McConnell Marker Dedicated at New Site
Four planes flew low over the air field at Carthage Saturday, with one suddenly veering off to the west.
This "missing man" formation was part of a yearly celebration honoring World War I fighter pilot James Rogers McConnell - a founder of the historic Lafayette Escadrille and the last American to lose his life fighting for France before the United States entered that war.
This ceremony was special, as it marked the unveiling of a new site by the runway at Gilliam McConnell Airfield for a bronze plaque sent by France in 1917 expressing the gratitude of the French people to "the American Sergeant pilot aviator" that voluntarily enlisted Dec. 27, 1915 and died "on the field of honor March 19, 1917 in aerial combat."
Roland Gilliam built the air field and named it in McConnell's honor years ago. This year, with approval from town commissioners, he moved the plaque and its granite base to a new spot where he and the board expect many more people to see it than at its former spot in the yard of the old town hall.
"I want to thank everybody that supported moving this monument, including the town council," Gilliam said. "There are some who opposed it, but when they see it I hope they will feel better. We moved this here a week ago, and I feel sure more have seen it in the last week than in the previous 75 years."
Carthage Mayor Tom Stewart welcomed the crowd of dignitaries and well-wishers.
"We thought that James Rogers McConnell deserved for everybody to know the sacrifices he had made for France during World War I," he said. "He decided that he would be a 'shirker' as he called it, if he did not volunteer. He shipped to France - drove an ambulance and received medals for heroism while in that ambulance corps - and after that joined with other guys into the Lafayette Escadrille."
Flanked by the flags of the state and the nation, with a new bronze marker bearing a translation of the French message, McConnell's memorial was dedicated at last by his niece, Janice McConnell. She had flown from her home in San Diego to be present for the occasion.
"He was one of the first of the seven American pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille," she said. "He served with the ambulance service in France in very dangerous places: in the valley of the Somme, in Verdun."
She read from her uncle's writings at the time he was recovering from injuries in a military hospital - the same place he wrote is memoirs, "Flying for France." His thoughts pictured the terrors of the first air war.
"Bombarding big shells wreck people's houses thereby sending them to the caves," he wrote. "Following an attack no rest is offered night or day. Such continual service allows no time to undress, only knowing of the ever-present danger of being wounded or killed.
"The crumbling of solid houses into clouds of smoke cloaks the hideously mangled pool of agonized expressions and streams of fast flowing blood. Yet this terrible menace must be banished from our thoughts. Despite ever present danger, Americans render their service with fidelity at any and at all times."
She thanked Gilliam for his years of effort preserving her uncle's Carthage legacy. Her thanks were echoed by others who praised McConnell and his heroic acts.
Janice McConnell's famous uncle was not the only pioneer in the family. She herself was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers and had just attended its 50th anniversary.
"I was in Peru," she said. "At first only in Lima, but the second year I was all over the Andes. We implemented the foster parents plan."
State Sen. Harris Blake called the service a very historical moment and day in Moore County. He reminded members of the crowd of another fighter pilot who lost his life defending foreign people against invading aggressors: Flying Tiger pilot Robert Hoyle Upchurch, of High Falls, whose memorial park in the mountains of China was dedicated in 2007. Both young men exemplify the American spirit, Blake said.
State Rep. Jamie Boles said McConnell exemplified the North Carolina motto "to be, rather than to seem."
"We are here to honor a Moore County hero," Boles said. "James Rogers McConnell lived the motto of this state in actions rather than words. I commend Roland Gilliam and the town of Carthage for preserving this tribute and never letting us forget what freedom is about, and the price paid."
Gilliam explained the meaning of the "missing man" plane heading off into the west.
"Pilots in the early days who crashed and died were said to have 'gone West,'" Gilliam said. "So, in the formation, one plane goes west to represent the missing man."
Gilliam spoke of McConnell's last battle, one he insisted on joining despite injuries from previous crashes that left him badly incapacitated.
"He knew about the battles in the Somme valley and at Verdun," Gilliam said. "He returned to his unit. They had to lift him bodily and fit him in the plane. His back was so badly hurt that he could not turn his head. He couldn't see the two German planes when they came up behind him."
McConnell was buried where he fell, but later moved to the Lafayette Escadrille memorial in Paris, where his body lies today. A new monument near the Nancy crash site was erected. Every year, on the date of his death, someone had brought a single rose to mark that spot.
The bronze plaque dedicated again at this time originally stood by the McConnell Hospital near the present Farm Life School. When that hospital moved to Pinehurst (where it is now FirstHealth) the monument followed.
At some time it was transported to Carthage. where another monument - commissioned by Congress - marks the spot where McConnell, looking off from that hill toward Fayetteville, remembered Lafayette coming to help the United States and decided he would go to France.
More like this story