Kiffin Yates Rockwell



In photograph at left, Kiffin Rockwell is at far left, in the trenches with fellow legionnaires, December 1914.
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The following biographical sketch is excerpted from Kiffin Yates Rockwell by R. B. House, published in The North Carolina Booklet, North Carolina Society, Daughters of the Revolution, April-July 1920.

"... Kiffin's mother had hoped for him to lead a life of scholarship. With this in view, she encouraged him to pursue studies at Virginia Military Institute, and later at Washington and Lee University. Although Kiffin spent some years at Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee, it was with no love for scholarship, and no intention of leading a scholarly existence. One real association of school days that inspired him to the day of his death was membership in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Both he and his brother Paul were good fraternity men, loyal and ideal.

        Without graduating he went from college into advertising journalism, organizing and conducting successfully a project for publishing advertising editions of newspapers. In this business he traveled over the United States and Canada, finally coming to rest in Atlanta, Georgia, as a member of the Massingale Advertising Agency. It was here that he was working when in August, 1914, Europe hurried into war. Kiffin and Paul Rockwell were on their way to France on August 3, 1914, by the first boat they could take. Landing in Liverpool, they made arrangements at the French embassy for entering the French army. From London they went by Havre to Paris, and there at the Invalides entered the French service on August 30, 1914. Training first at Rouen, then at Toulouse, and finally at Camp de Mailly, they made ready for a winter in the trenches with the Foreign Legion.

        After many months in the trenches, he moved with his regiment to the 1915 battles in Artois. At the storming of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, May, 1915, he fell severely wounded in the thigh by a bullet..."

In the photograph below, Kiffin Rockwell
is shown beside his Nieuport 'Bebe'.

"... Kiffin recovered from his wounds, and by opportunity secured for him by influential friends, began the study of aviation, completing his education in the air in time to become, with Chapman, Prince, Thaw, Cowdin, McConnell and others, the organizer of the Escadrille LaFayette. His success was immediate. On May 18, 1916, at Hartmannsvillerskopp in Alsace, he brought down the first German plane of the many to fall at the hands of the Escadrille LaFayette. In rapid succession he won the Medaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre, and three palms for additional citations. He rose from pilot to brevet lieutenant in the space of four months. Over Verdun he was indefatigable, engaging in over thirty-four victorious flights, and winning the title, 'Aristocrat of the Air'. By September he had brought down three planes which officially were credited to him, and seven more of which there is no reasonable doubt as to his credit. Captain Thenault, his flight commander, said of him: 'Where Rockwell was, the German could not pass, but was forced rapidly to take shelter on the ground.' In one combat he was struck in the face by an explosive bullet. Refusing to retire for the day, he re-engaged the enemy and brought down another plane.

        On September 23, 1916, Rockwell attacked the enemy near the same spot where he had won his first victory. Although he had come successfully through one hundred and forty-one previous battles, and single-handed had driven off ten German planes, this time fate willed that he should fall --killed by an explosive bullet from a German machine gun. He was buried at Luxiul with the honors of a general. 'The best and bravest of us is no more,' was the comment of his commander and his comrades.

        Kiffin Rockwell's achievements in the air and previously in the trenches rank him as one of the greatest of the allied fighters. For his services he received the highest honor the French Government can give. But the most remarkable feature of his life is the perfect coordination of purpose and achievement in his spirit. He was indefatigable in battle because he was invincible in his conviction that he was defending civilization. In his school days, even, he had considered the possibility of France's being attacked and had resolved to fight for her. On August 3, 1914, he offered his services to the French Government. To his brother Paul he wrote, ;If France should lose, I feel that I should no longer want to live.' But with all his love for France he retained his sense of responsibility as an American. 'I am paying my part of America's debt for Lafayette and Rochambeau,' was his expression that has been echoed and re-echoed by American fighters from private to General Pershing.

        His attitude towards death was a triumphant assertion of immortality. In a letter to Mrs. John Jay Chapman about the death of Victor, he dwells repeatedly on the idea that death had no part in such a life as Victor's; that Victor is still alive and fighting because his spirit has passed into his comrades. On another occasion he gave expression to an attitude toward death that caught the imagination of the French, and became a part of their own thought. 'From the day a man enters the army,'" he said, 'he should consider himself as good as dead; then every day of life is just that much gained.' Acting on this belief he hardly gave his attendants time to fill the gas tank of his plane and keep it in repair, so constantly was he fighting.

        Not the least of his victories was his winning his mother's support. Mrs. Rockwell had rebelled against his going to France at all, and she had continued to move the American and French governments in efforts to get Kiffin back home, until finally Kiffin brought her to realize that he could not retire from the struggle to which he had committed himself, and that he would not if he could. For he wrote her in his last words that referred to death, 'If I die I want you to know that I have died as every man ought to die--fighting for what is right. I do not feel that I am fighting for France alone, but for the cause of all humanity--the greatest of all causes.' Catching up in these words the whole spirit of America as it arose at white heat for war, Kiffin not only won his mother to his cause, but his countrymen also. Of the thousands of Americans who followed him in death, he became an elder brother, a pioneer in the crusade for humanity."

In the photograph below, Kiffin Rockwell
is shown in Paris, a few days before
his death in aerial combat.

KIFFIN ROCKWELL'S LAST COMBAT

When Kiffin Rockwell was writing to Chapman's parents of his friend Victor's last fight, he little thought that in a few weeks he too would be out of the great game of war. He was a dashing fighter, as appears from McConnell's narrative already given of the manner in which he brought down the American Escadrille's first German airplane while flying over the Vosges. At Verdun he was severely wounded in one of his numerous combats with the Germans, an explosive bullet striking his wind-shield and tearing several gashes in his face.

