Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Phil Flammer & the Lafayette Escadrille

by Joe Rodwell

As Sue and I are preparing for have our family over for Thanksgiving, I notice that we have 14 pieces of sterling silver serving plates and platters. We never bought one of them – they were all wedding gifts when we were married at the Air Force Academy chapel two days after I graduated. In those days, the tradition was to give young officers silver platters so they could “entertain” as they moved up the ranks. I was thinking of one person, in particular, an instructor from the Academy who attended our wedding (most of the gifts were from people who couldn’t attend weddings -in those days weddings were scheduled on the hour beginning at 8:00 AM, and lasting throughout the day). Capt. Phil Flammer was my favorite teacher – his subject was Far Eastern History, which included the Chinese dynasties and the Japanese history leading up to World War II. However, his passion was the Lafayette Escadrille.

The Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron of the French Air Service in World War I comprised of a group of volunteer U.S. fighter pilots who flew with the French from 1916 until 1918, when it was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Service. The Escadrille had a reputation for daring, recklessness, and a party atmosphere. Two lion cubs, named "Whiskey" and "Soda", were made squadron mascots. Charles Schultz, Minnesota native (born in Mpls, grew up in St. Paul, drafted into U.S. Army in ’43, served 2 years in France) was likely writing about the Lafayette Escadrille as he had his “peanuts” characters, as World War I fighter pilots, flying Sopwith Camels and hiding in French farmhouses – the series lasted sometime and was my favorite.

Sometime in the late ‘70s I was a District Manager for Northwestern Mutual Life in CO Springs (where Charles Schultz lived for a brief time in the 50s) and 3 policy status cards came across my desk as being newly transferred into my District Agency. Each card showed a $75,000 whole life policy issued in 1916. Knowing that $225,000 of life insurance was a lot of insurance in 1916, I was curious to meet the individual, so I called him, and we had lunch at the Broadmoor. His name was Reginald Sinclaire, and he was a member of the Corning Glass family in upstate New York (not far from where my CO Springs friend, Dave Briggs, grew up). I saw a wedding announcement where he married a WI girl (that may have been the Northwestern Mutual connection) in 1914, so I assume he was at least 22 at the time, making his date of birth 1892. When we met he was probably in his mid to late 80s. It was one of the 2 greatest lunches I ever had in my life (the other was with former Minnesota governor Elmer Anderson, who was in his 80s when I had lunch with him, another story). It turned out that Reginald’s family had just contributed enough money to add a wing at the main CO Springs hospital, which was interesting. However, when he found out that I had been an F-4 pilot, he told me of joining the Lafayette Escadrille (that was my 1st knowledge he had been a member). He also told me that his family insisted that he buy the 3 Northwestern Mutual policies before he joined the Escadrille. Anyway, he told me story after story of his experiences with the Lafayette Escadrille, including an encounter with the Red Baron.

The Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) was the most famous German fighter pilot of World War I. He was credited with shooting down 80 Allied aircraft, and he was killed at age 26 (the same age as Air Force Academy Medal of Honor winner, Lance Sijan) by a Canadian pilot flying a Sopwith Camel. The first operational jet fighter unit in W. Germany was named in honor of the Red Baron, Jagdeswader 71 Richthofen (JG-71). It flew F-104 Starfighters (U.S. built, fun to fly, but pretty worthless in combat, except if they were delivering a nuclear weapon) from 1963 to 1974, when it began flying F-4 Phantoms (my plane). What is really interesting is that my 78th Tactical Fighter Squadron from RAF Woodbridge, England, had a squadron exchange with JG-71 in 1967 or 1968. I spent a week with JG-71 in 1968. They were located in N. Germany at a town called Wittmund – the largest town in the area was Wilhelmshaven – I went there on a week-end and took a ferry to Helgoland, the headquarters of the German submarines during World War II. What I remember most is the German pilots were very conservative, and not prone to partying like their S. German counterparts, say in Munich or the area. I do remember one evening, however, when the German pilots hosted a banquet for us. I remember two things at the banquet: 1. Korn, which was a white lightning type of drink that we toasted each other with during the evening – it was drunk from a circular shaped pewter container with a long handle, and 2. Smoked eel – yup, it also tasted like eel. We also planned to go downtown, and the German pilots were fearful of driving, for, if they got a DWI, it meant they would also lose their pilot’s license, so they hired a bus to take us. As the evening wore on, I ended up being the bus driver (some 33 years before the book, “Good to Great”) and I parked in an enclosure that the regular bus driver could not exit. I think the German pilots were concerned, but no one said anything. All I know is we had a great time with our exchange, and I am sure, somewhere, I have pictures of the German and U.S. pilots involved in the exchange. I do remember there were photos of the Red Baron throughout the squadron. Incidentally, the JG-71 squadron is the last squadron to fly F-4s in the German Luftwaffe.
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