The First Eagles: The Fearless American Aces Who Flew with the RAF in World War I

Posted: June 29, 2015 in Aerial, Books, World War I
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There was a time when the United States didn’t believe in aerial warfare. Wars, after all, were for men—not flying machines. When Europe went to war in the summer of 1914, the U.S. military boasted a measly collection of five aircraft, with no training programs or recruitment procedures in place. But that didn’t mean the country lacked skilled pilots. In fact, it was just the opposite.

In The First Eagles, historian Gavin Mortimer profiles the restless, determined American aviators who grew tired of waiting for the their country to establish an aerial military force during World War I. It was these men who enlisted in Britain’s desperate and battered Royal Flying Corps when, in 1917, it opened a recruitment office in New York. After an intensive and deadly year of training that gave recruits a realistic taste of the combat they would face, 247 fresh American RFC pilots were shipped over to Europe, with hundreds more following in the next two months. Twenty-eight of them claimed five or more kills to become feted as “aces,” their involvement lauded as pivotal to the Allied victory. In this book, Mortimer compiles their history through letters, diaries, memoirs, and archives from museums in the United States and Britain—from John Donaldson, who left for France at age twenty and shot down seven Germans before being downed himself, to the Iaccaci brothers, who accounted for twenty-nine German aircraft between them.

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The First Eagles is a really great read – engaging from the start, and does an excellent job of exploring and explaining the roles of the individual pilots in the grand scheme of things.  You get a sense of not just the individuals, but how much of an impact they had on the development of the Royal Air Force, and on the First World War at large.

Some of the camaraderie and friendship displayed between the pilots is a lovely read – and some of them make for some very fun anecdotes.  The coverage given to the training programme is similarly very interesting.  The First Eagles also contains it fair share of pathos, too – hardly surprising given the conflict – but they are genuinely moving.

A great, entertaining book on an understudied part of history.

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