Rockwell, however, was no stranger to wounds. When in the Foreign Legion he was wounded at Carency. Chapman met him at the aviation-camp at Avord, and in a letter dated September 27, 1915, referred to him as follows:

I find a compatriot I am proud to own here. A tall, lanky Kentuckian, called Rockwell. He got his transfer about a month ago from the Legion. He was wounded on the ninth of May, like Kisling. In fact one-half of the 2me de Marche, 2300, were wounded that day, not counting the killed and missing. He gives much the best account I have heard. Having charged with the third battalion and being wounded in the leg on the last bouck, he crawled back across the entire field in the afternoon.

By the middle of September, after having been in the Verdun sector since May 20, the American Escadrille started from Bar-le-Duc, as was supposed, for the Paris aviation centre at Le Bourget; and the flying men were like a lot of schoolboys in anticipation of the holiday they were to have. As a matter of fact, they were on the way back to Luxeuil near Belfort to take part in a great air-raid against the Mauser works at Oberndorf. There were ten Americans in the party---Lieutenant Thaw, with a wounded arm, Adjutants Prince, Hall, Lufbery and Masson, and Sergeants Rockwell, Hill, Johnson, Rumsey, and Pavelka. McConnell was in the hospital with a lame back due to a smash-up. At Luxeuil they found a great force of British aviators, more than fifty pilots, and a thousand men as helpers, mechanicians, etc. Then followed a long delay while the Americans were waiting to receive a new type of Nieuport air-ship, more powerful and better armed than the ones they had been using. It was of this loafing period that McConnell in his "Flying for France" wrote:

It was about as much like war as a Bryan lecture. While I was in the hospital I received a letter written at this time from one of the boys. I opened it expecting to read of an air combat. It informed me that Thaw had caught a trout three feet long and that Lufbery had picked two baskets of mushrooms.

At last the new planes arrived. McConnell gives the. following particulars of Rockwell's first flight in his new machine, of his encounter with a Boche ship and of its fatal ending:

Kiffin Rockwell and Lufbery .were the first to get their new machines ready and on the 23d of September went out for the first flight since the escadrille had arrived at Luxeuil. They became separated in the air, but each flew on alone, which was a dangerous thing to do in the Alsace sector.... Just before Kiffin Rockwell reached the lines he spied a German machine under him, flying at 11,000 feet. I can imagine the satisfaction he felt in at last catching an enemy plane in our lines. Rockwell had fought more combats than the rest of us put together, and had shot down many German machines that had fallen in their lines, but this was the first time he had had an opportunity of bringing down a Boche in our territory.

A captain, the commandant of an Alsatian village, watched the aerial battle through his field glasses. He said that Rockwell approached so close to the enemy that he thought there would be a collision. The German craft, which carried two machine guns, had opened a rapid fire when Rockwell started his dive. He plunged through the stream of lead and only when very close to his enemy did he begin shooting. For a second it looked as though the German was falling, so the captain said, but then he saw the French machine turn rapidly nose down, the wings of one side broke off and fluttered in the wake of the airplane, which hurtled earthward in a rapid drop. It crashed into the ground in a small field---a field of flowers---a few hundred yards back of the trenches. It was not more than two and a half miles from the spot where Rockwell, in the month of May, brought down his first enemy machine. The Germans immediately opened up on the wreck with artillery fire. In spite of the bursting shrapnel, gunners from a near-by battery rushed out and recovered poor Rockwell's broken body.


Rockwell was a great favorite with his companions. McConnell paid him this tribute:

No greater blow could have befallen the escadrille. Kiffin was its soul. He was loved and looked up to by not only every man in our flying corps, but by every one who knew him. Kiffin was imbued with the spirit of the cause for which he fought, and gave his heart and soul to the performance of his duty. He said: "I pay my part for Lafayette and Rochambeau," and he gave the fullest measure. The old flame of chivalry burned brightly in this boy's fine and sensitive being. With his death France lost one of her most valuable pilots.

Rockwell had won the coveted Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre, on which appeared four palms, representing the four citations he had received in the orders of the French Army. For he was officially credited with having brought down four enemy airplanes and was believed to have accounted for numerous others that had fallen within the enemy's lines. His funeral was a splendid pageant, participated in by every Frenchman in the aviation service at Luxeuil, by a battalion of French troops, by more than fifty of the British pilots, followed by a detachment of five hundred of their men; and by the little group of his American associates.

Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of the American Volunteers (NY: Scribner's, 1918).

The following passage is excerpted from Flying for France by James McConnell, (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1916, 1917).

"Poor Kiffin Rockwell has been killed. He was known and admired far and wide, and he was accorded extraordinary honours. Fifty English pilots and eight hundred aviation men from the British unit in the Vosges marched at his funeral. There was a regiment of Territorials and a battalion of Colonial troops in addition to the hundreds of French pilots and aviation men. Captain Thénault of the American Escadrille delivered an exceptionally eulogistic funeral oration. He spoke at length of Rockwell's ideals and his magnificent work. He told of his combats. "When Rockwell was on the lines," he said, "no German passed, but on the contrary was forced to seek a refuge on the ground." Rockwell made the esprit of the escadrille, and the Captain voiced the sentiments of us all when, in announcing his death, he said: 'The best and bravest of us all is no more.' "

Gravesite, Luxeuil-les-Bains, France.