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Forgotten Heroes

By David Robinson George

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THE saga of the Lafayette Escadrille has been told often; the sequel, never. Stories, novels and films about those American volunteers who flew for France before their country entered the World War usually have drawn the curtain at the Armistice. But only ten of the thirty-eight members of the outfit were killed in action. What of those who came back alive? What has been their lot?

As heroes, they've been forgotten by a short-memoried citizenry. But as men, they've had new adventures in civilian life which have demanded the same cool courage and indomitable spirit with which they faced the deadly Richtofen circus.

Some of them are wealthy; some are in dire financial straits. Some are happily married; others have met domestic tragedy. One, an incurable soldier of fortune, has spent months in prison. Several still suffer from war wounds; others, invulnerable to Boche bullets, have been easy targets for peacetime illnesses. Another, who loved life wisely, but not too well, met humiliating death in the gutter. The occupations of the rest represent a cross-section of American life.

In a dingy little antique shop in Freeport, Long Island, for example, the proprietor is distinctly out of place. A well-built man in his fifties, clean shaven and with graying hair, his athletic carriage and polished manner belie his unmatched, unpressed suit. From the moment he removes his pipe, smiles and speaks, you realize he's a gentleman and a soldier.

Ask him, and he'll admit proudly that he's Major Robert Soubiran, veteran member of l'Escadrille Lafayette and the last commanding officer of the unit after its transfer into the American Army in 1919 as the 103d Aero Pursuit Squadron.

In that humble shop, on the wall of which hangs the original drawing of the Yank Spirit—the colorful head of an Indian chief in a war cry used by the Escadrille as its insignia—he'll show you his priceless collection of documents and photographs, and talk.

The Major has fallen upon evil days. With his income cut to practically nothing, this brave man who risked his life to "make the world safe for democracy" even has been barred from the WPA rolls.

Relief officials, of course, know nothing of his brilliant war record. Unlike many American veterans, some of whom never got overseas, he has been too proud to capitalize on his exploits.

Sixty percent of those young chaps who joined the Escadrille were college men; Soubiran was not. Son of middle-class New York parents of French descent, he was twenty-seven and a racing car driver when the war broke out in 1914. Eager for adventure and stirred by the call of his Gallic blood, he went at once to Paris, where he enlisted in the Foreign Legion, most of which was then at the front. Although he was wounded the next year, the Legion failed to provide him with enough action. When he heard that the Escadrille was being organized, he obtained permission to enter the flying school at Pau, and eight months later joined the squadron at the front, an accomplished pilot.

A demon on the dirt tracks, he fought with the same devil-may-care daring. Off duty, he lived the life of an Epicurean. As befitted those who were about to die, the French Government provided them with all possible comforts. In addition, the late William K. Vanderbilt contributed the equivalent of $80 a month to each of them. Half of this went to improve the already exquisite cuisine, and the remainder for the best of liquors.

Latayette Escadrille Members Who Came Back Alive and Their Victories, Official and Unofficial

Pilot Official Victories Unofficial Victories
Edwin Parsons 10 7
*William Thaw 8 15
Bert Hall 5 10
*Elliot Cowdin 5 7
Didier Masson 3 6
Clyde Balsley 3 4
Dudley Hill 2 7
*Ralph Doolittle 2 7
*David Peterson 2 5
Robert Soubiran 2 5
Charles Johnson 2 4
Robert Rockwell 2 4
*William Dugan 2 3
*Walter Lovell 1 6
Christopher Ford 1 5
Willis Haviland 1 4
Kenneth Marr 1 2
Frederick Prince, Jr.   7
James Norman Hall   6
John Drexel   5
Charles Dolan   5
Harold Willis   5
Harry Jones   3
Lawrence Rumsey   3
Stephen Bigelow   3
Rey Bridgman   3
Thomas Hewitt   2
Edward Hinkle   3

Official list of American Aviation Aces who gained five or more air victories but who were not in the Lafayette Escadrille.

