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World War I: Raoul Lufbery

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World War I: Raoul Lufbery

Major Raoul Lufbery

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Raoul Lufbery - Early Life:

Born at Clermont-Ferrand, France on March 14, 1885, Raoul Lufbery was the son of an American father and a French mother. Lufbery's parents moved to the United States when he was a small child, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. Growing up in France, he worked at chocolate factories in Blois and Clermont-Ferrand until the age of 19. Deciding that he wished to see the world, he traveled to Germany, Turkey, North Africa, and England before crossing the Atlantic and settling in Wallingford, CT. In 1904, Lufbery enlisted in the US Army with the goal of attaining US citizenship.

Raoul Lufbery - Wandering to War:

Dispatched to the Philippines, Lufbery became an expert marksman while in the service. After his discharge, he headed west to India. While in Calcutta in 1912, he met the French aviation pioneer Marc Pourpe. Quickly becoming friends, Pourpe hired Lufbery as his mechanic and the two toured Asia on a barnstorming tour. The following year, Lufbery assisted Pourpe during "Aviation Week" in Egypt and aided in his record-breaking, round-trip flight from Cairo to Khartoum. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Pourpe joined the French Service Aeronautique.

While Lufbery desired to follow Pourpe, he was unable to join the French military without jeopardizing his American citizenship. As a result, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and was trained as an infantryman. Shortly thereafter, Pourpe was able to have Lufbery transferred to his squadron as a mechanic. Lufbery remained in this role until December, when following Pourpe's death, he applied for pilot training. Accepted, he was sent to flight school at Chartres where he learned to fly on Farmans. Completing his training, he was assigned to Escadrille VB 106 and sent to the front in October 1915.

Raoul Lufbery - In the French Service:

Flying reconnaissance missions, Lufbery proved himself a competent pilot. After a brief period at the front, he applied to fighter school, and after some resistance from his commanding officer, was accepted. Arriving at Plessis-Belleville, Lufbery trained on Nieuports. Though not a naturally gifted fighter pilot, he was respected for his persistence, attention to detail, and mechanical prowess. Due to his American background he was assigned to the new Escadrille Américaine upon completing his training in May 1916. Due to political pressure, the name of the squadron was soon changed to Escadrille Lafayette.

Largely composed of American volunteers from Ivy League colleges and the upper class, the initial pilots of the Escadrille Lafayette lacked flight experience and combat skills. As a veteran flier, the squadron's commander hoped that Lufbery could impart his experience to his new comrades. Joining the squadron on May 24, Lufbery did not immediately fit in with his fellow pilots. Older than most, he spoke heavily accented English and was thought crude and unfriendly. He also was criticized by fellow pilots for associating with the mechanics and frequently working on his own aircraft.

As the squadron battled the Germans through the summer and fall of 1916, Lufbery quickly gained the respect of his fellow fliers by proving himself a tenacious fighter who repeatedly achieved success. On July 30, he downed his first two German planes while flying over Verdun. That October he shot down his fifth, making him an ace and the squadron's top scorer. For his success, he was awarded the Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with a Palm. It was during this time that Lufbery adopted a lion cub from Paris circus. Naming it Whiskey, he raised it over the next two years and it became the squadron mascot.

In the fall of 1916, Lufbery's name became attached with a commonly used defensive formation. Dubbed the "Lufbery Circle," the maneuver called for a squadron's aircraft to fly in a circle with each covering the tail of the one in front of it. While not invented by Lufbery, he helped popularize it with Allied fliers. Over the next several months, Lufbery's count increased to 16 and he became the squadron commander with the rank of major. In January 1918, he was transferred to the US Army and sent to the Pursuit Organization Center at Villeneuve-les-Vertus.

Raoul Lufbery - American Service:

Like many experienced American fliers, Lufbery was taken from his squadron and assigned to aid in training pilots in the US Army Air Service. After briefly serving with the 95th Aero Squadron, he was placed with the newly formed 94th Aero Squadron as a combat instructor. Taking up his new role, he found that the 94th's aircraft lacked machine guns and were effectively grounded. In his new role, Lufbery became moody and unhappy, lamenting that he had nothing to do. On March 16, 1918, Lufbery led rookie pilots Eddie Rickenbacker and Doug Campbell on an unarmed patrol over the front.

After finally receiving weapons for their aircraft, the 94th began to take an active role in Allied operations. During this time, Lufbery added another kill to his score (17). Despite this new activity, he remained irritable and seemed to obsess over his aircraft and a fear of fire in the air. On May 19, 1918, he took off in pursuit of a German Rumpler near Toul, France. While engaging it, his plane was hit and the engine caught fire. As his aircraft began to plummet, witnesses saw him climb from the burning cockpit and jump to his death. His body was found impaled on a fence in the village of Maron.

The top-scoring ace of the Escadrille Lafayette, Lufbery was given a full military funeral and buried in the Aviators Cemetery at Sebastapol, France. During the ceremony, Rickenbacker led the aircraft of the 1st Pursuit Group over the cemetery. Lufbery's body was later moved to the Lafayette Memorial du Parc de Garches in Paris. Though officially credited with 17 kills, Lufbery's fellow pilots listed numerous instances where he downed enemy aircraft and received no credit. Based on these statements, his true score may have been anywhere between 25 and 60.

Selected Sources

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  5. Air Force
  6. World War I Aviation Leaders & Aces
  7. Raoul Lufbery - World War I Raoul Lufbery Ace

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