Kiffin Yates Rockwell
Asheville, North Carolina
Virginia Military Institute Class of 1912
Lieutenant, French Foreign Legion; Lafayete Escadrille
Legion d’Honneur, Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre with Four Palms
Kiffin Rockwell enrolled in Virginia Military Institute in 1908 but in the following year earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Deeming the Navy as unlikely to satisfy his thirst for action, he instead joined his brother Paul at Washington and Lee to pursue an interest in journalism. Upon graduation, he worked at an advertising firm in Atlanta.
When Europe erupted into war on 28 July 1914, Kiffin and Paul immediately offered their services to France in a letter to the French Consul-General in New Orleans. Without waiting for a reply, they sailed for Europe on 7 August 1914. They were among the very first Americans to volunteer their services to France.
Upon arriving in France, the brothers enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and were soon sent into action with the 1er Regiment Étranger. One of their close friends and fellow Legionnaires was Russell Kelly, VMI ’14.
On 9 May 1915 when his regiment charged La Targette north of Arras, Kiffin was shot through the leg and medically evacuated, spending the next six weeks in a field hospital. (Rockwell’sh Foreign Legion kepi is in the VMI Museum collection.) Paul had been severely wounded in an earlier engagement, mustered out of the Legion, and began work as a war correspondent in Paris. Kiffin joined him there on convalescent leave and because his wounded leg prevented him from rejoining the infantry he began the study and practice of flying.
On completion of his training as a pilot in May 1916, Kiffin became a founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron comprised mostly of American volunteers. In less than a month, Rockwell had downed a German aircraft over the Alsace battlefield, becoming the first American to shoot down an enemy plane. “General Joffre, in person, pinned upon him the Médaille Militaire with its yellow ribbon, for bringing down a Prussian two-seat aeroplane near Hartmannsweillerkopf.”
On September 9th, 1916, he was officially credited with having brought down four Prussian aeroplanes. He was promoted to a lieutenancy and awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Rockwell was wounded a second time, this instance in aerial combat over Verdun, but he kept flying missions and was ultimately credited with four victories (and seven more unconfirmed) before his final action on 23 September 1916. (His commander, Capt. Georges Thenault, said he could confirm ten kills by Kiffin in aerial combat.)
During that final engagement (also over Verdun), Rockwell dove on a heavily armed two-seat observation plane. He was killed instantly by gunfire from the German plane, crashing between the French first and second line of trenches.
“His funeral was notable, attended by his squadron comrades, fifty British pilots, and numerous French pilots and mechanics; the cortege included a regiment of French territorials and a battalion of colonials. The French government awarded him numerous citations and medals, made his grave a shrine, marked the place where he fell, and placed exhibits in its aviation museum. He also was honored in numerous ways in the United States—by North Carolina and his colleges; in poetry, including memorial poems by Edgar Lee Masters and Paul Scott Mowrer; and in a substantial literature on the Lafayette Escadrille. But perhaps the greatest tribute was that spoken at his grave-side service by the French aviator, Captain Georges Thenault, commandant of the squadron: "His courage was sublime. . . . The best and bravest of us is no longer here."
His colleague, James McConnell (UVA), wrote: "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."
The Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Newport, Tenn., and an American Legion post in Asheville, N.C. are named in his honor.