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First to Fly

Charles Bracelen Flood
In Print
Grove Atlantic/Grove Press (2015)

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This entry created 5 April 2019. Last revised on 5 April 2019.

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First to Fly

The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star (9.00)

266 pages. Dramatis Personae, Chronology, airfields map, Acknowledgments, Notes, Bibliography, Illustration Credits. Black-and-white illustrations throughout text.

This was Charles Bracelen Flood's final book, published posthumously. He was apparently quite a guy: novelist, war correspondent, historian. I had not read any of his work before.

You might expect that a history about the Lafayette Escadrille – the squadron of American pilots that flew for France in the First World War, prior to the U.S. entering the war – would have a lot to say about planes, weapons, missions and tactics. Well, that's not in this book!

What the author does in this book, writing in a very readable style, in an Introduction and 30 brief chapters, is to tell us the stories of the men who served (and in many cases died) in a pioneering aviation squadron. Flood is a gifted storyteller, and he has a knack for telling stories that interweave their way through this book.

The author admits that history favors not only the survivors, but those who lived longest to tell their stories. So, for example, this means that many of the stories come from the mysterious Bert Hall, occasional French spy, lover of Mati Hari, eventually forced out of the Escadrille (and back into the spy game), who wrote or co-wrote two autobiographies which disagree with one another and the surviving documentation!

Many of the Americans who volunteered for France were expatriates living in Paris, often well-educated and from wealthy families, who began their service in the French Foreign Legion in the trenches and later transferred to the air service.

All of the famous pilots are covered, but one of my favorite tales concerned Eugene Bullard, the first black American fighter pilot. He had the good sense to avoid racism in the USA by stowing away in a ship bound for Scotland, found some success as a boxer, came to Paris and fell in love with the city, enlisted in the Foreign Legion when war came, won the Croix de Guerre and was hospitalized due to wounds, realized he couldn't serve in the army any more so volunteered for pilot training! He flew 20 combat missions with the Escadrille before being transferred out against his will, probably due to his race. He went on to have a colorful and successful life, marrying a French countess, and serving in the French Resistance during WWII.

Gamers will find this book an excellent introduction to the pilots, their motivations, concerns, romances, rivalries and brotherhood. However, it does not offer much in terms of technical or mission detail; for scenarios, you would need to research elsewhere.

I really enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.