Saturday, August 22, 2009

First to Fight, First to Die: The Beau Geste of Edmond Genet


"Head for the sound of the guns." Cadets at West Point are taught this military precept--easily remembered advice for a unit commander when trouble threatens and information is lacking.

When German guns signaled the start of the First World War in 1914, hundreds of Americans headed for the sound of the guns in France. Their reasons were many. Some, impelled by humanitarian motives, joined American ambulance units serving with French troops along the Western Front.

Others, spoiling to get into the fight and avenge the ferocious attacks on Belgium and France, were hampered by America's policy of neutrality. They could enlist in the one French military unit that welcomed them and asked no questions--the Foreign Legion. Many served because of emotional ties to la belle France.

This is the story of one such American, Edmond Charles Clinton Genet, a Foreign Legionnaire who later went on to become a flyer in an elite unit, the famous Lafayette Escadrille. The family's roots date back to this nation's founding. His great-great-grandfather was Edmond Charles Genêt, French charge d'affaires to the fledgling United States in 1793.

"Citizen" Genêt
The French revolutionary republican government that had toppled the monarchy sent 32-year-old Edmond Genêt, who had the egalitarian title of "Citoyen" ("Citizen"), across the Atlantic to seek repayment of the American war debt to France, or at least to get credit so as to be able to purchase supplies needed for a war against Great Britain.

Hailed by Americans sympathetic to the French cause, Genêt exceeded his diplomatic authority and conspired with those who opposed President George Washington's policy of neutrality. He high-handedly armed privateers in American ports to operate against British shipping. This brought France and the United States to the brink of war, and risked loss of France's only source of credit abroad.

By August of 1793, an unhappy George Washington requested that Genêt be recalled. But a new faction had seized power in France, and "Citizen" Genêt risked arrest if he returned, so he chose to become an American citizen and remain in the United States.

He married Cornelia Tappan Clinton, daughter of George Clinton, Governor of New York, in 1794. She died in 1810. Eight years later, he married Martha Brandon Osgood, daughter of Samuel Osgood, first postmaster general of the United States. "Citizen" Genêt obviously had an affinity for the daughters of politically powerful fathers.

His father-in-law sold him a 600-acre farm along the Hudson below Albany. Here, he carried on long and costly experiments that enabled him to get a patent in 1815 for "an aerostatic vessel to be propelled by air"--a semi-rigid dirigible in which a pair of walking horses supplied the power. "Citizen" Genêt died in 1834, appropriately on July 14, Bastille Day, at his farm at Schodack, south of Albany and is buried with his two wives in the cemetery behind the little East Greenbush Dutch Reformed Church.

The Genet Family
Born in Ossining, November 9, 1896, Edmond Charles Clinton Genet was the third son of Albert Rivers Genet and Martha Rodman Fox Genet. (Over successive generations, the name Genêt had lost its circumflex accent.) His father had been born in Croton in 1858, the son of William Rivers Genet and Sarah Augusta Willock Genet. Albert Rivers Genet graduated from the Columbia University Law School and practiced law for more than 30 years in association with his great uncle, George Clinton Genet, and Edward F. de Lancey. The family lived at various addresses in Ossining.

His mother was born in Norristown, Penna., the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Fox. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was active in many local veterans organizations.

Edmond's two older brothers were Albert Rivers Genet Jr., called "Rivers," born in 1887, and Gilbert Rodman Fox Genet, called "Rodman," born in 1889.

Young Edmond was educated in local Ossining schools and the Mt. Pleasant Academy. He was employed at the Chilmark dairy operated by V. Everit Macy, later Westchester's Commissioner of Public Welfare. Always fascinated by the sea, he sought an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Unfortunately, he failed the mathematics portion of the examination.

Naval Service
Little more than a year after his father died in October of 1912, young Edmond enlisted in the U.S. Navy, hoping this would help him to gain entrance to the Naval Academy. After training at Newport, R.I., he was assigned to the battleship Georgia. Commissioned in 1906, this 15,000-ton ship, armed with a main battery of four 12-inch guns, had been part of the Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet that circumnavigated the globe.

