Kiffin Yates Rockwell
This is the story about a famous hero who gave his life for freedom.
"Kiffin Rockwell scored the first victory by a member of the Escadille Americaine when he shot down a German reconnaissance airplane..."
This is a very special tribute to an American hero. I was named after an American hero who flew in WWI as an American volunteer pilot for the Lafayette Escadrille. If he had not sacrificed his life for world freedom, I would have had a different name.
Are you interested in finding out about other people who were named after Kiffin Yates Rockwell? Then check out the Other Kiffins page.
Kiffin Yates Rockwell
Sept 20, 1892 - Sept 23, 1916
How did I receive the name Kiffin, you may ask? Well, my father has always been an avid history buff, especially about the Civil War as well as the two World Wars. On my father's side there is a long history of military action. My father was a lieutenant-doctor on the destroyer USS Meade in the Pacific theater during WWII, my grand-father made cavalry charges during WWI, and some distant relatives were soldiers in the Civil as well as the Revolutionary Wars. So there is a long tradition of military experience in the Gish family. It just so happens that when my mother was pregnant with me way back in 1957, my father was enthusiastically reading a book called "THEY FOUGHT FOR THE SKY" by Quentin Reynolds. The book describes the heroic efforts of WWI flying aces, including the dauntless actions of the Lafayette Escadrille. That is how I was christened with the name Kiffin, and that will be my name until the day I die.
Nieuport 1101 with Lafayette Escadrille
markings in which Kiffin often flew.
Purely by chance (or was it perhaps my fate) my father came upon the name of Kiffin Yates Rockwell. When he read that Kiffin was the first American to shoot down a German plane over French territory, a light bulb of inspiration must have lit up in his mind. My father immediately came to the conclusion that Kiffin would be a fine and respectable name for this upcoming baby, if it turned out to be a son. And indeed a boy I was, ready to grow up and follow the footsteps of this famous hero Kiffin, carrying on his name with honor and gratitude. However, it was not the intention that I would eventually get shot down. In a way it has been a troublesome name, if I am to be honest...
To this very day
To this very day, no one ever seems to get the name of Kiffin right the first time, nor the second time, nor often anytime. I have been called Kevin mostly, sometimes Griffin, Giffen, Kliffen, Fiffen, Kribben and an endless number of other imaginable and unimaginable variations of Kiffin. When I was younger, this embarrassed me greatly, and at the time I would rather silently accept being mistakingly called Kevin rather than having to admit my real name, perhaps causing the others to laugh at me. That is how mean children can be each other. Later when I became older, I became very proud of my name Kiffin, and I have often defended by name repeatedly until the other person gets it right. This is what my father had to say about my name and its relation to Kiffin Yates Rockwell:
"I have many times realized I was mistaken to give you
the TROUBLESOME name of KIFFIN. At the time it seemed an honorable
thing to do in respect to the fallen hero. It's not the name but
the stupid people to whom you have to explain - there are enough
Jacks, Jims, Bills, Toms, etc. So I apologize if naming you Kiffin
[sic] - but am still glad I did."
- from my Dad's last letter to me, 18 Sept. 2000.
I am often asked what nationality the name is, but until recently I did not know from where it came. My intuition told me it was Irish or Celtic. However, I never fail to recount with gusto the story of Kiffin Yates Rockwell as the person after whom I am named. If you are interested, check out the origins of the name Kiffin.
The cross of honor.
