The French Connection

The French Connection

The heroic life and death of James McConnell

By Bill Case

He was shot out of the sky over the French countryside more than a century ago, but for residents of Carthage, North Carolina, the presence of James Rogers McConnell endures. Memorials to the fallen World War I aviator can be found in nearly every corner of the Moore County seat. A highway marker on McReynolds Street explains that McConnell “flew for France in (the) Lafayette Escadrille,” a legendary unit of pilots serving under the French flag though hailing from America.

Fronting the Moore County courthouse is a Washington Monument-style obelisk. Its inscription says McConnell “fought for humanity, liberty and democracy, lighted the way for his countrymen, and showed all men how to dare nobly and die gloriously.”

Diners at the Pik N Pig restaurant adjacent to Carthage’s airport will find a massive bronze and granite plaque dedicated to McConnell near the barbecue’s front door. Gifted by a grateful government of France, its text is engraved in French. Alongside is another plaque translating the tribute into English. Planes landing in Carthage do so at the Gilliam-McConnell Airfield. The facility’s founder and owner, Roland Gilliam, jokes that his name is first only because “G comes before M in the alphabet.”

In September 2023, Gilliam paid further homage to Carthage’s favorite son by opening (together with curator Debby Campbell) the James Rogers McConnell Air Museum near the airfield. Among the treasured artifacts on display is a slightly smaller than full-scale replica of a similar model of the Nieuport biplane McConnell flew in dogfights against the Germans.

Motorists on N.C. 24 can’t miss the magnificent 20-foot-high mural painted by renowned North Carolina artist Scott Nurkin. It depicts a uniformed McConnell, his biplane and the phrase Flying for France, referring to the title of the aviator’s book, published by Doubleday, Page & Co. in 1917 — a stirring account of McConnell’s time with the Lafayette Escadrille. Visitors at the Carthage Museum on Rockingham Street view an exhibit honoring the flier that includes several of his personal items. A commemorative edition of Flying for France can be purchased there.

McConnell lived in Carthage for only two years before heading to France in 1915. Following his move to Carthage from New York City in 1912, he worked as the land and industrial agent for the local Randolph & Cumberland Railway — something of a family business since his father, Samuel Parsons McConnell, served as superintendent and part owner of the railroad after health concerns precipitated his move south.

In addition to his job with the railroad, James McConnell moonlighted with the Sandhill Board of Trade, an organization dedicated to the promotion of area agriculture and other business activities. As board secretary, he ingratiated himself with area farmers, wrote pamphlets and sought new uses of the Sandhills’ natural resources, including whether or not the smooth red clay underlying the Randolph & Cumberland railroad tracks might prove suitable for making bricks.

What motivated James McConnell to involve himself in World War I? Frank C. Page’s introduction to Flying for France provides a clue. In a chance meeting in January 1915 outside the county courthouse McConnell had surprising news. “Well, I’m all fixed up and am leaving on Wednesday,” he told Page.

“Wherefore?” asked Page.

“I’ve got a job driving an ambulance in France,” responded the 27-year-old.

World War I was raging across Europe, and the bloodbath was intense in the trenches of the French countryside. As a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Field Service, McConnell would transport wounded French soldiers from the front to the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly, France. It promised to be gruesome and dangerous work.

Privately funded, the AFS had no relationship with the American government. The U.S. was sitting on the sidelines, adhering to President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of strict neutrality toward the combatant nations. (Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Serbia were fighting Germany, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.) Employing the catchphrase “He kept us out of war,” Wilson had just been re-elected to a second presidential term. America would not declare war against Germany until April 1917.

With America steadfastly neutral, Page wondered why his friend was intent on risking his life in a foreign war, leaving behind his business career, his father and numerous friends. McConnell had an answer. Imagining The Great War as an event of historical importance, he felt he would be missing the opportunity of a lifetime if he failed to get involved. “These Sandhills will be here forever, but the war won’t, so I am going,” he told Page. Then he added, “And I’ll be of some use, too, not just a sightseer looking on; that wouldn’t be fair.”

McConnell was just one among many idealistic young men, often from affluent backgrounds, who volunteered their services as ambulance drivers during the war. The AFS targeted upscale undergrads and alumni of prestigious universities, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, McConnell’s alma mater. Though he never graduated, it is no exaggeration to say that he became as legendary a figure at UVA as he is today in Carthage. Enrolling in 1908, he studied two years at the College of Arts and Sciences, and then one year at the law school. One law professor, observing his pupil’s restlessness, remarked that McConnell exhibited “hatred of the humdrum, an abhorrence of the commonplace, and a passion for the picturesque.”

