NPR: France Pays Tribute to Early U.S. Fighter Pilots

NPR: Every Memorial Day weekend, a ceremony takes place just outside Paris to honor a group of Americans who fought in France. They're not D-Day veterans, but a little known group of pilots who fought for France in World War I, before the U.S. entered the war.This year's ceremony in the tiny town of Marnes-la-Coquette began with a flyover by two French air force Mirage fighter jets from the Escadrille Lafayette, or Lafayette Squadron, paying tribute to the men who founded the group nearly 100 years ago.

"In April of 1916, seven Americans enlisted in the French military to form the corps of the Lafayette Escadrille," said Major Gen. Mark Barrett, chief of staff of the U.S.-European command, who took part in the ceremony. "The squadron grew to include 38 American pilots, led by a French officer, who's also buried here. These pilots from America and France, who banded together to form the Lafayette Escadrille, were pioneers in a new form of warfare, as aviation brought the battlefield to the skies."

The young Americans were studying in France in 1914 when World War I broke out. They wanted to volunteer and fight but couldn't join the French army because they would lose their American citizenship. The U.S. ambassador to France at the time found a way around the problem: The men could either join the French Ambulance Corps or the French Foreign Legion.

Present-day U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin also was on hand to honor each of the founders of the Lafayette Squadron. A memorial to these volunteer pilots features massive marble arch walls carved with the Lafayette Squadron's insignia, the head of a Sioux Indian chief. And their major battles: at Verdun and Somme.

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