Please find below some interesting items I have collected during my extensive quest for any information concerning Kiffin Yates Rockwell. I have taken the liberty to extract and quote various sources, and I have attempted to give deserved credit where possible. This is not intended as exhaustive, and for those interested in more details I refer you to the book list below. Quoting from the chapter "Doughboys and Pilots" (found on the Metro Magazine Homepage) the following describes the situation quite well:
"No more than five of the doughboys who left North Carolina to fight in the misnamed "War to End All Wars" remain alive today, according to Si Harrington. But the legacy of their bravery lives on in many stories, including those of Paul and Kiffin Rockwell. The Rockwell brothers, who hailed from Asheville, volunteered for the French Foreign Legion in 1914, three years before America formally entered the war. Both fought in the trenches and were wounded. But they didn't quit and come home. Kiffin became a pilot and joined the Lafayette Escadrille, named for the youthful French count who helped George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The unit was manned by Americans who wanted to fight for France before the official entry into the World War I by the U.S. Out of their training by French-flying officers, the U.S. flyboys invented the universal plea for help, "may day," their Anglicizing of the phrase m'aidez, meaning "help me." On May 18, 1916, Kiffin became the first American to shoot down a German airplane. Kiffin later fought over the killing ground of Verdun and was wounded again. Four months later he was killed in combat and France mourned his death deeply. "The name of this young hero will always live in the memory of France," said an article in L'Illustration, according to writer Marshall Pywell. His brother, meanwhile, went on to become a foreign correspondent and covered the war."
Members of the Lafayette Escadrille pose in front of their Nieuports. From left to right: Lt. de Laage de Meux, "Chout" Johnson, Victor Chapman, James McConnell, Bill Thaw, Raoul Lufbery, Kiffin Yates Rockwell, Didier Masson, "Nimmy" Prince, and Bert Hall.
Poor Kiffin was killed while heroically fighting in action, high in the sky and all alone. On the 23rd of September 1916, during a battle high in the air with a German two-manned plane, Kiffin Rockwell was shot through the chest by an explosive bullet and killed instantly. His plane crashed to earth in a field of flowers between the first and second line French trenches, not two and a half miles from the spot where Rockwell's first air kill crashed four months earlier. Here his colleague James Rogers McConnell pays tribute to Kiffin Rockwell who was a great favorite with his companions:
"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."
If you are interested in reading more excerpts from James R. McConnell concerning his buddy and fine colleague Kiffin, please check out this page.
Kiffin ready to fly again.
Rockwell had won the coveted Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre, on which appeared four palms, representing the four citations he had received in the orders of the French Army. For he was officially credited with having brought down four enemy airplanes and was believed to have accounted for numerous others that had fallen within the enemy's lines. His funeral was a splendid pageant, participated in by every Frenchman in the aviation service at Luxeuil, by a battalion of French troops, by more than fifty of the British pilots, followed by a detachment of five hundred of their men; and by the little group of his American associates. To the right is another picture of Kiffin which I do not particularly like as he looks much older and tired. Who knows, maybe it was taken just before his final flight. He knew then that at any moment it would be all over.
The following picture comes from Claude Louvigné, Vice-President of the Association de l'Escadrille La Fayette. In his own words:
"It was taken on Saturday 28th of June 10 o'clock AM for the general meeting of our association. We have such a ceremony every time we meet at Luxeuil. Kiffin's tomb and some others in the cemetery who died during the first war receive honors and flowers 2 or 3 times in a year (a.i. 11 november) with a delegation of air force La Fayette Squadron people."
The yearly ceremony given to the fallen heroes ( Claude Louvigné front right).
In a recent email, Claude explains a little bit more about his relationship to Kiffin Yates and what he does in the association:
I'm French and a former fighter pilot from the La
Fayette Escadrille (1972 - 1978) because as you probably didn't
know the La Fayette Escadrille still exists and is still located in
LUXEUIL! I flew a Mirage III E in those days and now they fly the
Mirage 2000. The Sioux is still the insigna on our birds. In 1976
for the 60th anniversary, we created an association where I'm
vice-president, in the name of Thenault and Rockwell. The
association is linked with the La Fayette Escadrille Memorial at
Marnes La Coquette (near Paris) built in 1920 in association
between the French and American survivors from the early days.
In 1976 for the 60th anniversary of the Escadrille creation, we organized a big show at Luxeuil AFB. At the occasion I met Paul Rockwell (his brother), his family and Charles Dolan II, the last surviving pilot of the initial American Escadrille who died in 1982.
Just a quick word about Kiffin Rockwell's tomb. Don't worry about, because every year we have a ceremony in the cemetery of Luxeuil with the staff of the La Fayette Squadron and many of old chaps, sometimes some American officials. We never forget to put out some flowers in memory of the early members of our Escadrille. Sorry about what you call "a metal structure". It is not very decorative, but it is an old souvenir from a ceremony a few years after the 2nd World War.
