Lufbery: few know his name, many benefit from his deeds
There were many highlights of the Dawn Patrol Rendezvous, but the one we were most excited about was meeting the family of Raoul Lufbery and hearing his story from Raoul Lufbery III. Someone observed that during the roundtable of Lafayette Escadrille relatives that Andy Parks hosted, there was probably more expertise in WWI aviation in that room than anywhere else in the country, or maybe the world. It was also interesting to hear that nearly all the known descendants of Lafayette Escadrille pilots are still associated with aviation to this day.
The Lufbery line
Lufbery grand-nephew Raoul Lufbery III (hereafter referred to as R. L. III to lessen confusion) and his wife attended the event with Bob Stickle, the husband of Raoul Lufbery's grand-niece Diane who recently passed away. Though not a direct descendant of the original Raoul Lufbery, R. L. III is the son of Raoul Lufbery II and his own son, Raoul Lufbery IV, lives in Minnesota. There are two branches of Lufbery nephews and nieces: American and French, and R. L. III said there is a big difference between the two branches. More than one person at the event observed that R. L. III looks like the original Raoul Lufbery, especially his eyes.
Raoul Lufbery's American father Edward was born in 1854 in New York City. He was interested in chemistry and particularly rubber. He had three sons with his French wife Anne: Julian, Charles, and Raoul, who was born in 1885. Sadly, Raoul's mother died when he was 25 months old, and his father left the three boys with Anne's mother. So Raoul grew up without a real father or mother figure. Julian became the man of the house, but he was very strict and demanding - fair but difficult - and R. L. III felt this probably explains a lot of Raoul's personality. Charles was the relaxed one, and Raoul was very intelligent, but they were all self-educated. At the age of 12 Raoul left school to become an errand boy. The most distinguishing things about him as a teenager were that he was a reader and a great believer in exercise. He enjoyed travel and adventure stories, and was a boxer, wrestler, target shooter, and gymnast.
He was very quiet as a boy, and this characteristic lasted through his life; he talked only when he had something to say. In his family situation, with an older brother and a grandmother instead of a father and mother, he probably had little social interaction growing up. Edward Parsons of the Lafayette Escadrille said you couldn't know Lufbery any more than you could know the Sphinx.
Working his way around the world
He was a hard worker. Though he kidded around and pranked, it was only off-the-job. Charles' wife Laura couldn't believe how quiet her brother-in-law was, saying "What's wrong with this kid?" She couldn't believe this world traveler had nothing to say. Because he really was traveling the world, having run away from home as a teenager. He would earn enough money in one country to get the fare to somewhere else, and said he was never more than 8 days out of work.
American, with a strong French accent
At 21, he became a citizen of America, the country his father had returned to. He had stepsiblings in the US; one stepsister, Bertha, would write back and forth with Raoul in his travels. Raoul didn't write letters like Kiffin Rockwell, for instance, but he at least kept the family updated. Charles also traveled to America and got established in the Connecticut area; this became the American branch of the Lufberys. Julian stayed a French citizen and never left France. Both Julian and Charles also fought in WWI; Charles was both gassed and hit by a grenade.
Mechanics should be pilots' best friends
Raoul was in the US Army for a time. Later, while traveling in Southwest Asia, he met an exhibition flyer named Mark Pourpe and started working as his mechanic. In those days, a man with an aircraft, and his mechanic, were treated like royalty, and Mark became Raoul's very best friend - the only man who might have been able to claim to know him.
Looked up to by the top American aces
But before Lufbery became famous, Pourpe was killed flying over the Somme, and his mechanic became a pilot in revenge for his friend...thus Germany created an American ace long before America entered the war. In many ways, as the experienced leader and respected ace by the time pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker arrived, Lufbery was the American counterpart to Manfred von Richthofen. He had nowhere near the official victories the Red Baron did, but since he tended to go off by himself, his own tally of 75 actual victories was believed by those who knew him. Unlike some other pilots, if Raoul said it, he probably had done it.
Lufbery qualified for ten Croix de Guerres, and a medal from Montenegro. In 1994 the US government awarded him the Purple Heart (which seems like almost an insult, considering his record) and the family has got him awarded other medals. In Connecticut there is a street, highway, park, and VFW named for Raoul Lufbery, and the family is hoping to get a statue made for him on the 100th anniversary of his death in 2018, which happened when he fell, or jumped (it's still a great controversy which), out of his burning airplane.
We were impressed with the Lufbery family at the Dawn Patrol; they are not at all Sphinxish. R. L. III happily competed with a young boy in a PVC tube ping-pong gun battle at the tent set up to encourage future pilots. (R. L. III won.) That the family is so pleased to be associated with their accomplished relative is one more reason to agree with the family that this was a man who should be much more famous. As someone at the event put it, "Our heroes should be everyone's heroes." So we've put it on our to-do list to design a t-shirt to get the story of Raoul Lufbery out there.
[Updated 23 December 2016 with corrections from Raoul Lufbery III.]