The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial needs, at the very least, a spit polish. The triumphal arch stands mottled and crumbly six miles from the center of Paris. City dirt darkens the exterior walls. The crypt, its walls shakily shored up, leaks. Because the memorial does not fall under the aegis of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which takes excellent care of other cemeteries and battlefields, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial lies mouldering. Upkeep of the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial depends on charity.
The memorial pays homage to the Lafayette Escadrille, which was formed in 1916 before America officially entered World War I. The unit comprised American pilots, who, in sympathy with the Allied cause, volunteered to fight for France against Germany and the Central Powers. After America joined up in April 1917, those pilots -- men like Raoul Lufberry, Walter Miller, Hugh Terres, and David Putnam -- shifted to the U.S. Army Air Service.
The 200 pilots continued to prove that fighter planes played a decisive, rigorous role in battle. Sixty-eight pilots, their names etched in the outer walls of the memorial, died trying; 49 are buried in the crypt, their grey sarcophagi colored by stained-glass windows depicting planes and eagles in the air over the battlefields of Reims, Chateau-Thierry, and Verdun.
The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial was built in 1928 on land donated by France and with money given by, among others, the families of pilots. Its dwindling foundation began with a $1.5 million endowment in 1930 by William Nelson Cromwell. "Our Foundation, rich in history but now with few financial means, is in peril due to its fragile financial situation," declares the foundation's volunteer president, Alexander Blumrosen, an American practicing international law in Paris.
Because the brave, foolhardy, pioneer American pilots volunteered before America entered the war, their memorial does not come under the aegis of the American Battles Monument Commission. The ABMC proudly superintends commemorations of our war dead; its expertise evinces itself in lay-out, replacement of headstones, and manicure of gardens. The soaring marble colonnades of the Chateau-Thierry and Montsec monuments and the graves of the Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne cemeteries manifest the words of the commission's first director, Missouri's John J. Pershing, General of the Armies: "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."
However, time has dimmed the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial. It could benefit from the dignities of tax-based care the ABMC gives to other monuments to the Great War, where landscaping is part of the commission's dedicated and impeccable maintenance. Just mowing the grass around the pool in front of the pilots' arch costs 8,000 Euros annually, said Blumrosen with a sad sigh.
In 2010, the ABMC contracted for an engineering study to determine the scale and scope needed for repairs. The sum? $14 million for restoration, including underlying structural problems. This year, France and America plan to make the report a reality, hopefully before the subterranean crypt of aviators' graves sinks under water. The goal is to repair the Memorial for the 100th anniversary of the Great War, continuing through Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 2018. The chances it will be spiffed up for the on-going Centennial are slim -- unless new sources of funding can be granted.
There are many ways to commemorate the four-year centennial of The Great War. Hard: tour the Western Front, paying solemn homage in Flanders Fields, Verdun, and St. Mihiel. Easier: visit the World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Easiest: write our representatives in Congress, urging them to shift care of the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial from the charity of individuals to the expertise of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Tax-deductible donations for U.S. residents can be made at http://donatenow.networkforgood.org/kbfus using giving option No. 1.