I sincerely thank Mr. Paul Scott Mowrer and Mr. Edgar Lee Masters for permission to reprint their beautiful poems to my brother; Mr. Mowrer and Mr. Victor Lawson for permission to reprint Mr. Mowrer’s copyrighted articles, first published by the “Chicago Daily News,” and Doubleday, Page & Company for permission to quote passages from James Rogers McConnell’s book “Flying For France.”
Paul Ayres Rockwell
Biographical Memoir; Sketch from “Official History of Lafayette Flying Corps.”
KIFFIN YATES ROCKWELL was born September 20, 1892, at Newport, Tennessee, a picturesque little town spread out along the Pigeon River, in the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. He should have been born in Eastern Carolina, the country of his parents, but following doctor’s advice, his father and mother had left the flat and rather malarial region where their families had been installed for generations, and removed to the higher altitude of East Tennessee.
I well remember the first time I saw Kiffin. I was about four years old, and my sister and I had been sent to spend the night with some little friends. When we returned home in the morning, our father took us by the hand and led us into our mother’s bedroom to see “the present Dr. Snoddy had brought during the night.” As I looked at the tiny red mite my feelings were of pride and pleasure that I had a brother.
When Kiffin was within a few days of being one year old, our father died of typhoid fever, which was very prevalent in Newport that year. With our mother, we three children spent the following winter at our maternal grandparents’ place in South Carolina. Kiffin, being then the youngest grandchild, was his grandmother’s favorite, and until he was fourteen years old, she insisted on his spending at least half of his time with her. Usually he spent the winters in South Carolina, where the climate during that season was mild and agreeable, and his summers in the cooler, forest-clad mountains of East Tennessee.
The outdoor life on his grandfather’s cotton and tobacco plantation was wonderful for the growing youngster, and did much to mould his character.
Best of all for Kiffin was his grandfather, a Southerner of the old school, who had fought through the Confederate War from the beginning until the end. With Lee at Appomattox, in April, 1865, “Marse Enoch,” as the Negroes called him, had mounted upon his horse when news of the surrender spread through the ragged little army, and had ridden away to his South Carolina home without waiting to be paroled. It was his boast that he had never surrendered to the “Yankees,” had never taken the oath of allegiance to the Federal Government, and that he was “unreconstructed.” The paternal grandfather, also a Confederate War veteran, had died almost twenty years before Kiffin was born.
From his grandfather Kiffin heard stories of war, in camp and in battle. The little boy would listen for hours to his grandfather, his great-uncle “Tommie,” and other elderly men of the neighborhood recounting their battles, their marches, their sufferings from hunger and cold, and their disappointment and grief over the “Lost Cause,” and their struggles after. His imagination and his ambition were constantly fired with desire to shine upon the battlefield for a worthy purpose. He learned also how to handle men. The Negroes, who outnumbered the white people at least five to one in this particular part of South Carolina, under the authority of such men as Enoch Shaw Ayres, had gotten over their unrest and unruliness of the years immediately following the war. The “bad niggers” and the “carpet-baggers” had been driven from the country almost two decades before Kiffin was born, and the blacks remaining, all ex-slaves or children of ex-slaves, were fairly industrious and polite. Cheap education brought to the Negroes of the South by well-intentioned but poorly informed New Englanders had barely begun to poison them.
The region abounded in virgin stands of timber, mostly pine on the uplands and cypress in the swampy lowlands and “islands,” and wild life was very plentiful. There were a few deer to be found, and countless rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, foxes, otters, minks, pole-cats, wild-cats, while alligators frequented the Lumber and Pee Dee rivers, only a few miles away. Mocking birds sang all around the house, and the fields and pine woods teemed with bobwhites and innumerable smaller birds; upon the lakes in the swamps were wood ducks, herons, cranes, and in season many kinds of wild ducks and wild geese. Enterprising lumbermen—whom many people look upon as vandals because of the ruthless and destructive way in which they worked—had not yet come down from the North and cut away the forests, and the Negroes had not begun to buy cheap mail-order shotguns from Chicago with which to massacre beast and bird in and out of season, so as virtually to wipe out game in the South.