To underscore Roosevelt's "big stick" policy, the Georgia and 15 other battleships of the Atlantic Fleet sailed south from Norfolk and around Cape Horn (the Panama Canal had not yet been built), crossed the Pacific and returned through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, reaching Norfolk in February of 1909, after a voyage of 14 months.

After the assassination of Mexican President Francisco Madero, trouble flared south of the border. A counterrevolutionary faction headed by General Victoriano Huerta seized the reins of government. Woodrow Wilson, who had been sworn in as President in March of 1913, refused to recognize the Huerta administration. He also ordered an embargo to be placed on shipments of arms to Mexico. In the spring of 1914, the Georgia was in the port of Boston. On April 9, 1914, the arrest a group of American sailors on shore leave in the port of Tampico created an international incident. Mexican authorities hastily released the Americans and apologized. That wasn't enough for the Admiral commanding the American warship squadron standing offshore. He demanded a ceremonial salute of 21 guns to the Stars and Stripes as a good-faith demonstration by the Mexican government.

President Huerta himself offered his apologies, but refused to order a one-sided 21-gun salute. Woodrow Wilson went before Congress on April 20 and asked for a declaration of war against Mexico so American troops could be sent into the country.

Wilson also ordered the American fleet to prepare landings at Tampico and Vera Cruz "to protect American interests." The next day a thousand U.S. marines and sailors landed at Vera Cruz, meeting only token resistance. Another three thousand landed and occupied the city by noon of the following day. Nineteen Americans were killed and 71 injured.

Aboard the Georgia in Boston, Edmond Genet fretted that he was missing the impending war. His ship finally sailed for Mexican waters and arrived off Vera Cruz on May 1, after rendezvousing with her sister battleship, the Nebraska, off the coast of Florida. A disappointed Edmond Genet saw no action in Mexico. Then, just as the European War was breaking out in August, the Georgia left Mexican waters for Haiti, again to "protect American interests." The battleship was back in Boston by November. Young Edmond, now 18, spent the Christmas holidays with his family in Ossining and returned to his ship.

To everyone's surprise, within a few days he showed up in Ossining again and revealed to family members that he had been issued a passport in Washington and a French visa from the French consul in New York. He had booked passage to Le Havre on the pride of the French Line, the sleek new steamship Rochambeau, sailing from New York on January 20, 1915. "I am going to take my chances in the great war with the French," he wrote in a letter on the day he sailed. "I hardly expect to live through it but that matters little to me." He concluded with, "I was born to be a wanderer." Although members of his immediate family knew the truth and were unhappy, he did not reveal to friends that he was now officially a deserter from the U.S. Navy.

The French Foreign Legion
By an odd coincidence, a fellow passenger on the ship, wealthy 28-year-old Norman Prince, told young Edmond of his plans to enlist in the French Aviation Service and to organize a separate group of American volunteer fliers.

But Edmond Genet wanted to see action quickly, and lost no time. On February 3, 1915, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as a common soldat. Founded in 1831 by King Louis Philippe as a social safety valve to rid France of foreign refugees, from its earliest days the Legion was regarded as a dump for undesirables. Disreputable they may have been, but these "nationless" soldiers furthered French colonial expansion in Africa and Asia, avoiding loss of French blood.

Along the way, the Legion earned a reputation for remarkable courage and dramatic last stands. At the 1863 battle of Camerone, 65 doomed legionnaires took on 2,000 Mexican soldiers. The last five legionnaires still standing fixed bayonets and charged the massed Mexicans. To this day, April 30, Camerone Day, is the Legion's holiday.

At the start of the First World War, the quality of Legion enlistees changed drastically. Coming to the aid of France, a bewildering assortment of poets, writers, artists, students, romantic vagabonds and adventurers--foreigners all--swelled the ranks of the Legion's miscreants, misfits, thieves and men seeking redemption for past sins.

David E. Wheeler, of Buffalo, N.Y., who became one of Edmond's closest friends, was an example of the men who were volunteering for the Legion. Wheeler was a graduate of Williams College and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. An accomplished surgeon, he enlisted as a common soldier in the Legion. Although wounded in the leg, he carried another wounded man from the battlefield under enemy fire and earned the Croix de Guerre.

