James Rogers McConnell

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James Rogers McConnell
Born (1887-03-14)March 14, 1887
Chicago, Illinois
Died March 19, 1917(1917-03-19) (aged 30)
Unit Lafayette Escadrille

James Rogers McConnell (14 March 1887 – 19 March 1917) flew as an aviator during World War I in the Lafayette Escadrille and authored Flying for France. He was the first of sixty-four sons of the University of Virginia to die in battle during that War.[1]

Early life[edit]

Born in Chicago, he was the son of Judge Samuel Parsons McConnell. The family moved from Chicago to New York City and then to Carthage, North Carolina James attended private schools in Chicago, Morristown, N.J., and Haverford, Pa. In 1908 he enrolled at the University of Virginia, staying for two undergraduate years and one in the law school. While there he founded an "aero club," engaged in numerous collegiate pranks, was elected King of the Hot Feet (later painting a red foot on the side of his plane in France), was assistant cheerleader, and joined the Omicron Chapter of Beta Theta Pi[1] as well as the organization Theta Nu Epsilon. In 1910 McConnell left law school and joined his family in Carthage. There he served as the land and industrial agent of the Seaboard Air Line Railway and secretary of the Carthage Board of Trade. He also wrote promotional pamphlets for the Sandhills area of North Carolina.

World War I[edit]

In January 1915, McConnell sailed from New York to enlist with the American Ambulance Corps in France. In a letter to a friend in 1915, he wrote: "Tomorrow I am going to the front with our squad and twelve ambulances. . . . I am having a glorious experience." His rescue of a wounded French soldier while under fire was one of many similar acts. France awarded him the Croix de Guerre for "conspicuous bravery in saving wounded under fire."

Of his decision to join the fighting ranks, McConnell wrote: "All along I had been convinced that the United States ought to aid in the struggle against Germany. With that conviction, it was plainly up to me to do more than drive an ambulance. The more I saw the splendour of the fight the French were fighting, the more I felt like an embusque - what the British call a "shirker." So I made up my mind to go into aviation."[2] On May 13, 1916, McConnell participated in the unit's first patrol. Thirty-eight pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille flew Nieuport biplanes that traveled at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) Operating from Luxeuil Field in eastern France, McConnell's group typically set off each day at dawn, clad in fur-lined outfits for two hour patrols. Only after the battle of Verdun were the planes equipped with machine guns; prior to this, pilots simply fired machine guns single-handedly while steering. The 47-round Lewis machine guns were replaced with 500-round Vickers models which synchronized with the rotating propellers. While convalescing from a back injury, suffered during a landing mishap, McConnell found time to compose Flying for France.

In aerial combat with two German planes, McConnell died on March 19, 1917 above the Somme battlefields. He was buried in a meadow between the villages of Flavy-le-Martel and Jussy in Aisne, France. A monument erected to McConnell in Carthage bears an inscription reading in part, "He fought for Humanity, Liberty and Democracy, lighted the way for his countrymen and showed all men how to dare nobly and to die gloriously."[3][4]

The Aviator Statue[edit]

"The Aviator"

Alumni of Virginia and friends of McConnell commissioned a statue, The Aviator, by Gutzon Borglum, that now adorns the grounds of the University of Virginia. The statue's base reads: "Soaring like an eagle into new heavens of valor and devotion".

When Armistead Dobie accepted the statue on behalf of the University during Finals in 1919, he recalled of McConnell's nature a "hatred of the humdrum, an abhorrence of the commonplace, a passion for the picturesque."[5]

The Seven Society, of which McConnell was a member, presented a wreath on that day.

Today, brothers of McConnell's fraternity, the Omicron of Beta Theta Pi, remember his exploits in song and memorialize the fallen aviator every year on March 19 with an all-day color guard and a memorial ceremony.


  1. ^ Letter from President's Office, University of Virginia Press Release, June 23, 1919
  2. ^ McConnell, James. Flying for France (1918) Grosset and Dunlop, 15.
  3. ^ DICTIONARY OF NORTH CAROLINA BIOGRAPHY edited by William S. Powell. Copyright (c) 1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press.
  4. ^ UVa Memorial Exhibit Summary, http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/mcconnell/
  5. ^ University of Virginia Alumni News, July 1919, 252.

External links[edit]