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1914::The Thaws, the Dogs and the Lions of the Lafayette Escadrille

Updated: Apr 12

A short story about the first-ever American air combat pilots.

1917::Volunteer American Pilots of the French Foreign Legion (Thaw Brothers Arm in Arm)

"1917::Volunteer American Pilots of the French Foreign Legion (Thaw Brothers Arm in Arm)"

Photo: Washington & Lee University Archives (tbd)

Shortly after the First World War broke out in Europe, the United States, not wanting to entangle itself in a European conflict, declared itself neutral. Despite this declaration from their government, American aviators in France who believed in the cause volunteered their flying skills to the French Foreign Legion. For almost a year, the pilots engaged in daring dogfights and aerial manoeuvres that the world had never seen before. Unofficially, they had created the first All-American squadron of fighters. But, as America was still neutral in the war, they could not fly under an American banner. So they came up with the name LaFayette Escadrille, LaFayette after the Marquis de Lafayette, a young French hero of America's Revolutionary War, and the French word for squadron, Escadrille.

1915::A New Escadrille Mascot

"1915::A New Escadrille Mascot"

Photo: (tbd)

An official name required an official mascot, so while on a boat to Paris, Escadrille pilot William Thaw rescued a lion cub from becoming part of a circus act. Thaw named the cub Whiskey after his favourite drink and returned her to his airbase, where she became the LaFayette Escadrille's official mascot. But as the war raged on and Whiskey's claws grew longer, the men knew that their growing cub could become a dangerous pet, especially after a playfight with a French officer's dog resulted in the near removal of his leg. They had to come up with a solution.

1915::Soda, Whiskey's Perfect Companion

"1915::Soda, Whiskey's Perfect Companion"

Photo: (tbd)

To keep Whiskey from being lonely and aggressive, the Escadrille adopted a second lion cub named Soda, Whiskey's perfect companion. Soon, the two lioness mascots were as famous in the news headlines as the pilots who cared for them.

1916::The World's First Air Combats

"1916::The World's First Air Combats"

Clip: The San Francisco Examiner (1916)

San Francisco, California, USA

Air warfare was a new and extremely dangerous combat tactic during the First World War. Dogfighting from the open cockpit of a rickety plane against a competent enemy flying a superb aircraft was nothing short of terrifying. Most pilots had no idea what they were getting into when they volunteered with the French Foreign Legion, but they endured anyway. Lucky for them, they had lions to comfort them whenever they returned from battle. Along with the dogs they had rescued from the battlefields, the lions of the Escadrille became an important healing source for the traumatized pilots.

1917::The Lioness War Heroes

"1917::The Lioness War Heroes"

Clip: New Castle Herald (1917) Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Notable Correspondent: H. G. Wells

In 1917, just before Christmas, Whiskey and Soda became war heroes when their louder-than-usual roars brought all the men on base running toward their location in the woods. Upon arrival, the men discovered the lions engaged in their first big fight. As the men stood helplessly watching their battling mascots, they could hear the sound of incoming enemy planes growing louder. The airmen watched from the woods as German fighters attacked and destroyed their entire base, including all the aircraft housed in the hangar. There was no loss of life thanks to the roars of the lions that drew them away from the base to the safety of the woods, but the event marked the lions' last days with the Escadrille.

1917::A New Home For the Lioness Mascots

"1917::A New Home For the Lioness Mascots"

Photo Clip: The Austin American (1917)

Austin, Texas, USA

News headlines credited Whiskey and Soda for saving the lives of their Escadrille airmen. Not long after the raid, the Escadrille sent their lions to a nearby zoo in Bois de Boulogne near Paris, where they could be cared for and regularly visited by the pilots. 

1918::America's First Combat Planes Were French

"1918::America's First Combat Planes Were French"

Photo: (tbd)

The American airmen of the La Fayette Escadrille operated French planes known as Nieuports, earning the squadron the nickname N.124, with the 'N' representing Nieuport. Their aircraft were distinguishable in the sky by the Lafayette Escadrille's Indian head logo, symbolizing their unity and identity. This logo, believed to be a Seminole Indian designed by one of its pilots, remains a powerful emblem widely recognized today as a reminder of the squadron's history and contribution to aviation. 

1917::LaFayette Escadrille Seminole Indian Head Logo

"1917::LaFayette Escadrille Seminole Indian Head Logo"

Clip: Palladium-Item (1917)

Richmond, Indiana

When the United States entered the war in 1917, the government replaced the Lafayette Escadrille with their first official American Flying Squadron. The new squadron quickly replaced the French planes destroyed in the enemy air raid with 18 American-made De Havilland 4s, America's first wartime combat airplanes. By way of the French Foreign Legion, the voluntary efforts of American Lafayette Escadrille in World War One had formed the foundation of American combat aviation. 

1918::The Fatal Test Flight of the DH4 Planes

"1918::The Fatal Test Flight of the DH4 Planes"

Photo Clip: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1918)

Now that America had entered the war, William Thaw's younger brother Blair Thaw joined the newly formed American Flying Squadron. The young Lieutenant had made a name for himself as a flying ace and became the first test pilot to run a test reconnaissance mission with the new DH4 plane. Upon news of his successful flight, America sent 2,000 more DH4s to France, where they served the pilots well for the remainder of the war.

1918::The Fatal Test Flight.

On Thaw's second test flight the following day, however, people watched in horror as the young pilot's plane fell from the sky, hitting telephone wires as he tried his best to land the plane. The young Lieutenant lost his life in the crash. His dog, seated in his custom-built cock-pit behind him, was seen wandering around the crash site for days looking for the life of his best friend and master.



The Evening World (1920)

New York, New York

Young Lieutenant Thaw rarely flew without his canine best friend, Broncho. He had a custom seat with straps built into the plane to keep Broncho safe. When the plane crashed, Broncho limped and wandered about the crash site for days, refusing to leave his master. When officials finally located the wreckage and retrieved Thaw's body, Broncho limped into the field hospital where the Lieutenant's remains were awaiting his funeral. The surgeons who recognized Broncho did everything they could to heal his wounds, but they knew that Broncho would forever have a limp in his walk.

The day before his master's funeral in France, Broncho went missing again. Family and friends later found him at the crash site lying next to the broken plane. Lieutenant Thaw's mother flew to Paris to bury her son and returned to Pittsburg with Broncho, where he lived out the remaining years of his life. When her son's best friend died of old age, she brought his remains to France and buried him in Paris, where he could spend eternity close to his master.


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