Invalided from the Legion, Wheeler later joined a Canadian regiment as battalion surgeon and returned to France, After the United States entered the war, he joined the American First Division (called "the Big Red One"--from the numeral on its insignia) and died of wounds received in combat on July 18, 1918.

Of the 90-odd American volunteers in the Foreign Legion, 38 were killed in action or died of wounds. Many of the survivors were wounded multiple times.. Eight were decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor, 21 with the Medaille Militaire and 52 with the Croix de Guerre.

After a brief training period, Edmond's unit, one of the three "marching regiments" of the Legion, was sent to the Champagne sector of the front. In a June 1 letter to Jeanette Halstead back in Ossining, he noted that had he not left Ossining High School, he'd be graduating in the Class of 1915.

The Champagne Campaign
On September 22, 1915, French artillery pieces began a three-day softening up of German trenches. By the time the barrage ended, more than five million artillery shells had rained down on German positions. The infantry attack began at dawn on September 25, with Genet and more than 50 other American legionnaires taking part, along with Algerian colonial troops.

The Legion's objective was the heavily defended Bois Sabot, a horseshoe-shaped wooded area affording the Germans an enfilading cross-fire that mowed down attackers like stalks of wheat. The Germans had sowed the wood with 32 machine gun nests, artillery pieces, and Minenwerfer ("mine throwers"), mobile rifled mortars on detachable wheels that fired devastatingly accurate high-explosive shells.

Into the jaws of death marched the legionnaires in parade formation! As Genet later wrote to a friend, they marched "in solid columns of fours, each section a unit. It was wonderful, that slow advance; not a waver, not a break, through the storm of shell the Legion marched forward, officers in advance and the commandant at their head. It inspired us all to courage and calmness." He concluded with, "Shells were bursting everywhere. One lost his personal feelings. He simply became a unit--a machine."

When the battle was over, French forces had created a bulging salient about two and a half miles along a 15-mile front, but at tremendous cost: 80,000 men had been killed and 100,000 wounded. A million and a half French and German soldiers had battled, destroying sleepy French villages and making the landscape virtually unrecognizable in the process. On both sides more men were killed and wounded than had fought at Gettysburg.

The three Legion "marching regiments" suffered so many casualties in the carnage the survivors were only enough to make up a single marching regiment. Genet had come through the ordeal unscathed. To carry off the wounded, he and only 30 other legionnaires were left from two companies of 250 men each.

During his career as an infantryman in the French Foreign Legion, Edmond earned the praise of officers and fellow soldiers by his boyish enthusiasm and willingness to undertake the most dangerous tasks with complete disregard for his own safety. Without complaint, he withstood the abysmal conditions, the mud and the lice, and the forced marches with a 66-pound pack.

In October, Edmond Genet applied for a transfer to the French Aviation Service and passed a physical examination. He would spend six more anxious months in the Foreign Legion before he was accepted for flight training on May 29, 1916.

Escadrille Américaine
Acknowledging the contribution American volunteers could make, the Escadrille Américaine (American Squadron) went into action on April 18, 1916, with seven Americans, most of whom had served in the Foreign Legion or ambulance service, as pilots. Its French government designation was N.124--the "N" because it flew Nieuports. During the next 22 months an additional 31 Americans signed on the roster. The squadron flew its first mission on May 13, 1916. Five days later, Kiffin Rockwell scored the unit's first victory, shooting down a German two-seater observation plane. On June 23, Victor Chapman became the first American pilot to lose his life in aerial combat.

As the unit's fame spread, the German government protested the use of "Américaine" in the name since the United States was insisting that it was neutral. The name was changed to Escadrille Lafayette in December of 1916. A similar unit, called the Lafayette Flying Corps, was formed by business and professional groups to assist Americans who wanted to serve in French aviation units.