Kiffin knew how to handle a gun before he was ten years old, and spent many hours in the woods and swamps shooting bobwhites, hawks, rabbits, squirrels, etc. He was accounted a good shot, and was an excellent fisherman, learning from his grandfather how to hook and land trout, bass, “red-breasts,” and other excellent and gamey fish. For his books he did not especially care, although he learned his lessons well and quickly, having a keen and clever mind. His favorite reading were books of travel and adventure, and he fairly revelled in the Henty books and the stories of Captain Mayne Reid. But his best hours were those spent out in the open; he was a good swimmer and an excellent horseman; he was especially fond of mounting a wild and unruly Porto Rican pony we had at Newport.
When Kiffin was fourteen, his family went to live at Asheville, not a great distance from Newport, across the border of North Carolina. Asheville was at a higher altitude, a larger and more healthy city, with excellent schools. Kiffin attended the Asheville High School in 1906-1907-1908, but being intent upon a military career, entered the famous Virginia Military Institute, at Lexington, Virginia, in the fall of 1908.
He enjoyed the atmosphere of this great school, with its memories of Stonewall Jackson and other of America’s most wonderful military chiefs, despite the strictness of the discipline and the severity of the hazing, which at that time was particularly bad. All the “rats,” as the newcomers at the Institute were called, were beaten regularly and religiously with bed-slats, tin dippers, flats of bayonets, broomsticks, or anything that came to the hand of the masterful third-classmen.
I was at Washington and Lee University, whose campus was only a few hundred yards from the grounds of the Institute, and Kiffin came every Saturday for lunch at my fraternity house, and would often show me his stripes and bruises. I would fairly froth at the mouth with rage and indignation—I was never able to see him suffer, and even as a little boy would weep bitterly when Kiffin was punished for some mischief— but Kiffin would merely laugh in his dry way, and say that it was all in the game, and that the best way to make men of the “rats” was to haze them.
The summer of 1909, Kiffin received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, having decided that there was more chance for action in the Navy than in the Army, and in the fall went up to Annapolis and entered “Bobby” Werntz’ Preparatory School, to take a preliminary course for the Naval Academy entrance examinations. Here he met many other boys, also preparing to enter the Academy, and a number of Naval Cadets. Talking with these new acquaintances, he got the impression that it would be many a day before the United States Navy would see action, and caring nothing for naval or army life in time of peace, he wrote and asked me to try to influence our mother to let him resign his appointment and join me at Washington and Lee University.
Our mother readily consented, saying that she only wanted Kiffin to do that which would make him the most happy and the most useful in life, so about the end of November, 1909, he arrived at Lexington, and matriculated at Washington and Lee University. He was initiated into the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which counted amongst its members most of the men from Asheville, at Washington and Lee. By a sad coincidence, the only two other members of the Washington and Lee chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon to fall in the Great War were also from Asheville, and had been intimate friends of Kiffin at the high school there: Lawrence Loughran, killed July 28, 1918, as a lieutenant-pilot attached to the Royal Flying Corps, and Fagg Malloy, cavalry-lieutenant, who died October 22, 1918, during the terrible influenza epidemic in France.
Kiffin’s life at Washington and Lee was a very happy and care-free one. He was bright enough not to have to grind in order to learn his lessons, and had plenty of time to mix with the other students. A good judge of human nature, he did not quickly make friends with people and accept them into his intimacy; but he was never discourteous to anyone, and when he deemed someone worthy, he was a real and devoted friend. Therefore, he was very popular and well liked among his fellows. Tall and handsome, with clear blue eyes, a graceful dancer and of a pleasing manner, he was much sought after by the girls, but he was not of a sentimental nature, and was quite unspoiled.
Here again at Washington and Lee, Kiffin found everything to inspire his liking and desire for military life. General Washington had endowed the school, which before the Confederate War had been called Washington College; General Robert E. Lee had been president of the institution from shortly after the close of the war until his death, and was buried with other members of his family in the Lee Memorial Chapel. As was the case with the Virginia Military Institute, the graduates and students of Washington College had distinguished themselves upon the battlefield, and had left many lasting memories at Lexington, and General Lee seemed ever present there. Perhaps the only study in which Kiffin had a real interest was history.
As I look back, it is clear to me that Kiffin was all this while only unconsciously marking time. He was in school more from family habit and tradition than from a real desire to follow classical studies. He usually had a far-away, dreamy look in his eyes, and often seemed to be living in another world from that surrounding him.
