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Aviator Kiffin Rockwell was among four North Carolinians who flew for France in World War I. The others were James Baugham of Washington, Arthur Bluethenthal of Wilmington, and James McConnell of Carthage. Owing to the dedication of his brother, Colonel Paul Rockwell of Asheville, to his memory, Kiffin Rockwell’s story is the best known.
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Rockwell was born to James Chester and Loula Ayres Rockwell in Newport, Tennessee, on September 20, 1892. His family, with the exception of his father who had died when he was one year old, moved to Asheville when Kiffin was fourteen. After spending summers with his grandfather, a Civil War veteran, he developed a strong interest in the army and in 1908 enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute. The next year Rockwell received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, but declined it because he believed he would not see wartime service serving in the Navy. Rockwell transferred to Washington and Lee University where graduated with a degree in journalism. After graduation he spent some time traveling out west and settled in Atlanta, where he got a job with an advertising agency. He was there in August 1914 when Germany declared war on France.
On August 7, three days after war had broken out and President Woodrow Wilson had issued a neutrality proclamation for the United States, Kiffin and his brother Paul sailed for France and volunteered for the French army. As members of the French Foreign Legion, both men were severely wounded. After recovering from the thigh injury that ended his infantry service, Kiffin Rockwell became one of the first Americans to join the newly formed Lafayette Escadrille, an American volunteer aerial combat squadron. Twenty-eight days after he joined the squadron and with only brief training and no previous aviation experience, on May 18, 1916, Rockwell became the first American to shoot down an enemy plane. For the next four months he participated in every mission his squadron was assigned and shot down a second plane.
On September 23, 1916, during his first mission after returning from leave, Rockwell engaged in a dogfight with a German plane. He was shot in the chest, making him the second American killed in aerial combat. Rockwell was memorialized and honored in numerous ways both in France and the United States. During his graveside service at the base at Luxeuil, French aviator Georges Thenault, commandant of the Layfayette Escadrille said, “His courage was sublime. . . . The best and bravest of us is no longer here.” He was awarded posthumously the Cross of the Legion of Honor. The Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Newport, Tennessee, and in Asheville are named in Kiffin Rockwell’s memory.
Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, XVI
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 241—sketch by Glenn Tucker
Henry E. Mattox, “Chariots of Wrath’: North Carolinians Who Flew for France in World War I,” North Carolina Historical Review (July 1996): 287-308