18 May 1916: Corporel Kiffin Yates Rockwell, Escadrille de La Fayette (Escadrille Nº. 124), shot down an enemy airplane near Hartmannswillerkopf, a 956 meter (3,137 feet) peak in the Vosges Mountains, along the border between France and Germany.
Rockwell is credited as the first American pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft during World War I. ¹
Rockwell wrote to his brother, Paul Ayres Rockwell:
Thursday, May 18, 1916
Well, at last I have a little something to tell you. This morning I went out over the lines to make a little tour. I was somewhat the other other side of our lines, when my motor began to miss a bit. I turned around to go to a camp near the lines.
Just as I started to head for there I saw a boche machine about seven hundred meters under me and a little inside our lines. I immediately reduced my motor and dived for him. He saw me at the same time, and began to dive towards home. It was a machine with a pilot and a gunner, carrying two rapid fire guns, one facing front, and one in the rear that turned on a pivot so it could be fired in any direction.
The gunner immediately opened fire on me, and my machine was hit; but I didn’t pay any attention to that, and kept going straight for him until I got within twenty-five or thirty meters of his machine. Then, just as I was afraid of running into him, I fired four or five shots, and swerved my machine to the right to keep from having a collision.
As I did that I saw the gunner fall back dead on the pilot, his machine-gun fall from its position and point straight up in the air, and the pilot fall to one side of the machine as if he too were done for. The machine itself fell to one side, then dived vertically towards the ground with a lot of smoke coming out of the rear. I circled around, and three or four minutes later saw smoke coming up from the ground just beyond the German trenches.
The captain said he would propose me for the Medaille Militaire, but I don’t know whether I will get it or not.
Yesterday Thaw had a fight that ended by the boche diving towards the ground. He was signaled as leaving the air on being seriously hit, but being able to get in his own lines.
Am very busy just now, as the order has just come for us to go to Verdun. Jim sent you a telegram about my fight.
The Asheville Times reported:
Kiffin Rockwell Brings Down German Aeroplane
Paris, May 19.—Corporal Kiffen [sic] Rockwell of Asheville and Atlanta, a member of the American flying squadron, yesterday attacked a German aeroplane operating near Hartmanns Weiler-Kopf. The German machine was brought down in flames.
Corporal Kiffen Rockwell, of this city who with his brother Paul Rockwell, sailed for England at the very outbreak of the war and joined the Foreign Legion, is now an aviator in the French-American flying corps and on Wednesday took part in the first action of the corps since its organization as a separate unit. Although the flyers were subjected to heavy fire as they recrossed the front, it is stated, Corporal Rockwell escaped unharmed.
After the two brothers joined the Foreign Legion they served in the trenches in the first Teutonic drive on Paris during which Paul was wounded. He soon recovered, however, and is doing newspaper work in Paris.
—The Asheville Times, Volume XXI, No. 83, 19 May 1916, Page 1, Columns 2–3
In May 1916, Escadrille N°. 124 was equipped with both the Nieuport XI C.1 and Nieuport XVI C.1 fighters. It is not known which type Rockwell flew on 18 May. Neither is the type of aircraft which Rockwell shot down. (one unverified source describes it as a Luft-Verkehrs-Gesellschaft G.m.b.H. reconnaissance airplane.)
Kiffin Yates Rockwell was born 20 September 1892 at Newport, Tennessee, United States of America. He was the third child of James Chester Rockwell, a Baptist minister, and Loula Ayres Rockwell. His father died of typhoid fever a week before Kiffin’s first birthday. Mrs. Rockwell would become a school teacher to support her family. She was soon placed in charge of the public schools in Newport. In 1902, she enrolled at the American College of Osteopathy, Kirksville, Missouri, and became a doctor of osteopathic medicine. After she graduated, the Rockwell family relocated to Asheville, North Carolina.
Kiffin Rockwell attended Orange Street School and Asheville High School, both in Asheville, North Carolina. On 1 February 1909, he entered the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia. Rockwell was appointed to the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, but enrolled at Washington and Lee University, also located in Lexington, where his older brother, Paul, was studying. Kiffin was a member of the Class of 1913, and of the Sigma Phi Epsilon (ΣΦΕ) Fraternity, Epsilon Chapter. He was also a member of the university’s North Carolina Club. Rockwell left Washington and Lee in 1911 to pursue a career in journalism.
Rockwell worked for an advertising agency in San Francisco, California, then joined his brother at a newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia.
On 7 August 1914, Kiffin Rockwell and his brother sailed to France aboard the American Line steamship, S.S. St. Paul. On 21 August, they enlisted in the Légion étrangère (the French Foreign Legion) and served with Battalion C, Second Marching Regiment, Second Foreign Battalion.
In March 1915, Rockwell transferred to 1re Division Marocaine (1st Regiment, Moroccan Division). He was wounded by machine gun fire 9 May 1915 at La Targette, north of Arras. After recuperating, he requested a transfer to the Service Aeronautique, which was accepted. He began flight training in September 1915. Rockwell was a founding member of the Escadrille Americaine (Lafayette Escadrille) of the Aéronautique Militaire (the French Air Service).
Sergeant Kiffin Yates Rockwell, while flying a Nieuport XVII C.1 over Thann, a town at the foot of the Vosges Mountains, was killed in action 23 September 1916. He was hit in the chest by the gunner of a two-place Aviatik.
In a letter to his mother, Rockwell had written,
If I die you will know that I died as every man should—in fighting for the right. I do not consider that I am fighting for France alone, but for the cause of humanity, the greatest of all causes.
Rockwell was officially credited with four aerial victories. He was awarded the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. He was appointed a Chevalier de la légion d’honneur.
His remains were buried at the Luxeuil-les-Bains Communal Cemetery, Luxeuil-les-Bains, Departement de la Haute-Saône, Franche-Comté, France. His commanding officer, Captain Georges Thenault, said of him, “His courage was sublime. . . The best and bravest of us is no longer here.”
Rockwell is commemorated at the Mémorial Escadrille La Fayette, Marnes-la-Coquette, Departement des Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, France.
¹ American ace Sergent Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery, also a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, shot down his first enemy aircraft 30 July 1916.
© 2023, Bryan R. Swopes