On May 24th, a quiet 31 year old man named Raoul Lufbery became the first new member to join the Lafayette Escadrille. Short, stocky and prosaic in looks, Lufbery would soon emerge as the top ace and most famous of the members of the Lafayette Escadrille. Lufbery was born in central France, near Clermont-Ferrand on March 21, 1885 of a French mother and an American father of French origin named Edouard Lufbery. Surprisingly in spite of his own French birth and parentage and his broken English, Lufbery considered himself an American and had naturalized a few years earlier. He traveled around the world and eventually met a French stunt-pilot named Marc Pourpe in Calcutta, India in 1912. Lufbery signed on as Pourpe's mechanic and the two became fast and dear friends. Somewhere along the line Pourpe taught Lufbery to fly. When the war broke out, the two volunteered to go to France as quickly as possible. In spite of his French birth, as a naturalized American, Lufbery had to join the French Foreign Legion, but Pourpe managed to get Lufbery assigned as his mechanic. On December 2, 1914, Pourpe was killed in a crash, devastating Lufbery. He bitterly swore to avenge his friend's death which is what led him to the Lafayette Escadrille. Raoul Lufbery. Photo courtesy www.overthefront.com.
Lufbery got his first victory on July 31st then got two more over Verdun's Fort Vaux on August 8th. He ended that day with a hat trick giving him four victories in total. On the 16th, Lufbery received the Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire. It was an auspicious start for the new, determined pilot.
December 27, 1916 was the first good flying day in a long time. Lufbery made the best of it tallying another victory. On January 24, 1917 Lufbery added yet another victim to his score.
Off the ground, Lufbery was going from success to success, flying three or four missions a day and racking up a disproportionate number of the Escadrille's victories. In doing so, he became the natural instructor of the group, going to great lengths to teach his techniques to new members and veterans alike. And, as the undisputed star of the group, Lufbery was bombarded by perfume laced letters from adoring females.
On December 2, 1917, Lufbery scored two more victories. Other than that, the winter months were quiet. The fliers led a binary existence: flying or relaxing with little in between.
There was nothing which foresaw a tragic ending the morning of May 19, 1918. Lufbery took off in another pilot's Nieuport 28 in an effort to aid a pilot being bested by a German observation plane. Lufbery climbed rapidly, closed, fired at the German plane and then backed off in order to clear a jammed gun. The German observer turned the tables on him and then hit Lufbery's Nieuport as they flew over the village of Maron seven miles southeast of the Toul aerodrome.
The critical hit was inflicted by a bullet that entered his reserve fuel tank setting it on fire then continuing clear through it slicing off part of Lufbery's right thumb. There are two different versions of what happened next. In one version, the entire front end of the plane quickly caught on fire. Lufbery had always told his protégés like Ricken-backer to stay in a burning plane rather than jump. "I've never seen a guy jump out of one on fire and live, but I know of four or five that have ridden them into the ground and lived." The flames might go out by themselves he also explained to them. At first Lufbery tried just that, side-slipped the plane on its way down, hoping either to keep the flames at bay or to extinguish them. Instead of going out, the flames got hellishly worse. Finally, still about two thousand feet off of the ground, Lufbery was seen jumping out of the plane aiming himself at the Moselle River hoping to hit it to save his life. In the other version, when the bullet sliced through his thumb, he lost control of the plane. In his haste to take off, he had not properly secured his seat belt. After losing control, he fell out of the plane. In either case, he landed lengthwise on a picket fence surrounding the flower garden of a peasant woman's yard near the village of Maron. Rickenbacker and others arrived within 30 minutes to find that the villagers had already taken Lufbery's body to the town square and covered it with flowers from nearby gardens.
Lufbery's coffin was brought back to the barracks at Toul. The next day the American ace of aces was buried, surrounded in tribute by hundreds of officers including Eddie Rickenbacker, Billy Mitchell, General Gerard, commander of the French VIth Army, and General Ligett, commander of the 26th Division. Rickenbacker went back to the Aerodrome shortly after, took off with a flight of pilots who flew over the gravesite and dropped flowers in their wake. The Germans flew over and dropped flowers as well.
Ironically, the pilot whose Nieuport Lufbery had borrowed met his own end in Lufbery's Nieuport several weeks later.
A special thanks to Bob Stickle and Diana Lufbery Stickle for this update to Raoul Lufbery's medals:
Croix de Guerre, 10 palms - essentially the equivalent of 10 Croix de Guerres.
British Military Medal
Purple Heart (posthumous)
WWI Victory Medal
Connecticut Veterans Wartime Service Medal
Numerous citations from the French Army
Medal from Montenegro
Legion d'Honneur de Chevalier
Bob also adds:
"A part of I-91 in Ct was named after the Major in Oct of 2011. In 1954, Lufbery Avenue in Wallingford, CT was named for him. Eddie Rickenbacker was the main speaker at that event. He has also been enshrined in The United States National Aviation Hall of Fame."
Related Links: Quentin Roosevelt | Frank Luke | Eddie Rickenbacker | Raoul Lufbery | Eugene Bullard | David Ingalls - 1st Navy Ace | "American Eagles" - 345 page illustrated history of US Combat Aviation in World War I