With nine volunteers in the Lafayette Escadrille, New York was well-represented. Three of these were from Westchester. Dudley Hill of Peekskill was the 12th American volunteer to join the Lafayette Escadrille. A graduate of Peekskill Military Academy, Hill dropped out of N.Y.U. in 1914 to drive an ambulance in France. A year later, he enlisted in the French Aviation Service and joined the Lafayette Escadrille on June 9, 1916. When the Escadrille was absorbed into the U.S. Air Service, Hill became the commanding officer of the 5th Pursuit Group. He died in 1951 at his home in Peekskill.

Edmond Genet of Ossining, number 20 on the unit's roster, proved to be a proficient student flier in the reliable Blériot monoplane, although he experienced two crashes, common events in a program in which the student trained and flew alone from the first day. The French training program could take an almost leisurely six months or more--a startling contrast with the British Royal Flying Corps program. In the latter, students flew with instructors in dual-control planes; the program took only six weeks. The life expectancy of a pilot could be measured in weeks or months. Weather permitting, patrols were conducted twice a day, at dawn and early in the afternoon.

Offensive patrols flew over enemy-held territory to attack hydrogen-filled observation balloons or enemy fighter planes. Here antiaircraft fire from ground batteries could be devastating. Defensive patrols repelled ground-strafing attacks by enemy fighters and protected Allied observation balloons. A command decision allowed pilots no parachutes for fear they would not fight to the bitter end. Pilots had a choice: they could ride a damaged or burning plane down--or jump to their deaths.

The Anatomy of Edmond's Melancholy
One source of solace and encouragement for Genet during his overseas service was a young woman in Ossining who exchanged letters with him. Her name was Gertrude Talmage. He called her his "darling angel."

Twenty-year-old Gertrude Talmage was the granddaughter of the Rev. Frank Dewitt Talmage, a well-known Presbyterian minister, famous for his dramatic sermons. His 6,000-seat Brooklyn Tabernacle attracted almost as many worshipers as Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. The sudden death in Pittsburgh of her father, 42-year-old Rev. Frank Dewitt Talmage, had caused her mother, the former Gertrude Barlow, to return to Ossining, where her brother ran a hardware store. Edmond and Gertrude had been exchanging letters since he first left Ossining. In August of 1916, Gertrude's letters stopped abruptly, causing him great anguish.

He earned his brevet as a pilot on September 3, 1916, and was sent to the south of France for training on the Nieuport fighter in acrobatics and advanced gunnery. Originally designed for racing, the Nieuport was a compact biplane powered by an 80- or 110-horsepower rotary engine. On a rotary engine, the propeller was bolted to the engine crankcase and everything, including the cylinders revolved around the stationery crankshaft. This arrangement could produce a surprising amount of torque in flight and cause problems for pilots unfamiliar with its characteristics. There was no carburetor. The fuel--a mixture of gasoline and castor oil--was sucked from a hollow portion of the crankshaft and fed directly into the cylinders. Rotary engines ran full throttle or not at all; the engine was cut in and out manually, making for a high-pitched intermittent buzzing.

French pilots affectionately dubbed the Nieuport, a tightly compact little plane, Bébé ("baby"). With a wingspan of only 25 feet, it could land almost anywhere. Carefully built out of handcrafted and shaped wood, its wings and fuselage were covered with fabric. Its armament was its only handicap. A drum-fed .303 caliber Lewis machine gun was fixed on the top wing so the gun's bullets could clear the whirring propeller blades. Changing drums in midair was a challenge, requiring the pilot to stand up. The Germans had an advantage: Their belt-fed Vickers guns could be fired through the blades of the turning propeller. Fighter planes had to be aimed at the object at which they were firing. On the other hand, two-seater observation planes on both sides proved to be tough opponents, thanks to the observer's free-swiveling machine gun.

As the weeks wore on, Edmond's diary entries showed an increasing level of gloom largely connected to the silence of "the girl he left behind him." He confided to his diary on October 6:"It's fully two months since I've heard from darling Gertrude. What can be the matter? Am thoroughly distracted over it by now.” The next day he wrote, "I do wish I could hear from Gertrude soon." The next day: "Feeling almighty blue and downhearted on account of not hearing from darling Gertrude for so long. Am altogether lonely for her." On the 12th, he recorded: "Terribly lonely for dear beloved Gertrude and wrote her a letter. Why doesn't a letter ever come from her? I'm sure she writes the same as I do very often."