Your site is nice and I'm happy to see that despite the fact that you are not from the air family, you keep alive in your heart the memory and carry the name of one of those who came in France to help us to save freedom. We won't forget them.
Vice-President of the Association de l'Escadrille La Fayette
Souvenir Thenault - Rockwell
Kiffin Rockwell's final resting place.
On September the 10th 1999, I visited the Luxeuil-les-Bains cemetery in France (about a 2.5 hour drive south-east of Paris) where Kiffin Yates is buried, his final resting place. Quite impressive and a little eerie to have finally had the honor and privilege to pay my respects to this not-yet-forgotten American hero. At least not in my mind, never. The area was quaint and quite beautiful, hard to imagine violent battles having been fought near there in the air as well as on the ground. Lo-and-behold I had found his final resting place which is photographed with eerie resemblance in the picture here to the right. You can see the plant I placed at the foot of the bronze plaque and there is also this metal structure with a plane in it, something a group of veterans had placed there years before. I thought it was a little ugly and not appropriate, but left it there of course. The feelings I had and the surroundings at that moment are impossible to describe, but something I will never forget. Once at midnight I climbed over the stone wall and sat there. It was an absolutely beautiful night with the stars shining, crystal clear, pure silence with the past sounds rumbling ever so slightly.
Common Wealth Memorial Cemetery
It was a memorable experience for me meeting at last the person whose first name I was named after. Here are some photographs of my visit which should give you a pretty good impression of the site and its surroundings, located in the quaint and rustic area of the Haute-Saône province. Personally, I was quite impressed, and while paying homage to a great WWI aviation hero, I felt a special bond with this fine Rockwell. I could not believe it when I walked down from the hotel, and entered the cemetery gates. I felt a little nervous and hesitated, walked back and went to the nearest flower shop to buy a colorful plant to place there. The day was absolutely beautiful and hot. Finally after all those years, back to my so-called roots. Seeing all those long rows of white-washed tombstones was impressive, each person representing a life just like mine, dying for a cause in which he believed, leaving perhaps a family behind, parents and grandparents and friends alike. One wonders how it had all come about, what history has laid down behind us and what it will offer in front of us. Hopefully peace...
I was especially touched by the memorial bronze tablet dedicated to Kiffin. Below you can see a close-up picture that I took. Since the engraving might be a bit difficult to read, just move the mouse over the picture to see the actual message:
Here's a simple video showing you Kiffin's final resting place, then panning around 360 degrees to show the surroundings, and hopefully giving one a better impression what it is like to be there in person.
Where Kiffin Rockwell is buried.
The Indian head was the symbol of the Escadrille Lafayette.
If you are ever back in France, I can recommend highly visiting the area of Luxeuil-les-Bains, not only for its historical value but for the cultural aspects and the naturally beautiful surroundings as well. While there are not that many concrete structures remaining from those days long ago, an occasional WWI cemetery and humble museum combined with the wonderful countryside and French culture of the region gives one an impression of how it might have been back then. While in Luxeuil-les-Bains, I met a couple of French people, and upon hearing I was American they said gleefully, "Les américains, nos amis!" and were quite amicable and cordial to me.
Map of Luxeuil-les-Bains.
If perchance you plan to visit Luxeuil-les-Bains in the near future, you can find directions by checking out this page. Otherwise, for a full sized map of the village, click on the thumbnail here to the left. I traveled far to visit Kiffin's final resting place and pay homage to my hero, nearly 83 years after his glorious death. If he had not sacrificed his life, I would never have been a Kiffin. Thank you Kiffin Yates for offering yourself for the future of me and mankind. Don't forget to mark the date of September 23rd as a moment in history which never should be forgotten.
Marker and house
Kiffin Yates Rockwell was born in Asheville, North Carolina. A historical marker can be found somewhere on Merrimon Avenue to commemorate him. I have personally never been there, though I would like to make the trip some day. Below is a picture of that marker.
Historical marker in Asheville, North Carolina.
This is the house where Kiffin Rockwell grew up in.
Kiffin's house in Asheville, North Carolina.
