RICHMOND — The new book First to Fly chronicles the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young Americans who flew primitive fighter planes for France before America entered the First World War.
They were a fearless and colorful bunch who lived as if there were no tomorrow. For many of them, there wouldn't be. Their dogfights with German aviators were often suicide missions.
Charles Bracelen Flood, the best-selling author and historian who moved to his wife's Madison County farm in 1975, chose these men as the subject of his 15th book. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25.)
But as Flood was completing the manuscript last year, he discovered he shared their brief life expectancy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer June 15 and died two months later at age 84.
"He went out like he would have wanted to," said his widow, Katherine. "Writing right to the end."
Flood's final book is a page-turner, written in a spare, vivid style like that of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. He told friends about meeting Hemingway in a Paris bar in the 1950s and being surprised to hear the famous author had read his first novel, Love is a Bridge, a best-seller published to critical acclaim when Flood was a 23-year-old Harvard graduate.
After six novels, Flood wrote a controversial book about his year as an embedded reporter with American troops in Vietnam and covered several Olympics for The Associated Press. He then began a series of non-fiction history books about Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman and the American Revolution.
The New York native's last book grew out of reading a few memoirs by Escadrille veterans. Flood began the project in 2011, searching out other pilots' diaries and letters. He and his daughter, Lucy, went to France in 2013 for more research.
"He would tell us about them, and you could just see his eyes light up," said Lucy Flood, a freelance writer and editor in California. "They had such amazing stories."
First to Fly weaves together short biographies of these men and their experiences flying flimsy, open-cockpit airplanes made of wood and canvas, with engines and machine guns that were anything but reliable.
The 38 members of the Lafayette Escadrille came from a dozen states. Their average age was 24. They were race car drivers, athletes, gamblers, soldiers of fortune and idealistic Ivy League university graduates from wealthy families. Several transferred to the unit after fighting in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion. They were looking for adventure, and they found it.
Aviation was such a novelty that fighter pilots were celebrities. When they weren't flying, they were drinking or enjoying the company of legions of female admirers, whose silk stockings they wore under their leather helmets for good luck. They acquired two lion cubs, named Whiskey and Soda, as mascots and wrestled with them as if they were big dogs.
Eleven Escadrille pilots would not survive the war. Others suffered numerous wounds and injuries. Post-traumatic stress led some to later die of suicide, alcohol and drugs. But others went on to become successful businessmen and military officers in the next war. Four wounded fliers married their French nurses. Three others married movie stars.
An additional 231 American pilots served in French aviation units between 1914 and 1917, when the United States entered the war. Many of them sought transfers to the Escadrille, including the first black American fighter pilot.
Eugene Bullard was born in Georgia, left home with $1.50 in his pocket and joined the Foreign Legion on his 19th birthday. He was a machine gunner in the trenches until he was wounded. After recovery, he applied for pilot training and flew 20 combat missions.
Bullard stayed in Paris after the war, managed a nightclub and fought with the French underground during World War II. In 1954, the winner of 15 medals was asked to help two French veterans rekindle the eternal flame at the tomb of France's Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Bullard died in 1961 in New York.
Flood had planned to write his memoirs after finishing First to Fly. So, on the day of his fatal diagnosis, he began working with his daughter to make audio recordings about his adventurous life as a writer, teacher and mentor.
Lucy Flood has almost finished transcribing those five hours of interviews, which she and her mother plan to turn into the memoir Flood ran out of time to write.
"He just had an unbelievable enthusiasm for life," Katherine Flood said. "He loved people, could talk to anyone and was interested in everything."