His attitude toward life was colored by his melancholy. On November 5th, he mused, "Will I ever live through this war? The dear God only knows. What of it?" Four days later he recorded that it was his 20th birthday, although he wished it were his 18th, adding, "The years are flying fast. Much too fast."

On the off chance that his letters had not been reaching Gertrude, he sent a letter through her aunt, Mrs. J. Curry Barlow, to be forwarded to her. By the 28th of November he was "getting unbearably discouraged over not getting any letters from Darling Gertrude. What can be the reason? Has she stopped writing because she failed to get my many letters thinking I had not written at all? Would she think me that unfaithful? I sincerely hope that isn't the case. Dear, dear girl." Two weeks later he reported that he was "feeling very lonely and blue today. Don't know why but it sure is mostly because no word comes from Gertrude."

Overcome by homesickness, on Christmas Day he pined for home. "Wish I was in the U.S. with Mother this Xmas." Then he added prophetically, "tho, perhaps it's my last one."

Edmond Joins the Lafayette Escadrille
On the afternoon of January 22, 1917, Edmond Genet ferried a plane to the Escadrille's new base at St. Just, to which the unit had just moved. Weather conditions were awful, with a ceiling so low that "even the crows were walking." Suddenly the sound of a plane overhead caused the walls of the barracks to vibrate.

Huddled close to a pot-bellied stove, the American pilots wondered who could be foolish enough to fly in such vile weather. The plane landed and taxied across the field. In his 1937 history of the Lafayette Escadrille, The Great Adventure, Edwin "Ted" Parsons, another Escadrille pilot, described Edmond Genet's arrival: "The door of the mess room burst open, and on the wings of a great gust of snow-laden wind a short, muffled, fur-clad figure drifted into the room. Only the tip of a reddish, frost-bitten nose and a pair of wide appealing blue eyes showed through the woolen wrappings. Hastily the stranger unwrapped layer after layer of woolen and silk, then jerked off his helmet. Lieutenant De Laage [the Escadrille's second in command] gasped in surprise.

"The chunky little figure was topped by a thatch of short-cropped blond hair above the round, innocent, pink-cheeked face of an infant. He didn't look a day over fourteen. His peach-bloom complexion showed no traces of ever having met a razor socially. He had a snubby little nose, and there was a constant expression of pleased surprise at the wonders of the world in the wide-set blue eyes. He saluted snappily and in a high-pitched, almost girlish voice announced that he had ferried up a new Nieuport from Plessis-Belleville for the Escadrille."

Members of the unit were dismayed at the apparent youth and inexperience of the new arrival. This attitude changed quickly when they learned that he had served in the trenches with the Foreign Legion for fifteen months and had taken part in the murderous attack on the Bois Sabot.

From the moment of his arrival at the Escadrille, no pilot in the air did more or better work than little Edmond Genet. Despite the foul weather and the consequent scarcity of German planes, he seemed to have a nose for smelling them out. He had tough combats when other pilots were bemoaning their inability to even see an enemy plane. Bad weather did not discourage Genet--not after the winter he had put in the trenches.

When off-duty pilots headed to Paris to carouse and overstay their leaves, Edmond would travel with them to attend church or have dinner with friends. And he would always return punctually at the end of his leave. By February 10, 1917, he was writing home, "I am so discouraged over Gertrude and her long mysterious silence that I can scarcely write to her anymore." But write to her he did.

Death of a Friend
After nearly two months with the Escadrille, Genet lost a good friend and mentor, James R. McConnell, on March 19 while on a three-plane patrol: The third plane developed engine trouble after takeoff, so Genet and McConnell, who was suffering from back pain as a result of an accident, went on alone. In a cloudy sky near Jussy, two German planes swooped down on the unsuspecting Americans. In the melee, McConnell and Genet lost contact. Genet's opponent was a two-place machine, always a tough adversary. The German gunner shot away one of the Nieuport's upper wing supports and cut the rod that moved the left aileron, a piece of which flew off and struck Genet in the cheek.