In 1912, he decided to see something of the world, at least that part of it lying inside the boundaries of the United States and Canada. He made a trip to the Pacific Coast and then through Western Canada, thinking perhaps he might find a place where he would like to settle and make his home. Next he spent several months in San Francisco, which he liked greatly—after he came to France, he said that the life in San Francisco was more nearly like that of France than any other place he knew in America—and he came very near stopping there. At this period of his life, Kiffin liked to appear older than he really was, and never admitted that he was younger than at least twenty-five. He started in San Francisco an advertising agency, and had at one time working for him some twenty people, all of them considerably older than himself. Many of them probably would have been much humiliated had they known they were taking orders from a mere lad of nineteen years! He also thought of founding, in California, a paper or magazine.
But in spite of his youthful and impatient idea that the Southern people were old-fashioned and “set in their ways,” the urge to come back home to the South was always strong within Kiffin. So in the fall of 1913, he returned to Asheville and spent a few months with his mother there. On New Year’s Day of 1914, he joined me at Atlanta, Georgia, where I was then living. I shall never forget that morning when Kiffin arrived. I had been up late the evening before, properly ushering in the New Year, and was asleep at the Georgia Tech chapter house of our fraternity when I was awakened by the feeling that someone was watching me. I opened my eyes, and there stood Kiffin at the foot of my bed, with an amused expression on his face. I was amazed to see how tall he had grown; he was then a little over six feet two inches, having grown fully three inches since I had seen him.
We spent the day talking over anything and everything. I was full of curiosity as to his impression of the places he had seen, and Kiffin wanted to know if I really liked Atlanta well enough to make it my home. We agreed never again to part company, but to live together, and began making plans for leaving the fraternity house and finding a suitable bachelor’s apartment.
Both of us rather liked writing. Our father, although only twenty-six years old when he died, had written and published in various magazines and papers a number of poems and essays very highly spoken of as showing considerable promise. We discussed starting some sort of magazine or publication, and did get out the following March a rather unsatisfactory paper called “The Commerce of Greater Atlanta,” intended to boost our adopted city. Kiffin also achieved considerable success, considering the short while he was in Atlanta, with the Massengale Advertising Agency, the largest house of the kind in the South. He had decided that there was about as much romance in advertising as in any other settled-down, peace-time calling, and enrolled as a student of a course in modern advertising with some correspondence school. But this was not what his ardent nature really yearned for, and he was constantly restless.
We were in Asheville with our mother for a few weeks in June and early July. When we returned to Atlanta, the war clouds were already gathering over Europe. We had an apartment in West Peachtree Street, with a fairly efficient Negro boy as cook, butler, and general factotum. The last Sunday in July, we sat for a long time at the lunch table with two other Atlantans of about our age. Kiffin and I talked of the war which seemed inevitable, and of how interesting it would be to go over and fight for France. Both of us were fairly well read in French history, especially that of the “Ancien Régime” and of the Napoleonic Wars. We did not admire the French Revolution, and knew little of the history of the country during the nineteenth century, except the Franco-Prussian War, about which the stories of Guy de Maupassant and others had made our blood boil.
Our two friends, nice young Americans of good education, but small imagination outside their business, agreed mildly that it would be a great thing to fight against the Germans, and turned the conversation to the hands they had held in their last poker game.
After lunch, Kiffin called me aside and very seriously told me that he had been thinking a great deal during the past several days about the coming war, and that if I really wanted to go to France and join the French forces, his mind was fully made up to go. Talking together, our minds became more and more inflamed at the thought of what a general European war must be, and of the possibility of our country being drawn into it. Kiffin felt that it could not escape developing into a world war, and we then and there decided to offer our services to our favorite among the nations—France.
The following morning, Monday, we composed and mailed the following letter:
136 W. Peachtree Street,
August 3, 1914.
His Honor The French Consul,
New Orleans, Louisiana.
I desire to offer my services to the French Government in case of actual warfare between France and Germany, and wish to know whether I can report to you at New Orleans and go over with the French reservists who have been called out, or must I go to France before enlisting?
I am twenty-one years old, and have had military training at the Virginia Military Institute. I am very anxious to see military service, and had rather fight under the French flag than any other, as I greatly admire your nation.
If my services can be used by your country, I will bring my brother, who also desires to fight for the French flag.
Trusting to receive a favorable reply from you soon, I beg to remain
Yours most sincerely
Kiffin Yates Rockwell.
