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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