A Local 'Flyboy'
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"Flyboys," a just-released motion picture, is based on the exploits of American combat pilots who fought for France in the early years of World War I.
One was from Carthage.
They joined the French Foreign Legion. Americans who swear oaths of allegiance to other countries lose American citizenship, so they instead swore allegiance to the Legion itself rather than to France.
They came to fight against the German invasion in the period between the war's outbreak 1914 and the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917.
Some joined up for adventure. Others said they came "to pay our debt to Lafayette."
During the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette came to fight with the colonists, serving alongside George Washington, who came to think of him as the son he never had. With urging from Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. ambassador in Paris, the French fleet sailed for America. They arrived in time to seal the fate of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
After France started letting these foreign volunteers learn to fly, sending them up in their Nieuport biplanes to face triple-winged German fighters, they distinguished themselves by skill, boldness, and heroism.
Those daring young men are known to history as the Lafayette Escadrille.
Braved Heavy Fire
On a chilly January day in 1915, James R. McConnell stood on courthouse hill looking off toward Fayetteville and thinking of Lafayette and the French aid that clinched the American Revolution.
"Mac" McConnell was a popular figure in the county seat of that day. He was a graduate of the University of Virginia, and served on the Carthage Board of Trade.
Neither the railroad he worked for nor the economy of Moore County was on his mind. He was leaving for another job.
Some American ought to go help the French, he thought. So he did.
"These sandhills will be here forever, but the war won't, so I'm going," he told a friend. "And I'll be of some use, too, not just a sightseer looking on; that wouldn't be fair. I'm all fixed up and am leaving on Wednesday. I've got a job to drive an ambulance in France."
In 1915, McConnell sailed from New York with a friend to enlist in French service. By February, McConnell found himself in the thick of The Great War. Through that spring and summer, he drove for Section Y of the American Ambulance, in the heart of fighting on the Western Front in the area around the Bois-le-Pretre and the Pont-a-Mousson.
Braving heavy fire, McConnell rescued and returned wounded soldiers with such fearlessness that France awarded him a Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery. His was one of the first to be given to Americans. His second, with palm, was to be awarded posthumously.
McConnell's comrade in arms, Edmund Genet, recalled how difficult it had been at first for any American to enter the French flying service. McConnell and the other founders of the famous Escadrille waited months before their applications were accepted.
"During those months, he remained with the ambulance in the frequently bombarded Pont-a-Mousson sector," he wrote. "He was the first American to be mentioned for bravery, having narrowly escaped death while convoying wounded from the Bois-le-Pretre during a heavy bombardment."
McConnell's decoration with the Croix de Guerre came long before France adopted a policy of giving these crosses freely to American drivers, Genet said.
After finally being accepted, McConnell was one of the first to show up for flight training at the flying school at Pau. He earned his flight brevet, the equivalent of wings, February 6, 1916, and was one of the first four of seven original members of the American flying corps, the American Escadrille.
After the German embassy protested, pointing out that America was officially neutral, the name was changed. They became the famed Lafayette Escadrille.
During training, McConnell wrote a friend that the main trouble with the place was he had no time to himself.
He flew the squadron's first patrol on May 13, 1916, and aerial actions during the great German offensive at Verdun in June and Allied counteroffensives in July and August. By July 1, 1916, he was promoted to sergeant.
Returned to Duty
While McConnell is not represented directly by any of "Flyboy's" cast of historical characters, almost everything he did, and everything he described in his book "Flying for France" and his letters, is in the picture in one way or another.
The tactics are those he described. The scenes are those he saw from the clouds. The raining hail of machine gun bullets are those he faced. Their spirit echoes his, even in small details of plot, as when a disabled pilot finds a way to return to the fray. So it was with McConnell.
Forbidden to fly after suffering severe back pain from a night landing, his war could have been over. Instead, he insisted on returning to duty.
On March 19, 1917, McConnell went up against three German planes above the Somme. He downed one, and continued to battle the other two until his plane went to earth near the village of Flavy-le-Martel, Aisne.
McConnell's life ended only a few days after his 30th birthday. It was just three weeks before the United States entered the war.
It would be days more before his body could be recovered from the wreckage of his plane.
Genet was in the air with him when both came under attack. Genet had lost sight of McConnell in the fog and mist of battle. Genet was wounded, and found himself fighting in a damaged craft against a foe in a more maneuverable plane.
When his opponent turned away, Genet searched unsuccessfully for McConnell until loss of blood and fear that the wing of his aircraft might fall off at any moment caused him to head back to camp.
Later, McConnell's body -- unburied but stripped of boots, papers and valuables -- was found lying near the wreckage of his Nieuport. He was the last American pilot of the squadron to die under French colors, before America entered the war in April, 1917.
Honored by France
At first, his body was laid to rest where he fell, according to his wishes. Later, he was re-interred at the Lafayette Escadrille memorial near Paris.
A letter to his squadron, found among his effects, give some picture of the man.
"My burial is of no import," he wrote. "Make it as easy as possible on yourselves. I have no religion and do not care for any service. If the omission would embarrass you, I presume I could stand the performance.
"Good luck to the rest of you. God damn Germany and Vive la France."
There was a service after all.
In Carthage 1,000 people came to an April 1917 memorial. McConnell's picture was flanked by the Stars and Stripes and the tricolor of France. Edwin A. Alderman, president of the university, spoke.
"With what solemn pride must they now reflect upon his valor, his devotion, and his self-sacrifice," Alderman said. "These are the supremest [sic] qualities in this world, and by the exercise of them in the superlative degree, this brave youth has written his name upon the rolls of fame of this university. No son of the institution, in a hundred years, has shown greater reserves of stark courage, faith, and unselfish purpose. I have told his father that, if he were my son, though his body lies broken in France, I should be the proudest man in America today."
The government of France honored McConnell with a plaque. It was originally mounted on a stone placed at the McConnell Hospital, named for him.
It was moved to the hospital in Pinehurst for a time, then brought home to Carthage where it can be seen by the old town hall, now home to Moore Buddies.
There are no longer annual ceremonies of honor at the Escadrille memorial where McConnell is one of four Americans entombed. Visitors say nobody maintains it, and that shrine has fallen into disrepair.
But somebody remembers. Every year since that war, somebody from a single family in the village has come on March 19 to visit the field where McConnell fell. On that spot, they lay a single rose.
John Chappell can be reached at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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