The German plane beat a retreat in the face of Genet's doggedly persistent attack. Genet remained in the area hoping to find McConnell. Upon Genet's return to base, McConnell still had not returned, and the squadron waited in vain for word of him. Later, a cavalry patrol reported finding a downed Nieuport with the dead pilot nearby with several bullet holes in his body. German ground troops had stripped the body of all identification.

It was indeed McConnell, however, and his squadron mates buried him where he fell, without ceremony, which was what he wanted. He had left a letter to be opened after his death. It concluded: "My burial is of no import. Make it as easy as possible for yourselves. I have no religion and do not care for any service. If the omission would embarrass you, I presume I could stand the performance. Good luck to the rest of you. God damn Germany and vive la France."

Another historian of the Lafayette Escadrille, Herbert Molloy Mason Jr., recorded that "McConnell's death crushed Genet's spirit." In a letter to his mother in Ossining, Edmond wrote, "I'll get a Boche yet, or more than one, or be dropped myself, to avenge poor Mac. I've already been told I'm reckless in the air over the lines, but after this I vow I'll be more reckless than ever, come what may. Mother, my blood boils and thirsts after those accursed Huns. They're brutes and fiends and daily they grow worse."

On March 27th, he learned the reason for "darling Gertrude's" silence. His mother enclosed a letter from Mrs. Barlow, Gertrude's aunt, saying that "Gertrude is very much in love and engaged to some fellow from Vermont."

On that date Edmond wrote in his diary, "Mrs. Barlow has forwarded all my letters to Gertrude. It seems that Gerty could have at least written to me about her engagement and not have kept me utterly miserable with no news from or about her at all. I am finished now with writing any more to Gertrude, I'm feeling about as miserable and forlorn as anyone could feel over such news, What's the use of being true to one girl when she is so far away? It won't make much difference after all, tho. I don't expect to live thru to the end of this war."

He poured his heart out to his "Dear Little Mother" in a letter the same day. "I don't know why I've been hoping for cheerful news of the one girl I've always set my heart on and to whom I've tried to be genuinely true these past four or five years when it has seemed inevitable for months now that there was no hope.

"The simple truth is unbearable; can you halfway imagine what it means to me to hate to realize that she has been receiving my letters all these months and has just permitted me to keep on without telling me directly and instantly of her engagement?"

Thomas Hewitt, who became the 28th Escadrille pilot, listed his address only as Westchester, New York. Hewitt arrived at the Escadrille on March 30, 1917, with William Dugan, who had served with Genet in the Foreign Legion, and another pilot. Genet had come to know the importance of reliable comrades on patrol. He was not given to gossip or snide remarks about anyone, but he noted in his diary that two were "good fellows" but Hewitt was "questionable."

A proficient pilot, Hewitt turned out to lack nerve and to be accident-prone. Washed out of the Escadrille, he returned to the United States and served as a private in the Coast Artillery Corps at a fort in Long Island Sound. After earning a law degree, he engaged in several questionable business ventures. Alcoholism got the better of him, and he died in 1936 in a shabby Washington, D.C., rooming house.

On April 4, false rumors spread that the United States had entered the war. (The actual declaration of war by Congress came on April 6.) Emond confided to his diary, "I'm mighty glad I'm one of the few Americans who are already over here fighting tho I did desert my country's service to be here." Then he recorded his mood: "I feel sure something is going to happen to me very soon. It doesn't seem any less than Death itself." A death wish? A premonition? A hint of an impending suicide? We'll never know--but thirteen days later Edmond Charles Clinton Genet would be dead.

Death Comes for Edmond
Edmond's diary stops abruptly with the entry for "Sunday, April 15, 1916, the 986th day of the war." After describing the patrol he participated in that morning, because the weather turned too rainy for flying, he told of walking to church in town and visiting a cemetery "where a lot of German and French soldiers are buried." The entry concludes with, "Have to go out on patrol at 5:30 tomorrow morning so am turning in early."

The next morning, April 16, was a Monday, considered to be an unlucky day by Escadrille pilots. Norman Prince, Edmond's acquaintance from the Rochambeau and Jim McConnell had both been killed on a Monday.

