Born September 20, 1892 in Newport, Tennessee Kiffin Yates Rockwell and his family moved to Asheville, 50 miles southeast, in 1906 taking up residence on Hillside Street just off Merrimon Avenue where an historical marker now stands. After attending public high school, he studied at Virginia Military Institute for the 1908-1909 school year and then transferred to Washington and Lee University where he joined his older brother, Paul.
After graduation he again joined his brother who was then working with a newspaper in Atlanta. On August 3, 1914 both brothers wrote the French Consul-General in New Orleans offering their services to France at the outset of World War I. Continuing a long family history of military service, and having developed great admiration for French participation in the American War of Independence, they were among the first three Americans to volunteer for service in the French Army. (The other was a grandson of Napoleon's general in charge of French forces in New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase.) By the end of the month the Rockwells had sailed to Europe and enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.
While the Rockwell brothers served in the Aisne and Champagne trenches during the winter of 1914-1915, Paul suffered a serious shoulder wound requiring long convalescence and medical discharge from the Legion. He was decorated with the Croix de Guerre and became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, returning later to the front lines as a war correspondent. He was also to serve in WWII in both the French and American Armies.
Kiffin, too, was wounded - shot through the leg on May 9, 1915 while charging an enemy stronghold. Crossing 3,000 yards of open ground, the regiment saw almost half of its 4,000 men killed or wounded. After recovering, he transferred to the French Air Force, becoming one of the first four members of the famous Escadrille Americaine, later to be known as the Lafayette Escadrille in honor of the frenchman Lafayette who played a major role in the American Revolution.
These portraits reflect Kiffin's initial service in the French Army (left) and his subsequent assignment to flying duties where he attained the rank of Lieutenant (right). Here he is holding "Whiskey" - along with "Soda," one of two Lafayette Escadrille lion mascots Kiffin and some friends bought while on leave from the front.
On May 18, 1916, while flying over the Alsace battlefield, shot down the first German airplane to be destroyed in combat by an American aviator. This earned him France's highest military award, the Medaille Militaire, as well as the Croix de Guerre with palm.
The next day, his squadron was relocated to Verdun. Five days later Kiffin was wounded in the face during an aerial dogfight, but refused to enter a hospital and continued flying. During the following four months he engaged in numerous air battles above the Verdun front, shooting down several German aircraft. For his efforts he was awarded another citation in the Order of the Army and secured promotion from sergeant to sous-lieutenant.
On September 17th Kiffin and his comrades returned from a three-day leave in Paris to be greeted three days later by the long-awaited arrival of five much improved Nieuport 17 aircraft. They featured a 110 hp Le Rhone engine which would double the rate of climb when compared to the earlier 80 hp "Bebe" engines fitted to the earlier Nieuports.
Kiffin and Raoul Lufbery were chosen to fly the first two Nieuport 17s made ready for combat two days later. The night before the mission, Kiffin was drinking with a friend with whom he had shared a foxhole over a year earlier just prior to Kiffin receiving his leg wound. Kiffin became pensive and told his friend that if he were to fall, he wanted to be buried on the spot and that his fellow pilots should drink up what money he left behind.
The next morning Kiffin and Lufbery split the squadron's 1,000 rounds of ammunition for the new Vickers .303 sychronized cannon and took off. Before long they were diving on a formation of Fokkers when Lufbery's gun jammed. Kiffin managed to lead Lufbery to a safe landing but then returned to the front lines. Observers saw him dive at a 2-man Aviatik from 10,000' in his customary style, holding fire until the last minute. However he sped past the enemy plane without firing, losing a wing on his way to his impact with the ground.
The enemy gunner had shot Kiffin through the chest with an explosive bullet, killing him instantly. His Nieuport fell between two lines of French trenches and Kiffin's body was recovered by French artillerymen. Kiffin was buried at the squadron's field at Luxeuil-les-Bains with high military honors. Although Kiffin had earned his promotion weeks earlier, the rank was officially bestowed on him posthumously. Georges Thenault, commander of the Lafayette Escadrile said of Kiffin: "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." Ultimately Kiffin was credited with four official victories plus six enemy aircraft probably destroyed.
This is the last photograph of Kiffin taken just before climbing into his Nieuport for his fatal last flight. He was the first member of France's famed Lavayette Escadrille to bring down an enemy plane.
Numerous tributes have been made to Kiffin Yates Rockwell who left a secure home far from conflict to volunteer in service to a people who had once come to the aid of his own country. His name appears on the wall of the Pantheon in Paris where American volunteers for France are honored. A French Air Force camp was named after Kiffin, and U.S. Naval airfield in the San Diego area carries the Rockwell name as well. Plaques commemorating his contributions can be found at the Post Office in his home town of Newport, at the Robert E. Lee Memorial at Washington and Lee University, as well as at Virginia Military Institute in addition to the marker on Asheville's Merrimon Avenue. There is also a significant collectionn of archival information on Kiffin and his family in the Asheville Public Library including many fascinating hand-written letters from the front.
In the early days of combat "flying machines," new aircraft arrived at far-flung sod landing strips in pieces to be assembled on the spot. The Nieuport 11, seen in this illustration, was one of the first "kit airplanes," and in fact was powered by an engine of the same 80 horsepower as today's popular Rotax 912 engine for homebuilts. A scaled replica of the Nieuport 11 hangs in the Western North Carolina Air Museum located on Johnson Field adjacent to the Hendersonville Airport. Nieuports have long been a popular homebuilt design with many striking examples in existence.
Scenes such as this would occur frequently, especially during periods of inclement weather - sometimes lasting for weeks - when the flying machines were grounded. Many in the squadron were adventurous Ivy Leaguers who financed their own way to Europe to serve. Kiffin became best friends with two southerners who had gone to Princeton. Others came from all backgrounds including a black corporal who taught the others to speak French.
The Escadrille Americaine (later renamed Lafayette Escadrille to avoid calling too much attention to American involvement early in the war when America was officially neutral) received direct support from multi-millionaire William K. Vanderbilt, Sr and his wife. They saw to it that each member received 100 francs each month plus a reward of 500 francs for each victory. The squadron's first base was a resort villa in Luxeuil-les-Bains where meals were taken at a nearby hotel and, according to a letter from Kiffen to his mother, they lived "like princes." As the war dragged on such luxuries diminished, and the realities of combat became all too real.
Virtually every pilot - and certainly Kiffin - got their first taste of flying on fields such as that pictured here. Clipped-wing Bleriots - known as "Penguins" as they were incapable of actual flight - introduced pilots to the cockpit and high-speed taxiing. Then it was time for one's first flight - in a single-seat combat aircraft to be taken not long thereafter into deadly encounters with the enemy.
Flying above the battlefield in an open cockpit, pilots could easily hear exploding artillery rounds and smell the acrid smoke. Still the glamour and chivalry surrounding the piloting of a magnificent flying machine must have done much to dull the painful reality of the war, at least apart from the hours of aerial engagement.