Left: McConnell and his mécanicien pose beside his Nieuport 11, bearing footprint that represented the University of Virginia’s ‘Hot Foot Society’
Middle: Nieuport 11 N1292 of Sgt. James R. McConnell
Right: James R. McConnell


McConnell thrust himself into UVA’s social whirl, joining a plethora of campus organizations, fraternities and secret societies. He became a cheerleader, editor-in-chief of the campus yearbook and, presaging later activities, founded the Aero Club. Clad in Highland clan finery, McConnell played bagpipes to entertain well-lubricated friends. Named king of the outrageous “Hot Foot Society” (both the king and queen were males), he led a procession of raucous fellow jesters in medieval dress throughout the campus.

McConnell’s most spectacular prank was the furtive attachment of a chamber pot atop the head of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, about to be unveiled in a public ceremony attended by President William Howard Taft. A plumber discovered the pot barely in time to save UVA embarrassment and probably McConnell’s expulsion.

Practical jokes were in McConnell’s rear-view mirror by the time he joined Section 2 of the AFS at Pont-a-Mousson in northeastern France on Feb. 11, 1915. “Tomorrow, I am going to the front with our squad and 12 ambulances,” he wrote a friend. “I am having a glorious experience.” He quickly made his presence felt, bravely rescuing wounded French soldiers while under fire. The French military awarded him the Croix de Guerre.

McConnell also impressed his AFS ambulance team members, including Henry Sydnor Harrison, a writer for Collier’s magazine. “I took note of my driver (McConnell),” recalled Harrison. “He gave me at once a sense of mature responsibleness above his years and inspired confidence.” McConnell, he wrote, was “boyishly delighted by the discovery I was a writer” and thereafter, the two men’s conversations centered around books.

Harrison left the AFS after four months service but continued to correspond with McConnell. “There came a long letter from him written in the first flush of his contact with the front,” reported the Collier’s scribe, “and I had not gone far with it before it came over me like a discovery: Why, hang it, the fellow can write!”

Yes, he could. And when New York-based publishers got wind of McConnell’s talent, they sought firsthand accounts of his experiences at the front. He wrote vividly. A piece in the September 1915 issue of Outlook transports the reader into McConnell’s rattling Daimler ambulance: “The work at night is quite eerie, and on moonless nights quite difficult. It is only in the dazzling light of the illuminating rockets that shoot into the air and sink slowly over the trenches that one can see to proceed with any speed. It is night, too, that our hardest work comes, for that is usually the time when attacks and counterattacks are made and great numbers of men are wounded . . . men with legs and arms shot away, mangled faces, and hideous body wounds. It is a time when men die in the ambulances before they reach the hospital.”

Driving an ambulance in a war zone not only provided writing grist for McConnell but other literary talents too. An extraordinary cadre of famed writers attended to wounded soldiers during World War I , including Ernest Hemmingway, John Dos Passos, W. Somerset Maugham, Dashiell Hammett, Southern Pines’ own James Boyd, E.E. Cummings, Louis Bromfield, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein and Robert W. Service.

During his time with the AFS, McConnell, who never married, befriended a young nurse at the hospital, Mademoiselle Marcelle Guérin. Their relationship appears to have been a passionate one, at least at first. Writing Guérin from the field, he proclaimed, “You are everything to me over here or elsewhere, for that matter.” Later correspondence, though always amicable, suggests the romance had cooled. Marcelle commenced a romance with a Russian while McConnell chattily enlightened her about his flirtations with a beautiful barmaid named Rosa.

After 10 months transporting the wounded, McConnell got directly into the fight. “All along I had been convinced that the United States ought to aid in the struggle against Germany,” he explained in Flying for France. “With that conviction, it was plainly up to me to do more than drive an ambulance. The more I saw the splendor 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.” He quit the AFS.

McConnell joined the French Foreign Legion on Oct. 1, 1915, plunging into flight training in Pau, France. “My elation at arriving there was second only to my satisfaction at being a French soldier,” McConnell wrote. “It was a vast improvement, I thought, to the American ambulance.”

By the spring of 1916, McConnell had achieved proficiency in piloting a Nieuport biplane. He described the aircraft as the “smallest, fastest rising biplane in the French service. It can travel 110 miles an hour and is a one-man apparatus with a machine gun mounted on its roof and fired by the pilot with one hand while with the other and his feet he operates the controls.”

France was in the midst of forming an aviation squadron consisting of pilots from the United States. The French government hoped the exploits of the new unit would push the U.S. into taking up arms against Germany. On March 16, 1916, the director of French aeronautics announced the formation of the N-124 American Escadrille.

