BY JOHN CHAPPELL
A monument to a pioneer fighter pilot from Carthage has a new home. James Rogers McConnell was the last American pilot to lose his life fighting for France in World War I before the United States entered the war.
Roland Gilliam built Gilliam-McConnell Airfield 17 years ago and had long hoped that monument could stand where more people - especially pilots - would be able to see it. He asked the Town Board to let him build a proper site on his property and deed it to the town.
The town commissioners agreed, with some stipulations, and on Tuesday afternoon, Gilliam brought heavy equipment and a supervisor from Montgomery Monuments to pick up the stone and plaque from in front of the old town hall on N.C. 24-27 and move it safely to its new home beside the runway.
McConnell's great-niece, Janeice V. McConnell, is coming from Long Beach, Calif., for a formal unveiling and dedication on Saturday, March 19 - the day McConnell died in 1917, celebrated in Carthage as McConnell Day.
"That is the 94th anniversary of McConnell's death," Gilliam said. "The event will start at 1 o'clock. We are going to have at least one 'missing man' flyover. The rain date is March 26, the next Saturday."
Mayor Tom Stewart, Gilliam and other dignitaries will speak at the unveiling. Gilliam is still finalizing details of the event.
McConnell was one of the founders of the famed Lafayette Escadrille and had gone to help defend France against German invaders - first as an ambulance driver, then as a pilot in the early days of aerial warfare.
He moved from Chicago to Carthage in 1910, where he worked as land and industrial agent of the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Locally, McConnell served as secretary of the Carthage Board of Trade. He promoted the Sandhills as an ideal place to live and work.
According to local legend, McConnell was standing near the present site of the old courthouse looking off from that hilltop toward Fayetteville when he heard that the Kaiser's forces had invaded the French republic. McConnell said Lafayette had come to help the United States, so it ought to return the favor. He enlisted in the American Ambulance Corps in 1915 and sailed from New York, headed to battle.
On that spot today, two guarding cannons flank a stone stele sent by Congress in honor of McConnell and the Lafayette Escadrille.
McConnell's many acts of heroism in the Ambulance Corps - such as rescuing a French soldier while under enemy fire - prompted France to award him the Croix de Guerre (cross of war) for "conspicuous bravery in saving wounded under fire."
McConnell wanted to do more, and flew his Nieuport biplane in the first patrol of the newly formed Escadrille - perhaps named for the Marquis de Lafayette at his suggestion. He wrote of his experiences while recovering from a landing injury in his book "Flying for France."
McConnell died fighting two German planes over the Somme battlefields on March 19, 1917. A thousand people attended his funeral in Carthage. The Republic of France sent a bronze plaque in his honor. It was mounted on stone and originally stood near Farm Life School, then was moved to the county hospital and at some point to Carthage.
Now it stands by the airfield named in his honor.
"The lot was surveyed," Gilliam told commissioners in January. "The deed is drawn, signed and, I assume, recorded."
The new site has an English translation of the message of gratitude from France that appears on the bronze plaque. It will also have information giving the history of McConnell and the Escadrille.
"The translation is finished," Gilliam said. "It is on granite, and it is in place. The flagpoles are up and the flags are flying. The concrete has been poured. A security camera is installed, and the area is under 24-hour monitoring, day and night."
That piece of granite has its own Carthage history, according to Gilliam.
"It came from the old mill, where it was the door sill," he said. "I took it down and put it down near the wastewater treatment. One day, I went down, and it was gone. I called up to find out it had been taken out to Nicks Creek, so I went out and got it. It's the same piece of granite. It is Mount Airy granite, by the way."
Gilliam had the old granite doorsill engraved with the English version of the message from France. He mounted it at the site and prepared the spot for the dedication ceremonies. Once all was ready, it waited only for the four-ton monument itself to be moved from the grounds of the old town hall to its new home.
That happened Tuesday afternoon when Charles Dowd's wrecker lifted it onto Gilliam's truck and followed to the field to set it gently in place.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.