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France Pays Tribute To Early U.S. Fighter Pilots

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Every Memorial Day Weekend just outside Paris, a ceremony takes place to honor a group of Americans who fought in France. They're not D-Day veterans, but a little known group of pilots who fought for France in World War I, before America entered the war.

This year's ceremony in the tiny town of Marnes-la-Coquette began with a flyover by two French air force Mirage fighter jets from the Escadrille Lafayette, or Lafayette Squadron, paying tribute to the men who founded the group nearly 100 years ago.

Major Gen. Mark Barrett, chief of staff of the U.S.-European command, took part in the ceremony: "In April of 1916, seven Americans enlisted in the French military to form the corps of the Lafayette Escadrille. The squadron grew to include 38 American pilots, led by a French officer, who's also buried here. These pilots from America and France, who banded together to form the Lafayette Escadrille, were pioneers in a new form of warfare, as aviation brought the battlefield to the skies."

The young Americans were studying in France in 1914 when World War I broke out. They wanted to volunteer and fight, but could not join the French army, because they would lose their American citizenship. The American ambassador to France at the time found a way around that. The men could either join the French Ambulance Corps or the French Foreign Legion.

Present day U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin was here to pay tribute to each of the founders of the Lafayette Squadron.

The memorial's massive marble arch walls are carved with the Lafayette Squadron's insignia, the head of a Sioux Indian chief. And their major battles: at Verdun and Somme.

Mike Britt, 72, from South Carolina, says he's been fascinated by the Lafayette Squadron since he was a young boy.

"These young men were my heroes," Britt says. "Because I was fascinated by aviation and I like to build model airplanes. And the notion of young men, volunteering to leave their country and fight for anybody, but in this case for France, is just a very heroic, altruistic thing which you don't find, particularly in today's world."

The monument and its vast grounds were dedicated on July 4, 1928. They're partially supported by the French and American governments, but run mostly on private donations. Treasurer Alex Blumrosen says he wishes more Americans knew about the squadron.

"They were very symbolic; they were very inspirational for the rest of the United States. And I think they were important in bringing the United States into the war and ending that conflict as quickly as they did," he says.

Blumrosen says the Lafayette Squadron broke ground in other ways. For example, it had the first African-American pilot, some 30 years before the Tuskegee Aairmen.

It's a day for French-American friendship, as the sound of the two languages floats in the air. Attending are civilians, military personnel, the old and young.

Parisian Isabelle Malard is here with her three children. She's just returned from Valdosta, Georgia, where her husband took part in an exchange program with the U.S. Air Force. Malard says it's important for new generations to learn about the sacrifices that have been made.

"Peace is something every generation has to work for, and we can never forget this," Malard says. "I feel this particularly, because my grandfather was deported to a concentration camp during the second World War."

Malard's eight-year-old daughter Romane, carries an American flag in her hands and wears heart shaped American-flag earrings. She participated in this year's ceremony.

"I was holding the flag," she says. "I was like all the other flag porters."

"Were you proud," I asked her.

Her answer: "yes!"

All told, 250 pilots, French and American, joined the squadron. Fifty-nine were killed and are buried in the crypt below the memorial.

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