They were special, and they knew it; they wanted you to know it, too. Almost all were highborn. Most had prepped together, gone to college together, joined up out of a sense of noblesse oblige but also a thirst for adventure. They chose to fly — went to great lengths just to get aloft — not despite the fact that it was exceedingly dangerous, but because of it. The romance of the venture was not lost on them. Nor was the fact that the eyes of the entire world were on them. It was, they firmly believed, their due.
Proportionate to their small numbers, many more of them died, and much sooner, than those down below, who were subject to a daily barrage of explosive shells and mustard gas. And when they did die, their families spared little expense in commemorating them. They installed plaques in the French countryside where the airmen fell; or, in at least one case, a cement bench that beckons you, explicitly, to pause, rest and consider the 21-year-old life that ended right there. One grieving father left a bequest to the town that buried his son that brought running water to the place for the first time. Theodore Roosevelt installed a handsome fountain in the village where his son Quentin crashed.
But the grandest monument can be found deep in a verdant park called Domaine National de St.-Cloud in the commune of Marnes-la-Coquette, just outside Paris. This is the one built by the fliers themselves — those who managed to survive — for their dead. I say “for,” rather than “to,” because they are actually in there.
Well, most of them, anyway. A total of 68 Americans were killed flying for France in the war; that’s 68 out of only 200 or so who were part of what is known as the Lafayette Flying Corps, an unofficial designation that encompassed all Americans who did so, even those who later transferred to squadrons in the American Expeditionary Forces. (The better-remembered term Lafayette Escadrille applies to just one all-American squadron under French command; most in the “corps” flew as part of French squadrons.) While all 68 are commemorated on the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial — an open gallery with a central arch that is said to be a half-scale model of the Arc de Triomphe — the remains of 50 are entombed in a crypt directly beneath it. The whole thing is very French.
The names of the dead — “mort pour la defense du droit et de la liberté” — are engraved on both the face of the arch and on its sides, where they are inscribed in order of enlistment. The plaza is filled with insignia, some carved into the arch, others depicted in mosaics underneath. People come to pay tribute; the first time I visited there were wreaths left by, among others, French chapters of both the Sons and the Daughters of the American Revolution. The second time, the memorial had just completed a $1.5 million restoration, the cost split 50-50 by American and French benefactors.The memorial was rededicated last April 20. It fairly gleams now.
The crypt, though, remains dark. If you know someone who has a key, you can stroll among its sarcophagi, which look like marble but are papier-mâché, an impressive feat of trompe l’oeil. The 50 Americans are arrayed in chronological order, the first having fallen in June 1916, 10 months before the United States entered the war; the last on Nov. 6, 1918, just five days before it ended. There are names that history and aviation buffs will recognize: Victor Chapman, the first to die, shot down, it is said, while flying oranges back to a friend wounded at Verdun; Raoul Lufbery, America’s first great ace, with 17 confirmed kills; and Norman Prince, a founder of the Lafayette Escadrille, whose father later had him interred in the National Cathedral in Washington.
There is also a beautiful series of 13 small stained-glass windows, made by the sadly defunct concern Mauméjean, depicting some of the greatest battles of the war, and featuring images of biplanes, barbed wire, howitzers, early tanks and burning cathedrals. It’s a reminder of why these sarcophagi are here, in this park outside Paris. So is the epigraph you pass on your way back up the stairs into daylight and life:
And in their death they were not divided
They were swifter than eagles
They were stronger than lions
II Samuel 1:23