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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is Memorial Day. And every year on this weekend, just outside Paris, there's a ceremony honoring a small group of Americans who fought in France. We are not talking about D-Day veterans but a little-known group of pilots who fought in the French Air Force in World War I, before America even entered that war.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us more about the Lafayette Squadron

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRCRAFT)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This year, like every year, the official Memorial Day ceremony in the tiny town of Marnes La Coquette begins with a flyover, by two French Air Force Mirage fighter jets from today's Escadrille Lafayette, or Lafayette Squadron, paying tribute to the men who founded the group 98 years ago. Major General Mark Barrett, chief of staff of the U.S.-European command took part in the ceremony.

MAJOR GEN. MARK BARRETT: In April of 1916, seven Americans enlisted in the French military to form the core of the Lafayette Escadrille. The squadron grew to include 38 American pilots, led by a French officer, who's also buried here.

BEARDSLEY: The group of young Americans were studying in France in 1914 when World War I broke out. They yearned to volunteer and fight, but could not join the French army lest they 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.

CHARLES RIVKEN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Present-day Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin was here to pay tribute each of the founders of the Lafayette Squadron.

RIVKEN: Eugene William (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: 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, Verdun, the Somme. Seventy-two year old Mike Britt from South Carolina, says he's been fascinated by the Lafayette Squadron since he was a young boy.

MIKE BRITT: These young men were my heroes because I was fascinated by aviation and I like to build model airplanes. And just 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.

BEARDSLEY: 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 said he wishes more Americans knew about the squadron.

ALEX BLUMROSEN: 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.

BEARDSLEY: Blumrosen says the Lafayette Squadron broke ground in other ways. For example, it boasted the first African-American pilot, some 30 years before the Tuskegee Airmen. 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 the young.

Parisian Isabelle Malard was there 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 said it's important for new generations to learn about the sacrifices that have been made.

ISABELLE MALARD: (Through interpreter) Peace is something every generation has to work for, and we can never forget this. I feel this particularly, because my grandfather was deported to a concentration camp during the second World War.

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

ROMANE MALARD: I was holding the flag. I was like all the other flag porters.

BEARDSLEY: Were you proud?

MALARD: Yes.

BEARDSLEY: All told, 250 pilots, American and French, joined the squadron. Fifty-nine were killed and are buried in a crypt below the memorial. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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