  Number of Victories
Edward V. Rickenbacker 26
*Frank Luke, Jr. 18
*Victor Raoul Lufbery 17
*David E. Putnam 12
Reed G. Landis 12
Fields Kinley 10
George A. Vaughn, Jr. 10
Jacques Michael Swaab 10
Thomas G. Cassady 9
Chester E. Wright 9
William P. Erwin 9
Elliott W. Springs 9
Henry R. Clay, Jr. 8
James A. Meissner 8
*Hamilton Coolidge 8
G. DeFreest Lerner 8
Paul Frank Baer 8
Frank O. D. Hunter 8
*Wilbert Wallace White 8
Clinton Jones 8
Reid M. Chambers 7
Harvey Cook 7
James Alfred Keating 6

* Died since return to States.

Confirmation from three sources was required to make a victory official in the French Flying Corps. Thus, while there is no question about most of tho unofficial victories, they cannot be listed as official.

Leaves to Paris were easily obtainable and frequent, and the boys had their pick of French women, to whom c'est l'guerre (it is the war) covered a multitude of sins.

Shortly before the battle of St. Mihiel, Soubiran fell in love with a French girl and married her, amazing his comrades by this bid for domesticity in the face of their common insecurity. But he was lucky and came out of the war alive and a Major.

He returned to the United States with his wife for a year, during which the first of their three daughters was born, and then went back abroad in a good job as a sales manager for General Motors. For the next ten years, he did well, until in the depression layoff of 1931, he lost his position and was forced once again to return to this country. But this time, the only job he could get was as a $35-a-week relief supervisor at Rockville Centre, Long Island.

In 1936, he got a better position with the Roosevelt Raceways, and the following year, succeeded in getting back with General Motors. Then, in 1938, just as he was beginning to pay off the huge debts he had accumulated, he was laid off again. Soon the Soubirans found themselves in desperate circumstances. To keep the wolf from the door, the Major applied once more for a relief job, and was made foreman on a construction job at $15 a week.

Even that stopgap was short-lived. When relief officials discovered he had $180 in unemployment insurance due him as the result of his last connection with General Motors, they dropped him from the rolls until he could collect and use this benefit. It has taken him nearly six months to get it—in installments far short of his needs. He has managed to augment this meager income slightly by taking care of the shop owned by his sister, whose husband is ill and requires her constant attention. Soon Soubiran will receive his last benefit check, and then he'll be eligible again for relief work. Meanwhile, his family is destitute.

You wonder why he doesn't look for a job flying. Like his compatriots, he flew during the war for the thrill—and for a cause. But in peacetime, as the mature head of a family, he feels he can't risk it. Then, too, he's old now, and aviation wants young men.

THE Major is not alone in misfortune. Charles Johnson, who joined the Escadrille as a small, dapper lad from St. Louis, is still fighting, but not from a cockpit. Like Soubiran, of French descent, and known familiarly by his middle name, Chouteau, he seemed to lead a charmed life at the front. Always in the thickest of combat, he saw nearly all of his early comrades killed. After a year and a half of it, he could stand the tension no longer, and accepted a post as flying instructor at the American school at Tours. By 1918, he had been made a Captain.

After the war, he became associated with a brokerage firm, and was moderately successful during the next few years. In that time, he married, became the father of a daughter and was divorced. Then, in 1929, his luck changed and in quick succession, his second wife died, he lost his job and developed cancer of the throat. His illness, doctors said, may have been due to his habit of chain-smoking cigarettes, acquired in his long; gamble with Death at the front. But this could not be proved, and he would not have accepted aid from either the French or American government if he could have obtained it.

His funds exhausted long ago, Captain Johnson finally has been sent to Bermuda, through the generosity of a wealthy friend, to continue his battle for life.

Clyde Balsley, who enlisted as a lanky youngster from San Antonio, has a particularly painful souvenir of his service with the Escadrille. Originally with the American Ambulance Service, he transferred to the Aviation Corps of the French Foreign Legion in 1915, and became a member of the Escadrille the following year. One month later, in his first combat, his gun jammed as he attacked a German plane, and he was forced to turn and make for his own lines, with his foe in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, a second enemy craft attacked him from above. He was struck in the hip by an explosive bullet, which made a horrible wound, paralyzing his right leg. His escape from the enemy and subsequent landing in a French wheat field were extraordinary miracles of flying skill.

Doctors thought he'd never live, and he was operated on six times within a year to remove fragments of the bullet. Only the patient, tireless care of his nurse and his indomitable spirit pulled him through, and in 1917, he returned to the United States. Although permanently c-rippled, he offered his services to the American Army, and held a position for a time as an air official in Washington, earning the rank of Captain. Eventually, he left the Army and married a wealthy woman who owns a beauty shop in San Francisco.

