Carthage, North Carolina
March 19, 2011
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From: "The Pilot" Newspaper
March 21, 2011
planes flew low over the air field at Carthage Saturday, with one suddenly
veering off to the west.
This "missing man" formation
was part of a yearly celebration honoring World War I fighter pilot James
Rogers McConnell - a founder of the historic Lafayette Escadrille and the
last American to lose his life fighting for France before the United States
entered that war.
This ceremony was special, as
it marked the unveiling of a new site by the runway at Gilliam McConnell
Airfield for a bronze plaque sent by France in 1917 expressing the gratitude
of the French people to "the American Sergeant pilot aviator" that
voluntarily enlisted Dec. 27, 1915 and died "on the field of honor March 19,
1917 in aerial combat."
Roland Gilliam built the air
field and named it in McConnell's honor years ago. This year, with approval
from town commissioners, he moved the plaque and its granite base to a new
spot where he and the board expect many more people to see it than at its
former spot in the yard of the old town hall.
"I want to thank everybody that
supported moving this monument, including the town council," Gilliam said.
"There are some who opposed it, but when they see it I hope they will feel
better. We moved this here a week ago, and I feel sure more have seen it in
the last week than in the previous 75 years."
Carthage Mayor Tom Stewart
welcomed the crowd of dignitaries and well-wishers.
"We thought that James Rogers
McConnell deserved for everybody to know the sacrifices he had made for
France during World War I," he said. "He decided that he would be a
'shirker' as he called it, if he did not volunteer. He shipped to France -
drove an ambulance and received medals for heroism while in that ambulance
corps - and after that joined with other guys into the Lafayette
Flanked by the flags of the
state and the nation, with a new bronze marker bearing a translation of the
French message, McConnell's memorial was dedicated at last by his niece,
Janice McConnell. She had flown from her home in San Diego to be present for
"He was one of the first of the
seven American pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille," she said. "He served
with the ambulance service in France in very dangerous places: in the valley
of the Somme, in Verdun."
She read from her uncle's
writings at the time he was recovering from injuries in a military hospital
- the same place he wrote is memoirs, "Flying for France." His thoughts
pictured the terrors of the first air war.
"Bombarding big shells wreck
people's houses thereby sending them to the caves," he wrote. "Following an
attack no rest is offered night or day. Such continual service allows no
time to undress, only knowing of the ever-present danger of being wounded or
"The crumbling of solid houses
into clouds of smoke cloaks the hideously mangled pool of agonized
expressions and streams of fast flowing blood. Yet this terrible menace must
be banished from our thoughts. Despite ever present danger, Americans render
their service with fidelity at any and at all times."
She thanked Gilliam for his
years of effort preserving her uncle's Carthage legacy. Her thanks were
echoed by others who praised McConnell and his heroic acts.
Janice McConnell's famous uncle
was not the only pioneer in the family. She herself was one of the first
Peace Corps volunteers and had just attended its 50th anniversary.
"I was in Peru," she said. "At
first only in Lima, but the second year I was all over the Andes. We
implemented the foster parents plan."
State Sen. Harris Blake called
the service a very historical moment and day in Moore County. He reminded
members of the crowd of another fighter pilot who lost his life defending
foreign people against invading aggressors: Flying Tiger pilot Robert Hoyle
Upchurch, of High Falls, whose memorial park in the mountains of China was
dedicated in 2007. Both young men exemplify the American spirit, Blake said.
State Rep. Jamie Boles said
McConnell exemplified the North Carolina motto "to be, rather than to seem."
"We are here to honor a Moore
County hero," Boles said. "James Rogers McConnell lived the motto of this
state in actions rather than words. I commend Roland Gilliam and the town of
Carthage for preserving this tribute and never letting us forget what
freedom is about, and the price paid."
Gilliam explained the meaning
of the "missing man" plane heading off into the west.
"Pilots in the early days who
crashed and died were said to have 'gone West,'" Gilliam said. "So, in the
formation, one plane goes west to represent the missing man."
Gilliam spoke of McConnell's
last battle, one he insisted on joining despite injuries from previous
crashes that left him badly incapacitated.
"He knew about the battles in
the Somme valley and at Verdun," Gilliam said. "He returned to his unit.
They had to lift him bodily and fit him in the plane. His back was so badly
hurt that he could not turn his head. He couldn't see the two German planes
when they came up behind him."
McConnell was buried where he
fell, but later moved to the Lafayette Escadrille memorial in Paris, where
his body lies today. A new monument near the Nancy crash site was erected.
Every year, on the date of his death, someone had brought a single rose to
mark that spot.
The bronze plaque dedicated
again at this time originally stood by the McConnell Hospital near the
present Farm Life School. When that hospital moved to Pinehurst (where it is
now FirstHealth) the monument followed.
At some time it was transported
to Carthage. where another monument - commissioned by Congress - marks the
spot where McConnell, looking off from that hill toward Fayetteville,
remembered Lafayette coming to help the United States and decided he would
go to France.
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