Thursday, August 11, 2011

Saga of the flying aces of World War I

Eddie Rickenbacker
Two years before the United States got into World War I, American volunteers formed the American Escadrille, a squadron of fighter pilots who flew sorties into German-held territory, shooting down reconnaissance planes, bombing Zeppelin hangars and engaging German pilots in aerial battles.

Shortly after the squadron moved near the front lines, the German government protested to the then-neutral United States about the volunteers. As a result, the group changed its name to Lafayette Escadrille, in honor of the Frenchman who helped American colonists during the American Revolutionary War.

The squadron was founded through the efforts of Dr. Edmund Gros, director of the American Ambulance Service that served France during the war and Norman Prince, an American who was already flying for France.

A French officer, Captain Georges Thenault, commanded the squadron and after the war he wrote a book about the unit and its exploits, L’Escadrille Lafayette. Copies of a French paperback edition published in 1938 and an English hardback edition (The Story of the LaFayette Escadrille) published in 1921 are in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. The French edition was signed by Thenault. Laid into each are various related clippings, photos and other ephemera.

A related book in the collection is a 1963 reprint of I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, a 1937 book by Edwin C. Parsons, one of the American pilots. By  the time he got to France, Parsons was already experienced in air combat, having flown for Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. When the unit was transferred to the Americans in 1918, Parsons stayed in the French service.

After the war, Parsons returned to the United States, became an FBI agent, ran a private detective agency and became a technical adviser on such films as Wings (1927) and Hell’s Angels (1930). He wrote screenplays, radio scripts, magazine articles and books. During World War II, Parsons was an instructor at Pensacola Naval Air Station and participated in the Solomon Island campaign. He retired as a rear admiral. Parsons settled in Osprey, south of Sarasota.

His book is inscribed to Arch Whitehouse, a British flyer who served in France during World War I. Whitehouse wrote many exciting accounts about aerial battles during the war, but some historians doubt the accuracy of some of his stories.

When the United States entered the war, a new cadre of pilots arrived in France, among them Eddie Rickenbacker, who would go on to become an ace fighter pilot, shooting down an astonishing 26 German aircraft. It was a record that would not be broken until World War II. Rickenbacker also flew more combat hours than any other American pilot in the war.

Rickenbacker became the most celebrated aviator in America and would remain so until 1927, when mail pilot Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from Roosevelt Field on Long Island to Paris.

Rickenbacker told of his exploits during World War I in a book, Fighting the Flying Circus, a signed first edition of which is also in the collection at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

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