Now unable to work, he has received no compensation—and wants none-for the injury which keeps him idle. And every so often, he must submit to another operation to remove the seemingly innumerable pieces of that cursed bullet.

The sufferings of big, handsome William (Bill) Thaw, one of the Escadrille's founders, were much shorter. Son of a Pittsburgh steel executive, he already was a licensed pilot when he enlisted in the Foreign Legion at the start of the war, and had distinguished himself as the first airman to fly under the Brooklyn Bridge.

The inseparable companion of the late Lieutenant Raoul Lufbery, he had perhaps the broadest experience of any aviator in the World War. He had been in every conceivable aerial situation, including that of being wounded.

Transferred to the American Army with the Escadrille, he became a Lieutenant Colonel before the war was over. Returning to this country, he set up an insurance agency, which, with a small inheritance, enabled him to live in modest comfort. A few years later, he married a widow with three children and settled down to a quiet life.

Then one day, after a severe cold, he developed pneumonia. The Great Thaw, who had escaped death countless times in the air, died within twenty-four hours.

Elliot Cowdin, also one of the original seven members of the Escadrille, met a similarly unspectacular demise. Son of a New York silk merchant, he began his war service in the American Ambulance Corps as a sleek, athletic chap in his late twenties. Entering the Aviation Service of the Foreign Legion in 1915 and transferring to the Escadrille when it was formed, he spent a hectic year on pursuit duty at the front. In 1916, he was forced out of active service by ill health. Returning to the United States, he became a Major in the American Air Service, in which he acted in an official capacity until the Armistice.

Fortunately, he had a private income, and remaining a bachelor, lived well until 1933, when his cool courage was powerless against the same enemy that got Thaw—pneumonia.

ILLNESS, too, was the final adversary of two other survivors of the Escadrille.

William Dugan, a short, chunky Rochester boy, was working in Central America as an assistant manager of a United Fruit banana plantation when the war broke out. He immediately gave up his job and went to France, where he enlisted in the Foreign Legion. He took part in all the great battles of the Legion, including the horror of mud and shell-fire at Verdun. After great difficulty in getting transferred to aviation, a lucky wound finally sent him to the rear, and when he returned to the front in 1917, it was as a pilot with the Escadrille.

Until the end of the war, he was constantly in active service with the Escadrille, except for a short leave to America to be married. He brought his wife back with him to the front, and continued to fight as gamely as before. Eventually transferred to the American Army, he became a First Lieutenant before the Armistice was signed.

Returning to the banana plantation, he and his wife had a brief few years of happiness until 1924, when he contracted a mysterious tropical disease which necessitated his removal to the United States. A few months later, in in hospital at Patchogue, Long Island, he succumbed.

Walter Lovell, a husky young fellow from Concord, Massachusetts, was in the American Ambulance Corps before transferring to the French Air Service in 1916. One of the first pilots who received their training on the rickety Bleriots, he encountered much red tape before he finally was permitted to join the Escadrille in ll9l7.

A born leader, not a day passed throughout his ten months at the front but what he headed one or more of the patrols. He was known for his voluntary sorties alone far behind the German lines, shooting down enemy planes in victories which could not possibly be confirmed. Transferred to the American Air Service, his executive ability caused him to be withdrawn, much to his disappointment, to American GHQ at Chaumont. The close of the war found him a Major.

For a time, he remained in France, in the exporting business, and married a French girl. Returning to the United States in 1925, he bought a coal yard at Bay Shore, Long Island. A son and two daughters were born, he prospered and was well on the way to retirement. Then, two years ago, he was stricken by a sudden illness and rushed to a hospital. Three months later, he died.

Quite different has been the peacetime life of Bert Hall.

A native of Higginsville, Missouri, this tall, suave soldier of fortune was an early member of the Escadrllle. In 1916, after a year at the front, he was granted permission to accompany the French Aviation Mission to Russia. One of his first duties there was to escort the beautiful wife of a Russian general to safety in China. With her, the woman took a fortune in jewels. Hall shortly thereafter obtained leave to return to the United States, to enter, it was reported, the American Air Corps. He was next seen by an old friend in San Francisco, snappily tailored, affluent and gay in spirits. He was still a civilian, although technically an Adjutant in the French Air Corps, at the close of the war.

