Early in World War I, various Americans, sympathetic to the Allied cause, offered their service to France as ambulance drivers, while others fought in the trenches as members of the French Foreign Legion. A handful of these men were successful in transferring to the French Aviation Service prior to the end of 1915, where they were joined by several Americans who enlisted direct from civilian status. A number of these men suggested that France send to the Front a squadron composed of American rather than French pilots. After months of deliberation by the French government, the Escadrille Americaine, designated N. 124, was formed and on April 20, 1916, it was placed on front-line duty at Luxeuil-les-Bains near Switzerland.
The Escadrille Americaine was commanded by a Frenchman, Capt. Georges Thenault, and initially had seven Americans assigned as pilots -- Norman Prince, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, James McConnell, William Thaw, Elliot Cowdin and Bert Hall. During the succeeding 20 months the unit served on the Front, it had an additional 31 Americans assigned as pilots, including such legendary figures as Raoul Lufbery and Charles Dolan.
The Escadrille Americaine flew its first mission on May 13, 1916. Five days later Rockwell scored the initial victory for the unit by shooting down a German L.V.G. reconnaissance airplane. On June 23, 1916, Chapman was shot down about 10 miles north of Verdun, thus becoming the first Escadrille Americaine pilot to lose his life while engaging the enemy. The unit continued in combat in succeeding months, and as its fame grew, the German government protested to the U.S. government concerning the use of the "Americaine" in the title, since the United States was still neutral at that time. As a result, France changed the name to Escadrille Lafayette in December 1916.