Object of the Month

First to Fly for France: Frazier Curtis and the Birth of the Lafayette Flying Corps

Barograph record of a flight, early 1915

Barograph record of a flight, early 1915

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This is a barographic reading of a training flight, probably made by Frazier Curtis at a French aviation school at Pau, early in 1915. A barograph is a recording barometer that reports both the height of a flight, measured by changes in atmospheric pressure, and endurance, recorded by the advance of a clockwork mechanism. Pilots at Pau had to prove that they could attain a height of 6,500 feet (in France measured in meters) and maintain it for an hour before they were ready for active duty.

Frazier Curtis

Frazier Curtis was born in 1876 in Manchester, Massachusetts, one of ten children of Greely Stevenson and Harriot Sumner (Appleton) Curtis. Greely Curtis had an adventurous early life and a distinguished career as a dashing cavalry officer during the Civil War that his son may have tried to emulate. Frazier graduated from Harvard College in 1898 where he received a master's degree in English the following year, but devoted most of his time to professional wandering. In an attempt to overcome trouble with his eyesight—a bad omen for a future aviator—he worked in the Pacific Northwest timber industry, the Alaskan gold rush, and as a cattle rancher and horse dealer in the Dakotas, western Canada, and Cuba. He returned to Harvard briefly as an assistant football coach before finally settling in La Jolla, California, where his interest in early aviation developed into a full-blown obsession.

A Vocation at Last

In his fifteenth anniversary Harvard College class report in 1913, Frazier Curtis announced that his profession had become "aeronautics." His enthusiasm appeared boundless and he attempted to learn everything he could about the first generation of airplanes. He built and flew gliders over an unforgiving cactus-studded landscape that should have quickly improved his skills or ended his flying career, but it took several courses of training in the United States and France before he finally received his pilot's license (#780) in England in the spring of 1914.

The outbreak of the First World War presented Curtis, by then 38 years old but with significant knowledge of airplanes—a new field of vital military importance—with an opportunity to play an important role. Before the war, he had offered his services as a flyer to the U.S. Navy, but after the Great War began he quickly sailed for England where he attempted to enlist in the aviation arm of either the British army or navy, even offering to provide his own aircraft (his brother, Greely, Jr., was in the aircraft manufacturing business in Massachusetts). British authorities rejected Frazier's offer politely, but firmly. He was very old for a novice pilot, a citizen of a neutral nation, and may have displayed some of the eccentricity apparent in his later life. Either Curtis or his wife, Gladys Margaret Raper Curtis, an English woman whom he had married in 1909, attempted to go outside official channels and approach Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, through his wife, Clementine, but to no avail.

The Escadrille Américaine

Frustrated in his first efforts, Curtis returned to the United States for further flight training. There he met Norman Prince, a Harvard-trained lawyer about ten years Curtis's junior, who had put aside his Chicago law practice to learn to fly. It was from this meeting of Curtis and Prince in Marblehead, Massachusetts, that the first effort to form a flying corps of American pilots, rather than volunteering as individuals, was born. At the end of 1914, Curtis sailed once more for England—thinking that the French language would be a barrier to service as a combat pilot. Stymied again, he crossed over to France in February 1915, where a small number of Americans, including Norman Prince, already were making attempts to join the French air service. While the French rejected the Prince-Curtis plan of forming an American volunteer squadron, other forces were at work. An American physician living in Paris, Edmund L. Gros, with the support of members of the French government, attempted to capitalize on the propaganda value of the U.S. pilots who had volunteered to fight for France by forming exactly the type of unit that Prince and Curtis had planned. The Escadrille Américaine was made up of U.S. volunteers with flight experience such as Prince and Curtis (but including non-fliers who bluffed their way into military training), supplemented by Americans who had enlisted in the Foreign Legion.

On 2 March 1915, Frazier Curtis became one of the first Americans to enlist in the French air service. He was soon joined by Norman Prince and many of the flyers who later would found the Lafayette Escadrille. While Curtis is numbered among the "first to fly for France," and as historians of the American volunteer effort later noted, "he [did] not receive the credit for his really important share in launching the movement," his actual military service was brief and inglorious.