Special thanks goes to Rebecca Lamb of the Smith-McDowell House Museum for providing me with these two pictures (in exchange for some I had taken of Kiffin's grave).
I have taken the liberty to copy the following article Brothers Fight for France from the Citizen-Times newsletter of Asheville, NC. I feel that it is well written and portrays the essence of the situation in a clear and not too flamboyant style.
The Rockwell brothers, Paul and Kiffin, were idealistic
that summer of 1914 when Europe exploded into war and the might of
the German war machine fell on France.
When Germany declared war on France on the first day of August and sent its juggernaut rolling into the French countryside, 21-year-old Kiffin Rockwell was a student at Virginia Military Institute, and Paul, his 25-year-old brother, was a reporter on The Atlanta Constitution.
For the summer, Kiffin was home in their huge frame house on Hillside Street. On Aug. 1, he spent the evening talking about volunteering to fight for France, explaining that Americans would be accepted in the French Foreign Legion. He was deadly serious.
He called Germany the aggressor nation and France our sister nation that needed immediate help. "We can't sit back," he said, "and let the Kaiser take over the world."
In late July, when Germany's threats hung over France like an axe, Kiffin and Paul, both of whom loved France, had discussed the possibility of going to war if France's fears of a German attack were fulfilled.
Kiffin wrote the French consul in New Orleans, offering both himself and his brother to fight with the Foreign Legion. The consul wrote directly back and accepted the services of the Rockwell brothers. They were to report immediately to New York for embarkation for France.
Paul took his leave from the Constitution and hurried home from Atlanta and after both said their goodbyes they took the train for New York, shipped out for France, and went to war.
Upon arrival in France, Kiffin and Paul were taken directly into the French Foreign Legion. By November they had finished training and were sent into the trenches.
Kiffin wrote home that they were looked upon as mercenaries, but they felt anything but mercenary when payday arrived and they received one sou per day, which was about one American penny. They were paid every ten days, and three sous were automatically deducted for a tobacco allotment whether they smoked or not.
That's how the Rockwell brothers became the first Americans to fight for France, which made them also the first Americans to enter the World War.
Just before Christmas, Paul was severely wounded in trench warfare and was judged unfit for further infantry duty. Because of his journalistic background and his fluent French, he offered himself during his recovery to the Section d'Information of the French Army as a combat correspondent, and was accepted. He spent the remainder of the war in the role of war correspondent.
Kiffin continued to fight. On May 9, 1915, during a bayonet charge at La Targette, a German infantryman ran his bayonet through Kiffin's thigh, ending his fighting from the trenches.
He found something else to do, however, for there was talk of forming an American squadron in the French Air Service. He applied and was accepted, and the remainder of the story is history. He became the first American to shoot down a German fighter plane, and he became an original member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille. His commander, Capt. Georges Thenault, said he could confirm ten kills by Kiffin in aerial combat.
On Sept. 23, 1916, Kiffin received a hit in the chest by an exploding German cannon shell, fired from an enemy plane, and was killed. Paul said many times later than the shell that killed his brother was an illegal weapon.
Paul survived the war and lived to an old age. One of the highlights of my own journalistic career was sitting numerous times in the parlor of Colonel Rockwell's home on Hillside, listening to the yarns he spun about the World War and the daring escapades of the brave young men of the Lafayette Escadrille.
You might also be interested in the article Kiffin Rockwell blazed a hero's path in World War I from the same newsletter.
I have discovered a number of relevant and interesting web sites concerning the history and background of Kiffin Yates Rockwell. For your interest check out the following Internet links for more information:
- Kiffin Yates Rockwell Facebook Page
- Brothers fight for France - Article in the Citizen-Times newsletter for Asheville, NC.
- Kiffin Rockwell blazed a hero's path in World War I - Another article in the Citizen-Times newsletter for Asheville, NC.
- The Lafayette, or American, Escadrille - Kansas University WW1 archives (American Volunteers).
- Hellfire Corner - Tom Morgan's Great War Web Pages.
- Alsace and the Vosges Mountains - Charles Fair (from Hellfire Corner).
- James Rogers McConnell Memorial Collections - Virginia University Exhibits.
- La N.124 -> l’escadrille « La Fayette » 1915-18 - Lafayette homepage in French.
