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Kiffin Rockwell: 104 years since East TN WWI hero pilot killed

Historians are ensuring the fighter pilot from Newport, Tennessee, is not overlooked.

Wednesday marks 104 years since the death of Kiffin Rockwell during the First World War. Rockwell's name may not be as recognizable as other heroes of the era, such as Sgt. Alvin York. But more than 100 years after Rockwell's death, historians are ensuring the fighter pilot from Newport, Tennessee, is not overlooked.

"Why let a story like this rest in the dustbin? It's a gem of a story and people should know about it," said Marc McClure, history professor at Walters State Community College.

History professor Marc McClure.

In May 1916, Rockwell became the first American pilot to ever shoot down an enemy plane in aerial combat. To repeat, no American ever shot down an enemy plane before Kiffin Rockwell.

Rockwell was patrolling the skies over the Alsace battlefield in France when he spotted a two-man German observational plane.

"Kiffin just dives on that plane. The German plane has a tail-gunner with a machine gun who is throwing lead straight towards his face, but Kiffin simply ignores the bullets coming at him. He gets close, fires off four shots, swerves away, and he looks back and sees the machine gunner fall back and the pilot fall over. And that [German] plane descends to the ground. He has just scored the first victory of any of the Americans in combat and it grabs international headlines."

Kiffin Rockwell in uniform as a fighter for the LaFayette Escadrille in France during WWI.

This historical moment in American military history garnered a lot of attention because Rockwell was actually fighting for the French military. The United States had not even entered the war.

Rockwell was a member of a fighter squadron comprised mostly of American volunteers. The men did not want to wait for the United States to enter the war before coming to the aid of our French allies.

Their fighter squadron was known as the LaFayette Escadrille. The group's name paid homage to General LaFayette, the French military officer who came to the aid of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.

Rockwell was awarded France's highest military honor for his aerial combat victory. He kept flying and fighting until September 23, 1916, when he dove to attack an enemy plane and was killed by its tail-gunner. Rockwell is buried in France, where monuments stand in his honor as well as the entire American volunteer squadron.

Wreckage of Kiffin Rockwell's plane after he was shot down and killed on September 23, 1916.

"The U.S. Air Force has taken a lot of interest in the centennial of the LaFayette Escadrille because they see that American squadron the birth of the U.S. Air Force," McClure said in 2016. "There is a large monument for the LaFayette Escadrille and the group is still celebrated in France today."

In East Tennessee, the recognition of Kiffin Rockwell's actions is small and scattered. There's a historical marker in his hometown of Newport. Although he is buried in France, Kiffin also has a headstone alongside his relatives at the Rockwell family plot in Morristown's Jarnagin Cemetery.

Headstone for WWI aviator Kiffin Rockwell in Morristown, TN.

"I hope this centennial event will revitalize an interest in Kiffin Rockwell for generations who did not hear about him," said McClure, who has also completed a documentary about Rockwell.

LINK:  NC Museum of History - Kiffin Rockwell event