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Kiffin Yates Rockwell (1892–1916) was an early aviator who was the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft in World War I. On May 18, 1916, Rockwell attacked and shot down a German aircraft over the Alsace battlefield to become the first American pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. For this action he was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre.
Rockwell was born in Newport, Tennessee in 1892, the son of Baptist minister James Rockwell and wife Loula Ayres. After James Rockwell's death, the family moved several times, eventually settling in Asheville, North Carolina. Rockwell briefly attended Washington and Lee University at Lexington, Virginia (where there is a plaque in Lee Chapel in his memory) and the Virginia Military Institute.
At the outbreak of World War I, Kiffin Rockwell and his brother, Paul, offered their services to France by letter to the French Consul-General in New Orleans. Without waiting for a reply, they boarded the 'St Paul' and on August 7, 1914 sailed for Europe.
Kiffin Rockwell was shot through the leg on May 9, 1915 when his regiment charged La Targette, north of Arras. He spent six weeks in the hospital and when he left for Paris on convalescent leave, his leg was completely healed. While in Paris, he spent time with his brother, Paul, who was a war correspondent with the Chicago Daily News. He then requested transfer from the trenches to France's air arm and was among the first American's to be added to the infant attack squadron which would come to be known as the Lafayette Escadrille. The Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124) was authorized by the French Air Department on March 21, 1916.
On May 18, 1916, Rockwell attacked and shot down a German aircraft over the Alsace battlefield to become the first American pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. For this action he was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. On May 26, 1916, during the defense of Verdun, Rockwell was wounded in the face during combat with an enemy airplane.
On September 23, 1916, during a battle with a German two-manned plane, Rockwell was shot through the chest by an explosive bullet and killed instantly. His plane crashed between the first and second line of French trenches and close to the point where his first kill, some 4 months earlier, had come to earth. Rockwell was only the second American airman to die in combat.
- Stephen W. Thompson, the first member of the United States military (1st Aero Squadron) to shoot down an enemy aircraft.
- About Kiffin Rockwell. Virginia Military Institute Archives Online Historical Research Center. Retrieved: 2009-10-14.
- North Carolina Centennial of Flight at www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us - North Carolina Centennial of Flight
- Rockwell-family.org at www.rockwell-family.org - Kiffin Rockwell and the Lafeyette Escadrille
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