- Kiffin Rockwell and the Lafayette Escadrille - Marshall Pywell, from The Rockwell Family Foundation.
- World War One Aviation Homepage - Mark Lewis.
- Lafayette Escadrille Roster - Mark Lewis (from his World War One Aviation Homepage).
- Remembering the "Great War" - Leona C. Bull, staff writer for Aerotech News and Review.
- USAF Museum - The Early Years Gallery.
- Escadrille Americaine - USAF Museum WW1 History.
- Lafayette Escadrille Squadron - Homepage and historical information.
- Flying for France - Online excerpts from the book by James R. McConnel.
- Ashville Regional Airport - WNC combat page for famous fighter pilots.
- The Website of Kiffin - Dedicated to all with the name of Kiffin, especially those named after Kiffin Rockwell. Care of Kiffin Gilbert.
- Noon Patrol - Chapter project under the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 292 whose main activity is building replicas of the most famous WW1 flying machines like the Nieuport 11. You might be curious to check out the 13 Nieuports on display.
Here are a number of references for those inclined to read up a bit more about this very interesting episode in history. I can recommend them highly:
- "War Letters of Kiffin Yates Rockwell" - limited private collection (Country Life Press - Doubleday, 1925).
- "They Fought for the Sky" - by Quentin Reynolds.
- "The Lafayette Escadrille" - by Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr. (Random House, NY 1964).
- "American Fighters in the Foreign Legion 1914-1918" - by Paul Ayres Rockwell.
- "Three Centuries of the Rockwell Family in America (1630-1930)" - by Paul Ayres Rockwell (Paris 1930).
- "Flying for France with the American Escadrille at Verdun" - by James R. McConnell (website)
I would like now to take the opportunity to thank the following people who have helped me greatly in my never-ending quest for information about the past. Many of the reactions came from a request I had put on the Rockwell Family Foundation website. I placed a query there in 1999 and received quite a nice response. A very special thanks go to the following people :
- Mark Rockwell - Sent me a copy of the "War Letters", thanks!
- Tom Rockwell - Distant relative who sent me lots of pictures, magazine and newspaper articles, and other information. Thanks!
- Mark Lewis - Maker of the World War One Aviation Homepage.
- Hazel G. Miller - Her great grandmother and Kiffin's grandfather were brother and sister. Thanks for the packet of information!
- R. Kiffin Hope - Father also read the book "They Fought for the Sky" where he was so impressed by Kiffin that he decided to name his child after him. Thanks for the picture of the memorial marker.
- F. G. Rockwell Jr. - Wife of distant cousin of Kiffin.
- Jeffra Rockwell - Distant relative. Thanks for the emails and other information!
- Lyle D. Rockwell Sr. - Sent me alot of information, including articles and pictures. Thank you.
- Timothy Jordan Heffner - Kiffin was the brother of his great-grandfather.
- Felicia M. Johnson - Assistant Director Special Collections Digital Center, University of Virginia. She pointed me to the correct documents for more information
- Kevin Kearney - My best friend from Stanford who met up with me there in Luxeuil-les-Bains and supported me alot. Thanks old buddy!
- Rebecca Lamb - Executive Director of the Smith-McDowell House Museum who was working on an exhibition about Kiffin. We exchanged pictures, she providing me with the marker and the house.
- Claude Louvigné - Vice-President of the Association de l'Escadrille La Fayette and veteran pilot (1972 - 1978) who flew in a Mirage IIIe. During extensive correspondence, he has provided many insights and pictures (see ceremony picture above).
Kiffin meets Kiffin
Kiffin finally meets the real Kiffin after all these years.
Are you perhaps interested more in the origins of the name Kiffin? Then check it out by visiting my Origin of Kyffin web page to see an extensive analysis of everything you may have wanted to know about this very uncommon name.
Or perhaps other people who were also named after Kiffin Yates Rockwell? Check out the Other Kiffins page.
"Elijah was reputed to be the patron saint of aviators, but as he went to Heaven in a chariot of fire, this was something we weren't too keen about..." - Kiffin Yates Rockwell.
Here are some more links for those interested in learning more: