In France, Remembering The American Flyboys Of World War I

A century after World War I started, the French pay tribute on Memorial Day to the "Lafayette Squadron," American pilots who fought with the allies before the U.S. officially entered the war.

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And now to France, where every year over the Memorial Day weekend, they hold a ceremony to honor a special group of American airmen who fought in the First World War. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to this year's commemoration and has this story about the U.S. relationship with France in World War I.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Even before the United States officially entered World War I, a group of idealistic young Americans formed the Lafayette Squadron in 1916 and fought with French pilots in the skies over the Western front. At a monument just outside of Paris, the American pilots are remembered every Memorial Day weekend with speeches, music and a flyover by the present-day Lafayette Squadron, now part of the French Armee de l'Air.

The rest of U.S. troops started fighting in 1918. That was just as Russia pulled out of the alliance to deal with its own revolution. That allowed Germany to concentrate its forces on the Western front. David Pike, a historian at the American University of Paris, says it was a grim time for France and Britain.

DAVID PIKE: The three months of autumn 1918 were truly a moment of great anguish. And you can imagine, for that very reason, how welcome it was to see American troops arriving in Cherbourg and moving then toward the front.

BEARDSLEY: In towns and villages throughout France, America's doughboys are still remembered. Monuments and memorials to Les Sammies, the nickname for Uncle Sam's troops, dot the landscape. The doughboys brought blond tobacco and jazz music. They also brought hope to an exhausted Europe, says French historian Jean-Pierre Touberg (ph).

JEAN-PIERRE TOUBERG: (Through translator) The first thing the French said when they saw the American arriving was, my God, aren't they beautiful, tall, well-fed and healthy? Because, remember, Europeans were hungry, and there had been food rationing for years. The second thing people said was, my God, aren't they efficient?

BEARDSLEY: But America would also pay a price. A light drizzle is falling on the Meuse-Argonne cemetery in eastern France. Fourteen thousand American soldiers are buried here, making it the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe.

Cemetery superintendent Dave Bedford says the Meuse-Argonne offensive, one of the last in the war, was key in forcing the Germans to agree to an armistice. To win it, says Bedford, U.S. general John J. Pershing took a lesson from the bloody trench warfare between the French and Germans at nearby Verdun.

DAVE BEDFORD: He wanted to create a war of movement. In other words, fighting out of those trenches at all costs, continuing the battle in the offensive. And he did. And those young Americans that came out of those trenches fought through the barbed wire there. They moved forward, and they lost lives at an incredible rate.

BEARDSLEY: Bedford feels Americans have forgotten the First World War. He's hoping World War I centennial celebrations over the next four years will generate new interest. Back in Paris, there's another reminder of the long Franco-American relationship.

The stars and stripes fly over the grave site of the Marquis de Lafayette. He crossed the Atlantic in the 18th century to help a young America win its revolution against the British. General Pershing came to Lafayette's grave when he arrived in France in July 1917, says cemetery caretaker and historian, Jean-Jacques Faugeron (ph).

JEAN-JACQUES FAUGERON: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Faugeron says that's when General Pershing uttered the famous words - Lafayette, we are here.

FAUGERON: Lafayette, here we are.

BEARDSLEY: After years of horror, World War I was brought to an end with an armistice in November 1918. A whole generation of European men had been wiped out. Yet, the war to end all wars was followed by an even worse conflict just 21 years later, and American soldiers would be back in France again. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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