The Escadrille’s initial roster listed seven pilots: McConnell; William Thaw from Pittsburgh; Norman Prince from Boston; New Yorkers Elliott Cowdin and Victor Chapman; Texan Bert Hall; and, Kiffin Rockwell from Asheville, North Carolina. The majority came from well-educated and wealthy backgrounds. All except McConnell, Prince and Cowdin had fought in the trenches with the Foreign Legion before opting to join the Escadrille. French Capt. Georges Thenault was placed in charge of the group. Thirty-eight Americans and four Frenchmen would ultimately fly for the unit.

Germany protested that the name of the squadron, American Escadrille, violated America’s neutrality toward the belligerents. Thus, the unit was rechristened the Lafayette Escadrille, honoring the memory of Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who nobly aided the patriots’ cause during the American Revolutionary War.

On April 16, 1916, the American aviators were ordered to join the Escadrille at Luxeuil in the Vosges Mountains. McConnell endured spartan conditions during his flight training, but facilities at the new location were grand. Each pilot had his own private quarters at a villa adjacent to the town’s hot baths. The men dined with the officers at the best hotel in town, and an automobile was available at their beck and call. McConnell felt like a “summer resorter rather than a soldier,” until reflecting on “the ancient custom of giving a man selected for the sacrifice a royal time of it before the appointed day.”

And the possibility of a fiery death for N-124 Lafayette Escadrille aviators was not remote. Missions (two-hour sorties, two to three times daily) were seldom routine. William Sydnor Harrison pointed this out in his tribute to McConnell: “The pilots of N-124 are not ordered for routine observation work; they are not asked to carry messages or take photographs, or regulate artillery fire, or bring up planes from Paris,” he wrote in the Sandhill Citizen. “They are fighters pure and simple, and their place in the air is where the danger is thickest.”

While romance and adventure were attached to being a World War I aviator, flight in an open cockpit could be a harrowing experience. “Mere words are difficult to describe the pure agony of mind and body,” wrote Escsadrille member Laurence Rumsey. “The sub-zero temperature permeated the very marrow of your bones. Despite three or four pairs of gloves, fingers coiled around the stick would be paralyzed in five minutes.”

McConnell’s first sortie on May 13, 1916, produced anxious moments along with his aerial “baptism of fire.” Having never previously flown above 7,000 feet and shivering in the cold, he climbed in his Nieuport up over a cloudbank to an altitude of 14,000 feet, losing contact with his fellow pilots. “Not a single plane was visible anywhere, and I was growing very uncertain about my position,” he recounted in Flying for France. “My splendid isolation had become oppressive, when, one by one, the others began bobbing up above the cloud level, and I had company again.”

On the heels of that scare, enemy shrapnel suddenly enveloped McConnell’s biplane. “It was interesting to watch the flash of the bursting shells, and the attendant smoke puffs — black, white, or yellow, depending on the shrapnel used . . . Strangely enough, my feelings about it were wholly impersonal.”

Four days later, McConnell’s fellow North Carolinian Kiffin Rockwell scored the Escadrille’s first aerial victory, shooting down a German LVG two-seater. According to McConnell, Rockwell closed within 30 yards, “pressed on the release of his machine gun, and saw the enemy gunner fall backward and the pilot crumple up sideways in his seat,” before their plane crashed to the earth.

The Escadrille and everyone in Luxeuil, “particularly the girls” (according to McConnell), celebrated Rockwell’s accomplishment. According to Jon Guttman, author of SPA 124 Lafayette Escradrille, Kiffin’s brother Paul, “who was in Paris when he heard the news, rushed to Luxeuil with an 80-year-old bottle of bourbon whiskey. After drinking a shot, Rockwell offered one to (Victor) Chapman, but he declined, suggesting that each pilot be entitled to one slug of the ‘Bottle of Death’ every time he shot down an enemy aeroplane.”

Other squadron aviators would achieve victories, including Chapman, Thaw, Cowdin, Prince, Hall, and the incomparable Raoul Lufbery, whose 16 kills would make him one of the Allies’ foremost aces. Despite once causing an enemy plane to careen hopelessly out of control McConnell was not credited with any confirmed victories, since no one observed the near-certain crash.

Soon after Rockwell’s victory, the Escadrille was ordered to the Verdun sector. “A commodious villa halfway between the town of Bar-le-Duc and the aviation field had been assigned to us,” wrote McConnell, “and comforts were as plentiful as at Luxeuil.” But he sensed a “gigantic battle” in the offing, given “the endless convoys of motor trucks, the fast-flowing stream of troops, and the distressing number of ambulances.”

