A Destiny of Undying Greatness: Kiffin Rockwell and the Boys Who Remembered Lafayette
By Mark M. Trapp
Special to the doughboy.org web site
Most Americans with a passing knowledge of history know of General Pershing’s July 4, 1917, march through Paris with the newly arrived American troops to the tomb of Lafayette where, on behalf of America, Pershing’s aide Colonel Charles Stanton uttered the famous words “Lafayette, we are here.” But too many are unaware of the actions and sacrifices of Kiffin Rockwell and other American boys dating back to the outset of the Great War more than two and a half years before Pershing’s arrival.
My own knowledge came about more by happenstance than anything else when, in the Fall of 1997, I began law school at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia. On my first day, I took a walk around campus to familiarize myself with my new surroundings. Upon entering Lee Chapel, I came across a small plaque honoring a W&L alumnus by the name of “Kiffin Yates Rockwell” who, the plaque indicated, had been “killed in aerial combat” in France in September 1916. Because my wife was eight and a half months pregnant with our first child, baby names were at the front of our minds, and I believed I had just come across the coolest name ever. But what was the bearer of that name doing in France in 1916, in aerial combat, no less? Like many Americans, I knew next to nothing about World War One, but I knew that we had not entered the war until 1917.
During the next few years, I tried to learn more about this boy named Kiffin, and of how he came to be fighting and dying in France during the time that the United States was officially neutral and President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for re-election using the slogan “he kept us out of war.” Through sporadic research over the years, I learned the basic outlines of a remarkable story: long before their own country entered the conflict that would redefine the world, a handful of young American men ignored President Wilson’s declared neutrality and risked their lives fighting on the side of France and, as they saw it, civilization itself.
Initially fighting in the trenches, many of these idealistic volunteers eventually took to the skies as part of the first generation of fighter pilots. A good number of these boys, many from some of the wealthiest and most privileged families in America, willingly sacrificed everything to repay what they saw as a debt owed by their nation based on the heroic actions and support of the Marquis de Lafayette and France when America was engaged in its struggle for independence from Britain. Kiffin Rockwell was one of these boys, and with his brother Paul in early August of 1914, he was likely the very first volunteer to leave America’s shores to defend France.
While many history buffs are familiar with the broad outlines of the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, as the all-American flying squadron fighting for France would eventually be called, I was amazed to learn of the noble sacrifices made by these boys who had everything to lose. But as a practicing attorney with young children and a very busy life, my interest in the story never advanced beyond a general desire to know more.
That all changed when, in 2014, my son was born on the exact 100-year anniversary of the day that Kiffin and Paul Rockwell enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in Paris. We named our little boy Kiffin and, my interest in the story rekindled, I began five years of research and writing that truly changed my life. Working at nights, on weekends, and during my daily commute to downtown Chicago where I still practice as an attorney, I began to uncover the details of the remarkable story of “the boys who remembered Lafayette,” as I began to think of them.
As I unearthed the letters, journals and contemporary accounts of these boys, I was struck by their noble courage in the face of what most of the boys bluntly acknowledged would likely lead to their death, repaying the sacrifice of Lafayette. Piecing together the individual accounts of these boys, I began to realize what a remarkable story I had on my hands, a story that deserved to be told, a story of which all Americans could justly be proud.
Indeed, it became clear to me that this handful of boys had helped galvanize their “neutral” countrymen to action – as the world’s first fighter pilots, the boys were lionized in both the Paris and American press and their influence played a real and important role in America’s eventual decision to enter the struggle for civilization on the side of its long-time ally France.
A good number of the boys, including Kiffin, proved the strength of their convictions by dying for France. In fact, Kiffin Rockwell lies buried in a small French town near the Swiss border, under the flags of both France and America.
My exhaustive efforts – one reviewer stated that “the amount of research this all-inclusive work reflects is astounding” – allowed me to write a detailed and fully integrated account of these idealistic boys in both the Foreign Legion and aviation, including their tremendous impact back home, most notably during the presidential election of 1916. Finally, on my son’s fifth birthday, A Destiny of Undying Greatness: Kiffin Rockwell and the Boys Who Remembered Lafayette was published, prompting popular historian Marc Wortman to write that Kiffin Rockwell “finally has the thoughtful and richly detailed biography that his short but full life deserves.”
Researching and writing this book opened up an entire new world to me, as I grasped the enormity of the conflict in which civilization itself was at stake. I learned of the almost unbelievable sacrifice of France and gained a newfound respect for the French people.
But most of all, I learned the true story of some remarkable American boys, and of how the principled actions of a few individuals can influence the tide of world events. Following President Wilson’s belated declaration of war, more than one million American soldiers would cross the Atlantic to help save France. All of them followed in the footsteps of Kiffin Rockwell.
Every American should know and be proud of “the boys who remembered Lafayette.” Undying Greatness tells their remarkable story and provides an additional perspective on our country’s entry and participation in the Great War. I hope it also reminds readers of the debt we Americans owe to Lafayette and France for our own liberty and of how an individual acting on principle can make his own destiny.
Chicago lawyer Mark M. Trapp published A Destiny of Undying Greatness: Kiffin Rockwell and the Boys Who Remembered Lafayette in 2019. Played out against the almost unfathomable carnage of the war, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the election of 1916, his book sheds new light on the unforgettable true account of Kiffin Rockwell and the “boys who remembered Lafayette.” Undying Greatness is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other major book sellers, or through www.undyinggreatness.com.