Curtis, accompanied by his wife Gladys—an unusual accommodation for a lowly "soldat" (private) in training—was sent to an aviation training school at Pau in March 1915. See a photograph of Frazier Curtis in uniform. He crashed two aircraft within the space of five days and while aviation-training accidents then were extraordinarily common, he was slow to recover from his physical injuries and had some sort of nervous breakdown. He was honorably discharged in August 1915.

The Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps

The Escadrille Américaine (officially Squadron N124) finally was authorized in March 1916 and in action over Verdun in May of that year. When diplomats raised concerns about what appeared to be a breach of American neutrality--the United States did not enter the war until April 1917-- the squadron was renamed the Lafayette Escadrille. Norman Prince served in the squadron until he was killed in action in October 1916. By 1917, a single squadron could not muster all the American pilots available and more than 200 U.S. pilots were dispersed among many French squadrons (becoming the unofficial "Lafayette Flying Corps"—a term for all the Americans who flew for France), while others flew with the British. When the United States entered the war, many but not all of the American flyers transferred to the U.S. Army and Navy, where they formed the experienced cadre of the fledgling U.S. air services.

The Harvard Flying Corps

By the time that the Lafayette Escadrille went into action, Frazier Curtis was back in the United States, but not done with aviation. After his discharge he had turned to recruiting Americans already in France for flight training, and made one more abortive attempt to form an American unit for the British Royal Naval Air Service. In Boston, he devoted his energies to training Harvard College students to become aviators and to prepare for military duty.

Truly alarmed by the state of U.S. military aviation—Curtis estimated that the country had approximately 24 fully trained pilots, about the same number as Serbia—he attempted to raise $300,000 to form an aviation school at Harvard University that would operate on the same scale as the French training base at Pau that he had attended, and turn out 500 pilots each year. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell prevented the name of the University from being used by the Corps, and in the summer of 1916 it was only able to provide flight training for ten students. Their camp was renamed for Victor Chapman, a 1913 Harvard graduate and another founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille, who had been killed in action in June 1916. In spite of his best efforts, Curtis's health collapsed again and he returned to California. The Harvard Flying Corps accomplished little, but colleges and universities became major sources of pilots and schools for preliminary pilot training when the United States entered the war.

When the War Was Over

Frazier Curtis celebrated the end of the First World War at home in La Jolla. After his long convalescence, he described himself as a rancher, but later informed his college classmates that he had become a "propagandist"—a self-described purveyor of virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Communist literature, interlaced with concern over the growing "Japanese menace." The injuries caused by his flying accidents may have affected his mental as well as his physical health, but he had long suspected that there were dark conspiracies at work everywhere, including suspicions of German espionage in the still-neutral U.S.

Before his death in 1940, Curtis pasted the barographic record of a flight that he thought he had made at Pau in 1915, when his dream of becoming a combat pilot seemed at last to be in his grasp, into a scrapbook of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that documented his unsuccessful efforts to fly for Britain or France, and his small but important role in founding the Lafayette Escadrille/Flying Corps and promoting aviation training and military preparedness at home.

Further Reading

Curtis, Frazier. "The Harvard Flying Corps." The Harvard Illustrated Magazine. Vol. 17, 1916. 281-284.

Flammer, Philip M. The Vivid Air: The Lafayette Escadrille. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981.

Gutman, John. SPA 124 Lafayette Escadrille: American Volunteer Airmen in World War 1. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004.

Harvard College Class of 1898. Quindecennial Report June, 1913. Cambridge: Privately printed, 1913.

---. Twenty-fifth Anniversary Report 1898-1923. Cambridge: Privately printed, 1923.

---. The Class of Ninety-Eight: Fortieth Anniversary Report [v]. Cambridge: Privately printed, 1938.

Frazier Curtis supplied detailed and increasingly outspoken autobiographical accounts of his life and experiences in his Harvard College class reports between his graduation in 1898 and his death in 1940.

The Lafayette Flying Corps. Ed. by James Norman Hall and Charles Bernard Nordhoff. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920. 2 vols.

New England Aviators 1914-1918: Their Portraits and Their Records. Compiled and edited by Caroline Ticknor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919. 2 vols.

Spalding, Sandy. "La Jolla Flyboy Frazier Curtis." La Jolla Historical Society. Vol. 25, No. 5, Winter 2006. 1, 4.


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