Left: The pilots of N124 pose at Luxeuil in May 1916. From left to right: Cpls. Chapman and Cowdin, Sgt. W. Bert Hall, Sous-Lt. Thaw, Capitaine Georges Thenault, Lt. Alfred de Laage de Meux, Sgt. Prince and Cpls. Rockwell and McConnell. Sitting before Thenault and de Laage is Thenault’s dog Fram.
Right: Mural of James McConnell in downtown Carthage


The Battle of Verdun was the longest and bloodiest of the war. Combined Allied and German casualties tallied over 700,000. The Escadrille was not immune from the carnage. Clyde Balsey suffered a severe wound to his thigh from an explosive bullet. He managed to land his plane in a meadow and was taken to a field hospital, where he lingered for an extended period before dying.

While hospitalized, Balsey developed an intense thirst. To quench it, Victor Chapman commandeered two bags of oranges he intended to deliver to the hospital following his final sortie of the day. It would prove to be Chapman’s last flight. He was killed in a dogfight just after shooting down an enemy plane. McConnell described the Escadrille’s reaction in Flying for France: “We talked in lowered voices after that; we could read the pain in one another’s eyes. If only it could have been someone else, was what we all thought . . . I kept thinking of him lying over there, and the oranges he was taking to Balsey.”

To cope with their grief, Escadrille aviators sought distractions. Consumption of alcohol topped the list. The squadron’s carousing while on leave in Paris reportedly reached epic proportions. McConnell wrote of other pastimes. “At the big table, several sportive souls start a poker game, while at a smaller one, two sedate spirits wrap themselves in the intricacies of chess. Captain Thenault labors away at the messroom piano, or in lighter mood plays with Fram, his police dog. A phonograph grinds out the ancient query, ‘Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle,’ or some other ragtime ditty.” On a Paris sojourn, the flyers bought a lion cub, Whiskey, and adopted the feline as the squadron mascot.

Another diversion for the Americans was decorating their aircraft. All the Nieuports displayed the unit’s insignia — a Sioux warrior chief in full headdress. The pilots added their own personal touches. McConnell put the moniker “MAC” on his biplane. He later switched to a white “Hot Foot,” recalling his collegiate merrymaking.

McConnell avoided serious aerial mishaps until late August 1916, when a crash caused him a debilitating back injury. He initially denied being in pain, but Capt. Thenault saw through the ruse and ordered him to the hospital at Vitry-le-Francois. The flier spent most of his 45-day recuperation in the Paris home of Mrs. Alice Weeks, who had lost a son in the war. During his convalescence, McConnell worked on his writings for his publisher, Doubleday, Page & Company.

On Sept. 23, 1916, Kiffin Rockwell, one of McConnell’s best friends in the unit, was shot down and killed. A crestfallen McConnell wrote, “No greater blow could have befallen the Escadrille. Kiffin was its soul. He was loved and looked up to by not only every man in our flying corps but by everyone who knew him.”

In early October, Norman Prince, an original N-124 member, also perished. Seemingly on the road to recovery from an injury suffered in a landing accident, Prince expired after a blood clot developed on his brain. Four of N-124’s first nine pilots perished in six months.

On Oct. 16, 1916, N-124 was deployed to Cachy, France, to fight in the Battle of the Somme. McConnell, though still suffering from his injury, rejoined the unit. The new encampment was a rude awakening. “Instead of being quartered in villa or hotel, the pilots were directed to a portable barracks newly erected in a sea of mud,” wrote McConnell. Damp cold “penetrated through every crack.” Under-equipped in their new surroundings, the pilots begged for blankets from neighboring escadrilles.

McConnell’s gloomy ennui with the situation is evident in a Dec. 11, 1916, letter. “Have done little on the article. I’ve felt on the bum and Whiskey (the lion cub) chewed my fingers so it’s hard to hold a pen,” he confided. “Only flown once since my return.”

McConnell was not the only Escadrille member hurting. In a subsequent letter, he referred to N-124 as a “great aggregation of cripples.” In late January 1917, the Escadrille was redeployed to take part in a spring offensive. But another malady put McConnell back on the disabled list. In February, he wrote Mademoiselle Guérin to inform her he was back in the hospital due to “the itch,” a near-intractable form of dermatitis plaguing many in the Escadrille. McConnell would not exit the infirmary until early March.