When civil war broke out in China, Hall, eager as usual for a fight and sensing adventures, departed enthusiastically for Shanghai. There were few Western-trained aviators in China at the time, and Hall promptly was commissioned "General Chan" by the Nationalist Government.

In addition to making fliers out of Chinese, it was his duty to obtain planes and equipment.

Chinese authorities entrusted him with $34,000 for a consignment of arms. The arms never arrived. Arrested in Shanghai, where, apparently, he was preparing to sail, he was convicted by a United States consular tribunal and sentenced to two and a half years in McNeil Island Penitentiary off the coast of Washington.

Upon his release, he went again to China and fought against the Japanese, but soon returned to the States.

ANOTHER unfortunate of the Escadrille was Thomas Hewitt, scion of a respectable Westchester family. After the Armistice, Hewitt found a peaceful life dull, and launched upon a Primrose Path which brought him in contact with his former comrades usually only when he needed money. Remaining a bachelor, he lost touch with his relatives and wandered much around the country, until a few years ago, when he was found dead beside a curb in Washington, D. C., victim oi acute alcoholism. But for his service in the American Army, he was rewarded with burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Of the other ninteen American survivors of the Escadrille, most have fared better, and a few have done outstandingly well.

James Norman Hall, who with Charles Nordhoff, has written such best sellers as Mutiny on the Bounty and Hurricane, was a member of the Escadrille. He won every possible decoration in his spectacular career at the front before he was taken prisoner a few months prior to the Armistice. Nordhoff, who served with both the French and American Flying Corps, although never a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, was, because of his literary ability, transferred after a short stay at the front to the executive staff of the American service. Hall wound up as a Captain; Nordhoff as a First Lieutenant.

Returning to this country, their struggle for recognition was long and difficult. Only now, living in Tahiti with their families, are they enjoying financial security for the first time.

Frederick Prince, Jr., son of the Boston millionaire, has been one of the fortunate. Brother of the late Norman Prince, who conceived the idea of the Lafayette Escadrille and was fatally wounded in action in 1916, he was the tall, good-looking youngster of the outfit, which he joined a few hours after Norman's death. Briefly at the front, his release from the French service was effected through the influence of his grief-stricken father. Returning to America, he served as a First Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps until the Armistice.

Now a wealthy broker, he has been divorced and has remarried, is the father of three sons, lives on a huge estate at Westbury, Long Island, and has a town house in New York and a Winter home in Florida.

Charles Dolan, scion of another old Boston family, also has prospered. A plucky and enthusiastic youth, he fought in many a hotly-contested battle during his stay in the Escadrille, but luck seemed to be against him then. He managed to bring down only a few planes, and never succeeded in getting official confirmation of those. The close of the war found him a First Lieutenant ready to start a new life.

Dolan's rise upon his return to the States was rapid. Today he is president of the Intercontinent Corporation, which has a. virtual monopoly on the export of American planes and arms to belligerent countries. Married and the father of a boy, he lives in Forest Hills.

Another who has been successful since his return is Edwin Parsons, who came originally from Springfield, Massachusetts. Famed as the best-dressed member of the Escadrille and a social lion, he was, nevertheless, one of its most daring fighters. Decorated numerous times for a long string of victories, he was a First Lieutenant at the end of his three years of gallant service for France and America. At present, he's a scenario writer in Hollywood.

With the exception of David Peterson and Ralph Doolittle, both of whom were killed here in crashes as, respectively, civilian instructor and regular Army flier, the remaining survivors of the Escadrille are engaged in a variety of pursuits.

Dudley Hill has been manager of a Cuban sugar plantation since 1930. John Drexel is in the diplomatic service. Henry Jones manages a five-and-ten-cent store in upstate New York. Lawrence Rumsey is a retired Buffalo businessman. Christopher Ford, married for the third time, is an airman in the regular Army, at Honolulu. Harold Willis is a Boston architect.

Kenneth Marr is a California oil operator. Ray Bridgman is a professor of history at New York University. Didier Masson manages a rubber plantation in the West Indies. Edward Hinkle is in business in Detroit. Stephen Bigelow, sportsman and playboy, is traveling. Willis Havilland is West Coast representative for a national distillery firm.