World War I Artifacts and Memories: Charles Chouteau Johnson and the Lafayette Escadrille

5, June 2015
Men of the Lafayette Escadrille during WWIThe Lafayette Escadrille included 38 American volunteer pilots who fought during WWI before the United States got involved in the war. Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

As war raged across Europe between 1914 and 1917, the American military sat on the sidelines while the U.S. government sustained its policy of neutrality. However, a number of Americans volunteered for service in foreign armies. Among them was St. Louisan Charles Chouteau Johnson. He served in the famous Lafayette Escadrille, named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution. The escadrille, or squadron, was largely composed of American volunteer pilots and operated from 1916 to 1918 as part of the Aéronautique Militaire (French Air Service). The squadron consisted of 5 French officers and 38 American pilots. The squadron also had two mascots, lion cubs Whiskey and Soda.

soldiers with the lion cub mascots for Lafayette squadron during WWIThe squadron had two lion cub mascots. Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

The establishment of an American squadron in the French Air Service was not without purpose. The unit received substantial American press, and the French hoped that this would push the United States into joining the fight. In fact, the squadron's original name was Escadrille Américaine, but it was renamed after an objection filed by the German government about violations of neutrality.

Charles Chouteau Johnson was born in St. Louis on September 18, 1889, to David Johnson and Nancy Chouteau Johnson. His mother was the great-granddaughter of Jean Pierre Chouteau, a descendant of Pierre Laclede. In 1915, Charles joined the Foreign Legion to serve in the ambulance service, with a request for immediate transfer to the air service. He underwent air training in early 1916 and in late May reported to the Lafayette Escadrille, less than a month after its organization at the Front.

Charles Chouteau Johnson Volunteer pilot Charles Chouteau Johnson. Missouri History Museum.

Johnson served with the squadron from May 29, 1916, to October 31, 1917. On April 26, 1917, he was credited with his first and last official victory as a member of the squadron when he brought down a German Albatross in a lengthy dogfight. Johnson's squadron commanders said this of him:

Chouteau could probably make from memory a relief map of the Western Front, marking in all the aerodromes and the best landing-sites, in case of a panne de moteur [engine failure]. Some of these possible landing fields he chose by experimenting with impossible ones, and others he had the luck to find at the first try; for he had more than his share of motor trouble during his seventeen months at the Front.

Johnson flying an aircraftJohnson in a Nieuport fighter plane. Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

In November 1917, after the United States joined the war, Johnson accepted a position as a flying instructor at the American Aviation School in Tours, France, and was commissioned a first lieutenant. The combat experience gained by Johnson and other veterans of the squadron was invaluable to the Americans as they formed their own air force. In the summer of 1918 he was made a captain and sent on duty back to the United States.

Over the course of its operation the Lafayette Escadrille was credited with downing 57 enemy aircraft while losing only 9 pilots. The squadron attracted worldwide attention with its exploits and led to the creation of the Franco-American Flying Corps, which aided Americans enlisting in the French Air Service.

—Patrick Allie, Military and Arms Curator

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