Edmond flew into German territory with Walter Lovell and Thomas Hewitt on a patrol that lasted 75 minutes. His flight log noted that his stomach was upset from the evasive actions he took to avoid German antiaircraft fire. After a nap back at the base, he took off again at 2:30 p.m. with Raoul Lufbery, the Escadrille's ace from Wallingford, Conn. Lufbery watched as German antiaircraft fire bracketed Genet's plane. Edmond banked the craft as if headed for home. Lufbery then lost sight of him in the clouds. Unworried now about Genet, he turned for a leisurely flight back to base only to discover that Genet had never returned.

French infantrymen later reported that Genet's plane had gone into a violent tailspin at 4,000 feet with the engine at full throttle. In the downward plunge, a wing tore off and the plane buried itself in the road within French lines. Apparently, Genet had been wounded by shrapnel from the antiaircraft shells and had lost consciousness at the controls. Ted Parsons later wrote, "He had dug a hole five feet deep in the hard-packed road. The tank was a flat piece of metal, the wheels were ribbons, and there wasn't a piece of wing or framework bigger than a match. Every bone in his body was broken and his features were completely gone." When Genet's remains were prepared for burial, soldiers found that he had wrapped an American flag around his body.

The death of "Smiler," as he was called, cast a pall over the squadron, for his fellow pilots had come to love and respect the idealistic Edmond. At his funeral, Captain Thenault paid a touching tribute to the young pilot. In his own history of the Escadrille, Captain Thenault later described him as "one of our best pilots, the type of man who always had to be restrained rather than encouraged. "My dear friend, farewell. Respectfully, I salute your memory which we shall cherish, and before the grave of the first soldier fallen for the two flags--the Stars and Stripes and the Tricolor--in the Great War, we say thanks to America for having given to the fight sons such as thou. Farewell."

The Aftermath
On February 18, 1918 the Lafayette Escadrille's planes and most of its pilots were taken over by the United States Army. Members of the Army’s 103rd Aero Squadron replaced French ground personnel.

During its 22 months of existence, the Lafayette Escadrille served on nearly every battlefront in France. Its 38 American pilots downed 35 enemy planes, at a cost of eight American fliers. In addition to the 35 victories, they scored another 27 while serving with other French squadrons or with the U.S. Air Service. More important, Escadrille volunteers provided a pool of experienced combat pilots for the fledgling U.S. Air Service.

In November of 1919, a year after the Armistice ended World War I, an official-looking letter about Edmond arrived at the Ossining home of Edmond's mother at 164 Spring Street. It was from Josephus Daniels, former North Carolina newspaper editor and Secretary of the Navy since 1913. "Failing as a youth to appreciate fully the meaning of his enlistment oath," the letter said, "he went to the assistance of stricken France and offered his services to her in her hour of need. Many young Americans at this time were answering the call of freedom and going to serve in the ranks of those forces overseas, which were stubbornly, and valiantly opposing the onrush of the German armies.

"My conscience prompts me to regard his service with the French forces as equivalent to a continued service with his own country, I am disposed for the moment, in contemplating this boy's glorious record, to forget his youthful error in deserting the United States Navy.

"Edmond Charles Clinton Genet may properly be considered as having honorably terminated an enlistment with an ally, since he died on the field of battle. I, myself, am honored in having the privilege of deciding that the record of Edmond Genet, ordinary seaman, United States Navy, shall be considered in every respect as an honorable one."

In a suburb of Paris at Villeneuve l'Etang is an imposing marble monument dedicated on July 4, 1928. It honors the dead American fliers who served in the French Aviation Service. Marble crypts contain the remains of 49 of the 65 American aviators who died in the First World War. Edmond Genet is among them.

Fickle Gertrude Talmage married Roy Minich, her theologian boyfriend. She had a lifetime to reflect on her cruel and immature treatment of Edmond, a lonely flier far from home. She died at Malden, Mass., in 1983 at the age of 88.

Edmond's letters to his mother and friends were collected and published in 1918 by Charles Scribner's Sons as the War Letters of Edmond Genet. Edited by author and poet Grace Ellery Channing, it had a touching foreword by essayist John Jay Chapman, a descendant of Westchester's John Jay. Chapman well knew the pain of losing a child; his son Victor had been the first Lafayette Escadrille pilot to be shot down. The whereabouts of the original letters making up this collection are unknown.