Inquiries the next morning at the steamship ticket office in Atlanta brought the information that few steamers were leaving for Europe, that the British and French liners had put back into American ports, after being chased by German war vessels, and that it would be difficult to get abroad at that time. There was an American Line vessel, the St. Paul, sailing from New York on August 7th, however, and places might be had for us on board this boat, although it was sure to be crowded with people transferring from foreign ships.
We begged the steamship agent to telegraph to New York to see if berths could be had for us. A favorable reply was received on Wednesday, and, without waiting for a reply from the French Consul-General at New Orleans, we packed our belongings, leaving most of them behind, turned the apartment over to friends, and leaving faithful black Jim—who predicted that he would never see us again—in tears, we took the Thursday afternoon express for New York.
When the St. Paul steamed out from New York harbor the following morning, we were aboard. Kiffin’s letters which follow tell the story of the remainder of his life far better than anyone else could write it.
The clarity and simplicity of style of these letters is remarkable when the circumstances under which they were written are considered. Many were hastily scrawled with a pencil at odd moments snatched from Kiffin’s duties in the trenches or in the air. Few were written under anything approaching normal conditions. They are given here without changes or corrections, though several to me were penned in moments of impatience or irritation, and express opinions or criticisms that Kiffin would have disavowed after calm reflection. Kiffin was not writing for publication, and he sometimes “let himself go.”
It is well to give here, as an example of the impression he made on his war comrades, the chapter on Kiffin Yates Rockwell written by James Norman Hall, the celebrated writer and pilot of the Escadrille Lafayette, for the “Official History of the Lafayette Flying Corps”:
KIFFIN YATES ROCKWELL
It is probable that Kiffin Rockwell was the first American to offer his services to France against the German aggressors, for on August 3, 1914, he wrote to the French Consul at New Orleans:
I desire to offer my services to the French Government in case of actual warfare between France and Germany, and wish to know whether I can report to you at New Orleans and go over with the French reservists … or must I go to France before enlisting?
I am twenty-one years old and have had military training at the Virginia Military Institute. I am very anxious to see military service, and had rather fight under the French flag than any other, as I greatly admire your nation. If my services can be used by your country, I will bring my brother, who also desires to fight for the French flag.
Rockwell was a born soldier. Both his grandfathers, Captain Henry Rockwell of North Carolina, and Major Enoch Shaw Ayres, of South Carolina, were officers of the Confederate Army, and a more remote ancestor was a captain on General Washington’s staff during the Revolution. His nature was made up of the simple virtues of a medieval warrior—pride amounting almost to sensitiveness, energy, determination, dauntless courage, and unbounded faith in the justice of his cause. Such men are rare and unmistakable when met; they stand a little aloof from the rest of the world and radiate a sense of great things—an atmosphere which shames the cynic and stills the voice of the doubter. It is not difficult to imagine the train of reasoning which led him to enlist: a great war was about to overwhelm Europe; France was preparing to defend her frontiers and ideals against an aggression which menaced all human liberty; one’s course was clear—one must enlist to fight for France. And the flame of his idealism never for an instant flickered. Long afterward, when he had come to know all the squalor and disillusion of war, he wrote to his mother:
If I die, you will know that I die as every man should—in fighting for the right. I do not consider that I am fighting for France alone, but for the cause of humanity, the most noble of all causes.
In August, 1914, accompanied by his brother Paul, Rockwell crossed to France and enlisted in the Foreign Legion. From the beginning, his record of service was a splendid one—months of dreary trench life with the infantry did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm or fighting spirit. On May 9, 1915, when the Legion stormed La Targette, he was severely wounded in the thigh, and transferred to the Aviation after a long period of convalescence. In the autumn, Victor Chapman wrote from Avord:
I find a compatriot I am proud to own . . . called Rockwell. He got his transfer about a month ago from the legion. He was wounded on the 9th of May, like Kisling; in fact half of the Deuxième de Marche were wounded that day, not counting the killed and missing. He gives the best account I have heard. Having charged with the Third Battalion and being wounded in the leg in the last bouck, he crawled back across the entire field in the afternoon. At this moment I have mixed feelings of pride, envy, and sorrow, for he has just received a postal from a friend who has returned to the Régiment. They were given a banner and three days ago were up where the big advance took place. On account of their reputation and the general understanding that they were reserved for attack, the Régiment must have been in the very thick of it and has enormous losses. . . . Rockwell is chafing because he changed too soon. “There is nothing like it” (he says); “you float across the field, you drop, you rise again … the sac, the 325 extra rounds, the gun—have no weight.”
