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First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, The American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I, by Charles Bracelen Flood, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2015, $25

Flood, who died in 2014, was an acclaimed writer known especially for Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War. His final work celebrates American volunteers who flew for France before the United States entered the fray in 1917. It marked the first time Americans had flown together in aerial combat, albeit in French uniforms, hence the book’s title.

When war broke out in 1914, the United States remained neutral, though many Americans enlisted in the French Foreign Legion or as ambulance drivers. By 1915 the emergence of aerial combat, its celebrated “dogfights” evocative of warrior knights, induced volunteers to transfer to France’s Aéronautique Militaire. By 1916 enough Americans had joined to form a squadron eventually known as Escadrille de Lafayette, named for the famous French volunteer in the American Revolutionary War.

Some 269 American pilots ultimately flew for France through the expanded Lafayette Flying Corps, 69 of whom were killed. Forty-six are buried at the Lafayette Memorial du Parc de Garches near Paris. Among them is Gervais Raoul Lufbery, who shot down 16 enemy aircraft before transferring to U.S. service and briefly mentoring Eddie Rickenbacker (see P. 39), the man who ultimately became America’s highest-scoring World War I ace.

First to Fly is prone to rambling prose, redundant anecdotes and incorrect designations. Despite these shortcomings, it is one of several solid offerings to date about the Lafayette Escadrille and is certainly better than such mediocre motion pictures as Lafayette Escadrille (1958) and Flyboys (2006).

—William John Shepherd