Edmond's diary and flight log are with his nephew, G. Patton Genet, of Marion, N.C., the son of Gilbert Rodman Fox Genet. They were published in 1981 by the University Press of Virginia as An American for Lafayette: The Diaries of E.C.C. Genet, Lafayette Escadrille.

Albert Rivers Genet Jr., oldest brother of Edmond Genet, served as an ensign in the New York Naval Militia and in the U.S. Navy during the First World War. In 1919, at Ossining's Trinity Church he married Molly Beecher, who had attended Miss Fuller's School in Ossining. Remaining in the Naval Reserve, he attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He died of tuberculosis in 1922 at the age of 33, at Saranac Lake, N.Y., where he had gone for treatment of the disease, and is buried in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery.

Edmond Genet's "Dear Little Mother," Martha Rodman Fox Genet, lived on in Ossining until she died in 1931 at the age of 72. Her funeral was held in St. Mary's Church in Scarborough. She was survived by her one remaining son, Rodman Genet, of Clearwater, Florida, a daughter-in-law, Mrs. Albert Rivers Jr., (the former Molly Beecher) of Tarrytown, and three grandchildren. Edmond's mother is buried beside her husband in Sparta Cemetery.

Edmond's next older brother, Gilbert Rodman Fox Genet served with the 2nd Regiment of the South Carolina Infantry on the Mexican border in 1916 and with the U.S. Army during the First World War. He married Mary Pemberton Patton on October 28, 1917, at St. Matthew's Church, Darlington, S.C. He died in Clearwater, Florida, in 1946.

Albert Rivers Genet's daughter, Nancy Fuller Genet, died in 1977 at the age of 58; In her will, she requested that "my remains be cremated and my ashes placed in a small container at my father's grave in the Genet burial plot in the Revolutionary (i.e., Sparta) Cemetery at Scarborough, N.Y., with a small flat stone marker containing name and dates." Regrettably, there is no evidence her wishes were carried out. Albert Rivers Genet's wife, who never remarried, died in 1983 at the age of 85. She, too, asked that her remains be cremated, but specified no disposition of them.

Despite Edmond's sacrifice and the Genet family's close association with Ossining, no park or street has been named for him. No tablet memorializes his birth or his childhood and youth spent in the village. Even Peekskill has a plaque on a boulder in Depew Park honoring Edmond Genet's selfless sacrifice.

Ossining has an active historical society and museum displaying a few Edmond Genet memorabilia. The local V.F.W. Post 1041 perpetuates his name. After 92 years, the time is right for his hometown to remember its local hero in a tangible way. Intense, patriotic and dedicated, Edmond was the first American to die after the United States declared war on Germany.

It is given to only a few to choose the manner or the circumstances of their dying. Seeking no recompense, praise nor gain, Edmond Charles Clinton Genet chose a short, glorious life and, in the words of poet and fellow Foreign Legionnaire Alan Seeger, "that rare privilege of dying well." When trouble threatened, he bravely headed for the sound of the guns.



1. Sgt. Victor E. Chapman New York, N.Y. 04/18/16-06/23/16 KIA
2. S/Lt. Norman Prince Prides Crossing, Mass. 04/18/16-10/15/16 KLD
3. Sgt. James R. McConnell Carthage, N.C. 04/18/16-03/19/17 KIA
4. S/Lt. Kiffin Y. Rockwell Asheville, N.C. 04/18/16-09/23/16 KIA
5. Sgt. Ronald W. Hoskier South Orange, N.J. 12/11/16-04/23/17 KIA
6. Sgt. Edmond C.C. Genet Ossining, N.Y. 01/19/17-04/16/17 KIA
7. Sgt. Andrew C. Campbell Jr. Chicago, Ill. 04/15/17-10/01/17 KIA
8. Sgt. Douglas MacMonagle San Francisco, Cal. 06/16/17-09/24/17 KIA

KIA = Killed In Action
KLD = Killed in Line of Duty

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