Marnes-la-Coquette, France—The dramatic story of the Lafayette Escadrille volunteer pilots of World War I is now on display in a new Visitor’s Center dedicated this Veteran’s Day outside Paris, France. The elegant granite Lafayette Escadrille Monument, taken under the wing of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) in 2017, also has a new foundation to help share the aviators’ stories more widely.
The monument, four miles west of Paris in the tiny town of Marnes-la-Coquette, was dedicated in 1928 in a park donated by the French government, and built in the early 1930s. A foundation led by a prominent American lawyer, William Nelson Cromwell, raised $1.5 million, never enough for its construction and maintenance. By the 1980s, the facade was cracked and the crypt’s ceiling was crumbling. The U.S. Congress came up with $2 million and the French government donated $485,000, which brought the structure back to life. But more needed to be done.
With the centenary of the Escadrille’s formation in 2015, the foundation began negotiations for a takeover by the ABMC, which oversees 26 American military cemeteries and 30 monuments in 17 nations around the world. Most of the cemeteries and monuments are dedicated to the dead of World Wars I and II; in later wars American soldiers were brought home for burial.
The new Lafayette Escadrille Monument Visitor’s Center, in the former caretaker’s house on the edge of the park, includes a vintage-model airplane and exhibit about Escadrille pilots. In the crypt of the cenotaph, 68 tombs mark pilots who died during the war. To tell their stories, the new American Battle Monuments Foundation plans a multilingual website of online resources, said foundation chairman James Rosener.
“Schools in the United States teaching about European-American relationships and origins and the importance of the bond can use the site,” Rosener said, adding that his grandfathers fought in WWI and his father in WWII, but young people growing up today often don’t have a family link to overseas service. “This will help the younger generations make the connections.”
Foundation board members include American Hospital of Paris board vice chairman John Crawford, former Lafayette Memorial board chairman Alexander Blumrosen, historian and preservationist Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Fedex founder Fred Smith, former U.S. Ambassador to France Howard Leach and retired CEO of L Brands Kenneth B. Gilman. They are currently fundraising and hope to have the online site up and running within the year.
Lafayette Escadrille pilots joined the French Air Corps in 1915, two years before the United States entered the war, and gained a reputation for romantic daring. Nicknamed “Knights of the Air” by the press, their exploits against the fearsome German air service were detailed in daily newspapers back home, helping pave the way for the U.S. to join the Allies at war. The founding escadrille expanded to count more than 200 pilots before the war’s end.
For this Veteran’s Day ceremony, a hundred of so French and Americans huddled under umbrellas for speeches, wreath-laying and music from a U.S. Air Force band. Afterwards, a group of schoolchildren laid roses on the pilots’ tombs in the crypt. In his remarks opening the Visitor’s Center, Retired Air National Guard Brigadier General John P. McGoff, an ABMC commissioner, noted that the Escadrille pilots represented the youth of America offering a helping hand when France needed it most. The ties that bind the two nations date to the 18th century revolutions, and continue today.
The ABMC hopes American visitors to Paris will take the short train or taxi ride to see the monument and learn more about the heroic Escadrille pilots.