25 December 1915 – American pilots in the French Foreign Legion

Since the start of the war, France has made voluntary service by Americans simple by not requiring them to swear an oath of allegiance or renounce their American citizenship in order to serve.

These first volunteers, barred from directly enlisting as pilots, joined the French Foreign Legion as second-class soldiers. Once in the Legion, they tried to get transferred and could always look to M. de Sillac and Dr. Gros, the founders of the Franco-American Committee, for any help in pushing each individual case. Even after transfer, the government kept the Americans’ Legion identities on all official papers and dossiers, reasoning that, diplomatically, this was the best way legally to utilize their foreign pilots.

Despite the few Americans’ success in transferring, the Franco-American Committee worried that future volunteers would get trapped in the Legion or resort back to infantryman status. The organizers already envisioned an extensive recruiting drive of mailing brochures to prominent American sporting clubs, universities, and individuals, encouraging Americans to fly for France.For this effort to succeed, they needed a guarantee that all American volunteers fighting for France would do so in the air, not on the ground.

To alleviate the possibility of American fliers ending up as infantrymen, the President of the Committee, M. de Sillac, used his political persuasiveness and wrote to M. Rene Besnard, Sub-Secretary of State for Military Aeronautics on 1 December 1915 with their plea.

“Allow me to ask you, therefore, if it would be possible to give the Americans who desire to enlist the following assurance:
1. That every care will be taken to settle definitely at Paris their medical fitness for flying.
2. That if, once enlisted, they show inaptitude for flying, it be made possible to release them.
3. That they be treated, in so far as possible, with courtesy inspired by their generosity in offering their lives in the service of France.”

The Secretary replied today guaranteeing the fliers that “in case of proven ineptitude for service,” either the Franco-American Committe or military authorities can demand the “engagement be rescinded.”

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