On the Alsatian front (May 18, 1916), Kiffin Rockwell shot down the first enemy plane credited to the Escadrille Lafayette. The combat was characteristic of the man and his method of attack. He told of it in a letter to his brother Paul:
This morning I went out over the lines to make a little tour. I was somewhat the other side of our lines when my motor began to miss a bit and I turned back. Just as I started … I saw a Boche machine about seven hundred meters under me and a little inside our lines. I reduced my motor and drove on him; he saw me at the same time and began to dive toward home. It was a machine with a pilot and a machine-gunner, carrying two rapid-fire guns, one facing the front, and one facing the rear, turning on a pivot so that it could be fired in any direction. The gunner immediately opened fire on me and my machine was hit, but I didn’t pay any attention to that and kept going straight for him until I got within twenty-five or thirty meters of his machine. Then, just as I was afraid of running into him, I fired four shots, and swerved my machine to the right to avoid having a collision. … I saw the gunner fall back dead on the pilot, his machine gun fall from its position and point straight up in the air, and the pilot fall to one side of the machine as if he too were done for. The machine fell off to one side—then dove vertically toward the ground with a lot of smoke coming from the rear. I circled around, and three or four minutes later saw smoke coming up from the ground, just behind the German trenches.
It was his first combat—the first time he had encountered an enemy machine in the air—the first time he had fired his gun at a German plane! And with four shots (afterwards verified by the squadron armorer) he killed both pilot and observer and sent the machine down in flames!
In discussing men, the French used a phrase describing admirably a keen and bitter fighter—Il en veut, il fait la guerre. Rockwell had come to France to fight; not to loaf, “swing the lead,” or pose as a hero—and when he went over the lines it was la guerre à l’outrance. He shot down several Germans so far in their own lines that even the combats were invisible to friendly observers. On the Verdun front, in July, 1916, he took part in forty officially reported combats; in August he fought thirty-four aerial duels. Wounded in the face by an explosive bullet, he refused Captain Thénault’s offer to send him to a hospital for treatment, and after twenty-four hours in Paris to reassure his brother, he hurried to the front to fight and fly again. His letters to Paul Rockwell give us glimpses of an extraordinary driving energy and determination:
I had thought beforehand that yesterday and to-day I would try my damnedest to kill one or two Germans for the boys [comrades in the Legion] who got it this time last year—but I had no luck. Am tired out now; have been out four different times to-day, all the time going up and down. Once I dropped straight down from four thousand meters to eighteen hundred meters on a Boche, but he got away. It tires one a lot—the change in heights and the maneuvering.
The day after Victor Chapman’s death he wrote:
He and I had roomed together and flown together a great deal, and I had grown very fond of him. I am afraid it is going to rain to-morrow, but if not, Prince and I are going to fly about ten hours and will do our best to kill one or two Germans for Victor.
Rockwell’s brief and splendid life was ended by the most glorious of deaths—struck down in the heat of combat, twelve thousand feet above the earth. Flying with Lufbery over the Vosges, on the 23rd of September, 1916, Rockwell became separated from his companion, and attacked a German two-seater well inside the French lines. In his daring and headlong fashion, he plunged straight at the enemy, paying no attention to a stream of bullets from the observer. He did not open fire until at such close quarters that watchers on the ground thought a collision inevitable—his gun stammered faintly, and the Nieuport turned its nose down, losing one wing as it hurtled toward the earth. A great wound, where an explosive bullet had passed through his chest at the base of the throat, must have caused instant death. His loss was an irreparable one to the Escadrille Lafayette—for he was a rare combat pilot, and his chivalrous and romantic example brought out the finest qualities of his companions. His funeral was worthy of his life and death. Fifty English pilots and eight hundred R. F. C. mechanics, a regiment of French Territorials, a battalion of Colonials, and hundreds of French pilots and mechanics, marched behind his bier. At the grave, Captain Thénault said: “When Rockwell was in the air, no German passed . . . and he was in the air most of the time. . . . The best and bravest of us all is no more.”