He wrote Guérin numerous letters during this stay and following his return to duty with N-124. The correspondence suggests the rekindling of their dormant romance. He tells the young nurse that her letters are “like water to a man dying of thirst.” He acknowledges enjoying a visit with her more than any in his entire life.

McConnell’s final letter to Guérin, written March 16 , three days before his death, concludes, “Thank your mother for being so very nice to me, and give her my love, and keep some for yourself.” Decades later, Guérin would confide that McConnell was the great romance of her life.

On March 19, 1917, McConnell, together with fellow aviators Edmond Genet and Edwin Parsons, took off on patrol from an airfield in Sainte Juste, France. Still dogged with relentless back pain, McConnell had to be maneuvered by his mechanics into the bucket seat of his Nieuport 17. After the three aviators were aloft, a clogged oil line caused Parsons’ motor to malfunction, and he returned home.

Continuing the sortie, Genet and McConnell encountered two German two-seaters and separately attacked them. Jon Guttman’s book describes the dogfight: “The gunner of Genet’s opponent shot away his main upper wing support and wounded him in the left cheek. Recovering, (Genet) closed until the two aeroplanes nearly collided, but failed to bring down his quarry. He then searched for McConnell for 15 minutes, until enemy anti-aircraft fire and the increasing likelihood of losing his upper wing convinced him to head home. To his horror, he learned that McConnell had not returned.”

It was not until March 24 that McConnell’s death was confirmed. Two German planes that had been observed close on McConnell’s tail fired on him. After a “desperate fight,” McConnell had crashed. Several bullets were found in his body. His ailing back may have played a role in his death, since he could not turn to spot enemy aircraft to his rear. McConnell’s crumpled Nieuport was found in full throttle. He likely died before hitting the ground.

McConnell may have had a premonition of his impending death. He left the following instructions with the Escadrille: “My burial is of no import. Make it as easy as possible for yourselves. I have no religion and do not care for any service. If the omission would embarrass you, I presume I could stand the performance. Good luck to the rest of you. God damn Germany and vive la France.” 

In the end, he did in fact “stand the performance.” Three women, all claiming to be McConnell’s fiancée, attended his memorial service at the Escadrille’s base. The French military awarded him a second Croix de Guerre. Initially buried in the meadow where he crashed in Flavy-le-Martel, France, at his father’s request McConnell was later reinterred at the Lafayette Escadrille memorial near Paris.

The U.S. Congress declared war against Germany 18 days after McConnell’s death. The Escadrille’s remaining American pilots were promptly transferred to a U.S. Army aviation unit. McConnell was the last American pilot killed in the conflict prior to the U.S. entry into the war.

The editor of the Sandhill Citizen, H.E. Foss, gave credit to McConnell for seeing what was at stake in the war long before the government and most Americans. “Democracy and autocracy were face-to-face on the soil of France, and Jim was a democrat,” Foss opined. “He saw early and clearly, what we have been slow to discover, that in this struggle our future is at stake scarcely less than that of England and France. Thus, he was not only ‘Flying for France,’ but for the land of his birth.”

Carthage held its own memorial service. It was announced at the ceremony that the new county hospital about to open 6 miles from Carthage would be named the James R. McConnell Hospital. Following its shipment from France to North Carolina, the French-language plaque honoring McConnell was displayed at that hospital. It would be the tablet’s first home but not its last. After that hospital closed, the plaque was moved in 1929 to the new Moore County Hospital in Pinehurst. Then, in 1940, the Carthage Chamber of Commerce persuaded the hospital to send the tablet to the county seat. Positioned near the old town hall, the plaque remained there until 2011, when Roland Gilliam convinced the city that it should be displayed at the airport.

Nor did UVA forget McConnell, its first alum killed in the war. The university commissioned Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum to create a statue in memory of the flier. Dedicated in 1919, “The Aviator” depicts a winged and leather-helmeted McConnell soaring Icarus-like in the air. Today, the statue rests on the plaza of the university’s Clemons Library.

And despite the passage of a century, the French continue to venerate McConnell and the N-124 Lafayette Escadrille. In 2016, airport founder Roland Gilliam, and fellow Carthage fliers Jim Wiltjer and Felice Schillaci, received invitations from French officials to attend the 100th anniversary of the founding of N-124. An unforgettable part of their pilgrimage was attending a ceremony held at James McConnell’s original gravesite, still lovingly maintained and covered by flowers, alongside a Flavy-le-Martel cornfield. The tribute was not extravagant — about 25 attended and the French and American national anthems came from a boom box. It was precisely the sort of performance McConnell would be happy to stand.  PS

Pinehurst resident Bill Case is PineStraw’s history man. He can be reached at