Friedrich Wilhelm "Fred" Zinn was a volunteer American aviator who flew with French Armée de l'Air forces in World War I and an early pioneer of aerial photography for wartime reconnaissance and Military intelligence.
Fred Zinn lived in Battle Creek, Michigan. While visiting France in August 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion shortly after the outbreak of World War I. He was one of the group who signed the American Volunteer Corps flag in Paris on October 17, 1914, before departing for Rouen.
He served on the Western Front until February 1, 1916, when he was wounded for the second time during a German artillery attack.
Zinn transferred to the French Aéronautique Militaire on February 14, 1916. He served as gunner and bombardier with Escadrille F-14 from December 12, 1916, until October 21, 1917, often augmenting his bombing duties by taking reconnaissance photographs of enemy lines before returning to base.
Zinn was one of the first aviators to attempt to photograph enemy troop positions from the air to assist commanders on the ground. This had previously been done from manned balloons, but they were vulnerable to enemy fire and had to be kept behind the lines. By flying directly over enemy positions and taking photographs, Zinn provided French commanders with a far better view of the battlefield, and the techniques he and others developed soon became standard practice for both sides in the trench warfare style conflict.
He was decorated twice by the French government for bravery for flying low over enemy lines on these reconnaissance missions.
Although not formally assigned to the American Lafayette Escadrille, Zinn was recorded as an observer for the Escadrille, presumably while taking aerial photographs.
After the United States entered the war in 1917, Zinn entered the U.S. Army Air Service as a captain and was attached to American GHQ at Chaumont until the Armistice on November 11, 1918. He was one of a small number of Legionnaires who entered the war in August 1914 to survive over four years of active service and over three full years in combat units. Some French Foreign Legion units had close to 100% casualties in the intense trench warfare.
Zinn returned to the United States after the war and continued flying, including a trip to San Francisco where his biplane was required to fly only over the waters of San Francisco Bay due to a perceived danger to citizens if it traveled over land.
- Walt Brown, Jr., An American for Lafayette: The Diaries of E.C.C. Genet, Lafayette Escadrille. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981)
- Edwin W. Morse, America in the War: The Vanguard of American Volunteers in the Fighting Lines and in Humanitarian Service, August, 1914—April, 1917. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919
- Website about the American Volunteer Legion and their flag
- The New York Times Current History of the Great War (1920) erroneously reports that Zinn was killed by a gunshot to the chest while assaulting a German-held trench in France in September, 1915.